Modernization of the Law in Arab States: An Investigation into Current Civil, Criminal and Constitutional Law in the Arab World

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Modernization of the Law in Arab States: An Investigation into Current Civil, Criminal and Constitutional Law in the Arab World, by George N. Sfeir. San Francisco, London and Bethesda: Austin & Winfield, 1998. Distributed by The University Press of America. vii + 253 pages. Bibl. to p. 268. Index to p. 275. $74.95 cloth; $54.95 paper.

Reviewed by David H. Finnie

The theme of Sfeir's ambitious survey of current law in the Arab world is that the development of the law in the Arab countries has not kept pace with modern political, economic and social realities. His material covers a wide array of regimes and governments from the Atlantic to the Gulf, and takes into account an extraordinarily diverse historical background.

The book does not pretend to be encyclopedic (how could it be, in fewer than 300 pages?). It has chapters covering certain familiar categories of the law, such as torts and contracts, domestic relations, crimes, and constitutional law; however, there is little attention to business organizations, commercial transactions and financial matters, The treatment of individual states varies considerably according to topic. For example, the chapter on constitutions covers some countries extensively (e.g., Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Egypt, and Syria), but makes only passing references to others.

None of the Arab states appears to measure up to the author's conception of an acceptable standard of law-making. Some of them are subject to deeply felt, traditional religious influences which do not mesh easily with secular statutory provisions based on European models. Others retain legal codes derived from outdated Ottoman laws. Moreover, in a country like Saudi Arabia, where the only law is the shari'a, it is conceptually difficult to adopt new laws "so long as the immutable revealed text of the Sharia holds veto power over man's right to legislate" (p. 45). And in none of these instances, says the author, is there adequate provision for effective judicial review of legislative actions. (Here, the model to be emulated is the United States. …