History Speaks EP2 – Local Traditions of Islamic Law

Saadia Yacoob

In this episode of History Speaks, Saadia Yacoob speaks with Matthew Steele and Mahmood Kooria about the Islamic legal traditions in Africa, South and Southeast Asia.  They discuss the life of legal texts as they traveled across the Afro-Asian world, the construction of the center and peripheries in the study of Islamic law and the role of local languages in scholarly communities and the writing of legal texts.


Mahmood Kooria

Mahmood Kooria holds research positions at Leiden University (the Netherlands) and University of Bergen (Norway) and is a Visiting Faculty at Ashoka University (India). He read his PhD at the Leiden University Institute for History in 2016, authored Islamic Law in Circulation: Shāfiʿī Texts across the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean (Cambridge University Press, forthcoming), and co-edited Malabar in the Indian Ocean World: Cosmopolitanism in a Maritime Historical Region (Oxford University Press, 2018) and Islamic Law in the Indian Ocean: Texts, Ideas and Practices (Routledge, 2021).

Matthew Steele is a Ph.D. student in Islamic Studies at Harvard University.  His research explores the intersections of Islamic law, literature, and religion in Africa.  Focusing on Sudan, Mauritania, and Guinea, Matthew considers the ways in which texts live in communities, and likewise, communities are formed through the transmission of legal texts.  His work aims to rethink how books of positive law (furū` al-fiqh) become part of a scholarly canon, the production of meaning through their transmission, and how both are instructive for reimagining Islamic law and scholasticism in Africa.   

His dissertation explores the commentary life of a notoriously difficult example of such a work, the fourteenth century law manual, Mukhtaṣar Khalīl.  Moving between anthropology and history, he traces the reception of the Mukhtaṣar as it evolved, contracted, and expanded through Africa by way of hundreds of glosses over nearly seven centuries.  Matthew follows the book’s transmission across two ends of the Sahara, considering how the Mukhtaṣar’s reception in Mauritania and Sudan brought to bear very different ways of understanding Islamic law, textuality, scholasticism, and even piety.  By doing so, he questions how, and why, glossing the Mukhtaṣar became a favorite method for reinterpreting genre and authority in late Maliki legal thought, and how communities continue to reconstruct the text across Islamic Africa today.

Matthew Steele

Matthew received his undergraduate degree at Swarthmore College and Master’s degree at Dartmouth College, earning the outstanding graduate thesis of 2012 for his work on customary law in highland Yemen.  He has conducted ethnographic fieldwork and archival research in Yemen, Egypt, Morocco, Senegal, Guinea, Sudan, where he served as a visiting fellow at the University of Khartoum’s Department of Islamic Studies (2014-2016), and in Mauritania, where he was named a research fellow at the Institut Mauritanien de Recherches Scientifiques (IMRS) (2018-2019).  Matthew has completed his formative training in Maliki law, grammar, and tafsir under scholars in Mauritania and Sudan.  At Harvard, he was the co-chair of the Islam in Africa Conference Series and the founder of its Islamic Africa research workshop.  His has been funded by the American Institute for Maghrib Studies (AIMS), West African Research Association (WARA), U.S. Department of Education, Dartmouth College, and Harvard’s Center for African Studies, Islamic Legal Studies Program, Weatherhead Center for International Affairs, and Frederick Sheldon Traveling Fellowship.

Matthew can be contacted at: msteele@fas.harvard.edu


[TRANSCRIPT] History Speaks: Episode 2 – Local Traditions of Islamic Law



[Opening Music]


Saadia Yacoob 00:07    

Hi folks, this is Saadia Yacoob and you’re listening to History Speaks on the Maydan podcast, a series that situates the Islamic intellectual tradition within its sociopolitical context and connects it to pertinent issues today. In this episode, I’ll be speaking with Mahmood Kooria and Matthew Steele about their research on Islamic law in regions that are often treated as peripheral. Matthew looks at the Maliki legal school across Sudan, Mauritania and Guinea, and Mahmood studies the Shafi’i legal school across the Indian Ocean, connecting East Africa, Yemen, South Asia, and Southeast Asia. Our conversation covered many important topics in the study of Islamic law, thinking about the life of legal texts as it traveled across the Afro-Asian world, the construction of the center and periphery in the study of Islamic law, and the relation between Arabic and local languages in the writing and teaching of legal texts. Without further ado, here’s my conversation with Mahmood and Matthew.  


