Mīmāṃsā and Uṣūl al-fiqh: On comparison

About a year ago, I teamed up with my colleague Omar Farahat to do a roundtable discussion on the topic of the normativity of language in Mīmāṃsā and Uṣūl al-fiqh. The occasion was the annual graduate student conference of Columbia’s department of Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Studies (MESAAS), and we were lucky enough to have the philosopher Akeel Bilgrami participate. I plan to write a few posts on the topic, and this first one will deal primarily with the question of methodology, which is necessarily a bit general and abstract, but important nonetheless.

Uṣūl al-fiqh is the Islamic tradition of jurisprudence. It deals, among other things, with the philosophical underpinnings of Islamic law (fiqh), and hence investigates its “sources of normativity.” Mīmāṃsā, as most of our readers will know, is the Indian tradition of interpreting the Vedas. It, too, deals with the questions of how and why certain statements in the Veda come to have a normative force. In bringing these traditions into conversation with each other, we are most interested in how they account for the normative status of certain claims, whether they are moral, ritual, legal, or cultural.

The terms of this comparison are thus two non-Western, non-modern traditions. I call this kind of comparison “decentered,” in contrast to the “centered” comparison that is usually practiced in philosophy, whether explicitly or implicitly. In centered comparison, there is usually one framework that is taken for granted. It may not be entirely valid, but it is familiar; it forms part of the world that we, the people doing the comparison, inhabit. It is almost always Western, whatever this word means, and often modern as well. To take an example: in the case of normative claims, I would expect every participant in the discussion to know more or less about the Meno problem that Plato formulated, how a Kantian versus Humean characterization of normative claims looks, and I would expect to be able to refer to Wittgenstein, too. And if participants are a bit weak on any of these topics, they can easily refresh themselves by reading a book, or an online encyclopedia, or whatever. In centered comparison, the other framework is really “other”: it is presented in languages that our colleagues don’t really read, embedded in cultures that we don’t belong to, and imbricated in belief systems that we don’t subscribe to. It is not a full-fledged participant in a wider philosophical conversation. I don’t want to overdo this point, especially because a similar postcolonialist critique has recently been hijacked by nationalists and cultural chauvinists, but it is clear enough in the case of Mīmāṃsā and Uṣūl al-fiqh. Both exist under the shadow of the European center and appear by contrast to have certain philosophical deficiencies. In contrast to the self-consciously universalism of European traditions, they are clearly embedded in particular life-worlds (Islam or Śrauta Hinduism). And in contrast to the idea that normative claims should be explained and justified based on reason alone—an Enlightenment idea that is rooted in Plato—these traditions seem to require an up-front commitment to certain beliefs that neither traditions themselves nor “reason alone” can justify (the revealed status of the Qur’an, or the eternal status of the Vedas). And besides this, unlike European traditions, these traditions are comparatively inaccessible to people who don’t at least have specialized training in the languages.

In “decentered” comparison, we try to move these traditions out from the shadow of Europe. Instead of attempting to sift the philosophical from the unphilosophical on the basis of an implicit idea of what philosophy is or should be, we operate in three steps. First, we try to understand the fundamental questions, concepts, and techniques of the tradition, as well as the ideas and arguments we’re interested in. Then we seek out, and try to account for, similarities and differences in the other traditions of our decentered comparison. It is only at the last stage that we think about possible critiques, but importantly these critiques should not only come from a modern, “central,” perspective but from the perspective of other terms in the comparison. This is something that I would expect people trained in Indian philosophy to be good at—coming up with criticism from a perspective internal to a tradition—because of the important role that inter-sectarian debate has had in the history of Indian philosophy. And it might be that at the end of this process, the central frameworks that had appeared so inevitable may actually seem, in certain respects, inadequate and dogmatic.

