Edited by Jürgen Basedow, Giesela Rühl, Franco Ferrari and Pedro de Miguel Asensio
Chapter I.18: Interreligious law
I. Definition of the phenomenon
In the legal literature, interreligious law has two connotations. First, it describes the legal system of countries where the law is not uniform for all the citizens but depends on their religious affiliation. Second, and more specifically, interreligious law designates a set of ‘special choice-of-law rules’ to solve the internal and interreligious conflict of laws emanating from such a system.
For the sake of clarity, I will use the term religion-based legal pluralism (henceforth RBLP) to designate the first connotation of the term and reserve the term ‘interreligious law’ for the second connotation.
There is undoubtedly a similarity between interreligious law and international private law since both share the same target of determining the applicable law on a matter with parties or legal acts submitted to different normative orderings. Scholars have not agreed upon the question as to whether interreligious law should be considered as part of private international law. In any case, international private law requires the application of interreligious law in order to find the law that should govern the factual matter at stake. This happens, when the choice-of-law rule designates a foreign law of a state with religion-based legal pluralism. To determine which of the religious laws relevant in that country are applicable, the judge should apply the interreligious law prevailing in the latter (eg art 4(3) Introductory Act to the German Civil Code (Einführungsgesetz zum Bürgerlichen Gesetzbuche of 21 September 1994, BGBl. I 2494, as amended), art 12(5) Spanish Civil Code (Código Civil of 24 July 1889, Gaceta de Madrid No 206, 25 July 1889), art 20 Portuguese Civil Code (Código Civil of 25 November 1966, Decreto Lei No 47–344)).
Religions are sets of beliefs based on transcendental elements. They mostly entail certain norms of conduct for their believers towards their fellow men and towards a given deity or other supernatural powers. Religions do not share the same degree of normativity. Islam and Judaism are, for instance, endowed with a huge scope of regulations that encompass all the aspects of the believers’ lives of moral and of legal nature, such as food, contracts, crimes, →marriages, divorce (→Divorce and personal separation) and →succession. Other religions, such as Christianity, have acquired a less dense scope of normativity. At present they adopt the approach as framed by the Biblical verse ‘Render unto Caesar’.
Religion-based legal pluralism is at odds with the Western model of nation states having a territorial law system, where the citizens are subjected to uniform law which is enacted by a centralized state authority and which is applicable to all of them regardless of their religious affiliation. Although dominant, this model cannot claim universality either in a historical perspective or in current times. In our present era, the phenomenon of religious juridical pluralism is far from disappearing when considered from a global perspective. However, it is generally limited to family and inheritance law issues since family relationships most strongly reflect the values and the ethics of a given culture. The family is also still perceived as the best tool for the survival of the collective identity. In addition, inside the state, the family represents a private and a relatively autonomous space. The coexistence of different religion-based family laws does not hinder the functioning of the state, the economy and the society. This would not be the case, if the religious laws were to establish different rules in fields such as the legal capacity (→Capacity and emancipation). It is indispensable for societies and for trading activities to dispose of certain common norms regardless of the religious affiliations of the parties involved.
Throughout the world, one can notice different arrangements of RBLP. Some states incorporate religious laws in their laws so that they formally become state laws. Others just recognize their binding force. There are others that combine the two methods. The religious laws in some countries must be applied by state tribunals. In other countries, those laws are applied by religious tribunals. If provided, religious tribunals coexist with state tribunals. As far as interreligious →choice of law is concerned, states have made use of two methods. Some states have enacted substantive laws to be specifically applied to religiously mixed relationships; others have preferred the elaboration of internal choice-of-law rules; and still others combine both methods.
II. Historical context
The historical evolution of RBLP is dependent on self-perception and the interactions of three p. 1021factors: the state, communities and the individual. It goes without saying that the evolution of those factors has varied geographically. This entry does not aspire to cover the historical evolution of interreligious law worldwide. It will limit itself to the history of the phenomenon in certain regions of the world which were decisive for the current situation of interreligious law. These are Europe, the Islamic world, the Ottoman Empire and the former Western colonies.
