Methods and Meaning in Islamic Law: Introduction

By Intisar Rabb*

This essay is part of the Islamic Law Blog’s Roundtable on Islamic Legal History & Historiography, edited by Intisar Rabb (Editor-in-Chief) and Mariam Sheibani (Lead Blog Editor), and introduced with a list of further readings in the short post by Intisar Rabb: Methods and Meaning in Islamic Law: Introduction.”

How should we think about the most pressing questions of Islamic law and legal history today? We asked leading scholars of Islamic law and history to weigh in on the methods and meaning they notice or favor, at a time when much has changed in the field and the world since Islamic law emerged as a major field of studies in the global academy over the last century, and at a time when access to new sources, historiographical advances, and data science tools promise that more changes are yet to come.

Myriad engagements with Islamic law and its historical moorings motivate a slew of sometimes existential questions: Is Islamic law a lived tradition with varied socio-historical manifestations, or is it a set of doctrines and rules contained in normative texts that many label “orthodox”? Is Islamic law an expression of values that any modern adherent could interpret to order lives and oppose injustice, or is it the province of experts to show what Muslim jurists said and did, historically, in an unbroken chain of textual sources that reach back to the Prophet Muḥammad and Islam’s founding era? What is Islamic law and history about? How do we know? And to what end?

Consider this: When Malcolm X squared off against Joseph Schacht in a 1962 New York court room, ostensibly over whether inmates at Attica claiming to be Muslim were entitled to religious accommodations, the two were arguing about methods and meaning in Islamic law and history.[1] Years earlier, when Joseph Schacht accepted Harvard Law School Dean Erwin Griswold’s invitation to deliver the first major lecture on Islamic law at an American law school in 1947, the two were engaged in a conversation about method and meaning in Islamic law and history in the academy and in the courts.[2] And years later, when the late Columbia professor Jeanette Wakin wrote a tribute to her colleague Joseph Schacht (d. 1969) in this Program in Islamic Law’s predecessor publication, she, too was meditating on methods and meaning in Islamic law and history.[3] All asked questions about the origins, methods, and contours of Islamic law, which took off in the 1950s and 60s.[4] Throughout Schacht loomed large as he marched his way into the center of these debates by virtue of his first-in-time activities related to Islamic law as law, on the page and in the world.[5] But then we moved beyond Schacht.

Now consider this: By the early 1990s, scholarship about Islamic law had grown exponentially, as dozens of well-known scholars pursued ever more sophisticated questions about its methods and meanings. It was during this time that ‘Islamic law’ emerged and gained recognition as a discrete field of academic inquiry. This period saw entire cohorts of PhD graduates receive training by leading scholars of Islamic law and history who had joined the faculties at Harvard, Princeton, the University of Pennsylvania, and elsewhere.[6] They, their students, and scholars from around the country engaged in sustained debates tackling major historical controversies in the study of Islamic law and history.[7] Some of those debates unfolded in the pages of the Journal of Islamic Law and Society, which emerged then too, in 1994.[8] And this same decade saw the establishment of the Islamic Legal Studies Program at Harvard Law School, to which the Program in Islamic Law is heir.[9] It was against that backdrop that Stephen Humphreys published the first handbook on Islamic history in 1991 and that Bernard Weiss published an edited volume that functioned as a handbook on Islamic law a decade later in 2001.[10]

Since, with the coming of the twenty-first century, the fields of Islamic law and legal history have seen unprecedented advances in scholarly meditations on meaning and method, and in the expansion of publications of primary and secondary sources of Islamic law and history.[11] One especially notable phenomenon is the recent trend of studied reflections on Islamic legal history and historiography alongside these works, resulting in the publication of no fewer than five handbooks on Islamic law in just five years.[12]

In light of these developments, we convened a Roundtable at the Islamic Law Blog to take stock of the state of the field. We invited leading and emerging scholars of Islamic law and history to weigh in on their approach to varied questions of method and meaning in Islamic legal history:

  • What have been the most significant methodological and historical developments in the field of Islamic law over the past two decades?
  • How have mainstream approaches from related fields in the humanities and social sciences, ranging from European, American, or Chinese legal history, for example, to law-and-economics, anthropology, and sociology, informed the study of Islamic law?
  • How have critical approaches from other fields in the humanities and social sciences, ranging from gender and feminist studies to critical race theory, informed the study of Islamic law?
  • How have data science, the use of quantitative methods, and digital technologies impacted the field, or promised to shape the future of the field?
  • What is your chosen approach to the historical study of Islamic law, and why?

Join us over the next several weeks as we convene a public and accessible Roundtable that puts a wide array of legal, social, and intellectual historians in conversation with one another on questions of meaning and method in Islamic law. Through it, we hope to find insight into the once and future status of the field of Islamic legal history and historiography.


* With thanks to Mariam Sheibani and Najam Haider for contributions to this essay, any errors are my own.

[1] SaMarion v. McGinnis, 253 F. Supp. 738 (W.D.N.Y. 1966); see also Bryant v. McGinnis, 463 F. Supp. 373 (W.D.N.Y. 1978). For discussion, see Garrett Felber, Those Who Don’t Know Say: The Nation of Islam, the Black Freedom Movement, and the Carceral State (University of North Carolina Press, 2020).

[2] Dean Griswold would go on to become Solicitor General of the United States, and took a position in the 1969 conscientious objector case against Muhammad Ali that—as with former Dean Roscoe Pound—seems to have drawn closely on Schacht’s Weberian notions of Islamic law as an arbitrary form of justice to oppose religious accommodations for the athlete, as Schacht had opposed religious accommodations for prisoners years before. See Marty Lederman,  “Muhammad Ali, Conscientious Objection, and the Supreme Court’s struggle to understand ‘jihād’ and ‘holy warʿ: The Story of Cassius Clay v. United States,” SCOTUSblog, June 8, 2016; see also Intisar A. Rabb, “Against Kadijustiz: On the Negative Citation of Foreign Law,” Suffolk University Law Review 48, no. 343 (2015): 349 n.41, 357.

[3] Jeanette Wakin, Remembering Joseph Schacht (19021969), Occasional Publication no. 4 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Law School: Islamic Legal Studies Program, 2003). For a discussion of Schacht’s focus on “Islamic law in practice” and law reform in the Muslim world, and for a full list of his related and other works, see Wakin, Remembering Schacht, 17–20, 32–40 (selected bibliography).

[4] Schacht’s most significant salvo came in 1950, The Origins of Muhammadan Jurisprudence, which was heavily influenced by the nineteenth-century writings of Ignaz Goldziher, by the early twentieth-century teachings of his first professor of Islamic studies, Gotthelf Bergsträsser, and by those of the Dutch scholar who would come to be Schacht’s teacher, Christiaan Snouck Hurgronje. Along with his 1950 Origins, his 1964 Introduction to Islamic Law dispatched almost equal parts history and meaning on the one hand, and method and historiography on the other. See Wakin, Remembering Joseph Schacht, 13–19.

[5] Joseph Schacht is like a ubiquitous Energizer Bunny of Islamic law: He marched across the European Continent (born a German citizen in present-day Poland, and becoming the youngest faculty member at any German university when he received a faculty appointment at the University of Freiburg im Breisgau and later accepted a chair of Oriental Studies at Königsberg); marched across the Muslim world (having accepted a visiting professorship at the University of Cairo and conducted manuscript research in Istanbul before World War II, and much later having returned to the region as a visiting professor of law at University of Algiers’ Faculty of Law that he later followed with trips to Nigeria and parts of East Africa); renounced both German citizenship and the German language after World War II as he went on to the United Kingdom (where he was to take up a faculty appointment at Oxford University and complete a second doctoral degree); went back to the Continent to teach at the University of Leiden; and then finally migrated to the United States—where he accepted a faculty appointment at Columbia University; weighed in on U.S. court cases involving Islamic law and Muslims; and accepted requests to lecture, receive awards, and do faculty visits at Harvard, Yale, and UCLA until his untimely death in 1969. Even afterward, Schacht’s papers traveled, first to Europe and to the Muslim world: his widow Dorothy sold his papers to the publisher E.J. Brill, for which the University of Leiden sued and won, after which his papers went to rest, finally, at the libraries of a new buyer, the International Islamic University of Kuala Lumpur. See Wakin, Remembering Joseph Schacht, 2–11.

