Teaching Islamic law through primary sources

In the fall quarter of 2019, I am teaching a graduate seminar titled “Readings in Islamic Law” at the University of Chicago. In this blog post and the three that follow I will describe the theoretical and practical considerations that have influenced the design of the course and talk about some of the readings I have assigned and the role they serve in the class.

The aim of the seminar is to introduce students to the breadth of Islamic law in terms of time, place, genre, and intellectual affiliation through reading a variety of primary sources in their original language. This being a graduate-level course, all of the enrolled students, whatever their stage of study, have already had at least some exposure to the subject of Islamic law. Most, however, are primarily familiar with secondary literature and only a specific set of primary sources: the Ottomanists have read court records, the social and gender historians have read fatwas, and students interested in particular legal issues have read the relevant chapters in books of law or legal theory. Students with seminary training have generally studied basic texts on fiqh (and possibly uṣūl al-fiqh), but these have almost always focused on a single school of law. As a result, each student’s idea of what Islamic law “is” is slightly different. My goal, then, is to sample as wide a spectrum of the legal tradition as possible in order to demonstrate that whatever aspect of it one is familiar with, it is but one part of a much larger, more complex phenomenon.

In contrast to an “Introduction to Islamic Law” course, which is structured around an overall narrative of Islamic law supported by examples from primary sources, this seminar is based exclusively on primary sources. The first reason for this is practice. Wading through a steady stream of usually unfamiliar and often challenging texts develops the kind of skills and confidence that will later enable students to browse primary sources with ease and comfortably explore less-trodden paths through the literature. Practice here entails not only mastering the linguistic challenges posed by centuries-old texts but also learning to think with and like the jurists whose work they read. It is this kind of thinking—an empathy, an intuition—that enables a reader to understand a writer’s arguments even when the sentences are cryptic and the vocabulary obscure.

The second reason for my decision to focus on primary sources is that I want students to encounter the literature directly, without the filter of secondary scholarship. I believe that discovering a writer’s ideas and arguments for oneself, even if they are also competently described in secondary works, leaves a much greater impression. Further, secondary scholarship has a strong tendency to generalize—for example, by proposing general definitions of the nature, form, and function of a fatwa—and such generalizations can become a self-perpetuating straitjacket. Much better, in my view, is to sample a wide variety of fatwas, recognizing patterns but also acknowledging regional, chronological, and individual differences. Finally, I am convinced of the humanistic value of listening carefully to the authors of our sources and letting them make their points and express their preoccupations without immediately appropriating them into narratives and frameworks that would have been alien to them.

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