CanCode: Canonization and Codification of Islamic Legal Texts
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Interview with Mahmood Kooria

Mahmood Kooria is one of the researchers in the CanCode project. In this interview you can read more about how he approaches the concepts of canonisation and codification.

Mahmood Kooria at fieldwork

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To what extent are the concepts of canonization and codification important in your research on Islamic law?

I use the concepts in two of my ongoing research areas related to Islamic law: one on the postclassical commentarial tradition in Shāfiʿī school of Islamic law, and the other on the matrilineal Muslim communities across the Indian Oceanlittoral. Although the areas may appear very different from one another a the first glance, they have a lot of similarities Almost all the major Muslim matrilineal groups follow the Shāfiʿī school of law, which is also prominent across the oceanic littoral. In terms of codification and canonization, however, they present very contrasting situations. Much of the matrilineal rules and regulations were unwritten up until the twentieth century. From these communities we hardly get a codified or canonized legal text on specific rules they must follow during disputes. There were some attempts in the late-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to “codify” their laws, yet they were hardly successful. Even so, the communities functioned within the parameters of their religion and its local traditions in their own ways with a systematic societal order, within the frameworks of what can be identified as “an unwritten matrilineal code”. This phenomenon presents an interesting contrast within the Shāfiʿī school and Islam at large, in terms of its historical followership and the way they contributed to its tradition across time and places through systematic standardisation, codification and canonisation. I explore how these contrasting situations (written vs. unwritten laws) can be studied within the same framework. I compare and contrast the codification of customs and norms among matrilineal Muslim societies with the Shāfiʿī written tradition from the beginning of the second millennium CE.

In your recently published book, Islamic Law in Circulation, you specifically have a chapter on codification (of Shāfiʿī school). How do you envision to advance this as part of the project?

Indeed, in the third and fourth chapters of the book, I do talk in detail about the diverse texts produced in the school after the classical period. I categorize them into seven textual families, all of which sought to systematise the school in their own ways and opened ways for juridical debates in the process. This textual culture created frictions, yet the very tensions contributed to the school’s development and expansion. This process is most evident in the standardisation attempts of Yahya bin Sharaf al-Nawawī (d. 1277), his magnum opus Minhāj al-ṭālibīn, which I identify as a “Code” in the book. But Nawawī was not the first Shāfiʿī jurist to codify Shāfiʿī law, neither was the Minhaj the first code in the school. In the project, I would like to explore the longer genealogies that facilitated the codification and canonization in the earlier centuries. In this regard, I look at the substantive legal texts of Imām Ghazālī (d. 1111), who possibly was the biggest motivation for Nawawī and his immediate predecessor Rafīʿī to canonize and codify the Shāfiʿī school of law.

But isn’t Ghazālī an overstudied figure in Islamic intellectual history?

Yes and no. He may be overstudied in philosophy, mysticism, etc., but it is very striking that hardly anyone has paid any attention to his substantive legal texts. Among traditional scholars of the school, he is often identified as “the second Shāfiʿī”. Yet, I cannot think of any exclusive academic studies on his contributions to substantive law.

Ghazālī is reputed to be one of the most prolific scholars in the Islamic world and his legal texts prove his innovativeness in standardizing Islamic law in their contents, methods, etc. Both texts that he wrote as autosummaries (Wajīz and Khulāṣa) demonstrate all the recognised features of a code in their structure, system of classification, verbal expressions, scribal practices, circulation and the force of a larger tradition. In contrast to the medieval European codes, his texts do demonstrate a significant inner coherence and do explore general principles applicable across spectrums (qawāʿid: canons or legal maxims), and their legal validity was established within the texts and confirmed by the later commentators. His works therefore demonstrate not only the existence of codifications in the premodern Islamic world, but also encourage us to think about their idiosyncrasies in comparison with the contemporary European codifications as well as their effects in the later Islamic codifications. Certainly, he had a significant influence on the Shāfiʿī textual tradition; a significant number of texts produced in the school in the second millennium CE claim a textual genealogy that goes back to his works.

From Ghazālī to matriliny, such a huge contrast it is!

It is! Even so, we should not forget that both Ghazālī and matrilineal Muslims followed Shāfiʿī school of law—and possibly Ghazālī is the first Shāfiʿī (or even Muslim) jurist to write about matrilineal practices. His words tell us that he contributed to codifying their unwritten customs way before they were discussed in detail by many later European, Asian and African jurists.