International Institute for Asian Studies



Ocean of Law II: Islamic Legal Crossings in the Indian Ocean World

After the successful conference, “Ocean of Law: Intermixed Legal Systems across the Indian Ocean World” held at Leiden University in December 2015, most participants were enthusiastic about following it up with another event to further explore various aspects of legal interactions in the Indian Ocean world. The Ocean of Law II is a step towards that end.
We take up the same foundational questions that Ocean of Law-I raised: How did legal ideas and texts travel across borders? How did ideas and texts shape legal traditions and systems they encountered during their journey? How and why did legal cultures negotiate, influence and contest each other at the moments and sites of their interactions? However, in the Ocean of Law-II, we will focus on Islamic legal circulations across the Indian Ocean world. This field has been largely neglected by historians of Islamic law, Middle East specialists, and scholars of the Indian Ocean, despite South and Southeast Asia together being home to the largest Muslim population in the world. The unique predominance of Shāfiʿī school of Islamic law in this Indian Ocean rim has been a vital phenomenon in shaping many social, cultural, religious and political perspectives of its Muslim communities across centuries. Although the school was not predominant in the rim until the sixteenth century, it dominated the legal sphere while coexisting with many other legal systems within and outside Islam. We hope to unravel such nuances in a long-term historical perspective and/or with multi-cited ethnographic approaches.
Moving beyond the Middle East-centric analysis of Islamic law, this conference thus aims to explore the ways in which Muslim communities from the so-called “peripheries” of the Islamic world shaped their lives and thoughts within and beyond the juridical frameworks of their religion. The conference will focus on the encounters Islamic law made in the Indian Ocean region with local and imperial legal cultures (including texts, people, practices and institutions). Did Sharia historically matter in their lives, or were they only Muslims-by-name, as many Arab travellers and European colonial officers accused them through centuries? Did their “customs” dominate religion to such an extent that customary law received more prominence than Islamic law, as European scholars argued in the last century? More important, to what extent did Islamic law contribute to the making of different legal systems and the practices of different empires, states and communities in the Indian Ocean rim? How did it appeal to the legal practitioners and religious followers in East, Southeast and South Asia, and East and South Africa? What impact did the increasing mobility of Islamic legal ideas, texts and jurists across the Indian Ocean world have on the trans-formation of Muslim legal thoughts and practices across these regions? How did European colonial empires codify Islamic law in the last few centuries and how did their perception of the law affect or effect Muslim legal practices in the rim?