REVIEW: Privacy in Islamic Legal History (A Review of Christian Lange, “Privacy in Islamic Law” (2009))

Utrecht University’s Chair of Arabic and Islamic Studies Christian Lange takes a historical view on the question of privacy in Islamic law. On his review of the medieval discussions of privacy, he notes that they arise mainly in the domain of the private sphere of the family and sometimes have trickle-down effects into the criminal law arena. “Norms, attitudes, and concepts implying an “ethos of anti-exhibitionism,” including the “inviolability (ḥurma) and dignity (karāma) of the human body,” are relaxed for family members. Within criminal law, high standards of evidence protect familial privacy by deterring baseless accusations of criminal misconduct, in part, by excluding evidence obtained from outsiders’ prying eyes. [Consider this an early form of the U.S. exclusionary rule, which some Justices believe to be unique to American law!] Nevertheless, Lange concludes that the traditional notion of privacy in Islamic law is a concept that “lack[s] conceptual autonomy.” Codified absolutes are uncommon. As a result, “[g]eneralizations are to be avoided, but communal interests seem to play a more important role in Islamic legal regulations of privacy than the protection of the rights of the individual.”

Read the article in full: “Privacy in Islamic Law”, in: Stanley N. Katz (gen. ed.), Oxford International Encyclopedia of Legal History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009)