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On Madhhabs, Salafis, and Dalil: Rethinking Reform and Law in the Contemporary Islamic World

Panel X-12, 2023 Annual Meeting

On Saturday, November 4 at 5:30 pm

Panel Description
Questions of reform and tradition have long preoccupied study of Islamic intellectual history. Most recently, works by Wael Hallaq and Muhammad Qasim Zaman among others have explored the ways in which Muslims seek to reconcile a normative vision of the past with the radical transformations of modernity. Among historians of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, much of that work has focused on a subset of Muslim intellectuals typically critical of the institutions, genres, and methodological encumbrances of precolonial Islamic law. While recent work has shown the limits of regarding reformist and traditionalist scholars as mutually exclusive, there remains less research on the intellectual and social contexts that undergird their commonalities. This panel conceptualizes Islamic reform at the intersection of Islamic history and the ruptures of modernity. It pays particular attention to the ways in which novel modes of argumentation and new sources of authority serve to legitimate longstanding religious institutions and practices. Specifically, it explores how contests over the methods and reach of Islamic jurisprudence proved key terrain for scholars confronting the dilemmas of colonial and postcolonial Muslim societies. As much a question of hermeneutics as of politics, the panel interrogates how critics of the legal school (madhhab) borrowed the techniques, genres, and discourses of their rivals to reinforce their own claims of law’s need for reform. Similarly, it probes how traditionalist jurists sought to repurpose the arguments of those that attacked the normative boundaries of the legal school in efforts to re-legitimize the madhhab for contemporary Muslims increasingly alienated from it. To tell this story, contributors to the panel will explore debates within and beyond Sunni legal schools, including the efforts of Salafi periodicals to distinguish worship from custom by relying on the hermeneutical tools of madhhabs; the influences of education reform on legal methodology in late Imperial Russia; attempts to repurpose demands for proof texts (dalil) at the exclusion of the opinions of jurists in the legal literature of colonial Sudan; critiques of the traditional legal canon in the calls of Moroccan intellectuals of the early twentieth century to join secular and Islamic knowledge; and competing models of neo-traditionalism among contemporary North African Malikis. Together, the papers reveal not only the key issues that have divided reformists and traditionalists over the previous century, but also the conceptual assumptions and interpretive choices that brought them together in often unexpected ways.
Religious Studies/Theology
  • Dr. Leor Halevi -- Discussant
  • Dr. Aaron Rock-Singer -- Presenter
  • Dr. Alexander Thurston -- Presenter
  • Mr. Matthew Steele -- Organizer, Presenter
  • Nathan Spannaus -- Presenter
  • Mr. Matthew Steele
    Studies of Islamic law’s modern history have largely focused on the outsized role of reformists. Colonial efforts to at once centralize and reduce the authority of Islamic law understandably dominate much of the literature. So too does the emergence of new generations of Muslim intellectuals calling for freeing law from the suffocating effects of legal schools (madhhabs) and their demands for imitation (taqlid). The experiences of Islamic law’s traditional arbiters, its school jurists, appear less frequently. However, among Maliki scholars there existed a rich debate over the future of the school and the role of its legists in response to the seismic changes of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. That discussion most often returned to the nature of proof (dalil) and the methodologies permitted for obtaining it, namely tarjih and tashhir. Though each imposed different practical requirements – the former sought to produce legal opinions based on their preponderance of evidence and the latter according to their acceptance by jurists themselves – for most of their early modern history, the two as frequently doubled as indexes for the political orientations of those that employed them. This paper explores a curious byproduct of the school’s renewed preoccupation with proof in jurisprudence: the emergence of a subgenre of abridgment (mukhtasar) and commentary (sharh) concerned less with legal dicta than the evidence that substantiated it. It focuses on the Mālikī school of late colonial Sudan, asking how various contests over dalil informed a legal community wrestling with its claim to legitimacy as the country approached independence. I do so through a study of the lives and scholarship of two author-jurists, `Uthman b. Hasanayn Barri al-Ja`ali (d. 1960) and Abu Tahir Hasan Fay al-Bijawi (d. 1984). The paper explores how their responses to pressure for reform – both from within and without – produced not only remarkably different orientations to proof in fiqh, but the very forms of abridgment and commentary from which they chose to articulate their positions. I consider how their selection of epistemological and literary terrain encouraged a particular life of their texts, revealing how it imagined a distinct audience, approach to legal education, and a notion of Maliki authority and doctrine within the rapidly changing institutions of midcentury Sudan.
  • Dr. Aaron Rock-Singer
