Islamic Law & Sexuality Conference 9th – 11th January 2018

Participants met in Exeter for an international conference organised around the themes of sexuality, gender and violence in Islamic Law. A number of attendees remarked on the refreshing focus on these issues; it was rare for an event to be so preoccupied, facilitating such evidently fruitful conversations between specialists. Proceedings began with a keynote address by Kecia Ali of Boston University on the subject of female agency (and the denial thereof) in premodern Islamic legal texts, especially the Mudawwana of Saḥnūn (d. 240/855). She also addressed the challenges of teaching sensitive subjects (such as slave-concubinage) in an age of Islamophobia, as well as the promises and perils of talking to the media. Her lecture was followed by a lively and engaging discussion on the themes of representation and the grammatical nuances of the passage she presented from the Mudawwana, and their implications. There followed two days of papers, representing an impressive range of geographic foci and disciplinary approaches. Modern and Premodern Muslim discourses on sexuality both featured; notably, there was an entire panel on the (re)imagining of the legal tradition in Muslim minority communities in the United States. Papers in this panel combined social-scientific and philological approaches, while exhibiting an interest in the social media dimension of these contemporary debates. There was also a panel on the question of child marriage, which addressed diachronic shifts in the discussion of the practice (boys came to feature much less heavily than girls, over the course of time), as well as the justifications of these by jurists in different periods, which were judged to be inadequate. Some papers were historical; others were decidedly confessional, and important contributions in the beginning session sought to problematise this distinction. Rumee Ahmed concluded that contributors to debates on sexuality in Islamic Law, both with and without the tradition, were equally implicated in ‘doing’ tradition.

Wissam Halawi introduced the discussion of Druze legal norms to the broader conversation about Islamic Law, forcing participants to think harder about the importance of comparativist study and the need to correct the sectarian myopia of previous work on the subject. Many papers raised methodological questions about the study of Islamic Law; this was a theme participants returned to again and again, and was emphasised in the concluding session. Antonia Bosanquet’s paper on inter-religious marriage was equally memorable; somewhat surprisingly, she demonstrated Ibn Qayyim’s (d. 751/1350) commitment to the dissolution of marriages in which non-Muslim husbands converted while their spouses remained as non-Muslims, on the grounds that this would impose intolerable burdens on unconverted wives. Overall, the conference was a great success, and a number of participants committed themselves to contributing chapters towards an edited volume, which will hopefully preserve some of the breadth and learning of the original event for posterity.

Nordic Seminar on Islamic Legal Studies 19th – 20th October 2017, University of Bergen

A friend advised me to occupy the window seat for the in-bound flight to Bergen, a decision I’m glad to have taken.  On our descent, the dark green islets of Norway began to appear, scattered in the cold of the North Sea.  Many were inhabited, and as we flew past I traced the outlines of houses, sheds and ramshackle piers.  I tried to imagine the apparently rather solitary lives of those island folk; I wondered whether they had to return to the mainland for their necessaries, or if these were available in the larger ones in periodically restocked stores.

Even our afternoon descent could not have prepared me for the beauty of the city, particularly the views out to the bay.  I had a few hours to collect impressions before an evening meal with colleagues.  Many of the houses were built, or at least clad, in brightly painted planks of wood; many of the central streets were cobbled, especially in the hilly areas towards the ‘fingers’ of Bergen, projecting out to sea.  I made a circuit of these and walked between the various bridges linking Bergen’s stony prominences; there were some excellent views along elevated paths laid out with evening walkers in mind.  The air was cold and sharp, the sky mostly clear; I was later told that the weather had markedly improved since the previous few days.  The city itself was immaculately clean.  I immediately decided that it was the most attractive of the four project cities, even if the surrounding mountains, heavily forested, did give it an ominous air.  I also thought that Exeter was better off without a leprosy museum!  I would have visited it, had there been more time.  After reconnoitring the seminar venue, I found a smallish mosque besides the campus.  One of three in the city, and none of them purpose-built, I was informed.  After dinner, at which I noticed that reports of the exorbitance of the prices had not been exaggerated, I retired for some light reading and an early-ish night.

We convened for lunch, at which I had the pleasure of being introduced to those academics I hadn’t met already.  I was (and remain) very new to the Scandinavian academic ‘scene’.  There were some with legal backgrounds and a few anthropologists; others came from a more obviously Islamic Studies background, though it was enriching to have so many diverse specialties in the same place.  This was evident from the comments on each paper; the discussion always seemed to overrun, such that we were perpetually behind time.  But it was tremendous fun throughout.  I particularly enjoyed papers on the practice of mahr (which, it was emphasised, is very different from dowry, for which an obscure Norwegian term was used) among the Iranian émigré community; the amounts involved were not always nominal, nor was the practice unknown among the ostensibly non-observant; I also had many questions (continued later over dinner) for presenters on family courts in the Egyptian and Syrian contexts.  These were far and away the most interesting to me personally.  I learned that Syrian integration of family courts into the civil court structure (including the marginalisation of `ulamā’ as court personnel) predated the founding of the UAR.  I had the distinct impression that Egyptian judges were (to put it frankly) woefully unfamiliar with the legal tradition they sought to uphold, most of them being uninterested in and/or incapable of accessing the pre-modern heritage.  The presenter also had some very entertaining anecdotes from her fieldwork in Egypt.  I also enjoyed learning about various schisms among the Ibāḍīs, groups whose existence I had read of a long time ago but whose divergences apparently remained vital questions in some parts of the Muslim world.

