Colonial development of Islamic Family Law in the British Straits Settlements and the Netherlands Indies
By Nurfadzilah Yahaya, History Department, Princeton University, 2011
This chapter examines the development of colonial knowledge of Islamic law in the British Straits Settlements and Netherlands Indies by focusing on laws in books rather than laws in action. During the colonial period, Islamic law was relegated to the realm of personal law which led to a severe reduction of its impact on the lives of Muslim subjects. Through selective codification and translation of certain religious texts, colonial authorities privileged certain sources of Islamic law while downplaying others. The legal regime in the Straits Settlements of Penang, Malacca and Singapore inherited a ready corpus of legal codes, commentaries, translations and judicial precedents produced in British India. Conversely, the development of Dutch colonial conceptions of Islamic law distinctively occurred in the Netherlands Indies, as well as within Oriental institutes located in Leiden and Delft, which likewise, focused on Muslim
subjects in the Netherlands Indies in particular.
While British authorities in the Straits Settlements were bequeathed with legal literature from India, Dutch authorities
attempted to draw heavily upon local adat and ‘wetboeken’ (legal codes) derived from the Islamic legal tradition as practiced in the Netherlands Indies. Legal authority was partially delegated to local religious heads in the Netherlands Indies. In contrast, British colonial officials directly adjudicated cases involving Islamic law, circumventing the authority of local intermediaries. In both the Netherlands Indies and the Straits Settlements, colonial emphasis on documentary evidence found in legal codes and translated manuals fixed the meanings of these laws. Bolstered by the written word, exclusive legal dominance of the colonial state enabled colonial authorities to neatly sidestep the plurality of legal opinions held by Muslim scholars and eventually ignore the spectrum of legal interpretations on a single issue.