Youcef L. SoufiOct 27, 2023
The Rise of Critical Islam
10th-13th Century Legal Debate
Oxford University Press 2023
Youcef Soufi's book The Rise of Critical Islam: 10th-13th Century Legal Debate (Oxford University Press, 2023) is a fascinating and engaging exploration of the history of critique in Islamic legal and intellectual history. It does this specifically through a case study of dispensations and disputations, known as munāẓarāt in Arabic. Dispensations were a practice of debates that were an important feature of a jurist's practice and an opportunity for him to showcase his juristic skills – for instance, they were sometimes tasked with having to defend a position that they disagreed with or that contradicted the opinion of the school they followed and represented. Ultimately, these dispensations serve as an excellent case study of the tremendous diversity of thought and the celebration of difference of opinion in Islamic history and Islamic law; they also show that for Muslim jurists, engaging in these debate was an act of piety, as a part of their personal and intellectual quest to discover God's law.
In our conversation, we discuss the origins of the book, some of its main points and arguments, a detailed description of these dispensations (such as who participated in them, who was excluded from them, how the debate topic was chosen), the shifts and developments they undergo with time, and the role of ijtihad (or independent reasoning or re-interpretations of Islamic law) and taqlid (or sticking to the past scholarly positions) in these debates. We also discuss specific themes such as child or forced marriage, women’s right to divorce, which are perceived to have been settled matters but it turns out, not quite! And finally, Soufi explains why and how these disputations came to an end and what jurists participating in them may have imagined the role of later generations to be in the process of Islamic law-making.
Shehnaz Haqqani is an Assistant Professor of Religion at Mercer University. She earned her PhD in Islamic Studies with a focus on gender from the University of Texas at Austin in 2018. Her dissertation research explored questions of change and tradition, specifically in the context of gender and sexuality, in Islam. She can be reached at email@example.com.