Thank you so much, Mahmood and Matthew, for joining me today and coming to speak with me about your research and your scholarship on Islamic law. I wanted to begin by asking you if you could give us, geographically and temporarily, a sense of where you’re located and what specifically you’re studying.  


Mahmood Kooria 01:41    

Thank you, Matthew, and thank you also, Saadia, for having me on this podcast, which is a very important conversation on the history of Islamic law. For me personally, what I do both temporally and regionally is something that cuts across different regions and periods. Even then, I would mostly situate my work as part of the Indian Ocean world, which in itself is a large geographical area, mostly on Eastern Africa, Southern Arabia, and then coastal South Asia and then South-East Asia. These are some of the areas that I look at for my research and, also, temporally, I start by around the ninth century and then go up to the 19th and even mid 20th century. I do this mainly because the history of Islamic law in the Indian Ocean world, so to speak, for the time period before 1800 is rarely explored.  


I, also, do not aim to do a comprehensive study of the whole Indian Ocean world. My focus is primarily on the history of Shafi’i school of law after the classical period. I look at one particular, legal text dating back to the 13th century in Syria and the ways in which it was circulated across the Indian Ocean region. In that sense, my work starts in the Mediterranean or Eastern Mediterranean and then goes to the Indian Ocean. Then, the ways in which this particular text, Minhaj al-Talibin by Imam An-Nawai, was circulated in the Indian Ocean literal through South Arabia to East Africa to South Asia to Southeast Asia through multiple commentaries, supercommentaries, super supercommentaries, and translations and so forth. That is why I have a textural code, so to speak, that connects all these regions and time periods.  


Saadia Yacoob 04:10    

That sounds great. Thank you. I love this tradition of having a text and the commentary and then the commentary on the commentary and it just keeps going. There was this really great meme, I don’t know if you guys saw recently on, siblings of <inaudible>, I think a UK based group, and they had this little meme that was going around on social media, giving people a sense of what exactly these commentaries do, where you have this initial texts that has one sentence and by the time you get to the supercommentary, there’s like six pages describing that one sentence. I was like, this is so great. Matthew?


Matthew Steele 04:45    

First, thank you very much for having me. I’m hugely flattered to be part of the conversation and part of the podcast and, also, to be in the discussion with Mahmood. Kind of similarly, but in a very different region, I work on Islamic law in Africa, specifically in Sub-Saharan Africa. I focus most especially on Mauritania, Sudan, and Guinea. Temporally, and Mahmood already pointed this out in his own work, my historical period is very much confined and limited by the source material that is available to us. Although Islamic law has a much longer history in Africa than I focus on, I mostly began focusing on 16th century Mauritania and the 18th and the 19th century in Sudan and about that same time period in Guinea as well.  


In Africa, Islamic law is most associated in the literature with the enforcement of Islamic law, with its administration generally by modern States, colonial or post-colonial. That really isn’t my interest. I’m trying to bring out a more nuanced story or textured picture of Islamic law by focusing on Islamic jurisprudence, or fiqh, as a Scholastic or speculative enterprise of legists, legal specialists, really at the peripheries or below the much larger and more celebrated centers of Islamic scholarship in places like Egypt and Morocco. By focusing on Islamic law, not as just what States do, but actually as a more discursive and dynamic exchange between generally independent legal scholars and the communities that they are embedded in. I am also focusing on a 14th century Maliki legal text. I work in the Maliki world in Africa. A 14th century Maliki legal text, it’s the abridgment of an Egyptian scholar, Khalil ibn Ishaq, so it’s called the Mukhtasar al-Khalil or, in different places of Mauritania and elsewhere, it will often be abbreviated as Khalil. I follow it, I try to trace and explore how Islamic law as a Scholastic discipline and speculative endeavor develops oftentimes through and around this text, through (exactly like Mahmood) commentaries and supercommentaries, and, especially in the Sahara and Mauritania, through versification, which is super fun and difficult, and even jurisconsult opinions through <inaudible> literature and things like that.


