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 seventeenth contribution, entitled “Simplicity, Creativity, Lucidity as “Method” in the Study of Islamic History: An Interview with Michael Cook” is an interview with Michael Cook (Princeton University). In this interview about the trajectory of Islamic history and scholarship, Michael Cook comments on the importance of deep immersion in language, sources, and other tools in graduate studies that prepare historians. While commending rapid digitization efforts in the field, Cook queries whether some things are lost by not “pick[ing] a book off the shelves” anymore. He succinctly points to the role of the historian as “mak[ing] the past intelligible to people of the present,” all the while espousing simplicity, out-of-the-box thinking, and lucidity. Drawing from his own teaching experience in the field, Cook advises his younger colleagues and colleagues-to-be to ask good questions that will help illuminate the past and resonate with students and the community of scholars.

The eighteenth contribution, entitled “Islamic law and the documentary record before 1500: Unsolved problems and untried solutions” is by Marina Rustow. In her essay, she notes how prevalent scholarly attention is to long-form texts of Islamic law—attention that she argues, comes at the expense of studying Islamic legal documents in a sufficient manner. Study of the documents is an indispensable enterprise if we are to fully understand “how law worked in practice.” In view of what we know to have been “heaps” of documents produced by Muslim judges and notaries, Rustow underscores how particularly noticeable a disjuncture there is between those documents and the long-form texts. Moreover, scholars often skip over and thus fail to avail themselves of the utility of documents in adding texture to social and legal history. She cautions social historians against “pseudo-knowledge,” that is, the temptation to overlook complex factors, usually embedded in legal documents, that render our otherwise tame scholarly perception of the past truer but more “unruly.” In the end, her invitation to join her in the study of documents and thereby improve the state of Islamic legal history is terse and timely: “Please go find yourself some documents.”

Please join us in thanking our contributing scholars, Michael Cook and Marina Rustow for their thought-provoking contributions. Next week we look forward to publishing new essay contributions to the Roundtable. Stay tuned!

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