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IOS Minaret Vol-1, No.1 (March 2007)
Vol. 10    Issue 18   01-15 February 2016

The Legacy of Islamic International Law

Professor A. R. MOMIN

There is a pervasive undercurrent of Eurocentrism and parochialism in much of social science theorizing and historiography in the West. In her ground-breaking work The Arabic Role in Medieval Literary History: A Forgotten Heritage (1987), Maria Rosa Menocal drew attention to the undercurrents of racism and chauvinism in European literary and cultural history. She pointed out that ethnocentric bias for centuries has ‘prevented mainstream European scholars from recognizing the large influence of Arabic, Islamic and Andalusian cultures on the development of European medieval literature.’ She persuasively argued that scientific, cultural and literary advances in Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire were in large measure due to the contribution of Muslim scientists, translators and intellectuals to the preservation and dissemination of the Greco-Roman heritage. She emphasized that Arabic influences in medieval Europe were not confined to literature but encompassed music, science, philosophy, law, architecture and the arts.

Menocal notes that this problem is embedded in a deeply-entrenched bias against Islam and argues that European scholars in general and literary and cultural historians in particular are still reluctant ‘to accept as plausible and admissible an image of our own civilization, at one of its formative moments, as critically indebted to and dependent on a culture (Islam) that was for sometime regarded as inferior and, by some lights, as the quintessence of the foreign and the Other.’

In Western legal history, the celebrated Dutch legal scholar Hugo Grotius (1583-1645) is considered the founder of international law. Muhammad Hamidullah has pointed out that the foundations of international law were laid, eight centuries before Grotius, by Muslim legal scholars and jurists, notably by Imam Zayd ibn Ali (d. 120 AH), Imam Abu Hanifah (d. 150 AH) and Muhammad ibn Hasan al-Shaybani (d. 189 AH). The earliest treatise on Islamic international law was Zayd ibn Ali’s Kitab al-Majmu,’ which unfortunately did not survive the vicissitudes of time. Abu Hanifah wrote Kitab al-Siyar, one of the earliest works on the subject, which too did not survive the ravages of time. However, large parts of this treatise as well as Abu Hanifah’s lecture notes on the subject were incorporated by his disciples. Fortunately, some of these works are extant. The most comprehensive work on Islamic international law is Al-Shaybani’s Al-Siyar al-Kabir. The complete text of this monumental work is preserved in Al-Sarakhsi’s voluminous commentary, al-Mabsut. Al-Shaybani also wrote a shorter treatise on Islamic international law, called Al-Siyar al-Saghir. A French translation of Al-Siyar al-Kabir in 4 volumes by Muhammad Hamidullah was published from Ankara in 1989. Parts of Al-Siyar al-Kabir were rendered into English by Majid Khadduri and published as The Islamic Law of Nations: Shaybani’s Siyar in 1966. Mahmood Ahmad Ghazi published an English translation of Al-Siyar al-Saghir from Islamabad, Pakistan in 1998 (Ghazi 1998).

In his doctoral thesis Die Neutralitat im Islamischen Volkerrecht, which was submitted to the University of Bonn in 1933 and which was published from Bonn and Leipzig in 1935, Hamidullah offered a cogent refutation of the claim that international law originated in Europe in the 16th century. He demonstrated, in the afore-mentioned book and subsequently in The Muslim Conduct of State (1979), that international law was first conceived and enunciated by Muslim legal scholars and jurists in the 7th century CE.

Islamic international law recognised, for the first time in legal history, that all nations, regardless of the distinctions of class or creed, developed a body of rights and obligations. Islamic international law, which forms an integral part of Islamic jurisprudence, deals with wide-ranging issues, including rules and regulations related to war and peace, ethics of war, rights of prisoners of war and asylum seekers, political, diplomatic and commercial relations between Muslim and non-Muslim states, neutrality, conflict of laws, immunity, rebellion and civil war, treaties, territorial jurisdiction and the rights of non-Muslim subjects of Islamic state. The provisions of Islamic international law which deal with the ethics of war are particularly important. The Prophet instructed Muslim soldiers sent to fight the Byzantine army not to harm unarmed civilians and unresisting inhabitants and not to destroy the means of their subsistence, including their palm trees and orchards (Hamidullah 1979; Momin 2016; Khadduri 1966).

