International Law

BOOK REVIEW: "A Brilliant, Much-Needed Resource" - Raj Bhala’s Understanding Islamic Law (Shari‘a) By John Balouziyeh

Raj Bhala’s Understanding Islamic Law (Shari‘a)

(LexisNexis, Understanding Series 2012)

A Brilliant, Much-Needed Resource

By John Balouziyeh

Professor Raj Bhala’s Understanding Islamic Law (Shari‘a) (LexisNexis, Understanding Series 2012; US $45 paperback, US $34 ebook; 1,455 pages) is a much-needed, deeply insightful work on Islamic law. The book, recognizing that the Shari‘a cannot be understood without first understanding Islam, provides a thorough study on the history, religion and customs of Islam. The book is therefore not a mere treatise outlining the black letter law of the Shari‘a, but rather, a scholarly study that explores law, history, religion, political science, international relations, anthropology, sociology and economics, all within a masterful single volume.

Professor Bhala undertakes an ambitious project, one that helps us to better understand the world in which we live, a world where conflict often cannot be divorced from religion or understood without reference to religious context. Among other timely topics, the author discusses the prohibitions on portraying Prophet Muhammad (through film or art) (Chapter 1) and terrorism (Chapter 50) and how these relate to (and indeed contradict) the Qur’an and Islamic law.

Prior to the publication of Understanding Islamic Law, Professor Bhala's reputation was known primarily in the field of international trade law, where he was (and continues to be) globally recognized as a leading expert. That someone of his standing would undertake to write Understanding Islamic Law is unusual in light of scholars’ tendencies to ever increasingly specialise in their fields of expertise, rather than branch out into new fields. It is also unusual in that the overwhelming majority of texts on the Shari‘a are either written in Arabic or otherwise by Muslim or Arab scholars. Professor Bhala, an American / Canadian Catholic who fits none of these categories, breaks the mold and yet achieves what otherwise might seem impossible, perhaps best expressed in the words of a colleague who is a seasoned international law practitioner and student of comparative law: “a readable study that is remarkable for its cultural sensitivity, essential historical grounding, clarity of explanation and successful attempt to preserve disciplined objectivity in the discussion.” 

Professor Bhala is able to explain precepts in a clear manner to an audience that may have never encountered the Shari‘a or lived in a Muslim country. Being a devoted Catholic allows the author to draw insightful comparisons between Islamic law and Catholic Christianity. For example, he contrasts the place of language in both Christianity and Islam, both claimed by their followers to be universal religions. In Islam, the universal message is spread through a single language elected by God to be divine—Arabic; in Christianity, the message transcends individual languages, as witnessed on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2) (p. xxvi-xxvii).

Bhala goes to great lengths to draw his reader into the world of Islamic law, rather than have the reader draw Islamic law into his own world. For example, Bhala goes a step further than many competing titles by not merely transliterating Arabic words into English, but rather, retaining diacritical signs. This is significant for readers of Arabic, as Bhala’s style allows them to easily identify the corresponding Arabic of the transliterated terms without any guesswork.

In the page before the Dedication, Bhala sets the tone for the entire work by quoting Mother Teresa of Calcutta: “We cannot do great things on this Earth, only small things with great love.” Throughout the book, Bhala’s goal is clear: to write a book with great love that will educate, edify and build understanding. One thing that is certain is that this work will build understanding by speaking across various languages—not only Arabic and English but also the languages of religion, community and culture.

Bhala’s tone throughout the book is one of respect and admiration of the Shari‘a, a system that like the Catholic canon law, attempts to “organize and systematize for prudential reasons the external aspects of what is essentially not juridical: the will of God in its demands on the will of man” (xl). The Shari‘a is thus portrayed as a system that seeks to unify the human law with God’s perfect, divine will, through a system rooted in equity.

Professor Bhala does not however shy away from critiquing certain aspects of the Shari‘a that depart from this principle of equity, including, for example, Islamic law’s evidentiary standard whereby women’s testimony is equal to only half of men’s testimony. He observes that “women are no more mendacious than men, and perhaps even less so, and the dichotomy seems as much rooted in ignorant chauvinism as based on anything else” (p. 1181).

At the same time, the author goes to great length in rebutting and refuting claims that Islamic law is a force for oppression, terror or injustice. For example, in his last chapter, he identifies each of the Osama bin Laden’s arguments justifying terrorism against civilians. Bhala, drawing on a rich array of Islamic traditions, hadith’s and the context of the verses quoted by bin Laden to justify his tactics, refutes each of bin Laden’s claims and makes a persuasive case against bin Laden’s ability to speak for Islam or issue fatwa’s.

As with the first edition of any treatise, some errors, as a result of the unyielding constraints of time, made their way into the book. Most of these are minor distractions (e.g., “to or more individuals” rather than “two or more individuals” on page 456), though others are more significant (e.g., p. 471 states that “ownership cannot be acquired by finding a thing” whereas p. 478 states that “the finder of the treasure on un-owned property … becomes the lawful owner of the treasure”). These errors will inevitably be corrected in what will likely be the book’s many future editions.

Even lawyers who practice law in predominantly Muslim countries or studied the Shari‘a will in Bhala’s treatise be struck by new truths or encounter familiar truths portrayed in a new light. I thus cannot help but recommend Raj Bhala’s Understanding Islamic Law with my full endorsement.

John Balouziyeh ( is a corporate attorney resident in Riyadh, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. A former Fulbright Fellow on Turkish legal reform, he has worked, studied or volunteered in Muslim nations as diverse as Senegal, the Sudan and Syria. He is co-author of A Legal Guide to Investing in Saudi Arabia (forthcoming).

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