Alternative Law Journal
by Jamila Hussain; The Federation Press, 1999; 231 pp; $35 softcover.
Islam is widely misunderstood throughout the western world. Islamic Law and Society offers an introductory outline in a manner that is accessible both to students commencing the study of Islam and people who simply wish to gain some knowledge of it. While the text is primarily an introductory outline of Islamic law, the author addresses a number of commonly held misconceptions of Islam, and on occasion contrasts its beliefs with Christianity.
The author, Jamila Hussain, puts forward a convincing argument that Australians have some need to have an understanding of Islam beyond the offerings of the media. This argument includes the fact that more than a quarter of the world's population is Muslim with a large proportion living in proximity to Australia and a significant number residing in Australia. Since the 1970s there has been an Islamic revival that has seen some countries return to strict implementation of Islamic law in all aspects of life including the legal, judicial and economic systems. This 'Islamisation', as it is often called, has occurred in countries in close proximity to Australia, thus reinforcing the need for Australians to have some understanding of Islam.
Islamic Law and Society offers a brief outline of the history of Islam and aspects of the religion. However, the focus is on Islamic law. This law is more far reaching than common law. While it regulates areas commonly perceived to be in the domain of law it also encompasses religious behaviour such as dress and diet. The book presents an outline of Islamic laws that are also present in common law including rules of interpretation, marriage and divorce, inheritance and wills, laws pertaining to medical procedures including abortion, criminal law, rules of evidence, commercial law and banking law. Islamic law is followed in Saudi Arabia, Iran, Afghanistan and Sudan. Malaysia, Pakistan and Libya have all moved towards implementing Islamic law to differing degrees.
While the book claims to be an out line of lslam the author attempts to analyse and contrast Islamic law with Christian society on a number of occasions. The comparison is interesting but it seems that the author is on a personal soapbox at times. For example, chapter 10, 'Islamic Criminal Law', outlines the punishments set out in the Qur'an for particular crimes. As the author points out, many of these punishments are not unique to Islamic societies and there are endless examples of similar harsh and cruel punishments in the legal system of medieval England. However, the author fails to mention that we no longer live in medieval times and that criminal law, in England as in other Western nations, has come a long way from the days when disembowel ling, beheading and quartering were the punishment for treason. Islam, by the author's own admission, has not progressed but instead relies on the application of tradition dating back to the 7th century and before.
The discussion of issues relating to the status of women in Islam is disappointing. At times the issues are touched on but, in the main, they are presented in a relatively uncritical manner and contrasted with Christianity in an attempt to justify any injustice. Chapter 4, 'Women in Islamic Law', gives an outline of the position of women in Islam. Hussain argues that the position of women in the early days of Islam was not dissimilar to their position in early Christianity: both were initially revolutionary movements that awarded unprecedented rights to women, and both saw the reduction in these rights as time went on. However, Hussain argues that from the 7th to the mid-19th century Muslim women enjoyed a number of rights that their Western counterparts did not. For example, Muslim women had the right to keep their own earnings, inherit property and manage it as they wished, and were separate legal entities to their husbands. These rights were not afforded to women in England until the 19th century. Nevertheless, the inequality experienced in other domains of life should not be overlooked. For example, by the 1Oth century Muslim women had been excluded from full participation insociety.
The final chapter, 'Islam and Muslims in Australia', gives a brief history, including an outline of the current position, of Muslims in Australia. After presenting Islamic law in an uncritical manner the author provides a critique of Australian law, outlining how it fails the Australian Muslim population. Hussain touches on a number of areas where the Qur'an conflicts with common law including divorce law and restrictions on the age of marriage. She fails to point out that Muslims may experience some advantages under the Australian legal system that they would not enjoy in a Muslim nation. However, there is a case to be made for the Australian legal system to take into account the conflicts between Islamic culture, other cultures, and Australian law. This should not jeopardise rights that would be afforded to any other individual in Australia, as to do so would create a second class citizenship for Muslims.
Islamic Law and Society will pro vide the reader with an introductory outline of lslamic law. While some controversial issues are touched on, such as the status of women, this text should not be relied on to present a critical analysis. However, it makes references to numerous other texts that may be pursued by those wishing to access a critical representation of Islamic law. For those who feel some anti-Muslim sentiment, the book presents a number of arguments that should be considered. For example, there is a need to be discerning when making generalisations about a religion based on the behaviour of individuals, perhaps more so when the Western media is presenting it. In addition, there is a need to be aware that practices that are perceived as innately Muslim and held as justifications for anti-Muslim sentiment are sometimes also practised by Christians and Jews. Female circumcision is one obvious example.