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.

“Gender and Sharīʿah in Muslim Legal Theory and Practice” Conference, Göttingen University, 12-14 October 2017

The Conference, organized by Prof. Dr. Irene Schneider and Dr. Nijmi Edres (Seminar für Arabistik, Göttingen University), is the second conference of the Project “Understanding Sharia: Past Perfect/Imperfect Present” (US-PPIP) and took place in collaboration with the other partners of the US-PPIP project: the Universities of Exeter, Leiden and Bergen.

US-PPIP’s research in Göttingen aims at arguing the existing research and examining how courts and legal practitioners, as well as legal theorists, use past notions of gender relations and supposedly “ideal” roles to make judgements, give legal decisions and develop “authentic” Islamic role models.

Being part of this broad project the conference aimed at investigating two main issues: how Muslim judges and scholars use legal tradition to assess modern gender roles and deal with women’s rights? How are gender roles in the Prophet’s time related to the requirements of a society of the 21st century?

During first two days, special reference has been made to Palestinian cases, being the research of Prof. Dr. Irene Schneider and Dr. Nijmi Edres focused on the Muslim Palestinian communities living inside the Israeli borders and the West Bank. On Saturday the perspective got broader, touching different locales, from Jordan to the Indian Ocean.

The Conference was opened on Thursday 12th of October with a public lecture held by Prof. Joseph Massad, invited as keynote speaker. Dr. Joseph Massad, Professor of Modern Arab Politics and Intellectual History at the Department of Middle Eastern, South Asian and African Studies (MESAAS) of Columbia University-New York, addressed the broad topic of “Traditionalizing Modernity”. In his speech Prof. Massad presented the various historical transformations of Shari’a into a modern European-style code as emerged in several locales, from colonial India and Algeria to the Ottoman Empire, acknowledging the entangled connections between the historical transformation of Muslim law and the European colonial project in Asia and Africa. The speech offered a wide framework useful to introduce and contextualize the core issues addressed by the conference and, thanks to highly critical insights, opened up the debate about the notions of “gender” and “egalitarianism” and the possibilities of radical reformulations and juridical change in gender relations in both Europe and the Arab world.

On Friday 13th the first panel focused on the direct experience of two practitioners: qadi Iyad Zahalka (Shari’a Court of Jerusalem, Israeli Shari’a Court of Appeal) and qadi Somoud al-Damiri (Supreme Judge Department, Palestine). In his speech Zahalka addressed the notion of “egalitarianism” presenting his perspective as a Muslim judge working in the Shari’a Courts in Israel. From the other side of the green Line, the paper sent by qadi Somoud al-Damiri (read by Prof. Irene Schneider) provided an overview of the different juridical systems overlapping in the West Bank and the Gaza strip. Moreover, it offered an interesting point of view on the work of female judges in the West Bank and their commitments to gender equality, presenting a review of legal texts on personal status issues, judicial implementation and observations for further improvement of women’s rights.

The debate on Palestinian female judges and their position in the West bank has been developed also by legal anthropologist Laila Abed Rabho (Truman Research Institute, Hebrew University of Jerusalem), who further discussed “the appointment of female Qadis (judges) in the Sharia court, Palestine as a case study”. From the same anthropological perspective, the paper of Ido Shahar (Haifa University) dealt with “the socio-legal consequences of the dissolution of mixed marriages” presenting two interesting cases from Israel.

On Friday afternoon, the lawyer perspective was presented by Moussa Abou Ramadan (DRES; Strasbourg University) and Mutaz Qafisheh (Hebron University). In his talk, Mutaz Qafisheh introduced the legislative process that in West Bank and the Gaza Strip lead to reform Palestinian family law in light of the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), without reservations. The highly critical paper underlined, despite political will to ensure gender equality and legislative enactment line with international standards, the difficulties towards a real change of practices and the necessity of a comprehensive reform process involving socio-economical, educational and cultural transformations of the Palestinian society. Similar in its provoking slant, the paper of Moussa Abou Ramadan addressed the dual legal system of religious and civil law in Israel underlying distortions in the implementation of rights and duties of husbands and wives, focusing on child support allotted to Muslim children in family courts in Israel. Children rights were at the core of the paper of Nijmi Edres (Göttingen University) as well. Her talk focused on “the conceptualization of the ‘interest of the child’ through the use of the classical concept of ‘haqq Allah’” by Palestinian judges with Israeli citizenship and highlighted the complexities and the implications of such a conceptualization in the Israeli context. The same focus on the use of legal tradition in contemporary times was shared by Irene Schneider (Göttingen University), whose paper addressed “Uses of the Past in the Textbook for the Course of Personal Status Law at Birzeit University/West Bank (Winter Semester 2013/14)”.

