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A Book Review: The Politics of Islamic Law: Local Elites, Colonial Authority, and the Making of Muslim State

Algazelus’s professional experience revolves around the research on social sciences focusing on Islamic Studies; activism on human rights

Photo was taken during the Celebration after the signing of the Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro.

Photo was taken during the Celebration after the signing of the Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro.

Photo was taken during the Celebration after the signing of the Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro.

A Book Review: THE POLITICS OF ISLAMIC LAW: Local Elites, Colonial Authority, and the Making of Muslim State by: IZA R. HUSSIN

"The uniqueness of the book is that it does not simply discuss Islamic Law in the divine sense, but rather it sufficiently provides the context in which Islamic Law exists, and this is the socio-political arena. She framed Islamic Law as a result of the political processes that, in each period, shape what Muslims define then as Islamic Law."

A Book Review: THE POLITICS OF ISLAMIC LAW: Local Elites, Colonial Authority, and the Making of Muslim State by: IZA R. HUSSIN

Published in 2016 by The University of Chicago, United State of America

About the Author

Dr. Iza R. Hussin wrote the book called “The Politics of Islamic Law: Local Elites, Colonial Authority, and the Making of Muslim State.”She focuses her teaching and scholarship research on comparative politics, laws, and society, and Islamic studies in the Middle East, South Asia, and Southeast Asia. She uses Arabic and Malay literature as her sources in writing the said book. This book was supported by the National Science Foundation, American Council of Learned Societies, Woodrow Wilson Foundation, Mellon Foundation, and Harvard Law School, among others.

Currently, she is an assistant professor of the Department of Political Science and a lecturer of Mohammed Noah Fellow at Pembroke College, Cambridge. She received her Ph.D. in Political Science from the University of Washington in 2008; her MA in Middle Eastern Studies from Harvard University in 2000; and her AB in Social Studies from Harvard University in 2000.

Book Review

Dr. Hussin drives a powerful message that sheds light on the current context of Islam and Muslims in the Philippines. In this book review, I will first provide an overview of the book. I will then discuss how the author’s discussions relate to the Philippines context, particularly on the Presidential Decree (PD) 1083 or otherwise called “Muslim Personal Law,” the implementation of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, and the current political dynamics over the proposed Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL). Lastly, I will express agreement with the author regarding the need to treat Islamic Law within the contemporary context and not only through the traditional lens.


The author sought to elucidate on how the powers of colonial elites interacted with the existing power structures among local elites in countries that they ruled over. Colonial elites, in this context, refer to the British colonizers who established bases in the respective countries. The dynamics among these powers greatly contributed to the definition and re-definition of Islam and Islamic Law. Dr. Hussin compared the experiences of Egypt, India, and Malay during the British colonial period to map how Islamic Law evolved throughout history to respond to what people believe and value as Islamic and reach its contemporary state.

The uniqueness of the book is that it does not simply discuss Islamic Law in the divine sense, but rather it sufficiently provides the context in which Islamic Law exists, and this is the socio-political arena. She framed Islamic Law as a result of the political processes that, in each period, shape what Muslims define then as Islamic Law.

In each chapter, the author explains a dimension of the linkages between the Muslim governmental state and the Muslim individual’s state. She differentiated the meaning of state in these two concepts. For the former, state pertains to the institutions, systems, and mechanisms through which authorities and laws were made realized. The latter, however, refers to the individuals’ circumstances and realities. These linkages manifest in how Muslims as individuals and communities implemented what was then the form of Islamic Law. It is not simply the case that Islamic Law governs over the Muslim individual, but also that Muslim individuals and communities are institutions as well. It highlights their importance as subject to Islamic Law.

Staying within certain project scope, Dr. Hussin rigorously outlined the chronology of the changes that continuously molded Islamic Law. She started with the conditions of the subject countries before being colonized, followed by the process of colonialism and changes in the legal system. She discussed that for the three areas (Egypt, India, Malay), Shari'a existed with other laws of the land. She also elaborated that instead of transforming from the Shari'a system to an Islamic Law, the colonialism experience initiated the events that resulted in the side-lining of Islamic law into personal aspects of life over which the local elites had most control. These aspects pertain to laws concerning the personal level such as family, personal status, rituals, religious practices, and ethnic identity. This phenomenon provided grounding for the legitimacy not just of the local elite, but also of the colonizers.

