Monthly Lectures on Islamic Legal Genres: “Ṭabaqāt al-Fuqahāʾ: What is a Genre?” by Professor Marion Katz

By Omar Khaled Abdel-Ghaffar

This is a summary of the lecture by Professor Marion Katz entitled “Ṭabaqāt al-Fuqahāʾ: What is a Genre?,” delivered on October 27, 2021 at 12 noon (EST), 6 pm (Münster) 7 pm (Istanbul) via Zoom.  The video recording of the lecture can be accessed here.

Professor Marion Katz delivered October’s lecture for the Islamic Legal Genres project, covering the genre of tabaqāt al-fuqahāʾ, or legal biographies. Her talk was composed of three sections: a review of scholarship on ṭabaqāt, followed by the objectives of legal biographies, and finally a discussion of whether or not ṭabaqāt constitute a single coherent genre. Professor Katz argues that to understand ṭabaqāt, we must study the variety of purposes these biographies served throughout history, thereby understanding that ṭabaqāt did not form a uniform genre in and of themselves.

Western scholarship’s interpretation of the origin and purpose of tabaqāt al-fuqahāʾ has changed overtime, according to Professor Katz. The first study, conducted by Otto Loth (d. 1881) in 1869 connected the genre to ḥadīth sciences, but Willi Heffining (d. 1944) pointed out that the earliest ṭabaqāt of poets were in fact contemporaneous with the ṭabaqāt of ḥadīth narrators. In doing so, Heffining commenced an ongoing debate on the purpose of ṭabaqāt in general and ṭabaqāt al-fuqahāʾ in particular. Hamilton Gibb (d. 1971) argued that ṭabaqāt affirmed the Islamic ideal that individual Muslim men and women constituted and developed Muslim culture, a position that Wada al-Qadi built on to argue that early ṭabaqāt literature ordered and structured scholars who were not otherwise institutionalized. In doing so, they discursively established institutions and continuities as well as articulated ties between scholars across time and space. George Makdisi (d. 2002) argued that these discursive institutions were central to establishing notions of orthodoxy. Makdisi saw the authorship of ṭabaqāt as constitutive to the Muslim understanding of the legal school-as-guild.

Katz studied the introductory “statements of purpose” in ṭabaqāt texts to develop five overarching reasons for penning ṭabaqāt works. The first is a pragmatic purpose: authors wanted the texts to serve as reference works for jurists and students in legal research. An example of this type of text would be Abū Isḥāq al-Shirāzī’s (d. 476/1083) Ṭabaqāt al-fuqahāʾ. These texts helped students identify the parameters of legitimate ikhtilāf. The second major purpose was devotional: authors wrote biographies to illustrate moral exemplars for their readers. An example of this type of genre could be ʿAlī al-Qārī’s (d. 1014/1605) al-Athmā al-janiyya fī asmāʾ al-Ḥanafiyya. The third purpose is to allow for taqlīd, or legal conformity. Such biographies established evidence for who belonged to a specific legal school, and thereby the networks of valid emulation and student-teacher relationships. An example of this text would be Ibn Farḥūn’s (d.799/1397) Ṭabaqāt. Professor Katz exemplified the fourth and fifth purposes using Tāj al-Dīn al-Subkī’s (d. 771/1370) Ṭabaqāt al-Shāfiʿiyya. The fourth purpose was for social capital: to argue for the primacy of one’s legal school, the articulation of the author’s credentials, or the author’s lineage. The fifth was simply for entertainment: Subkī’s text mentions entertainment value explicitly in the introduction, and commonly quotes poetry, stories, and outrageous legal opinions.

By outlining these varying purposes for writing ṭabaqāt al-fuqahāʾ literature, Professor Katz furthers her argument that ṭabaqāt are a dynamic and complex genre (if we are still to consider them a single genre) that serve a wide variety of purposes. Ṭabaqāt in fact touch upon many genres: ḥawāshī, in their elaboration on specific legal positions, manāqib (laudatory biographies) in their offering of moral examples, and muʿjam al-shuyūkh (scholarly lineages) in their offering of scholarly lineages. By posing these connections, Professor Katz challenges us to rethink not only the genre of ṭabaqāt al-fuqahāʾ, but to reconsider how we define a genre in the first place.

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