Prof. John Makdisi traces the Islamic Origins of the Common Law


Collected by Zia H Shah MD, Chief Editor of the Muslim Times

We can read John Makdisi’s magnum opus by ordering the North Carlina Law Review article from a Library or by ordering his books from Amazon:

Makdisi, John A. (June 1999), “The Islamic Origins of the Common Law”, North Carolina Law Review 77 (5): 1635–1739.

Professor John A. Makdisi concludes in his article in North Carolina Law Review, in June 1999:

The Islamic legal system was far superior to the primitive legal system of England before the birth of the common law. It was natural for the more primitive system to look to the more sophisticated one as it developed three institutions that played a major role in creating the common law. The action of debt, the assize of novel disseisin, and trial by jury introduced mechanisms for a more rational, sophisticated legal process that existed only in Islamic law at that time. Furthermore, the study of the characteristics of the function and structure of Islamic law demonstrates its remarkable kinship with the common law in contrast to the civil law. Finally, one cannot forget the opportunity for the transplant of these mechanisms from Islam through Sicily to Norman England in the twelfth century.

This is work in progress and I will keep adding samples here and additional information in line with his ideas in the post and in the comment section.

John Makdisi

Prof. John Makdisi

Prof. John Makdisi

Professor of Law

B.A., Harvard College
M.A., St. Vincent de Paul Seminary
J.D., University of Pennsylvania
S.J.D., Harvard Law School

Professor Makdisi has written extensively on American and Islamic property law. His books include INSIDE PROPERTY LAW: WHAT MATTERS AND WHY (Aspen 2009 with Daniel B. Bogart); INTRODUCTION TO THE STUDY OF LAW (3d ed. LexisNexis 2009 with Michael Makdisi); ESTATES IN LAND AND FUTURE INTERESTS (5th ed. Aspen Publishers 2008 with Daniel B. Bogart); FLORIDA PROPERTY LAW: II. CONVEYANCING AND GOVERNMENTAL CONTROLS (Carolina Academic Press 2007); FLORIDA PROPERTY LAW: I. POSSESSION, ESTATES, AND TENANCY (Carolina Academic Press 2006); and ISLAMIC PROPERTY LAW: CASES AND MATERIALS FOR COMPARATIVE ANALYSIS WITH THE COMMON LAW (Carolina Academic Press 2005). Among several articles, his article on The Islamic Origins of the Common Law, 77 N. CAR. L. REV. 1635 (1999), offers a new theory for connections between Islam and the West. From 1981-1991, Professor Makdisi was a faculty member at Cleveland-Marshall College of Law, where he also served as Associate Dean from 1988-91. He served as Dean of the University of Tulsa College of Law from 1991-1994, returned to faculty from 1994-96, and then became Dean at Loyola University New Orleans School of Law from 1996-1999. From 1999-2003, Professor Makdisi served as Dean of St. Thomas University School of Law in Miami, Florida, as well as Interim Vice President for Academic Affairs in 2000-2001. In 2003, he returned to faculty where he is now a Professor of Law and teaches Property, Remedies, and Natural Law.

The beginning of his North Carolina Law Review article

He writes:

The origins of the common law are shrouded in mystery. Created over seven centuries ago during the reign of King Henry II of England, to this day we do not know how some of its most distinctive  institutions arose. For example, where did we get the idea that contract transfers property ownership by words and not by delivery or that possession is a form of property ownership? Even more importantly, where did we get the idea that every person is entitled to trial by jury?
Historians have suggested that the common law is a product of many different influences, the most important being the civil law tradition of Roman and canon law.  Yet, as we shall see, the legal institutions of the common law fit within a structural and functional pattern that is unique among western legal systems and certainly different from that of the civil law. The coherence of this pattern strongly suggests the dominating influence of a single preexisting legal tradition rather than a patchwork of influences from multiple legal systems overlaid on a Roman fabric.  The only problem is that no one preexisting legal tradition has yet been found to fit the picture.  This Article looks beyond the borders of Europe and proposes that the origins of the common law may be found in Islamic law. The first three Parts examine institutions that helped to create the common law in the twelfth century by introducing revolutionary concepts that were totally out of character with existing European legal institutions.  For the first time in English history, (1) contract law permitted the transfer of property ownership on the sole basis of offer and acceptance through the action of debt; (2) property law protected possession as a form of property ownership through the assize of novel disseisin; and (3) the royal courts instituted a rational procedure for settling disputes through trial by jury.  This Article explores the origins of these three institutions by tracing their unique characteristics to three analogous institutions in Islamic law. The royal English contract protected by the action of debt is identified with the Islamic caqd, the English assize of novel disseisin is identified with the Islamic istihqaq, and the English jury is identified with the Islamic lafif.

