Welcome to Kalamna, the student blog of the Hagop Kevorkian Center for Near Eastern Studies at NYU.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Joseph Schacht

Last week I came across an interesting biographical anecdote about Joseph Schacht, (d.1969) one of the most well known scholars of Islamic law of the 20th century. Part of an article written by the late Jeanette Wakin in memory of Schacht, the anecdote details how Schacht participated in colonial administrations as part of his research:
Always eager to widen his knowledge of Islamic law in practice, Schacht undertook a research trip to Northern Nigeria in 1950, the most important Muslim territory in the British West African colonies, under the auspices of the Colonial Office. He made several more extended research trips to Africa, especially East Africa from 1953 to 1964. In 1952, he was invited to be a visiting professor at the University of Algiers' Faculty of Law, still a French institution, and the next year was awarded an honorary LL.D. degree from that university. (p.7)
(The same anecdote is cited in a review article by David S. Powers. A response to Powers by W. Hallaq is forthcoming.)

Most obviously, this anecdote serves to remind us of Schacht's position relative to colonial power. It is worth thinking about how any scholarship on sharīʿa is "affected" by power. A further question interests me: how exactly did this research process work, i.e. under the auspices of colonial authorities? To what extent / how did the colonial bureaucracies oversee Schacht's research? For example, what forms did Schacht have to fill out? What were the requirements for receiving funding?

Of course, there is nothing unique Schacht's trip; W. Hallaq shows how British, Dutch and French Orientalists "proved to be quite helpful in the implementation of the government's and settlers' policies." (p.435) Plenty of other legal Orientalists worked in colonial administrations, such as Christiaan Snouck Hurgronje (d.1936), who famously posed as a Muslim in order to conduct research in Mecca.

On a different note, some of Hurgronje's photos and sound recordings were were on display at a museum exhibit last year; they depict the Mecca of 1885:

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