March 10, 2005

Israeli Prof Talks On Islamic Law

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Prof. Nimrod Hurvitz, Middle Eastern studies, Ben-Gurion University (Israel), discussed the shift of legal communities in Islamic society from scholarly circles to legal movements Tuesday in White Hall. The lecture, “A Mass Movement in Baghdad and the Formation of Islamic Law,” was sponsored by the Department of Near Eastern Studies.

Prior to the eighth century, Hurvitz said, Islamic society was defined by small groups of legal scholars and jurists, known as halga. Students would shift from one teacher to another after several years of academic work.

“This mobility is important because even before the Middle Ages students would travel around the Middle East to Iran, North Africa and Yemen,” Hurvitz said. “People went to great lengths to meet their teachers.” There was no academic continuity, however, within these small groups, as students would not take over if their teachers died.

Between the eighth and tenth centuries, the Islamic legal scholar circle had broadened to become legal communities, known as madhhab. Emphasizing the significance of madhahib on Islamic society, Hurvitz explained that it merged legal and religious institutions. In addition, Hurvitz said, the madhhab is important for people’s social identity, as it changes social laws — a unique Islamic phenomenon. Four Islamic madhahib, the Hanbali, Hanafis, Malikis and Shafi’is, continue to exist today.

Hurvitz used the case study of the Hanbali madhhab in Baghdad to explain how the legal community had broadened. Ahmad b. Hanbal, a prominent Islamic scholar during the eighth century, refused to let his students write down his teachings. Rather than having people carry out his own legacy and establish a school of law in his name, Hanbal wanted his students to formulate their own beliefs. However, the Hanbali school of thought continued to be passed down to future generations and gained popularity with its aggressive tactics and view that it was the guardian of true Islam.

Hurvitz said law is the most important institution in Islamic society. “Law is probably the major field of intellectual activity in Islam,” he said. “Muslims have dedicated more intellectual energy to law [than to any other institution].”

Professor David Powers, Near Eastern Studies, agrees with Hurvitz’s claims. “I think his argument is right,” Powers said. “He has changed what people in the field think about [Islamic law] and his argument has been generally accepted by specialists in Islamic law.” Powers said, however, that the trend that Hurvitz witnessed among the transformation of the Islamic legal society from small scholarly circles to massive movements needs to be further explained.

“If [Hurvitz] is right, what is it about the condition in Muslim civilization that contributed to this phenomenon?” he said. “We can think of no counter examples to his argument, but we have to prove why this is the case.”

After graduating from Tel Aviv University, Hurvitz obtained his Ph.D. in 1994 from Princeton. He is currently a research fellow at Harvard Law School’s Islamic Legal Studies program.

Archived article by Olivia Oran
Sun Staff Writer