Saadia Yacoob 07:44    

It’s really interesting that both of you are saying this thing, pointing out the ways in which, in the particular regions that you’re looking at, Islamic law has often been understood in a particular way. Mahmood, you were saying this thing that largely Islamic law in South and Southeast Asia is studied from the 18th century onwards and not much earlier or, Matthew, you were talking about the ways in which largely Islamic laws is, in the context of West Africa, looked at in terms of state and state implementation of Islamic law and both of you are trying to push these ways in which largely the scholarship has thought about Islamic law in these regions. Connected to that, I wanted to ask you: what brought you to studying Islamic law in these particular regions or focusing on these particular texts? What brought you to where you’re at?  


Mahmood Kooria 08:41    

In my case, it’s a very interesting question. I can address this question in multiple ways and, recently, I’ve been trying to write on this for the Harvard Islamic law blog series on addressing some of the core concerns that brought me into studying Islamic law. One thing that I found very interesting is that I have been studying Islamic law in Western epistemologies in the last 10 years or so, when I started my PhD here in Leiden university in the Netherlands. Before that, I studied ancient Indian history for my MA in India in <inaudible> university, but before this interregnum, I had studied Islamic law in a more traditional sense of the word, like I could say Madrasa, but not necessarily a Madrasa.


I was also following the “secular ” university education along with the religious disciplines, but then, what I realized once I reflected on this, that I studied in that particular stream for 12 years, studying Islamic law, but along with many other disciplines. Now, once I reflect on the 12 years education, as well as the last 10 years, notwithstanding the three years of an interregnum without not engaging much with Islamic law, I realized that there’s a huge gap in the ways in which Islamic law is approached. On one hand, there is this “traditional” scholarship on Islamic law in the Muslim world where it is completely disconnected from the ways in which the Western scholars have been studying Islamic law. One thing that I personally find interesting is that scholars who study, especially in the West, Islamic law have rarely taken into consideration the ways in which Islamic law developed in a place like Saudi Asia, which has the largest Muslim population in the world, or Southeast Asia, which has the largest Islamic country in the world. Their histories of Islam, or specifically Islamic law, are rarely taken into account.  


If you look at any classical studies or even textbooks on these topics, whether it’s the early works of Joseph Schacht or Wael Hallaq or even later textbooks, engage with Islamic law in these areas, in these subcontinents, only from the 18th century onward as if, let’s say when the British or the Dutch come into the scenario or when the Europeans come to into scenario and try to implement Islamic laws through something like Anglo-Muhammadan law, or, in the Dutch tradition, the moral code and so forth. It’s as if Islamic law did not exist in the subcontinents for a time before the Europeans came. That gap was something very interesting for me. That’s how I started to explore what were the texts that were circulated in these regions before the Europeans came into this scenario.


I came across these texts that were written in Malabar in Southwest India as well as in <inaudible> and in Sumatra and many other places in the 16th century, 17 century, 18th century, and some of them also going back a little bit earlier. All these texts, interestingly, are connected. They are, of course, regionally produced,  part of the local regional expressions of Islam, but also very much part of the wider networks of the texts. We cannot talk about Islamic law in these regions without addressing the long genealogy or the textual genealogies of the Islamic law. That’s how I would say these two traditions, both scholarly as well as the actual practices of Islamic law, are connected in whatever way I can.  


Saadia Yacoob 13:17    

I love what you’re both describing is these gaps between the academic study of Islamic law and then what is happening when you’re in these communities that live and breathe with the law. It’s not just something that they’re necessarily academically studying. For me, it was a very similar journey in that I grew up in a Muslim household, so law was always part of your life, but when I sat down to study it in a very sustained way, it was in the Academy. Then, eventually, I made my way to Egypt and then to Jordan and I was specifically interested in studying Hanafi law. I was, again, struck very similarly to what both of you are describing, that for the people there, this was a living tradition. 


A lot of the ways that I had been studying Hanafi fiqh so far was not the way in which they were thinking about it, then I was noting the connections that they have. The Sheikh that I studied with in Jordan was connected to these Deobandi Hanafi scholars in Pakistan and North India. He would talk in this way where he’d be like, “Well, those South Asian Hanafis are different from our kind of Hanafi is.” It’s like there were even differentiations between the kind of Hanafism that moves from region to region. It’s just really interesting to hear you both describe a very similar experience where it’s like, there’s this way in which the academic study of Islamic law is doing its own conversation that often can be out of sync with what’s happening in these communities.  


