Canonization and Diversification in Islamic Law and in Arabian Rhetoric in Comparison
The project aims to compare processes of diversification that occurred in the literary production of Islamic law (fiqh) and Arabic rhetoric (balāġa) during the so-called “post-classical” period (beginning around the 14th century).
In the 13th century, several fields of Islamic and Arabic sciences underwent a process of canonization, with the result that certain scholars and their works achieved an authoritative position, becoming the pivotal points of reference for the scholarly discourse of the succeeding centuries. In Islamic law, this process of canonization is closely related to the formation of schools of law (maḏāhib). In Arabic rhetoric, different approaches merge together to form the standard theory and its most canonical text, al-Qazwīnī’s Talḫīṣ al-miftāḥ, becomes the most commented text in the Arabic Islamic world after the Quran.
This canonization led Western academia in the 19th and early 20th centuries to believe that later developments in Islamic intellectual history, the so called “post-classical” period, were characterized by stagnation and decline. This “stagnation paradigm” is clearly linked with the master narrative of Modernity: a stagnant, irrational, and religious-minded Orient is constructed as the Other vis-à-vis a dynamic, rational, and secular West. Many Arab intellectuals, in turn, instead of opposing this orientalist paradigm, appropriated the idea of the decadence (inḥiṭāṭ) of Islamic civilization in the “post-classical” era, adapting it to their specific interests, such as promoting a revival of Islamic Arab thought after the 19th century. A consequence of the deeply rooted paradigm of decadence and stagnation is that to this date, literary sources from the 14th to the 19th century received little scholarly attention in the study of Islamic law and Arabic rhetoric.
Project B03 proposes to redress this omission. Focusing on the two academic traditions of law and rhetoric, we empirically investigate the effects of the above-mentioned canonization on the legal and literary output of the “decadence” period, establishing a parallel between these two traditions and comparing their development. In doing so, we are led by a number of observations and hypothetical assumptions: the “post-classical” period saw the emergence of a wide range of new genres in both legal and rhetorical literature. This diversification of genres went almost unnoticed in scholarship. If “post-classical” texts were studied at all, it was done without attention to formal aspects and to the fact that they represented different genres. This “genre blindness” arguably facilitated the prevalence of the stagnation paradigm: We assume that the diversification of genres went hand in hand with a diversification of contents. Different genres represent different levels of discourse performing different functions: While some genres served to stabilize the discourse, others presented fora that allowed for the emergence of new and more nuanced positions. In applying a genre-sensitive approach to Islamic law and Arabic rhetoric, our project proposes to establish a multidimensional and comparative perspective on these disciplines that might challenge the stagnation paradigm. To this end, the project covers five distinctive genres: (1) maxim literature (qawāʿid), distinction literature (furūq), and “legal riddles” (alġāz), (2) responsa (fatāwā) and tractates (rasāʾil); (3) Quran exegesis (tafsīr); (4) legal hermeneutical texts (uṣūl al-fiqh); (5) poems in praise of the prophet illustrating the figures of speech (badīʿiyya).
If the study of these genres proves our hypothesis, it follows that the canonization of law and rhetoric at the beginning of the “post-classical” era – despite having a stabilizing effect – did not result in stagnation. Rather, it may be argued that the combination of canonization and diversification proved to be a strategy that lent the discourse stability and flexibility at the same time. It will remain to be investigated whether similar strategies were applied in other fields of knowledge. If so, our hypothesis would prove highly relevant for the study of Islamic intellectual history in general.