REL 279
What is the Shari'a? Law, Power, and Ethics in Islam Spring 2020
Division II Difference, Power, and Equity

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Discussions of the Shari’a or Islamic law in American public discourse conjure images of veiled women, girls barred from attending school, and public spectacles of flogging and stoning to death. Such a caricature of Islamic law as a medieval but draconian penal code elicits public fear and state suspicion. In the West, legislative measures are taken to curb the Shari’a’s perceived threat to security, democracy, and human rights. On the other hand, Islamists seek to harness the Shari’a as an instrument of political legitimacy and authoritarian rule. Both instances reify the Shari’a in ways that erode its regional diversity, intellectual versatility, and socially embedded practices and modes of interpretation. This course offers an in-depth introduction to the Shari’a through an examination of major themes in its substantive content and historical evolution. While students will gain an integrated view of the Shari’a from its origins in 7th century Arabia to the modern era, our primary emphasis will be on the Shari’a’s tumultuous relationship with liberal democracy and the secular nation-state. Students will probe the history of the Shari’a’s present by pursuing a genealogical inquiry in two parts: (a) precolonial, and (b) postcolonial. Module (a) comprises Islamic legal theory, its scriptural sources, and the formation of schools of jurisprudence; Shari’a governance in the imperial age; and the institution of slavery. Module (b) covers colonial transformations and reforms; state-sponsored projects of restoration and codification; blasphemy and religious minorities; and gender and sexuality. Apart from learning substantive content through the course of our genealogical inquiry, students will also develop a theoretical foundation in anthropological approaches to the study of Islam as law (discursive tradition, symbolism, custom), power (sovereignty, discipline, biopolitics), and as ethics (subjectivity, self-cultivation, ordinary ethics).
The Class: Type: The class will be conducted in a seminar format. Students will submit weekly responses to the readings. For each session, two students will be assigned as leaders of the discussion who will be assisted by the instructor.
Limit: 19
Expected: 19
Class#: 4040
Grading: yes pass/fail option, yes fifth course option
Requirements/Evaluation: Weekly reading responses (300 words): 20%; Class participation: 15%; Leading class discussion: 15% 2 short essays (750 words each): 20%; Research paper (3000 words): 30%
Prerequisites: none
Enrollment Preferences: none
Distributions: Division II Difference, Power, and Equity
DPE Notes: This course exposes students to the diversity of Islamic legal interpretations on questions of gender, sexuality, and religious freedom across a variety of regions and cultures. Students gain a critical appreciation of how present-day authoritative readings of Islamic law, its punitive practices and legalized forms of gender discrimination are sanctioned by patriarchal norms, the colonial construction of Islam as a scriptural religion, and regulatory powers of the modern state.

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