Islamic Family Law:
Possibilities of Reform Through Internal Initiatives


The Law and Religion Program of Emory University is implementing a global study of Islamic Family Law (IFL). General principles of Shari'a are supposed to govern such matters as marriage, divorce, maintenance, paternity and custody of children for more than a billion Muslims around the world. This does not mean that identical principles apply everywhere or in the same manner. Clear variations are to be expected not only because of significant theological, legal, and other differences among and within Muslim societies and communities, but also because Shari'a principles are often in practice modified by customary practices, or as a matter of state policy. The first objective of this Project is to verify and document the scope and manner of the application of IFL around the world, including Muslim communities living within predominantly non-Muslim countries.

Being the main aspect of Shari'a that has successfully resisted displacement by European codes during the colonial period, and survived various degrees or forms of secularization of the state and its institutions in many Islamic countries, IFL has become for most Muslims the symbol of their Islamic identity, the hard irreducible core of what it means to be a Muslim today. In many settings, IFL is the contested ground between conservative and fundamentalist forces, on the one hand, and modernist and liberal trends, on the other. Unfortunately, the cause of genuine and legitimate reform is often lost in such rhetorical absolutist confrontation. The second objective of this Project is to explore and substantiate possibilities of reform within particular communities of Muslims in their own context.

To be effective in practice, reform proposals must not only be conceived and framed in realistic terms, but should also be advocated in ways that motivate and empower actual or potential supporters working within their own communities. Accordingly, the Project seeks to develop (and apply in specific and limited tentative "pilot" format) an integrated model: from research and analysis, to identification and articulation of reform proposals, to advocacy for change in partnership with those working within specific countries or communities. In particular, the Project is designed to provide a forum for presentation of initiatives and reform proposal emerging from within Islamic societies and communities, and to facilitate debate and deliberation from different perspectives about these issues. In so doing, however, the Project's approach is conditioned by a strong commitment to universal human rights norms, especially the human rights of women and children in this regard. By approaching the issues from this the Project will provide opportunities for testing and promoting the practical consistency between IFL and international human rights.

This Project is fully funded by a generous grant from the Ford Foundation, and is being implemented in two phases: The first phase (September 1998 to July 1999) consists of two main elements:

I. global "mapping" survey of regional socio-cultural profiles as well as country-specific legal, institutional and other aspects of the theory and practice of IFL; and

II. two pilot case studies of Egypt (as a leading predominantly Islamic country) and the United States as a liberal secular state where Muslims are a clear minority.

During the second phase (August 1999 to July 2000), the project will implement more focused thematic studies, as well as begin to develop more concrete reform proposal and test the possibilities of their advocacy in specific settings. This phase will conclude with a major international conference, somewhere in Africa or Asia, to evaluate the outcome of the project as a whole, and set priorities for future activities.

This Project is directed by Dr. Abdullahi A. An-Na'im, Professor of Law, Emory University, Atlanta, GA, USA. The legal profiles are being prepared under the direction of Dr. Lynn Welchman, Director of CIMEL (the Centre of Islamic and Middle Eastern Law) at the School of Oriental and African Studies of the University of London, UK. Ms. Amy Wheeler is the Administrative Assistant for the Project. For the first phase, the Emory University researchers are Ms. Svetlana Peshkova and Ms. Maria Fadlelmula. The CIMEL researchers are Ms. Saira Zuberi and Ms. Liazzat Bonate.

The primary objective of this web site is to share our thinking and information on the subject in order to strongly and actively invite the widest possible participation and cooperation from all individuals and organizations or groups, educational and research institutions, governmental and inter-governmental agencies, and so forth, concerned with questions of IFL, whether at the local, national, regional or global level. This is an invitation for whoever is interested to please participate by reflecting on our approach and methodology, correct or add to the information we are presenting, evaluate or suggest revision for any conclusions or recommendations that may emerge over the course of this Project.