Sunday, November 2, 2014

Thou Shalt Emulate the Most Knowledgeable Living Cleric: Redefinition of Islamic Law and Authority in Usuli Shi‘ism


Zackery M. Heern. “Thou Shalt Emulate the Most Knowledgeable Living Cleric: Redefinition of Islamic Law and Authority in Usuli Shi‘ism,” Journal of Shi‘a Islamic Studies. Vol. VII, No. 3, Summer 2014, pp. 323-346.

Islamic law, Islamic authority, Usuli Shi‘ism, Murtada Ansari, usul al-fiqh, marja‘ al-taqlid


To ensure that the actions of Shi‘is are in conformity with God’s will, Usuli scholars argued that all Shi‘is must emulate (taqlid) the rulings of the most knowledgeable (a‘lam) living mujtahid, who is the exemplar, or ‘source of emulation’ (marja‘ al-taqlid) for the Shi‘i community. Marja‘iyyah is the concept that a living mujtahid has leadership over the Shi‘i community. As Linda Walbridge puts it, the marja‘ is ‘the representative of the “general deputyship” of the Imam’ and ‘enjoys the dual role of chief legal expert and spiritual model for all Shi‘a.’ Although theories of marja‘iyyah have their roots in the pre-modern period, it is only since the nineteenth century that the concept has achieved traction among a sizable portion of the Shi‘i community in practice. In the contemporary Shi‘i world, marja‘s have become pope-like figures, who should theoretically be emulated (taqlid) by the Shi‘i community in matters related to the all-encompassing system of Islamic law.

The theoretical underpinnings for the Shi‘i concepts of jurisprudence (usul al-fiqti) and marja‘ al-taqlid were redefined by Shaykh Murtada ibn Muhammad Amin Ansari (1799-1864), who was one of the most influential Muslim scholars of the nineteenth century. Ansari systematically overhauled much of the socio-legal framework of modern Usuli Shi‘ism. Ansari’s supporters have referred to him as the ‘seal of the mujtahids’ as well as the ‘the Imam’s Chosen One and the Caliph in truth over all men in all judgments concerning what is permitted or forbidden, the Exemplar of both the experts and laymen.’ In his monumental work, The Mantle of the Prophet, Roy Mottahedeh rightly argues that ‘leadership in Shiah learning... found its highest expression in Sheikh Mortaza Ansari,’ and ‘more than that of any mullah leader of the past two centuries, his leadership celebrated his learning.’ Indeed, Ansari reached a pinnacle of both Shi‘i scholarship and leadership, achieving an unprecedented status in Shi‘i history as the widely recognized sole supreme exemplar (marja‘ al-taqlid al-mutlaq) of the global Shi‘i community.

In addition to redefining central theories of Shi‘i law and authority, Ansari modeled his new approach to Shi‘ism during his lifetime. Scholars debate whether Ansari was the first or second supreme marja‘ al-taqlid in Shi‘i history Regardless of who deserves the title of first marja‘, the concept of marja‘ al-taqlid did not exist in practice prior to the nineteenth century, even though the theory had been developed prior to this time. However, largely as a result of Ansari’s efforts, the marja‘ became a fixture of Shi‘i authority in the twentieth century. Ansari’s acceptance as leader of the Shi‘i community also greatly contributed to the establishment of Najaf as the dominant international centre of Shi‘i learning and authority until the mid-twentieth century when Qum emerged as a leading Shi‘i centre.

Abbas Amanat questions whether the notion of ‘marja'-i taqlid kull (supreme source of emulation)’ existed during Ansari’s time given that ‘the first explicit reference to Ansari’s supreme authority’ only appears in the twentieth century. Whether or not Ansari’s contemporaries viewed him as such, no other scholar has come to exemplify the office of marja‘ al-taqlid more than Ansari. He became the prototype and the icon on which the institution was built. Marja‘iyyah continues to be a defining feature of contemporary Shi‘i societies, even if no single marja‘ has obtained the same widespread support that Ansari once enjoyed.

The remainder of this paper argues that Ansari’s redefinition of key concepts related to Islamic legal theory and clerical authority increased the power of Shi‘i mujtahids. Ansari’s work was instrumental in establishing Usuli clerics as intermediaries between lay members of the Shi‘i community and traditional sources of Shi‘i authority. Ansari systematized the process of issuing and disseminating legal judgments. His conception of marja‘ al-taqlid required lay Shi‘is to emulate the judgments of the most knowledgeable living jurist. In fact, Ansari argued that following a mujtahid is legally binding in Islam...

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Book Review of The Odyssey of Ibn Battuta

Book Review
David Waines, The Odyssey of Ibn Batutta: Uncommon Tales of a Medieval Adventurer
By Zackery M. Heern
Published in Al-Masaq: Islam and the Medieval Mediterranean, Volume 25, Issue 2, August 2013, pages 265-267

David Waines’s The Odyssey of Ibn Battuta is a palatable monograph on the legendary Moroccan Muslim traveler. Ibn Battuta’s travelogue, al-Rihla, has long been used as a source of information on Eurasia and Africa in the Middle Ages. Sex, culinary delights, miracles, and radical others are among the many themes of Waines’s book. Like Ibn Battuta’s travelogue, The Odyssey explores the sacred and the profane in equal measure.

