Nelson, Mathew ‘In The Shadow of Shari’ah: Islam, Islamic Law & Democracy In Pakistan’

Columbia University Press, 2011

This is a dense study of the relationship of land ownership, the need to protect ‘agnatic’ estates, and the nature of law and democracy in Pakistan. I think that Nelson himself describes the work best when he asks in his introduction:

…the central theme of this book grows out of a pattern in which ordinary Muslims call upon their elected representatives in a persistent effort to avoid the implementation of Islamic laws of inheritance – in effect, a persistent effort to circumvent shari’ah.

What I love about this work is the basic question that underpins Nelson’s study of Pakistani society – why do people act the way they do? Starting with this seemingly simple, and yet powerfully interesting, question, Nelson proceeds to study in great detail the structure of land ownership in the Punjab, a history of colonial land administration policies, the history of the many land reform legislations in post-independence Pakistan, the persistent resistance of the communities to the reforms, the ways in which the courts and the legal processes become strategic weapons in land conflicts and how ‘delay’ is used as a weapon against their opponents and many others important issues.

For me personally, as far as this work on issues of justice in Pakistan is concerned, this work offers important insights into the reasons for many of the disputes and cases that make it to the courts of Pakistan. It also clarifies how people actually understand and use the law, and do so in parallel with customary legal processes such as panchayats. This latter insight, offered by Nelson by examining specific cases, reveals that people use parallel systems of law, using each to their benefit. This is starkly different from how the formal and the informal legal structures are typically spoken about in legal reform literature.

Finally, another very important insight offered in Nelson’s work is the role of female dis-inheritence that remains persistent across the region. In fact, this is one of the drivers of the people’s resistant toshari’ahlaw which gives women a greater share than customary practices. I have already come across cases while working with ex-death row prisoners of women framed for murder and sent to prison to avoid giving them their inheritance as wives or daughters, and keep up the completeness of the ‘agnatic’ estates. Nelson’s book gives the detailed analysis and frameworks to understand how and why this happens.

An excellent work, and a very important one.

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