The legal history of Europe was determined by struggles of the central state authorities with competing local authorities and with the Church. The uniformity of law slowly followed the birth of sovereign states in the wake of the Westphalian Peace of 1648. Nevertheless, family law resisted the hegemonic aspirations of the state for a longer period. The Church had succeeded in imposing its monopoly on family law issues (mainly →marriage and divorce (→Divorce and personal separation)) since the period between the 10th and the 12th centuries. Christians remained submitted to their religious laws in these matters. Canon law regulated marriage matters for Catholics. Protestants were also submitted to canon regulations, though in a modified form. Jews were under the jurisdiction of Mosaic Law. The breakthrough was prepared by the Enlightenment and the period following the French Revolution in 1789. After the secularization of the state, the Napoleonic Civil Code (1804) established the obligatory civil marriage, whose regulations are applied to all French citizens regardless of their religious affiliations. The obligatory civil marriage was not universally introduced in Germany until as late as 1875. Some parts of southern Europe only recently abandoned their religious marriage laws. In Spain, for instance, until the passage of Law 30/1981 7 July 1981 (Boletín Oficial del Estado 20 July 1981), Spanish Catholics could marry in- and outside Spain only according to Canon Law (Codex Iuris Canonici). Civil marriage was provided only for Catholics who officially left the Church and for adherents of other religions. The validity of the marriage of two Spanish citizens, one of them being Catholic and the other Jewish, required first the application of the Spanish interreligious law as provided for in the Concordat of 1953.
2. Islamic world
In other parts of the world, especially in Muslim countries, RBLP is still prevailing. This is due to the history of Islam where the ruler (beginning with the Prophet Mohamed in the 7th century) combined his lay authority with the considerable spiritual function as commander of the believers.
Under Islamic law, non-Muslims are allowed to live in territories under Islamic authority if they pay a poll tax. In matters of marriage, divorce and succession they are submitted to their own religious laws adjudicated by their religious tribunals, since these matters are considered to be inextricably linked to faith. It should be added that this practice was carried over from the former rulers of the conquered territories, the Sassanide and the Byzantine rulers.
While allowing adherents of other religions to be submitted to their own religious law, Islamic law has enjoyed an overriding authority. In matters opposing Muslims and non-Muslims, Islamic law is applicable and Islamic tribunals have exclusive jurisdiction. Even if non-Muslims are also allowed to present their cases (without any Muslims being involved) to Islamic courts, Islamic law will be applied to them. The general and overriding nature of Islamic law in interreligious law is based on the maxim that ‘Islam supersedes and cannot be superseded’. Interfaith relationships between non-Muslims fall under the exclusive jurisdiction of the Islamic tribunals which apply Islamic law to them. As far as succession is concerned, schools of Islamic law do not agree as to whether non-Muslim individuals following different faiths would be allowed to inherit from each other. There is, however, a consensus that non-Muslims cannot inherit from their Muslim relatives. Sunni Muslims consider this impediment as being bilateral while the Shiites apply it only against non-Muslim heirs. They thus allow Muslims to inherit the estate of the non-Muslim deceased.
3. Ottoman Empire
Under Ottoman rule this state of affairs was maintained and took on the name the ‘millet system’ (‘millet’ means nation). The millet system was an organizational form based on belonging to a given faith. With the conquest p. 1022of huge new territories in the 15th century, the Ottomans dramatically increased the ethnic and religious diversity of their Empire. The Ottoman caliphs gave the leaders of the different religious communities more power in order to guarantee their allegiance to the new Ottoman Empire. They considered them the mediators between their communities and the central Ottoman government. That is why they assigned to them legislative and judicial autonomy. Accordingly, the Ottoman subjects were born inside a ‘millet’ and were submitted spiritually, financially and administratively to a millet-linked status regulating their lives and defining their obligations. They were not allowed to leave their millet unless they converted to Islam. These conversions were in any event few, probably because of the lack of interaction between members of different millets. Most of the conversions happened inside the Christian community, with individuals changing from one denomination to another. In fact, under the Ottoman rules non-Muslim millets were assigned to live in different neighbourhoods and they had little contact with Muslims.
