Theorizing Modernities article

Law and Politics under the Abbasids: A Symposium

In her formidable study of the intellectual project and life of Abū l-Maʿālī al-Juwaynī (d. 478/1085), Law and Politics under the Abbasids: An Intellectual Portrait of al-Juwayni, Sohaira Siddiqui makes a number of significant interventions. Among these contributions, she urges historians to read across genres—not to disregard the conventions governing premodern scholarly production, but to throw underlying coherence into greater relief. The coherence in the Juwaynian project is by no means assumed in this book. Rather, it is demonstrated through a painstaking reading of a number of his most influential texts in the domains of legal theory and theology. The relationship of al-Juwaynī’s central concerns of certainty and continuity to his historical and social context is carefully argued. In fact, the fundaments of religion and society themselves, Siddiqui indicates, were perceived to be under threat during this period. As Omid Safi has highlighted in his Politics of Knowledge in Premodern Islam, the early Saljuq regime considered doing away with the Abbasid Caliph altogether (39). Sectarianism had riven the legal and theological communities, fracturing them into mutually hostile Ḥanafī-Shāfiʿī and Muʿtazilī-Ashʿarī camps. Most spectacularly, this rivalry led to al-Juwaynī’s surreptitious flight from Nishapur in 446/1054, following which orders were issued for his arrest (47). This is the backdrop against which al-Juwaynī labored to guarantee a basic minimum of certainty and continuity to religious life. It is worth pausing to unpack these two themes of the Juwaynian corpus and to explore how they relate to Siddiqui’s broader argument. I offer this summary by way of preface to my own engagement with the book’s arguments in my own post. My colleagues, Mohammad Fadel, Joshua Ralston, Walid Saleh and Mariam Sheibani will each contribute pieces on their reactions to the book and its implications for the field. The author will offer a response following the publication of all the pieces.

While jurists had come to recognize and even valorize a measure of uncertainty in their discipline, theology required absolute certainty (qaṭʿ). Al-Juwaynī introduced foundational changes to Ashʿarī epistemologyl, extending the domain of certainty to include forms of knowledge acquired through habitual or customary practice: this is “practical certainty,” and is equivalent to the kind of certainty acquired through exhaustive ratiocination. Siddiqui helpfully gives the example of learning how to drive: with experience, the process becomes second nature, and our knowledge of how to carry it out practically certain (126). While different forms of knowledge are distinct in terms of the paths to their acquisition or the cognitive capacity of individual reasoners, once acquired as certain, they are functionally equivalent (127–28). Thus, the conclusions of individual jurists can possess certainty, without infringing on the validity of legal pluralism. The second major pole of al-Juwaynī’s thought, continuity, enjoys a dialectical relationship with certainty, and the two can never be invoked singly. In certain areas of his thought, such as aspects of legal theory, al-Juwaynī prioritizes continuity where certainty proves unattainable. For example, he accepts the need for qiyās al-shabah, the more dubious form of juristic analogy from resemblances between two legal cases, based on his commitment to continuity and universality in the law. Though uncertain, this technique allows the jurist to extend Divine writ to embrace all conceivable human acts, thus ensuring the law’s completeness, and the continuity of the juristic enterprise (216). But the certainty-continuity dialectic is never a zero-sum game. Even in the case of qiyās al-shabah, al-Juwaynī circumscribes the possibilities for divergence by limiting its exercise to competent legal authorities (muftīmujtahids, 227–28). The full contours of the certainty-continuity relationship appear most clearly in al-Juwaynī’s political thought, a point I shall revisit in my own essay for this symposium.

Though al-Juwaynī made seminal contributions to a number of fields, his arguments were not always widely accepted, or have not always received the recognition they deserve in modern scholarship. For example, al-Juwaynī seems to have played an important role in preparing the ground for a comprehensive Ashʿarī response to Muslim Neoplatonism (Falsafa, 14–15), a point that still remains largely unacknowledged. This likely owes something to his most outstanding student, al-Ghazālī (d. 505/1111), whose own innovations are typically accepted to have outshone those of his master. In the domain of legal theory, al-Juwaynī held that the usual juristic proofs offered for the principle of ijmāʿ (consensus) were insufficient, based as they were either on ambiguous Qurʾānic verses or insufficiently attested ḥadīths (163), a view that was not popular among later generations (179–81). There was somewhat less hostility towards his position on tawātur (concurrence) in ḥadīths (156–58). Al-Juwaynī eschewed the formalist stipulation of a minimum number of transmitters for tawātur, which could only ever be arbitrary. Instead, he stressed the circumstances accompanying transmission (i.e. qarāʾin al-ṣidq), which could elevate the contents of the report to the level of certainty even in the absence of broader attestation. The sight of a baby on the lap of his or her wet-nurse accompanied by the sounds of suckling are sufficient proof of feeding, even if the witness does not observe milk flowing into the infant’s mouth (151).

The key themes of al-Juwaynī’s corpus continue to resonate today: believers of all stripes remain interested in the sources of ethical reasoning, and how clearly particular norms can be attributed to their respective traditions. Continuity raises issues of religious authority, likewise a subject of perennial importance.
Omar Anchassi
Omar Anchassi is an Early Career Fellow in Islamic Studies at the University of Edinburgh. His research focuses on Islamic law, theology, and Qurʾānic Studies.

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