Sources for Islamic Law and Society in the modern period: A methodological reflection

By Aaron Rock-Singer

The field of pre-modern Islamic history is replete with fascinating studies of social and intellectual history that rely on fatwā collections. Scholars such as David Powers, Jocelyn Hendrickson, and Marion Katz[1] – to name just a few – have powerfully illustrated the richness of this genre in tracing the relationship among elites, political and religious, and local communities. By complement, scholars of modern Islamic thought have mined Rashīd Riḍā’s (d. 1935) al-Manār – both the Qur’ānic commentary and the related journal (1898-1935) – as a source of intellectual, social and material history.[2]

As a historian of modern Islam with a particular interest in Islamic reformist movements, I have been deeply shaped by the work of these scholars and others that illustrate key questions, debates and concerns of Muslims in the pre-modern and modern periods.  Equally significant in my approach to the study of modern Islam, however, have been scholarship on mass and small media in the Middle East. Research by scholars as varied as Walter Armbrust, Emilio Spadola and Charles Hirschkind[3] has not only highlighted the centrality of mass and small media to cultural and religious contestation alike, but also the distinct ways in which particular mediums – whether print, audio, or audiovisual – shape the authority, circulation and reception of particular ideas.

It is in this context that the mediation of modern Islamic intellectual and social contestation is omnipresent. Put differently, when one studies Islamic law and society in the modern period, the question isn’t whether one’s sources are shaped by questions of mediation but rather how they are shaped. One might object that such an approach works far better for ephemera such as periodicals, pamphlets, audiocassette tapes and television programs than it does for more “traditional” media forms such as multi-volume legal texts, including pre-modern texts that have been reproduced and edited in the 20th century. Ahmed El Shamsy’s recent book draws our attention to the historical transformations at play in the transition from manuscript to print culture,[4]  a transformation that not only changed the balance of texts in circulation but also made purchase of such “traditional” texts accessible to a far wider range of readers. Neither do such “texts” remain in material form: programs such as al-Maktaba al-Shāmila not only digitize a particular set of texts but make such texts keyword searchable, which has proved particularly significant given the comparatively slow development of Arabic OCR technology.

The question of tracing reception, however, remains. Like our counterparts in the pre-modern period, historians of modern Islam can mine fatwā collections – and even search them by keyword – to discover which positions have become authoritative and the persistence of minority positions alongside them. Such an approach has the undeniable benefit of foregrounding key questions and concerns of Islamic religious elites and, to varying degrees, the kinds of questions that might be asked by lay Muslims. The limitation of such sources, however, is threefold: the possibility that questions may be posed by the editor or muftī; a silence regarding the reception of this fatwā; and finally, the fact that such a fatwā represents an end point, rather than the full process, by which a particular position comes to be authoritative.

Periodicals, by contrast, provide a particularly rich source for answering such questions. Let us begin with reach: while scholarly texts are predominantly consumed by individuals with prior specialization in the Islamic sciences, journals, magazines and newspapers are more likely to be read by a wider range of predominantly middle-class individuals who read for intellectual edification and entertainment alike. This broader readership is not exclusively a matter of medium; journals can be pitched at precisely the same audience as multi-volume legal works generally and fatwa collections in particular. Magazines and newspapers, however, are as likely to be read in a coffee shop as a library.

It is precisely this reach that makes these sources fruitful in telling social and intellectual history. Islamic magazines and newspapers contain a structural feature, common to non-Islamic periodicals: a popular correspondence section. In the case of Islamic magazines, such correspondence often takes the precise form that it takes it non-Islamic print media: letters to the editor. If one examines Islamic magazines produced within and beyond the Arab world during the second half of the 20th century, such a section is common. In my first book, Practicing Islam in Egypt,[5] which traced the rise of the Islamic Revival in 1970s Egypt, I homed in on such a section in three key Islamic magazines of this period, one published by elites within the Muslim Brotherhood (al-Daʿwa), another by their counterparts in the Jamʿiyya Sharʿiyya li-Taʿāwun al-ʿĀmilīn bi-l-Kitāb waʾl-Sunna (The Lawful Society for Those Who Cooperate to Work According to the Qur’ān and Sunna, al-Iʿtiṣām), and a third by the Supreme Council for Islamic Research in the Ministry of Endowments (Minbar al-Islām).

“Barid al-Daʿwa,”  al-Daʿwa, June 1976/Jumādā al-Thāniyya 1396, 60

All Islamic magazines published during this period – including those by the Salafī Anṣār al-Sunna al-Muḥammadiyya (al-Tawḥīd), and the Islamic Research Academy at al-Azhar (al-Azhar) – contained monthly fatwā sections as well.

Such correspondence does more than allow us to move beyond the questions captured in authoritative fatwā collections; it also opens up the opportunity to consider how particular rulings are linked both to the broader programmatic vision of a given organization as well as to feedback that a given periodicals’ religious elites – who are often also the elites of a particular movement – are receiving. As I trace in Practicing Islam in Egypt, elites within the Muslim Brotherhood and Jamʿiyya Sharʿiyya, in conversation with activists of the Islamic Student Movement (al-Jamāʿa al-Islāmiyya) throughout Egypt, began to argue for the necessity of collective and timely performance of the early afternoon ẓuhr prayer during the second half of the 1970s.[6] Letters to the editor and fatwā requests in this period, however, not only index a growing interest in this question but also reveal a debate over the practicalities of timely performance of this daily prayer and the linked negotiations between student movement leaders and local administrators.[7]