The book then proceeded to discuss how the essential tenets of religion, culture, and law were more or less determined in the making and signing of treaties. The significance of these events is that they simultaneously strengthen the legitimacy of the colonizers and clarify the division between Islamic Law and the state. In strengthening the legitimacy of the British colonizers, these events also strengthened the powers among local elites in their respective jurisdictions. Naturally, there arose conflict over the shares in resources and powers between the elites in the localities and colonial elites. Islamic Law was further and further reduced to cover (limited) jurisdictions and these limitations were publicized. There was friction between the division of jurisdiction of the colonial state and the Islamic Law as there were previously unanswered questions regarding how the former would affect the latter. The state mechanisms in implementing laws and the corresponding legal processes increasingly marginalized Islamic legal stakeholders.

There are still many interesting and significant points for discussions in the book, but this overview already sets the tone and context of the succeeding insights derived from reading Dr. Hussin’s work. At this point, I would like to reflect on how the politics of Islam is shaped in the context of the Philippines and how they are similar to the points discussed in the book.

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Making of Islamic Law: Code of Muslim Personal Laws

I will first provide a brief background on the PD 1083 before I discuss how Dr. Hussin’s work also translates to the realities of the Muslim Filipinos and the current political climate we are experiencing. Next, I will provide a brief background on the implementation of the ARMM and follow with the inferences made from the book.

The Philippines has adopted as part of the law of the land a Presidential Decree recognizing Muslim practices on marriage and divorce, paternity, filiation, family relations including parental authority, custody and guardianship, civil status, inheritance, and succession. It also provides for the creation of Shari’a Courts, among others. The PD emphasizes that it does not apply to Filipinos who are not Muslims, and it accommodates potential issues that may arise from communities with people of different religions coexisting.

This is the Presidential Decree (PD) 1083 that was promulgated during the administration of Marcos, also known as the Code of Muslim Personal Laws. The PD 1083 is a product of negotiations between the governmental state, in this case, the Government of the Philippines, and the Muslim individuals, in this case, the Muslim Filipinos. The PD 1083 is not necessarily rooted in the Qur’an but it is a necessary part of what would constitute the true aspirations being pushed by Muslims to institutionalize and follow the path in the Will of Allah.

As can be observed early on, the experience in the Philippines when it comes to Islamic Law is that it is limited to Muslim individual affairs, similar to the experiences in Egypt, India, and Malay. Until now, Muslim Filipinos are only able to enjoy Islamic Law at the personal level or the individual state. While there exists a PD that appears to acknowledge the needs and aspirations of Muslim Filipinos, it is still not the case that these sufficiently and effectively serve their purpose. Not to mention the unresolved historical injustices done to Muslim Filipinos and their legitimate grievances, we still find that at the most basic level, there is a huge dearth in terms of the basic implementation of the PD such as functional Shari’a courts being accessible only in limited areas in the Philippines, leaving most Muslim Filipinos without access to Islamic legal institutions. In previous conversations with Muslim Filipinos, I also found that not many are aware of PD 1083 and its implications to their lives.

These are manifestations of the government’s deficiencies in the implementation of the PD. Aside from Dr. Hussin’s finding on the limitation of Islamic Law at the personal level, in the Philippines, we also find that even within those limits, there still leaves much to be desired in terms of how they are being implemented. We also find the conflict that would naturally arise when the governmental state uses the same mechanism to implement existing laws of the land that are treated with supremacy and favor over Islamic Law (in this case over the PD 1083). The PD 1083 competes on unequal footing with other Philippine laws and therefore would translate to an objectionable state for Muslim individuals. Muslim Filipino elites were only able to support, and I would argue until now, institutional reforms that would also benefit their exercise of powers within their local jurisdiction.

