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date: 27 January 2022

(p. ix) Editors’ Introduction

(p. ix) Editors’ Introduction

the idea for this project took root many years ago. As scholars based in the North American academy, we regularly confront artificial limits imposed by the disciplinary formation(s) of Islamic legal studies. Those limits not only affect the kind and range of debates possible within the academy, but also constitute the outer boundaries of what others (e.g. journalists, politicians, and pundits) represent Islamic law to be. Of course, these limits are not unique to Islamic legal studies; rather they are found in the study of Islam broadly. We focus on Islamic legal studies both because of our specialization and because of the way it captures myriad Islamic legal fantasies, some of which would be utterly humorous if it were not for the fact that they inform actual state policies that target the civil liberties of Muslim citizens across the North American continent, Europe, and elsewhere. The spate of bills across states in the USA that, for instance, seek to “ban Shari‘a,” are but one example; there are others across Europe and elsewhere whose formulation reveals the limits in the imagination and scope of Islamic legal scholarship. While humanities scholars are often loath to discuss what their scholarship is “for,” we strenuously hold that our small subsection of the humanities and social science scholarly community can no longer thumb our noses at the larger world to which our scholarly legacy directly or indirectly contributes. It is time that those of us in Islamic legal studies take stock of the scholarship on Islamic law, mark the limitations of its disciplinary formation(s), and identify the interstices, gaps, and ambiguities that remain fertile sites for further inquiry and scholarship. This is not only an academic need given the fast-evolving state of the field, but a moral imperative given the immediate political implications and uses of our academic work.

We are of course not alone in this aspiration. In recent years, scholars of Islamic studies more broadly have carved out spaces for more reflective analyses of what Islamic studies are or might yet be. There is a sense among many scholars, in particular those who both demand greater scholarly positionality and value interdisciplinarity, that a turning point has come where the long-standing paradigms that have informed Islamic studies generally, and Islamic legal studies specifically, can no longer occupy an unaccounted for, uncritiqued, or unchallenged privileged status. Of course, not all of those in the field of Islamic legal studies will agree with our assessment. Indeed, for many in the field, the status quo of disciplinary formation has been more than beneficial. We respect those who have built their careers (p. x) on the long-standing disciplinary approaches that inform so much of Islamic legal studies. Nevertheless, we draw upon the aggregate disciplinary perspectives of the contributors to this volume to illustrate that the dominant approaches to the study of Islamic law in the academy are inadequate. They preserve the ghettoized state of Islamic legal studies in the academy at a time when the study of Islamic law can offer a range of disciplinary vantage points to interrogate the pieties that have too long informed the humanities and social sciences, broadly construed.

Method and Discipline

This Handbook is not designed to offer readers extended encyclopedia entries on key topics in Islamic law. Other books and handbooks already do that. As editors, we expressly encouraged our authors—and likewise encourage our readers—to examine and appreciate the contests over what Islamic law “is” or is “supposed to be.” The scholarly literature can be quite cantankerous; sadly, this is not unusual in academia. But our aim is to take stock of the contests, fights, and animosities that animate the field of Islamic legal studies to understand what is or was at stake in a particular view of Islamic law in one period of study, or according to one disciplinary perspective, as opposed to others. In short, the Handbook is meant to offer a self-reflective moment for the field at large. We believe this kind of endeavor signals the maturity of a field that is moving away from positivist accounts of a particular object of study (for instance, Islamic law), and gives us greater appreciation of the implicit—and even explicit—politics in the scholarly construction of a positivist account of Islamic law. We are grateful to the contributors to this volume for taking this journey with us. It was not always easy; for some, thinking along these lines meant prioritizing secondary literature over findings unearthed in primary sources; and in other cases, it meant standing back from a scholarly context in which the contributor was and remains an active participant. We are fortunate to have many luminaries in the field participating in this experiment, and are pleased with the outcome.

