The Formation of Islamic Hermeneutics

This monograph started out as my dissertation at Emory University, but doubled in size and was revised several times before it was finally published. It reconstructs the history of the 8th- to 11th-century development of the linguistic and hermeneutical aspects of Sunni legal theory (uṣūl al-fiqh).

The Formation of Islamic Hermeneutics: How Sunni Legal Theorists Imagined a Revealed Law. American Oriental Series, ed. Stephanie W. Jamison, no. 93. New Haven, Connecticut: American Oriental Society, 2011.

You can order a copy here from ISD, or from any number of online booksellers. Many thanks to the American Oriental Society for keeping the cost quite reasonable: $52.50, cloth, 344 pages, ISBN 9780940490314. The American Oriental Series used to be distributed by Eisenbraun’s, which then became an imprint of Penn State University Press, but it is now being distributed by ISD, a distribution company in Bristol, CT, that focuses exclusively on scholarly and specialist books.

I have created a color timeline (pdf) that maps out the individuals and movements studied in the book, on a continuum from those whose hermeneutic emphasizes the clarity of language to those who emphasize its ambiguity.

7 thoughts on “The Formation of Islamic Hermeneutics”

  1. dear vishanoff, i’m researching for the comparison of usul el-fiqh between mu’tazila and hanafiyya in doctorate.

    But i couldn’t fail to reach of your book: “The Formation of Islamic Hermeneutics”. How can i find this book in Turkey?

    1. Interesting question, Kashif. I haven’t done enough detailed study of figures beyond the middle of the 11th century to extend this chart reliably, but from what I do know of Ghazali I would put him in purple a bit below center, to the right of Ibn Furak. That is because Ghazali emphasized the ambiguity of expressions like imperative verbs yet settled on a default interpretation anyway, like all the mainstream jurists. As for Ibn Taymiyya, his view of language was quite unusual (MMY Ali’s book Medieval Islamic Pragmatics has a fascinating chapter on this), yet in the end I would put him right in the middle (vertically) in light blue and to the right of Abu Ya`la, because Ibn Taymiyya seems to be not a strict literalist (which would put him at the top) but rather a kind of intuitivist who considers every utterance to have a clear meaning that is obvious in context, even though words in the dictionary have many different possible meanings or ways in which they can be used. So in the end he, like the mainstream jurists, argues that interpretation is very flexible even though meaning is obvious in context. But if you study Ghazali or Ibn Taymiyya in depth you will surely find that I am missing a lot!

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