Fluid Jurisdictions: Colonial Law and Arabs in Southeast Asia to be published by Cornell University Press in Fall 2020
Summary: During the nineteenth century, legitimacy in the conduct of trade was no longer enforced by Muslim networks, but rather by British and Dutch colonial connections across the Indian Ocean. Compliance with colonial bureaucracies and legal systems did not necessarily mean obedience however. Arab merchants’ itinerant lives made institutional records all the more necessary. Securely stored in centralized institutional depositories in European colonies in Southeast Asia, these documents could be conveniently retrieved and presented as evidence in legal disputes. In order to ensure accountability down the line, these merchants valued British and Dutch notarial attestation of important documents such as land deeds and marriage certificates by recognized colonial state officials in British Straits Settlements and Netherlands Indies. In particular, the Arab mercantile diaspora’s desire for a monopoly of religious authority in the region coalesced in an ambiguous embrace of European colonial authority that led to a significant expansion of colonial legal jurisdictions over Muslim affairs. Subsequently, Arab diasporas displayed a clear propensity for using colonial legal forums, rather than autonomous legal forums such as religious courts as the courts of the first instance, but only if the source of substantive law was approved by them. Over time, they slowly lost their grip over colonial officials who administered Islamic law with minimal input from subject populations.