On Saturday morning, the conference works were opened by Yitzhak Reiter (Ashkelon Academic College), who compared two case studies of Women Activism at Jerusalem Holy Places, Murabitat al-Aqsa and the Women of the Wall, considering how they creatively represent themselves in relation to their struggles and their different religious values. The attention of the participants turned then to Jordan, thanks to Doerthe Engelcke (Max Plank Institute for Comparative and International Private Law), who addressed “the Legal Practice of the Greek Orthodox Court in Amman: between Legal Borrowing and Clerical Authoritarianism”, giving the participants the possibility to compare the attitudes of Muslim judges in Israel and the West Bank to those of the Orthodox colleagues in the neighboring country. The last three speeches of the conference were addressed by members of the USPPIP project, Omar Anchassi, Robert Gleave and Mahmood Khooria, who focused on the relations between gender and Islamic law considering the use of Muslim legal tradition and the attitudes of Muslim judges towards three different issues. The paper of Omar Anchassi (Exeter University) analyzed “Juristic Attitudes to female Literacy from the Formative to Modern Periods”, exploring the elements used by Muslim jurists to discourage female literacy on various grounds. Differently, the paper of Robert Gleave (Exeter University) explored ritual restrictions on women during menstruation through the examination of a particular set of hadith found in Shi’i collections. Finally, Mahmood Kooria (Leiden University) analyzed jihad discourses of the late-nineteenth and early twentieth century against matrilineal customs.

The conference works were closed with a wrap up by Monika Lindbekk (University of Oslo), who underlined the recurrence of four core topics in the talks addressed by the speakers: uses of the past in legal discourse and practice; gender implications of uses of an “Islamic past”; gender and judicial authority (with special reference to the experience of female judges); theory and practice in relation to the wider social formation.

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.

Postdoctural Sandpit 1st – 2nd June 2017, Leiden

On June 1, we the postdoctoral fellows of USPPIP project gathered in Leiden to discuss our works in progress. It was wonderful to welcome all my colleagues here in Leiden and to spend more time with them discussing our progress and our careers. When they were here last time in December 2016, I was unfortunately occupied with the Ocean of Law conference that I was co-organising.

We had plenty of time to discuss each one’s work; everyone had circulated their papers well in advance.  We started with Eirik Hovden’s paper on the theological and cosmological conceptions of the Muṭarrifiyya, a sub-branch of Zaydīsm in Yemen in about 1200 CE. I learnt a lot from the paper not only on this particular sect and their distinctive doctrines, but also on the general aspects of Zaydī political and social histories in Yemen. Then everyone discussed my paper on the uses and abuses of classical Shāfiʿī texts in the contemporary Muslim world. I got many comments and suggestions, especially on how to develop this paper into two different articles.

Next we discussed the paper of Nijmi Edres on conceptual changes in matters of child custody from classical Islamic law to the contemporary Sharia courts in Israel. Her major focus was on the writings of the Muslim jurist Zahalka and the ways in which he had elaborated on custody. We discussed next Omar Anchassi’s paper on the free/slave binary in juridical writings on sexual desire with regard to looking, touching and intercourse. The topic and the discussion were quite interesting especially to see how social status played a role in the conclusions of several Muslim jurists.

After the lunch break, we discussed how four of us can collaborate to produce an edited volume or a special issue of a journal. We explored several common themes, such authority/validity, identity and argumentation, but we concluded that we will continue this discussion in Göttingen, after all of us write a short note on a potential common theme.