It’s important for us scholars to recognize that and we need to maybe think about bridging those gaps. I wanted to ask this question or this thing that both of you mentioned, which was about the language of the text that you’re looking at, or the multiple texts you’re looking at. It seems to be that they’re not just in Arabic. So, if you could maybe just describe that a little bit for us and then, maybe, give us a sense of how they are connected to this Corpus of legal texts that are written in Arabic, but they’re also writing in other languages.  


Mahmood Kooria 15:40    

In my case, what I mostly have been dealing with for my PhD, where even though I wanted to incorporate a lot of non-Arabic materials, 60 or 70% of the materials were still Arabic primarily because I was looking at the commentaries of Minhaj al-Talibin, so I was looking at one commentary by Ibn Hajar al-Haytami called Tuhfah al-Muhtaj and it an indirect summary, I would say, written in Malabar in 16th century, possibly one of his students is himself, called Zainuddin al-Malibari. Then, it’s super commentaries, you could say, by one Javanese author from Java, Indonesia, and then an Egyptian scholar, both of them studied and worked together in Mecca in the 19th century. These were my central texts and all these texts were written in Arabic.  


These were like 60% of my principal sources and they were in Arabic, but then I supplemented all these sources with additional contextual texts, so to speak, in other historical materials. These were very diverse. They were written in Malaya, in <inaudible>, and some of these translations were widely translated. They were translated into European languages once we come to the 18 and 19 century into Dutch, into French, into German, and, of course, English in the early 20th century. Then, also along with it, like in the Southeast Asian context, Malay texts, and even though these are Malay, there was one text that I closely studied called Sirat al-Mustaqim, one of the earliest fiqh texts that we have from the Malay world, written in the mid 17th century in Banda Aceh. The text is primarily in Malay, but then it has a lot of Acehnese vocabulary in it and, even more interestingly, that is why it’s very much part of the Indian ocean story, this very text in Malay, the first fiqh text in Malay, was written by a Gujarati scholar, who basically belonged to the Hadhrami tradition, so his family came from Yemen, settled in Gujarat, then he himself moved to Banda Aceh in present day Indonesia. He was following his uncle, who was already working there in the late 16th century. All these diverse sources compliment the prime focus that I have been doing and I strongly believe that you cannot do a history of Islamic law without looking at this diverse number of sources. As we all know, whenever someone has to do history of Islamic law, we always jump into Arabic as if that is the only resource, but, as I mentioned in the beginning, the majority of Muslims still live in South Asia or Southeast Asia and the languages, such as Bengali and Urdu and Malay, are equally important languages for the study of Islam, as well as more specifically history of Islamic law.


Saadia Yacoob 19:27    

Thank you for that and that raises this really great point about what we count as a legal text. There’s a way in which a certain assumption about what is the language of Islamic law is also shaping our assumption about what constitutes something as a legal text, which we’re also trying to kind of push us to think about.  


Mahmood Kooria 19:50    

Definitely. Just before Matthew, I’ll quickly add on this particular aspect that Saadia pointed out. I believe that primarily something like the Shafi’i school of law was successful in a place like Southeast Asia or even in the Swahili mainly because the scholars or the Islamic jurists or Juris Consultants in these regions were insisting on using the local languages in order to express Islamic law or in order to write about Islamic law. Especially in the Malay world, we see that, for example, Nuraddin ar-Raniri, when he was writing his Sirat al-Mustaqim, even though he belonged to an Arab family and he was educated and trained in the hejaz, still he chose to write a text in the Malay and advanced or facilitated the circulation or the very survival of the Shafi’i in this tradition. So, for Islamic law, in that sense, the question of language was very important for many of these scholars.  


Matthew Steele 21:02    

I think I had a similar experience. When I knew that I wanted to work on Islamic law in Africa, I had a general approximation that it would seem like a good idea to try to learn and employ African languages. I spent a bunch of years studying Pular, and most specifically Pular in Guinea, which saw in the 18th and 19th centuries a really vibrant intellectual landscape through a polity called Fouta Djallon. I thought that I would spend many years studying this language and really try to focus on how Islamic law is constituted and embedded in these non-Arabic linguistics spaces. I had some success at that, but, like Mahmood, I think a larger portion of my work now still winds up returning to Arabic source material and it’s not my preference, but there are some source and kind of mythological constraints that I’ve encountered. The first is that there’s a very clear distinction between the languages of Islamic law and the textual sources of them. Where I’ve found more success at finding, for example, if I’m trying to trace the development or the contestation, the debates, around and about Islamic law through the transmission of Mukhtasar al-Khalil, I’ve found a more productive way of studying that through the ethnography of learning circles and non-Arabic languages. 


