Zahirism was a legal and hermeneutical theory that existed in the Muslim juridical scene for almost 700 years. Modern (Muslim and non-Muslim) scholars of Islamic law have regularly described Zahirism as a “literalist” theory. In so doing, they have sidestepped two major issues, the first is the definition of “literalism” and the possibility of reading any text “literally,” and the second is whether Zahirism is actually literalist according to recent linguistic studies on this controversial subject. This presentation will discuss some recent views on literalism and question accordingly the prevalent understanding of Zahirism. It will argue that the right characterization of Zahirism is to regard it as a “textualist” theory, one that relies exclusively on texts and rejects all non-textual sources of the law (such as equity, analogy, social interest, etc.). Interpreting theses texts, moreover, is done in a strictly formalist manner that proceeds on clear religious, linguistic, and legal assumptions and according to well-formulated hermeneutical rules, as examples of Zahiri exegesis will seek to demonstrate.
Amr Osman is Assistant Professor of Islamic History at Qatar University. He earned his PhD from the Department of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University in 2010. The subject of his dissertation was the history and doctrine of a medieval school of Islamic law known as the Zahiri madhhab. His research interests include the intellectual history of Islam as well as modern and contemporary Arab politics and thought. He has published articles on the redaction of the Qur’anic text as well as the origin and development of ‘adalat al-sahaba, one of the pillars of Sunni Muslim faith according to which the integrity of all the Companions of the Prophet Muhammad must be accepted for doctrinal as well as practical purposes (such as hadithtransmission). He is currently revising his doctoral dissertation for Brill’s Islamic Law and Societyseries. He is also translating a recent book on Islam, politics and modernity from English to Arabic. As a Zukuntsphilologie fellow, he will expand on aspects of the doctrine of the Zahiri madhhab and its presumed ‘literalist’ approach and, among other things, how this relates to modern legal philosophy and linguistic studies.