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What Went Wrong? The Failure of Soviet Policy on sharī'a Courts in Turkestan, 1917-1923

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The state's attitude towards sharī'a in Soviet Turkestan may seem to have been contradictory. There was a first phase, in the years 1919-1923, when attempts were made to harmonize Islamic law with Soviet legislation in order to better integrate sharī'a courts into the system of the Unified People's Courts. The second phase, starting in 1924, was marked by progressive erosion of the powers of the Islamic judiciary, until it was finally disbanded in 1928. These policy changes are usually explained in the light of a transitional period when the Soviet state in Central Asia accepted compromises as a way to consolidate its hold in the region while it waited for a suitable moment to do away with Islamic institutions. Conversely, the thesis of this paper is that the policy of integration of sharī'a courts into the Soviet legal system was abandoned in 1923 when it was perceived that it would ultimately be unsuccessful. The failure of this venture can be explained by looking at the approach the Soviet government adopted: it attempted to oversee the local judicial orders but the regulations issued were so loose in content as to prove practically ineffective. Soviet legislative bodies sought to define the scope of the shar'ī judiciary within the overall framework of state law, without realizing that qādīs had a range of legal instruments that enabled them to avoid applying Soviet legislation. Accordingly, the main goal of this study is to address the failure of the Soviet policy on sharī'a courts from two points of view: a) by reconstructing the administrative history behind the state decrees which made qādī courts official and regulated their scope; b) by showing how one qādī evaded the prohibition against hearing lawsuits on landholding by resolving disputes on the basis of amicable settlements (sulh).

Affiliations: 1: Halle/Saale


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