Hamidullah points out that the earliest writers on international law, such as Francisco de Vitoria (1480-1546), Baltasar de Ayala (1548-1584), Francisco Suarez (1548-1617), Alberico Gentili (1552-1608) and Pierre Bello, were Spanish and Italian and were the product of an intellectual and cultural milieu which was deeply influenced by Islamic civilization. Hugo Grotius’ book De Jure Belli ac Pacis was written in Paris, where libraries were filled with books on Islamic sciences. Grotius acknowledged that he was deeply influenced by his Spanish predecessor De Vitoria, who was indebted to prominent Spanish writers on international law, notably King Alfonso X of Castile. King Alfonso’s treatise Las Siete Partidas, written in 1263, clearly testifies to the influence of Islamic law. The fact that Grotius was quite familiar with Islamic law is attested by his amazement and appreciative reference to the issue of postliminium in Islamic law (Hamidullah 1979:123).

Medieval Spain’s Expansive, Composite Culture

Islamic Spain and, to a lesser extent, Sicily were the centres of gravity of Arabic influences in the medieval period through which Arabic learning passed to Christendom. Arabic was the lingua franca of Andalusia’s educated Christians, Muslims and Jews for many centuries. In Toledo, Arabic was the common language of an international community of scholars, many of whom came from different parts of Europe to delve into the scientific and literary treasures of the Arabic language. Toledo became the preeminent centre for the dissemination of Arabic learning and culture across large parts of Europe. William of Aquitaine, the Duke of Aquitaine and Gascony, Peter the Venerable, who commissioned the first Latin translation of the Quran, and Frederick II, king of Sicily, played a central role in the dissemination of Arabic influences in medieval Europe. Arabic learning, poetry, music and philosophy exercised a profound influence on Dante, Cervantes, Marco Polo, Boccaccio and Petrarch. Asin Palacios has shown that that Dante’s Divine Comedy was essentially inspired by the Islamic tradition relating to the nightly ascent of the Prophet Muhammad to heaven (mi’raj). Dante came across this tradition through some Islamic texts that were translated in Toledo in the 13th century. Arabic cultural influences also travelled to the universities of Paris and Bologna. Shortly after the 13th century, the translation into Latin of Averroes’s (Ibn Rushd’s) commentaries on Aristotle’s works ushered in an intellectual revolution in European universities, especially those of Paris and Bologna.

Menocal’s book The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain (2002), focuses on the creation of a vibrant shared cultural universe in medieval Spain involving the contributions of Muslims, Jews and Christians living in an Islamic polity. It recounts a fascinating saga that was marked by political and military cooperation, exchange and collaboration in architecture and art and literary, cultural and philosophical syncretism.

The eight centuries of Muslim rule over the Iberian peninsula were marked by a layered history of not only confrontations and conflicts but also of political and military cooperation between Muslim and Christian rulers, artistic collaboration and the creation of an amazing cosmopolitan ethos and a culture of tolerance, harmonious coexistence and cultural symbiosis that frequently transcended religious distinctions and differences. The celebrated Spanish-American historian Americo Castro famously described the composite culture of medieval Spain as convivencia or living together. This syncretistic culture had wide ramifications and was manifested in science and technology, architecture, music, philosophy, language and literature, arts and crafts and popular culture. Christians and Jews enthusiastically took to Arabic as a vibrant language of poetry and elegance and soon lost touch with Latin. Almost all the Christian texts and liturgy were translated from Latin into Arabic and became a part of the community’s religious life. In Castile, Jews often sponsored Christians at their baptism, while Christians did likewise at Jewish circumcision ceremonies.

Moorish Spain’s expansive, accommodative culture was reflected in the appointment of Jews and Christians to high offices by Muslim rulers. Jews had suffered humiliation and persecution during the reign of Visigoth rulers. Muslim rulers provided them with an honourable place in society, guaranteed the protection of their religious and cultural identity and afforded them opportunities for material prosperity and cultural progress. Hasdai ibn Sharput, a prominent Jewish scholar, became a vizier in the court of Abd al-Rahman III, ruler of Cordoba from 912 to 961. He was sent as the head of an official delegation by the caliph to the Byzantine emperor to engage in delicate diplomatic negotiations. One of the important documents in the Cairo Geniza is a letter written by Hasdai ibn Sharput to Empress Helena of Byzantium, praising the kind treatment of the Jewish community by the caliph of Cordoba. Samuel ha-Nagrid, the head of Granada’s Jewish community and a gifted poet and writer in Arabic, became prime minister in the Muslim kingdom of Cordoba in the 11th century and led many a successful campaign against other Muslim kingdoms. The Mozarab bishop of Elvira, Racemundu, was a member of the caliph’s delegation to the court of Constantine in 949. In 955 he was sent as the caliph’s envoy to the court of the German emperor Otto I.