You can experience the ways in which the text is transmitted both glossed (and there’s this really kind of interesting philosophical debate about what is translation and what is gloss in this case). What is the commentary and what is a mere translation? It often feels like a subjectively normative judgment, but you can see the text being transmitted in real time and moving between multiple registers, not just Arabic and non-Arabic, like Pular, but a variety of different kinds of local dialects embedded in local systems of meaning. That’s been very profitable. It’s been exceedingly difficult, but very profitable. In terms of doing a more historical study on non-Arabic source material, in Africa, this is, I mean, I guess really conceptually everywhere, but in Africa, it’s been most famously brought under the umbrella of abjadic scholarship, essentially scholarship in non-Arabic languages written in Arabic script. In the Fouta Djallon in the 18th and 19th century, we have really interesting Pular abjadic manuscript sources for interesting stuff going on with law, but they generally are, if they’re talking about Khalil, they’re not doing it in the way that we would normally assume, through a commentary, diversification, or other.  


There are a few, but they’re pretty exceptional findings: commentaries in Sous, Morocco, in Hassaniya, Mauritania, essentially dialects of Arabic rather than different languages. We know that, especially in Hausa in what is present in Nigeria and even in Pular in Senegal and Guinea and Fouta Djallon and even Fouta Massina, what is present day Mali, you can find marginalia, you can find really interesting notes written in those languages on even something like Mukhtasar al-Khalil, but I’ve not found as easily an accessible commentary, written commentary tradition, around this gold standard combination of Maliki jurisprudence.  


Saadia Yacoob 25:33    

I wanted to ask this question about audience. Do you have a sense, for both of you, in terms of the materials that you are looking at, who was the imagined audience? That original text that’s put into verse, supposedly to be memorized, who was expected to memorize this or these texts that are being written in Malay or in Malayalam? Are they being written to be read by a scholarly audience or a non-scholarly audience? I think our assumption is that Arabic is the language of Islamic law because, pretty much anywhere in any region, the scholarly community that would engage with these texts would know Arabic. Even though they speak their own local languages, the language they would engage in, in terms of the legal text, would be Arabic. Since you’re seeing these different languages circulating here, I wonder if you can speak to the audience and whether that’s connected to why there are these different languages?


Matthew Steele 26:34    

I think, at least for me, an interesting way to think about it is the ways in which being a student of Islamic law, especially in pre-modern and colonial Mauritanian, Sudan, and really through the Sahara in different parts of Africa, that that notion of being a student looks very different than how we would normally see it today. It doesn’t just mean studying Islamic law in a madrasa or something like this, but it also means taking very seriously the theological and the legal and the moral commitments of Islamic law in someone’s daily life. In that sense then, it is not as surprising to imagine, and certainly when we see this in historical data, people reciting, people who may not otherwise be committing their life to legal studies in what we would consider to be a formal way today, taking these versifications or even taking something like Mukhtasar al-Khalil itself, which is a very kind of unique, hyper distilled, and condensed text that, even though it’s in prose, it often almost has a versifying quality because it is so condensed. It’s something that is more easily recited. You’ll see people reciting these, and you can read about people reciting these, in markets, in their homes, wherever they’re going about their daily life. Simply because they’re not doing so well in school does not mean that they’re not a student of Islamic law or that they’re not taking Islamic law as a central moral or ethical value or space in their lives.  


Mahmood Kooria 28:22    

I completely agree with both of you mentioned, and also I absolutely love the way Matthew put some of the questions related to the audience. Primarily what I see is these texts can be studied in the introductory, intermediate, and advanced levels. The same texts can be studied in multiple ways. This is what, for example, Brindley <inaudible> talks about in upper land Yemen, where the Minhaj al-Talibin is studied immediately after the students study Qur’an. They memorize it and it’s part of the mahfuthat literate, but then the Minhaj is also an advanced text, it is also studied by the students, not only at the very beginning of their career, or even before they pursue anything related to Islam or Islamic law, they still study the text, they memorize it and then they might fall, but also they also, towards the end of their careers, study it, they still study the same text. 


