One of us remembers the moment when his children, at a young age, encountered themselves in the mirror. While infants, they had certainly seen themselves before. But the image did not register in their minds as being them. But then, one day it did, and before you knew it, they were kissing their reflections in the mirror. Most parents have some version of this story. Psychoanalysts espouse grand theories from this observed experience. As editors of the Oxford Handbook of Islamic Law, this mirroring experience inspired what we hoped the volume would achieve for the field of Islamic legal studies.
For a very long time, the field has reflected a historical positivist bent—not surprising given the positivism that is often ascribed to the practice of law, despite interpretive and critical accounts to the contrary. This bent has shielded it from the creative, interpretive sensibilities that animate much of the humanities and social sciences. Our vision for the Handbook was to create a self-reflective moment for the field. For that reason, we asked our authors to write about certain topics historiographically, namely to assess the state of the field on a given topic and explain why the scholarly disputes matter. In a sense, we asked them to answer the “so what?” question we all tend to abhor but nonetheless dutifully answer on grant applications.
It was not always easy for our authors to break the positivist mold. We noticed that doing so was easier for younger authors as opposed to more senior scholars. We hypothesized that the disparity might be a function of disciplinary developments. Recent PhDs tend to undertake more extensive literature reviews—there is simply more written on Islam now than there was thirty or forty years ago. We also hypothesized that the disparity might be a function of the publishing market—today’s increasingly discerning audience demands more interpretive, critical accounts than the late-nineteenth and twentieth century positivism of the field permitted.
Though younger scholars may have been bolder in their approach, critiquing the foundations of one’s field brings with it a certain amount of vulnerability. To support these scholars, we organized the volume starting with a series of essays questioning the very epistemologies and power structures that characterize the field as a whole. Most of the essays in the Handbook have been available online for the last year, and the volume was formally released in November 2018. We received an overwhelmingly positive reaction to the book in this short time. Generous colleagues have remarked about how it is a welcome addition to the field. Others look forward to assigning chapters from the Handbook in their classes.
Not at all surprising to us, on the other hand, has been the negative—if not uncivil and unprofessional—reaction we received over one essay in particular, the one we purposefully chose to lead the volume. That essay is Ayesha S. Chaudhry’s “Islamic Legal Studies: A Critical Historiography.” Some have said that by eschewing footnotes it is not a proper academic essay. Others have lashed out that it is an opinion piece rather than a historiographical one. Others have whimpered at the language of “white supremacy.” Still others seem fixated on the various acronyms used in the essay, for reasons beyond our understanding. All of this begs the question, “What were the editors thinking?”
In the interest of full disclosure, one of us is married to Dr. Chaudhry; consequently, to avoid a conflict of interest, the decision to include the essay was a consultative one in which Emon exercised full veto.
In a volume in which every other article ascribes to the standards expected of an academic essay, Chaudhry’s is like Robin D. G. Kelley’s academic refugee, smuggled into the vaunted halls of academe (an Oxford Handbook no less!) from what Fred Moten and Stefano Harney call the undercommons. Her essay examines how the production of knowledge systemically engages in certain modes of analysis that encourage, enshrine, and universalize particular forms of privilege regardless of how we might identify ourselves on census questionnaires. These are disciplinary modes of analysis we all embody in the practice of researching, writing, and analyzing. They are formative of our professional culture. But how to address this systemic feature? In a standard academic article, footnotes often substantiate a point or conclusion. But in an essay like this, they would also let uncited readers off the hook.
Following the editorial vision for the Handbook, Chaudhry’s piece is a mirror par excellence that reflects back upon readers their production of knowledge from a critical race, gender, and class perspective. It surveys a range of arguments that most in the field will recognize, whether they wish to admit it or not. But without citing a single article, the essay implies that every reader is on the hook for enabling, perpetuating, and universalizing those arguments. Its mirroring effect lies in the experience of reading it. We hypothesized that when reading the essay, readers would inevitably read themselves in.
The disciplines of knowledge production—through which we instill in our students the practices of objectivity, generalizability, and professionalism—are no less structured around racial, gender, and class privilege than the rest of our society. We appreciate that, as Robin DiAngelo reminds us in her study of white fragility, not everyone will react well to confronting their complicity in that status quo enterprise. Indeed, we expected the negative reaction to Chaudhry’s piece. Moten, Harney, and Kelley effectively warned us that our subversive attempt would not be received well. That is the price of subversion in institutions of higher education.