Features – Finding the Law: Islamic Law (Sharia)

Andrew Grossman is a retired U.S. Foreign Service Officer who served in Seoul, Abidjan, London, Tehran, Algiers and Geneva. He holds the degrees of B.A. in Economics (Clark), LL.B. (Columbia), M.A. in L.I.S. (University College London) and of Licencié en droit européen et international, Maître & Docteur en droit (Louvain) and he is a member of the New York and District of Columbia Bars. He lives in London where he writes on private international law issues, especially in the fields of personal status, insolvency and tax. His most recent article is “‘Islamic land’: Group Rights, National Identity and Law”, to be published in the September 2002 issue of UCLA Journal of Islamic and Near Eastern Law. A collection of materials relating to European nationality issues and supplementing those in his forthcoming book Compilation des lois sur la nationalité des pays et territoires européens et guide de recherche juridique is online at http://www.uniset.ca. His previous contributions to LLRX are Towards Cooperation in Access to Foreign Primary Law and Finding the Law: the Micro-States and Small Jurisdictions of Europe.

Table of Contents

Selected Introductory Texts
Key Contemporary Scholars
Historical Issues
Treatment Of Islamic Law In Western Courts
Public Policy
Some Relevant Law Reviews
Bibliographic and General Links
Selected Print Bibliographies


Sharia controls the family and property interests of Muslims in countries where personal law is determined by religion, and it is the law referred to in such matters concerning Muslim citizens of such countries by courts in jurisdictions where nationality is the criterion for personal law. In addition to some modern cases dealing with it, there is a substantial case law from Western courts of the colonial era applying Sharia including notably cases arising in India and Algeria. Some predominantly Muslim countries apply Sharia at least in part in matters of criminal and commercial law; Islamists argue that Sharia is a complete set of laws and that no man-made laws have a place in the Muslim State. Many Muslims who live in Western countries attempt to live by Sharia rules insofar as possible; this has created a niche for lawyers in experienced in Islamic dispute resolution and able to offer trusts and other arrangements that follow Sharia rules of succession. Financial organizations have developed Islamic financial packages that substitute equity for interest.


Islamic law codifies beliefs that are deeply held by a significant proportion of the world’s population and which those believers consider to be immutable and of universal vocation. Insofar as Sharia edicts may be seen by others as in conflict with their own beliefs or with international norms which themselves claim universality, they engender controversy and sometimes hostility. This article is a bibliographic work intended for librarians, lawyers and researchers experienced in legal research. The inclusion of any particular link does not imply any support for that site’s content on the part of this writer or LLRX.

This guide has as principal aim discussion of the availability on-line of authoritative sources on Islamic law in Western languages. It also lists some essential written materials. The guide is particularly directed at the relationship between religious and civil law, as to which readers may also wish to consult standard conflict of laws texts including EHRENZWEIG, SCOLES & HAY, DICEY & MORRIS, CASTEL and BATIFFOL & LAGARDE. In addition, it sets out some warnings about traps for the unwary. Many on-line sources carry political baggage and claim theological certainty, justifying their conclusions on the divine source and unique authority of Sharia. The researcher may or may not share that view. Like the Privy Council ruling on points of Islamic and Hindu law on appeal from Colonial Indian courts — e.g. Abul Fata Mahomed Ishak v. Russomoy Dhur Chowdhry, (1894) 22 I.A. 76 (P.C.), others may be found in Moore’s Indian Appeals, in the English Reports and in the CD-ROM of English Reports — one may fairly and justifiably approach religious law as applied to a particular case without conceding its overriding authority and supremacy in other contexts. Indeed, Christian and Jewish writers dissent from the interpretation that Islamic law purports to apply to their respective teachings and the rules that it would assert over their adherents. Insofar as Sharia (2 GEORGE YOUNG, CORPS DE DROIT OTTOMAN 223), Canon Law (Canon 549, Codex 1983) and Jewish Law (El-Zafdi v. Benjamin, July 11, 1963, 5 S.J. 273 (1963-65)) all would apply a rule of “perpetual allegiance”, conflict of laws among them is easy to envisage. Islamic law, however, goes further and asserts a hierarchy and priority of faiths: see SAMI AWAD ALDEEB ABU-SAHLIEH, L’IMPACT DE LA RELGION SUR L’ORDRE JURIDIQUE, CAS DE L’EGYPTE, NON-MUSULMANS EN PAYS D’ISLAM 256 (1979); JOSEPH SCHACHT, AN INTRODUCTION TO ISLAMIC LAW 131-32 (1964). For links to organizations and sites promoting international inter-religious dialog, see Oddbjorn Leirvik’s site.