A testimony to the pervasive cultural symbiosis that took place in medieval Spain is provided by the example of the Mozarabs (from the Arabic must’arab), Christians who had imbibed a great deal of Islamic influences in their language, culture and literature. From the 9th to the 11th century, The Mozarabs – described as “wanna-be-Arabs” by Menocal -- celebrated the Eucharist not in Latin, the liturgical language of Western Christendom, but in Arabic. Among the remnants of Toledo’s polymorphous culture that have survived the ravages of time is a Latin-Arabic glossary intended for teaching Mozarabs their sacred language in Arabic, as well as several bilingual Latin-Arabic epigraphs on Mozarab tombstones.

In consequence of the pervasive Islamic influence on Spanish culture, a large number of Arabic words found their way into local languages and dialects. Castilian, for example, was literally born out of Arabic. Under the influence of Arabic, a hybrid genre of folk songs combining the Romance vernaculars and Arabic developed in medieval Spain. Hundreds of Arabic words, including names of fruits, vegetables and animals, names of musical instruments and the technical vocabulary in architecture and carpentry, are still in use in the Spanish language. Even today, most of Spanish family names betray their Arabic origin.

The process of cultural symbiosis and hybridization that was set in motion shortly after the Muslim conquest of the Iberian peninsula did not come to an end with the reconquest of Toledo and other cities by the Christian kings. In fact, as Menocal argues, the reconquest of Toledo by Castilians was not the end of their Arabization but rather the beginning. At the close of the 11th century and the early part of the 12th, Toledo became the intellectual hub of Europe. Even after it was reconquered by Alfonso VI in 1085, Arabic remained the language of culture and learning. The city boasted scores of fine libraries with vast collections of Arabic books, which served as vibrant centres of intellectual activities, including translations of Arabic works into Latin. Johannes Hispalensis, archbishop of Toledo (1152-66), sponsored translations of the works of Avicenna and other Muslim scholars and established the famous Toledo School of Translators. Alfonso X, who succeeded his father Ferdinand III and ruled until 1284, sought to transform Castilian, which was a vernacular language mostly spoken by illiterate people, into the official language of his kingdom and a repository of literary and religious texts, history, law, science and education. He sponsored the translation of a large number of Arabic books into Castilian. He was thus instrumental in the transfer of the treasures of Islamic learning to Christendom.

The libraries and schools of Toledo attracted many scholars from different parts of Europe, including Robert of Ketton, Robertus Anglicus (the first European translator of the Quran), Michael Scot and Daniel Morley. In the 12th and 13th centuries, thousands of Arabic books, including Aristotle’s works with commentaries by Jewish, Muslim and Christian scholars, were translated into Latin in Toledo. An early set of astronomical tables was drawn up in Toledo, as an encyclopaedia of star positions. Interestingly, the tables were Christian, but the numerals were Arabic.

In the 1360s, Peter the Cruel decided to build a splendid palace for himself at Seville. Craftsmen, artists and masons were brought in from Granada to build the palace, which was called Alcazar (from the Arabic al-qasr). The architecture and ornamentation of Alcazar is inspired by those of the Alhambra. This is particularly reflected in the profusion of arabesque and Arabic calligraphy. Adorning the walls of the Alcazar is the Islamic invocation “There is no absolute power but Allah.”

It is interesting to note that the coins issued by Alfonso VI in Castile in the 11th century, Alfonso VIII in the 12th century, Alfonso X in the 13th century and Pedro de Castilla in the 14th century bore the inscriptions ‘Emperor of the two religions’ and ‘Protector of three faiths.’ When King Ferdinand III passed away in 1252, his son Alfonso X had him buried in a tomb that was built inside Seville’s great mosque, which was turned into a cathedral. The tomb bore inscriptions in four languages: Arabic, Hebrew, Latin and Castilian (Menocal 2000; Menocal 2002:47, 200).

