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Debating Islamic Law: Imams, Intellectuals, and Salafists

Panel II-29, 2023 Annual Meeting

On Thursday, November 2 at 5:30 pm

Panel Description
  • This paper critically engages Thomas Bauer’s argument of the increasing disappearance of ambiguity from modern and contemporary Islam. It argues that opting out of ambiguities from Islamic discourses and practices can succeed only temporarily, but eventually due to sociopolitical transformations they recreate ambiguities. The paper develops this argument through a study of the insertion of Salafism in the predominantly Buddhist Cambodia’s Muslim minority. Middle Eastern, especially Kuwait Islamic NGOs, and the social networks developed around them played crucial role in building up a significant Salafi community in the country. The imported discourses of the Salafi religious authorities of the Gulf promise the elimination of ambiguities from both the religious and mundane life of the individual by arguing that the scripture covers all aspects of the individual’s life if it is interpreted in a literalist way and if the relevant hadith is carefully excavated, attracting considerable segments of the Cambodian Muslim minority. Yet, this success comes at the cost of compromises and the regeneration ambiguity which existed before the coming of Salafism to Cambodia, namely the vast field of ambiguity that is generated by differences between Islamic doctrine and everyday practice. Building on field interviews in Kuwait and ethnographic fieldwork in the cities of Phnom Penh, Battambang and Kampot, and rural areas of Cambodia, the paper analyses the attempt of the discourses of Kuwait Salafis to create a Muslim life in which religious matters are certain, and it also examines by contrast the various forms of ambiguities that fill the lives of young Cambodians attracted to Salafism.
  • The tawhidic representations of Allah do not adequately resolve the questions of transcendence of God as envisaged in the Qur’an. In constructing their concepts of God, the tawhidic authorizing discourses privilege a few attributes and identify them with God’s essence. In establishing these meta-attributes, they marginalize al-Quddus, a unique signifier of God's otherness. The proposed paper explores the discursive and non-discursive processes involved in this shift in ontological emphasis, focusing on, 1) the ambiguity of the Qur’anic text, 2) the inherent instability of the concept of transcendence, 3) human inclinations toward contradiction, ambiguity, and skepticism, and 4) human hierarchical and authoritarian tendencies.
  • In this paper, I provide a political sociology of Islamic intellectuals in the Middle East. Who are the Islamic intellectuals? And what role have they played in the contemporary Middle East when it comes to issues of political hegemony? I do this by summoning the Gramscian theoretical apparatus, specifically his work on intellectuals and their role in the formation of hegemony. On this basis, I offer a reading of the conditions and historical processes in which contemporary Islamic intellectuals have emerged, developed and antagonized each other. Methodologically, I propose to summon Gramsci, namely his categories of traditional and organic intellectuals; then to elaborate upon his insights (with reflections on concepts of authority and hegemonic project); and finally, to adapt those insights to some of the idiosyncratic features of the region (introducing the elements of educational background, vocation and political theology). In particular, I will focus on the cases of Egypt, Iraq and Saudi Arabia, discussing the momentous changes occurring the 1960s and 1970s in each country. It is in fact in those years that the traditional Islamic intellectual class, the ‘ulama, confronted the rise of new organic intellectuals, the product of transformational processes altering the socio-economic landscape of Arab countries. These intellectuals manifested markedly different dispositions vis à vis the incumbent power relations as arranged in the historical bloc – more antagonistic and, at times, even militant. I contend that such process may be configured as the progressive relegation of most of the ‘ulama to the role of Gramscian ‘traditional’ intellectuals, sustaining a process of ‘passive revolution’ implemented by Middle Eastern regimes; and the coterminous rise of ‘new religious intellectuals’ organic to rising subaltern social formations, which they embodied and offered a novel understanding of the role of Islam in political life. It may then be possible to read the contemporary rise of Islamism as a process pivoted on the emergence and performance of Islamic organic intellectuals, capable of performing such role out of a combination of theoretical and practical engagement with society at large and their social class more specifically; and to ponder over the impact of such phenomenon of competing hegemonic projects within the modern state, the main object of their preoccupations and efforts.
  • Ali Ekber Cinar
