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 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 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: firstname.lastname@example.org