At the same time, there are areas in which we struggled, and in which we hope to do better in the future. When soliciting authors, we consciously searched for those who would bring diverse perspectives to the study of Islamic law, expressly aiming to recalibrate excellence by calling to account parochial scholarly tendencies that tend to accompany the homogenization of expertise. We were concerned about privileging historically overrepresented voices in what is a heterogeneous field of differently positioned scholarly voices. To that end, we sought out women, racialized minorities, and scholars working outside of the western academy. Yet, despite our efforts toward gender parity, only a little over one-third of the scholars writing in this volume are women. Such imbalances do more than reflect the current (p. xi) male dominance of our field; they serve to reinforce it, and to legitimize prevailing assumptions about what counts as excellence in the study of Islamic law. To address this shortcoming, we encouraged our authors to pay attention to gender dynamics in their work and to cite female scholars of Islamic law, to varying degrees of success.

We did only marginally better at including racialized scholars. With respect to those working outside of the western academy, we fell woefully short, including only a handful of such scholars. Through this process, we learned about the need to be mindful about diversity early on in a project’s lifecycle, about the overburdening that women and minorities experience as they are tokenized and regularly called upon to provide a “diversity voice” in otherwise homogeneous fields, and about the need for editors to take extraordinary measures to ensure diverse representation in order to achieve a more robust understanding of excellence, rather than enable the further provincialization of our field.

Despite our shortcomings, we hope that this volume still represents progress toward broadening the conversation about Islamic law, in bringing marginalized voices to the fore, and in complicating our notions of excellence in scholarly production. We hope that our contributors as well as readers will find the Handbook a valuable contribution to Islamic studies in the early years of the twenty-first century.


The Handbook is organized in five parts, beginning with a methodological section that brings a range of disciplinary questions and interrogations to the study of Islamic law. We begin with this section in order to emphasize the self-reflective mode this Handbook aims to inspire, and to acknowledge that there is no single way to approach the study of Islamic law. Depending on discipline, audience, and intellectual starting points, the study of Islamic law might be primarily textual (Anver M. Emon, chapter 2), stylized by the life experiences of Muslim interlocutors (Saadia Yacoob, chapter 3, and John R. Bowen, chapter 5), or a manifestation of broader inquiries into the nature of God or the good life (Rumee Ahmed, chapter 4, and Andrew F. March, chapter 6). As Ayesha S. Chaudhry’s piece (chapter 1) provocatively suggests, the study of Islamic law may be marked by implicit racial politics that hide behind particular methodological pieties. The interrogations in this first part help us think about how the study of Islamic law can and should intersect across a range of disciplines in the humanities and social sciences, and about how insights gained through the study of Islam and Islamic law can illuminate those disciplines.

The Handbook continues thereafter to address a wide range of subjects that both inform and problematize contemporary studies of Islamic law. Our aim was not to be comprehensive across the wide range of possible topics. Such an endeavor would (p. xii) have been more appropriate for an encyclopedia, and not suitable to the kind of intervention this Handbook aims to make. Rather, each chapter in the Handbook historiographically addresses a narrowly defined topic within the study of Islamic law, and illuminates for a range of readers the highly provocative spaces within which the scholar of Islamic law intervenes with a proof text, an argument, or a conclusion about the nature and/or content of Islamic law. The subjects vary across a wide range of topics, which include: legal theory and institutions (Part II); the historiography of Islamic law from its origins to its place in the modern state (Part III); the various manifestations of Islamic law in the Muslim-majority world and in states where Muslims live as minorities (Part IV); and the Islamic legal approach to various legal subject matters of interest inside and outside the academy (Part V). The range of subjects is vast, but the contents are not designed to be comprehensive. Rather they are illustrations of the overall aim of the Handbook, namely to interrogate the study of Islamic law in the hope that twenty-first-century scholars in the powerful knowledge centers of North America and Europe consider and perhaps recast the imagined reality of Islamic law.

The editors would like to thank Professor Kristen Stilt, who served as an editor in the early stages of this project. We would also like to thank the academic law division at Oxford University Press—especially Jamie Berezin, Alex Flach, Natasha Flemming, William Richards, and Elinor Shields—for affording us the space to produce a volume that, though imperfectly and incompletely, breaks with the dominant forms of academic historiography, and that, we hope, will signal new possibilities for the study of Islam and Islamic law.

Anver M. Emon and Rumee Ahmed

February 2018