LAWRENCE — The world has changed radically since 2016. The COVID-19 pandemic, Trump presidency, dissolution of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, re-emergence of the Taliban in Afghanistan and continued Iran nuclear showdown are among several happenings that have profoundly influenced the Islamic legal world. A University of Kansas international trade law expert has written the third edition of his landmark 2011 text, “Understanding Islamic Law (Shari’a),” thoroughly updating it to account for the shifting legal and geopolitical landscape.
Raj Bhala, Brenneisen Distinguished Professor of Law at KU, spent six years on the latest edition of his comprehensive textbook on Islamic law. Its previous two editions have been used globally: They are noted for the thorough coverage of the history, religion and law of Islam, and he is known as the first non-Muslim American legal scholar to offer such a work. The textbook contains updates to all previous chapters, plus several new chapters exploring Islamic constitutions, changes in and debates about Islamic law, and related topics for law students, professors, practicing lawyers, politicians, diplomats, and interested readers. The second edition was published in 2016.
Among the updated content is the edition’s first analysis of constitutions of countries that practice Islamic law, such as Iran and Saudi Arabia, and the origins, nature and ideology of the Taliban and its return to power in Afghanistan. Unlike previous editions, this one is accompanied by a publicly accessible website maintained by the publisher, Carolina Academic Press, for further updating. On the website, for example, is a comprehensive tabular summary of America’s longest war, the 20-year Afghan conflict.
“I personally find, and I think many Americans would find, Iran a very interesting case study, given the ongoing, unsteady relationship our countries have had,” Bhala said. “It teaches us a lot about the structure of the Islamic government, and I think it’s good to understand. Lawyers are supposed to be problem solvers, and we need to understand the other side and their thinking – empathize, but not necessarily sympathize — to do that.”
Likewise, the full-circle story of the rise, fall and rise again of the Taliban, coupled with the counter-cyclical exit, entry and withdrawal of American forces, contains lessons in dealing with violent extremist organizations. Bhala examined what that means not only for the nation the hard-line group now governs, but also for those with legal, economic and diplomatic relationships with them. The topic is especially relevant to him as he has taught U.S. Special Forces at Fort Leavenworth for nearly a decade.
“It’s made me wonder, ‘Where is Shari’a headed?’ To me you have no clear trends across the board,” Bhala said. “But it’s heartbreaking to see a violent extremist organization and put things back to where they were before 9/11.”
The textbook also explores contemporary topics such as blasphemy and how it relates to events such as the recent attack on author Salman Rushdie, and alcohol sales in Islamic countries and the fraught issues they can cause, as illustrated by the recent World Cup held in Qatar.
The new third edition, available as an e-book, also takes a look at idiosyncratic governmental developments and their effects on law, such as Islamization of governance in Turkey, but not in Malaysia.
“Understanding Islamic Law (Shari’a)” is necessarily more than a legal textbook, because Islamic law is more than a legal system, according to Bhala It has a rich history, and it is rooted in one of the world’s great religions. So, one need not be a law student or professor, or an attorney to benefit from its contents. The interdisciplinary book is of appeal to those working in business, such as Shari’a-compliant investing, the diplomatic corps, such as the U.S. State Department or foreign ministries in other countries, and humanitarian groups or NGOs that deal with or operate within Islamic countries, Bhala said.
Additionally, those entering the field of international law or practitioners — such as new or long-standing members of the International Bar Association, those working with or within Islamic judicial systems, or seasoned scholars and practitioners within Islamic countries who want to know how Islamic legal issues are viewed in the non-Muslim west — all can find material relevant to their inquiries.
“This remains the only comprehensive textbook that is designed to have everything in one place and assumes no prior knowledge of Islamic law or languages,” Bhala said. “If you want to do a survey or specialty course, or just understand this amazing subject, this is the book.”
Top image: Raj Bhala teaching. Image credit: KU Marketing