Islamic Law and the Boundaries of Social Responsibility

Sixteenth century miniture painting

This sixteenth-century miniature painting by Matrakçi Nasuh depicts the city of Aleppo in Syria. Credit: Creative Commons.

Aryeh Cohen’s essay on “Justice in the City” in this issue of Tikkun—and his remarkable book on the same subject—sent me searching for an analog in the medieval Islamic texts that I study. I was inspired by Cohen’s fresh look at rabbinic legal discourse, in which he uncovers profound disquisitions on the nature of obligation and interpersonal relations in an urban context. He manages to connect ancient legal debates on such pedestrian topics as zoning rules and ritual law to issues like homelessness in modern-day Los Angeles. Cohen is not the first to attempt such a connection, and the shortcomings of similar works breed a certain skepticism and cynicism toward the enterprise as a whole. To suggest that rabbinic scholars had the same concerns as those raised by the modern nation-state is embarrassingly anachronistic, if not incredibly naïve. Cohen, however, resists such anachronisms and instead offers a sophisticated method for reading rabbinic texts.

Rather than calling upon the particular conclusions of rabbinic scholars and selectively applying them to a modern context, Cohen focuses his attention on the logic of rabbinic argumentation as a whole. By reconstructing this logic, Cohen calls us to consider the underlying concerns of care, hospitality, and obligation that make legal thought religious. Cohen notes that—especially in the context of a city—rabbinic scholars assumed regular interaction between neighbors and strangers, and, through seemingly inconsequential legal dictates, articulated an ethic of justice predicated on care for the Other. This is a kind of Levinasian view of obligation, though Cohen helpfully guides us so as to appreciate the differences between Levinas and rabbinic notions of obligation.


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(To return to the Winter 2013 Table of Contents, click here.)

Rumee Ahmed is assistant professor of Islamic Studies at the University of British Columbia. He is the author of Narratives of Islamic Legal Theory (Oxford University Press, 2012), which examines the diverse theological presumptions that underlie medieval Islamic legal theories.

Source Citation

Ahmed, Rumee. Islamic Law and the Boundaries of Social Responsibility. Tikkun28(1): 23.

tags: Islam, Rethinking Religion, Spiritual Progressive Analysis   
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