This is a bibliographic compilation: while the Islamic-law sources quoted here are valued by this author as authoritative or useful, it should be noted that (1) Muslim sources may justify their pronouncements on faith alone, and (2) non-Islamic sources may have an unstated agenda and will often be neither unbiased nor uncritical. This writer’s point of view is not that of an Islamic scholar but a researcher in the law of personal status (including that relating to Muslims), private international law and comparative law and it is from these approaches that the bibliography has been collected. The substantive references given are provided only to facilitate the beginning researcher. A critical eye is essential; but then Islam is not the only religion to offer itself as sole bearer of truth and defender against false religions. Claims of infallibility and supremacy perhaps flow inevitably from doctrines of revelation; it is only secular law that holds-out of constitutional principle-that all faiths are equally worthy of respect. On this subject, see the U.S. Department of State Annual Report on International Religious Freedom. A watershed event in this regard was Napoleon’s Grand Sanhedrin of 1807. See: Islamic Party of Britain site and International Napoleonic Society site .

Islamic law derives from the Koran (Q’uran) and from the Sunnah and hadith: the writings of prophets and scholars, mostly until the fall of Baghdad in 13th Century. On the closure of Islamic revelation to reinterpretation, see:

and other sources that may be located with a Web search engine or periodicals index, searching under “ijtihad. A chronology of early Islamic authorities appears on the moonsighting.com site. The Al-Sunnah Foundation provides a listing of scholars and saints. Islamfortoday.com has a page on the Sunni-Shia split. The “Shia homepage” site (http://www.shia.org) has links to many sites of Shia interest.

The major schools of the Sunni Tradition in Islamic law are:

It is presumed that the Koran constitutes direct divine instruction as given to the Prophet Mohammed and that it is perfect, and therefore immutable. For this reason, recently reported discoveries that, it is said, question the accepted history of the Koran are viewed as destabilizing and threatening to the existing order, indeed blasphemous.

The penalties prescribed in Sharia for apostasy (irtidad, murtad) and blasphemy impede such critical work, however scholarly: the threats made against Salman Rushdie following the publication of The Satanic Verses are instructive. See M. M. Slaughter, Essay: The Salman Rushdie Affair: Apostasy, Honor, and Freedom of Speech, 79 VA. L. REV. 153 (1993). See generally:

On the refugee law implications of the Sharia penalty for apostasy, see

The Taliban were not alone in interpreting Islamic law in a manner that suited political ends. The Middle East crisis spawned many arguments and counter arguments. Compare the Islamic Cause of Palestine page and a private page collecting links to arguments that the existence of Israel violates Islamic law. (See also MEMRI, below.)

Beyond the issue of source of law, the researcher will need to determine whether what is wanted is religious law per se, and if so which school of law, or Islamic law as enacted into the statute law of a state.

On selective quotation

The non-Muslim researcher (in particular) may find it risky to draw conclusions solely by reference to the primary sources of Islamic law, and should look critically at commentary that is consulted. While many elements of Sharia are unambiguous and unquestioned, the Koran has many internal inconsistencies and much of what is written (especially when found on the Internet) pursues a political agenda and is based upon tenuous ideological presumptions. Researchers are advised to support their conclusions with citations to recognized secondary sources which take account of established Sharia conventions for dealing with conflicts and doubt. There is nothing surprising here: the researcher must distinguish between what is advocacy and what is impartial theological or scholarly exposition.

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Language and Expression

The Koran and the other legal writings are authoritative in Arabic only. Standard classical Arabic differs from the spoken language in countries of the Arab world. See, e.g., Geoff Porter, Lost in Translation at the FBI, N.Y. TIMES, June 1, 2002. Renderings into English are frequently selective and often mistranslated to dissimulate and gloss over provisions of Sharia that may be used in argument against Arab and Muslim political and diplomatic interests. See SAMI AWAD ALDEEB ABU-SAHLIEH, LES MOUVEMENTS ISLAMISTES ET LES DROITS DE L’HOMME 7-8 (1998). Argument about mistranslation and selectivity is not unique to the outside world: it exists also between and among Islamic schools and sects: Sayf ad-Din Ahmed Ibn Muhammad, hafazah-Ullah, “Who are the Ahl as-Sunnah wa’l Jama’ah”.

