Islamic Law and Ambivalent Scholarship

This book reminds me of the image of the arrogantly condescending and blustering tourist in Cairo who drifts into a store that has taken the trouble of prominently displaying the price of their commodities in nicely typed tags. Nevertheless, the tourist walks in, reads the price tag, and then proclaims, “Okay, what is the real price?” The poor store employee stares at him with incredulity, and simply repeats the price on the tag, and, in response, the tourist emits this knowing and smug smile as if saying, “I know you guys, you never mean what you say; everything in Arab culture is negotiable, everything is subject to bargaining, and I will not be fooled.” Of course, the tourist misses the point. The price on the tag is the real price, and there is no expectation of haggling, bargaining, or any other reconstruction of reality. Before arriving in Cairo, however, the tourist has already received a steady dosage of advice about the Arab bazaar. Everything, the tourist is told, in the Arab market is negotiable; so never take any of the advertised prices at face value, and argue and haggle to your heart’s content. Lawrence Rosen’s book is not intended to give advice to tourists about how to get the most for their money; it is nothing short of an attempt to explain the Islamic and Arab conception of justice. The author explicitly adopts the bazaar as the relevant model for understanding Islamic conceptions of justice, whether old or new, rural or urban, social or legal, or Muslim or Arab. But like our haggling tourist, whether intentionally or not, he ends up essentializing and deprecating his subject into a caricature that, although based on some truth, is largely a fictional invention.