[6] The scholars of Islamic law and history who had joined these schools in the 1970s and 1980s—think, for example, of Michael Cook, George Makdisi, Hossein Modarressi, and Roy Mottahedeh, to name a few—went on to train the trainers who, as their former students, now teach at leading and far-flung universities.

[7] For illustrative works that emerged roughly in the 1990s with increasingly more diverse and sophisticated treatments of the field, see below under Further Reading: Islamic Legal History and Historiography.

[8] The Journal of Islamic Law and Society is on volume 27 in 2020, having operated continuously since its inaugural issue.

[9] Harvard Law School established the Islamic Legal Studies Program in 1991, when Dean Robert Clark worked with then-Assistant Professor Frank Vogel to structure and find funding for the Program as the world’s leading institution for the academic study of Islamic law. HLS met its initial funding goals in 1993 and 1998. The endowment funds—all designated for teaching and fellowships, library books and research, and programming and scholarship in Islamic legal studies under a faculty director for the Program (then: a Center)—came from individuals and governments from within the Muslim world as well as from large corporations, such as the Boeing Company and the McDonnell Douglas corporation, that operated in the Middle East and larger Muslim world. See Harvard University Archives for Islamic Legal Studies Program, Box 9 (1991–2008); Intisar Rabb, “The Past, Present, and Future of Islamic Law at Harvard and Beyond,” on the “God on Mass Ave Panel at HLS | 200: The Harvard Law School Bicentennial” (unpublished remarks based on archival ILSP documents, Cambridge, MA October 27, 2017).

[10] Stephen Humphreys, Islamic History: A Framework for Inquiry (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991). See also the edited volume by the late Bernard Weiss, ed., Studies in Islamic Legal Theory (Leiden: Brill, 2001). The universities training legal historians typically assigned chapters from one or another of these works in their methods courses throughout the 2000s: it was what was available.

[11] For illustrative works that emerged much earlier in the field more generally, see below under Further Reading: General Islamic History and Historiography.

[12] Namely: Peri Bearman and Rudolph Peters, eds., The Ashgate Research Companion to Islamic Law (Farnham: Routledge, 2014); Anver M. Emon and Rumee Ahmed, eds., The Oxford Handbook of Islamic Law (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018); Khaled Abou El Fadl, Ahmad Atif Ahmad, and Said Fares Hassan, eds., Routledge Handbook of Islamic Law (Florence: Routledge, 2019); and the edited volumes A. Kevin Reinhart and Robert Gleave, eds., Islamic Law in Theory: Studies on Jurisprudence in Honor of Bernard Weiss (Leiden: Brill, 2014) and Sohaira Z. M. Siddiqui, ed., Locating the Sharīʿa: Legal Fluidity in Theory, History and Practice (Leiden: Brill, 2019).

