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Islam and the Indian Ocean: Legal Culture and Economic Life to c. 1900  

Fahad Ahmad Bishara

For historians of the Indian Ocean, the stakes in thinking about law and economic life are very high. As a key arena of world history, the Indian Ocean world has emerged as a site for reflecting on issues of connectivity and circulation, and for writing histories that cover broad spans of space and time. Many of these histories—and indeed, the pioneering works in the field—have focused on matters of trade and empire, the twin pillars of world history more broadly. Since around 2000, research has taken on different forms of migration as well as matters of ideology, culture, epidemiology, and more, but many of these discussions are still built on foundations of trade and empire: people, books, ideas, and diseases primarily circulate through networks forged via trade or through imperial channels. All of it, however, requires a rigorous engagement with questions of law, which undergirded production and trade in the region. The history of law and economic life in the Indian Ocean might be mapped onto three arenas. First, law played an important role in the politico-economic constitution of empires (Muslim or otherwise) in the Indian Ocean. Beyond that, though, one must consider the legal dynamics of trade networks within this world of empires, examining the intersecting private-order and public mechanisms that merchants drew on to regulate their commercial affairs. And finally, the histories of law, empire, and economic life all intersected in courtrooms around the Indian Ocean world, as economic actors took their disputes to different tribunals, shaping the contours of the legal history of the region.