Live Webinar Panel View: Roundtable on Islamic Legal History & Historiography, March 5, 2021

The Program in Islamic Law is proud to host a live webinar to conclude and discuss the various contributions to the Roundtable on Islamic Legal History and Historiography! The Zoom Webinar / Live Roundtable, which will take place on Friday, March 5, 2021 @ 12:00 – 1:30 p.m. (EST), will take stock of the state of scholarship on Islamic legal history and explore themes that emerge from the Roundtable that merit further scholarly attention.

Friday’s Zoom Webinar / Live Roundtable will be divided between three panels, each taking place over a 25-to-35-minute segment, each covering a major theme growing out of the online Roundtable.

Each panelist will be asked a question relating to their contribution, which will then be commented on by other participants. The webinar is meant to provide participants an interactive and collaborative platform to engage with each other’s contributions and ideas.

Panel 1: Social-historical studies: Legal texts as sources 

Michael Cook, Najam Haider, Carl Petry, Yossef Rapoport, Marina Rustow, Elizabeth Urban

Studying a Lived Law: An Interview with Yossef Rapoport

This interview was conducted by Omar Abdel-Ghaffar (Harvard University, PhD student).

In this interview, Yossef 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.

Future Avenues in the Study of Islamic Law

By Najam Haider, Barnard College

In his essay, Najam Haider calls for “more cohesive and integrated scholarly engagement with the pre-modern Islamicate world.” To that end, the author urges scholars to creatively engage and treat legal texts as valuable sources for understanding the social and political predicates of Islamic societies. For example, tracing the creation and migration of legal texts across regions can yield valuable insights into multiple ideas and ideologies across the pre-modern Islamic world, as a part of a larger intertextual world where scholars study all actors in Islamic history as interacting with, complementing, and arguing against one another.


Four Historical Strategies for Approaching Early Islamic Law

By Elizabeth Urban, West Chester University of Pennsylvania

Elizabeth Urban urges scholars of Islamic law and Islamic history to consider four strategies in their scholarship that collectively aim at achieving “interdisciplinarity and scholarly dialogue.” The strategies range from a capacious use of sources, a multi-genre approach to history and law, attending to the perspectives of the socially vulnerable—namely women and the unfree, and considering demographic change that may simultaneously prove to be a legal consequence to and cause of changes in early Islamic laws, from Islamic family law and beyond.

Crime during the Mamluk Period and the Study of Legal History

By Carl F. Petry, Northwestern University

Drawing on his research on the written works by Egyptian and Syrian Mamlūk authors, Carl Petry begins his essay by noting the increasing availability of a vast array of sources in the field, some of which have been digitized, which allows for enhanced quantitative analysis. He underscores the need to consider each source in its own right: while registers of legal proceedings are invaluable for making statistical generalizations, for example, more traditional historical texts offer a substantive foundation to interpret those findings. Noting that his research focuses primarily on the study of crime and transgressive behavior during the Mamlūk era, Petry writes that the insights from critical race theory and gender studies have been vital to his scholarship, especially to help expose the male lens from which the texts he studies were written.

Simplicity, Creativity, Lucidity as “Method” in the Study of Islamic History: An Interview with Michael Cook

This interview was conducted by Intisar Rabb (Editor-in-Chief).

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. 

Islamic law and the documentary record before 1500: Unsolved problems and untried solutions

By Marina Rustow, Princeton University 

Marina Rustow 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.”

Panel 2: ​Doctrinal studies: Approaches to fiqh texts

Ersilia Francesca, Rob Gleave, Haider Hammoudi, Marion Katz, Sohaira Siddiqui

Shīʿī Law/Islamic Law: Some Category Problems

By Robert Gleave, Professor of Arabic Studies at the University of Exeter

In his essay, Robert Gleave notes that the study of Islamic law in the Western Academy has come a long way since the 1980s, to the extent that it provided target practice for the late Shahab Ahmed, who sought to return Islamic law to just one of many ways of approaching Islam. Yet, for Gleave, there is much to be said and much still to be done in looking at history and other disciplines through Islamic law. To be sure, the plethora of sources, legal and non-legal, that scholars now see to be sources for the study of Islamic law is promising if disappointingly underutilized. Moreover, scholars today focus on Sunnī sources as default at the expense—with some exceptions—of robust engagement with Shīʿī and other minoritarian sources to tell a fuller legal history of the field. Gleave cautions that neither Ahmed’s “legal normativity” nor the field’s Sunnī dominance need lead the field; rather, the sources should guide the field.