A respected, independent source of translations of current writings and speeches is the Middle East Media Research Institute. See also: BBC Monitoring Service, Caversham and Foreign Broadcast Information Service.

Another issue the researcher and bibliographer should be aware of relates to definitional inconsistency, often muddled by political correctness and lack of context for the researcher to appreciate important nuances. Take, for example, the word jihad. An important element of Islam as revealed, proselytizing and conquering theology, journalists have been defining jihad, in brackets, as “holy war”. Some Muslims have complained that jihad means, only or alternatively, personal struggle. The Washington Post has provided alternative, bracketed translation:

Yet the interpretation of jihad as intellectual struggle is a political accommodation not well founded on Islamic theology: Alfred Morabia, in his treatise on jihad, finds it a “false quarrel”: “each deprives jihad of its evolved perspective, in refusing to see in it the military force of the umma against all that stands in the way of its march forward. And this is not always the ‘infidels’-far from it.” ALFRED MORABIA, LE GIHAD DANS L’ISLAM MEDIEVAL 337 (1993) (informal translation). Also: Abu Fadl, Greater and Lesser Jihad, 26 NIDA’UL ISLAM (1999), Compare the apologia at the Current Issues in Islam site.

The researcher approaching Islam and Islamic law from outside must be careful not to do so from Western human-rights, constitutional-law and philosophical assumptions. Furthermore, the researcher may be confronted with a strict orthodox view and a different liberal interpretation accepted by some but no means by all believers and sympathizers. This is particularly so here since dissent in Islam may be viewed as apostasy or blasphemy severely to be punished, even by death. The distinguished law professor Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na’im argues the case for a modernist Islam; this is something he could only do from his exile in the United States, not his native Sudan. In the post-9-11 era Muslim moderates in the United States have been particularly anxious to express themselves, particularly on the subject of terrorism. See, for example, Diane Katz, “Shek: moderate U.S. Muslims have become ‘the silent majority’, Detroit News, October 11, 2001, http://detnews.com/2001/editorial/0110/12/a11-315728.htm . See also: Zeeshan Hasan’s Liberal Islamic Web Site.

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Selected Introductory Texts

  • H.A.R. GIBB (ED.), ENCYCLOPAEDIA OF ISLAM (Leiden 1999, also CD-ROM ed.)
  • Hassan Afchar, “The Muslim Conception of Law”, The Different Conceptions of the Law, 2 INTERNATIONAL ENCYCLOPEDIA OF COMPARATIVE LAW, THE LEGAL SYSTEMS OF THE WORLD: THEIR COMPARISON AND UNIFICATION 84, 98-99 (1974)
  • and lectures in the RECUEIL DES COURS of the Hague Academy.
  • Nicholas Heer (ed.), Islamic Law and Jurisprudence (1990).

On conflict of laws in matters of personal status in civil-law jurisdictions, see:


Researchers may also search under “Islamic law” as title, subject or key words in key OPACs, including:

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Key Contemporary Scholars

It may be helpful to review the online and print literature of academics now writing on Islamic law from a Western or modern standpoint. While not authoritative — and indeed disavowed by Muslim scholars living and working in the Islamic world — such critical approaches may be of help to students and researchers analyzing and using Sharia in a Western context. Among the more prolific writers whose works can be found online, in indexes to legal periodicals and in library catalogs are:

Most of the writers listed are concerned, among other aspects, with the issue of universality of human rights norms and Islamic exception. Note the Islamic Universal Declaration of Human Rights which, however, according to Sami Aldeeb is misleadingly and incorrectly translated into English. The list does not include distinguished writers working within the Islamic world, especially in Pakistan and India (where the jurisprudence influenced by common-law principles is particularly important) and in mixed jurisdictions such as Lebanon (which is a civil-law jurisdiction, based upon French law but with reference to religious law for family law and property rights). Among distinguished Lebanese scholars of private international law is Prof. Fayez Hage-Chahine, Dean of the Faculty of Law and Political Science, Université Saint-Joseph, Beirut (La prescription extinctive en droit international privé , 255 REC. DES COURS 229 (1995). Also relevant is the Lebanese Review of Arab and International Arbitration. See Malak v. Malak (In re Sawaya), 182 Cal. App. 3d 1018 (6th App. Dist. 1986). Human rights problems in Muslim countries are discussed at Left Shoe News as well as traditional Human Rights sites including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.

