In Sharīʿa Scripts, Brinkley Messick analyzes the implementation of the Zaydi interpretation of shariʿa in the town of Ibb, in Yemen, during the first half of the 20th century. Ibb of this period stands out as a unique site to study the deployment of shariʿa before the penetration of modern/colonial techniques. As such, this work represents a departure from the usual methodologies of sociological and historical studies of the 19th- and 20th-century Islamic world that reduce the narrative to a mere colonial encounter. As an anthropologist, the author was able to observe the indigenous legal process in situ, thus, unlike the historian, Messick has insight into how his archival material was created. Nevertheless, the reading of this indigenous archive by Messick raises issues about the question of historicity in the reading of Islamic legal practices, a point which needs to be brought into the picture using historical lenses.
At the outset, the author poses his central question: What are the ways in which what is to be understood as divine is operationalized through human interpretation? Building on Clifford Geertz, Messick approaches shariʿa as a type of local system, formation of local texts in a historically specific regime of truth. The result is not only an anthropological inquiry into the operations of shariʿa but also a theoretical reflection on the relationship between local texts and the vernacularization of the Zaydi legal doctrine in Ibb.
The book is divided into two main parts: “library” and “archives,” two separate realms that are in constant dialogue with one another in order to deploy shariʿa in daily life. The first part of the book deals with the question of library, “a particular sharīʿa library” (p. 21), or a specific textual universe and the doctrinal grounds of interpretive legal act in Ibb. The intellectual edifice of this library is built upon five sciences that should be mastered by the student of shariʿa as “interpreter”: language; knowledge of the Quran; the practice or custom of the Prophet (sunna); actual cases (masāil); and the meta-discipline of uṣūl al-fiqh (pp. 100–133). The intra-madhhab dialogue with the thinkers of other schools, such as Shafiis, attests to what Messick calls the “cosmopolitan” character of the Zaydi interpretation in Ibb.
The key treatise (matn) of the library is that of Imam al-Mahdi Ahmad bin Yahya al-Murtada's (d. 1437 CE) The Book of Flowers, a concise doctrinal amalgamation of Zaydi fiqh penned sometime in the 15th century. Messicks detailed reading of the three commentaries (shurūḥ) of the Book of Flowers reveals its foundational character and durability in subsequent centuries: First is Commentary on the Flowers by ʿAbd Allah Ibn Miftah (d. 1472 CE), a student of Imam al-Murtada. The second text is The Raging Torrent, a fervent critique of Zaydi doctrine penned by Muhammad bin ʿAli al-Shawkani (d. 1834 CE). Finally, the third text by Ahmad bin Qasim al-ʿAnsi (d. 1970) is the Gilded Crown, the central doctrinal work to Messick's book as it was penned in the same era as the archival material exploited by the author. This quasi-classical commentary first appeared in print, representing a departure from the traditional manuscript style. In his Gilded Crown, al-ʿAnsi reduced the open-ended argument and stressed univocality of the Zaydi fiqh.
Messick, then, discusses the question of the written documents as articulated in the Zaydi doctrinal universe of Ibb. The author ties the Qurʾanic principals governing archival writing, as it is articulated in verse 282–83 of sura 2, to the treatment of the archival documents in locally situated works of tafsīr and in the intellectual spectrum of the Flowers literature. The textual transition from Qurʾan to local Zaydi texts highlights the role of the human interpretive agency in the process of the application of what is considered to be divine command to daily practices. In this part, Messick seems to be most interested in the process of archivization and its relation to memory. He argues that in the Arabic language both memory and archivization processes, semantically, are derived from the trilateral Arabic root ḥ-f-ẓ denoting “to store, preserve or safeguard.” In the legal procedures, memory has its limitations, and necessitates the recourse of an associated written document. In the meantime, a judge cannot act upon what he finds in his archive if he does not remember it.
Messick, focuses on fatwas, that is the legal opinions of muftis, and the “choices” (ikhtiyār) of the ruling imam (pp. 157–94). Despite Messick's silence on the deployment of local fatwas in the legal life of Ibb, according to him, as production of shariʿa discourse, the two genres had informative differences. Although both aimed at producing juristic responses to mundane affairs, unlike fatwas, the “choices” of imams were not produced as a response to particular questions but to general types of fact situations. Messick draws on a 1952 case of marriage dissolution (faskh) and appended in ʿAbd al-Qadir bin ʿAbd Allah's manuscript wherein Imam Ahmad's thirteen original choices are found in eight short texts. In this particular case, we see that the conflict is solved through Imam Ahmad's opinion quoted directly in the court decision. A similar situation in 1958 is resolved with a basic reference to Imam Ahmad's opinion, by referring to his name, without quoting his opinion. As such, the court records in Ibb bore frequent citations of judges to relevant “choices” of the ruling Imam and did not reference the local doctrinal sources as articulated in Flowers literature. Hence, it was the imam's choice that attributed a binding force to a legal opinion (p. 251). To this reader, the position of imam raises interesting questions regarding the existence of a hierarchy of legal offices within the Islamic polity in Ibb. This observation, in turn, would lead us to specualte that this is a symptom of the possible existence of an indigenous codification-like process. Such a possibility is not entertained by Messick and would raise further questions about different forms of codification in both the East and the West.
