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Department of Social Anthropology


Professor Robert Hefner, (Boston University)

Shariah Ethics: The Place and Challenge of Islamic Legal Traditions in the Anthropology of Morality

The great scholar of Islamic legal studies, Wael B. Hallaq, has described Islamic shari’a as the “supreme moral and legal force regulating both society and government” in Muslim-majority societies for most of their history.  In Western academia and Muslim scholarly commentary alike, the shari’a is also recognized as one of the most richly documented and rationalized of the world’s ethico-religious traditions.  Notwithstanding its civilizational prominence, and notwithstanding the role played by anthropologists of Islam in the “new anthropology of morality,” anthropologists involved in the study of morality today have had surprisingly little to say about shari’a as a variety of ethical tradition.  Anthropological studies of Islamic ethics have for the most part adopted a “virtue ethics” approach to Muslim ethical subjectivation, highlighting the way in which actors come to enact and embody values they deem Islamic.  In prioritizing this habitus-focused approach, however, anthropologists have overlooked the broader array of ethical and political “entanglements” that necessarily lie at the heart of shari’a’s ethics; these reveal that the shari’a’s most distinctive feature is that it is an ethical tradition at once public, private, and political in its concerns.   In this presentation, I draw on ongoing research on shari’a discourse and contestation in the Southeast Asian nation of Indonesia to re-examine shari’a as a distinctive and important variety of ethical tradition, and I suggest that its understanding speaks to several key if often overlooked issues in the anthropology of morality.

Friday, 9 March, 2018 - 16:15 to 18:00
Event location: 
Edmund Leach Room Department of Social Anthropology Free School Lane, Cambridge