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Understanding Sharī`a- Past Perfect, Imperfect Present

Much modern Muslim thought, particularly around legal issues, is characterised by an emulation of past perfection, and a dissatisfaction with an imperfect present. Muslim communities and movements (be they radical and violent or liberal and progressive) usually frame their programmes for change as attempts to preserve, revive and recapture the belief and practice of the past Muslim community. From terrorism which claims to be Islamic (most recently the emergence of Islamic State and the Charlie Hebdo attacks) to the European Sharī`a law debates, the need for a greater understanding of the pivotal role of historical precedent in the construction of contemporary Muslim thinking is clear. It is this need the Understanding Sharī`a Project aims to address.

The participants, all internationally recognised experts in the study of Islamic law, will create a research base and draw on an international networks of expertise. They will also engage in activities whereby this knowledge can be disseminated to a wider, non-academic audience (including both those within and outside of the Muslim community). Understanding the importance of the perceptions of the past, and the authority drawn from precedent for current Muslim thought and practice is too often misunderstood within the academic community (viewing it sometimes as ‘blind imitation’ of the past), but more crucially amongst policy makers and the general public. This project aims to make a contribution to raising the level of public debate around these issues by emphasising the creative and future-orientation of modern Muslim understandings of the past.

The project is a collaboration of four institutions: the Universities of Exeter, Leiden, Göttingen and Bergen, and in each institution an established academic (Gleave, Buskens, Schneider and Vikør) works with a postdoctoral researcher; they meet for both academic and public events every six months (with each institution hosting at least one event), involving both academics and practitioners.  Project members at each institution will explore one theme of Islamic law in the modern period; Exeter will focus on violence, Leiden on custom, Göttingen on gender and Bergen on the state.  Particular attention will be paid to the uses of the past; the ways in which the Islamic legal tradition is invoked, contested and appealed to in modern argument, how it is presented and whether patterns are discernible in its deployment and whether these patterns shift over time.

The US-PPIP Project is supported by a HERA grant.