Friday, November 6, 2015

Surrency Prize to Bishara

[Via H-Law, we have the following report of another prize awarded at the recently concluded annual meeting of the ASLH.]

The 2015 Surrency Prize for the best article published in Volume 32 of the Law and History Review, calendar year 2014, goes to Fahad Ahmad Bishara for his essay “Paper Routes: Inscribing Islamic Law Across the Nineteenth-Century Western Indian Ocean,” Law and History Review 32 (2014): 797-820 (Number 4, November 2014).

This powerful, subtle, and elegant essay postulates that law, Islamic law, bound together a region from Muscat to Mombasa, from Oman to Kenya, “furnished Indian Ocean merchants, planters, and other commercial actors with a lexicon for economic life,” and “provided a legal grammar for a world of commercial contracting that moved along an axis that was largely independent of broader processes of imperial of political action” (801).  Independent of empire or kingdom, private law actors including Omani date plantation owners, Arab ivory and clove traders in Zanzibar, Indian merchants everywhere, local scribes, and Islamic law jurisconsults created during the nineteenth century credit and other legal instruments, founded on “confidence” that the actors worked inside the same system, which financed the entry of all of these actors into a premodern capitalist system of exchange while remaining within the structures of Islamic law.  Through the use of legal instruments called waraqas, a kind of deed or power-of-attorney, and a redeemable sale of real property called a khiyar sale, which resembled a pledge or pawn, merchants, planters, and scribes, all Muslim, injected liquidity into the commercial system within the strictures against usury.  The result is a highly revealing, ground-level view of “Islamic law” in action, free of abstraction and generalization.

Bishara encompasses the newest literature on law and empire as well as recent scholarship on the Indian Ocean as a system to think the Indian Ocean as a legal regime dependent on commerce and shared practices of private actors, rather than on political expansion or overarching imperial legal frameworks and policies.  Richly rooted in archival sources in Zanzibar and in the pronouncements of leading Omani jurists, Bishara’s bottom up approach renders all the more persuasive his ambitious argument that law not only structured commerce in the western Indian Ocean, but also constituted the Indian Ocean world -- as much as the monsoon winds and transregional communities that populated its port cities.  For its persuasive and powerful showing that law in the hands of private actors, even more than public institutions, structures commerce and thought, “Paper Routes” stakes a definitive claim for the analytical power of legal history and amply deserves the 2015 Surrency Prize.