A Guide to Introductory Research

By Marylin Johnson Raisch

Religious legal systems

Religious law emanates from the sacred texts of religious traditions and in most cases purports to cover all aspects of life as a seamless part of devotional obligations to a transcendent, imminent, or deep philosophical reality, either personal or cosmological. Religion for law must be defined broadly but its truth value need not and ought not to be addressed. Most religious law gradually came to apply in its most institutional form to its own organizations and to familial or contractual matters. Application to ritual is a gray area but generally excluded from discussion and classification.

Religious law in this guide is seen as a branch of comparative law and legal study. Further, it is argued here that comparative law itself may most usefully be seen as part of the tradition of legal philosophy. Far from being wholly academic, however, comparative law is a practical approach in the service of 1) legal education 2) the appreciation of treaty implementation and 3) choice of law in the new world of public/private international law known as transnational law. At the conclusion of this guide to sources is a brief discussion of this approach to comparative law.

After the events of September 11, 2001, academic interest in Islamic law and countries governed by its principles as implemented along with secular positive law grew in an attempt both to understand the legal culture of middle eastern conflicts and to explore ways to address issues arising in multicultural jurisdictions with greater understanding. It is clear that in areas of private law such as family law, inheritance, and in come commercial transactions, several religious systems influence secular law or are incorporated as a regime which may or must be applied in those areas or to members of certain religious communities. As sources for legal research in these areas are inter-disciplinary and often less known in the world of legal research, an overview of the major world systems, and where and how they are implemented, is offered.

General sources

  • Religion and Law Research Consortium
  • Included as a taxonomic concept, London Business School (UK) site
  • Internet Sacred Text Archive
  • Religion Case Reporter (for U.S. cases)

Constitutions, sources of texts: essential for determining if religious law applies in certain legal systems and in what areas of law

  • Constitutions of the Countries of the World, OceanaOnline (paid subscription database)
  • Constitution Finder, University of Richmond
  • World Legal Information Institute
  • International Constitutional Law
  • CIA World Factbook; updates on world constitutions
  • World Legal Systems, University of Ottawa, contains excellent maps; overview of all traditions in jurisdictions of the world however in this area exercise caution: information for the legal system of Israel indicates the application of Talmudic law. This is not actually the case; Israel is a secular state applying many kinds of religious law in certain areas for certain communities, only one of which is Jewish. Islamic and other religious law also may be an option for religious communities in Israel.
  • Berkley Center for Religion and World Affairs at Georgetown University, Religious Perspectives Database. From the web site: “The Religious Perspectives Database allows users to compare and contrast key scriptural passages across five traditions [Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam and Judaism] and five themes [inside/outside, justice/injustice, health/illness, wealth/poverty, and peace/violence]. The column and row headers point to introductory essays by Georgetown professors. Behind the individual cells of the grid you will find short essays on how each tradition approaches each theme, and links to key scriptural passages.” Direct link:
  • Traditions- legal anthropology, links to ancient law, semiotics , and hermeneutics:
  • Alan Watson Foundation, / (Roman law and legal transplants; Prof. Watson’s bibliography is especially useful for canon law studies)
  • World Digital Library, (LOC, Alexandria Egypt), /
  • Famous World Trials,  (trials of Jesus, Galileo, Salem witches)
  • Church and State- AcademicInfo, Law and Legal Research: Law and Religion – U.S.-based site for  links relating to church/state issue, Native American religious issues, and U.S. Supreme Court cases.
  • General humanities guide to research on world religions (print and electronic, such as CD ROM encyclopedias of Judaism and Islam, free and paid databases and text archives)
  • General comparative religion – U.K. site for resources on world religions
  • British Academy Portal – follow the ‘Theology and Religious Studies’ link from the home page

Comparative law treatises with treatment of religious law:

  • David, Rene and John E.C. Brierley. Major legal systems in the world today: an introduction to the comparative study of law. 3rd ed. London: Stevens, 1996, 1985.
  • Glenn, Patrick H. Legal traditions of the world: sustainable diversity in law. 3rd ed. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.
  • International Association of Legal Science. International encyclopedia of comparative law. Tübingen: J.C.B. Mohr (Paul Siebeck); New York: Oceana, 1973- .
  • Redden, Kenneth R.; Brock, William Emerson. Modern Legal Systems Cyclopedia Buffalo, N.Y., U.S.A.: W.S. Hein, 1984- (loose-leaf; 10 vols.)
  • Zweigert, Konrad,  and Hein Kötz. Introduction to comparative law. 3rd rev. ed. Oxford: Clarendon Press; New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.


Aaron Kuperman, cataloger in the Library of Congress Social Science Cataloging Division, Law Team, has observed that “‘Religious law’ is a square peg that doesn’t fit well in the round hole of American law.”  Ritual traditions and modern legal anthropology create most of the blurred distinctions between legal and non-legal classification decisions in particular collections. Mr. Kuperman, along with Jolande Goldberg, Senior Cataloging Policy Specialist in the Cataloging Policy & Support Office at the Library of Congress, as well as Lesley Wilkins and the Islamic Legal Studies program at Harvard Law School, have worked on the development of the LC classification schedules for religious legal systems:

  • KB – comparative religious law
  • KBP – Islamic Law
  • KBM- Jewish law
  • KBR- for Canon Law.
  • KBS – the Catholic Church and Modern Canon Law
  • KNS- Hindu Law

For LC Subject Heading access, the above descriptors, adding only Buddhist law, work well either as actual broader term headings (which will require a limit with a term, say “women,” especially for Islamic law) or as keyword searches.

For Confucian “law” it is necessary to use e.g., Philosophy, Confucian-[country name] or Confucian as a keyword with “ethics” or “law.”

Religious legal systems: Outline. Each religious system will be presented in two sections:

  • Essential facts
  • Basic sources and their descriptions: internet/electronic, books, articles

Subject headings: Books and Articles

Please note that for this guide, very few monographs are listed. This is a selection intended to suggest further searches under the subject headings discussed above under “classification.” Articles are drawn mainly from legal periodical indexing for two reasons, 1) to demonstrate the existence of this narrower subject area in that literature, and 2) to exclude the wider and very numerous publications in legal anthropology, a closely-related discipline which should be researched in a thorough scholarly exposition of the entire field. It is, however, beyond the scope of this guide.  Extensive resources are available through Google Books and Google Scholar.