Academic journal article The Journal of the American Oriental Society

Competitive Hagiography in Biographies of Al-Awza'i and Sufyan Al-Thawri

Academic journal article The Journal of the American Oriental Society

Competitive Hagiography in Biographies of Al-Awza'i and Sufyan Al-Thawri

Article excerpt

THE EARLY DEVELOPMENT of Islamic law involved both the elaboration of increasingly complex systems for deriving positive law from Islamic sources (whose validity and relationship to each other were still by no means settled) and the process of defining boundaries between the emerging Islamic legal madhhabs. Modern discussions of the origins of Islamic law and the advent of madhhabs typically follow Joseph Schacht's basic chronology, according to which legal decisions were initially made on case by case bases relying upon past precedents. This approach eventually led to regional variations of a "living tradition," which ultimately transformed into eponymous madhhabs, some of which survive today. While the influence of particular sources on early Islamic law and the timing of events have been the focus of vigorous debate, most scholars accept in some form the basic progression from living tradition to regional school to eponymous madhhab. (1)

The emergence of eponymous madhhabs marked a pivotal change in the way approaches to Islamic law were labeled and discussed. Once particular methods for deriving Islamic law were attached to the individual "founders" of madhhabs, legal discourse could no longer be limited to debates about methods, but instead required the defense and criticism of the long-departed legal titans for whom the madhhabs were named. An examination of medieval Arabic biographical literature illustrates the melange of praise, insult, and legal reasoning this transition produced. The increasing focus on the madhhabs' legendary founders induced students

of prominent jurists to claim particular views for their shaykhs while rejecting the validity of rival shaykhs' similar conclusions. Competition also led later generations of scholars to insist on comparing and ranking their predecessors according to every conceivable criterion. As a consequence of fervent rivalry between madhhabs, biographies of a school's eponym provide evidence of th e scholar's exemplary personal qualities, justifications for his interactions with political authorities, and numerous testimonials from later authorities asserting his superiority to the founders of rival madhhabs, in addition to sometimes disappointingly cryptic descriptions of his jurisprudence.

Competition, along with the nature of the opponent, also affected the degree to which biographers focused on any particular aspect of the eponym's greatness. Biographers seeking to distinguish between rivals who held fundamentally different views about central issues of jurisprudence could do so without deviating far from fiqh. For instance, students of Malik b. Anas could contrast their madhhab to Abu Hanifa's by demeaning the latter's acceptance of personal reasoning ([ra.sup.[contains]]y), which Malik rejected in favor of the sunna of the Hijaz. Abu Hanifa's students could respond in similar fashion, lauding the virtues of reason and questioning the primacy of the Hijaz. In such an exchange, the focus remained on jurisprudence and the boundary between the two madhhabs was drawn primarily on methodological grounds.

When scholars' approaches to jurisprudence did not differ substantially, the bases for comparison necessarily shifted away from fiqh. Instead, students of scholars with similar views had to compare their shaykhs' exemplary personal qualities to their rivals' deficiencies of piety or character. Biographies of legal scholars are filled with anecdotes emphasizing the subject's personal virtues. Aside from their obvious hagiographic function, stories of the shaykh's merits were also used to distinguish him from his rivals. Consequently, in some cases the subtle differences in legal reasoning that may (or may not) have separated eponyms are obscured by the biographical dialogue about the relative personal qualities of the rival madhhabs' founders.

The biographies of [Abd.sup.[subset]] al-Rahman b. …

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