Date of Award

Summer 2010

Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Graduate Group

Religious Studies

First Advisor

Dr. Joseph Lowry

Second Advisor

Dr. Jamal Elias

Third Advisor

Dr. Heather Sharkey


This dissertation examines the role of religious authority in the debate over the codification of family law in Bahrain. It analyzes the grounds upon which three sets of actors claim authority over family law: religious scholars, women activists, and the state. While the state already holds the power to determine its laws simply by nature of its character as an authoritarian regime, religious scholars and women activists challenge that power by referencing sources of authority outside the state, such as religious texts and institutions, international human rights treaties, and regional ideals of justice. Elements of Bahrain’s debate are similar to legal debates in other Muslimmajority countries. However, Bahrain’s demography adds a layer of complexity that is not present in any other state. Bahrain’s Shii majority is ruled by the Sunni Ᾱl Khalīfa family. Therefore, the debate regarding the fate of religious law takes on a specifically political tone. The research involved a combination of ethnography, textual analysis, and archival research. A multi-disciplinary approach is used which draws upon work in the fields of religious studies, the history of Islamic law, anthropology, and political science in order to understand, primarily, the workings of power. For instance, the state may have the power to enact a family law, but it does not have the legitimacy to do so ix in the eyes of many Bahrainis. For those citizens, religious scholars have legitimate authority over family law, however, they do not have power. Considering Foucault’s phrase “where there is power, there is resistance,” as well as its inverse, “where there is resistance, there is power,” women’s activism is analyzed here as a “diagnostic of power.” By discovering where and when women activists exert influence reveals relationships of power between and among the state and non-state actors. While the family law debate in Bahrain is about many things: women and the family, the role of sharīʻa in contemporary Muslim society, sectarian relations between a Sunni ruling elite and its Shii population, it is, at the broadest level, a symbolic referendum on the authority of the modern nation-state and its relationship to religious authority.

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