Religious courts exist in many legal-pluralist jurisdictions; in Israel these date from Ottoman times and the Palestine Mandate (see the Order in Council, 1922). On legal pluralism generally, see:

  • Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology, Legal Pluralism Project

Further references can be found via a Web search under “legal pluralism”, “pluralisme juridique” and “Rechtspluralismus”. The case law of India, Israel, Lebanon, pre-1974 Cyprus, most predominantly Muslim countries and colonial and pre-20th Century Europe illustrate the application of Islamic and other religious and customary law as personal law. See also:

  • Samama v. Samama, 36-II Giurisprudenza Italiana 73 (1884) (estate of Jewish decedent; discussed by Prof. Nadelmann in his article on Mancini, cited below)
  • Kurt H. Nadelmann, Mancini’s Nationality Rule and Non-Unified Legal Systems, 17 AM. J. COMP. L. 418 (1969), reprinted in CONFLICT OF LAWS: INTERNATIONAL AND INTERSTATE 49 (1972)

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Historical Issues

Researchers and scholars concerned with understanding Islamists’ antagonism towards America may wish to review materials and Internet sites concerned with the revival of the khilafa (the califate). Islamist philosophers regret the passing of the khilafa, accepting the Ottoman empire as its last manifestation and blaming the West, in its colonialist seizure of parts of the Arab world in the wake of World War I. See khilafah.org, and BRUCE MADDY-WEITZMAN, THE CRYSTALLIZATION OF THE ARAB STATE SYSTEM, 1945-1954 (1993).

Today, political realities mean that the evolution of Islamic law that took place in the 19th and early 20th Centuries under the aegis of colonial, mixed and consular tribunals has largely been left behind. One could not expect to hear in the Egyptian courts of today — which indeed may apply Sharia notwithstanding contrary civil law — the modernist words which appear in the decision of Tewfik v. Elias (Trib. mixte d’Egypte, C.A. (3d Ch.), Dec. 18, 1923, 14 Gaz. trib. Mixtes 171 (Succession of a Coptic Christian converted to Islam in order to marry a second wife; after having repudiated her he reconverted to Christianity)): “The prohibition pronounced in a long ago era against Muslims abjuring their faith upon pain of death cannot be given weight today in Egypt; especially since the promulgation of the national Constitution which guarantees to all inhabitants of the land absolute freedom of conscience, as impeding their right freely to convert from one religion to another.”

In the postwar era, orthodoxy has become politically convenient and an ingrained goal of certain predominantly Muslim states. Islam is not the only religion where the most observant and orthodox command respect among many or most reformists and non-believers retaining affiliation, but the strong representation of Islamists and literalists in education has transformed politics, and with it law. Islamic law merits study not only for its substantive role when called upon by civil law in matters of family relationships and property or by religious courts, but also because it may be a motivating force inspiring judges in their application of civil and commercial laws. SAMI ALDEEB ABU-SAHLIEH, L’IMPACT DE LA RELGION SUR L’ORDRE JURIDIQUE, CAS DE L’EGYPTE, NON-MUSULMANS EN PAYS D’ISLAM 256-57, n. 29 (1979); Farida Fouad Nakhla v. Sameer Ameer, [1957] S.L.J.R. 21 (C.A. Khartoum).

To recapture the lost modernizing period of Islamic law reader may wish to refer to pre-World War II works, many in French, in libraries and OPACs representing strong collections from the period, such as the Columbia University Law Library, RLIN, OCLC, COPAC (UK) and LibisNet (Belgium), and to case reports in the Gazette des Tribunaux Arbitraux Mixtes d’Egypte, the English Reports, the Sudan Law Reports, the reports of consular cases and similar records of the modernist trend. Thus, e.g.,


Ottoman law itself depended upon Sharia for the empire’s Muslim populations. The encyclopedic work edited by George Young, CORPS DE DROIT OTTOMAN, then British vice-consul in Damascus, and published by Clarendon in 1905-1906 merits examination. Of modern philosophers who have influenced the return to orthodoxy in law and the thinking of Islamists including Al-Qaeda, one of the most significant was Sayyid Qutb, put to death by the Egyptian government on August 29, 1966.

