Theorizing Modernities article

The Historian’s “Unloved Stepchild” No More: The Case for Intellectual Biography as Historical Method in Islamic Studies

Drawing of a Muslim faqih and his students during, circa 750–1258 (Abbasid Caliphate). Public Domain. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Among historians, biography as a form of historical analysis finds little favor and is often denounced as “minutiae without meaning,” a “lesser form of history,” or “the profession’s unloved stepchild, occasionally but grudgingly let in the door, more often shut outside with the riffraff” (573). The ambivalence towards biography seems to stem from an assumption that it is nothing more than “great man” history which unadvisedly explains intellectual developments by studying the mind of an isolated genius. I first picked up on this stigma as a PhD student in a historiography colloquium at the University of Chicago. I was puzzled to hear my Europeanist and Americanist colleagues suggesting that intellectual biography was a flawed and passé method of historical analysis and that the field of history was oversaturated with studies of prominent figures. At the time I was honing in on my dissertation project, which centered the life and thought of the prominent seventh-/thirteenth-century jurist ʿIzz al-Dīn Ibn ʿAbd al-Salām (d. 660/1262) as a window onto broader intellectual and social developments in the Ayyubid period. To my mind this was a worthy contribution: we knew too little, not too much about important thinkers like Ibn ʿAbd al-Salām. In other words, while I can’t speak about the entire field of historical study, the sub-field of Islamic history has too few, not too many, intellectual biographies.

As the first English language biography of Abū al-Maʿālī al-Juwaynī (d. 478/1085), Sohaira Siddiqui’s Law and Politics under the Abbasids: An Intellectual Portrait of al-Juwaynī is a welcome and long overdue contribution. Siddiqui’s book is a brilliant study of the life and thought of the prominent Ashʿarī theologian and Shāfiʿī jurist who left an indelible mark on Muslim theology, law, and political thought, which, until now, had been little known or appreciated. Siddiqui’s study of al-Juwaynī makes a persuasive case for why intellectual biography as a form of historical writing can best demonstrate the interaction between political, social, and intersecting lines of intellectual inquiry at a given point in history.

While I examine the content of Siddiqui’s book in a forthcoming review for the Journal of Near Eastern Studies, in this short essay, I would like to focus on some of the methodological insights I gained from the study and how it continues to inform my work. Having spent many years contemplating intellectual biography as a mode of historical analysis, I would describe Siddiqui’s monograph as an exemplary model for how to bring to life a premodern Muslim thinker’s life and legacy.

Towards Multidisciplinarity, Coherence, and Context in Intellectual Biography

What are some of the outstanding features and key methodological insights we glean from Siddiqui’s accomplished study of al-Juwaynī?

First, Siddiqui’s study draws on three disparate subfields of Islamic intellectual history to reconstruct al-Juwaynī’s thought, namely theology, legal studies, and political theory. This multidisciplinary approach is crucial to Siddiqui’s successful search for unity in the Juwaynian corpus and for the establishment of a coherent narrative of al-Juwaynī’s intellectual vision. By showing how al-Juwaynī’s ideas in epistemology shaped his legal and political thought, for example, Siddiqui convincingly argues that interpreting the thought project of a pivotal polymath like al-Juwaynī demands expertise across subfields. In doing so, she makes a compelling case for why these disciplines should not be siloed off in the historical study of Islamic thought. The effectiveness of Siddiqui’s approach rests on mastery of the three disciplines she studies; mastery which she consistently exhibits through her careful reading and interpretation of theological, legal, and political texts and precise presentation of specialist debates.

Siddiqui’s study of al-Juwaynī makes a persuasive case for why intellectual biography as a form of historical writing can best demonstrate the interaction between political, social, and intersecting lines of intellectual inquiry at a given point in history.

Second, Siddiqui frames her intellectual portrait of al-Juwaynī by identifying a central intellectual project that connects his varied theological, legal, and political ideas. Siddiqui cogently frames the Juwaynian project as one centering on the dialectical relationship between certainty and continuity, or more specifically, the epistemically certain knowledge attained by individuals and the continuity of religion and society. Siddiqui demonstrates that the scholarly debates and the political instability of al-Juwaynī’s age created a tension between his desire to attain epistemically certain knowledge in theology and law, and his aspiration to preserve the continuity of the social and religious life of the Muslim community. Siddiqui’s simple framing that turns on the ongoing tension and negotiation between certainty and continuity is elegantly and methodically woven throughout the book’s varied topics and chapters, and serves as a powerful heuristic to explain al-Juwaynī’s socio-political concerns and his novel arguments. By framing al-Juwaynī’s project in this way, Siddiqui is able to showcase the unity that connects al-Juwaynī’s most influential writings, which may appear at first glance to be fragmented ideas or conventional treatments of standard topics in each discipline. It is Siddiqui’s multidisciplinary approach and search for coherence that enables her to present a comprehensive picture of his thought and to tie its disparate threads together.