During Ottoman times, Christians and Jews appeared before the Muslim tribunals for inter-communal matters, capital crimes or matters of public order. But they also sometimes appeared before these courts on a voluntary basis. They did so to secure some benefits from the application of Islamic law. Christians and Jews were not allowed to marry each other. This practice was also confirmed by a 19th-century registration regulation (2 September 1881) obliging the persons who intended to marry to get the permission of the leaders of their religious communities. Accordingly, non-Muslims could not avoid the impediment to marriage as provided for in their religious laws. It should nevertheless be added that ever since the classical times of the Ottoman rule, the Islamic-based interreligious law had acknowledged one exception extending beyond the religious paradigm. Specifically, women who were Ottoman subjects were prohibited from marrying non-Ottoman men even if these men were Muslims. Marriages of Muslim Ottoman women with Muslim Iranian men were accordingly annulled.
Under the pressure of the European powers which considered themselves the protectors of the non-Muslim Ottoman subjects, the Ottoman regulation titled Hatti Humayoun was enacted on 18 February 1856. It confirmed the privileges of the non-Muslim communities concerning the free exercise of their faith. However, it abrogated their jurisdiction in civil and penal matters and limited it to matters of →personal status. The question of interreligious law was not addressed in the regulation since religiously mixed relationships were still not common.
The Ottoman Law on family Rights of 1917 (A Bergmann, M Ferid and D Henrich, Internationales Ehe- und Kindschaftsrecht (Israel, Lief. 205) 143) was the first personal status law in the Islamic world addressing both Muslims and non-Muslims. It entailed, however, special regulations for the Jewish and Christian Ottoman subjects. It was also opposed by the spiritual leaders who considered it an infringement upon their legislative autonomy. The 19th century saw many attempts in the Ottoman Empire to enact comprehensive legislation for all Ottomans, but they failed to be brought about.
4. Former Western colonies
The colonial rulers, however, showed less interest than the last Ottoman rulers in submitting all the peoples in their colonies to a uniform law regardless of their religious affiliations in the field of personal status law. The general trend was leaving personal status to be regulated by the religious and customary laws prevailing at the arrival of the colonizers. The colonial rulers wanted to avoid any useless conflict with the indigenous populations and the local leaders. Behind such an attitude there was also the intention to prevent the assimilation and mixture between Europeans and others, as was the case in Indonesia under Dutch colonization. In India, British colonizers similarly did not want to interfere with the existing religion-based legal diversity. But they attempted to rationalize the system by abolishing the religious tribunals and submitting all →personal status matters to Indian-British courts.
Given the increasing number of interfaith relationships, the colonial authorities could not ignore the necessity of finding solutions to the conflict of laws arising from them. While the French colonial authorities gave their own law an overriding binding force in case of conflict with indigenous law, the British and Dutch authorities sought to resolve these conflicts on the basis of abstract and objective standards. In British India, the courts developed on the basis of statutes some principles to resolve p. 1023the internal conflict of laws. For instance, the courts applied the law of the defendant. They also adjudicated some cases on the basis of ‘justice, equity and good conscience’. The Dutch ‘intergentieel recht’ was mainly jurisprudential. The judges applied, for instance, the law of the defendant on interreligious matters. The judges generally adopted solutions provided for in the choice-of-law rules of private international law. For interreligious marriages, however, the Dutch legislator laid down some conflict-of-law rules in the 1898 Decree on Mixed Marriages (Staatsblad 1898 No 158). According to that decree the applicable law was the law of the groom. Accordingly, the marriage between a Muslim Javanese man and a Chinese woman of Christian faith was submitted to Islamic Law.
After decolonization, the new national governing elites of the new states took a different approach to the colonial legacies of interreligious law and RBLP.
III. Contemporary significance
In current times, interreligious law still prevails in different parts of the world, mainly in Asia, Africa and to a lesser extent in the Americas (Surinam). It is, however, limited to the fields of family law and →succession law. In Europe, one of the last strongholds of interreligious law is Western Thrace in →Greece. The application of Islamic Law on Muslim Greeks is limited to the residents of that region and is based on international conventions with Turkey in place since 1881 and on Greek domestic laws, mainly Law 147/1914 (Government Gazette No 25 A Series of 1 February 1914). Nevertheless, the Muslims of that region have the possibility of opting out of Islamic law by performing a civil marriage. In Muslim-majority countries this possibility is not provided.
At the beginning of the post-colonial era, most of the new states were determined to foster national unity and to build a modern legal system that would break with the colonial legacy. Nevertheless, the real impact of this intention on interreligious law depended considerably on the status of religion in the new legal order. In some countries a specific religion has a privileged status and in others all recognized religions are equally treated.
