Islamic law preferred oral testimony to written evidence: Sheikh Zayed Book Award winner

His research work of 10 years for the book focused on the eighth century to explore the evolution of the judicial system during the early Islamic period

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Published: Wed 24 May 2023, 6:10 PM

Back in the eight century, before the establishment of classical Islamic schools of law, oral testimonies outweighed documentary evidence, said French author Mathieu Tillier, who won the prestigious Sheikh Zayed Book Award.

Tillier, a winner in the Arab culture in other languages category, was recognised for his work: ‘The Invention of the Cadi: Justice among Muslims, Jews, and Christians during the First Centuries of Islam’.

“My book is about early development of the Islamic judiciary, in interaction with other judicial systems in the Middle East, like the Jewish and the Christian systems. My purpose was to understand these early developments and how the judges received the litigants in court and dealt with them. So, my book is about the early discussions among Muslims, Christians, and Jews, and how the judges could dispense justice at that time and how it helped develop the classical Islamic judicial system,” Tillier told Khaleej Times in an interview.

His research work of 10 years for the book focused on the eighth century to explore the evolution of the judicial system during the early Islamic period. He utilised early documentary evidence from Iraq, Egypt, Palestine and Syria, which were preserved in papyrus, and also Arabic, Greek, Syriac, and Coptic sources.

“Eighth century was the time when the early legal system developed, relying on different experiments by judges, especially Muslim judges who were talking with one another, with intellectuals and scholars as they were trying to build an Islamic way of dispensing justice, and this is before the birth of the Islamic schools of law. My purpose was to see what happened before the birth of the schools of law and how the legal system was born, before it was registered in books,” said the professor of medieval Islamic history at Sorbonne University in Paris.

Talking about the early developments, Tillier noted that the Islamic system relied very much on oral evidence.

“In the modern world, in most courts of the world, we rely on written evidence. While the first Muslim scholars believed it was dangerous because any written document could be falsified. So, they preferred to rely on testimonial evidence. On witnesses, whom they could check whether they were trustworthy or not. This is what made the Islamic system different from the other systems, which relied very much on the written evidence. For example, the Christians, in the Byzantine empire, relied very much on written evidence, while the Muslims decided to put it aside. Not to completely avoid it, but they had a preference for witnesses.”

For instance, if a person bought a new house and ran into trouble over ownership, he/she needed to have witnesses produced in court to testify and prove his/her claim to the property.

Tillier noted that the courts used to function in open public spaces, most probably in front of the mosque.

“They welcomed every litigant, even non-Muslims. Later, the court relocated inside the mosque. The Islamic judges sat next to a pillar inside the mosque and welcomed litigants.”

Asked about how the legal system was in the GCC, he said: “Unfortunately, we don’t have that many sources that document the way justice was dispensed in the Gulf. They probably had the same system.”

Tillier underlined that the Sheikh Zayed Book Award represented a bridge between cultures and civilisations.

“It’s good for the promotion of Arabic culture. It’s also important on the international scene to promote Arabic studies outside the Arab world, especially in Europe and America. I’m very proud of being awarded this prize,” added Tillier, who is a regular visiting professor at Sorbonne University Abu Dhabi.


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