Profiles in Courage: the Moroccan Jurist Abu Muhammad `Abd al-Salam b. Hamdun Jasus

Dec 16

This is the story of an 18th century Moroccan jurist who did not leave any important collection of legal opinions or an important commentary on a Sidi Khalil or otherwise make an important literary contribution to the history of Islamic law.  Nonetheless, he did something else which is probably more important for the possibility of securing a society governed by law: he willingly became a martyr to uphold the integrity of the law, not by revolting and leading a hopeless quest to overthrow the ruler, but simply by sticking to his values, and insisting that he would not compromise the clear demands of the law for the sake of the ruler’s convenience. The ruler was the Moroccan Sultan, Mulay Ismail Here is a link to an account of the relevant events in the Arabic chronicle, al-Istiqsa li-Akhbar al-Magrib al-Aqsa.

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Constructing Authority in Early Islamic Legal History

Aug 03

Anyone who is a student of early Islamic history is familiar with the numerous controversies surrounding the rise of Islam and whether Muslim accounts of early Islamic history can be deemed to be generally reliable or whether Muslim histories of the early community should be dismissed as little more than pious accounts of sacred history.  The recently deceased Patricia Crone was probably the most famous of the “revisionist” historians who adopted an extremely skeptical stance toward the early Muslim sources.

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The Lunacy of Lunar Sightings — A Brief Reply

Jul 20

Shaykh Hamza Yusuf has a short and valuable blog post entitled “The Lunacy of Lunar Sightings” in which he defends a middle position between naked-eye sightings and the use of astronomical calculations to determine the beginning and end of Islamic months.  He argues for the need to establish Islamic dates based  on a combination of the best-available scientific evidence along with naked-eye observation.  I still think, however, it does not make the case for continuing with naked-eye observation rather than simply using calculations to determine the beginning and end of Islamic lunar months.  Here, the decisive question is whether what is required is certainty or probability.  The very fact that in traditional fiqh, the beginning and end of months could be established by the testimony of individual witnesses, and not the kind of corroborated testimony that Shaykh Hamza seems to demand in this essay, shows that certainty is not required in this matter. And, when this is combined with the element of practicality — something Shaykh Hamza dismisses too easily, I believe — it seems that simply using astronomical calculations, regardless of the fact of the naked-eye observation, makes sense.  As far as an official public calendar, sure, that does require certainty, and perhaps there should be a specialized astronomical institute that can maintain an “official” Islamic calendar, but as Shaykh Hamza knows, one of the great disputes in fiqh on this matter is the debate between ikhtlilaf al-matali` and ittihad al-matali’, basically, whether the lunar calendar is the same in all places of the world, or differs according to one’s location on the planet.  I believe that, if the standard is naked-eye observation, we must adopt the principle of ikhtilaf al-matali’, which renders the possibility of a unified Islamic calendar impossible.  But in any case, at least for Muslims in the west, none of this is really relevant because we don’t use the hijri calendar for administrative purposes, only for religious ones, and from that perspective, having a sound basis to believe that the month has started or ended is sufficient.  (There is also another fundamental point of disagreement with respect to how to interpret the Prophetic hadith on this topic: did the Prophet (S) tell his companions either to observe the moon or to count the days because that was a ritual command, or because that was the means that was easily available to his people to calculate the month?  Shaykh Hamza’s position is that the means the Prophet (S) communicated to his companions were themselves a part of the ritual. There is certainly support for that position from the tradition, but why should we reject what seems to me an equally plausible view that it was simply the most convenient means available for them to calculate the month? After all, the Prophet (S) did not tell his companions to fast based upon the government’s declaration that the month has begun, nor did he tell them to cease fasting based upon the government’s declaration that the month has ended, but the jurists all concluded that a judge, based on competent testimony, can declare the beginning and ends of months.  It seems bizarre to then say that we can’t use astronomical calculations to determine the beginning and ends of months because they do not correspond perfectly with naked-eye observation.

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ISIS’ Appropriation of Classical Islamic International Law

May 08

Brookings’ 2015 US-Islamic World Forum invited me recently to contribute to Will McCants’ series of discussions regarding ISIS’s relationship to the Islamic tradition which he initiated in response to the now (in)famous Atlantic piece by Graeme Wood, “What ISIS Really Wants“. I wrote about ISIS’s appropriation of classical concepts such as dar al-islam and dar al-harb to justify their actions against their enemies, domestic and foreign, while ignoring over 1200 years of the concepts’ evolution, including, in the post-World War II era where leading Muslim jurists have concluded that the distinction is irrelevant in the modern world.

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2015 Noel Coulson Memorial Lecture, SOAS School of Law

Mar 26

It was my distinct honor to have been invited to give the 2015 Noel Coulson Memorial Lecture at the SOAS School of Law.  Noel Coulson was one of the most prominent British scholars of Islamic law in the 20th century, and he was a canonical author for those of us who studied Islamic law in the west.  As I mentioned in the introduction to my lecture, much of my own work in Islamic law — despite my numerous differences with Coulson in specifics — is motivated by similar concerns: how to reconcile fidelity to revealed law with the legitimate needs of human society, without giving in to either utopian textualism or secular absolutism.  The topic of my talk was “Islamic Reform: Democracy or Reinterpretation?

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Establishment of the Council of Wise Muslims

Sep 26

One of the interesting fall outs of the Arab Spring has been a renaissance of traditional Sunni quietism and support of authoritarianism as the proper response to political conflict.  As reported by CNN Arabic Service, the UAE (who else?) is now patronizing a group of Sunni scholars under the not so modest name of “The Council of Wise Muslims (Majlis Hukama’ al-Muslimin).” One of its goals, according to this article, is to revive basic doctrines of Sunnism, including, “obedience to the ruler” (ta’at uli’l-amr). The article also states that the wise ones are cautioning Muslims that democracy is not a good desired for itself, but rather, justice and stability are the aims, and these can be achieved, apparently, without democracy.  Indeed, if democracy is pursued in circumstances that are not appropriate, e.g., the Arab world, it will only lead to civil war.  What the wise ones have failed to explain, however, is why oligarchical rulers would be interested in pursuing, among other things, distributive justice.  Just sayin’.

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