In 1360, Samuel Halevi Abulafia, a prominent Andalusian Jew, built a synagogue in Toledo, now known as the El Transito synagogue. On the walls there are inscriptions in Hebrew as well as Arabic, which are intertwined with the floral patterns in the stucco panels. What is even more amazing is that the complex stucco ornamentation of the synagogue includes verses from the Quran. Granada, the last of the Muslim kingdoms of Spain, fell in 1492. Curiously, when Queen Isabella of Castile and King Ferdinand of Aragon marched up the hill to take possession of the royal palace, they were dressed in Arabic-style ceremonial attire.

Sicily’s cosmopolitan culture

Muslims from North Africa seized control of Sicily from the Byzantines in 832. Though Muslim rule over the island lasted for less than two centuries, Arabic culture left a deep and enduring imprint on Sicilian society and culture, especially on agricultural techniques, architecture, city planning, language, textile and everyday life. A silk weaving house was established at the royal palace at Palermo, which remained even after the Norman conquest of Sicily and where Italian workers and craftsmen acquired their technical knowledge and designs for textiles. Sicily was the hub of Mediterranean trade in the Middle Ages and Arabs continued to play a leading role in many sectors of the island’s economy even after the Norman conquest.

The Normans conquered Sicily in 1091 and established a kingdom that represented a synthesis of Arab, Byzantine and Western Christian institutions and cultural influences. The efflorescence of this expansive, cosmopolitan culture was reached during the reigns of Roger II (1130-54), William I (1154-66), William II (1166-89), and Frederick II (1194-1250). The Norman kings were great connoisseurs and patrons of Islamic learning and science and Arabic culture. The royal court at Palermo invited and patronised Muslim scientists and scholars, Arabic poets and Moorish musicians. King Roger II, Frederick II and Charles I of Anjou invited Jewish and Muslim scholars and men of letters to their court and encouraged the translation of scientific works from Greek and Arabic into Latin. Some Arabic poets, who were part of the entourage at Palermo’s royal court, wrote panegyrics in praise of Roger II, giving rise to a distinctive genre of Siculo Arabic poetry.

King Frederick II, who was conversant with Arabic language and philosophy, invited scholars and translators from Andalusia and other parts of Europe to Sicily and encouraged them to translate Arabic works on science and philosophy into Latin. At his instance, copies of important Arabic manuscripts were made and sent to individual scholars and libraries across the kingdom. He circulated a series of questions on philosophical issues, written in Arabic, to Muslim scholars in North Africa. He was very fond of Michael Scot, who had translated from Arabic and Hebrew sources the works of Aristotle along with Avicenna’s commentary, and had dedicated one of his works to the emperor in 1232.

Like Toledo in Spain, Sicily emerged as a fertile centre for the dissemination of Islamic sciences. The works of Avicenna were translated into Latin at the University of Salerno in the 13th century. The far-reaching influence of Sicily’s composite ethos is conspicuously reflected in its architectural monuments. The Fatimid architecture of North Africa was a source of inspiration for the Sicilian buildings of the 12th century. The domed churches of Palermo, Mazara and Messina reflect the influence of Fatimid architecture in Africa. Royal palaces and churches were adorned with Islamic designs and motifs as well as Arabic inscriptions. The magnificent Cappella Palatina, built by Roger II in 1140 as an extension of the royal palace, had a unique wooden ceiling, ornamented with muqarnas (a conglomeration of small honeycombed niches), reflecting the influence of the Fatimid art of Africa and the Middle East.

Textile designs in medieval Sicily bore the unmistakable imprint of Arabic influences. The term Tiraz refers to an embroidered decorative band made on fabrics. In several Muslim countries, Tiraz production was carried out in workshops located in the royal court. The court of King William II in Palermo had Tiraz workshops. A magnificent silk-lined taffeta robe with bands of silk embroidered in gold and set with pearls and precious stones was made by Muslim craftsmen in 1181 in the royal Tiraz workshop of King William II in Palermo. The attire, which bears two inscriptions in Arabic and Latin, was worn as a coronation robe by both Frederick II in 1120 and Charles V in 1520. One of the surviving remnants of medieval Sicily’s cosmopolitan’s culture is the coronation mantle of Roger II, now in Vienna’s Kunshistorisches Museum, which was made by Muslim artists in Palermo in 1133. This ceremonial cloak, which was worn as the coronation robe by the Holy Roman Emperors until 1806, bears an Arabic inscription.

