Anthropology professor’s book studies Islamic courts

4/7/2010 - By: Mary Hunton

After 20 non-consecutive months of field research and years of compiling it into a manuscript, Erin Stiles, assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology, has published a book about the Islamic court system in Zanzibar, Tanzania.

Zanzibar is a semi-autonomous island state of Tanzania, and according to Stiles, is around 98 percent Muslim. Islamic courts handle all family law matters for Muslims. Her book, “An Islamic Court in Context: An Ethnographic Study of Judicial Reasoning,” focuses on these courts.

“What I primarily look at,” Stiles said, “is how judges and litigants handle or talk about marital disputes based on their ideas of Islamic law and their ideas of local norms of marriage and divorce.”

Judges in Zanzibar are trained in Islamic law. However, unlike other countries with Islamic courts, the training in Zanzibar’s judges varies because it is not standardized.

“In Zanzibar Islamic law is not codified,” Stiles said. “Judges are basing decisions on their legal training, not on a set of statutes at the state level.”

Marital dispute is where Stiles focused her research. A marital dispute is a dispute between a husband or wife, or sometimes a dispute between other family members about a marriage. Most of the cases Stiles studied were between a husband and wife, and a majority of those were filed by the woman.

Many issues fall under the classification of marital dispute. Divorce, proper maintenance, and child custody fall into the category. Much of what Stiles looked into were the prior two.

“Suits for divorce are very common in Zanzibar,” she said. “Men have the right to divorce their wives unilaterally outside of the court. Women have to go to court to file for divorce.”

This practice is uncommon in many other countries with established Islamic courts. In certain schools of Islamic teaching the husband may repudiate his wife outside of the context of a court, but there are few places where this is permissible.

“In most parts of the Muslim world today where Islamic law is part of the legal system that right has been circumscribed,” said Stiles. “Zanzibar is kind of unusual because that hasn’t yet been modified.”

According to Stiles, the judges she worked with were suspicious of the frequency some men divorced their wives for little to no reason. Many of them lament that they can do nothing about it. It is a matter “between (the husband) and God,” Stiles quoted one judge as saying. So far, there are no official plans for rewriting the law in Zanzibar to revoke that right to men.

Stiles’ interest in the Islamic Court system developed in graduate school due to a summer Islamic Studies program in Cairo, Egypt. Since then her attention became more focused due to her interest in Africa and the Middle East, and her work with certain professors who studied Islam. Compared to many other fields, however, what makes her research unique is its basis in the current scheme of things. Up until recently, there have been very few accounts of the day-to-day workings of contemporary Islamic courts.

“I sat in court for over a year every day listening to cases, talking to the judge, talking to the litigants, talking to the clerks. The book is a clear portrait of just how such a court is working,” she said. “Although there has been some wonderful work in history on Islamic courts, historians don’t normally have the luxury of getting to sit in on the courts that they’ve been studying.”

Stiles’ book was published in October 2009 by Palgrave Macmillan, and it is available at the Mathewson-IGT Knowledge Center.


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