Featured Faculty Work: Brinkley Messick

In partnership with Columbia University Press.

Can you share an overview of your book with our readers?

My book offers a case study in the working textual architecture of the Islamic sharīʿa in early twentieth-century Yemen. By sorting a specific instance of this discursive tradition into its component genres, I’ve brought into focus an elaborate division of textual labor. While I treat the key types of texts - law books, judicial opinions, judgments, and legal instruments - as distinct and historically particular forms, I also analyze their interconnections. A central conundrum of this study thus concerns the nature and the import of the relations existing between the differing types of texts.


This localized historical anthropology of a civilization-wide legal tradition engages the still elusive question of how the sharīʿa functioned in specific settings. My methods include following conceptual leads from the thought of the Muslim jurists in these traditions on the topics of writing and texts; adapting approaches from the scholarship of Western-trained Islamicists; employing concepts derived from the field of linguistic anthropology; and using oral historical and ethnographic insights into the formal and informal aspects of sharīʿa textuality. Focusing on the dynamics of texts in a formation, these approaches are tailored to the disciplinary interests and research possibilities of the anthropological reader.

You did some of the research for this book in the Islamic collections at the Libraries. What were some of the most interesting documents you found there that made their way into the book?

The impressive Arabic-language collection held by the Libraries dates from the late nineteenth-century advent of instruction at the University in such specialized fields as Islamic law and Qurʾan studies. By the mid-twentieth century, the leading Western student of the sharīʿa, which is my field of interest, was Columbia professor Joseph Schacht. The presence of such scholars and their interests is deeply reflected in the Libraries' collections. In preparing my book, I made use of Columbia’s multivolume printed works on Islamic jurisprudence and other disciplines by Yemeni writers that I did not have in my own research collection. Among the Butler Library stacks, I also encountered books that had been in the private collections of earlier Columbia scholars. One example is an important work of Quran exegesis (tafsīr) by the famous Yemeni jurist, exegete, and ḥadīth scholar Muhammad Ali al-Shawkānī (d. 1834). The edition I studied bore the personal library stamp of the noted Qurʾan specialist and former Columbia professor Arthur Jeffery.  

How did you become interested in this topic?

During years of research in Yemen, I was fortunate to gain access to a wide variety of personally held professional and family archives. These archives included sharīʿa court records and a spectrum of inheritance, wills, and endowments, plus such routine instruments as land sale, lease, and sharecropping contracts. I read these documents with jurists, practitioners, and nonspecialists, and I also observed diverse scenes of writing. My fellow readers assisted me in explicating issues of doctrine and custom, understanding genre constraints, and identifying local written usages. They also exposed me to a number techniques of textual implementation and analysis, including how a compound undertaking or a complex dispute could be broken down into a series of written acts, or how a single text could be dismantled into its component clauses.

These techniques are closely related to my research on instances of writing and reading in varied contexts of text production. In connection with disputes and settlements, for example, I focused on transitions from spoken words and quotidian realities to written documents and juristic expression. I thus examined written documents in situ and archives at their points of creation. So, in this manner, I began to learn what to read for and how one did things with these sorts of written texts. I also drew on these ethnographic experiences in participatory reading and in observation of the drafting, use, and preservation of texts for the purposes of historical reconstruction.

The key step, however, was to study the works of juridical doctrine pertaining to court practice (such as the law of evidence) and to property relations, including the chapters on the various types of contracts. Out of the many potential paths of inquiry made possible by the varied source materials of these archives, I decided to concentrate on matters of textuality, as I argue that paying close attention to textual form ought to be a precondition for wider research, especially when  assessing the import of these kinds of source material for the writing of history.

You employ a unique framework that uses the terms “library” and “archive” in a way that differs from traditional understandings of them. When you talk about “library” and “archive” in the book, how are you defining them?

If authoritative doctrinal works and formal opinions are the textual perennials of particular Islamic legal traditions, court judgments and notarial documents are their equally significant annuals. I refer to these major clusters of sharīʿa texts as the “library” and the “archive,” terms that indicate separate yet interdependent textual realms that respectively encompass the book and the document. In their contrasting discursive horizons, these major groupings of texts can be thought of as “cosmopolitan,” as opposed to “contingent writings.” This is a distinction that I suggest has important implications for situated histories of the sharīʿa. While the library was associated with the disciplines and activities of academic learning, centered around the madrasa as the formal site, the early to mid-century archive in Yemen had primary links to the maḥkama, the judge’s court, and its larger surroundings and context, which included the private notarial writer.

I argue that pre-modern sharīʿa traditions operated on the basis of this textual partition between doctrinal genres that were relatively context-free, atemporal, and strictly technical and formal in expression versus a spectrum of rich, circumstantially applied genres that were context-engaged, historically particular, and linguistically stratified. As opposed to the consistently general phrasing of doctrinal discourse, the applied acts of the courts and the notarial writers were resolutely specific. A defining feature of library texts is their reference to actors and objects using the noun fulān and its variations and extensions - the “so and so” and the “such and such” of formal Arabic. In sharīʿa regimes, this generalizing library discourse of fulān was the discourse of theory and law. Archival texts, in contrast, are particular and specific, characterized by named proper names and carefully annotated dates and locations - the discourse of practice and custom. You can say that though the writings of the library and the archive exhibit separate discursive dynamics, their histories are intertwined.

Brinkley Messick is Professor of Anthropology and Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Studies as well as Director of the Middle East Institute at Columbia University. He is the author of The Calligraphic State: Textual Domination and History in a Muslim Society (1993) and a coeditor of Islamic Legal Interpretation: Muftis and Their Fatwas (1996). Sharīʿa Scripts: A Historical Anthropology will be available from Columbia University Press in January.