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THE terms “public” and “private” form a basic pair of categories in modern liberal society. It is central to the law, and crucial to the ways in which our liberties are protected. Our approval of other societies depends on the measure to which they reflect the categories as we do. But as Brinkley Messick points out in his article, because these modern categories are integral to Western capitalist society, they have a history that is coterminous with it. A central meaning of “private” has to do with private property, and Messick describes in detail various aspects of “private” property in premodem Yemen, a Muslim society that had not yet acquired the counterpart of “public” property (and “public” space). In that sense it is possible to identify “private” spaces in such societies without, properly speaking, anything that can be called “public” space—one that depends on the presence of depersonalized state authority. The form of Islamic property known as waqf is neither. This should help to complicate our understanding of the terms “public” and “private” in the context of premodern Muslim societies . Roy Mottahedeh and Kristen Stilt discuss in their article how these notions are used in the work of the famous medieval jurist-theologian al-Ghazali (who continues to be cited in the Muslim world), and in a late-medieval Egyptian manual prepared for the muhtasib (translated as market inspector, and/or as official upholder of public morality). They discuss the famous Islamic prohibition on officials entering people’s homes, or spying on people’s activities there, to uncover punishable moral transgresSOCIAL RESEARCH, Vol. 70, No. 3 (Fall 2003) Boundaries and Rights in Islamic Law: Introduction TALAL ASAD sions committed behind closed doors. The home, they tell us, is thought of as a private space (and the women’s quarter as the most private, most sacred of all) and the market as a public (profane ?) one. This distinction seems to hinge on the criteria of visibility or accessibility to “outsiders,” although presumably the market has no “outsiders” because anyone may enter it. When a woman comes to market, we are to see that movement as one in which she carries her “privacy” with her. (Rather like the nineteenth -century bourgeois railway traveler who was expected to remain undisturbed in his own space, and to eschew interaction with strangers.) Evidently more is at stake here than a simple conception of spaces that can in practice be occupied by anyone or allow one to be visible to “outsiders.” Mottahedeh and Stilt have a clear sense of the complicated meanings of the notions they describe, and stress the relational character of “the private.” They remind us, in effect, that instead of speaking of the “public-private ” binary as though it were self-evident, we need to explore the different configurations of behavior: legally mandatory, approved, legally indifferent, disapproved, or legally prohibited. And no doubt they would agree that the various strata of the population (the mamluk military elite, rich merchants, domestic servants , peasants) defined “the unwanted intrusion of strangers,” and how it should be dealt with, in very different ways. The senses in which “private” is taken to mean “secret” is discussed fully in Frank Vogel’s article, which also begins with an account of classical Islamic views about the role of the muhtasib and the famous interdiction on spying. But Vogel focuses on a contemporary Islamic government—Saudi Arabia—that is committed to the “public” upholding of morality and the punishment of immoral behavior. As he points out, its supervisory institutions have become much more intrusive in everyday life than classical jurisprudence allowed. And they have done so by drawing on the intellectual arguments of jurists who have adopted administrative modes of reasoning . A well-known example of this is the ban on women driving cars, justified by religious scholars on the grounds that the unsupervised movement of individual women whenever and wherever they want 684 SOCIAL RESEARCH to go will encourage sexual misconduct. Thus ethical concerns in the religious law required of each Muslim are translated into direct policing practices entrusted to the ruler. The existence here of a powerful institution charged with securing the social conditions that ensure moral behavior...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1944-768X
Print ISSN
0037-783X
Pages
pp. 683-686
Launched on MUSE
2015-04-01
Open Access
No
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