Several studies over the years have rigorously argued against the notion that shari’a, or Islamic law, is representative of a static system of legal thought. After wholeheartedly accepting the idea that Islamic law is dynamic, scholars have now largely been preoccupied with determining the basis of its adaptability and pinpointing external influences and internal inspirations.
What would happen if we⸺instead of imposing questions on shari’a that stem from our contemporary biases and are shaped by the narrow development of the field thus far⸺traced discourses of Islamic law in their own contexts? Doing so would yield a rich and textured study that would not only answer the question of where the impetus of Islamic law to adapt comes from, but it would also open the door to new lines of inquiry. One promising method is to examine the life and influence of one of its most prominent practitioners.
Ibn ʿĀbidīn (d. 1836) was a renowned nineteenth century Ottoman mufti (jurist) from Damascus. His prominence would long outlive him, not least because the writers of the Mecelle, in their efforts to produce a civil code for the Ottoman government, posthumously incorporated his ideas in the late nineteenth century.
Over this past summer, with a highly regarded professor of Islamic law and specialist in the Hanafi legal tradition, I was able to closely read and analyze a selection of Ibn ʿĀbidīn’s legal writings. Though I understand the Arabic language, interpreting legal texts in any language is no simple task. The professor was able to help familiarize me with legal jargon and to offer in depth explanations of others’ legal opinions, which Ibn ʿĀbidīn often only briefly cited. The professor also noted certain scholars whom Ibn ʿĀbidīn relied on more than others, and pointed out the likely genealogy of certain opinions of his even when he did not cite a particular legal scholar. His expertise was also valuable in noting subtle inconsistencies in Ibn ʿĀbidīn’s opinions, which may have contradicted an opinion that appeared several pages before in an earlier issue. Connecting these dots on one’s own in this territory is quite challenging.
Taking the time to read through Ibn ʿĀbidīn’s own words, especially with a specialist, is an important first step to more accurately understanding his legacy, as well as the nature of practicing Islamic law. Through my limited readings thus far, it is already possible to identify issues with earlier portrayals of Ibn ʿĀbidīn by other scholars and hypothesize new ones, pertaining to reasons behind the broad appeal towards the jurist’s works and the nature of his relationship to the Ottoman state. This is the background I require to further my research by looking at sources beyond the jurist’s own writings, such as responses to, translations, and explanations of his works in other languages, in addition to archival documents. I am deeply appreciative of the support by Middle East Studies this past summer and I am grateful for what it will facilitate for me going forward.