Further Reading

Islamic law and Islamic history are two distinct fields, for which there is sometimes overlap (but not always), where sources of both law and history inform the scholarly enterprise of ‘legal history’ or ‘social history.’ Put differently: there is frequent overlap where scholars move beyond intellectual history to engage questions of law and society historically, and where not only self-declared works of law such as fiqh manuals, jurisprudential treatises, and fatwās form the body of Islamic law and legal history, but where all manner of historical sources that range from Qurʾān and ḥadīth, historical chronicles, prosopographical works, literature, theology, philosophy, mysticism, and more do the same. For present purposes, law intersects and overlaps with history whenever there is a capacious understanding of law that critically incorporates a broad array of sources for history and related fields to define and shed light on it. What follows are illustrative lists of works that we highlight as falling more squarely into either Islamic legal history and historiography or general Islamic history and historiography.

Sources for Islamic Legal History & Historiography. An illustrative, but non-exhaustive list of key sources that emerged in the long decade leading up to the end of the twentieth century include, in chronological order: Hossein Modarressi, An Introduction to Shīʿī Law: A Bibliographical Study (London: Ithaca Press, 1984); Wael Hallaq, “Was the Gate of Ijtihād Closed?,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 16, no. 1 (1984): 3-41; Wael Hallaq, “On the Origins of the Controversy about the Existence of Mujtahids and the Gate of Ijtihād,” Studia Islamica 63 (1986): 129-41; Wael Hallaq, “The Use and Abuse of Evidence: The Question of Provincial and Roman Influences on Early Islamic Law,” Journal of the American Oriental Society 110, no. 1 (1990): 79-91 reviewing Patricia Crone, Roman, Provincial and Islamic Law: The Origins of the Islamic Patronate (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press: 1987); Etan Kohlberg,  “Al-Uṣūl Al-Arbaʿumiʾa,” Jerusalem Studies in Arabic and Islam 10 (1987): 128-66; A. Mayer, “The Sharī‘a:  A Methodology or a Body of Substantive Rules,” in Islamic Law and Jurisprudence: Studies in Honor of Farhat Ziadeh, ed. Nicholas Heer (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1990); David S. Powers, “On Judicial Review in Islamic Law,” Law and Society Review 26 (1992): 315-41; Wael Hallaq,  “Was Al-Shāfiʿī the Master Architect of Islamic Jurisprudence?,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 25, no. 4 (1993): 587–605; Hossein Modarressi, “The Legal Basis for the Validity of the Majority Opinion in Islamic Legislation,” in Under Siege: Islam and Democracy: proceedings of a conference held at Columbia University, June 18-19, 1993, Richard W. Bulliet ed. (New York: Columbia University, 1994); Khaled Abou El Fadl, “Islamic Law and Muslim Minorities: The Juristic Discourse on Muslim Minorities from the Second/Eighth to the Eleventh/Seventeenth Centuries,” Islamic Law and Society 1, no. 2 (1994): 141-87; Wael Hallaq, “From Fatwās to Furū‛: Growth and Change in Islamic Substantive Law,” Islamic Law and Society 1, no. 1 (1994): 29-65; Baber Johansen,  “Casuistry: Between Legal Concept and Social Praxis,” Islamic Law and Society 2, no. 2 (1995): 135-56; Sherman A. Jackson, Islamic Law and the State: The Constitutional Jurisprudence of Shihāb Al-Dīn Al-Qarāfī (Leiden: Brill, 1996); Sherman A. Jackson, “Taqlīd, Legal Scaffolding and the Scope of Legal Injunctions in Post-Formative Theory,” Islamic Law and Society 3, no. 2 (1996): 165-92; Mohammad Fadel, “The Social Logic of Taqlīd and the Rise of the Mukhtaṣar,” Islamic Law and Society 3, no. 2 (1996): 193–233; Hiroyuki Yanagihashi “The Judicial Functions of the Sulṭān in Civil Cases According to the Mālikīs up to the Sixth/Twelfth Century,” Islamic Law and Society 3, no. 1 (1996): 41-74; Maya Shatzmiller, “Women and Wage Labour in the Medieval Islamic West: Legal Issues in an Economic Context,” Journal of Economic and Social History of the Orient 40, no. 2 (1997): 174-202; Bernard Weiss, The Spirit of Islamic Law (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1998); Baber Johansen, Contingency in a Sacred Law: Legal and Ethical Norms in the Muslim Fiqh (Leiden: Brill, 1999); Harald Motzki, Die Anfänge Der Islamischen Jurisprudenz: Ihre Entwicklung in Mekka Bis Zur Mitte Des 2./8. Jahrhunderts [The Origins of Islamic Jurisprudence: Meccan Fiqh Before the Classical Schools], trans. M. H. Katz (Leiden: Brill: 2002).

