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Flexibility versus rigidity in the practice of Islamic Family law

Type of publication Peer-reviewed
Publikationsform Original article (peer-reviewed)
Publication date 2009
Author Shehada Nahda,
Project The practice of Islamic Family Law in Palestine and Israel: Text and Context
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Original article (peer-reviewed)

Journal PoLAR Journal of Political and Legal Anthropology Review
Volume (Issue) 32(1)
Page(s) 28 - 46
Title of proceedings PoLAR Journal of Political and Legal Anthropology Review
DOI 10.1111/j.1555-2934.2009.01022.x

Open Access


The last decades have witnessed a sustained critique of the mainstream Orientalist notion that classical Islamic family law was rigid, inflexible, and homogeneous. Many historians have used innovative methods to demonstrate that jurists and judges in precodification times enjoyed the intellectual space to translate the principles of the Quran and Sunna into socially workable rules. Yet, perhaps unwittingly, these authors have presented classical Islamic family law as flexible by contrasting it with postcodification legal practice. The latter is represented as characterized by rigidity and textuality due to, among other things, the prominent role of the nation-state in many Muslim countries. This article juxtaposes the claim of inflexibility with ethnographic material in order properly to conceptualize the present-day practice of Islamic family law. It is argued that the role of the state should not be overemphasized at the expense of the analytical significance of actors’ agency, including that of the judges, in effecting change. The analysis shows that, despite codification, Islamic family law in many Muslim countries is still characterized by flexible, heterogeneous, and context-bound implementation.