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  • Minority Jurisprudence in Islam: Muslim Communities in the West by Susanne Olsson
  • Mark D. Welton (bio)
Minority Jurisprudence in Islam: Muslim Communities in the West, by Susanne Olsson. New York: I. B. Tauris, 2016. 300pages. $99.

Comparative legal scholars have commonly characterized Islamic law as a personal law, which allows for non-Muslim minority groups to apply much of their own laws (especially personal status and family law) within their own communities, such as under the millet system in the Ottoman Empire and thereafter in 20th century Syria. In contrast, Western law has been characterized as a predominantly territorial law, applicable with very limited exceptions to everyone within a given area, regardless of their religious affiliation.

With the Western military and economic domination of the Muslim world in the modern era, territorial, Western-style law has superseded traditional shari‘a to a great extent even in that part of the world; a dynamic that has received much scholarly attention. Less attention has been devoted to the opposite dynamic: the practice of Islam and specifically the application of Islamic law among Muslim minorities living in the West. The principle of territorial exclusivity of the state’s legal system, along with the still relatively small proportion of Muslim individuals and enterprises living and operating in Western states, would seem to limit the prospects for a flourishing Islamic jurisprudence in the West. Nevertheless, this has been challenged in recent times by a growing number of Western Muslims who seek a greater role for Islamic law in their personal, social, and economic lives, particularly in Europe. This makes Susanne Olsson’s book a timely study.

Divided into just three chapters along with an introduction and conclusion, Minority Jurisprudence in Islam does not really break any new ground. Rather, it focuses attention on three familiar subjects. The first is the traditional bifurcation of the world into “the abode of Islam” (dar al-Islam), where shari‘a predominates, and “the abode of war” (dar al-harb), where it does not. The issue whether a Muslim living outside the abode of Islam should follow the law of the territory where he or she lives, or even whether there is an obligation for a Muslim to leave that territory and return to the abode of Islam, is one that has been debated by some classical as well as modern Muslim jurists. While the majority of contemporary scholars take the pragmatic view that Muslims should follow the law of the territory of residence, at least when there is no direct conflict with fundamental Islamic rules, a minority insist that Muslims must not remain in the abode of war.

This discussion sets the scene for the remaining two chapters, in which opposing pragmatic and Salafi views on this problem are discussed and compared. The former consists in large part of the opinions of two contemporary Muslim scholars, Taha Jabir al-‘Alwani and Tariq Ramadan. Both offer a pragmatic view that allows Muslims to live outside the abode of Islam without compromising their faith. ‘Alwani, however, relies on traditional jurisprudence (fiqh) to make a somewhat strained and elaborate set of arguments that rests on the duty of Muslims to understand fully the fundamental principles of Islam and their engagement with the various established interpretations of shari‘a (taqlid) but within a context of evolving historical circumstances that does permit reinterpretation whenever necessary. Ramadan, on the other hand, presents a view described as “Euro-Islam” (or a universal Islam) that is very pragmatic, in which Muslims can and should be fully engaged with the Western societies and cultures in which they live, constantly reinterpreting [End Page 320] old doctrines on the basis of the universal principles and values of Islam, without extensive reliance on traditional jurisprudence. Both conclude that Muslims can (and indeed will) live and work in the Western world, and can do so within the constraints of western law but without sacrificing core Islamic beliefs and practices.

Salafis, on the other hand, do not accept this possibility, and they assert that Muslims must reject Western systems and cannot continue to live within those systems. This leaves Muslims with the choice either of leaving their residences in the...


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pp. 320-321
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