This is not to argue for the need for a supreme Islamic Law in the Philippines. Rather, as I read Dr. Hussin’s work, I found it important to articulate that in keeping with the aspirations of the majority as well as its own, the government is more inclined to de-prioritize the aspirations of the minorities, which would include Muslim Filipinos. This interplay between the governmental state and the Muslim individuals is still, unfortunately, evident in the current political climate that haunted the implementation of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, more so the passage of the Bangsamoro Basic Law.

Politics in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao

On 1 August 1989, Republic Act No. 6734 was passed into law. This law established the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao as well as its basic structure, guiding principles, and devolved powers, among others.

This was a result of the recognition of the Administration of Ramos on the validity of the reasons over which the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) are fighting the government, especially in light of the then freshly committed atrocities unto the Muslim Filipinos during the Marcos administration. It can be framed that this is an effort of the MNLF to “talk” to the government to expand the recognition of the aspirations and needs of Muslim Filipinos. The Ramos administration engaged the MNLF in negotiations and came up with the ARMM. One of the questions then was the tagging of the ARMM as an Islamic State, to which the answer is that it is not.

Going back to Dr. Hussin’s findings, this sort of discourse is very much similar to the experiences in Egypt, India, and Malay. It is an example of the process of formation of linkages between the government state and the Muslim individual state. In this process, we find the government allowing for spaces for Muslim individuals, in this case under the leadership of the MNLF, to articulate their aspirations and create space in the laws of the Philippines where their aspirations can be integrated. The MNLF, in this case, can be framed as the local elites that drove a strong force towards the government to the point that they cannot be ignored. While this is not to agree with the means of how this was carried out, it must be acknowledged that due to the consolidation and mobilization of forces, the MNLF was able to send a strong message for the recognition of a wider Islamic Law in the Philippines. The Philippine government had no choice but to listen, otherwise, it will be persistently saddled with a huge hindrance to its implementation of the other laws, as well as endangering its other constituents.

The PD 1083 was certainly insufficient in the free exercise of what Muslim Filipinos deemed important then. There was a pronounced need for self-governance on the part of Muslims. They wanted to create their own revenues, implement educational and health policies, and facilitate its economic and social development, among others. While these are signs of progress, they still resulted in feelings of discontentment on certain factions and their eventual separation from the MNLF. Inequitable wealth sharing, subordination to “Imperial Manila,” and unresolved historical injustices are only some of the sources of great discontent.

Dr. Hussin said that the continuous process of defining and redefining Islamic Law results in new opportunities and struggles. Similarly, while the creation of the ARMM created new opportunities, it did create new struggles and this was in the form of the separation of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) from the MNLF. This resulted in a new set of interwoven conflict contexts and a reshaping of the political dynamics that the government of the Philippines has to deal with. This brings us to the current state of the negotiations between the Philippine government and the MILF.

Moving Forward: The Bangsamoro Basic Law

When the Mamasapano clash happened on 25 January 2015, it was not only the SAF, armed Moro groups, and civilians that died, but also the hopes that the proposed BBL will be passed in the Aquino Administration. After all, bodies have fallen and gun smokes disappeared, what was left were the cries for justice and all the bottled up Filipinos’ prejudices against their Muslim sisters and brothers unleashed. The proposed BBL was a product of almost two decades of negotiations between the MILF and the Philippine Government. It was an attempt to contribute to the rectification of the historical injustices done to the Muslim Filipinos that until now can be felt by the countless poor Muslim Filipinos.

The two parties now have another chance to shepherd the passage of the BBL in Congress. Both parties would do well to learn from the experiences in Egypt, India, and Malay, as well as its own history of struggles. Both parties need to recognize the pitfalls and biases the emerged before in the politics of Islamic Law.

The BBL is not different from the past struggles in searching for what Islamic Law means and it may benefit from prevention from being captured by only one side of the parties. There needs to be genuine collaboration among the Muslim Filipinos, and more importantly, the Filipino people as a whole to create a society where all Filipinos can coexist peacefully under the diverse laws.


  • Presidential Decree No. 1083: A Decree to Ordain and Promulgate a Code Recognizing the System of Filipino Muslim Laws, Codifying Muslim Personal Laws, and Providing for its Administration and for Other Purposes
  • Republic Act No. 6734: An Act Providing for an Organic Act for the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao.

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