What is Islamic Law?


narrated by Chris Gratien
featuring Saadia Yacoob, Intisar Rabb, Joshua White, Fahad Bishara, and Joel Blecher
| Islamic legal traditions rest on the revelations of the Qur'an and precedents attributed to the Prophet Muhammad and the early Muslim community. But they also rest on over a millennium of interpretation and debate. In our first episode of this series on "The Making of the Islamic World," we're exploring the history of Islamic legal traditions and the ways in which scholarship on the past relates to how people imagine what Islamic law is and what it can be. In addition to discussing what Islamic jurisprudence is and how it developed, we examine the extent to which Islamic law provided a framework for addressing matters that had little to do with religion as we might conventionally understand it. We also feature the voices of scholars engaged in new research that makes us rethink common misconceptions about the early history of Islam that have implications for how Muslims understand Islamic law today.


Islamic legal traditions rest on the revelations of the Qur'an and precedents attributed to the Prophet Muhammad and the early Muslim community. But they also rest on over a millennium of interpretation and debate.  

In our first episode of this series on "The Making of the Islamic World," we're exploring the history of Islamic legal traditions and the ways in which scholarship on the past relates to how people imagine what Islamic law is and what it can be. In addition to discussing what Islamic jurisprudence is and how it developed, we examine the extent to which Islamic law provided a framework for addressing matters that had little to do with religion as we might conventionally understand it. We also feature the voices of scholars engaged in new research that makes us rethink common misconceptions about the early history of Islam that have implications for how Muslims understand Islamic law today.

"The Making of the Islamic World" is an ongoing series aimed at providing resources for the undergraduate classroom. The episodes in this series are subject to updates and modification.





Saadia Yacoob is an Assistant Professor of Religion at Williams College. She holds a PhD in Islamic studies from Duke University and an MA from the Institute of Islamic Studies at McGill University. She has also studied Islamic law in Egypt and Jordan. Her research focuses on gender, childhood, slavery, and legal personhood in Islamic law. More broadly, her research interests include Islamic legal history, Muslim feminist studies, history of sexuality, and slavery studies. She has a chapter in The Oxford Handbook of Islamic Law on the contribution made by gender scholars to the study of Islamic law and is currently working on a book titled Reading Gender in Early Islamic Law.
Intisar Rabb is a Professor of Law, a Professor of History, and the faculty director of the Program in Islamic Law at Harvard Law School. She has published on Islamic law in historical and modern contexts, including the monograph, Doubt in Islamic Law (Cambridge University Press 2015). She is also the faculty director of SHARIAsource – an online portal designed to provide universal access to the world’s information on Islamic law and history and to facilitate new research with the use of AI tools.
Joshua M. White is Associate Professor of History at the University of Virginia. He is the author of Piracy and Law in the Ottoman Mediterranean (Stanford University Press, 2017).
Fahad Ahmad Bishara is Rouhollah Ramazani Associate Professor of Arabian Peninsula and Gulf Studies at the University of Virginia. He specializes in the legal and economic history of the Indian Ocean and Islamic world, and is now spends his time thinking about dhows, the sea, and world history.
Joel Blecher is an Assistant Professor of History at George Washington University, in Washington D.C., and the author of Said the Prophet of God: Hadith Commentary across a Millennium (University of California, 2018). He is writing his second book on Islam and the Spice Trade, supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Credits

Interviews by Chris Gratien and Shireen Hamza
Sound production by Chris Gratien
Additional audio from "Harvard Law School Library Book Talk | Intisar Rabb's 'Doubt in Islamic Law'" Music (by order of appearance): Aitua - Wings - III Chorinho; A.A. Aalto - Canyon; Zé Trigueiros - Chiaroscuro; Zé Trigueiros - Sombra; Chad Crouch - Ruby; Borrtex - Realization; Aitua - Volcano; Zé Trigueiros - Big Road of Burravoe

Explore

Islamic law comprises a vast and varied body of scholarship and institutions that developed over many centuries throughout the Islamic world. It is not just one thing. On many questions in Islamic legal thought, opinions vary according to school of interpretation and context. And sometimes practice could be radically different than what we might initially think the letter of the law says concerning a particular matter. 

