Nurfadzilah Yahaya, PhD candidate, History Department

Arabs under English law in the British Straits Settlement of Singapore, 1880-1941

Date: 
Mon, 05/04/2009
Location: 
4:30 - 6 PM, Kerstetter Room, Marx Hall

In the LEGS seminar on on 4 May, Nurfadzilah Yahaya will present "Arabs under English Law in Colonial Singapore, 1880-1941." This is a paper about legal pluralism and the encounter between Islamic law and common law in a colonial setting – and there is plenty of general interest for those who care about law, power, multiplicity, cultural variation and colonialism.

As always, the LEGS seminar will run from 4:30-6 pm in the Kerstetter Room, 301 Marx Hall. The session will begin with a short presentation by Nurfadzilah of her paper and then we will have a general discussion.

Here is Nurfadzilah's abstract:

"This paper will examine how legal practitioners in English courts of Singapore engaged with Islamic law in their encounter with members of the Arab diaspora, who were based in that city, from 1880 right up till the outbreak of the Second World War in Southeast Asia. Although they resided in a British colony, Arabs in Singapore attempted to utilize Islamic law as much as possible in matters of divorce, inheritance and in the establishment of perpetual trusts or charitable trusts otherwise known as ‘waqfs.’ Nonetheless, Arab litigants constantly couched Islamic legal terms in terms of English legal discourse that was understandably more accessible to English courts. As a result, what actually came into practice was Islamic law circumscribed by English law. But in terms of legal content, it was not so much Islamic law, but rather English assumptions and legal concepts that framed the technical vocabulary of Islamic law, and guided how rules were applied, thereby reshaping Islamic law itself in the process. The contentiousness between English law and Islamic law placed the issue of language, entitlement and foreign rights at the heart of colonial history. By willingly working within the British legal system in the colony, these Arabs played a part in ensuring that the colonial structure was maintained, even reinforced, creating a situation that clearly favoured the colonial power in charge. By utilizing British law to conduct their business, and financial matters, the Arabs opened up channels of surveillance for the British to keep tabs on their financial assets, and money flow. It is highly possible that the general cooperation of Arabs in the Straits Settlement of Singapore encouraged British plans of colonial expansion in Hadhramaut, their land of origin in present-day Yemen, in the 1930s."