Laila al-Zwaini

External PhD candidate. Research project: The Rule of Shari'a in a State of Tribes. Understanding Islamic Legal Pluralism and Criminal Justice in Yemen.

The Rule of Shari'a in a State of Tribes. Understanding Islamic Legal Pluralism and Criminal Justice in Yemen

The aim of this research is to explore the changing relations between shari'a, state law, and tribal customs in (northern) Yemen until 2011. By examining selected texts, narratives of legal authorities, and case-studies - formal and informal – mainly in the field of criminal justice, this study explores different articulations of this so-called 'Islamic legal triangle'.

This study applies three methodological approaches:

1- Shari'a as a discursive normative system ('social construction of shari'a')
Recent scholarship argues that shari'a is being 'constructed' by various interest groups, according to their particular views of how society should be. My study will apply this theory, coined as the 'social construction of shari'a,' by approaching shari'a not exclusively as a textual legal corpus developed by jurists and ruling Imams, nor as a legal source eventually incorporated into statutory codes, but in its various articulations and 'repertoires,' always in relation to other (national, sectarian, tribal, international) norms, practices, and politics.

2- Actor-based approach
By critically reviewing the personal narratives of selected Yemeni actors and authors about their use and understanding of the Islamic legal triangle, and by following their trajectories as justice authorities under radically changing legal-political circumstances (state formation, codification, unification, islamism, globalism, terrorism), this study also adopts an 'actor-oriented' approach. The actors include religious scholars, court judges, tribesmen, political parties, islamists, modern legal professionals, civil society, and the international community.

3- Law-in-action
The premises will be illustrated primarily with examples from criminal law and procedure. Questions such as "What constitutes a crime?," "Who has criminal liability?" and "What is the rationale for punishment?" are relevant to better understand what differentiates the three legal domains, and why these do not easily merge into one centralized legal framework or discourse. The major differences are to be sought in key values and legal concepts such as 'ayb (shameful) and haram (forbidden), right and wrong, protection and honour, law and morality, loyalty and liability. Criminal acts involving hudûd, homicide, moral crimes, blood feuds, and terrorism form critical areas for the modern Yemeni state to claim - or lose - its prime authority in the keeping of law and order.


Laila al-Zwaini studied Arabic language and cultures (MA), and Dutch law (LL.M) at Leiden University. She obtained a Diploma in (Islamic) Law from SOAS (London University), and was affiliated to CEDEJ (Cairo), CEFAS (San'a), and ISIM (Leiden).

Between 2007 and 2009, Al-Zwaini headed the Rule of Law Unit of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA). From 2001-2005 she co-directed the action-research project Rights at Home for the International Institute for the Study of Islam in the Modern World (ISIM, Leiden). She was also an active member of WISE Global Muslim Women Shura Council (2006-2012).

Next to her PhD-project, Al-Zwaini works as an independent scholar and lecturer, and advises national and international organisations and governments (UN, EU, DFID, USIP, IIJ, IDEA). In 2013, she established Re:Orient, a bureau for applied research on shari'a, rule of law, tribes, and social change in the Arab and Muslim World. She currently develops a project to advance the discourse on civilism (madaniya) and the civil state in the Arab world.

Her publications include The Rule of Law in Yemen: Prospects and Challenges (2012), Legal Pluralism in the Arab World (co-edited, 1999), and A Bibliography of Islamic Law, 1980-1993 (co-authored, 1994).

Twitter: @lailazwaini

Last Modified: 13-08-2014