Third, Siddiqui’s study is not merely a “history of great books” or a disembodied treatment of al-Juwaynī’s ideas in intellectual isolation. Rather, Siddiqui situates al-Juwaynī’s intervention within both anteceding intellectual currents and his immediate social and political conditions. Examples of the history of ideas which Siddiqui details include her masterful chapter-length treatment of the Ashʿarī-Muʿtazilī epistemological debates and previous Ashʿarī-Shāfiʿī thought (chapter 3) and political theory (236–43). By situating al-Juwaynī’s thought within preceding Ashʿarī and Shāfiʿī genealogies, Siddiqui brings to light his innovative contributions and the ends to which they were directed. She further situates al-Juwaynī’s interventions within their immediate socio-political circumstances. Doing so provides an explanatory context for the questions and problems that generated and shaped al-Juwaynī’s intellectual concerns. Siddiqui strikes a perfect balance in this regard: while she does not hesitate to interpret al-Juwaynī’s motives and to shed light on how his mental processes may have related to his life experience, she does so while carefully accounting for the available historical evidence and without taking excessive liberties or making speculative leaps.

These three features of Siddiqui’s monograph—employing a multidisciplinary approach, reconstructing al-Juwaynī’s central project, and situating his project within antecedent intellectual currents and contemporaneous socio-political context—are at the core of what makes Siddiqui’s study an exemplary model. Siddiqui’s impressive accomplishment has established the groundwork for future studies on al-Juwaynī and the broader scholarly traditions of Nishāpūr and Khurāsān that he represented, which were decisive for the formation of a synthesis of Sunni thought and piety that has remained paradigmatic to this day. With her contribution we are only at the beginning of understanding al-Juwaynī’s multi-faceted legacy; no single biography can be expected to provide full coverage of a polymath’s vast production.

Pieces of a Puzzle: Biographies as Scholarly Reconstruction of Intellectual History

Let me note a few avenues for future research into al-Juwaynī’s thought and legacy that are raised by Siddiqui’s groundbreaking study, some of which relate to my own research about the reception and development of al-Juwaynī’s thought in Damascus in the sixth/twelfth and seventh/thirteenth centuries. These remarks not only suggest fruitful channels for further study, but also point to important features of robust biographical studies that are best achieved through scholarly collaboration.

It is Siddiqui’s multidisciplinary approach and search for coherence that enables her to present a comprehensive picture of his thought and to tie its disparate threads together.

One question raised by Siddiqui’s study is the chronological development and evolution of al-Juwaynī’s thought. Siddiqui makes some important remarks on the dating of al-Juwaynī’s numerous theological works before settling on giving primacy to the Burhān as al-Juwaynī’s final and most exhaustive extant discussion of epistemology (110). The broader question of the chronological development in al-Juwaynī’s thought awaits exploration. Can we precisely date al-Juwaynī’s works to enable an analysis of its diachronic development? Did his thought evolve in response to pivotal experiences in his life, such as his exile, his travels to Baghdad and the Hejaz, or his tenure at the Niẓāmiyya? Exploring and finding adequate answers to these questions is a major undertaking, but one worth assuming for the payoff of uncovering otherwise undetected dimensions of the personal and historical factors shaping Islamic thought. Good examples of recent studies exploring the diachronic development of a thinker’s ideas include Ahmed El Shamsy’s analysis of al-Shāfiʿī’s legacy and Ayman Shihadeh’s study of al-Rāzī’s ethical theory.

In tandem with a chronological analysis of al-Juwaynī’s oeuvre, a fuller understanding of al-Juwaynī’s thought also requires consideration of some of his other writings that lie beyond the scope of Siddiqui’s analysis. For instance, al-Juwaynī’s magnum opus of substantive law, Nihāyat al-maṭlab fī dirāyat al-madhhab, spans some twenty-one volumes in the print edition first issued in 1428/2007. The Nihāya was considered the most important and voluminous commentary on al-Muzanī’s Mukhtaṣar, and it was received with widespread acclaim as the most significant contribution to Shāfiʿī law in the fifth/eleventh century. It has not received much attention, despite the possibilities it offers for studying developments in Islamic law, and in Shāfiʿism in particular during this period. It remains to be seen how a study of the Nihāya will further, or modify, our understanding of al-Juwaynī’s vision of law and legal theory as presented by Siddiqui.

Manuscript of al-Waraqat of Al-Juwayni. Via Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.

Another significant area of uncharted inquiry concerns the reception history of al-Juwaynī’s thought, both during his lifetime and after his death. Siddiqui explores the reception of two particular aspects of al-Juwaynī’s legal theory concerning concurrently transmitted hadith reports (mutawātir) (156–59) and scholarly consensus (ijmāʿ) (179–81). She draws our attention to several other novel interventions he makes, raising the question of the wider reception and legacy of al-Juwaynī’s thought for future research to explore. In my study of Ibn ʿAbd al-Salām’s and his network in Ayyubid Damascus, I demonstrate that al-Juwaynī exercised a formative influence on Damascene jurists in the sixth/twelfth and seventh/thirteenth centuries. This was the achievement of al-Juwaynī’s intellectual heirs from Khurāsān who emigrated to Damascus where they established a teaching and commentarial tradition centering al-Juwaynī’s writings in the emerging Ayyubid capital.