In the opening chapter, Waines seeks to contextualize Ibn Battuta and his famous travelogue, which is the only book attributed to Ibn Battuta. Waines uses the English translation of al-Rihla by Gibb and Beckingham as his primary source of research for The Odyssey. After Waines makes the inevitable comparison between Ibn Battuta and Marco Polo, he attempts to defend the very authenticity of Ibn Battuta’s travelogue. Waines concedes that portions of al-Rihla are plagiarized and that the chronology of Ibn Battuta’s travels laid out in the text is “impossible.” Waines argues that even though Ibn Battuta copied portions of his travelogue (most notably from Ibn Jubayr), he still adds a fourteenth century eyewitness account on top of the accounts of previous authors.

As Waines periodically indicates throughout The Odyssey, Ibn Battuta’s al-Rihla generally conforms to the historical realities of the Middle Ages. Therefore, the question that scholars are grappling with is whether Ibn Battuta actually visited the places he discusses in his book or if his account is the product of his own research. Ultimately, Waines suggests that critics of Ibn Battuta, including Gibb, provide misleading conclusions. Waines argues that plagiarism among medieval writers was widespread, even if frustrating for the modern scholar. Although the plagiarism question consumes most of the first chapter, it is not the main thrust of Waines’s book. Waines is more interested in opening up the world of Ibn Battuta to a contemporary Western audience.

The remainder of The Odyssey is divided into four chapters. Chapter two dives into the travels of Ibn Battuta. The reader makes a pilgrimage with Ibn Battuta to Mecca, sails south to Yemen, travels to Anatolia, and heads east to India and China before returning to Ibn Battuta’s homeland of Morocco. Along the way, Ibn Battuta hears church bells ring for the first time, purchases two Greek slave girls, joins a military expedition, and receives a large cash gift from a Turkish sultan. Throughout this chapter and the remainder of the book, Waines is a good tour guide, providing historical or cultural context when necessary.

The themes of chapter three are food and hospitality. In fact, much of the discussion on hospitality focuses on food as well. Having written extensively on medieval Islamic culture since the 1970s, Waines is in his element when discussing food. In fact, Waines’s contribution to Ibn Battuta studies may well be his elaboration on food culture. Throughout the chapter, he gives detailed descriptions, even recipes of dishes that Ibn Battuta mentions. Further, Waines points out Islamic food laws when applicable to the stories he relates.

In my view, chapters four and five are the highlights of The Odyssey. Chapter four fulfills the promise indicated by the subtitle of the book. The reader is treated to fantastic tales featuring great religious and political figures. Waines does not disappoint in his retelling of Ibn Battuta’s experiences with fire dancing, snake biting, fortune telling, levitation, and other miracles. As Waines points out, Ibn Battuta’s travels can seem like “a medieval globetrotter’s guide to the cemeteries of the Muslim world” (p. 135). Waines argues that Ibn Battuta’s goal in visiting tombs of saints and other holy sites was to receive religious blessings and witness miracles (p. 121).

The theme of the fifth and final chapter is the “other,” for which Waines relies heavily on the work of Remke Kruk and Roxanne Euben. The first half of the chapter discusses Ibn Battuta’s treatment of women. Waines describes Ibn Battuta as “more of a serial monogamist than polygamist, except for his…sojourn to the Maldive Islands” (p. 158). In what follows, Waines describes a pattern in which Ibn Battuta would contract marriages during his stay in a given place and divorce his wives once he decided to travel to his next destination. Waines illustrates how Ibn Battuta reveled in the fact that marriage in the Maldives “is really a sort of temporary marriage,” (p. 163). However, as a judge on there, he tried to force women to wear Islamic dress, but to no avail. Additionally, Ibn Battuta chastised the immoral behavior of buying Greek slave girls for prostitution, but continuously purchased slave girls throughout his travels when he could afford it. Waines also points out that Ibn Battuta was scandalized by the fact that he came across matrilineal societies in sub-Saharan Africa, where women and men had platonic relationships.

In the second half of the fourth chapter, Waines discusses Ibn Battuta’s relationship with religious and racial ‘others.’ Waines illustrates a number of encounters between Ibn Battuta and practitioners of Islamic legal schools other than his own Maliki school. Waines includes an entire section on Ibn Battuta’s interaction with Shi‘i Muslims. Following the practice of Ibn Battuta, Waines uses the derogatory terms dissidents and Rafidis (lit. rejectionists) to describe Shi‘is. In all, Waines suggests that although Ibn Battuta detested the “extreme Rafidis,” he admired their piety and hospitality.

The Odyssey is a must read for Ibn Battuta enthusiasts, especially those who happen to be foodies and enjoy fantastical stories. The discerning reader is left wondering, though, whether the tales presented by Waines are a veritable portal to the medieval world or simply Ibn Battuta’s imagination of it. Either way, Waines has written a fascinating study of one of history’s most renowned world travelers.