The Formation of Islamic Hermeneutics: How Sunni Legal Theorists Imagined a Revealed Law. By DAVID VISHANOFF. American Oriental Series, vol. 93. New Haven: AMERICAN ORIENTAL SOCIETY, 2011. Pp. xxi + 318. $46.
According to the second/eighth-century historian Muhammad Aba Mikhnaf (d. 157/773-4), the fourth caliph Ali b. Abi Talib (d. 40/661) once said, "The Quran is recorded script, bound between two covers, and it does not speak. It is only men who give voice to it" (al-Tabari. Turikh, ed. Muhammad Abi 1-Facll Ibrahim, Dar al-Macarif, 1970, 5: 66). The occasion for this statement is said to have been 'All's confrontation with the Kharijis, who anathemized him after he agreed to resort to mediation in his conflict with Mu(awiya. For the ICharijis, mediation contravened the Quranic verses that reserve the authority of decision-making for God alone (6:57, 12:40, 12:67), and Ali's sin of submitting to human judgment thus placed him outside the community.
In his new book David Vishanoff shows that the debate regarding the extent to which revelation speaks for itself rather than through its interpreters blossomed into a sophisticated investigation of the nature of language, communication, and interpretation, particularly in the discipline of legal theory al-figh). Nearly three decades ago Aron Zysow pointed to the enormous and uncharted intellectual riches contained in the literature of Islamic legal theory "The Economy of Certainty," Ph.D. diss., Harvard, 1984). Nevertheless, comprehensive historical accounts of its constitutive fields remain to be written. Vishanoff's book sets out to write such a history of the emergence and development of legal hermeneutic thought. His close reading of hermeneutical debates spanning more than three centuries reveals the remarkable diversity and conceptual detail of this discourse and successfully breaks down and analyzes a number of central questions within it.
The book begins with a brief survey of the earliest evidence of hermeneutic thought before turning to its principal subject matter: the hermeneutic theories of influential Muslim jurists in the sec-ond/eighth to fifth/eleventh centuries who decisively shaped the trajectory of the discipline of legal theory as well as of Islamic law as a whole. Vishanoff locates the "birth- of legal hermeneutics in the work of al-Shaffi (d. 204/820), who formulated the first coherent hermeneutic theory. From al-Shafici Vishanoff moves to the ideas of certain early Muctazilis (whom he terms scripturalists) and of ah iris from Dawftd (d. 270/884) to 1bn Ijazm (d. 456/1064), which were developed in reaction to al-Shafiers theory. He then lays out the hermeneutic theories of Basran Muctazilis (particularly 'Abd al-Jabbar, d. 415/1025) and Ash
Vishanoff has done an enormous amount of spade work: he has mined the extant works on legal theory and the surviving quotations of otherwise lost legal-theoretical works to a degree not seen before. In spite of the complexity of the subject his prose is remarkably readable and uncluttered--although on some occasions I would have wished for key terms to be given in the original Arabic for the sake of clarity. The sheer number of Muslim legal theorists whom Vishanoff treats and classifies is impressive; he introduces or re-introduces several important scholars who, despite their...