Understanding Islamic Law: From Classical to Contemporary, ed. by Hisham M. Ramadan. Lanham, MD and New York: AltaMira Press, 2006. xi + 184 pages. Appends, to p. 203. Commentary to p. 209. Index to p. 217. About the contribs. $69 cloth; $24.95 paper.
Reviewed by Mark D. Welton
Consisting of seven essays and several appendices, this short book is a sympathetic survey of Islamic law that provides a useful but incomplete introduction to the subject. It is especially valuable in setting out a doctrinal (Qur'anic) basis for various areas of Islamic law, including criminal, contract, international, and family law. In terms of both content and perspective, these essays are best read as an introduction to or along with other, more scholarly works that offer richer explanations of the theoretical, historical, and practical development of this complex and sophisticated legal system.
Irshad Abdal-Haqq's initial overview of Islamic law is a relatively brief but helpful introduction to the origins of Islamic law and the framework of its jurisprudence. Noor Mohammed's "Principles of Islamic Contract Law" and Mahmoud Hoballah's "Marriage, Divorce, and Inheritance in Islamic Law" are also short introductions to key topics in Islamic law. Family law is of central importance in the Shari'a, so the inclusion of Hafiz Nazem Goolam's essay on "Gender Equality in Islamic Family Law: Dispelling Common Misconceptions and Misunderstandings" is an appropriate addition to the volume. Unlike many of the other essays, she offers examples of current practice and doctrine to support her claim that gender inequality within Islamic law is misconceived by the West, and her arguments, while not wholly persuasive, merit attention.
The internal perspective taken in this book can often be enlightening, especially for a Western reader. For example, Ali Khan's excellent essay on "Islam as Intellectual Property" invites consideration of Islamic law as a type of "protected knowledge" invested in a "trust" that distinguishes it from the Western (positivist) view of law as a set of rules. He illustrates the consequences of treating Islamic law as a trust in terms of rights and obligations that are both familiar yet different from Western law, and he gives the reader a fresh perspective that illuminates understanding of difficult issues of the Shari'a.
Similarly, in his essay "On Islamic Punishment," Hisham Ramadan elaborates the underlying principles of Islamic criminal punishment, such as legality and proportionality, and its rationales, including retribution, education, deterrence, rehabilitation, and incapacitation. …