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’s inaugural introductory essay Methods and Meaning in Islamic Law: Introduction,” is authored by Intisar Rabb, who succinctly introduces the themes and purpose of the roundtable, highlighting the most significant developments in the field from the mid-19th century to the present. Launched in December 2020, the Roundtable will continue through January 2021, and culminate in a live discussion in March via Zoom. This week, we featured two essays. Here they are below in case you missed them:

The thirteenth contribution, entitled “A Note on the Quantitative Analysis of Hadith,” is by Hiroyuki Yanagihashi (The University of Tokyo). Yanagihashi observes how recent developments make the quantitative analysis of ḥadīths a “promising” endeavor. The question then becomes: why and how the text of certain ḥadīths, taken literally, appear to contradict established Sunnī legal doctrine? The logical presumption is that either traditionists transmitted the jurisprudence of ancient legal systems that were eventually replaced by later-derived fiqh rulings or they reformulated the ḥadīths in the process of transmission to develop the rulings underlying those later legal systems. By way of example, and to investigate these possibilities, Yanagihashi proposes quantitative analysis to trace variations within the texts of two prominent ḥadīths over the course of more than a century. His analysis yields conclusions that corroborate other work in ḥadīth­­-related studies from recent years (e.g., those of Behnam Sadeghi on a larger scale in his “Traveling Tradition Test,” and Intisar Rabb with respect to a select ḥadīth in her evaluation of the doubt canon, and others): an increase in textual variation does not necessarily correspond to a change in legal doctrine; the number of variants can increase over time, even after the compilation of Sunnī Islam’s six canonical ḥadīth collections. His methods represent and propose new directions for quantitative analysis at the intersection of ḥadīth and law in early Islamic history.

The fourteenth contribution to the Roundtable is “The Neglected History of Furū’ and the Premodern/Modern Binary” authored by Marion Katz (New York University). In her essay, Katz reflects on major developments in Islamic legal studies since the 1990’s, the decade that saw – as noted in the introduction to this Roundtable– expanded and diversified scholarly attention to Islamic legal studies. For her, it is puzzling then that outdated frameworks continue to percolate in the field, such as the crude “premodern / modern binary” and the continued neglect of what she calls fiqh studies. Katz urges scholars to pursue more nuanced approaches to deal with the sheer volume of the textual corpus and to fill in chasmic history of substantive law, namely: (1) the study of “core samples,” that is, the diachronic investigation of individual concepts and doctrines to document inflection points, and (2) the study of “transverse slices,” that is, the synchronic study of a wide range of material from a specific historical context that helps expose underlying and pervasive assumptions behind a broad area of law.

Please join us in thanking our contributing scholars, Hiroyuki Yanagihashi and Marion Katz for their thought-provoking contributions. Next week we look forward to publishing new essay contributions to the Roundtable. Stay tuned!

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