    Salafism is arguably the most successful Islamic reformist movement of the 20th and 21st centuries, spreading across the Middle East and South Asia as well as Western Europe and the United States. This movement’s proponents, in turn, ground their claim to authenticity in a seemingly straightforward legal claim: a commitment to deriving all law from the Quran and the Sunna. In turn, Salafis have often been understood in both academic and normative settings as reproducing the 7th-century golden model of the first three generations of the Muslim community (known as the “Pious Ancestors” or al-Salaf al-Salih). And indeed, madhhab-aligned scholars critique Salafism on precisely this point: their rejection of the Islamic scholarly tradition in favor of a narrow set of sources understood to document Islam’s founding moment. The question of whether Salafism’s self-depiction is accurate, however, is rarely asked. In this paper, I will draw on a wide range of Salafi periodicals published in Egypt, Syria, Yemen and Kuwait to challenge the hermeneutical assumption that undergirds a great deal of analysis of Salafism. To do so, I will specifically focus on two aspects of Salafism’s interpretive method: first, its approach to the boundary between acts of worship (ʿibadat) and those of custom (ʿada or ʿurf) and second, the reconceptualization of facial hair as a matter of worship rather than custom. By telling this story, I will explore the role of concepts and terms from both the madhhab tradition and secular nationalism in Salafism’s interpretive practices, arguing that Salafism’s normative commitment to the Quran and Sunna must not be taken as an analytical approach for understanding its legal process. Instead, I place Salafism’s interpretive project in conversation with that of not only its madhhab counterparts but also with its ideological competitors.
  • Dr. Alexander Thurston
    The Mālikī madhhab or school is one of four main extant schools of law in Sunni Islam. In the postcolonial period, one influential genre within the school has been what might be called “istidlāl” texts. These manuals are evidence-giving texts that provide not just the school’s rulings but also those rulings’ connections to foundational Islamic sources, above all verses from the Qur’an or hadith reports. Although advanced classical and postclassical works within the madhhab also frequently provided such evidence, the recent istidlāl texts adopt the conventions of academic scholarship (footnotes, bibliographies, etc.) and are aimed at both lay and specialist audiences. These texts constitute not just an exposition of the school’s rulings and methodologies but also a field of debate around what the school is and how its canon should inform contemporary Muslims’ practices and identities. The issues at stake go beyond the Mālikī school and intersect with wider negotiations of Islamic religiosity in an era of increasing debate and reflexivity. This paper examines and compares the two most influential Mālikī istidlāl texts, Al-Ḥabīb bin Ṭāhir’s Al-Fiqh al-Mālikī wa-Adillatuhu (Mālikī Jurisprudence and Its Evidences) and al-Ṣādiq al-Gharyānī’s Mudawwanat al-Fiqh al-Mālikī wa-Adillatuhu (the Compendium of Mālikī Jurisprudence and Its Evidences). Bin Ṭāhir comes out of a traditionalist institution in Tunisia, the Zaytūna, whose fortunes have fluctuated under successive postcolonial governments. His text defends traditionalist Mālikī rulings and approaches, but also displays a subtly ambivalent relationship with the traditionalist Mālikī methodology for deriving rulings – an ambivalence that hints at strains faced by traditionalists as they adapt to the challenges other Islamic currents have directed at Mālikism and at the madhhabs generally. Al-Gharyānī, meanwhile, is a Libyan iconoclast who wrote prolifically during the longtime rule of Muammar al-Qadhafi and has now taken on a powerful but controversial role as Grand Mufti in post-2011 Libya. Al-Gharyānī’s text is much more critical of traditionalist rulings and approaches, exemplifying an approach that is favorable to the idea of wide-ranging ijtihād or independent legal reasoning. Comparing these two texts, the paper assesses the intellectual trajectories within contemporary Mālikism and reflects on dynamics of tradition and reform within the school and within contemporary Muslim communities more broadly. In this way the paper connects to the panel's move to rethink “reform and tradition in Islamic law as neither exclusive nor stable categories, looking instead to the ways in which scholars played at the margins of both.”
  • Nathan Spannaus
    A critical aspect of modern Islamic law is the shift in meanings of taqlid and ijtihad. In the latter half of the 19th century, these two key concepts ceased to be enmeshed within the interpretive structures of fiqh, as they had been historically, but instead were recast as mutually exclusive approaches to legal and religious authority. This paper focuses on this shift through an analysis of the interaction between legal discourse and broad changes in Islamic education, specifically the link between legal and educational reformism. This research shows how in this period educational reform helped transform notions of legal and religious authority. Using a diachronic study of texts on fiqh and education from the Volga-Ural region between 1800-1920, particularly polemics for and against reform, this paper will trace the evolution of discourse surrounding religious authority. Of particular importance is a manuscript describing an 1897 debate between Abu Naqib Tuntari, defending taqlid, and ‘Alimjan Barudi, supporting ijtihad. While couched within terms relating to the religio-legal aspects of the issue, the debate substantively engages with questions of education: how someone could become knowledgeable enough to engage in legal interpretation and what kinds of knowledge are required. The debate is remarkable due to its participants’ relationship to educational reform—Tuntari is most famous as an opponent of reformed schooling, while Barudi operated an important new-method madrasa in the region—but also that their arguments illustrate the shifts in legal discourse in progress. Barudi’s case for ijtihad revolves around an understanding of legal knowledge that shows how education reform had already reoriented notions of fiqh reasoning, and Tuntari’s defense of the madhhab reflects how key elements of the legal tradition were increasingly undermined. Nevertheless, both Barudi and Tuntari are still arguing within a shared frame of reference in fiqh, something that will cease to be the case in later debates. The spread of education not based in the Islamic scholarly tradition—i.e., European and European-derived—spurred questions over that tradition’s continued viability and relevance and led to large numbers of Muslims educated within other epistemic frameworks weighing in on religious and legal matters. This occurred under the banner of ‘ijtihad’, recast as an ethos of reform per se, as ‘taqlid’ became “conservative” adherence to, and defense of, the tradition—both equally divorced from the specificities of fiqh. In this way, debates within the legal tradition gradually gave way to debates about the tradition.