Book Review

Emilia Justyna Powell, Islamic Law and International Law: Peaceful Resolution of Disputes

PictureEmilia Justyna Powell, Islamic Law and International Law: Peaceful Resolution of Disputes

Emilia Justyna Powell, Islamic Law and International Law: Peaceful Resolution of Disputes (Oxford University Press, 2020).

Reviewed by John A. Vasquez, Thomas B. Mackie Scholar in International Relations, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Why and whether states choose to submit disputes to the international courts or to arbitration have been important theoretical questions within international relations (IR). Likewise, “forum shopping”—deciding what particular international organization might best provide success for a party in a dispute--has been investigated by social scientists. Powell’s study is the first to examine these questions specifically with regard to Islamic states.

Powell’s study addresses two questions: First can we identify (and therefore predict) which Islamic states are more receptive to international law and norms, and second, can we explain which forum (international institutions) Islamic states prefer for dealing with their disputes. Employing original data and in-depth interviews, she provides the most important study to date on these questions.

Theoretically, Powell’s study enhances our knowledge of an important set of states. At the state level, it examines the interaction of culture and religion and its impact on general patterns of behavior. At the system level, it measures the impact of international law and norms in global relations. From a policy perspective, it is important to understand whether and how Islamic states differ from each other. This is essential for understanding the sources of integration within the system and factors that may be associated with withdrawal and conflict.

This is a terribly significant project both from an academic and policy relevance perspective. Academically, this is an important theoretical and empirical contribution to international relations. Most studies of Islamic states have been by area experts and reflect their theoretical perspectives. There have been few studies from an international relations and international law perspective. In fact, it is no exaggeration that this book will most likely be the best study of international law and Islamic states to be written by a political scientist for some time to come.

The book is important in two respects. First, it provides a new data set in an area where there are hardly any data. Powell has collected original data on the legal systems of 29 Islamic Law States for the entire course of the post-World War II era. Second, she has conducted numerous in-depth interviews with Islamic law scholars and leading practitioners of international law, including judges of the International Court of Justice, to inform her interpretation of her data. Powell recognized early on that a quantitative study alone has limitations, and her commitment to employ qualitative analyses to get at the same questions makes the book a potential exemplar of how to deal with complex questions within IR using mixed methods. Her extensive interviews of Islamic jurists and scholars to investigate theoretical questions sets this book above the typical quantitative scholarly study. Indeed, her use of interviews is an exemplary example of how a mixed method approach can provide a better analysis than the reliance on just one method. With this dual approach, the analysis in the book is one of the few empirically sound studies we have about the behavior of Islamic states that is able to explain and predict variations of their behavior with regard to the international courts and to international law, and norms more generally.

Powell’s study is exceptional both in terms of the conceptual frame and her sophisticated knowledge of Islamic states. Her typology of Islamic states is empirically confirmed here as a key for distinguishing behavior. Powell has a keen analytical mind that sees the need for distinctions in a world where too many still group phenomena together. She opens the black box and she works successfully at the intersection of comparative politics and IR, as well as the intersection of domestic and global politics.

She challenges the assumption within IR that all Islamic States and legal traditions are the same. This is a major empirical and conceptual contribution of the study. Her quotes from Muslim scholars and practitioners on how Islamic legal traditions are misunderstood in the West are particularly trenchant in this regard. Perhaps even more important is the categorization of various Islamic states based on their domestic legal system. This in turn is used to predict statistically what types of Islamic states will be more likely to use the courts and arbitration to resolve and settle disputes. Readers will find Chapter 5 on territorial disputes and Chapter 6 on the courts particularly informative.

She wants to explain why some Islamic countries, like Bahrain and Qatar, solve their border dispute using the ICJ, while other countries, like Saudi Arabia, prefer mediation and negotiation. She argues that the extent to which Sharia guides domestic legal systems and conflict resolution informs which approach Islamic states take toward international conflict resolution. She finds, on the whole, that the degree to which there are secular domestic courts, the more likely that territorial disputes may be resolved by the use of international courts. Conversely, those states guided by Sharia are more likely to prefer mediation and/or conciliation.

A key factor in shaping the way Islamic states resolve their interstate disputes is the extent to which Sharia is fully integrated into domestic life, including the legal system. Sharia in the domestic legal systems makes states prefer informal and non-legalistic approaches that are non-binding to deal with their disputes with other states. This approach is often seen as a just and moral way of dealing with disagreement as opposed to Western, secular, and legalistic approaches, which sometimes can be seen as more confrontational with winners and losers.

Powell rightly insists that Islamic international legal behavior cannot be understood if it is detached from domestic legal systems. She wants to see if the balance of secular and Islamic law in domestic legal system affects a state’s receptivity to international law or its preference for non-binding resolution techniques, like mediation or conciliation.
Powell finds that when education within the state is Sharia-based and when the constitution imposes religious requirements on leaders, then international courts are less likely to be used. Those domestic legal systems that are more secular are more likely to use international courts and arbitration. Nonetheless, she warns that too sharp a separation between secular and Islamic approaches obfuscates our understanding given the variance among the latter. This makes some think that Islamic states are less open to using the current international legal system than they are. Ultimately, she concludes that Islamic law has elements fundamentally compatible with contemporary international law.

This is a book addressed to political scientists and international law scholars, rather than area experts per se. As such, Powell provides the necessary background in Islamic studies for social scientists. The book itself adds an important comparative component to international law and can be seen as a major work in the attempt to create a comparative study of international law. One of the important insights of the book is that particular domestic characteristics of Islamic legal systems have an impact on international behavior, a finding that challenges realist assertions that domestic politics play a limited role in understanding interstate interactions.

Although this book’s contribution is mainly empirical and theoretical, Powell spends quite a bit of time dealing with policy implications. She points out that Islamic legal systems are both diverse and evolving, and that both these factors are important to keep in mind in dealing with disputes among states and the likelihood that they can be peacefully resolved.

This is one of the most important books on Islam and international relations published in the last two decades. It is a key book for our time that will be of immense interest to IR scholars, international law experts, as well as policy makers and jurists that deal with Islamic states. I cannot recommend it too highly. It provides crucial insights and knowledge that can only be ignored at our collective peril.

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