Studying Islamic Ethics and Law in Troubled Times
This talk will critically focus on the methodologies and functions of studying classical Islamic law and ethics in today’s university. I will start by outlining a basic discrepancy between the paradigm that such studies tend to assume on the one hand, and the material reality within which they take place on the other hand. Generally speaking, the contemporary study of Islam tends to occur within an outdated paradigm.
The prevalent paradigm is one that takes the careful accumulation of objective, empirical, scientifically accepted knowledge within a community of scholars as inherently good, beneficial, and conducive to scientific progress. Within such paradigm, our efforts tend to be directed towards the construction of concrete knowledge-claims about the tradition, within our immediate scholarly environments. We may, for example reassess the historical influence of a particular intellectual tradition (e.g. Greek philosophy) in the writings of a particular classical scholar, correct existing understandings about a given diachronic, make claims about the “truth” of a given historical intellectual debate, or try to fit historical intellectual debates into modern molds (e.g. rationalism, traditionalism, naturalism, textualism, etc.)
All of those efforts assume, to a certain extent, that there is an intrinsic benefit to making such scholarly truth-claims about a tradition to which we are outsiders. A familiar objection to this approach tends to emerge from post-colonial theory and critiques of Orientalist and Euro-centric scholarship, such as in the writings of Said, Spivak, and, more recently (and radically), Hallaq. The gist of those critiques tends to center on the power- relations underlying scholarship, by highlighting that uncritical scholarship of non- European traditions tends to further colonial and hegemonic realities.
My assertion is that, as sound as they may be, critiques of Orientalism do not fully capture the profound crisis that engulfs the contemporary study of Islamic thought, among other areas of the humanities and social thought. Rather than merely ignore hegemonic power structures, our contemporary study of Islamic thought is more deeply oblivious to a world threatened by environmental disasters, the rise of violent nationalism, and the attack and near-death of the humanities, and, more broadly, on what it is to be human. To continue to embrace the original paradigm is to fail to our very own scholarly ethos in a moment of widespread global crisis and defeat.
The following part of the talk will invite collective reflection on what a reformed paradigm might look like in the context of Islamic ethical-legal studies. A starting point would be to think about what we mean by ethics in the context of classical Islam. This question would entail a rejection of the narrowly defined scope of ethics in the modern academe: as a specific private practice, conceptually distinct from law, politics, economics, and, a fortiori, the natural sciences. Then, drawing on my introduction to The Foundation of Norms in Islamic Jurisprudence and Theology, I will expand on my view of the study of Islamic ethics as a means towards imagining alternative ways of being human in a deeply troubled world.