We opened our podcast with one example of this fact. In the early Muslim community, punishments for crimes sounded quite harsh in theory. But as Intisar Rabb has shown, procedural practices in implementation of judgments resulted in severe punishments seldom being applied. This basic point is just one of many pieces of evidence that the study of history is indispensable to thinking about Islamic law. A dehistoricized interpretation of Islamic law may lead the community to implement the law in a manner that never actually worked in any past society.


Intisar Rabb speaks to an audience at Harvard Law School Library about her book "Doubt in Islamic Law: A History of Legal Maxims, Interpretation, and Islamic Criminal Law."

History is valuable for thinking through political and ethical questions within Muslim communities today. New forms of engagement with Islamic legal traditions informed by feminist thinking, for example, explore questions about gender and sexuality that are central to debates in modern societies. History provides many episodes that demonstrate there is nothing ahistorical about a feminist interpretation of Islamic law, even if the notion of feminism itself is a modern concept. In the podcast, we talked about the role of women in Islamic scholarship during the medieval period. There are many examples of women who were scholars in their own right, and while we would not want to create the impression that there was simply no gender inequality in the past, the lives of women who engaged in scholarship are valuable for thinking about how one's gender influenced legal interpretation. They also reveal to anyone today saying that Islamic jurisprudence is only a "man's game" that this has simply not been the case historically speaking. 

Another key point we emphasize in the episode is that traditions of interpretation have had a long life. The main corpus of sources for Islamic law may have been solidified during the early centuries of Islam, but legal reasoning and re-interpretation have allowed for continued flexibility and change in the Islmaic legal traditions. We focused on the hadith--the saying of the Prophet Muhammad--as a good illustration. The hadith corpus may have crystallized long ago, but Muslims have continued to debate the meaning of hadiths producing voluminous works sometimes revolving around a single saying attributed to the Prophet. 

Listen to our interview with Joel Blecher about the history of hadith interpratation to learn more about how hadith scholarship remained a vibrant filed long after the canon of hadith was solidified.



The number of resources for the study of Islamic law today is vast. To go straight to the primary sources, we recommend visiting SHARIAsource, where you'll find an ever-growing catalog of sources for Islamic law in translation. And to read more about new trends in the study of Islamic law, please consult the bibliography below. 

FURTHER READING  

Ali, Kecia. Sexual Ethics and Islam: Feminist Reflections on Qur'an, Hadith, and Jurisprudence. 2017.

El-Ashker, Ahmed Abdel-Fattah, and Rodney Wilson. Islamic economics: a short history. Leiden: Brill, 2006.

Berkey, Jonathan. The Formation of Islam: Religion and Society in the Near East, 600-1800. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012.

Brown, Jonathan. The Canonization of Al-Bukhārī and Muslim: The Formation and Function of the Sunnī Ḥadīth Canon. Leiden: Brill, 2011.

Burak, Guy. The Second Formation of Islamic Law: The Ḥanafī School in the Early Modern Ottoman Empire. 2017.

Hallaq, Wael B. A History of Islamic Legal Theories: An Introduction to Sunnī Uṣūl Al-Fiqh. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

Jackson, Sherman A. Islam and the Problem of Black Suffering. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.

_____. On the Boundaries of Theological Tolerance in Islam: Abū Ḥāmid Al-Ghāzalīʼs Fayṣal Al-Tafriqa Bayna Al-Islam Wa Al-Zandaqa. Karachi: Oxford University Press, 2007.

Rabb, Intisar A. Doubt in Islamic Law: A History of Legal Maxims, Interpretation, and Islamic Criminal Law. 2017.

Schacht, Joseph. An Introduction to Islamic Law. Oxford [Oxfordshire]: Clarendon Press, 2012.

El Shamsy, Ahmed. The Canonization of Islamic Law: A Social and Intellectual History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015.

Yacoob, Saadia. "Islamic Law and Gender" in Emon, Anver M., and Rumee Ahmed. The Oxford Handbook of Islamic Law. 2018.





Chris Gratien is Assistant Professor of History at University of Virginia, where he teaches classes on global environmental history and the Middle East. He is currently preparing a monograph about the environmental history of the Cilicia region of the former Ottoman Empire from the 1850s until the 1950s.

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