Fluid Jurisdictions: Colonial Law and Arabs in Southeast Asia
(Cornell University Press, 2020) by Prof. Nurfadzilah Yahaya is a wide-ranging, geographically ambitious book that tells the story of the Arab diaspora within the context of British and Dutch colonialism, unpacking the community's ambiguous embrace of European colonial authority in Southeast Asia. Here, Yahaya looks at colonial legal infrastructure – discussing how it impacted, and was impacted by, Islam and ethnicity. But more importantly, she follows the actors who used this framework to advance their particular interests. Yahaya explains why Arab minorities in the region helped to fuel the entrenchment of European colonial legalities: their itinerant lives made institutional records necessary. Securely stored in centralized repositories, such records could be presented as evidence in legal disputes. In order to ensure accountability down the line, Arab merchants valued notarial attestation land deeds, inheritance papers, and marriage certificates by recognized state officials. Colonial subjects continually played one jurisdiction against another, sometimes preferring that colonial legal authorities administer Islamic law—even against fellow Muslims. Fluid Jurisdictions draws on lively material from multiple international archives to demonstrate the interplay between colonial projections of order and their realities, Arab navigation of legally plural systems in Southeast Asia and beyond, and the fraught and deeply human struggles that played themselves out between family, religious, contract, and commercial legal orders.
Nurfadzilah Yahaya is a legal historian of the Indian Ocean. She is currently Assistant Professor at the History Department, National University of Singapore (NUS). She was a Research Fellow at the Asia Research Institute until June 2016, NUS. She is the Editor of the World Legal History Blog on Humanities and Social Sciences Online (H-net). She received her PhD in History from Princeton University in 2012, and was a Postdoctoral Fellow in Islamic Studies in Washington University in St. Louis until June 2015. She has published journal articles in Law and History Review, Indonesia and the Malay World, and The Muslim World.
Kelvin Ng hosted the episode. He is a Ph.D. student at Yale University, History Department. His research interests broadly lie in the history of imperialism and anti-imperialism in the early-twentieth-century Indian Ocean circuit.
Janna Aladdin is a recent MA graduate of NYU’s Near Eastern studies program.