Monthly Lectures on Islamic Legal Genres: “Form, Function, and Historical Development of Genres of Juristic Dialectic (ʿIlm al-Jadal wal-Khilāf)” by Dr. Walter Edward Young

By Omar Khaled Abdel-Ghaffar

This is a summary of the lecture by Dr. Walter Edward Young entitled “Form, Function, and Historical Development of Genres of Juristic Dialectic (ʿIlm al-Jadal wal-Khilāf) delivered on August 25, 2021 at 12 noon (EST), 6 pm (Münster) 7 pm (Istanbul) via Zoom.

Dr. Walter Edward Young offered the August installment of the Lectures on Islamic Legal Genres. This month’s topic was juristic dialectic, in Arabic, ʿilm al-jadal wal-khilāf. Young noted that premodern and modern Muslim scholars have discussed dialectical theories under the terms munāẓara and baḥth as well as ʿilm al-jadal wal-khilāf, but that this last term was both more encompassing and predated other terms for dialectical and dialogical theories and methods. The meanings of khilāf and jadal themselves changed over the course of history: initially, khilāf referred to methods meant to uphold the position of a specific legal school, whereas jadal was the method of deconstructing any thesis in general. By the early modern period however they came to be used synonymously.

Young explained that although the discussion he offered today centered around legal debates, the “hosting disciplines” varied across the various sciences studied in the Islamicate world. Thus, scholars in disciplines including theology (kalām), philosophy, and grammar used and elaborated on the importance of logical and systematic debate on a certain topic. Be that as it may, ʿilm al-jadal wal-khilāf was of particular importance to Sunnī uṣūl al-fiqh. The dialogical logic of pre-modern Islamic law simultaneously developed and was developed by the debates taking place in the field of uṣūl al-fiqh. Thus, the two fields had a symbiotic relationship, with dialectics bolstering jurisprudence, and jurisprudence propagating the dialectical method. For this reason, Young argued that the surviving ʿilm al-jadal wal-khilāf texts offer the modern legal historian unique access to the justifications behind legal principles and sources. This genre reveals to modern historians how the debates Muslim jurists conducted were genuinely truth seeking, competitive, and cooperative. The entire process was imbued with a certain ethical impetus that “harnessed the fire of competition” in order to reach the truth. Therefore, these theories and methods for debate were not meant for polemics, but rather dialectical processes meant to discover truth.

Young divides the process by which juristic dialectic developed into three main periods. He offered a close reading of a representative text from each period, exhibiting the developments in dialectical theories and methods. The first period lasted from the 1st century AH/7th CE to the 4th/10th century. This period was characterized by the process by which an essentially pedagogical proto-system developed into a full-system theory of dialogical teachings and practices. As an example, Young offered the debates between Abū Ḥanīfa on the one hand and Abū Yūsuf and Muḥammad on the other. Here, Young demonstrated how locating the underlying presumption, aṣl, and deducing from it formed the core of juristic debates. The second period lasted from the 5th/11th-7th/13th centuries, where the dialogical debates became systematized into a dialectical theory, and grew infused with theories of logic. For this period, Young exhibited Abū Isḥāq al-Shīrāzī’s (d.476/1083) Al-Mukhtaṣar fī al-Jadal. Here, he demonstrated how the points of debate had moved into questions of istidlāl and sources. The final stage, from the 8th/14th to the 14th/20th centuries witnessed the rise of adab al-baḥth wal-munāẓara, as exemplified by Nasafī’s Fuṣūl.

Overall, Young argued that dialectical pressures consistently influenced questions of private ijtihād. The process of critique, naqd, encouraged causal and consistent argumentation even within one person’s deliberation. The dialectical habit of objection, muʿāraḍa, encouraged research into counter-proofs. Thus, studying the Islamic juristic dialectic can greatly enlighten our understanding of how legal theory developed within the community but also within the individual’s mind.

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