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11 October, 2018 00:00 00 AM

The legal links between Europe and the Islamic world

Both societies have enjoyed a rich connection for centuries and nowhere is this more apparent than in matters of law
HA Hellyer
The legal links between Europe and 
the Islamic world

One of the UK’s most recognisable far-right figures, Tommy Robinson, is famous for many things – chief among them founding the anti-Muslim English Defence League and a string of legal battles and jail sentences. However, among his most notable contributions to popular culture is the creation of the #creepingsharia hashtag on Twitter. Like most things he does, this backfired. It was meant to highlight how the UK is supposedly becoming “Islamised”, but instead became a meme used to belittle such absurd concerns.

The greater irony, however, is that sharia “crept” into the UK a long time ago. Indeed, the British legal system depends on it, and has done for centuries. In his 2004 book The Case for Islamo-Christian Civilisation, Columbia University’s Richard Bulliet states: “Muslims have been massively present in Europe before today. In fact, through the centuries, Muslims have been engaged in the creation of Europe and European civilisation.” This is an idea I explored in my own book, Muslims of Europe: The “Other” Europeans. However, the influence of Muslim countries on the development of laws and institutions is particularly worthy of further exploration.

It is not clear when the first links between Britain and Islam began to be forged. Some historical documents state that the Celts came into contact and built trading relationships with Muslims in the eastern Mediterranean back in the 8th century. Later records indicate that Arab Muslims were visiting London as far back as the 12th century for trade, and that the alliance between King John and the Sharif of Morocco in the 13th century was so strong that the former proposed to the latter’s daughter.

In The Rise of Colleges, published in 1981, the American academic George Makdisi posited the theory that European universities took many of their cues from Arab-Islamic madrasas. He traced the idea of charitable trusts back to the waqf system in Muslim societies, and linked the ijaza or license system of Islamic tradition to western university degrees, which emerged centuries later.

John Makdisi, George Makdisi’s son, has argued in several academic works that the origins of English common law, created in the 12th century, are to found in Islamic jurisprudence. He has explored several areas of law to make this point, notably the creation of the royal English contract, which he has related to the Islamic aqd, and, most fascinatingly, the creation of the jury. Both have unique characteristics and appeared quite suddenly in 12th-century England, following a close connection between King Henry II of England and King Roger II of Sicily. It is important to note that Roger ruled over a territory that had previously been Muslim, where much of the Islamic legal system remained in place.

Historical eras as the Renaissance, Reformation, the French Revolution, and Enlightenment are influential stages in the modern history of Europe until now. A debate among some historians of the southern and northern shores of the Mediterranean is about the European denial of the Islamic contribution to the early seeds of modernity and European rebirth. The idea that Europe stood up alone from its Middle Dark Ages (5-15th Centuries) does not find much acceptance among some historians of Europe and many historians of the Islamic civilization, and this issue is raised here and there when discussing the feasibility and future of “European Islam.” How long will Islam and Muslims be denied their historical contribution? How can they feel that Europe is their home if the same Europe denies them a historical (physical and mainly intellectual) presence on its soil? These are some voices and questions that are raised, have always been so for centuries, and will continue to be raised still. Moreover, the modern relations stage and its flourishing ideals that characterize modernity and the modern age has its dark side. Though Europe has been working on its own house for the last four centuries, its house cannot mirror itself well if it is not compared and challenged by the outside world, and the nearest world to be looked at is the Islamic world. Its gates are not far, and it is easy to gaze over them. Orientalism and Colonialism are the other two concepts and mechanisms Europe has used to feed itself while constructing its edifices. Certainly, Orientalism as an intellectual and political school in Europe is older that Edward Said´s Orientalism (1978).[8] What the latter has done is that it has opened the debate from within Western academia about Eurocentrism (as well as Americentrism) and its construction and conception of itself and the Other. Orientalism and the colonial enterprise have strengthened Europe economically and politically, but have weakened it intellectually. Its ideals seem to flourish just within its walks, since they do not apply to the Other outside the gates of secular and liberal Europe.

It is widely believed that Italian and French civil law are significantly influenced by Islamic jurisprudence. Much has been made, correctly, of the impact Muslim Spain and Portugal had on the rest of Europe, but precious little has been written about the ways in which the Norman conquest of the Emirate of Sicily affected European legal systems far beyond the island’s shores. Some years ago, a wonderful project promoted by the British Council and titled Our Shared Europe took this idea seriously.

The point of the project was to educate and enlighten Europeans of all backgrounds about the shared links between Islamic tradition and the development of European history, culture and civilisation. Unfortunately, it did not remain active for long, even though it unearthed a treasure trove of enthralling information.

The writer is a senior non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council in Washington, DC and the Royal United Services

 Institute in London


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Editor : M. Shamsur Rahman
Published by the Editor on behalf of Independent Publications Limited at Media Printers, 446/H, Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1215.
Editorial, News & Commercial Offices : Beximco Media Complex, 149-150 Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1208, Bangladesh. GPO Box No. 934, Dhaka-1000.

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