In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Islamic Law

  • Introduction
  • The Postcolonial Age in North Africa

African Studies Islamic Law
Allan Christelow
  • LAST REVIEWED: 17 August 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 February 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846733-0042


The continent of Africa offers a complex and challenging setting for the study of Islamic law. Today, this continent contains some of the most predominantly Muslim states in the world (in North Africa and the Sahara), some where Muslims are a small minority (in eastern and southern Africa), and some where there are substantial populations of both Muslims and Christians (in West Africa, notably in Nigeria). Over the course of history, since the arrival of Islam in Africa in the 7th century, there have been many changes shaping how Islamic law is applied. Islamic law affected not only relations within Muslim communities, but also the relations of Muslims with non-Muslims—Christians and Jews around the Mediterranean, and people following traditional religions south of the Sahara, and in East Africa. Islamic law has provided a basis for conflict and efforts at subjugation of non-Muslims as slaves or concubines, but it has also offered a framework for negotiation, peaceful interaction, and conflict resolution. While the best-known aspect of Islamic law lies in the area of family matters—marriage, divorce, and inheritance—Islamic legists have played an important role in developing fiqh, or jurisprudence based on Islamic principles but adapted to local situations, dealing with such areas as water rights, commercial relations, medical practice, and cultural expression. The application of Islamic law was in many cases restricted by colonial rule from the early 19th century to the mid-20th century. Starting in the 1980s, there have been some dramatic efforts to restore the authority of Islamic courts over a wider domain of law, notably in Sudan, where such efforts led to the breaking up of the country between the predominantly Islamic north, and South Sudan, which has a religiously diverse population. In northern Nigeria, state governments restored a wide application of Islamic law, but pragmatic approaches by traditional leaders have helped preserve stability in much of the country, except in the northeast.

General Overviews

Islamic law in Africa emerged as a field of study for Western scholars only with the approach of decolonization in the late 1940s and 1950s. The divide between Middle East Studies and African Studies has hampered the development of this field. But as growing globalization has led to increased recognition of the importance of interfaith dialogue and cultural pluralism, the study of Islamic law in Africa is becoming increasingly important.

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