Interreligious law has clear shortcomings in terms of the respect for human rights and the preservation of legal certainty. As a consequence, members of religious communities and the legal systems themselves have developed alternative mechanisms to minimize the impact of those disadvantages. It is interesting though to notice that interreligious law systems seem to have gained in importance in the last two decades.
a) Countries with a religion having a privileged status
Muslim-majoritarian countries (henceforth Muslim countries) and Israel are the main representatives of this type of country.
Muslim countries, with the exception of →Turkey, assign to Islam a particular status by considering it the state religion or/and by stipulating in their constitutions or elsewhere that Islamic law is a source of legislation. These countries have retained the main features of the Ottoman millet system as they submit their non-Muslim citizens to their own religious laws and even in some cases to their religious tribunals in matters of →personal status. Personal status, as commonly used in Muslim countries, covers a wide range of issues such as: capacity (→Capacity and emancipation), legal absence (→Absence (disappearance, presumed death)), →marriage, divorce, custody, guardianship (→Guardianship, custody and parental responsibility) and →succession. Nevertheless, the scope of RBLP is not uniform in all the Muslim countries. Some aspects of personal status have been regulated through uniform laws. In →Egypt, for instance, only marriage and divorce are regulated along interreligious lines (Law 462 of 1955 on Abolition of the Sharia and Milli Tribunals: An-nashra at-tashrīcīya 1955, July–September, 2348). Succession issues are regulated by a uniform law applicable to all Egyptians (Law No 77/1943 on Inheritance of 6 August 1943 Official Gazette No 92 12 August 1943, 18). Such is the case for the duty of care of minor’s property (Decree-Law No 119/1952 on Duty of care of minor’s property: Qawānīn al-aẖwāl ashakhṣīya [Statutes on the Personal Status] (Dar al Ḥaqqānīya 2006), 131). In Morocco, however, Jewish citizens are submitted to their own religious law in extended matters of personal status: legal capacity (→Capacity and emancipation), interdiction, guardianship (→Guardianship, custody and parental responsibility), →marriage, divorce p. 1024(→Divorce and personal separation) and →succession.
Despite this difference, the distinctive feature in this type of country is the overriding authority of Islamic law. In cases of interreligious relationships, where a Muslim is involved, Islamic law is automatically applied. The Moroccan personal status law (Mudawwana) of 2004 (Official Gazette No 5184 of 5 February 2004, 421) is to a large extent inspired by the Maliki School of Islamic law. It is not applicable to all Moroccans. Article 2 specifies that Jewish Moroccans are submitted to Moroccan Jewish personal status law applied by the rabbinical tribunals. Nevertheless, the same provision stipulates that the Mudawwana is applied to relationships between two Moroccans, one of them being Muslim. In Egypt, as well, Islamic law enjoys an overriding authority. Article 6 of the Law on the Abolishment of Religious Tribunals of 1955 stipulates that Islamic law, as embedded in Egyptian state law, is applied to non-Muslims who do not share the same rite, sect and religion. Moreover, the non-Muslims’ religious laws are applied within the limits of public policy, which is mainly based on the absolute principles of Islamic law.
In many Muslim countries, such as →Egypt and Morocco, there is also a tendency to apply the internal interreligious law to private international proceedings. As soon as a Muslim is involved in a relationship, Islamic law is applied regardless of his →nationality. For example, an Egyptian tribunal considered the bigamous marriage of a British Muslim man with a Greek-Orthodox Greek woman as valid. As a matter of public policy, the tribunal applied the Egyptian Islamic law-based personal status law and held that, as a Muslim, the British citizen was allowed to be bigamous and to marry a non-Muslim monotheist woman. Interestingly, the tribunal ignored the then pertaining prohibition of such unions in Greek civil law (Cairo tribunal of 1st instance, 5 January 1954: Majallat al-qaẓā’ wat-tashrīc Year 6, No 19, 357).
In the context of Muslim countries, →Tunisia represents a paradox. In fact, Islam is the state religion, but Islamic law is not considered a source of law. Moreover, the personal status code has since 1957 been applied to all Tunisians regardless of their religious affiliations. The code does not entail any explicit prohibition of marriage between a Muslim woman and a non-Muslim man – as prohibited under Islamic law – nor does it include an explicit impediment to inheritance between Muslims and non-Muslims. Nevertheless, administrative practice and case-law principally recognize these Islamic law-based proscriptions.
