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Jadaliyya: Ahmed El Shamsy, The Canonization of Islamic Law: A Social and Intellectual History


Interesting that a term such as “canonization,” that has all sorts of implications in the English language and Christian theology is being used as an approximation for a process in the social and intellectual history of Islamic law.

Ahmed El Shamsy, The Canonization of Islamic Law: A Social and Intellectual History


Ahmed El ShamsyThe Canonization of Islamic Law: A Social and Intellectual History. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013.

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Ahmed El Shamsy (AES): Legal history is often dry stuff: it is full of theories, concepts, and institutions, and heavy with jargon. When I read a work of history, I want to know what happened. I also want to understand what drove the actors involved and what was at stake. The story of the birth of Islamic law, like any story, is about people: their motivations, concerns, and interactions. Accordingly, I wanted to tell this story in a way that would not merely describe but also attempt to explain why Islamic law as a discipline emerged when it did, took the form that it did, and grew into the vast and sophisticated discourse that we have today.

So, on the one hand, the book focuses on the individuals who played a key role in the inauguration of this discipline—Malik, al-Shaybani, al-Shafi‘i, and others. On the other, it connects these “micro-stories” to the “macro-stories” of intellectual and social history, such as the adoption of writing and the turmoil in the nascent Islamic empire.

J: How does this work connect to and/or depart from your previous research?

AES: This book represents the culmination of a decade of research on various aspects of the early Islamic legal tradition. In the course of this research, I wrote a number of articles focusing on specific, narrow problems and issues. For example, in “Al-Shafi‘i’s Written Corpus” (published in the Journal of the American Oriental Society in 2012), I examined the authenticity of some of the key texts on which my book draws, while“The First Shafi‘i” and “Al-Buwayti’s Abridgment of al-Shafi‘i’s Risala (published in Islamic Law and Society in 2007 and 2012, respectively) provided an introduction to the persona and work of the little-known ninth-century scholar al-Buwayti, who is an important protagonist in the book. But the aim of the book, in contrast to these articles, is to provide an integrated “grand narrative” about the birth of the legal tradition.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

AES: In terms of subject matter, I offer the book not only to specialists but also to people who are interested in Islamic law but not necessarily experts in it, and who want to dig deeper but are turned off by the jargon prevalent in many theoretical treatments of the topic. In terms of approach, I have tried to write the kind of history that I myself would enjoy reading; my goal was to tell a captivating story without sacrificing intellectual rigor. If I was successful, I hope to inspire others to do the same; if I wasn’t, I hope others will be!

J: What other projects are you working on now?

AES: My next book is a study of the adoption of print in the Islamic world and the effect of this transformation on the Muslim scholarly tradition. This book leaps forward by a millennium from the previous one, to the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but it continues to probe one of the key themes of my first book: how a new medium of intellectual exchange (paper in one case, the printing press in the other) was harnessed to deal with dramatic cultural transformations (the expansion of Islam in the eighth to ninth centuries, the onslaught of modernity in the nineteenth), and how the medium ends up profoundly altering the message. My approach is also similar: I tell the story of Islamic thought in the “Gutenberg galaxy” through the intellectual biographies of the scholars and activists who brought the classical Islamic heritage into the modern age through edition and publication.

J: Do you see your book contributing to ongoing debates about Islamic law in contemporary politics?

AES: The ninth-century process of canonization features some striking parallels with contemporary calls for a return to scripture in Islamic legal thought of the twentieth century. Both have at their core a desire to access the foundational sources of Islam directly and systematically, unmediated by established religio-social practices. In essence, my book shows how texts take on different meanings in different historical contexts, and this insight is at least as accurate for today as it is for the ninth century.

Excerpt from The Canonization of Islamic Law: A Social and Intellectual History

The key to [the birth of Islamic law as a discipline] lies in a process of canonization that took place when the locus of religious authority was transferred from the lived practice of the Muslim community to a written, clearly demarcated canon of sacred sources consisting of the Qur’an and the body of Hadith (reports concerning Muhammad’s sayings and actions). Canonization does not here refer to the establishment of a definitive textual version of the Qur’an, which happened earlier, nor to the completion of the so-called canonical collections of Hadith, which took place later. Both of these important developments could be—and have been—described in terms of canonization. This book, however, examines a different kind of transformation, one that is best characterized as a discursive shift vis-à-vis an entire category of texts. Canonization, in the sense employed here, transcends the mere codification of sacred texts in fixed textual form and focuses instead on the relationship of the Muslim community to these texts as sources of religious norms. This relationship, as noted above, was mediated by the discourse of Islamic law and by legal scholars, who saw themselves and were seen by others as the guardians of the community’s normative tradition.

The effect of canonization on the relationship between Muslims and their sacred texts was profound. Previously, Qur’an and Hadith (the latter circulating as innumerable individual reports) had represented the “raw material” of religious values, material that was continuously being sifted through the filter of communal experience and scholarly appraisal in order to distil its prescriptive meaning for the community. Canonization anointed these texts as the fount of normativity itself. Scholars recognized a certain category of texts as the uniquely authoritative and hermeneutically self-sufficient statement of God’s commandments for humankind. Through this recognition, the canonized sources—and no others—came to constitute the sovereign measuring stick against which the scholars would subsequently evaluate the practices of the community.

The primary societal trigger of this canonization, I demonstrate, was a crisis of identity and authority experienced by the Muslim community, the umma, that was caused by the enormous social, cultural, and political changes affecting the umma in the second/eighth century. This was not, of course, the first communal crisis to shake the umma: the civil wars that followed the murder of the caliph ‘Uthman in 37/656 had bitterly divided the community and prompted deep uncertainty regarding its foundations. That crisis, too, had given rise to a radically novel hermeneutic project that sought to provide a solution to the uncertainty and instability created by communal discord. The Kharijis’ approach was starkly literalist: their insistence that only the superficially apparent reading of any Quranic passage was correct necessarily excluded the possibility of legitimate differences of opinion and thus led them to anathemize anyone who disagreed. But although the absolutist Khariji model was still in circulation in the second and third/eighth and ninth centuries, it remained a marginal phenomenon and eventually died out entirely.

The crisis of the second/eighth century was different in both its causes and its outcome. It was rooted in the changes that accompanied the rapid spread of Islam across much of the known world: the influx and rising prominence of new converts from diverse backgrounds, the emergence of new alliances and localized Muslim subcultures across the empire, and the consequent dissolution of the tribal ties and ethnic homogeneity that had sustained the initial wave of expansion. This social and cultural upheaval undermined confidence in the authenticity of the essentially mimetic normative tradition of the Muslim community, which was predicated on the perception of unbroken continuity with the prophetic age. The resulting anxieties and uncertainties prompted a search for new foundations of religious authority, a way of accessing the authentic message of divine revelation that was more secure than the avenue of communal practice, which seemed increasingly frail and ambiguous. Canonization offered a solution to this dilemma by enshrining revelation in a fixed category of textual sources—the canon—that could then be subjected to systematic analysis by a professionalized group of experts.

[Excerpted from Ahmed El Shamsy, The Canonization of Islamic Law: A Social and Intellectual History, by permission of the author. © 2013 by Ahmed El Shamsy. For more information, or to purchase a copy of this book, click here.]

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  • Mehdi

    Great article, it shows how much there have been debates and vitality within Islam since the beginning. In the end Muslims were able to find their own solutions and codes of law as they faced crisis situations (which sometimes look quite familiar.).

  • John Smith

    I won’t lie, law of any sort bores me. But his next book, apparently on the the “study of the adoption of print in the Islamic world and the effect of this transformation on the Muslim scholarly tradition.” seems very interesting.

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