Mark Fathi Massoud, Shari‘a, Inshallah: Finding God in Somali Legal Politics (Cambridge University Press, 2021).

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Mark Fathi Massoud (MFM): I came to this research on shari‘a as part of my career journey to understand the relationship between law, religion, and politics. The world has witnessed politicians and judges denigrate shari‘a. The European Court of Human Rights has twice ruled that shari‘a is incompatible with human rights. Nearly all fifty US states have introduced bills banning shari‘a—more than two hundred bills to date. But Muslims worldwide have long favored making shari‘a into official law: a 2013 Pew Forum international poll found that ninety-nine percent of Muslims in Afghanistan, eighty-nine percent of Muslims in Palestine, and three-quarters of Muslims in Malaysia, Thailand, Egypt, and other countries all wanted shari‘a to be the official law of their lands. The survey found no variation by gender—Muslim women were just as likely as Muslim men to favor making shari‘a the official law. As the title of my book reflects, these women and men are hoping for shari‘a, “inshallah,” by the will of God.

What I found during my research in Somalia and Somaliland was remarkable. Political and legal actors across historical periods—European colonial administrators, dictators, democratically-minded prime ministers, feminist activists, and the people who struggle with or against them—have long invoked shari‘a to achieve their goals. Historically and still today, they put differing varieties of Islam in the service of their own projects of governance, development, or resistance. They justify their work by promoting their own versions of shari‘a and by hiding or disarming other versions. Shari‘a, Inshallah explains how they do this, and more broadly the consequences for how scholars and policymakers understand the relationship between faith in God and faith in the rule of law, a way of governing without arbitrary power.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

MFM: Shari‘a, Inshallah addresses the connections between religious politics and legal politics—and the ways that religion shapes the foundation of our modern nations, even and especially those countries that call themselves secular. The book also challenges the conventional wisdom in legal scholarship and international development policy that law is the main guiding hand of our societies and their politics, and that writing and enforcing laws is the most essential step toward building peace and stability in war-torn places. While it is true that some figures have invoked religion for their own reprehensible political goals, Shari‘a, Inshallah shows how this account obscures the ways in which religion is used for remarkably divergent ends. Instead, even where state power is weak and local customs are strong, people invoke religion to challenge colonialism, restrain dictators, expel warlords, write constitutions, plant democratic roots, and campaign for gender equality. Their efforts shape a foundation for the rule of law.

The book’s focus is on Somalia and Somaliland from colonial intervention in 1884 until 2021, thirty years after Somalia’s 1991 collapse. In that 137-year period, Somalis were ruled by multiple European colonial masters, saw their governments unite and separate, and fought multiple civil and regional wars. Their famines and droughts have resulted in some of the most massive and rapid human migrations in history, and in some of the world’s costliest humanitarian aid programs. Somali political history also sheds light on the complicated process of trying to build a unified and internally coherent state, and the endurance of Islam throughout this process.

I employed three primary research methods: archival and documentary-based research, 142 qualitative interviews, and ethnographic observations of dispute-resolution activities in courts, legal aid centers, and at workshops sponsored by international and local aid groups. The purpose of combining these three methods was to trace developments across different historical and political contexts within a single setting. Such a comparative and inductive approach reveals continuities and changes in how key political actors use the discourse of shari‘a to build up the rule of law or to destroy it. It also creates space for people’s voices and their surviving historical records to speak first, before developing hypotheses about law or religion. This longitudinal and multi-method approach is well-suited to tracking changes over time, and it is similar to the methodologies I adopted for my book on Sudan, Law’s Fragile State. 

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?

MFM: I wrote my first book, Law’s Fragile State: Colonial, Authoritarian, and Humanitarian Legacies in Sudan, to show how law matters in the places that policymakers call the world’s most “fragile” states. Law’s Fragile State showed that differing kinds of people in Sudan marshalled the law to serve their political or economic goals. Colonial administrators wrote regulations to criminalize aberrant behavior and shore up their foreign domination over diverse and divided groups. Postcolonial state leaders drafted constitutions and hired judges to delineate a path out of colonialism and civil war. Foreign aid workers and local activists invoked human rights to lift up themselves and the oppressed people they represented.

This process of using legal tools to achieve political, economic, and social ends is called legal politics. I had done research for Law’s Fragile State by asking what law does for the rule of law and I found, disturbingly, that the activities of legal politics did little to realize the rule of law. I learned instead that law inspires us because we see its potential to do whatever we want it to do—at least so long as it meets our political ambitions and other goals.