Sources for General Islamic History & Historiography. An illustrative, but non-exhaustive list of works in Islamic history and historiography, generally (with the caveat that works of Islamic history—each of which necessarily address questions of historiography—are far more extensive), in chronological order, goes from P. M. Holt, Ann K. S. Lambton, and Bernard Lewis, eds., Cambridge History of Islam (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970); Tarif Khalidi, Islamic Historiography: The Histories of Masʿūdī (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1975); M. Qasim Zaman, “A Venture in Critical Islamic Historiography and the Significance of Its Failure,” Numen 41, no. 1 (1994): 26-50; Fred M. Donner, Narratives of Islamic Origins: The Beginnings of Islamic Historical Writing (Princeton: Darwin Press, 1998); Tayeb El-Hibri, Reinterpreting Islamic Historiography: Hārūn Al-Rashīd and the Narrative of the ʿAbbāsid Caliphate (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999); Mahmoud M. Ayoub, The Crisis of Muslim History: Religion and Politics in Early Islam (Oxford: Oneworld, 2003); Chase Robinson, Islamic Historiography (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003); Boaz Shoshan, Poetics of Islamic Historiography: Deconstructing Ṭabarī’s History (Leiden: Brill, 2004); and Albrecht Noth, “Iṣfahān-Nihāwand. A Source-Critical Study of Early Islamic Historiography,” in The Expansion of the Early Islamic State, ed. Fred M. Donner (Florence: Routledge, 2008), 241-62 to the most recent work by Najam Haider, The Rebel and the Imam in Early Islam: Explorations in Muslim Historiography (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020). These generalist or methodological approaches to the field join many other more targeted works on Fāṭimid, Mongol, Mamlūk, Safavid, Ottoman, early modern and other empire- or era-specific works on Islamic history and historiography. See, for example, Julie Scott Meisami, Persian Historiography (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1999); Paul M. Cobb, White Banners: Contention in ʿAbbāsid Syria, 750-880 (Albany: SUNY Press, 2001); and Aziz Azmeh, The Arabs and Islam in Late Antiquity: A Critique of Approaches to Arabic sources (Berlin, Germany: Gerlach Press, 2014).  Finally, for works of history and/or ḥadīth with Islamic law implications, see, for example, Michael Cook and Patricia Crone, Hagarism: The Making of the Islamic World (Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1977); Harald Motzki, “The Muṣannaf of ʿAbd Al-Razzāq Al-Ṣanʿānī as a Source of Authentic Aḥādīth of the First Century A. H.,” Journal of Near Eastern Studies 50, no. 1 (1991): 1–21; G.H.A. Juynboll, “Some Notes on Islam’s First Fuqahāʾ Distilled from Early Hadith Literature,” Arabica 39 (1992): 287–314; Harald Motzki, ed., Ḥadīth: Origins and Developments (London: Ashgate, 2004); Behnam Sadeghi, “The Travelling Tradition Test: A Method for Dating Traditions,” Der Islam 85, no. 1 (2010). And the list, and the work, go on.

(Suggested Bluebook citation: Intisar A. Rabb, Methods and Meaning in Islamic Law: Introduction, Islamic Law Blog (Dec. 10, 2020),

(Suggested Chicago citation: Intisar A. Rabb, “Roundtable on Islamic Legal History and Historiography,” Islamic Law Blog, December 10, 2020,

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