These were first and foremost, we can identify them, a textual community and many scholars have already identified them as a textual community. The constant engagement with the same text, through multiple ways of reading, amassed a different sort of audience from different walks of the community. Some from very primary level, some in the advanced level studying the same texts, but also some of these texts, the commentaries and supercommentaries were also hierarchies doing the same thing in similar ways. Some texts cut across the boundaries of the audience. Some focus on something like, in my case, Tuhfah al-Muhtaj is studied at an advanced level. There are hierarchies in the ways in which these texts are written and studied, but also it directly relates to some of the discussions that we’ve had with regard to the question of language.


The very fact that many of these texts were translated and many of these pupils emphasized on the importance or the centrality of the language, whether it’s Malay or Tamil. They did that mainly because they wanted to get across to a larger audience that did not necessarily speak Arabic or were familiar with it. Many of the authors wrote that when they translated or when they wrote something in an “unfamiliar language” of Islamic law. That itself also shows the wider audience they had in mind when they were writing the text. Another aspect that Matthew also mentioned in passing about the glosses and the translations and the marginalia, all these are various forms in which different layers of the audience engaged with the text track. If you already know Arabic very well and if you are an advanced scholar, like a specialist scholar, then you don’t need to translate or you don’t need to write marginalia or in a different language. Many of these glosses were written, in my case I see, in Malay or Javanese or Tamil. The intermediate students would write these marginalia in their languages because those languages were more involved. 


Saadia Yacoob 32:11    

That’s a really great point that both of you are bringing up and it’s getting me thinking about this Islamic law class that I teach pretty much every year and do the typical, like, “Okay, here’s the historical development of the law, here are the different genres, like colonialism and its impacts on Islamic law, some contemporary issues in Islamic law. We do some amount of reading of substantive legal texts that have been translated into English, but what both of you are saying has got me thinking about that one element that I have not really emphasized to the students that is important to think about, how much Islamic law is part of people’s everyday pietistic lives.  


Mahmood Kooria 32:55    

Theoretically, one of the things that I have been trying to emphasize through my work, the forthcoming book, which is interestingly titled, or at least immediately relates to what Saadia was mentioning, the circulation of Islamic law. It’s titled Islamic Law in Circulation, and the ways in which these texts are circulated across the Indian ocean and Eastern Mediterranean regions. Despite these texts being circulated in such a broad geographical canvas, when the authors, something that I wanted to emphasize, even though they were writing commentaries or supercommentaries or abridgments, their engagements were very much regionally located, or at least as a student of history, I would like to see them as part of a regionalization process or a vernacularization process. Of course, they’re dealing with the larger textual copus that has certain  a tradition or genealogy that goes back centuries, but still, when Nawawi is writing a text in 13th century Damascus, it is very much part of and product of that particular regional context as well as a commentary, when ibn Hajar al-Haytami is writing a commentary on Minhaj al-Talibin in sixteenth century Mecca, Mecca itself is a major actor, so the region itself is a major actor even though he is dealing with a text that is 300 years older than him. Externalization in the post-classical commentarial tradition is something that I would like to emphasize, that I have been wanting to emphasize, and, therefore, variations in the regionalization or this trans-regionality merge. 


Matthew Steele 34:54    

I see him in my own work something pretty similar. When I think about regionalization or different regions that Islamic law circulates in Africa, I try to think about it both physically, so as a space that students and scholars go to when they meet and they study and, oftentimes, they’ll return back home, but also discursively, so the types of commentarial traditions or lineages that move across Africa and often take very particular, sometimes normative, evaluations of meaning. In a physical sense then, I work on the Maliki world in Islamic Africa, regionally the two huge, enormous centers that are looming shadows are Egypt and Morocco. They come up in really interesting ways, by centers and regional spaces, that are not those, but that’s within at least the secondary source literature that exists in their shadows.  