Islamic contributions to Medieval Europe:


This information is borrowed from an older version of an article of Wikipedia, which has since been deleted, because of its powerful nature, in favor of Islam and disappointment to Islamophobes or fundamentalist apologists of all things Western!
Since the publication of legal scholar John Makdisi’s “The Islamic Origins of the Common Law” in the North Carolina Law Review,[98] there has been controversy over whether English common law was inspired by medieval Islamic law.[104] Several scholars have argued that several fundamental common law institutions may have been adapted from similar legal institutions in Islamic law and jurisprudence, and introduced to England after the Norman conquest of England by the Normans, who conquered and inherited the Islamic legal administration of the Emirate of Sicily (see Arab-Norman culture).[98] In his 1999 paper, Makdisi drew comparisons between the “royal English contract protected by the action of debt” and the “Islamic Aqd”, the “English assize of novel disseisin” and the “Islamic Istihqaq”, and the “English jury” and the “Islamic Lafif” in classical Maliki jurisprudence, and argued that these institutions were transmitted to England by the Normans,[98] “through the close connection between the Norman kingdoms of Roger II in Sicily — ruling over a conquered Islamic administration — and Henry II in England.”[105] Makdisi also argued that English legal institutions such as “the scholastic method, the license to teach,” the “law schools known as Inns of Court” in England (which he asserts are parallel to Madrasas in Islam) and the “European commenda” (parallel to Islamic Qirad) may have also originated from Islamic law.[98] He states that the methodology of legal precedent and reasoning by analogy (Qiyas) are also similar in both the Islamic and common law systems.[106] Makdisi claims these similarities and influences suggest that Islamic law may have laid the foundations for “the common law as an integrated whole”.[98]

Other legal scholars such as Monica Gaudiosi, Gamal Moursi Badr and A. Hudson have argued that the English trust and agency institutions in common law, which were introduced by Crusaders, may have been adapted from the Islamic Waqf and Hawala institutions they came across in the Middle East.[60][107][108] Dr. Paul Brand also notes parallels between the Waqf and the trusts used to establish Merton College by Walter de Merton, who had connections with the Knights Templar. Brand also points out, however, that the Knights Templar were primarily concerned with fighting the Muslims rather than learning from them, making it less likely that they had knowledge of Muslim legal institutions.[104]

Several legal institutions in civil law were also adapted from similar institutions in Islamic law and jurisprudence during the Middle Ages. For example, the Islamic Hawala institution influenced the development of the Avallo in Italian civil law and the Aval in French civil law.[109] The commenda limited partnership used in European civil law was also adapted from the Qirad and Mudaraba in Islamic law. The civil law conception of res judicata[98] and the transfer of debt, which was not permissible under Roman law but is practiced in modern civil law, may also have origins in Islamic law. The concept of an agency was also an “institution unknown to Roman law”, where it was not possible for an individual to “conclude a binding contract on behalf of another as his agent.”

Islamic law also introduced “two fundamental principles to the West, on which were to later stand the future structure of law: equity and good faith”[citation needed], which was a precursor to the concept of pacta sunt servanda in civil law and international law. Another influence of Islamic law on the civil law tradition was the presumption of innocence, which was introduced to Europe by Louis IX of France soon after he returned from Palestine during the Crusades. Islamic law was based on the presumption of innocence from its beginning, as declared by the caliph Umar in the 7th century.[110]

There is evidence that early Islamic international law influenced the development of European international law, through various routes such as the Crusades, Norman conquest of the Emirate of Sicily, and Reconquista of al-Andalus.[110] In particular, the Spanish jurist Francisco de Vitoria, and his successor Grotius, may have been influenced by Islamic international law through earlier Islamic-influenced writings such as the 1263 work Siete Partidas of Alfonso X, which was regarded as a “monument of legal science” in Europe at the time and was influenced by the Islamic legal treatise Villiyet written in Islamic Spain.[110][111]

