Brinkley Messick, Sharīʿa Scripts: A Historical Anthropology (Columbia University Press, hardcover 2018, paperback 2022).

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Brinkley Messick (BM): Yemen in the twentieth-century decades of this study provides an instructive historical instance of the sharia without colonial transformations and also before the advent of a nation state, an instance also of Islamic governance by ruling imams who were qualified in sharia jurisprudence rather than regimes such as sultans or kings. Since they were relatively recent, the decades in question were also accessible to various types of retrospective inquiries.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address? 

BM: The book is a study of writing, textual genres, and discursive relations in the Islamic sharia. My principal textual sources are doctrinal and applied, representing distinct but interdependent discursive categories that I refer to as the “library” and the “archive.” I argue that the historical sharia operated on the basis of a textual partition between theoretical genres that were relatively context-free, atemporal, and technical-formal in expression—versus a spectrum of richly circumstantial genres of practice that were context-engaged, custom-influenced, and specific as to time and place. Otherwise characterized, these were cosmopolitan as opposed to contingent texts, the one providing general designs for action, and the other grounded examples of action. In this understanding, a given library and a local archive were co-constitutive of a particular textual formation, that is, of a historically specific instance of the sharia.

Readings in such a formation are inter-textual in character, whether focused on specific library or archive genres or when crossing between such writings. In studying substantively related written genres across a textual formation, such as a doctrinal chapter on the contract of sale together with local sale contracts, one encounters explicit textual models in the library and implicit or habitus-based local patterns in the archive. Close attention to the language and methods of both the library jurists and the archival specialists is basic to this type of inquiry, as is a careful approach to translation.

Adapting the perspectives of Mikhail Bakhtin in his studies of “the life of texts,” I examine genre-specific techniques of composition and quotation, related oral-written dialectics, and temporal and material-spatial patterns of the resulting writings. These are the methods of an anthropological reader, a humanistic social scientist whose analytic approaches to written texts are informed by ethnographic knowledge. Building on the classical anthropological method of working with individuals in the society being studied, I also suggest that ethnographers “read with” their interlocutors. 

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?

BM: My previous book, The Calligraphic State (University of California Press, 1993) also is an anthropological history, but one inspired by Michel Foucault. Both books are about highland Yemen, where I have conducted fieldwork starting in 1974, but whereas this previous book analyzed numerous institutional ruptures across a period extending from the final years of the highlands as an Ottoman province, through the twentieth-century decades of rule by Zaydi imams, and on into the republican period of a Yemeni nation state, Sharīʿa Scripts focuses closely on the period of the imamate.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

BM: I imagine an interdisciplinary audience of anthropologists, historians, students of religion, and, of course, Islamic studies scholars and specialists on the sharia. It is the combination of reading and ethnographic research that I advocate, in projects of “historical anthropology.” 

J: What other projects are you working on now?

BM: I am at work on a book on the sharia court under twentieth-century Zaydi imamic rule, on litigation, procedure, evidence, and especially the concepts and methods of interpretation. My sources are both doctrinal, concerning the judgeship and witness testimonies and, for the crucial “archival” perspective, unusually rich original case transcripts provided to me by litigants. The “ethnographic sourcing” that characterizes all my research is anchored in extended commitments to people and place.


Excerpt from the book (from the Introduction, pp. 40-44)


We are interested primarily in concrete forms of texts and concrete conditions of the life of texts, their interrelations, and their interactions.

—M. M. Bakhtin, Speech Genres and Other Late Essays

I now provide an overview of the interrelated reading methods on which this historical anthropology of sharīʿa texts depends. These bring together discrete elements: conceptual leads from the thought of the Muslim jurists in the traditions in question on the topics of writing and texts; approaches adapted from the analyses of western-trained Islamicist scholarship; concepts derived from the usages of linguistic anthropologists (the intellectual descendants of the former philologists of the oral text); and oral history and retrospective ethnographic insights into the formal and informal aspects of sharīʿa textuality.

To approach the spectrum of writings at hand I thus far have introduced the library and the archive as general textual categories. Delimiting my period history, I then presented a conception of the local as a discursive space opened at the meeting points of these cosmopolitan and contingent texts. What I have described as the central concern of this book—the relationship between a given library and a specific archive—may now be restated as a series of analytic initiatives. Focusing on the dynamics of texts in a formation, these approaches are tailored to the disciplinary interests and the research possibilities of a still relatively new figure: the anthropological reader.

Simply stated, my method is to read related texts together, to read across genres, and to read for discursive system. A principal inspiration is the work of M. M. Bakhtin, the twentieth-century Russian literary critic and philosopher of language. Bakhtin and his circle criticized the tendency in philology and related textual studies to view texts in isolation, as individual “monuments.” They advocated an approach to texts as “generative” elements within particular traditions. In their “dialogic” conception they examined how individual writings could be understood as responding to and as anticipating responses from other texts. An important context for a given text thus is other texts, including those not only of the same but also of different genres. When I turn to detailing the structure and history of this local formation of texts, my further concern is with how the several types of writings acted as interlocutors.

