Politics professor’s book challenging Western notions of Sharia wins global acclaim

a headshot of Mark Massoud
Politics and Legal Studies Professor Mark Fathi Massoud

Politics and Legal Studies Professor Mark Fathi Massoud’s book, Shari‘a, Inshallah: Finding God in Somali Legal Politics, has captured global attention in the past year, earning him a series of book award recognitions, invitations to speak across Africa, Asia, Europe, and North America, and a closed session with resident representatives of the United Nations Development Program.

Massoud’s book, published in 2021, traces Somalia’s history and contemporary politics to reveal how Sharia—a system of Islamic religious rules often portrayed as a tool of extremism or oppression—can advance human rights and promote the rule of law. 

For example, the book shares stories of Somali women’s rights activists who are teaching how gender equality is compatible with the principles of Islam. These activists have found that appeals through the lens of Sharia are more effective than those that emphasize legal rights under international law. Massoud has argued this indicates that international advocacy organizations will need to understand and acknowledge the role of Islam in order to support human rights efforts in Somalia and other Muslim-majority nations.

“Many Somali women have actually been fighting religious fundamentalism not by demanding religion stay out of politics but by promoting religious interpretations of women's rights, and they do this because they know that religion is so essential to people's lived experiences,” Massoud said. “And in countries that experienced European colonialism, many people see legal conceptions like human rights as just another Western imposition, but religious interpretations of social justice resonate.”

Massoud shared findings from Shari‘a, Inshallah on the rule of law and gender with senior officials, known as resident representatives, of the United Nations Development Program at a meeting last month. The closed session was organized in connection with Gender at Work, a global feminist network that is working to end discrimination against women.  

Earlier this month, on April 7, Shari‘a, Inshallah was also awarded the 2022 Hart-SLSA Book Prize from the Socio-Legal Studies Association, which recognizes the year’s top book in the field. And in January, Massoud’s book was honored as a finalist for the American Association of Publishers PROSE Award for the best book on government & politics published in 2021. 

Massoud says the book’s example of how religion and politics entwine in East Africa holds lessons for other regions of the globe. In particular, he argues that religious moral authority often helps to establish rule of law, which has historically laid the path for many of today’s democracies. 

“One of the things I hope people see in the book is that the rule of law—this concept that is so fundamental to ensuring thriving democracies—has its roots in religion,” he said. “Even today, religious faith is very much a part of the underlying politics in America and Somalia alike, and people invoke religious faith for all kinds of politics, from conservative to progressive.”

Massoud will discuss these themes from the book and more during a series of four hybrid lectures this May for the University of Oxford. He was selected to give Oxford’s Evans-Pritchard Lectures, which will take place on May 10, 17, 25, and 31 and will be open to the public virtually. 

Overall, Massoud said the widespread interest in and appreciation for Shari‘a, Inshallah has been an uplifting and emotional experience for him. 

“I feel so much gratitude for all of the people who supported me through the process of developing this book, and seeing this kind of recognition has just made all of that come flooding in,” he said. “It’s really special to have this validation from others, but ultimately, the biggest reward is the opportunity through this book to share something meaningful with the world about the powers of faith and law.”