Powers' three volumes look inside Islamic legal thought

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John Carberry
David Powers

At a conference on Islamic law in 1990, David Powers realized the field had no academic journal, so in 1994 he founded Islamic Law and Society to fill the void. Twenty years later, he is still the editor.

His work with the journal has resulted in an edited series of reference books on Islamic law that provide important information “at your fingertips” that was previously unavailable. “There’s nothing like it in English or in Arabic,” says Powers, professor of Islamic history and law in the Department of Near Eastern Studies.

The series illustrates the massive amount of legal doctrine and different ways of articulating the law that have accumulated over the last 1,400 years. The first two volumes in the series are “Islamic Legal Interpretation: Muftis and Their Fatwas” (Harvard University Press, 1996), co-edited by Powers, and “Dispensing Justice in Muslim Courts: Qadis and their Courts” (E.J. Brill, 2006), also co-edited by Powers.

The third and final volume in the series Powers co-edited, “Islamic Legal Thought: A Compendium of Muslim Jurists” (E.J. Brill, 2013) examines Islamic law from the perspective of 23 Muslim jurists who represent the formative, classical and modern periods of Islamic legal thought. Biographies of the jurists emphasize the scholarly milieu in which they worked, while translated samples of their scholarship highlight the contribution of each jurist to the evolution of methodology in Islamic jurisprudence.

Together, the three volumes show how Islamic law worked in practice. “Islamic law is very Talmudic,” says Powers. “It’s all about debate and argumentation. The goal of this series is to highlight its richness and diversity. As the Prophet Muhammad is reported to have said, ‘Difference of agreement among members of my community is a blessing from God.’”

In fact, much of Islamic law has little to do with religion, strictly speaking, Powers points out. As an adjunct professor at the Cornell Law School, he teaches a seminar on Islamic law each year in which students read fatwas or expert legal opinions from the 14th century on topics such as paternity, property disputes and inheritance; when the cultural identifiers in the texts are ignored, students find that the legal issues and modes of thinking are strikingly similar to those in Western law.

Linda B. Glaser is staff writer for the College of Arts and Sciences

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