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.