Istanbul conference brings postclassical uṣūl al-fiqh into the limelight

The academic study of Islamic legal theory in the English–speaking world has been marked by several landmark gatherings: in Princeton (1983), Alta, Utah (1999), and Istanbul (2016 and now October 2019). The latest, held October 15–17 at Istanbul University, for the first time gave equal attention to the formative, classical, postclassical, and modern periods of uṣūl al-fiqh’s development.

 The Süleymaniye mosque seen from the conference venue at Istanbul University

At the time of the Princeton conference, uṣūl al-fiqh was hardly a field of study at all in Western universities. The papers, five of which were published in Studia Islamica 59 (1984), offered overviews of broad themes such as reason, revelation, and consensus; and the discussion, as Kevin Reinhart recalled in Istanbul, was marked by fiery debate over the closure of the gate of ijtihād—a debate that has since become much more nuanced as its attendant narrative of intellectual decline has been gradually dismantled. The Alta conference, whose essays and discussion are preserved in a volume published by Brill (Studies in Islamic Legal Theory, ed. Bernard Weiss, 2002), featured a debate about whether uṣūl al-fiqh functions for the construction or the justification of law—a debate that has still not been resolved but has certainly become more nuanced, as illustrated by Walter Young’s recent book The Dialectical Forge (Springer, 2017). The Alta papers marked a flowering of interest in the patchily documented early history of uṣūl al-fiqh; several other essays focused on classical sources through about the 13th century, and one dealt with the early modern reformer al-Shawkānī (d. 1834), but postclassical sources were never in focus, appearing only in a handful of overview articles. The 2016 Istanbul conference (whose rich and diverse proceedings were not published together) likewise skipped over the postclassical period, but this year’s gathering was different. As the planned conference volume will show, the papers spanned the discipline’s whole history from al-Shāfiʿī to the 21st century, giving nearly equal attention to each period.

Wall decoration in the meeting room

This is a sign that as a historical enterprise the western academic study of uṣūl al-fiqh is coming of age. Over the last decade or so the once–famous gap in the historical record between al-Shāfiʿī and the early 10th century has been gradually filled in, and this process continued at the 2019 conference. Ahmet Temel called this the “Period of Independent Production,” during which madhhab affiliation did not yet dictate individual thinkers’ views, and uṣūl topics were treated individually in single–subject treatises—though more comprehensive treatises were also beginning to appear, as Devin Stewart has previously shown. Classical thinkers were not forgotten, but what was most eye–opening, for those of us who still share the Orientalist fascination with origins and with Islam’s “golden age,” was the attention given to postclassical legal logic and argument. Walter Young gave an overview of 13th– and 14th–century discussions of the value of concomitance (dawarān or al-ṭard wa-l-ʿaks) in determining the cause (ʿilla) of a legal ruling, comparing them favorably to modern debates about arguments from correlation to causation. Najah Nadi showed how the concept of taṣdīq was adopted and naturalized into uṣūl al-fiqh over the course of the 14th to 17th centuries, and then reintegrated, in modified form, into logic. And Asad Ahmed offered a different kind of legal theory: not one spelled out in works of uṣūl al-fiqh, but an implicit logic that appears to be operative in postclassical Ḥanafī legal arguments.

Several other papers dealt with modern attempts to reformulate uṣūl al-fiqh, and it quickly became evident that this reforming discourse has been strangely disconnected from its postclassical antecedents, referring back instead to early and classical sources. Several explanations were proposed during coffee breaks. For one thing, it reflects the same narrative about decline from Islam’s “golden age” that has shaped western scholarship for so long. It may also be that modern reformers have found the interpretive flexibility of the classical tradition appealing, but have been put off by the apparent rigidity of the postclassical tradition, with its greater concern for systematization and interpretive predictability. Or it may simply reflect a lack of traditional training among reformers. But Asad Ahmed suggested that the habit of looking further and further back, to earlier and earlier works, is a feature of the postclassical commentarial tradition itself, and does not really constitute a rupture from that tradition, which is always regenerating itself.

Istanbul 2019 conference participants

One of the best things about the field of uṣūl al-fiqh is the warmth and kindness of the people who inhabit it. Over three days of leisurely papers and discussions (45 minutes to an hour each!), as well as luxurious meals (including a memorable musical recital by members of the Istanbul University Faculty of Theology), there was plenty of time for building the kinds of friendships that keep you looking forward to the next gathering. If you have not yet dipped into the field yourself, you should consider joining us! But in the last paper of the conference our host Murteza Bedir, who has done so much for the study of uṣūl al-fiqh in Turkey and internationally, sounded a cautionary note: perhaps Islamic legal theory has had more than its due share of attention. It has certainly appealed to the philosophical inclinations of academics, but the real action, Murteza suggested, is in fiqh itself. His paper illustrated how the notion of custom (ʿurf), long employed as a means of flexible adaptation in fiqh, was admitted only quite recently into lists of sources of law in uṣūl al-fiqh, which thus appears to lag far behind the living practice of legal reasoning. For those interested in the past and future development of fiqh, turning to uṣūl al-fiqh may be barking up the wrong tree. For intellectual historians, however, I must say that it remains a rich field full of puzzles, surprises, great colleagues, and memorable conferences. For the richness and conviviality of this fourth landmark conference, many thanks are due to Murteza Bedir and the Faculty of Theology at Istanbul University, and to Robert Gleave of the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies at the University of Exeter.

Leave a Reply