→Israel defines itself as a Jewish state and Judaism has a particular status there. Israel kept the millet system that it inherited from the period of rule under the Ottoman Empire and the British mandate. Each recognized religious community has its own →personal status law and its own religious tribunals (rabbinical, Islamic, tribunals of different Christian denominations and Druze tribunals). Religious law is, however, in some constellations submitted to secular state law limitations. For instance, it is forbidden for a Muslim Imam to conclude the marriage of a Muslim man with a Jewish woman, although this is allowed in Islamic law. Imams are also prevented from concluding a bigamous marriage by Israeli penal law.
There is no civil marriage in Israel. Cases involving parties from different religious communities are to be submitted to the President of the Supreme Court who designates the competent jurisdiction (Section 55 of the Palestine Order-in-Council 1922/1939: in RH Drayton (ed), The Laws of Palestine, vol III (1934) 2569; The Palestine Gazette 1939, Supplement 2, 459).
Religious tribunals have exclusive jurisdiction on marriage and divorce matters among their members and a concurrent jurisdiction with the state family courts on matters of alimony, maintenance and succession.
Although Jewish law does not apply as a general law to Palestinian Arabs, it does have this function to a certain extent in relation with non-Jewish Israeli citizens who do not follow one of the recognized faiths in Israel.
b) Countries with no religion having a privileged status
In →Lebanon, there are around 18 recognized religious authorities. The constitution of 1926 guarantees the autonomy of each recognized religious community to regulate and adjudicate the personal status issues of its members (art 9). While ‘committing itself to the Most High’, the Lebanese constitution treats the recognized religions equally. The religious tribunals coexist with state tribunals, but they do not have any concurrent jurisdiction. In addition, the jurisdiction determines the applicable law. The legislator laid down several interreligious regulations to be applied to interreligious relationships, mainly marriages. For instance, p. 1025the validity of the marriage is to be assessed by the religious authority having celebrated the marriage, which is the authority of the husband unless the spouses-to-be had chosen to marry before the religious authority of the wife-to-be (arts 14 and 15 of the Law on the Regulation of Christian Sects and the Israelite Sect: A Bergmann, M Ferid and D Henrich, Internationales Ehe- und Kindschaftsrecht (Libanon, Lief. 125) 44).Thus, Lebanese law does not confer to any religious law per se an overriding jurisdiction. The interreligious conflict of laws is to be solved according to abstract criteria, such as the religious authority having performed the marriage. This is, however, problematic in Lebanon in case of the conversion of one of the spouses to Islam. In fact, the Sharia tribunals would in that case immediately apply Islamic law. The Lebanese law does not provide any systematic solution to the inconsistencies arising from the application of different religious laws and state law. The case-law, however, intended to find new solutions pragmatically on a case-to-case basis.
Many voices have been raised in society and in the political arena in support of enacting a secular Lebanese marriage law. The advocates of an optional secular marriage law focus on the shortcomings of the interreligious →personal status system in Lebanon, which are mainly the infringement of human rights and freedoms and the reduction of legal certainty. →India could to a certain extent achieve that goal through the enactment of the Special Marriage Act of 9 October 1954 (<http://keralaregistration.gov.in/pearlpublic/downloads/The%20Special%20Marriage%20Act.pdf?tok=49sddh3ss34ff4>). This Act enables those Indians who are normally subjected to their respective religious laws (Christian, Hindu, Muslim and Parsi laws) to perform a civil marriage. It is also possible to register the marriage under this Act after it was celebrated according to religious law. Marriages concluded or registered under this Act are subjected to particular secular post-divorce remedies. Inheritance issues are regulated for these marriages according to the civil Indian Succession Act of 1925 (Indian Gazette Part IV of 10 October 1925, 69). The core aspect of this innovation is that it allows interreligious and inter-caste marriages. In opposition to other countries with a personal law system like Israel and Lebanon, India provides its citizens with the opportunity to marry outside the limits of their respective religious communities, without being obliged to renounce their faith and without being obliged to leave the country to marry abroad. These achievements stand as a goal that Indonesia, unlike India, was not able to realize. Indonesia, with the largest Muslim population in the world, is formally grounded upon ‘the belief in the One and Only God’. Interreligious law was purposely kept vague and incomplete. There are no regulations governing interreligious marriage, although this phenomenon is common in the Indonesian society. The civil state tribunals have tried to find some pragmatic solutions for this problem as well as linked questions. For instance, the Indonesian Supreme court stated in the Jazilah case (Jazilah v Subandiyah Ammar Asof, etc, Varia Peradilan  Supreme Court of Indonesia, case No 51 K/AG, Year XVI No 192, September 2001, 85–93 (in Indonesian)) that Christian parties could inherit from their Muslim relatives and justified this solution with a new interpretation of Islamic law.