A number of Islamic legal concepts on human rights were also adopted in European legal systems, including concepts such as the charitable trust, trusteeship of property, human dignity, dignity of labour[citation needed], condemnation of antisocial behavior, presumption of innocence, caring, women’s rights, privacy, juristic personality, individual freedom, equality before the law, non-retroactivity, limited sovereignty, tolerance[citation needed]. Many of these concepts were adopted in medieval Europe through contacts with Islamic Spain and the Emirate of Sicily, and through the Crusades and the Latin translations of the 12th century.[112] After Sultan al-Kamil defeated the Franks during the Crusades, Oliverus Scholasticus praised the Islamic laws of war, commenting on how al-Kamil supplied the defeated Frankish army with food:[113]

“Who could doubt that such goodness, friendship and charity come from God? Men whose parents, sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, had died in agony at our hands, whose lands we took, whom we drove naked from their homes, revived us with their own food when we were dying of hunger and showered us with kindness even when we were in their power.”[113]

Suggested reading and viewing

The Quran Applauded as a Landmark Contribution to ‘Words of Justice’ by Harvard

Prophet Muhammad recognized as a great law-giver by US Supreme court, since 1935


11 replies

  1. The Foundation of Western civilization is more Islamic than Judeo-Christian!
    The Western science borrowed its foundation completely from the pursuit of science in the Muslim civilization in Baghdad and Spain. The West learnt its religious tolerance also from Islam. These are not mere claims, the fact of the matter is that we have several articles here to demonstrate these facts. For example, read more about Umar Farooq on the Muslim Times.

    Likewise, the Western law borrows its foundation from the Islamic Law. I am writing an article about Prof. John Makdisi and his great work on the Muslim Times:

    Only problem with the Sharia Law is that sometimes it is misinterpreted by the power hungry Mullah and sometimes it seems frozen in time to suit the myopic vision of the fundamentalists Muslims or hate-mongering Islamophobes! See a recent article by Atif Mir on this issue.

  2. January volume of Alislam-eGazette is about Muslim heritage

    Alislam-eGazette is a monthly electronic publication of Ahmadiyya Muslim Community that goes to more than 40,000 subscribers each month. I am linking Jan. 2010 and Jan. 2011 volumes here, which link several articles, videos and websites on the theme of Muslim heritage:

  3. Very interesting! This is an aspect that has been ‘under-reported’ so far. Many books were written about the scientific inheritance of Europe from Arab sources, but this is the first time I am reading about Islamic law. I have of course noticed that many laws in the West have copied fairly recently Islamic laws, but mostly due to ‘common sense’ rather than direct copying. (such as divorce for instance).

  4. Islamic Law in Western Nations
    Source / Courtesy: Muslim Sunrise

    By Azhar Ahmed Hussain: a Juris Doctor candidate at Hofstra University School of Law.

    Prof John Makdisi has traced the Islamic Origins of the Common Law

    Islamic law and western countries have a unique relationship that spans nearly 900 years, a relationship that, due to misconception and manufactured hysteria, is undergoing an era of tension. Many of Islam’s most fervent opponents often point to perceived dangers of Islamic law creeping into the American legal system. News pundits, bloggers, and electoral candidates use the concept Islamic law as the epitome of anti-Americanism and indict it as a threat to western culture. Critics look to the Muslim Arbitration Tribunals in England as the start non-secular, Islamic law replacing Western legal systems. Consequently, The Idea of Islamic law in the United States has become so feared that eight states have proposed laws that will ban Islamic law entirely. These efforts are ironic because the Islamic legal system was the inspiration for the Common Law system, a system that is effectuated in the United States, United Kingdom, and her Commonwealth Nations. Some of the verses of the Qur’an provide the background for many of the features found in the modern courtroom.

    Read further in Muslim Sunrise:

  5. christians are too ungrateful to islam. muslims were inspired by allah through hadith which says wisdom is like missing property of a believer, he is entitle to pick it wherever he finds it,and embarked on assembling and molding various human knowledge from different cultures to constitute various systematic fields of science like chemistry, physics, mathematics and medicine which were imported by the west .now it is evident that even western legal systems and social sciencesgot their origin traced back to islam.why, despite all these donations by islam to christian west, christians are heaping all kinds of insults on islam. it is christian bigots who are trying to cover islamic light from westerners to protect their useless religion full of lies. in nigeria the christian association of liars and deceivers are all out supporting the most corrupt govt of jonathan because they got their enough share of stolen public money.some christian leaders are now flying private jets ,while masses are dying from hunger and menaces of zionist boko haram sponsored by christians through jonathan to malign islam

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