The second part of the book, entitled “Archives,” opens with an analysis of the documents deployed in Ibb. Comparable to the notarial activities of the judge of the Ottoman city of Amid in the 18th century certain documents in Ibb were “public” as they refer to documents that were prepared by the local notarial writers without formalized state recognition. Private documents, on the other hand, were those written by notarial writers and certified and authenticated by a judge, or a mufti or a governor in the form of a note (iʿtimād or taṣdīq) (pp. 222–25). Such individually retained documents in family archives are examples of “private” documents. Messick focuses on the private notarial writer's (kātib) “unofficial” role in producing written documents in Ibb, with particular attention paid to the shurūṭ or “stipulations” that modeled the activities of the notarial writer in “private” sphere (pp. 321–400).
Messick also analyzes the judge's archives (dīwān). These archives contain standard documents such as copies of petitions (shakwā), court judgments (ḥukm) and charity lists as well as other less routine documents such as the copies of contracts, supplementary documents, and written texts of the litigant responses and correspondences between Ibb's governor and the Treasury. In this part of his study, Messick peers into the constitution of these archives and hints at the ways in which fraud and false testimony left their traces in the written documents and how they were governed by the court (pp. 313–20). In Ibb, the judge kept one non-signed written copy of each court judgment (ḥukm) among the court registers, two other signed copies were handed to the parties in dispute to be safeguarded in their “private” archives (p.265). This observation is mirrored in the Ottoman context as has been demonstrated by historians of Ottoman legal practices. However, according to Messick, there are striking differences between Ottoman and Yemeni written documents. He argues that Yemeni court documents were rich in length as opposed to the brevity of early modern Ottoman court documents (p. 287). Here the reader wonders if such a detailed registration of court cases in Ibb attests to the change in the technical character of the 20th-century shariʿa apparatuses. Put simply, this reader looks for an appreciation of the accumulative change in the practice of shariʿa, a position which would, then, locate our understanding of Islamic law within a historical canvas. Be that as it may, Messick's analysis of “entering registers” (daftar al-ḍabṭ) and “recording registers” (daftar al-qayd), as kept by the judges of Ibb, highlights each step in the constitution of the judge's archives in an Islamic polity and represents a meticulous analysis in the scholarship charting the constitution of the archives (dīwān) of an Islamic legal court (pp. 272–84).
In his Sharīʿa Scripts, Messick is perhaps most interested in one fundamental question: “What is the non-divine character of shariʿa?” As opposed to the divine, which is eternal and unchanging, the non-divine is a social product and therefore prone to constant change. It is at this point that as a historian of Ottoman law, I believe that Messick's anthropological approach at times lacks historicity. Although quite rich and stimulating, the author's local analysis has its downsides, overlooking the possible doctrinal and intellectual dialogue between locally situated Zaydi fiqh and the wider Islamic legal tradition. This is perhaps most visible when Messick arrives at the conclusion that the category of state-owned lands (mīrī in Ottoman parlance) was a “non-sharīʿa conception” (p. 230, see also p. 328), something unknown to fiqh. One wonders then, how did shariʿa respond to social change over centuries? The category of state-owned lands (peasants’ loss of proprietary rights over arable lands) may be traced to the doctrinal traditions of late medieval Transoxania and Greater Syria before it was crystalized in the Ottoman domains as mīrī lands. It was in the realm of fiqh that the mīrī status of land was legitimized, resulting in what Baber Johansen calls “the death of the proprietors.” Hence, whether Ottoman or non-Ottoman, this patently shows fiqh’s technical capacity to respond to changing historical and social conditions in the wider Islamic oecumene. It is perhaps this constant dialogue between the jurist and the shifting face of human existence in different world time and space, rather than the dialogue between the jurist and his predecessor, that has never closed the gate of “independent reasoning” (ijtihad). Messick's affinity for an immune shariʿa has the tendency to overlook this very historicity of Islamic law.
In Sharīʿa Scripts, Messick guides the reader through the complex legal universe of Zaydi intellectuals, their historical ties with the foundational texts and their role in the local-textual production through interpretive legal act. This local-level interdisciplinary reflection is a must read for the student of Islamic legal practices.