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  • Islam and the Rule of Justice: Image and Reality in Muslim Law and Culture by Lawrence Rosen
  • Arzoo Osanloo
Lawrence Rosen, Islam and the Rule of Justice: Image and Reality in Muslim Law and Culture. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2018. 280 pp.

Princeton professor emeritus, Lawrence Rosen, has long written about Islamic law and how people apply it to advance their ideas of justice. On the heels of his important book on the plurality and entanglements of ordinary Moroccans' intellectual lives, Two Arabs, a Berber, and a Jew (2016), Rosen has now published Islam and the Rule of Justice: Image and Reality in Muslim Law and Culture. The previous work punctured stereotypes about Arabs while arguing for the richness, necessity, and, indeed, refuge of their diversity. The new work ventures into common misperceptions about Islamic law, revealing it to be a living system "found as much in the marketplace and the home as in the textbooks, a law that is deeply subject to local custom, factual content, permissible interpretation, client choice, and judicial discretion" (3). As it does, Islam and the Rule of Justice orients itself towards Western audiences, taking up misconceptions they invariably possess about Islamic law, that it: 1) disadvantages women and minorities; 2) thrives on a misplaced understanding of jihad as "armed encounter"; 3) gives judges infinite discretion; 4) is characterized by brutal punishments; 5) focuses on interests of the collective rather than individuals; 6) privileges enforceable rules over procedural justice; 7) is stagnant, wanting for innovation; 8) is enforced by state actors who lack independence; 9) is overwhelmingly text-based; and 10) fails to integrate local customs.

Rosen elaborates on each of these common misunderstandings by way of the introduction. While there is not a 1:1 correlation between chapters and stereotypes, each is probed throughout the book as part [End Page 955] of what Rosen terms "an exploration of aspects rather than a taxonomy of essences" (12). Drawing thusly on 19th-century writer Samuel Butler's words, Rosen proposes to turn Islamic law around, like a kaleidoscope, and examine its many "unforeseen connections." Crucially, Rosen, an anthropologist and lawyer, takes Islamic law as a facet of culture to better understand how it is made into a living system by people who daily construe and experience it, thus making it more than the sum of its parts and moving it beyond mere text or a facile distillation of faith.

Based on Rosen's 40-plus years of fieldwork in North Africa, Islam and the Rule of Justice also draws on a vast scholarship in Islamic law. Albeit a survey of dynamic and creative approaches to justice, Rosen qualifies that the work focuses on "the Arab world," which is just one-quarter of the world's Muslims. He observes, however, that the term encompasses a "wide range of local and historical instances" (1) and that his depictions correspond to the broader "Muslim world." The breadth of his examples and references, which include non-Arab Iran, Malaysia, Singapore, Turkey, and others, dispel worries that the approach is limited, either geographically or temporally.

The book is divided into two sections with four chapters in each. The first section examines how people construe the law—that is, how individuals as agents put the law into operation, giving it shape and dynamism. The second section explores how various interlocutors lay claim to Islam as a mechanism of justice in an unfair world.

In the first chapter, Rosen investigates everyday life in Muslim courts. He focuses on family law to show how local cultures are reflected in court practices and argues that ethnographic studies provide an occasion to learn about life in Muslim societies. Rosen situates his own work in Sefrou, Morocco, while giving readers clear insight into how he gained access to courts—a concern many young scholars possess prior to going to the field. He delineates his approach, providing methodological guidance to readers on how such research can be triangulated: examine court records, sit-in on hearings, and interview disputants.

Rosen then examines several cases to consider the operations of Islamic law, thus moving beyond the texts of what so many take to be fixed scriptural prescriptions...


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pp. 955-961
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