Shari’a Scripts: A Historical Anthropology

By Brinkley Messick

In a study of the legal and ethical tradition at the center of the Islamic experience, Brinkley Messick, professor of anthropology, focuses on Yemen in the early 20th century. While colonial regimes, late Ottoman reformers, and early nationalists wrought decisive changes to the legal status of the sharīʿ’a, significantly narrowing its sphere of relevance, the Zaydī school of jurisprudence, rooted in highland Yemen for a millennium, still held sway. Messick uses writings of the Yemeni past to analyze the sharīʿ’a as a local system of texts, distinguishing between theoretical or doctrinal juridical texts and those produced by the sharīʿ’a courts and writers. He examines books of madrasa instruction, formal opinions by muftis and imams, the structure of court judgments and contracts, supplemented by retrospective ethnography and oral history.