A common trope that you’ll often see in Sudan and in different parts of Mauritania are when a scholar or as proof of a local scholars erudition or their miraculous, or sort of divinely ordained insight, into law, they’ll often go to these other places. They’ll go to these other places in really fantastic terms. They will show their intellectual acumen or superiority over these other regions centers. A really common theme in lots of Sudanese biographical dictionaries is a great scholar going to Egypt and essentially beating Egyptian scholars in some type of legal debate. There’s a super famous, I think 16th century, example of a scholar going to Egypt and then getting in a long debate with a leading Maliki scholar in Cairo at the time and so thoroughly trouncing him in the legal debate that the scholar takes off the shawl and retrieves the flag of his family and gives them to the legal scholar to take these home as proof of his skill and insight. That’s sort of in a regional sense, but also kind of in a discursive or commentorial sense, you’ll see different regional lines of transmission. When we talk about different regional lines of transmission of commentaries of Khalil, for example, they often come out with very specific methodological commitments. In Mauritania, you will see different regional centers in Mauritania that teach the Khalil differently and cite or explain those differences, sometimes historically accurately and sometimes in a more aspirational way, that they are the products of the Timbuktu tradition, the Malian tradition, or the Fessy tradition or the Kirenean tradition.  


It becomes a really interesting question as a scholar to try to figure it out what does that actually mean in practice? Because we all know transmitting a legal text or writing a commentary about a work of law is never just simply reproducing what you studied under a teacher. It’s never just reproducing what you have transmitted to someone else. There’s going to be, necessarily, some interventions in the text. There’s going to be, necessarily, some deviation from the <inaudible> of the object of commentary. I think that’s something that I try to think about or focus on. 


I guess the last point is within Sudan, but also in Mauritania, regionally there are specific legal questions that often arise more frequently.  In Mauritania, for example, even commentaries of the Khalil will look different than commentaries in Sudan or Guinea or different parts of Islamic Africa because they will privilege or feature questions that are more salient to the people that are reading them and writing about them in the times. In Mauritania, these questions are often about caravans, they’re about Friday prayer, they’re about to zakat, they’re about very particular issues to Badu society in the Western Sahara in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. Those questions will not look the same in 19th century Sudan, for example.  


Saadia Yacoob 39:45    

I really appreciate this point that you’re bringing up, Matthew, about the relation between what is seen as the center and what’s seen as like what is influenced and who is the influencer and that is very much this way in which the story that you’re describing of the that scholar going to Egypt and beating the Egyptian scholar. You can see the ways in which what we have made into the periphery speaks back to the center, that these are the kinds of relations across these regions that cannot so easily be understood as “One is the center and is influencing the legal discourse that is happening further down South.” I really appreciate you calling our attention to that. In relation to that, I wanted to ask you, Mahmood, if you see something similar in the Indian Ocean connections, in the Shafi’i legal tradition that you’re looking at. Are there these kinds of assumptions about center and periphery? How are people influencing each other across these regions?  


Mahmood Kooria 40:51    

Definitely because, something that I wanted to emphasize is that, the Shafi’i school of law, for example, is mostly practiced in the Indian Ocean coast in Southeast Asia, coastal South Asia, East Africa and so forth. When the scholars in these regions wrote texts in the Shafi’i school of law, they didn’t want to take everything as was imported to them. They reformulated and reshaped many of the laws or rulings within these traditions. Sometimes using Sahih over Asah or less valid opinions over more valid ones. The prioritization, or the economy and politics of prioritizing particular opinions over the standard viewpoints of the school is a strategy that many of these authors accommodated while contextualizing or naturalizing Islamic law or the Shafi’i school of law, in this particular context, in order to assert their own voices in the larger traditions of writing commentaries.  


We do see exercises from many of these authors where they try to contextualize and, by contextualizing, speaking back. I would like to give a brief example of Fat’h Ul Mueen by Zainuddin al-Malibari in the 16th century, who possibly studied it with his teacher,  ibn Hajar al-Haytami. In this text, we repeatedly see the reference where he says “In opposite to my teacher.” That is a very evident example of where an Indian scholar tries to articulate his independent opinion that is most applicable for the Indian context, where Muslims were, even though they were very numerically they were still a minority community and politically without having control over the region. These expressions of dissent were important elements in which the periphery was speaking back to the center of Islamic law.


