Interpreting Islamic law today

On Tuesday, Oct. 11, Anver Emon, Professor and Canada Research Chair in Religion, Pluralism and the Rule of Law at the University of Toronto Law School, came to St. Olaf to give a lecture on Islamic natural law. The presentation was brought about in cooperation with Carleton College, with the support of a Broadening the Bridge grant for Middle Eastern studies.

Professor Emon’s lecture at St. Olaf came after he delivered a speech at Carleton titled “Islamic Law at the Borders: Thinking Jurisdiction at the Intersection of Sharia and International Child Abduction.” Carleton students and the Carleton director of Middle Eastern Studies Professor Noah Salomon were also present at the St. Olaf lecture.

After Emon got his start in academia as a medieval historian, he became interested in Islamic studies and law. The study of present day Islamic natural law was an extension of his study of historic Islamic law.

The medieval historian turned law and Middle Eastern studies scholar peppered his talk with humor, saying that he was “going medieval today,” referring to the whiteboard on which he had outlined his talk. The presentation was split into three parts: history, theory and discontent.

Starting the discussion with background, Emon explained that in Islamic law there are “Lacuna,” or gaps, in law that need to be filled.

“You need reform, and God has said not only that ‘I am the legislator,’ but also that, ‘I am not talking to you anymore, you figure it out,’” Emon said. This is where interpretation comes into play. Law cannot be cemented in time, and new challenges arise as the world changes.

“The Qur’an creates a variety of stipulations against the consumption of alcohol. So today could I use those same stipulations to prohibit the consumption of heroin?” He said the answer is yes; in Islamic law, heroin would be forbidden for the same reasons that alcohol is forbidden. In the struggle to understand and find meaning, “ijtihad,” one can use “qiyas,” which is rule by analogy. There is a precedent, in this case the consumption of alcohol, and a new case, the consumption of heroin. They are related by their intoxicating effects, and heroin can thus be prohibited.

Reinterpreting Islamic law has proved contentious. Religious, or in this case natural, law is something that is not taken lightly, as “we have a God that we don’t want to piss off,” Emon said.

“I don’t read reviews of my work anymore, my friends read them for me,” Emon said after his speech. Most of the criticism comes from other scholars of Islam, with a common complaint being that Emon misinterprets the Arabic.

Students also had the opportunity to eat breakfast with Emon at St. Olaf.

“He was very welcoming and he answered all of our questions,” Hoda Al-Haddad ’18 said. “Professor Emon provided me with a new perspective on how to use law and Middle Eastern studies together. I learned a lot from him.”

Professor Jamie Schillinger, director of the Middle Eastern studies program at St. Olaf, stressed the relevance of Emon’s talk.

“Natural Islamic law is a topic that is important to a lot of different groups. It is important to philosophers, legal communities and to religious communities. We are lucky to have him here.”

The Broadening the Bridge Middle Eastern studies collaboration aims to pool the financial and cultural resources of Carleton and St. Olaf to enrich the study of the Middle East at both schools. Carleton’s strengths in international relations and St. Olaf’s in inter-religious dialogue will form the basis for this cooperation. More events, including more outside lecturers, will be held throughout the academic year.

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