    As a religion, Islam claims to organize the daily life of Muslims in a detailed way through the rules it has laid down. Unlike pre-modern Muslim scholars, modern academia attributes to this body of rules legal value in a modern sense and calls it “Islamic law.” Nonetheless, except Wael Hallaq's brief discussion, the accuracy of this nomenclature is generally taken for granted. This paper seeks to understand whether the body of rules laid down by Islam can indeed be considered law. In doing so, I examine Islamic law through the lens of one of the most influential legal theorists of all times, H. L. A. Hart. In his pathbreaking work, The Concept of Law, Hart has claimed that his understanding of law is “a union of primary rules of obligation with ... secondary rules,” and his theory is “not tied to any particular legal system or legal culture” but rather general and applicable to all contexts. To assess whether Islamic law can be considered law, I examine Islamic legal tradition through the lens of The Concept of Law and explore to what extent Hart’s theoretical understanding is applicable to Islamic law. I argue that Hart’s theory of law is not applicable to and can hardly be reconciled with so-called “Islamic law.” While Hart has built his theory as a union of primary and secondary rules (i.e., the rules of adjudication, rules of change, and rules of recognition), the latter has little to no relevance in Islamic legal tradition. Instead, secondary rules are both unbeknownst to and meaningless for Muslim jurists. This leads to the conclusion that either Islamic law fails to meet Hart’s criteria to qualify as law or, vice versa, Hart’s concept of law fails to comprehend Islamic law, depending on which standpoint would be taken.
  • Mr. Gaber Mohamed
    Calls for the abolition of the death penalty invariably encounter a negative response by those political regimes which exploit the classical rigid definition of the victim’s family concept. In other words, the death penalty could not be abolished by the legislative authority because the heirs of the victim are the only people who have the right to waive the death penalty based on the classical understanding of the definition of the victim’s family. I argue that if the definition of the victim’s family is revisited to have the same flexibility as the offender’s family, the Nation-State may be included in the definition, and the legislative authority will have the power to abolish the death penalty. Furthermore, revisiting these two terms within the contemporary context would have an impact on the gap between Shari’a and national legal systems. The social contexts of the two legal systems have been shaped based on two different social bases: modernity and pre-modernity. The two different social bases have created a gap that is exploited in many controversial issues, not only the death penalty in the whole Muslim world but also harsh penalties in some Muslim legal systems, the right of a husband to discipline his wife, gender equality, legal perspectives on homosexuality, the absence of a clear distinction between public and private realms, and, last, ignoring any distinction separating out the role to the public and nation in crimes of homicide and bodily injuries. Thus, the purpose of reviewing these two terms from a perspective oriented toward the contemporary context is an attempt to bridge national criminal legal systems and the Shari’a pre-modern criminal system, so that these controversial issues may be appropriately relocated in the modern national systems of Egypt and the Muslim world.
  • Sayyid Qutb and Malcolm X are two of the most seminal and ultimately tragic Muslim figures of the XXth century. This paper’s working hypothesis is that both represented, in two different political, religious, and social contexts, a modern understanding of Islam as a comprehensive, praxis changing system carrying a universal ethos of liberation. Therefore, the main argument of this paper is that Malcolm X/ Malik el-Shabazz as well as Sayyid Qutb express via a different conceptual lexicon a version of “Islamic totalism.” Defined as “the tendency to view Islam not merely as a "religion" in the narrow sense of theological belief, private prayer, and ritual worship, but also as a total way of life with guidance for political, economic, and social behavior.” [Shepard, 1987], this holistic view on Islam is shared in different but comparable degrees of systemicity by Malcolm X and Qutb alike. Consequently, analyzing a variety of primary sources, this paper attempts to compare Qutb’s Islamism and Malcolm X’s Islamically infused black nationalism employing as a methodological model the synchronic lens comparison. Being a working subcategory of the larger model of new comparativism, a lens comparison aims to comprehend the comparanda in the specific contexts in which they are created, while avoiding the isolationism generated by a restrictive contextualism that hampers attempts to employ cross-cultural categories. By considering the interplay between similarity and difference, the lens model provides a more capacious understanding that re-contextualize phenomena by analyzing them in light of one another [Doniger, 1998] This paper will show that Malcolm X (both before and after his conversion to Sunni Islam) and Sayyid Qutb understood Islam as the only genuinely universal and salvific alternative to the secular ideologies of modernity which are seen as universality deprived and harbouring an imperialist, oppressive core. Islam on the other hand is consistently presented as possessing comprehensiveness, realism, unity, and a perfect harmony with human nature. This comparative study will achieve two main heuristic objectives. First, it will contribute to the growing corpus of scholarship that aims to place Sayyid Qutb’s radical Islamism in a wider analytical context that goes beyond the limiting and overused exclusive focus on his vision of offensive jihad. Second, this paper will add to the recent corrective re-configuration of Malcolm X that rejects the de-Islamization and de-radicalization of his vision.