An exploration of the reception of al-Juwaynī’s thought should also explore the larger question of where al-Juwaynī fits within the broader scholarly landscape, particularly in the lively intellectual center of Khurāsān in this period. How did his thought compare to and interact with that of his contemporaries in Khurāsān? What about in Iraq? How did his thought contrast to that of his prominent Shāfiʿī contemporaries like Abū al-Ḥasan al-Māwardī (d. 450/1058) and Abū Isḥāq al-Shīrāzī (d. 476/1083)? I explore some these questions in my study, where I situate al-Juwaynī within the Khurāsānī Shāfiʿī community, characterizing his thought as an exemplary prototype of the mature Khurāsānī Shāfiʿī community’s scholarly tradition. The unique approach of this branch of the school centered analysis, synthesis, and the deployment of rational methods in the service of legal philosophy. Its unique approach comes into sharper relief when contrasted with that of the competing branch of Shāfiʿism, the Iraqi interpretive community, which upheld an emulative, issue-oriented, and transmission-based approach to law and legal theory. I show how these two streams of Shāfiʿism were transplanted into Damascus where they vied for dominance in Ibn ʿAbd al-Salām’s generation before gradually being fused into a single authoritative doctrine by Mamluk-era jurists, most successfully carried out by Yaḥyā b. Sharaf al-Nawawī (d. 676/1277). In recovering this history, Siddiqui’s study on al-Juwaynī challenged, deepened, and nuanced my evolving understanding of Khurāsānī Shāfiʿī history in the fourth/tenth and fifth/eleventh centuries. On the one hand, her detailed study of al-Juwaynī’s analytical and synthetic approach to questions of epistemology, legal theory, and political community substantiated my characterization of Khurāsānī Shāfiʿism’s scholarly culture. On the other hand, it raised further questions that challenged my suppositions about the impact of theological commitments and political anxieties on legal thought, and led me to ponder the internal fissures within the Khurāsānī community itself.

Herein lies the compounding benefit of the production of robust intellectual biographies: it is not just adding one more biography of a “great man,” but providing a vital puzzle piece indispensable for answering countless related historical questions that make it possible to develop a more coherent, layered, and rigorous longue durée vision of premodern Islamic thought. Unfortunately, many of the most influential thinkers in Islamic history remain little known. Often, only a minor facet of their lives has been adequately studied. Among the few exceptions to this rule, the gold standard is perhaps the study of Abū Ḥamid al-Ghazālī (d. 505/1111), arguably the most influential polymath in Sunni Islam, and, incidentally, a student of al-Juwaynī. Historians have spent decades studying and debating the events of al-Ghazālī’s life and various aspects of his thought: his spiritual crisis and its aftermath, his involvement in the political intrigue of his day, and his seminal writings on theology, law, Sufism, ethics, philosophy, and politics. But we can count only a handful of other thinkers who have received a similar degree of sustained scholarly attention, like Ibn Khaldūn (d. 808/1406) and Ibn Sīnā (d. 428/1037), and more recently, al-Shāfiʿī (d. 204/820) and Ibn Taymīya (d. 728/1328).


There has been resurgent interest in biography among historians in general, which is mirrored in the niche field of Islamic intellectual history. This has been a heartening development, especially in view of the depth and rigor of these studies, which espouse the analytical approaches described above of interdisciplinarity, historical contextualization, chronological development, and the study of reception among contemporaries and heirs. This approach eschews biographical studies that succumb to the pitfalls of “great men” and “great books” history. Siddiqui’s is one of the best in my opinion, and in the same series (Cambridge Studies in Islamic Civilization), we find several other notable monographs in the field of Islamic intellectual history employing biography as a window unto broader processes and changes at pivotal historical junctures, such as Christopher Markiewicz’s study of the Ottoman historian al-Bidlīsī and İlker Evrim Binbaş’s exploration of  Sharaf al-Dīn ʿAlī Yazdī’s intellectual networks in Timurid Iran. Each of these biographies is a fundamental puzzle piece for reconstructing the puzzle that is pre-modern Islam and its intellectual traditions, to which I hope many more will be added.


Mariam Sheibani
Mariam Sheibani is Assistant Professor in History at the department of Historical and Cultural Studies at The University of Toronto Scarborough. She also serves as Lead Blog Editor for the Islamic Law Blog based at Harvard Law School. Her research interests are in late antique and medieval Islamic intellectual and cultural history, with a focus on the theory and practice of Islamic law and Islamic ethical traditions. Her first book project, Islamic Legal Philosophy: Ibn ʿAbd al-Salām and the Ethical Turn in Medieval Islamic Law, examines how Muslim jurists from the eleventh to fourteenth centuries addressed salient questions of legal philosophy, leading them to develop competing legal methodologies and visions of the law. Her other ongoing research projects include judicial practice in medieval Mamluk Cairo, classical doctrines of Muslim family law, and Sufi commentaries on Arabic grammar. She holds an MA and PhD in Islamic Thought from the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations at the University of Chicago.

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