Other groups have also had significant retrogressive impact. Researchers may wish to search on Google or another search engine under “Deoband School” … and under “Wahhabi movement”:

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Treatment of Islamic Law In Western Courts

Compare cases addressing the binding force of decisions of religious court as consents, usually treating their decisions as arbitration; see Jewish Law site.

Some specific issues in Islamic law and current affairs that may be of interest to Western students of Islamic law (in no particular order) are:

  • talaq (talak): the issue of recognition of divorces is addressed in the standard works on conflict of laws
  • inheritance raises a particular issue. Muslims resident in the West may wish to have Islamic law applied to succession and donative transfers. While various common-law instruments such as inter-vivos trusts may be used to avoid spousal rights, and while the members of a Muslim family may accede to the wishes of the testator, there may be adverse consequences under tax law, and in the event of insolvency of an heir state law or the Bankruptcy Code may intervene. (Adam J. Hirsch, The Problem of the Insolvent Heir, 74 CORN. L. REV. 587 (1989); Stephen E. Parker, Can Debtors Disclaim Inheritances to the Detriment of their Creditors, 25 LOY. U. CHI. L. REV. 31 (1993)).
  • waqf (a pious trust, known in North Africa as “habous”; see Moroccan site); see also Jeffrey A. Schoenblum, The Role of Legal Doctrine in the Decline of the Islamic Waqf: a Comparison With the Trust, 32 VAND. J. TRANSNAT’L L. 1191 (1999); and see North American Islamic Trust,, established to comply with U.S. and Canadian charitable organization and tax laws.
  • criminal law : see, e.g., MIR WALI ULLAH, MUSLIM JURISPRUDENCE AND THE QURANIC LAW OF CRIMES (Lahore 1982); Muslim penal law is summarized at the Brunei Direct site. Conflict with Western human rights notions of both crime and proof of facts is illustrated by the Zafran Bibi case (adultery prosecution in Pakistan).
  • Family law : Emory University site; and a recent report on Islamic Family Law and the Transition to Palestinian Statehood; and the following books: Abdullahi An-Na’im (ed.), Islamic Family Law in a Changing World (forthcoming); David Pearl & Werne Menski, Muslim Family Law (3d ed. 1998) (issues of conflict with English law); S.M. Darsh, Outline of Islamic Family Law (1980); Chibli Mallat & Jane Connors (eds.), Islamic Family Law (1991).
  • Islamic banking; see Global Development Research Center, Bibliography on Islamic Banking and SAYED NAZIM ALI, INFORMATION SOURCES ON ISLAMIC BANKING AND ECONOMICS, 1980-1990 (1994). On proposals to introduce Islamic banking in Pakistan, see Stephen Farrell, Clerics urge Islamabad to turn to Koran for economic advice, THE TIMES (London), June 8, 2002, p. 17.
  • relationship with other religions
  • gender discrimination : for bibliography, see Brandeis Project on Feminist Sexual Ethics Women, Gender and Islamic Law. Common issues include: nationality and its transmission to offspring, child abduction, right of travel, control of assets. Female genital mutilation is a cultural, not an Islamic law issue; however researchers may wish to refer to the FGM education and networking project. A discussion of male circumcision with citations to the hadith appears at the site of M. Afifi al-Akiti. The Global Gayz.com site has a page of scholarly articles on Islam and homosexuality. For a case addressing Sharia treatment of women in divorce and custody as related to Constitutional due process, see Noordin v. Abdullah (In re R), 947 P.2d 745 (Wash. App. 1997)
  • taxation : Sharia provides for a poll tax (jizya) to be paid by non-Muslims (dhimmis) under Muslim governance. See generally: A. BEN SHEMESH, TAXATION IN ISLAM (1965); YUSUF AL-QARADOWI, NON-MUSLIMS IN THE ISLAMIC SOCIETY (1985); BERNARD LEWIS, THE JEWS OF ISLAM (1984); Linda Broughton, Jewish Life Under Early Islam, 7 MONITOR J. INT’L STUDIES (2000).
  • diplomatic law : early Islam understood the concept of diplomacy, diplomatic immunity and the negotiation of treaties, all of which can be researched as such. See, e.g. First Ismaili Electronic Library and Database, Treaty of Hudaibia. In Islamic law, sovereignty belongs to Allah and the Islamic community formed a single ummah. The distinction was between dar ul Islam and and dar ul harb. New terms, including dar ul aman (house of order) and dar ul kufr (house of unbelief) have been applied in the context of the multi-ethnic state, notably in India. For an obsolete view of the impossibility of diplomacy within the (unitary) Islamic Nation see Abd-el-Hakim, 12 Rev. internat. dr. internat. publique 550 (1905), 32 Clunet 1035 (1905), 1908-II Sirey 121, note de Boek; comment, JEAN S. SABA, L’ISLAM ET LA NATIONALITÉ 81-82 (1931). For perceived conflicts between Islamic law and diplomatic law and the primacy of the latter, see Case Concerning United States Diplomatic and Consular Staff in Tehran (United States v. Iran). (Full disclosure: this writer was Economic Officer (petroleum attaché) at the U.S. Embassy, Tehran, at November 4, 1979.)
  • terrorism : the issue is the use by specific Islamist political groups of Islamic law and the glorification of the early era of Islamic conquest to justify violence. The researcher may wish to look at the Islamic law of jihad, apostasy and the laws of war as well as the Islamists’ concept of khilafa.
  • dietary laws : set out at the Renaissance (Pakistan) site
  • scope of application : the current region of interest in the extension of Sharia is northern Nigeria. A Web search will disclose the range of legal and political issues involved in the movement to apply Sharia in criminal matters.

