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

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Do Scholars Distort and Misrepresent the Sharīʿa?

ONE could argue that an earlier generation of scholars of the 19th and 20th centuries presented a distorted, flawed picture of Islamic law (sharīʿa). One could also argue that many current Republican presidential candidates make inaccurate statements about the nature of Islamic law, as part of a political climate of hateful rhetoric. I have already written about a series of bills that seek to ban the sharīʿa (or "foreign law") from American courts.

But what about the conversation that is underway inside the academy? It is clear that the academic version of sharīʿa is drastically different from what Newt Gingrich or David Yerushalmi would tell you about it.

Above: hostility towards sharīʿa (Image credit). "Liberal scholars of Islamic law," writes Abu-Odeh, see themselves (and are for the most part seen) as paragons of reasoned study and elaboration in a world full of religious fraudulence, passive receptivity to inherited misinterpretations, and unabashed bias." (Abu-Odeh 2004, 807 

The question I ask in this post is: do American scholars misrepresent and distort the sharīʿa? My point here is not to criticize individuals, or to make claims about the nature of the true, genuine sharīʿa (whatever that is), but rather to revisit some interesting articles by Professors Lama Abu-Odeh (Georgetown Law) and Haider Ala Hamoudi (University of Pittsburgh School of Law) (available here, here and here) on this subject.

While the arguments in their articles focus on the way Islamic law is taught in American law schools, and Islamic finance, they make some insightful, more general points that interest me, especially regarding how identity politics influence scholarship.

Abu-Odeh points out the contradictions embodied by some American Islamic law scholars:

(click text above to enlarge)

Haider Ala Hamoudi emphasizes the need to move away from doctrinal studies of Islamic law. "The central flaw in the current approach to sharīʿa in the American legal academy,” he writes, “is the reliance on the false assumption that contemporary Islamic rules are derived from classical doctrine. This has led both admirers and detractors of the manner in which sharīʿa is studied to focus their energies on obsolete medieval rules that bear no relationship to the manner in which modern Muslims approach sharīʿa."

His approach, influenced by American Legal Realists, "and their emphasis on the importance of social, cultural, and economic forces on the development of legal doctrine" is useful for my research.

However, there are definitely some disciplinary differences between his article and my training at NYU. For example, I would avoid making the assertion that "there is no sensible way that modern rules could be derived from classical doctrine, either in letter or in spirit, and all efforts to do so have largely failed." While that is a perfectly valid point, I prefer to avoid going down the road of defining the sharīʿa; instead, I would state that a profound, contingent transformation and reconfiguration of Islamic law took place at the onset of modernity, and leave it up to Muslims to decide how to interpret it.

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