Since 9/11, Islamic law has gained an unfair reputation for being medieval and repressive. Certainly, there are occasional high-profile cases that seem disturbing according to modern notions of human rights (stoning in Iran for instance). Yet, many non-Muslims lack a firm grasp of how Islamic Courts actually operate on a regular basis. In Islamic Modern: Religious Courts and Cultural Politics in Malaysia, Professor Michael Peletz, who conducted fieldwork in Malaysia during the 1980s, provides synopses and transcripts of several cases in the Islamic Court in Rembau. He argues that, far from being repressive, Islamic Courts in fact tend to resemble arbitration and family counseling.
As a record of the types of cases in the docket of the Islamic Court of Rembau, Islamic Modern is invaluable. The book – and Peletz’s commentary – really conveys a sense of how Islamic courts operate on a daily basis. Almost all of the cases dealt with actions for divorce – from the husband who wants a second wife to the wife who abandons her lazy husband. Surprisingly, females were more likely to initiate litigation than males. Indeed, I was surprised how often the Kadi (judge) permitted the wife’s petition for divorce and how often he stressed the husband’s responsibility in marriage. Furthermore, by treating marriage as a contractual obligation between individuals, Peletz argues that Islamic Courts are modernizing Malay identity slowly eroding customary familial and kin linkages (hence the title “Islamic Modern”).
Beyond the actually cases, I found Islamic Modern unfortunately lacking. First, the cases Peletz summarizes deal almost exclusively with divorce. I understand that marital actions probably do comprise a large portion of the docket of most Islamic Courts (as statistics on pages 156-59 suggest). However, it would have been useful to learn more about how Islamic Courts handle other areas of the law – especially because several Malaysian apostasy cases, such as “Lina Joy,” have received so much international attention. In fact, Peletz spends much of the last third of the book discussing gender and homosexuality in Malaysia. This is an important discussion, but seems only tangentially related to the courts.
At the end of the day, Peletz, an anthropologist by training, focuses more on the individual cases and concepts of human culture (he uses the word “symbol” quite a bit). As such, Islamic Modern excels when discussing gender relations, but almost ignores the courts as political institutions. After reading the book, I learned very little about the jurisdiction of these courts, their relationship to the secular courts, or even the tenure of Kadi judges – all of which seem to be hot issues in the field of Shari’ah law in Malaysia. I do hope Peletz’s future research explores these issues in a bit more depth. In the meantime, if you have any interest in Islamic law, I highly suggest reading at least the discussion of the cases in Islamic Modern.