Shari‘a, Inshallah begins where Law’s Fragile State left off, by investigating religion and religious law. I ask: what does religion do for colonial administrators, postcolonial governments, aid workers, and activists? Is there a legal politics of religion? As a scholar based in the United States, for the past twenty years I have read policy papers and academic studies in law and politics that portray religion as a problem that law solves. Only sometimes, and occasionally derisively, do these studies present piety as not so bad as it might at first seem. These assumptions about religion are perhaps clearest in Western foreign policy and policy-oriented writing on Islam and shari‘a. But policy analysts’ accounts of religion’s role in politics are too thin, which led me to write Shari‘a, Inshallah. Like any religious or legal order, shari‘a can be used in many ways, depending on the political proclivities of those who justify their activities as Islamic.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have? 

MFM: Shari‘a, Inshallah is intended for an audience of legal scholars, social scientists who study law and religion, and policy practitioners. Scholars of Islamic law (fiqh) and Islamic legal theory (usul al-fiqh) may find the data and arguments presented helpful for understanding the ways that shari‘a is conceived and used in politics and activism outside of courts. I have sought to understand efforts to establish national selfhood, and how religion shapes and is shaped by those efforts. Bringing law right down to the people who practice, shape, and use it, this book takes religion seriously as a force that informs those actors’ use of the law.

I am grateful for the reception of Shari‘a, Inshallah. It received the 2022 Hart-SLSA Book Prize for the best book in socio-legal studies, Socio-Legal Studies Association, and it was named a 2022 PROSE Award Finalist for the best book in government and politics, Association of American Publishers.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

MFM: I am writing a book with Kathleen M. Moore (Professor of Religious Studies at UC Santa Barbara) about Islam and racialization in the United States, based on fieldwork throughout California. Grounded in the context of the most diverse and populous US state, our study finds three formative stages of individual legal consciousness that, together, form the nascence of mobilization: perceiving shari‘a and discriminatory depictions of it, educating oneself about shari‘a’s social and political relevance, and forming an intention for social change. Documenting these three interrelated stages of personal development uncovers how group identity formation processes are a precursor to legal mobilization.

To bring this research to the attention of wider audiences, we have launched a companion website. The website features photographs and mixed media from California Muslim artists. We also commissioned distinguished poet Mark Gonzales and Emmy-winning filmmaker Justin Mashouf to create a short video installation interpreting shari‘a, using words and stories from our interview process. Our video installation is available here. Kathleen M. Moore and I have also written two articles related to this project. The first is “Shari‘a Consciousness: Law and Lived Religion among California Muslims,” Law & Social Inquiry, 2020, and the second is “Rethinking Shari‘a: Voices of Islam in California,” BOOM: A Journal of California, 2015.


Excerpt from the book (from the Introduction, pp. 1–4)

Only in his twenties, Tayyib was already one of Somaliland’s most promising lawyers. I met Tayyib early on a sunny morning, and we sat down on a couple of plastic chairs along the dirt path outside the Hargeisa courthouse. I asked him why he worked in legal aid programs designed to help poor people have free legal representation in court, what cases he was arguing that day, and what events had shaped his career and the broader development of law in Somalia and Somaliland. As we neared the end of our meeting, I invited him to share his professional goals. I wondered if he hoped to enter politics, private practice, or the United Nations system. These paths would provide more stability, renown, and salary than his current position did, and they were often taken by the most prominent professionals. He looked away, toward the dilapidated courthouse and one-story government buildings. Then he turned back to me and said he “would like to stop” being an attorney altogether.

Tayyib had just spent an hour discussing the promise of law, so I was confused about why he would give it all up. And then this: “I want to be a sheikh.” Sheikhs are religious leaders. They preach obedience to God, who prescribes ethical and modest behavior. Throughout modern Somali history, sheikhs have used shari‘a to resolve disputes like divorce, inheritance, injury, or theft, and to build peace among rival communities over their competing rights. “I want to learn more about the Islamic religion,” he continued. Tayyib’s ambition was always to build the rule of law in his country. But he wanted to build an Islamic rule of law.

The title of this book, Shari’a, Inshallah, reflects Tayyib’s hope. In the pages that follow I show how state and nonstate actors appeal to shari‘a. They imbue shari‘a with their political ideals and attempt to do away with rival versions that do not match their interests. Some state officials and militants cite it to justify dictatorship and slaughter. But many others, including Tayyib, embrace shari‘a in their struggles for peace, justice, national identity, or women’s rights. To them, shari‘a supports the rule of law, a style of government that limits the arbitrary exercise of power. Their behaviors demonstrate that the rule of law might not only be reconciled with religion but, counterintuitively, nourished by it.

