Islamic Law in Action: Authority, Discretion, and Everyday Experiences in Mamluk Egypt. By KRIS--TEN STILT. New York: OXFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS, 2011. Pp. xv + 238. $100.
Islamic legal history in the West has long taken the view that historical Islamic law--understood as the formal doctrine set out in legal treatises--was nothing more than a theoretical elaboration of an Islamic ideal that not only had no purchase in real life, except in a few areas such as ritual and family law, but in fact was not intended by the Muslim jurists themselves to be put into practice or enforced in any manner resembling what modems would call "law."
This is the famous gap between theory and practice that so many early scholars of Islamic law, such as Joseph Schacht and Noel Coulson, emphasized in much of their work. More recent scholars researching the Islamic middle ages, e.g., Wael Hallaq, Sherman Jackson, and David Powers, to name a few, have cast substantial doubt on this narrative, however. Meanwhile, thanks to the abundance of records left by Ottoman courts, historians of the Ottoman empire have established conclusively the centrality of Islamic law to the regulation of life in the Ottoman empire and the legal system of the Sublime Porte.
Based on the title of Kristen Stilt's new book, Islamic Law in Action, one might think that it is embedded in this debate, and that it, too, amounts to a refutation of the previously established orthodoxy that Islamic law did not play a significant role in the governance of premodern Muslim societies. It is that, of course, but it is also a lot more ambitious: Stilt broadly attempts to apply the methods of the law and society approach to legal studies to premodern Islamic legal history in order to "widen the scope of inquiry" beyond the question whether premodern legal doctrine was or was not applied, and instead ask "questions such as: Which officials represented the force of law in society? What kinds of rules did they rely upon, and what were the sources of these rules? How did their personal backgrounds and preferences affect their work'? How did the populace respond to legal application or enforcement, and what accounts for their different reactions to different officials, on different topics, and at different places and times?" (p. 2). Her work represents a much needed first step in trying to answer these questions for the pre--Ottoman period. In addition to being an important contribution to Islamic legal history...