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Islam and law

Systematic investigations into religious precepts, worldly rules of law and legal practices in the Muslim world show clearly how these societies deal with justice and injustice. Sharia, the Islamic ‘legal system’, plays an important role in this context.

Codes and villages

Which religious rules apply in a Muslim society? Are these rules included in national legislation? And how are they applied by judges and administrators? Researchers try to answer these questions by studying legislation and jurisdiction, but also by focusing on the practice. They interview citizens in remote villages and busy urban areas, from Northern Africa and Europe to Indonesia, about how conflicts and crime are dealt with in practice.

Libyan constitution

This cumulative knowledge is of course valuable to Dutch politicians and policy makers, but it is also used beyond our borders, for example in Libya, where in the midst of political chaos, an elected commission is working on formulating a new constitution. Leiden and Libyan researchers are advising on this emerging constitution. This project also allows Leiden University to further build its expertise in the field of legal processes in the Muslim world.


Professor Jan Michiel Otto sees that most Muslim countries are struggling to find a balance between deep-rooted traditions and modern requirements, worldly and religious laws, conservative and modern interpretations of the Sharia. Governments are under pressure from conservative spiritual leaders on the one hand and women’s groups on the other. In Tunisia, where Islamists and nationalists formed a joint government. In Saudi Arabia, where Wahhabi spiritual leaders try to oppose women’s rights. In Iran, where some aspects of Khomeini’s Islamic revolution have been reversed. This shows that the call for a stronger role for the Sharia in Muslim countries has led to diverse reactions. ‘Our research refutes the prevailing impression of an entirely conservative turn of events,’ says Otto. ‘Countries such as Egypt and Morocco have modernised their marriage laws by giving the Sharia a modern interpretation. This is of course not the case everywhere. In areas ruled by the so-called Islamic State or Boko Haram, fear and destruction are used to try to turn the clock back,’ he adds.

The Koran, one of the most important sources of Islamic law


Sharia may represent an ideal for most Muslims, but it does not have an equally good reputation in all quarters. In the West, the Islamic legal system is often associated with rigidity and the undermining of women’s rights. The reality is more nuanced, argues Otto. For instance, many Muslims feel free to interpret Sharia – ‘God’s Will’ – in their own way. There have also been many cases where the Sharia was used to correct a more repressive customary law, for example in Tanzania and Nigeria where according to local customs women had no inheritance rights whatsoever; Sharia offers them more. Research on legal systems in Muslim societies helps to clarify these kinds of developments.

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