Possibilities of teaching in Islam

My course over the Qur’an is nearing its end, and I think it has been pretty successful. While my lack of proper expertise poses some problems, and while certain aspects of the readings could have been better selected and arranged, at the end of the day we will have worked through the entire Qur’an, addressed its primary themes, and gotten a handle on the major differences between the Meccan and Medinan periods.

The current plan is for me to offer a variation on the course again next year, at which point I anticipate that I will have a fairly confident grasp on the Qur’an (at least in English translation). My question is where to go from there. I could offer some version of the Intro to Islamic Thought course again, or perhaps something specifically on Sufism or on Islamicate readings of Aristotle. Those would be relatively easy to put together and would constitute a “near reach” for my existing knowledge.

But a bolder idea has occurred to me: a course on Islamic legal reasoning. On a practical level, this may be more immediately relevant to students’ understanding of political events than expertise in the text of the Qur’an itself.

My question is whether such a course would be logistically feasible in a semester. Are there convenient editions of primary texts of relevant hadith and legal debates that would be usable in an undergrad course? How would such a course be structured? Is it something that you just have to have Arabic to do responsibly? Keep in mind that this is an introductory course for undergrads who may have little to no previous background in Islam, not a course for grad students or budding specialists (hence why I would dare to attempt it).

7 thoughts on “Possibilities of teaching in Islam

  1. There are increasing numbers of English translations of whole texts or major parts of fiqh but it is still challenging to find primary sources. It might be do-able via Shimer’s method but you’ll struggle to find some of the earlier stuff. For your own learning, my two go to ‘introductions’ are Hallaq’s Sharia and Vikør’s Between God and the Sultan

  2. I’ve read Hallaq’s shorter intro to Sharia, but I don’t have enough Arabic (viz., any) to do the proper Sharia book. I shall add Vikør’s Between God and the Sultan to my wish list. Thanks!

  3. Personally, my opinion is that any single course on Islamic jurisprudence and legal theory (termed uṣūl al-fiqh) is quite a tall order and will not do this vast topic the justice it is due.

    It is the largest and single most challenging area of Islamic learning, and it relies on an encyclopaedic knowledge of other broad sciences, including the sciences of Ḥadīth, Qur’ānic exegesis, Prophetic biography (sīrah), and familiarity with the method of different legal schools (add to all this the teaching of the Imāms if you are going to venture into Shī’i jurisprudence).

    I had taken an introductory PhD level seminar on the topic studying at Georgetown under an expert in the field and alongside students who, like myself, had all, bar one, had extensive exposure to the topic in the past (including one who had spent 17 years at the seminary in Qom specialising in this very topic)–even then I felt most topics had not been adequately dealt with, even with the heavy reliance on Arabic in class.

    Unfortunately, most major works of uṣūl al-fiqh have not yet been translated, and the best and most thorough translations are still mere paraphrases and distillations — a shining example of these is Bernard Weiss’ “In Search of God’s Law,” which is a paraphrase of al-Iḥkām fī Uṣūl al-Aḥkām, the central legal theoretical work of Sayf al-Dīn al-Āmidī (d. 631/1233), one of the most sophisticated theoreticians of the Shāfi’ī legal school, whose approach is heavily reliant on the philosophy of language.

    Perhaps give Weiss a go to see just one example of what Islamic legal theory can look like.

  4. Further to my previous post: what I meant to say was that any approach to reading legal debate and fatwas on specific substantive topics without a prior understanding or explication of the theoretical frameworks that undergrid these debates would not be adequate, in my opinion.

  5. I tried to think more creatively about the problem and I think the following option might fit well with Shimer’s focus on primary texts.

    Both historically and today, the transmission of religious sciences at the introductory level in most Muslim societies is typically done by means of what is known as the mutūn (sing. matn, pl. mutūn, trans. text/texts) genre. These are short texts that cover the basics of particular science (e.g. uṣūl al-fiqh, Ḥadīth criticism, Arabic grammar, etc), and are typically written in the form of rhyming verse, in order to simplify memorisation for novice students. For the most popular texts, commentaries upon commentaries have been written, and today these are joined by translations and lecture series explaining the texts and contextualising them further.

    Hands down, the most popular matn on uṣūl al-fiqh is al-Waraqāt (the pages) by Imām al-Juwaynī (d. 478/1085), one of the most important teachers of Imām al-Ghazāli. The text it made up of a little over 200 verse couplets, and translations and explanations of the text abound all over the internet, so you wouldn’t be short on resources. A course designed as a romp through al-Waraqāt has the benefits of, first, being a primary text, second, actually being designed as an introduction, third, it would introduce students to the topic in an authentic way that continues to be widely practiced today among Muslims, and thus, fourth, would be much less likely to do violence to the topic than simply jumping in and weighing in on legal debates.

    Here are some links for al-Waraqāt:

    If you would also like to delve into the science of Ḥadīth, a good supplement could be al-Manẓūmah al-Bayqūniyyah, the most popular matn on the topic. It consists of only 34 rhyming verses written by Imām al-Bayqūnī (d. 1080/1669). Here are some links:

    I hope the above proves useful!

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