2. Alternatives avoiding the application of state-sponsored religious laws
It seems that the interpersonal system of law can lead, in certain aspects, to the infringement upon individual rights and freedoms as enshrined in the constitutions of the examined countries. The Lebanese constitution, for instance, guarantees the freedom of religion and conscience. Nevertheless, subjecting the members of a religious community to their religious laws without giving them any possibility of opting out is considered by secular human rights activists a violation of their freedom of religion. As already mentioned, religious laws tend to assure the cohesion of the community, and this aim thus takes priority over individual rights such as the right to choose one’s spouse freely. Very often, the religious laws also contain regulations which violate the equality of the citizens on the basis of religious or gender considerations. Because of these shortcomings, members of the religious communities attempt to avoid the coercive nature of interreligious law. They are often backed in this regard by the judiciary. For instance, Israeli courts recognize the institution of reputed spouses. These are couples who live together as husband and wife without being formally married and who enjoy p. 1026similar rights to those derived from the status of marriage.
Couples marry abroad to avoid the religious barriers imposed on their marriage in their own country. The status of these marriages is, however, not always clear when they go back home. Others might undertake a conversion of convenience in order to be subjected to the most favourable status.
3. Revival of interreligious law
Despite the numerous shortcomings of interreligious law, in nearly all parts of the world we can observe a revival of interreligious law or at least of claims of establishing or of extending it.
In Africa, for instance, issues of religious legal pluralism have dominated the debates on constitutional reforms which have been undertaken in the last decade. This may be explained by the increase of sectarian violence in Sub-Saharan Africa. In Kenya, the new constitution adopted by referendum on 4 August 2010 recognizes the right of Islamic tribunals, so-called Khadi courts, to deal with disputes among Muslims about issues of →marriage, divorce (→Divorce and personal separation) and →succession on the basis of Islamic law. With this reform the jurisdiction of the Khadi courts was extended to the whole territory of Kenya, whereas it was previously limited to the territory of the former Protectorate. The new Kenyan constitution seems to foster religious legal pluralism as it specifies that the provisions on equality and freedom from discrimination in the enjoyment of fundamental rights should be ‘qualified to the extent strictly necessary for the application of Muslim law before the Khadi courts to persons who confess the Muslim religion, in matters relating to personal status, marriage, divorce or inheritance’. In addition, it seems that the state even intends to extend the scope of religious legal pluralism in the future. In fact, § 45(4) of the constitution enshrines the right of the parliament to recognize ‘marriages concluded under any tradition, or system of religious, personal or family law’.
In South Africa, customary law has been fully recognized in the post-apartheid era as having the same status as Roman-Dutch common law. The Muslim community there has been advocating for the recognition of Islamic marriages and Islamic personal law. The process of drafting the Muslim Marriages Bill has been very long and difficult. The bill is presently laid before the parliament for discussion. Nevertheless, Islamic marriages have been recognized since the end of April 2014.
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Geoffrey Wilson Bartholomew, ‘Private Interpersonal Law’ (1952) 1 ICLQ 325;
Maurits Berger, ‘Secularizing Interreligious Law in Egypt’ (2005) 12/3 Islamic Law and Society 394;
Talia Einhorn, Private International Law in Israel (2nd edn, Wolters Kluwer 2012);
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Kurt Lipstein and Istvàn Szàszy, ‘Interpersonal Conflict of Laws’ in Kurt Lipstein and Istvàn Szàszy (eds), International Encyclopedia of Comparative Law, vol 3 (Mohr Siebeck 2011) I ch 10; Ratno Lukito, Legal Pluralism in Indonesia (Routledge 2013);
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