Shari‘a and inshallah must be understood in context. The concepts do not arise in social, legal, or political vacuums. In Islam, the term “shari‘a” generally pertains to protecting one’s worship of God. Literally, the word shari‘a (شريعة) is derived from three Arabic root letters that signify both a beginning and a path to water – taken together, they suggest cleansing, clarity, and purity. In Islamic studies, shari‘a sometimes refers to the entire religion of Islam, and sometimes it refers only to the legal or, even more narrowly, penal aspects of Islam. But shari‘a is largely understood not as law but as the constitution of Islamic theology, ethics, and spirituality – how best to treat the self, others, and the environment with dignity by minimizing harms to them all. In this way, shari‘a is a “living system” that encompasses all aspects of daily experience, not just what Western minds might see as law and order.

To Arabic speakers, the term inshallah – like the term shari‘a – has differing uses. It is not normally discussed in connection with shari‘a. In common parlance, inshallah denotes uncertainty of the future and hope for God’s intercession in it. But saying “inshallah” at the end of a sentence about the future is also not merely “dressing the routine of daily life with religious accessories.” In the Qur’an (Islam’s holy book), the phrase inshallah sets the limit on human will as the point at which God wills something. The Qur’an employs the active and conditional verb of “until God wills” (إلاّ أَن يَشَآءَ الله) to define and limit human will. Inshallah recognizes God’s unlimited power alongside human beings’ unpredictability, fallibility, and lack of control, and that human will is conditional upon and restricted by a divine will that judges human actions. Accepting that human will serves God’s will – that shari‘a is inshallah – sets a limit to human authority that may help recover the rule of law.

Law and religion are unstable and incoherent categories. In this book, law refers to rules, systems, and orders derived from faith in human or state power. Religion refers to rules, systems, and orders derived from faith in higher, divine power. Law and religion take on new meanings as different actors combine the two in varying ways and present their visions to others. People use them to justify violence or propose solutions to that violence. When viewed in the light of people’s prayers to God, demands on governments, and daily life experiences, law and religion feel multifaceted and overlapping. But law does not need to derive its power from the state. Nor does Islamic law need to derive its power from an Islamic state.

Colonial administrators and those resisting occupation, dictators and those opposing tyranny, and activists and aid workers promoting human rights all squeeze law into their politics. They write, challenge, ignore, and bend legal codes and constitutional provisions to build nations and pursue their social, political, or economic objectives. But law is not enough. They also turn to God’s will – endeavoring to subsume it, co-opt it, defeat it, reclaim it, and give it new meaning in political practice. They seek out God’s bidding, promoting their own versions of shari‘a to give themselves hope, attain their goals, and disempower their adversaries.

Consider the British colonial officials who roamed the Horn of Africa in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Though not Muslims, they presented a version of shari‘a to the Somali people, with the support of religious leaders from Mecca and Sudan. Colonial officials hoped that their arguments that shari‘a permitted European meddling would counteract another shari‘a that prominent Somali activists were using in anticolonial struggles. In the twenty-first century, women activists I met embraced their shari‘a too. They used piety and strategy to try to defeat a patriarchal version of shari‘a promulgated by religious and cultural leaders. Across the Horn of Africa’s various political epochs – colonial, democratic, and authoritarian – people have appealed to shari‘a to build the foundations of peace and the rule of law, or destroy them both.

Shari‘a, Inshallah spotlights the many dimensions of law, the resemblances between colonial and postcolonial experiences of law, and the ways that religion seeps into the architecture of modern states. In analyzing the potentials and pitfalls of shari‘a – including its practical meanings and the machineries of law incorporating it – I investigate the relationship between two overlapping forms of legal politics: building the rule of law and building an Islamic state. In the process I render visible the religious roots of the rule of law. My findings are based on archival research, ethnographic observations, and personal interviews with Somali lawyers, judges, activists, and religious and political leaders.

This book provides an antidote to those who see religion as an obstacle to peace and a domain to be restricted by law and detached from political life. The world seems to have closed its eyes to the possibility of an Islamic state that protects the rights of indigenous communities, minorities, and migrants, and an Islamic state that might be flexible enough to build the rule of law indigenously, organically, and meaningfully. While some political elites deploy shari‘a for their own nefarious purposes, others see the values associated with shari‘a and the rule of law as mutually reinforcing social goods.

[Excerpted from Shari‘a, Inshallah: Finding God in Somali Legal Politics, by Mark Fathi Massoud, by permission of the author. © 2021 Mark Fathi Massoud. For more information, or to purchase a copy of this book, click here.]