Matthew Steele 43:36

Mahmood, your great comments made me realize, or want to reiterate, that despite the fact that Africa, for example (and presumably many parts of the Islamic world), has often been regarded as a periphery to some type of nebulously defined “Islamic center” within the study of Islamic law, but also oftentimes by Arabs themselves. In rare cases, what I found is that African legal scholars consider themselves as existing and working on Islamic law from a type of marginal status, from some type of periphery. Maybe this was implicit in what you were talking about, but despite being called a periphery, rarely is this the case by those who are living and working and teaching and producing Islamic law in them. These stories of literary themes of going to Egypt or going to Mecca and Medina or becoming the prized teacher of the Moroccan Sultan, these are subversive ways of flipping the center and periphery, flipping the assumptions of what a Black African or a Saharan legal scholar could do in the, otherwise, bastions of the Arab intellectual heritage.


Mahmood Kooria 45:16    

A brief addition to what Matthew said, what I also noticed is that the reimagination of the center, where the center itself, the Islamic heartlands are no longer the important centers. After many of the students came back from Mecca, Medina, and Cairo in the 15th century or 16th century, they started their own centers of Islamic learning. This became the immediately accessible centers for many Indian or Chinese or Indonesian centers. Once we come to 19th and 20th century, many of students from these regions go one ste[ further saying that what do Arabs know about Islam? The real Islam is in our regions, like in India or Indonesia. The reimagination of the center and the reboot of Mecca, whether it’s in the Malaya world or in Gujarat, we see that free imagination. In that sense, Islamic law or historical Islamic law is in several ways a multi-directional journey. It is not something that <inaudible>, for example, in her work on politics of Islamic law, she emphasizes that it’s not an export from the Middle East to the rest of the Islamic world, rather it’s a multidirectional journey in which African, Asian, and Arab scholars came together in the long process of circulating Islamic law.  


Matthew Steele 46:57    

That’s a great point. It reminds me of one last story, one anecdote that always is very funny to me. There’s this story about the ways in which these regional centers not only are physical places that legal scholars meet and study and students study under them, but also are constructed in ways that vie for a somewhat dubiously defined “center of authenticity” within the legal school. There’s the story where, once upon a time, a Moroccan Maliki legal scholar is in Cairo and meets an Egyptian Maliki legal scholar and the Egyptian says, “You Moroccans, you don’t ever write enough on law. Why is your supposed legal school, as some evaluation of methodology, hierarchy, and canon, why is your understanding of the Maliki legal school better than ours? We’re the ones that are producing legal texts and we’re the ones that are doing commentaries. The Moroccan says, “Well, of course, we’re not writing much because we’re so busy correcting all of your errors. You’re the ones that are writing these legal texts, but they are just riddled with mistakes and so we’re the ones doing the super glosses on the legal texts that you write that are not understanding the Maliki madhab correctly. It’s always really funny to see how notions about authenticity and also ideas of regional superiority are repurposed in ways that you would not normally expect.  


Saadia Yacoob 48:49    

That’s such a great point. Whenever I teach on the pre-modern Islamic context in my classes, it’s always so interesting to me to see students having their geography reoriented because you can see how we have come to see Europe and North America as the center and all other places as the periphery. Then, all of a sudden, you’re looking at this world now where those places are not really even part of the conversation, but also that the Afro-Asian world is so deeply interconnected. It’s very hard to be like, this is the center that is just influencing or that’s where knowledge is traveling out from to other places. You can see that it’s all circulating and going back to the center. You’ll see these South Asian scholars who are going to Mecca to study and then coming back or, or they become, themselves, central teachers in Mecca. You’re describing something similar, Matthew, in the context of Islam in Africa. I feel like part of the power of history and the study of history is that it gets us to question what has become so natural to us today and to question these ideas of central and periphery. Thank you for your very rich comments in this direction.  


Thanks for listening to this episode of History Speaks. I’m very grateful to Matthew and Mahmood for speaking with me today about their research. You can find more information about their work, as well as the History Speaks series, at themaydan.com/podcasts and please stay tuned for our next episode. 


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History Speaks

History Speaks
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The past, present, and future are intimately bound to one another. In short, history matters. History Speaks situates the Islamic intellectual tradition within its socio-political context and connects it to pertinent issues today. Join Saadia Yacoob as she speaks with Islamic studies scholars about their work on gender, Iaw, and theology in the Islamic tradition. In each episode we move across different time periods and regions to discuss how aspects of Islamic history speak to concerns today.


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