“Is Historicism a Viable Strategy for Islamic Law Reform?”

Jun 24

Islamic Law & Society has just published a recent article of mine with the title “Is Historicism a Viable Strategy for Islamic Law Reform? The Case of “Never Shall a People Prosper Who Have Appointed a Woman to Rule Them.” This article is both methodological and substantive, insofar as it proposes both a methodology for reformist arguments within Islamic law, and a substantive critique of other progressive arguments on the specific issue of how to interpret the infamous hadith in which the Prophet Muhammad is reported as having said, “Never shall a people prosper who have appointed a woman to rule them.”

The article takes up Ebrahim Moosa’s invitation to consider historicism as an antidote to what he calls “text fundamentalism” among Muslims.  Although Moosa does not make clear what he means by historicism,  I distinguish between two types of historicism, one which I call “progressive historicism,” and the other which I call “hermeneutic historicism.” The former reads the Quran as part of the progressive unfolding of universal human history and according to this view, its specific injunctions should be understood as assisting human progress, but not in any way limiting the progressive potentialities of human social relationships and freedom.  The alternative approach takes history as an interpretive source and uses historical sources to complicate the interpretive task by subverting common sense readings of a text.  I argue that the latter approach is akin to the traditionalist method of takhsis al-`amm (specification of the general term) as discussed in traditional Muslim jurisprudence, and therefore that it has the potential of generating greater support among traditionalist Muslims than arguments rooted in progressive historicism.

While the article does not deny the relevance of progressive historicism to Islamic law reform, it argues that progressive historicism is more theologically problematic, and accordingly, should not be used to justify a reformist line of argument unless other methods prove to be unavailable.  In the case of this hadith, I show how hermeneutic historicism provides an adequate method of displacing traditionalist readings of the text and create room for a gender egalitarian reading of the text.  The full text of the article is available at this link.


Facebook comments:


  1. I’m not sure I follow your logic. Of course, it would be acceptable to follow this method for hadith, since the article in fact does apply it to a hadith.

  2. Youshaa /

    This is a well organized, intelligent, thought-provoking, and timely article (although this comment is not).

    I have a hermeneutical quibble: if we can establish that it is acceptable to use the progressive historicist method for the Quran (such as freezing the application of verse 4:34), then applying this method to hadith becomes a fortiori acceptable as well. This would potentially make traditional hermeneutical historicism potentially obsolete.


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