MESA Banner
Blurring Disciplinary Boundaries: Intellectual History in the Middle East, 1200–1500

Panel VI-9, 2023 Annual Meeting

On Friday, November 3 at 4:00 pm

Panel Description
It has long been a scholarly truism that premodern scholars were adept intellectuals, polymaths trained in and conversant with many scholarly disciplines. This idea exists, in part, because of the range of books that scholars wrote and the variety of topics that they addressed. At the same time, this phenomenon has also been seen through the so-called “adabization” or “literarization” of intellectual production, in which writing generally takes on a kind of conspicuous literary character with particular attention to style. This panel seeks to interrogate these ideas in more detail by looking at the resonances, intersections, and echoes that the literary had on legal writing and that which the legal had on literary writing. How did adabization happen; can we detect a reverse phenomenon? This panel looks at these questions through a variety of approaches. How did these abstract theoretical issues manifest themselves in a more practical text? One paper asks what resonance these questions had for sailors and navigators and what knowledge looked like when it hit the ground, as it were? Two other papers look at the transfer of scholarly form through analysis of legal riddles. How could riddles be used to promote or denigrate schools of law? How does the riddle-form play into political wrangling? What does this form owe to perhaps the most preeminent literary text of the premodern tradition, al-Hariri’s maqamat? Finally, the panel asks, what underlying relationship was there between grammatical and legal reasoning? In what way could these disciplines be seen as two sides of the same coin? In answer all of these questions, the panel is deeply interested in the crosspollination and blurred disciplinary boundaries in premodern Arabic scholarship.
Religious Studies/Theology
  • In his book, al-Kawkab al-durri, the Shafi’i scholar Jamal al-Din al-Asnawi (d. 772/1370) provides a compelling case for how substantive laws (fiqh) can be extrapolated from the rules of grammar. Al-Asnawui understands Islamic law as deriving from legal theory (usul al-fiqh), but that legal theory was not formulated until the Risala of al-Shafi’i (d. 204/820). He understands, however, that substantive laws can also be extrapolated from the rules of grammar (nahw; ‘arabiyya), a project that he attributes to al-Shafi’i’s contemporary Ibn Hisham (d. 218/833). In a different book, al-Tamhid fi al-takhrij, al-Asnawi demonstrates how to extrapolate substantive laws from legal theoretical principles. This is a rather more straightforward account of the legal process as traditionally understood. Al-Asnawi wrote the books at more or less the same time, as part of a larger project, as he tells us in the Tamhid. He not only wants to understand how law and grammar overlapped in an earlier period, but even how these two disciplines overlap in what he says are the touchstone works, the Irtishaf al-darab by the Andalusi grammarian Abu Hayyan (d. 745) and the Sharh Kabir by the Cairene Shafi’i al-Rafi’I (d. 624/1226). My paper will compare the approach that al-Asnawi takes in relating substantive law to grammar and legal theory. In this way, I hope to shed light into the relationship that al-Asnawi saw between language, law, and legal theory.
  • Recent publications have underlined the importance of legal riddles (alghāz fiqhiyya) as a highly important genre of Islamic legal literature that had hitherto received no scholarly attention due to long established Eurocentric notions of what constitutes “serious” – as opposed to “playful” or “literary” – legal genres worthy of study. The work that has been done on this kind of literature in the past few years has demonstrated that collections of legal riddles played a central role in the writings of the four Sunni schools of law during the middle and modern periods and that these texts could not only serve to demonstrate legal erudition, facilitate legal learning, provide aesthetic entertainment, and generate intellectual enjoyment, but that they potentially also influenced processes of change in the legal culture of their time. To date, however, it has remained unclear how exactly collections of legal riddles were interconnected with and had a shaping influence on the legal culture of their time. This paper compares the collection of riddles al-Dhakhāʾir al-ashrafiyya fī alghāz al-ḥanafiyya by the Mamluk chief-judge of the Ḥanafī school ʿAbd al-Barr Ibn al-Shiḥna (d. 1515) to other texts including the legal views of this author in order to demonstrate that Ibn al-Shiḥna’s collection of legal riddles was a central element in the author’s strategy to bring about a closer alignment between the legal views of the Ḥanafī school and the Shāfiʿī madhhab at the expense of the other two Sunni schools of law recognized within the Mamluk Sultanate. The paper argues that Ibn al-Shiḥna used the genre of legal riddles, which has hitherto been misunderstood as a “playful” and “literary” and thus irrelevant type of legal writing, to bring about a shift in the power balance among the four major Sunni schools in the Mamluk realm. As a chief-judge with close contacts to the Mamluk ruler, Ibn al-Shiḥna was in a unique position to bring about this reconfiguration of the legal culture of this time by means of his writings across various legal genres, with legal riddles figuring particularly prominently in his strategy.
  • Alexis Wick
    This paper explores the poetics and practices of space in the Islamic tradition by way of a close reading of the writings of the great muʿallim of the seas, Shihāb al-Dīn Aḥmad Ibn Mājid al-Saʿdī al-Najdī, and especially his magnum opus Kitāb al-fawāʾid fī uṣūl al-baḥr wa’l-qawāʿid. A general introduction to the navigator’s craft organized into twelve chapters devoted to various essentials of sea-going (covering domains that would be identified today as history, geography, astronomy, topography, climatology, but also ethics and politics, among others), the Kitāb al-fawāʾid fī uṣūl al-baḥr wa’l-qawāʿid seeks to enshrine a science of the sea in a web of scholarly practices implicating people, words and things (and this, from the very title, which mobilizes terms that gesture towards linguistic and legal fields). Rather than emphasizing the technical and empirical aspects of the text, as the existing scholarship has tended to do – with questions aimed at the actual referent stably located outside the texts themseles (what the words and names refer to exactly, how the information was obtained, what was imaginary rather than real, etc.) – the aim is to remain within the writing itself, so to speak, evoking as much as possible the world as the author narrated it: the disciplinary and methodological scaffolding of the composition; the epistemological and ontological anchors that it assumes and asserts; the referential and citationary cosmos that justify it. In other words, the objective is to reconstruct how the text paints the world, both physical and scholarly, as opposed to reconstructing the world that the text recorded. The argument is that Aḥmad Ibn Mājid was seeking to give the “science of the sea” the status of a proper discipline and a dignified profession; but that this could only be done, considering the wider discursive formation within which it operated, by blurring disciplinary boundaries too, nestling it between ethics, epistemology, and practical wisdom.
  • Dr. Matthew Keegan
    In the fifteenth maqāma of al-Ḥarīrī’s Maqāmat, the trickster figure Abū Zayd is presented with a complicated inheritance riddle, written on a piece of paper in verse. The riddle posits a breakdown of inheritance in which a dead man’s brother receives no inheritance while his brother in law receives a portion. The solution entails configuring an unusual familial structure, and when Abū Zayd claims to know the answer, he also demands dinner as payment. This kind of inheritance riddle is a feature of both the adab tradition, in which characters both real and imaginary solve complex puzzles, and the fiqh tradition. They are also commonly versified. This paper explores this phenomenon across adab and fiqh to show how these discourses cross-pollinate to produce new ways of discussing law and inheritance.