Even after the Norman conquest of Sicily, Sicilian coins continued to bear inscriptions in Latin, Greek and Arabic. Some of the Norman kings gave Arabic names to their palaces. The exterior of a bathhouse in Cefalu Diana, some distance from Palermo, bears traces of an Arabic inscription, which suggests that some architectural and artistic elements of the earlier Islamic period were appropriated and adapted by the Norman kings. As a result of the patronage of Arabic by the Norman rulers, a fairly large number of Arabic words found their way into the Sicilian dialect. Even today Sicily has numerous Arabic place names and the Sicilian dialect still has a considerable vocabulary of Arabic origin.

Sicily’s cosmopolitan culture came to a tragic end when King Frederick II expelled the island’s Muslims on charges of rebellion in the early decades of the 13th century—perhaps the earliest example of ethnic cleansing (Roberts 1996: 181).

Al-Shaybani and International Law

The Austrian Orientalist Joseph Hammer von Purgstall (1774-1856) was greatly impressed by Al-Shaybani’s Al-Siyar al-Kabir and described its author as the Hugo Grotius of the Islamic world (Khadduri 1966:56; Kruse 1955). A German legal scholar Hans Kruse said that when we compare the views of al-Shaybani and Hugo Grotius, it becomes evident that even after eight centuries European law did not attain the lofty heights of humanism, which is a distinctive feature of Islamic law (Kruse 1953). Kruse, who held al-Shaybani in great esteem, founded the Shaybani Society of International Law in 1955. Christopher Weeramantry, a former judge and vice-president of the International Court of Justice at the Hague, describes al-Shaybani as the author of the most detailed early treatise on international law. He adds that al-Shaybani was the precursor for the development of modern international law and that Hugo Grotius’ work on international law might have been influenced by earler Islamic legal scholars, including the work of al-Shaybani (Weeramantry 1988:132, 149-58). The view that Hugo Grotius was the founder of international law is no longer shared by many legal scholars. Even if one considers him as the father of international law, al-Shaybani can justifiably be regarded as the grand-father of international law (Baderin 2012:1082).

Islam and International Refugee Law

A significant component of international law deals with the status and treatment of refugees, displaced persons and asylum seekers. The United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), in collaboration with Naif Arab University and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, sponsored a comparative study of Islamic influences on international refugee law in 2009. The study noted that the Islamic tradition of providing protection and generosity towards people fleeing persecution has had a far greater influence on international refugee law than any other historical source. The study, The Right to Asylum Between Islamic Shari’ah and International Refugee Law: A Comparative Study, shows that Islamic law and tradition respect refugees and asylum seekers, including non-Muslims, forbid forcing them to change their beliefs, seek to reunite them with their families and gusarantees the protection of their lives and property (Abou el Ahmed 2009).

Article 12 of the Cairo Declaration of Human Rights in Islam (1990) says, “Every man shall have the right, if persecuted, to seek asylum in another country. The country of refuge shall be obliged to provide protection to the asylum seeker until his safety has been attained.” References

Abou el Ahmed (2009) The Right to Asylum Between Islamic Shari’ah and International Refugee Law: A Comparative Study.

Baderin, Mashood A. ‘Muhammad al-Shaybani (749/50-805)’ In Bardo Fassbender, Anne Peters, Simone Peter and Daniel Hogger, eds. The Oxford Handbook of the History of International Law. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Ghazi, Mahmood Ahmad (1998) The Shorter Book on Muslim International Law by Muhammad ibn Hasan al-Shaybani. Islamabad: International Islamic University, 1998.

Hamidullah, Muhammad (1979) Muslim Conduct of State. Lahore: Shaikj Muhammad Ashraf.

Khadduri, Majid (1966) The Islamic Law of Nations: Shaybani’s Siyar. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins.

Kruse, Hans (1953) ‘Al-Shaybani on international instruments’ Journal of the Pakistan Historical Society, Vol. 1, 90-100. Kruse, Hans (1955) ‘The foundations of international jurisprudence: Muhammad al-Shaybani: The Grotius of the Muslims’ Journal of the Pakistan Historical Society, 231-67.

Menocal, Maria Rosa (2000) ‘Culture in the Time of Tolerance: Al-Andalus as a Model for Our Time’ Occasional Papers. Paper 1.


Menocal, Maria Rosa (2002) The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in medieval Spain. New York: Little, Brown and Company.

Momin, A. R. (2016) Muhammad Hamidullah: Seerat, Kamalat awr Ifadat (in Urdu), 2nd expanded edition. Delhi: Farid Book Depot.

Weeramantry, C. (1988) Islamic Jurisprudence: An International Perspective. Hampshire: Macmillan.

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