This Country Profile provides a basic overview of the legal history and institutional structures of the Kingdom of Bahrain (Mamlakat al Bahrayn), based on research produced by GlobaLex at NYU Law School and the Library of Congress. Under Bahrain’s Constitution, Islamic law (sharīʿa or fiqh) has legal status, and is the principal source of legislation.
Bahrain is located in Middle East, and is in fact an archipelago in the Persian Gulf, east of Saudi Arabia. The capital of Bahrain is Manama. The official language is Arabic, but English, Urdu, and Persian are used frequently in the country as well. The country’s population in 2016 was approximately 1.4 million. Bahrain is a predominantly Muslim country, with about 70% of the population Muslim and 15% Christian. The vast majority of Muslims in Bahrain are Shīʿī; however, the royal family and the majority of their supporters are Sunnī. This is cause for some division in the population, as the Sunnī population is disproportionately more powerful and wealthier than the majority Shīʿī population. Bahrain is a member state of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation and Arab League.
Constitution & Legal Structure
Bahrain is referred to as a constitutional monarchy, in which the government operates as a parliamentary representative democracy headed by the constitutional monarch (King). After gaining independence from Britain in 1971, the present Constitution of Bahrain was adopted in 1973. However, it was suspended from 1975 due to conflict. Then, following the 1999 appointment of the Bahrain monarchy, Bahrain adopted a new national charter in 2001 that now functions as its constitution.
At present, Bahrain is a constitutional/central monarchy ruled by al-Khalifa family and transferred from the King to his oldest heirs, unless the King appoints before his death one of his other heirs to exercise his powers. The current King is Hamad ibn Isa al-Khalifa. Bahraini law follows a pattern similar to that of other Arab states legislation, and is particularly similar to Egyptian codes. The system of governance is democratic. Islam is the religion of the Kingdom and the legal system is based on sharīʿa, codified systems, and English common law.
The Constitution refers, among others, to the right to vote of every mature citizen regardless of gender (article 1); justice, freedom, and the right to education as the fundamental constituents of society (article 4); equality between men and women without violating the rules of Islam (article 5); the creation of two legislative councils: an elected Parliament and an Advisory Council; the freedom of worship, private work, movement of capital, and respect for private property (articles 9 and 22); equality of citizens under the law regardless of gender, race, language, religion, or ideology (article 18); and prohibition of torture and arbitrary detention, and protection of personal freedom (article 19). However, torture is commonly used in Bahrain as a tactic to suppress political uprisings, particularly from the Shīʿī majority of the country.
Although the Constitution of Bahrain does not explicitly grant freedom of religion, it does allow for freedom of worship. Thus, foreigners are able to practice their religion freely, contributing to the multi-religious society present in Bahrain today.
Constitutional Status of Islamic Law
Islamic law is referenced throughout the Constitution of Bahrain, including Islam being the official religion and sharīʿa being the principal source of legislation. However, the interpretation of the law is different in the courts depending on the religious affiliation of the parties involved.
Jurisdiction(s) of Islamic Law
The Courts applying sharīʿa have the jurisdiction to settle all cases related to the personal status of Muslims. In fact, sharīʿa governs personal status and a person's rights can differ based upon Shīʿī or Sunnī interpretations. The courts of Bahrain account for this, and make rulings in consideration of the faith(s) of the individual(s) involved.
In 2009, Bahrain adopted the first personal status law, which regulates family matters such as inheritance, marriage, etc. This law gave institutionalized protections to women. However, the law is only applicable to the Sunnī population of the country, as Shīʿī clerics and lawmakers rejected the law that was applicable to the Jaʿfarī courts.
Dominant School of Islamic Law
The civil and criminal legal systems consist of a complex mix of courts based on diverse legal resources, including both the Jaʿfarī (Shīʿī) and Mālikī (Sunnī) schools, tribal law, and other civil codes and regulations.
Sources of Law for Legal Research
For an extended list of legal resources for this country, see the Library of Congress’s Research Guide, and for a narrative review, see the GlobaLex Foreign Law Research Guide (most updated version, where available). The Constitution is available in the LOC Guide in its original language and at Constitute in English translation. For full versions of past constitutions, amendments, and related legislation, see HeinOnline World Constitutions Illustrated or Oxford Constitutions of the World [subscription required for each].