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Book Review: Contribution to Islamic thought and scholarship

30th May 2014

book cover

Law and Tradition in Classical Islamic Thought: Studies in Honor of Professor Hossein Modarressi Edited by Michael Cook et al. New York:
Palgrave Macmillan.

pp326. HB. 2013. £55.00

This is the first volume of collected scholarly articles to be published in the Palgrave Macmillan series titled Islamic Theology, Law and History. According to the editor of the series ‘This single volume includes articles by some of the most prominent scholars in the field of Islamic Studies, covering a broad array of topics in Islamic theology, philosophy, law, and history. In many ways, the collection contained in this book represents an illuminatingly informative survey of some of the most compelling scholarship being done in the Western academy in the field of Islamic Studies’. (p xi)

These articles have been put together to pay tribute to Professor Hossein Modarressi. Born in Qum in Iran, Modarressi is a notable scholar who was trained in a seminary (hawza) studying Arabic, Persian, Qur’an, Hadith, Fiqh, Islamic History and Philosophy, obtaining the highest qualifications from leading scholars in Qum. After completing his traditional education, he moved to Oxford University where he wrote a doctoral thesis in Islamic law. In that sense, Modarressi is not unlike Dr Hassan Rouhani, the current President of Iran, who also pursued classical Islamic education in Qum, before moving to a British university to undertake advance training in Islamic law (the title of Rouhani’s PhD at Glasgow Caledonian was ‘Flexibility of Shari’ah’ (1999).

After his academic training, Rouhani went onto pursue politics, while Modarressi has remained a committed academic and author of numerous books and articles on a range of Islamic topics. Fluent in Arabic, Persian and English, his writings are now read widely both in Iran and in western academic circles. Currently, he is Bayard Dodge Professor of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University and has supervised many doctoral students. He is the author of several scholarly studies including Kharaj in Islamic Law (1983), Introduction to Shi’i Law (1984), Crisis and Consolidation (1993) and Tradition and Survival (2003).

The publication of this volume shows that his scholarship is being increasingly recognised and appreciated beyond his homeland.

The volume is divided into six sections under following headings: Source Studies, Shi’i Tradition, Islamic Legal Traditions, Philosophical Traditions, Historical Traditions, and Scholarly Output of Professor Hossein Modarressi. Many prominent scholars have contributed including Michael Cook of Princeton University, Wilferd Madelung, previously of Oxford University and currently at Institute of Ismaili Studies in London, Richard W Bulliet of Columbia University, Roy Mottahedeh and Baber Johansen of Harvard University, among others.

In their introduction to this volume, the editors explain why Hossein Modarressi deserved to be honoured: ‘His presence as a teacher, scholar, and mentor in these institutions [Princeton, Columbia, Oxford, Harvard, Yale and Paris universities] has itself helped to transform the field of Islamic Studies. It has been become a field that recognizes the importance of the full landscape of early Islamic history and law – including parallel developments in what would evolve into Sunni, Shi’i, and Khariji contexts….marking Modarressi’s scholarship method is an approach that takes stock of a wide range of early sources, without presupposing the inevitability of its outcome. To this approach and to his scholarly achievements he joins the virtues of generosity and humility. Through executing stellar scholarship, he has exerted considerable influence on the field, distinguishing him as a scholar-teacher of towering intellect and of magisterial scope’. (pp xiv-xv)

This is a very interesting collection of articles and the editors deserve credit for their efforts, not least because the contributions are diverse and of the highest standard. My only criticism is that the introduction to the book is far too brief and it, therefore, does not provide a detailed assessment and summary of Modarressi’s early education, training, writings and scholarship. This is very unfortunate for a Festschrift of such a high standard, although a bibliography of his writings is included towards the end of the book.

Muhammad Khan, Acclaimed author and researcher; he is author of The Muslim 100 (2008) and The Muslim Heritage of Bengal (2013).

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Sectarianism in the Middle East and its rise in the UK, Standpoint, Sahar TV. Interview 29 May 2013 and aired on 12 June 2013


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