Universiteit Leiden

nl en

Regional context changes Islamic law

Mahmood Kooria shows in his dissertation that Islam often adapts to the regional context. PhD defense 14 December.

How should you pray? And what are you allowed to eat? These and other questions are discussed at length in numerous Islamic legal documents. PhD candidate Mahmood Kooria studied a number of these texts, and concludes that religious law is undergoing strong change. Islamic law is often adapted to take into account local circumstances.

Religious law

Kooria looked specifically at the spread of legal documents along the Asian and African coasts of the Indian Ocean. ‘From the thirteenth century AD, some texts of Shafi’ism began to spread throughout this region,’ Kooria explains. ‘This is one of the four Sunni schools that deals with religious law (fiqh). People often assume that Islamic legal documents barely changed in that period because by that time Islam had already existed for hundreds of years.’

Local context

However, the situation was apparently different. Once Islam arrived in East Africa and Asia, the local  contexts influenced Islamic law. For example, according to the Shāfiʿīte school, you no longer had to clean your house from top to bottom before you could pray. That may be feasible in the Middle East, but in the tropics it’s a hopeless task given all the insects flying, crawling and running around.

Graveyard

According to the Shāfiʿīte interpretations in Malabar (India), Muslims are allowed to build a mosque near to a graveyard, something that is completely out of the question for the scholars in the Middle East. Kooria: ‘This has to do with the fact that the first Muslims in this area were given small plots of land by the Hindu people who were already living there. That explains why they could never build their graveyards and mosques far away from one another.’

Continuous debate

These regional differences within Islamic legislation are no exception, according to Kooria. A continuous debate is raging about these and other religious documents, and that debate is an absolute cornerstone of the religion. ‘There has never been any consensus. Values and norms are discussed continuously, even the most trivial details. Islam is not a static concept, but rather an amalgam of different ideas.’ The Islamic law is for him is a mixture of order and disorder, chaos and harmony of constant ideas and debates.

Conflicts

Does that always work well in society? Actually, no. In Cape Town in South Africa it led to conflicts between Shāfiʿītes and their Ḥanafīte neighbours. The Ḥanafītes regarded such food as crayfish as impure (haram), whereas for the Shāfiʿītes, who traditionally lived in coastal regions, seafood is an important part of their diet. Kooria: ‘The emotions became so heated that each party accused the other of being deviants. Ultimately, it is up to the individual believer to decide which religious laws to follow.’