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Public Policy

One issue of some importance in the United States, given precedent including Late Corporation of Latter-Day Saints v. United States, 136 U.S. 1 (1890), is the public-policy concern with polygamy, divorce, child custody, succession, female genital mutilation and other practices and policies associated with Islam and with certain Muslim peoples and groups. Public policy restraints may be attenuated in circumstances where the family is domiciled abroad, and in the matter of domestic enforcement of a foreign judgment. This is commonly so in matters of wrongful death actions and social security, life insurance and estate claims by multiple wives and their children abroad. Sources of further information include European treatises on private international law and social-security treaties, notably the treaty between France and Algeria.

  • France-Algeria Social Security Convention, 1298 UNTS 25, No. 23722 (1983), Art. 42
  • Bamgbose v. Daniel, [1955] A.C. 107 (P.C., Nigeria) (succession of children of nine wives of Nigerian). P.C. stands for Privy Council, the highest court of appeal for colonies, dependencies and those Commonwealth states which choose to use it, staffed by law lords from the H of L plus, conventionally, a local senior judge if there is one, from the territory.
  • B v. B, & D v. C, Cass. civ. (1st Ch.) Jan. 3, 1980 & Dec. 18, 1979, 1980 Dalloz Jur. 549, obs. Poisson-Drocourt; 107 Revue du notariat belge 514 (1981)
  • R. v. Department of Health, ex parte Misra, Times L. Rep., Apr. 15, 1995
  • Kaur v. Boyes (In re Bir’s Estate), 188 P.2d 499 (3d Dist. 1948)

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Some Relevant Law Reviews

One journal that does not appear on the SOAS list but is of scholarly interest is AL-LIQA JOURNAL, published by the Centre for Religious and Heritage Studies in the Holy Land, P.O. Box 11328, Jerusalem, Tel./Fax 00972 2 741639.

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Bibliographic and General Links

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Selected Print Bibliographies

  • FIERRO, M, REPERTORIO BIBLIOGÀFICO DE DERECHO ISLÁMICO (R.B.D.I.), primera parte, Quadernos de la biblioteca islámica “Felix Maria Parega” (Madrid 1993)
  • Makdisi, John, Islamic Law Bibliography, 78 LAW LIBRARY J. 103 (1986)
  • Stern, William B., Bibliography of Mohammedan Law, 43 LAW LIBRARY J. 16 (1950)

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Links verified as of July 30, 2002.

Posted in: Features, Islamic Law