Finally, letters to the editor and fatwā requests published in magazines provide a granular record of the process by which particular rulings became authoritative. By way of example, the 1980s saw a proliferation of pamphlets by Salafi scholars on the requirements of properly “Sunnī” (e.g. Salafī) facial hair, distinguished by a trimmed mustache and fist-length beard.[8] Were we to look at these pamphlets alone, we could identify a particular endpoint and the logic that undergirded Salafī engagement with both the adīth corpus and fiqh literature. Yet, as I show in my second book, In the Shade of the Sunna,[9] an intensive reading of Salafī periodicals published within and beyond Egypt from the 1930s to present tells a far richer story of how Salafīs came to focus on facial hair, the intellectual, social and political considerations that drove this focus, and the early debates over facial hair as they were transmitted through Salafī and non-Salafī Islamic periodicals and received by readers. Put most simply, periodicals enable us to trace the process by which particular legal rulings are reached and become authoritative, as well as the (other) legal paths not taken, while a focus on multi-volume legal texts or pamphlets alone only provides the endpoint of this process.

A crucial medium that I have yet to mention, of course, is the Internet. We might conceptualize this medium as comprising two categories of sources: texts and performances originally transmitted by print, audiocassette or television that have been uploaded (whether as PDFs, audio files, videos or in the case of al-Maktaba al-Shāmila, OCR-searchable digital libraries) and sources that originated online such as YouTube performances, online magazines, or message boards. The uploading of massive quantities of the former type of material has been a boon to researchers but also a challenge, as these sources frequently are shorn not merely of their materiality but also of identifying locations and dates. For example, hosts nearly four hundred sermons by the noted Egyptian preacher ʿAbd al-Ḥamīd Kishk (d. 1996), but does not provide the location of the event or the approximate date of these sermons. Similarly, hundreds of television programs, in which the leading Egyptian scholar Muḥammad Mutawallī al-Shaʿrāwī (d. 1998) appeared, are similarly devoid of basic chronological reference points.

There is still a great deal of research that can be done with online sources, particularly those such as YouTube, which facilitate feedback from viewers.[10] Yet, just as the history of media is one of the co-existence of multiple media forms rather than the straightforward eclipse of a given medium, so too can scholars of Islamic law and society draw creatively on such sources to trace the interaction between and among religious elites and the societies with which they engage in the formation of particular legal positions.


[1] David Powers, Law, Society, and Culture in the Maghrib, 1300–1500 (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2002); Marion Holmes Katz, Women in the Mosque: A History of Legal Thought and Social Practice (New York: Columbia University Press, 2014); and Jocelyn Hendrickson, Leaving Iberia Islamic Law and Christian Conquest in North West Africa (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2021).

[2] For example, see Umar Ryad, Islamic Reformism and Christianity: A Critical Reading of the Works of Muḥammad Rashīd Riḍā and His Associates (1898-1935) (Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 2009); Dyala Hamzah, “From ʿIlm to Sihafa or the Politics of the Public Interest (Maslaha): Muhammad Rashîd Rida and his journal al-Manar (1898-1935),” in The Making of the Arab Intellectual: Empire, Public Sphere and the Colonial Coordinates of Selfhood, ed. Dyala Hamzah (London: Routledge, 2013), 90-127; and Leor Halevi, Modern Things on Trial: Islam’s Global and Material Reformation in the Age of Rida,1865–1935 (New York: Columbia University Press, 2019).

[3] Walter Armbrust, Mass Culture and Modernism in Egypt (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1996); Charles Hirschkind, The Ethical Soundscape: Cassette Sermons and Islamic Counterpublics (New York: Columbia University Press, 2006); and Emilio Spadola, The Calls of Islam: Sufis, Islamists, and Mass Mediation in Urban Morocco (Bloomington, IA: Indiana University Press, 2013).

[4] Ahmed El Shamsy, Rediscovering the Islamic Classics: How Editors and Print Culture Transformed an Intellectual Tradition (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2020).

[5] Aaron Rock-Singer, Practicing Islam in Egypt: Print Media and Islamic Revival (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2018).

[6] For example, see ʿAbd al-Laṭīf al-Mushtahirī, “Aqwāl al-Suḥuf,” al-Iʿtiṣām, December 1976/Dhū al-Ḥijja 1396, 40.

[7] For example, see “Barīd al-Daʿwa,” al-Daʿwa, November 1977/Dhū al-Hijja 1397, 63.

[8] For example, see ʿFor al-Ḥalabī, Ḥukm al-Dīn fī al-Liḥya waʾl-Tadkhīn (Amman, Jordan: al-Maktaba al-Islāmiyya, 1984) and Ḥammūd al-Tuwayjirī, al-Radd ʿalā Man Ajāza Tahdhīb al-Liḥya (Riyadh, Saudi Arabia: Maktabat al-Maʿārif, 1985).

[9] Aaron Rock-Singer, In the Shade of the Sunna: Salafi Piety in the 20th-Century Middle East (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2022).

[10] For example, see Charles Hirschkind, “Experiments in Devotion Online: The YouTube Khuṭba,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 44, no. 1 (February 2012): 5-21.

(Suggested Bluebook citation: Aaron Rock-Singer, Sources for Islamic Law and Society in the modern period: A methodological reflection, Islamic Law Blog (Feb. 9, 2023),

(Suggested Chicago citation: Aaron Rock-Singer, “Sources for Islamic Law and Society in the modern period: A methodological reflection,” Islamic Law Blog, February 9, 2023,

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