Bakhtin’s work has for some time informed research in the subfield of linguistic anthropology, but with a constraint characteristic of the discipline. Anthropological appropriations of his ideas have been restricted mainly to studies of spoken texts, whereas Bakhtin, a student of the novel, among other genres, was concerned with texts both spoken and written, and especially with their interrelations, including the representations of the former in the latter—approaches that are essential to the textual study of the historical sharīʿa. I also join anthropologists such as Annelise Riles, Ann Stoler, Ilana Feldman, Penelope Papailias, and Matthew Hull, who place analytic emphasis on matters of written form and who foreground the material qualities of texts, especially in studies of documents, archives, and files. This book differs from such studies in that it views genres of these types as active elements in an overarching system, a formation of writings that, in this instance, simultaneously included sacred texts, doctrinal books and formal juridical opinions.

Composition is central to my interests. When I characterize the humanist-social scientist as an “analytic” reader, I have in mind various techniques for studying the composition of writings. From Raymond Williams and Bruno Latour I take the basic perspective that composition refers to a “process” in which “things have to be put together.” To reconstruct the work of composition in the imamic-period highlands I read extant artifacts—from books to documents—for indications of prior acts of writing. Such reconstructive readings address form, both conceptual and material. Composition differs according to genre, of course, yet the regularities across genres are as significant. The more or less established conventions of composition defined the specific genres that, in turn, accomplished the range of existing discursive tasks of the time and place. Relations between texts begin with the apparently simple act of writing in genre. At the elementary level, to write in genre is to quote form itself. By extension, it is to reference a given order of texts. Inasmuch as it represented an implicit acknowledgment of an existing formation of writings, composition initiated a fundamental dimension of the intertextual.

What is the compositional role of what Bakhtin termed “authoritative” discourse? He noted that special framing or quotation devices (see below) typically guard the integrity of the words in question. In the study of sharīʿa regimes it is common to emphasize the roles of the “sources,” the texts of divine revelation and prophetic example—thus Asad’s invitation to anthropologists to attend to such texts. I look closely at the Zaydī jurists’ techniques for handling these “sources,” at the guidelines for their mobilization in interpretation, and at the transmutations of their original forms of expression into the rules-and-stipulations language of the fiqh. I note that the jurists distinguished between the ordinary meanings of Arabic words and the technical usage of the same words as juridical terms. I take pains throughout to underline the historical specificity of the authoritative doctrinal language of this period. Since it permitted distinctive flexibilities of quotation and paraphrase, and the use of versification, this period discourse is distinct from the types of legal language that, a few decades later, would be utilized in nation-state codification and the legislation of modern law. I am especially interested in the circulation of such formal language between the library and the archive, and I have a parallel interest in the less understood authorities specific to archival language. Jurists and practitioners alike recognized the special weight of the wording that appeared in court testimony, in the expressions of contractual intent or consent, and even in customary stipulations.

It was a commonplace for jurists and others to refer to named genres of sharīʿa texts. The literary specialists among them employed a variety of terms to speak of the “authoring” of writings, including a form of “compilation” based on already existing texts. The jurists additionally found occasion to consider both the material attributes and the epistemic statuses of written and oral texts, including the sonic qualities of the latter. Behind the various interests in and capacities for textual analysis among these Muslim lawyers lay the specialized studies of the grammarians and their colleagues in the several additional branches of the “language sciences,” fields that typically figured in the basic madrasa training.

To learn about composition, the pertinent thought of these historical jurists is essential. The required readings amount to thinking with the various types of specialist writers while also rethinking, connecting, and extending their ideas. I make no claims of mastery in my readings, nor do I exhaust the sources in question. Using a variety of strategies, I follow texts closely, translating and transliterating as need be. At different points in this book, I adhere to written presentations, including works of commentary, in a manner analogous to a commentator; or I select particular aspects that interest me and bring together and sample what I take to be relevant passages; or I read different texts, or different genres, together, side-by-side. Rather than pushing these varied sources off my page and into my notes or references, I attempt to write with them.

Linguistic anthropologists have addressed how people think about and refer to language, but the conceptual tools, such as linguistic “reflexivity,” “metapragmatics,” and “language ideology,” mainly have been applied to speech. Hull proposes the term “graphic ideology” to refer to conceptions specific to writing. I prefer “textual ideology,” which encompasses ideas about both the oral and the written. Explicit juridical ideas about writing and about topics such as oral testimony or the value of documentary evidence are an integral part of sharīʿa discourse. As elements of an academic discourse, however, these ideas were subject to elaboration, as well as to challenge. Rather than as timeless ideals, I address such conceptions as understandings and debates with histories, and I treat them as having potential rather than assumed implications for what happened on the ground.

Formal textual ideation of this sort is a mainstay of Islamicist inquiry. Norman Calder, to mention a prominent example, analyzed Nawawī’s “typologies of fiqh writing,” and he also studied the same jurist’s treatise on the muftī, which largely concerns the fatwā as a genre. In contrast, at least until recently this type of thought represented unfamiliar terrain for mainstream anthropologists, researchers more attuned to the study of unconscious structures (Lévi-Strauss), commonsense assumptions (Geertz) or implicit dispositions (Bourdieu). From Boas’s time forward, “native theory,” as it later would be termed, has been viewed askance, as unreliable “secondary” material, even as positively “dangerous.” The written status of the juridical conceptions in question only compounds this unfamiliarity, underscoring the need for new disciplinary protocols for analytic readings.