Roundtable on Islamic Legal History and Historiography: Week in Review

On December 10, 2020, the Islamic Law Blog launched its Roundtable on Islamic Legal History & Historiography: Methods and Meaning in Islamic Law, edited by Intisar Rabb (Editor-in-Chief) and Mariam Sheibani (Lead Blog Editor). The Roundtable will be ongoing throughout the months of December 2020 and January 2021, culminating in a live discussion in February via Zoom. This week, we featured three essays. Here they are below in case you missed them:

The fourth contribution to the Roundtable is “How not to reform the study of Islamic law: A response to Ayesha Chaudry” by Ahmed El Shamsy (University of Chicago). In his essay, El Shamsy responds to Ayesha Chaudhry’s contribution to The Oxford Handbook of Islamic Law titled “Islamic Legal Studies: A Critical Historiography.” Taking issue with her characterization of the field as dominated by two paradigms, El Shamsy addressed one of them: what she labels “White Supremacist Islamic Studies (WhiSIS).” He notes that Chaudhry avoided producing evidence to support her claims, which generates unsubstantiated and overgeneralized claims about the field. He focuses on her two main claims: (1) that the field is preoccupied with precolonial texts, which has the effect of treating Islam as a dead religion, and (2) that all scholarship is a form of activism. To the first of these claims, El Shamsy points to a long tradition of Muslims themselves—traditionalists and reformists themselves—actively using precolonial and purportedly “dead” texts to criticize contemporary approaches to Islamic law, rendering them anything but “dead.” As to the second, conceiving of scholarship as inextricable from activism, among others, runs the risk of turning the field into another battlefield for the culture wars.

The fifth contribution, entitled “Studying a Lived Law: An Interview with Yossef Rapoport,” is an interview with Yossef Rapoport (Queen Mary University). In this interview, Rapoport emphasizes the inextricable connections between Islamic law and society, and therefore, the interdependence between the study of legal and social history. He urges complementing the study of legal manuals with a thorough examination of social and practical sources; a methodology that he has modeled in his own scholarship. The interview concludes with Rapoport’s observations about how the field has evolved in the past three decades, and promising emerging developments.

The sixth contribution is “Tracing the History of Ibāḍī Law and jurisprudence: A state of art” by Ersilia Francesca (University of Naples “L’Orientale”). In her essay, Francesca reviews scholarship on Ibāḍī law, an understudied and marginalized subfield of Islamic legal history. She argues that recent scholarship in Ibāḍī law has demonstrated that Schact was mistaken to dismiss Ibāḍī jurists as outliers who adopted Sunnī legal norms with only a few tweaks. To the contrary, studying Ibāḍī law as a view of Islam “from the edge,” she contends, enables a fuller picture of the multi-faceted process of Islamic law’s emergence. She further offers a periodization for the study of Ibāḍī jurisprudence in three chronological stages: a formative stage in Basra, an intermediate stage generated by Ibāḍī travels to Oman and the Magreb, ending in “a stage of maturity.”

Please join us in thanking our editors, Mariam Sheibani and Intisar Rabb, and contributing scholars, Ahmed El Shamsy, Yossef Rapoport, and Ersilia Francesca for their thought-provoking contributions. Next week we look forward to publishing new essay contributions to the Roundtable. Stay tuned!

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