Contemporary Discussions on Religious Minorities in Islam

By Nielsen, Jorgen S. | Brigham Young University Law Review, January 1, 2002 | Go to article overview

Contemporary Discussions on Religious Minorities in Islam


Nielsen, Jorgen S., Brigham Young University Law Review


I. INTRODUCTION

Most public debate on Islam today, as it takes place outside the Muslim world proper, is locked into views of Islam in its traditional medieval forms and in particular those specific aspects and forms of expression which have attracted the attention of centuries of observation and scholarship. This is not the place to engage again in regretting the impact of medieval European misunderstandings of Islam and the Muslim world1 or in attacking "Orientalism."2 It is enough to recognize that such traditional approaches have had a substantial effect on public debate concerning the contemporary Muslim world. Indeed, the position of religious minorities in Islam is one of the topics that has been especially prone to being locked into a traditional view. This traditional view of Islam has found renewed vigor in the public debate about Islam after September 11. I intend in this paper to point out some of the alternative views which are gaining ground, especially in the Arab world, and give an indication of some of the contextual processes which are supporting them, as a counterweight to the strength of the traditional views, in the hope that this might contribute to a more differentiated image of a religion and culture which is much more complex than is popularly supposed. IMAGE FORMULA5

Much of the early European scholarship in the field of Islam relied heavily on the classical Islamic legal textbooks.3 One major problem with this scholarship is that it assumed such law was also descriptive. While these assumptions about law had also characterized a phase of European historiography, the historians were able to correct their assumptions by referring to the data in diplomatic and judicial archives. Scholars of Islam and the Middle East were much slower to adopt these methods of the European and North American historians4 for two main reasons: first, their training long remained isolated from the mainstream of history as a discipline, and second, because the Islamic and Middle Eastern archives, necessary for a study of how the law was implemented and how it impacted society, have only recently become accessible.5

Modem historiography is not the only discipline that has influenced Islamic scholarship; the questions and methodologies of the social sciences have also opened up new vistas. For example, the work of social anthropologists has exposed the distance between the norms of the Shari'ah and the practice of local communities. In addition, legal anthropology and the recently popular field of the study of fatawa (legal opinions) have shown how the local upholders of the Shari'ah, the Islamic qadis (judges), often bridged the gap between the normative rules of the Shari'ah and the practical requirements of the local communities.6 IMAGE FORMULA7

II. DISCUSSION

A. Explanning Present Perceptions of Islam

1. The development and influences of Islamic scholarship

Simplistic views of Islamic law, rooted in out-of-date scholarship, have been reinforced by developments in the Muslim world itself. Islamist political movements have tended to attract most attention when they have expounded those traditional rules of Shari'ah such as the death penalty for apostasy and adultery, harsh punishments for certain other crimes, and oppression of women and non-Muslims. The Taliban in Afghanistan is another obvious example. The West has gradually accepted such rules and traditions as "typical" of the Islamic world.

However, the "typical" image outlined above is only partially accurate and ignores the extraordinarily complex predicament of the Islamic scholarly disciplines over the last century or so. The rise of European economic and political power during the nineteenth century had deep repercussions in the Muslim Middle East even before many regions fell under direct colonial rule. The shift of educational models from that of the madrasa-university to that of Oxford, Cambridge, and the Sorbonne accompanied the rise of new forms of employment in civil and military state structures. …

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