Law and Economic Life in the Islamic World: A Teaching Post

By Fahad Ahmad Bishara. Reposted from the Legal History Blog with permission from the author.

For this post, instead of giving reflections on research or on writing in Indian Ocean legal history, I thought I’d write about something lots of us do and talk about: teaching. It is, after all, that time in the semester, isn’t it? I mean, is it ever not that time in the semester? Okay, truthfully, it’s not that time in the semester for me – I’m on sabbatical. But it would probably normally be that time of the semester!

Seeing as it could be “that time” of “the semester,” I thought I’d share some thoughts about a course I designed a couple of years ago that has now made it into my regular rotation at UVA; a course I call “The Economic History of the Islamic World to c. 1800.” The challenge in designing this particular course was that for most of Muslim history, the materials historians rely on to write economic history – that is, data – is not readily available (if at all). The difficulty is only compounded by the fact that the economic history of the Islamic world is not considered a particularly vibrant field of scholarship. The tendency has been to focus primarily on intellectual history, and to a lesser extent on imperial and social history.

Why am I telling readers of LHB this? It’s because really, I wasn’t interested in putting together a traditional economic history course anyway. Although I self-identify as a historian of economic life, my approach to thinking about these issues bears the imprint of my reading and writing in legal history. What I wanted, then, was to teach a course that thinks about the economic history of the Islamic world through the prism of law: to tell an economic history that is qualitative rather than quantitative, and to take law seriously as a component of economic life in the region. The goal was in part to get students to appreciate (and hopefully engage with!) the range of different legal materials there are for telling the history of production, exchange, consumption, taxation, etc. in the Islamic world. The other goal, though – and for many of my students, the principal outcome – was to get them to more fully embrace (and also engage with!) the link between law and economic life, in and beyond the Islamic world.

The course unfolds over four broad periods. The first covers pre-Islamic Arabia and its links with nearby regions, and then transitions into the moment of revelation and the economic and social formations of the earliest Muslim communities (that is, the history of Muslims under Muhammad and his companions). During that period, we look at the earliest sources of law in Islam (the Quran and the Hadiths) and we see how contemporary thinkers articulated a body of legal reasoning that sat alongside them. The history is one of uncertainty, in which early Muslims grasped at multiple sources of “law” and tried to braid them into a legal framework that they thought best approximated the Prophet’s vision.

The second, much longer unit looks at early and medieval Muslim imperial expansion and the economic and legal transformations that accompanied it. We chart the expansion of Muslim polities across North Africa and Southern Europe on the one hand, and into Asia on the other, and the transformations in agriculture, commerce, and industry that accompanied that process. Alongside that, we look at texts that grapple with basic questions of law in a period of social and political transformation. We explore the articulation of Islamic jurisprudence and the development of institutional structures to legal learning, but also look at the production of texts that regulate matters of taxation, marketplace activity, sales and partnerships, and more.

These themes carry over into the third unit, which explores the rise and development of the three Muslim “gunpowder empires” – the Ottomans, Safavids, and the Mughals. For this unit, the key matters are of political economy: the taxation structures that the empires developed, and the institutional frameworks they rested on. Here, we look at how ideas about law and political economy circulated in texts and through mobile bureaucrats who crossed imperial borders.

And in the final unit – really, the shortest of all, since it butts up so closely with the end of the course – we look at the early encounters between European travelers, companies, and consuls and this world of empire, trade, and of course law. We read closely the texts that these individuals produced: not just travel narratives, but translations of Islamic legal texts meant for administration in courts in, say, East India Company territories, and we think of those within the framework of a much longer history of the production of legal ideas in the Islamic world.

I stop the course at 1800 for a few inter-related reasons: the industrial revolution, the transformation of imperial politics around the world, colonialism, and the tremendous implications all of this had for law and economic life in the Islamic world. All of that could – and should, and maybe will! – end up filling a course on its own.

The challenge of putting together a big survey course like this one has (for the most part) been a generative one. It has forced me to think about broad narratives in legal and economic history, and how to balance those with wanting to have student engage with a very clearly defined body of primary sources. In a sense, it is to think about two distinct axes of history: one on trade and empire, and the other on the production of law, and the multiple points at which those stories intersect – but also the times in which they don’t, and perhaps shouldn’t. Some of my more traditionally-trained Islamic Studies colleagues will likely recoil at the idea behind the course (thankfully nobody has said anything to me so far!) but the experiment has been a useful one – and a popular one to boot!

Thanks for listening! I’d be happy to answer questions or share the syllabus with anyone who wants to see it. The course is far from worked out, and so I will appreciate your feedback.

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