Islam, Law, and Equality in Indonesia: An Anthropology of Public Reasoning

Islam, Law, and Equality in Indonesia: An Anthropology of Public Reasoning

Islam, Law, and Equality in Indonesia: An Anthropology of Public Reasoning

Islam, Law, and Equality in Indonesia: An Anthropology of Public Reasoning


Muslims currently struggle to reconcile radically different sets of social norms and laws (including those derived from Islam, as well as contemporary ideas about gender equality and law) in Indonesia, the world's largest Muslim-majority country. John Bowen explores their struggle through archival and ethnographic research and interviews with national religious and legal figures. His book relates to debates in any society where people struggle to live together with extreme differences in values and lifestyles and is welcomed by scholars and students in all branches of the social sciences.


Islam, sharî'a, fiqh, hukum–these several ways of referring to God's path or law provide a second set of resources drawn on by Indonesian Muslims. Strikingly, the path along which Islam has been reformulated as a national legal resource in Indonesia parallels the path followed by adat: from a treasury of examples and sayings, brought to bear on a particular case, each has been transformed into a set of rules, an explicit code to be applied by judges. But this codification masks the ways in which Muslims draw on the Islamic discursive tradition to evaluate, justify, or critique specific events.

Over the next four chapters, I consider the ways in which judges, jurists, historians, and ordinary Muslims have sought ways to justify or critique social norms on the basis of Islamic tenets, and to reinterpret Islam on the basis of other social norms. This succession of analyses begins in the courts of Takèngën, with the reasoning processes of judges who live close to everyday Gayo social life. In succeeding chapters, I consider the relationship between social change and justificatory argumentation over a period of forty years in these courts, and the parallel national debates about how to understand Islamic history and law.

In these chapters, we shift our societal focus from village processes to the legal institutions situated in towns and cities. Village life does not disappear from our view, of course; it is conflicts over land and succession that drive people to court. But the analysis becomes centrally one located at town and city level, around how judges and jurists attempt to reason in legally relevant ways, often through specific legal cases, but sometimes through reflections on history and scripture, about the proper relationships of Islam, adat, and equality.

Islam as displacement

Although (as I have been emphasizing in general) Islamic inheritance rules do not and cannot themselves produce decisions (judges do that), the overall character of those rules provides a set of discursive possibilities that both limits and facilitates certain kinds of public reasoning. That overall character provides a stark contrast to the ways of imagining social life provided by adat. If adat ties people to places, Islam juridically displaces them. If adats are fixed and . . .

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