I had just enough time for another evening walk before we met the next morning for more papers.  I left with a very high opinion of Scandinavian scholarship, and with considerable gratitude to our hosts for their warmth and hospitality.

Islamic Law and Sex/uality Workshop, Thursday 22nd June 2017

European-based scholars met in Exeter for a one day workshop on Sex and Sexuality in Islamic law.  Contributions came from a variety of disciplinary backgrounds, ranging from the social sciences to Islamic Studies, and addressed a number of Muslim-majority regions, including South and South East Asia and the Middle East.  The organising theme of the conference was the ‘uses of the past’; specifically, how modern Muslims imagine, construct and invoke their juristic and other heritages and put these to work in the context of their present discussions, with reference to sex and sexuality.  The participants spoke of continuities and discontinuities from the historical past in terms of categories, terminology and substantive arguments and explored such issues as homosexuality, plural marriage, masturbation, transsexualism and queer activism, with an eye to the emergence of these categories and/or the realities confronting actors on the ground.

Reflecting on the individual papers presented, I was fascinated by the competing typologies created by jurists (especially in cases where Sunni and Shi`i jurists developed their own categories or employed the same terms differently, e.g. the mamsūḥ), and also by the notion of a third nature/sex in Shi`i law, which sounds deceptively modern.  I wonder what discursive space this opens up for transsexuality in the Iranian context.  I was very intrigued by the demonstration of modern jurists’ selective appeal to the past, and how tradition is often invoked to conceal intellectual discontinuities; I am curious as to whether and to what extent those involved are aware they are doing so.  It was fascinating to see how subtle differences of terminology and categorisation can reflect and/or mask profound differences of opinion; the papers presented showed that it certainly pays to read texts carefully.  It was refreshing to hear from women involved in polygamous marriages; I can imagine this must have involved all kinds of difficulties for fieldwork.  I also wonder how and to what extent Massad’s characterisation of the Arab East’s internalisation of ‘Western’ attitudes to homosexuality (as well as the category itself)  would map onto South Asia.  Finally, it is always interesting to see how minority groups balance and prioritise their different struggles and how these fit into a nationalist context.

Overall, the workshop was a great success and I learned much from the participants.  It was my pleasure to be involved in its organising.

Leiden Dec 2016

It was my first time visiting the city, having previously only read of the Dutch ‘Golden Age’ and the entanglements of Dutch with British history, as well as the storied rise of their maritime empire.  I was pleased to see that traces of these fascinating histories still marked the city.  This of course made it an entirely appropriate host for the Ocean of Law conference.  There were also many relics, monumental and otherwise, of the war of liberation, fought against the Spanish in the early eighteenth century.  I was also fortunate to meet Dr Ahab Bdaiwi while roaming the streets; he told me it is a small place and, as such, serendipitous encounters are not uncommon.  The first things I noticed emerging from the train station and after exploring a little were the profusion of döner shops and the number of bicycles; I had to keep my wits about me to avoid being knocked down!  There was also an ingenious system of floor-level bins for disposing of cigarette stubs, though the technology that permits ticket machines to accept bank notes does not seem to have reached the country yet.

This was my first face-to-face meeting with project colleagues and I was pleased to find them as friendly, learned and engaging in person as they had been online.  We discussed business relating to the project, partly logistics, such as the timing of future workshops (in Rabat and Göttingen), and also material we had been working on individually.  I was fascinated by Eirik’s project on the Zaydīs, a group I only knew of from the heresiographical literature; it was interesting to know that fairly arcane debates in these sources about the nature of community leadership are still vital issues.  The conference, sessions of which I attended, were also highly interesting.  I learned about the adoption of the Mecelle in South East Asia (specifically the Sultanate of Johor), the politics and optics of which appropriation were the subject of the keynote address by Dr Iza Hussin.  I asked her about the Mecelle’s Ottoman context, given that recent scholarship has demonstrated its high degree of indebtedness to post-classical Ḥanafī doctrine.  There were too many excellent papers to recount, and many I was unfortunately unable to attend owing to project commitments and my limited time in the country, but a paper on telegraphy and Islamic law was particularly memorable.  South Asian jurists, contra to the Arab modernists I had a better knowledge of, were generally critical of the dependence on the telegraph to announce the start of Ramaḍān.  This was partly because the means of transmission were uncertain, given that ownership of the major lines was in the hands of companies owned by non-Muslims, who lack legal probity (`adālah).  I suspected these jurists had discussed the analogous case of kitāb al-qāḍī ila al- qāḍī (judges writing to each other, especially to transmit sensitive information of probative value), which the presenter was able to confirm to me.  It was also a pleasure to discuss these and related questions with two friends I met for the first time: Drs R. Michael Feener and Hassan Khalilieh.  The latter kindly sent me some of his writings on maritime law and slavery, which are highly germane to my USPPIP research.  I hope our paths will cross again.

Overall, our time in Leiden was productive, and I learned a great deal.  I enjoyed my time in the city, brief though it was, and hope to return in the near future.