Religion, Political & Legal Structures

Historically, a customary legal system prevailed in the Gulf region, where the leader of a tribe served as the arbiter in disputes and judged according to custom and to his knowledge of Islam. This was replaced with an Islamic court system following the spread of Wahhabism in the late eighteenth century. These courts followed Hanbali jurisprudence, one of the four main schools of Sunni Islamic law.[1] By the late nineteenth century Hanbali shari’a fully dominated Qatari Islamic courts, which oversaw both civil and criminal matters until the arrival of the British.

The shift from customary law to specifically Islamic law transformed the role of tribal leaders; though they no longer passed judgments, individuals dissatisfied with a court ruling could appeal to the ruler. Following independence in 1971, the original Qatari constitution was created, the first article of which establishes Islam as the state religion and Islamic law the source of legislation. Numerous other provisions relate to the monarchy; Article 8 affirms heredity rule as a legal right of the male descendants of Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa, granted to whichever son is named Heir Apparent by the ruler, and Article 9 further states that the Heir Apparent must be Muslim of a Qatari Muslim mother. The Emir’s power is enshrined in the constitution, which places him at the head of state and of the armed forces, giving him the power to appoint or reappoint ministers at will and to establish and organize ministries and various other consultative bodies.[2] Notably, the constitution gives Qatari courts no power to restrict the actions of the Emir, and the Emir himself appoints all judges, and all justices in the recently established Supreme Court.[3] A new constitution was drafted in 1999, approved by referendum in 2004, and ratified by the Emir in 2004; the provisions on Islam and Islamic law remained unchanged.[4]

Qatar has a dual legal system, providing multi-tiered Islamic courts which attend predominantly to personal status issues, as well as civil (‘adliyya) courts.[5] The civil courts evolved out of the British legal system after the British protectorate period and which managed British and non-Muslim expatriate legal issues. Unlike civil courts in other Gulf states, the ‘adliyya courts are regarded as an independent and self-regulating legal body.[6] While the Minister of Justice oversees the civil courts, he does not issue laws, rather, these are determined by the courts themselves. The current constitution entitles the emir to grant pardons or commute penalties.[7] Notably, since 2005 a separate Islamic court system has been available for Shi’a Muslims and judges personal status cases according to Shi’a Ja’afari jurisprudence.[8]

Islamic religious and cultural mores regulate the lives of non-Muslim expatriates in Qatar. For example, blasphemy is treated with great sensitivity; in the spring of 2013, a Nepali schoolteacher was accused by students of insulting Islam and faced up to seven years in prison before being released and returning to Kathmandu.[9] In November of the same year, an Algerian principal at a French high school fled Qatar after being accused of anti-Islam sentiment for a policy barring girls from wearing headscarves in class, again facing a possible five-year sentence for “offending Islam.”[10] Qatari laws prohibiting adultery have also made it illegal for women to give birth to children outside of marriage.[11] Homosexuality is also illegal in Qatar and many have been prosecuted under sodomy laws. Even so, George Michael, an openly gay American singer, performed in Doha in 2008. The most recent case garnering worldwide attention is that of Qatari poet Muhammad al-Ajami, who was arrested in 2011 and sentenced to fifteen years in prison for criticizing the former Emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa, and for celebrating the effects of the Arab Spring in the region. International rights groups have strongly condemned al-Ajami’s case, calling it highly politicized and criticizing secret court sessions.[12] As of this writing, he remains imprisoned.

Qatar hosts controversial speakers who preach hate-filled, anti-Semitic rhetoric, generating international criticism. The events are shown on Qatari television and promoted by the Qatar Foundation with high praise on social media, including extremists who have called for ongoing violence against Jews, have publicly praised Hitler and Osama Bin Ladin. Michelle Obama visited Qatar in November, 2015 to speak about the importance of education for girls and women.[13]



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[1] Peter Moscovitz, “Amnesty International: Qatar failing to enforce its labor laws,” Al Jazeera America, November 17, 2013,, accessed November 27, 2013.

[2] Ahmed Khedr, “A Guide to Qatar’s Legal System,” Hauser Global Law School Program at NYU Law (July 2009),, accessed November 26, 2013.

[3] Nathan J. Brown, The Rule of Law in the Arab World: Courts in Egypt and the Gulf (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), p. 183; Fromherz, Qatar: A Modern History, p. 137.

[4] “The Constitution,” Hukoomi (2013),!ut/p/c4/04_SB8K8xLLM9MSSzPy8xBz9CP3I8uRcq4LEkgxVQ-NEVQOP0uz8_NxMVUMjg_DUJBDlnJ9XkppXgpAycEzKLy0BSQUmliQWqRqEZKRCFRaXZJaUgozWL8h2VAQAj2L5Dw!!/, accessed November 27, 2013.

[5] A. Nizar Hamzeh, “Qatar: The Duality of the Legal System,” Middle Eastern Studies, Vol. 30, No. 1 (1994), pp. 79–90.

[6] Brown, The Rule of Law in the Arab World: Courts in Egypt and the Gulf, p. 130.

[7] Khedr, “A Guide to Qatar’s Legal System.”

[8] “International Religious Freedom Report for 2012: Qatar,” Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor (2012).

[9] Anup Kaphle, “Qatar jails a Nepali teacher on charges of insulting Islam,” The Washington Post, May 9, 2013,, accessed November 26, 2013.

[10] Colin Randall, “French principal flees Qatar after claims of anti-Muslim attitudes,” The National, November 7, 2013,, accessed November 26, 2013.

[11] “Law No. 11 of 2004 Issuing the Penal Code,” Al Meezan (2013),, accessed November 26, 2013; “Facing jail, unmarried pregnant women in Qatar left with hard choices,” Doha News, August 27, 2013,, accessed November 26, 2013.

[12] “Qatar court upholds poet Mohammed al-Ajami’s sentence,” BBC, October 21, 2013,, accessed November 26, 2013.

[13] David Andrew Weinberg, “Michelle’s Dangerous Journey to Qatar,” Politico, November 3, 2015,, accessed March 8, 2016.


Image Credits: "Waterfront," Shubert Ciencia (2012), from Flickr Creative Commons.