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Misinterpreted Justice: Problems with the Use of Islamic Legal Experts in U.S. Trial Courts

23 Pages Posted: 15 Jun 2011 Last revised: 19 Aug 2011

Peter W. Beauchamp

affiliation not provided to SSRN

Date Written: May 1, 2011


This note argues that the inherently pluralistic nature of Islamic law makes it impossible for U.S. courts to legitimately rely upon the expert opinion of Islamic legal scholars in the same way that expert legal opinion has traditionally been applied in legal proceedings. Generally speaking, the purpose of admitting expert testimony in U.S. courts is to explain and to illuminate for the trier of fact certain theoretically immutable or “true” facts which the fact finder would otherwise fail to comprehend due to a lack of expertise. This premise does not fit when weighing issues of Islamic law. Islamic law has, since its inception, been a pluralistic field insofar as multiple, differing interpretations of a single legal issue can concurrently be “true,” depending upon the myriad of lenses and approaches available for properly engaging with the subject. However, a U.S. court’s need to concretely establish certain questions of fact and law in order to adjudicate a controversy arising under either U.S. or Islamic law will necessarily mean that one or another Islamic legal expert’s opinion will carry the day. This is problematic because the result of the trial can be either a decision lacking the familiarity and consistency of a traditional U.S. common law legal proceeding, or one which is not a nuanced or legitimate encapsulation of Islamic law (or sometimes both).

Specifically, this note analyzes three different cases from three different fields of law decided by U.S. courts that illustrate this problem: United States v. Hayat, which deals with criminal prosecutions; Freeman v. Department of Highway Safety & Motor Vehicles, which deals with the free exercise of religion; and Saudi Basic Industries Corp. v. Mobil Yangbu Petrochemical Co., which deals with tort law. This note contends that, in each of these cases, decisive expert testimony relating to some facet of Islamic law was improperly applied or precluded, and concludes by suggesting a different way for U.S. courts to treat the testimony of Islamic legal experts.

This note was awarded the 2010 Otto L. Walter Distinguished Writing Award, the 2010 Ernst C. Stiefel Writing Award for Excellence in Comparative-Common Civil Law, and a 2010 New York Law School Law Review Best Note award. Mr. Beauchamp's faculty adviser for this note was Professor Sadiq Reza of New York Law School.

Keywords: Islamic Law, Expert Testimony, Misinterpret, United States, Trial, Court

Suggested Citation

Beauchamp, Peter W., Misinterpreted Justice: Problems with the Use of Islamic Legal Experts in U.S. Trial Courts (May 1, 2011). New York Law School Law Review, Vol. 55, No. 4, pp. 1097-1119, 2010/11. Available at SSRN:

Peter W. Beauchamp (Contact Author)

affiliation not provided to SSRN ( email )

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