Religious authority and its relation to the mundane, and especially to the domains of politics and the state, is a perennial issue of sociological and theological concern. Within the Islamic world, my focus here, this issue takes particular form, inflected through the powerful trope of the shari‘ah (Arabic, sharī‘ah), most commonly glossed in English as “Islamic law,” although God's right “way” through life potentially addresses every aspect of human life. This comprehensiveness, conjoined with the “openness” that the shari‘ah's nominally divine and hence, in the final analysis, inscrutable source entails, has consequences for the ways in which one might imagine a state that grounded its legitimacy in following that right path. Brinkley Messick's (1993) monograph The Calligraphic State has provided a now classic exploration of such a polity in North Yemen, and its transformations under modernization. His analysis of these processes turns on a central image: the shift from a “calligraphic,” that is, personalized form of “textual domination,” drawing its authority from the endlessly open and interpretable field of “shari‘ah discourse” (1993: 1–3), to the rationalized, impersonal authority of modern legal texts, fixed and monopolized by state officials and symbolized, following the master metaphor, by uniform, rigid print.
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