Western domination of the Muslim world since Napoleon invaded Egypt in 1798 has led to many changes, including the gradual displacement of the Shari‘a (Islamic sacred law) by Western-inspired legal codes. In reaction, some Muslim intellectuals seek to restore the Shari‘a to its former centrality by developing a new Islamic legal methodology that harmonizes modern realities with Qur'anic prescriptions of the Prophet Muhammad's actions (the sunna) concerning such issues as usury, polygamy, and inheritance rights.

Hallaq places these efforts in context in a lucid, nuanced, and sophisticated study based on extensive reading in the sources. After surveying the historical development and theoretical underpinnings of pre-modern Islamic law, he shows how the framework developed by the classical jurists permeated all Muslim juristic thinking until modern times, thereby placing substantial constraints on the scope of modern legal change. Hallaq then closely examines the writings by intellectuals who seek to reconsider prescriptions of the Qur'an and sunna and places them in two camps. The "religious utilitarians" (who include Rashid Rida and Hasan at-Turabi), draw heavily on the concept of utility as a mechanism of change. Hallaq dismisses most of their work on the ground that they have been unable to articulate a modern theory of law that is both comprehensive and systematic.

Hallaq finds the work of the second group, "religious liberals" (such as Muhammad Sa'id al-‘Ashmawi, Muhammad Shahrur, and Fazlur Rahman) more promising and persuasive. To develop a methodology that connects "the revealed texts and the realities of the modern world," they pierce the surface meaning of those texts to reach the underlying spirit and broad intention. Rahman, for example, developed a methodology for implementing legal change: elicit general principles from the revealed sources, then bring these to bear upon the present conditions of Muslim society.

Whether or not the liberals will succeed in their attempt to develop "a humanistic law that is suggestively and generally guided, and not literally and textually dictated, by divine intention," as Hallaq hopes, remains to be seen. But however these attempts turn out, A History of Islamic Legal Theories provides an excellent starting-point to follow these important debates that will help determine the future direction of Muslim societies.