Past Event

Brinkley Messick | New Books in the Arts & Sciences: Sharīʿa Scripts

December 5, 2018
4:15 PM - 6:00 PM
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Heyman Center, 2960 Broadway MC: 5730, New York, NY 10027

Panel on Professor Brinkley Messick's new book, Sharīʿa Scripts.

A case study in the textual architecture of the venerable legal and ethical tradition at the center of the Islamic experience, Sharīʿa Scripts is a work of historical anthropology focused on Yemen in the early twentieth century. There—while colonial regimes, late Ottoman reformers, and early nationalists wrought decisive changes to the legal status of the sharīʿa, significantly narrowing its sphere of relevance—the Zaydī school of jurisprudence, rooted in highland Yemen for a millennium, still held sway.

Brinkley Messick uses the richly varied writings of the Yemeni past to offer a uniquely comprehensive view of the sharīʿa as a localized and lived phenomenon. Sharīʿa Scripts reads a wide spectrum of sources in search of a new historical-anthropological perspective on Islamic textual relations. Messick analyzes the sharīʿa as a local system of texts, distinguishing between theoretical or doctrinal juridical texts (or the “library”) and those produced by the sharīʿa courts and notarial writers (termed the “archive”). Attending to textual form, he closely examines representative books of madrasa instruction; formal opinion-giving by muftis and imams; the structure of court judgments; and the drafting of contracts. Messick’s intensive readings of texts are supplemented by retrospective ethnography and oral history based on extensive field research. Further, the book ventures a major methodological contribution by confronting anthropology’s longstanding reliance upon the observational and the colloquial. Presenting a new understanding of Islamic legal history, Sharīʿa Scripts is a groundbreaking examination of the interpretative range and historical insights offered by the anthropologist as reader.


Author: Brinkley M. Messick, Professor, Anthropology and The Department of Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Studies, Columbia University


  • Mashal Saif, Assistant Professor of Religion, Clemson University
  • Islam Dayeh, Edward W. Said Fellow, The Society of Fellows and Heyman Center for the Humanities
  • Guy Burak, Librarian for Middle Eastern & Islamic Studies, New York University
  • Gil Anidjar, Professor in the Departments of Religion, the Department of Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Studies (MESAAS), and the Institute for Comparative Literature and Society (ICLS), Columbia University
  • Intisar A. Rabb, Professor of Law, Harvard Law School
  • Mahmood Mamdani, Herbert Lehman Professor of Government MESAAS, International Affairs, and Anthropology, Columbia University

Cosponsored by Ifriqiyya ColloquiumThe Department of Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African StudiesThe Society of Fellows and Heyman Center for the Humanities ,Office of the Divisional Deans in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, Institute for Social and Economic Research and PolicyDepartment of AnthropologyCenter for the Study of Muslim Societies.