In the evening, we walked through Leiden visiting historical monuments and enjoying a bright summer day. Next day morning we did a walking-tour through “the Islamic Leiden”. We started from the M. Vrieshof Building with a visit to the library of the Netherlands Institute for the Near East (NINO), particularly checking out its collection of Emile Ruete (Sayyida Salme), the East African princess. We went around the city looking for different remnants of Leiden’s long historical contacts with the Muslim world through texts, trade, languages and savants.  

The whole event was a highly refreshing and energising experience. Without the inhibitions of a formal setting or time constraints, we all could discuss our work thoroughly. Most importantly, we all got more time to talk to each other and to relax ourselves. I sincerely hope that this sandpit happens again quite soon.  

Travel to Palestine April 28 – May 8 2017

The purpose of my trip was to prepare the Conference “Gender and Sharīʿah in Muslim Legal Theory and Practice: the case of Israel and Palestine” , October 12-14 2017 in Göttingen and to deliver the invitation to high ranking persons personally to, for example,  the Head of Personal Status Prosecutor’s Office Sumoud al-Damiri. She is one of the few female Sharia judges in the West Bank. The current and the former Qāḍī al-Quḍāt were invited too, as well as Prof. Ali Sartawi from Nablus University. He had been part of the committee drafting a new Palestinian Family Law which should in future replace the 1976 Jordanian Personal Status Law which is applied at the moment in the West Bank. Furthermore, contact was established to the colleagues of the Law and Sharia faculties of al-Quds University /East Jerusalem. The University of Göttingen currently prepares a “Memorandum of Understanding” with this university and contacts are made with colleagues from different faculties, especially the law and the Sharia faculty. At Hebron University Prof. Mutaz M. Qafisheh, Dean of the College of Law and Political Science, was very interested in the project as was Prof. Loai Ghazwan from the Sharia faculty. Prof. Ghazwan will be invited to take part in the conference also.

In addition, some preparations were made for a longer field research which hopefully will take place in winter 2017/18 or in spring 2018 at the latest and which will be the last necessary research before finalizing the monograph “Gender and law in Palestine” which will be published as an outcome of the HERA –project “Uses of the past” by Prof. Dr. Irene Schneider.

First USPPIP Project Workshop – Rabat, Feb. 2017

I was asked to share in writing some personal remarks of how I as a team member experienced the project workshop held recently in Rabat. The following are some short reflections.

First: Why Rabat? Each of the four project teams is scheduled to organize and host one project workshop during the two-year project period. The first team out was the Dutch one, led by prof. Leon Buskens (Leiden University). We had originally expected to be invited to Leiden, but prof. Buskens also happens to lead the Dutch research institute in Rabat called NIMAR, and the workshop was early on decided to be held there rather than in Leiden. Personally for me, that was great, not having been to Rabat before.

The workshop’s main focus was “custom” and how custom is referred to in order to legitimate both continuities and changes in Islamic law. Several of the presentations were held by Moroccan specialists (and practitioners, like judges) in Moroccan family law and issues related to women’s ownership of common land, two fields where much has changed the last couple of decades in Moroccan law and legal discourse. We therefore got a deep empirical backdrop for the more methodological and theoretical discussions on how “the past” and hereunder custom, is used in contemporary Islamic legal discourses and the many ways custom can be incorporated into both Islamic law and national state law, and a mix thereof.

The workshop not only focused on custom, it was also a project workshop for the internal project members where each of us held a presentation. Since we are still in the beginning, this was also a good time to discuss the details of the outline of our research plans, including the main issues related to theory and methods. While everyone in the project subscribes to belonging to the broad category of  “Islamic studies” and “Islamic legal studies” more specifically, many of us do have different disciplinary backgrounds. To simply have time to talk about the different backgrounds, perspectives and interests and how it can constructively fit together was highly valuable.

Actually, for me as a project post-doc, who does not have as good an overview over the field as the professors, to simply have plenty of time in breaks, meals, walks to and from the venues was very important, also in order to hear more about the background of the ideas behind the project. In the project we do have monthly meetings via internet, but the informal and spontaneous meetings we had in Rabat, in smaller groups, or even one-to-one, was useful for me.

After the two day workshop most of us had a full day to see the city of Rabat and its once neighbour-city, Sale. Browsing through several of the city’s bookshops was of course high up on the to-do-list. Having several Morocco-experts in the group made the “self-guided tour” fascinating to take part in.

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.