Tracing the History of Ibāḍī law and jurisprudence: A state of art

By Ersilia Francesca, University of Naples “L’Orientale”

In her essay, Ersilia 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.”

Rethinking Dichotomies: Beyond Continuity and Rupture in Islamic Law in the Colonial Period

By Sohaira Siddiqui, Georgetown University in Qatar

Sohaira Siddiqui begins her essay by challenging the explanatory force that “dichotomies” wield in explaining history. The dichotomy of “continuity vs. rupture,” for example, is prevalent in Islamic scholarship, but is, she contends, overly reductive. Instead of seeing a bright-line “colonial moment” that divides two historical periods and generates a sense of rupture from a unified past, can we speak of “legal contestation, transformation, and reformulation” that better explains colonialism in parts of the Islamic world? Siddiqui urges scholars to answer this question with close analysis of transmitted texts and the history of courts and other institutions.

The Neglected History of Furū’ and the Premodern/Modern Binary

By Marion Katz, New York University

Marion 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. 

Islamic Law from the Internal Point of View

By Haider A. Hamoudi, University of Pittsburgh

Haider Hamoudi notes the different perspectives lawyers and historians employ in making sense of the law. Invoking H.L.A. Hart’s famous distinction between “internal” and “external” points of view with respect to law and legal rules, Hamoudi describes lawyers as primarily adopting the former, and historians, the latter point of view. This is not to suggest that lawyers do not take history into consideration, but rather to mean that when they do, their focus is results oriented in that they use history to understand the ultimate endpoint, the contemporaneous meaning of a legal rule or institution. Hamoudi observes two consequences emanating from lawyers’ adoption of the internal view that puts lawyers somewhat at odds with the demands of historical method and meaning. While deliberately omitting discussion on the normative desirability of either method, Hamoudi concludes by observing value in merely pointing out the differences between the internal and external viewpoints of law and history, respectively, to help expose “our own biases and assumptions.”

Panel 3: Quantitative methods: Computational approaches 

Metin Cosgel, Bogac Ergene, Irene Kirchner, Intisar Rabb

Pluralistic Methodologies in Islamic Legal Historiography

By Metin M. Coşgel, University of Connecticut & Boğaç A. Ergene, University of Vermont

In their joint essay, Metin Coşgel and Boğaç Ergene make the case for “a pluralistic approach to the study of Islamic legal history,” through the lens of law and economics and other types of quantitative analysis. Regression analysis, they suggest, provides especially useful approaches suited to interdisciplinary studies of historical events. To illustrate, the authors describe the findings of their previous scholarship on Ottoman court records, for which they coded data on court petitions and were able to arrive at generalizable conclusions about access to early modern courts. Noting the uptick in digitized primary sources in the field, they predict an increase in Islamic legal scholarship that integrates quantitative analysis. 

Measuring interpretive authority: a methodological reflection

By Irene K. F. Kirchner, Georgetown University

Irene Kirchner starts with a daunting query: what is Islamic law and who decides in the online world of cryptocurrency? This question “is very much a methodological one,” as answering it requires a determination of authority: what voices matter for resolving novel legal questions, including those introduced by developments in new technology and data science. To provide one method of answering this question, Kirchner turns to her own work on the permissibility of cryptocurrencies under modern interpretations of Islamic law. She proposes using measures of popularity and availability to inform the field. Though she is conscious of the implicit assumptions in her reliance on online search engines to locate primary and secondary sources of relevant laws commenting on cryptocurrencies, Kirchner nevertheless proposes that search engines provide more flexible and accurate answers compared to manual subject tags, especially when it comes to measuring popularity and availability.  

Islamic Legal Canons as Memes

By Intisar Rabb, Editor-in-Chief

In her essay concluding the Roundtable, Intisar Rabb invites us to conduct a thought experiment— to think of legal canons as memes, that is, as cultural elements in circulation that, like genes, self-replicate and accrue to the benefit of human society. Just as memes spread, so do legal canons—principles that guide legal interpretation—from one scholar to another, from one written record to the other. Describing at length multiple angles from which legal canons can be categorized, Rabb shows that the many and varied types of canons illustrate how deeply embedded canons are in the social, cultural, and also legal culture that produces them. That, in turn, invites close collaboration between legal historians and data scientists to enable a mapping of a “meme pool” for legal canons, which she pursues through developing the Courts & Canons project at Harvard Law School: through digital tools, we will be able to trace the curious textual travels of legal canons (as memes), and through that, the transmission of cultures, practices, and ideas in through all manner of texts (their meme pool) recording the history and practice of law and society in the Muslim world.

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