I’ll just give two examples, which I plan to expand upon in further posts. One is that both Uṣūl al-fiqh and Mīmāṃsā take the linguistic form of a normative claim very seriously, and present it as a “statement,” that is, as a stable linguistic entity with a particular structure, rather than as an “utterance,” that is, a statement in historical time delivered from a speaker to a listener. A statement needs to be interpreted according to definite hermeneutical principles. And the conditions of its normativity need to be located within the structure of the statement, rather than in features of the situation in which it was supposedly uttered. This contrasts radically with the analysis of normative claims as speech acts by J. L. Austin. Another example, which Omar Farahat has written about, is the “blind following” critique that we might instinctively apply to Uṣūl al-fiqh and Mīmāṃsā. Namely, either the normative claims of the Qur’an, or the Vedas, are based on rational principles external to these texts, in which case we don’t need the texts at all, or they are based on something else—let’s call it “authority”—that it inaccessible or impervious to reason, in which case we can only ever follow these claims blindly. But this critique presupposes a model in which a command is given by one person to another. From within these two traditions, a command is once again a statement rather than an utterance. Whatever normative force it has is not derived from the authority of a speaker (at least for some schools of Islamic jurisprudence), but from its linguistic form and its potential for meaning.

Explicitly comparative work in Indian philosophy usually includes a Western comparandum, although the status of this comparandum varies widely: sometimes it is seen as an ideal that “other” philosophy approximates in its best moments, sometimes it is seen as setting out the basic problems that “other” philosophy sometimes provides useful ways of thinking about, or providing a rigorous methodology and formalism with which to approach “other” philosophy, and sometimes it is more or less an equal partner with “other” philosophy in an ongoing philosophical dialogue. Off the top of my head, I can think of Empty Words: Buddhism and the Limits of Cross-Cultural Philosophy and His Hiding Place is Darkness. I know of very little comparative work that exemplifies the “decentered” method outline above. Does anyone else?

4 Replies to “Mīmāṃsā and Uṣūl al-fiqh: On comparison”

  1. I actually have significant misgivings about the idea of “decentred” comparison in this sense, for what I hope is an obvious reason: it typically means that neither comparandum is a live option. So that it winds up saying “here’s how these two are similar and different” without actually making claims to truth. While such cases are certainly comparison, I don’t think they are comparative philosophy. They are what I have called ethics studies rather than ethics (or metaphysics studies, etc.): analogous to studying other people’s biological ideas rather than to doing biology. What this means is that in a typical decentred conversation, it is not that both comparisands become “a full-fledged participant in a wider philosophical conversation”; it is that neither do.

    Coming from a religious-studies background, I would say there is probably too much decentred comparison going on out there; we need to be more centred. This is specifically about the centred/decentred distinction rather than western/nonwestern; a Southeast Asian book by a Southeast Asian Muslim comparing Islam and Confucianism is very much a centred comparison where one of the objects is a live option.

    All of these comments, however, are about decentred comparison as I have usually seen it practised. It is quite possible that it doesn’t apply to what you were doing here. In that respect perhaps the important question to ask is: do you take significant elements of either Mīmāṃsā or usul al-fiqh as genuine candidates for truth? For example, do you think the normativity of a statement probably has to do with the “structure of the statement, rather than… features of the situation”? (It sounds like you might… though I notice that in suggesting that you do bring a Western comparandum!)

  2. I’m also interested in the reason for the decentered approach. You say, “In “decentered” comparison, we try to move these traditions out from the shadow of Europe. Instead of attempting to sift the philosophical from the unphilosophical on the basis of an implicit idea of what philosophy is or should be, we operate in three steps…” In what follows, the process you describe is the process that comparative philosophers who are doing excellent work should be engaging in when they consider European/American philosophy as a comparandum. And I take it that there are people doing this (perhaps you disagree).

    So I’m curious about whether you think that operating along the “centered” approach requires that there is the sifting you mention, and the “decentered” approach has something distinct in its methodology that challenges this? Or is it the fact that European/American trained philosophers are engaging in two traditions in “non-Western, non-modern” traditions that is the focus?

    I’m looking forward to seeing the rest of the posts on this topic!

  3. “First, we try to understand the fundamental questions, concepts, and techniques of the tradition, as well as the ideas and arguments we’re interested in. Then we seek out, and try to account for, similarities and differences in the other traditions of our decentered comparison.”

    Given the above, the decentered approach seems like an analogue of the phenomenological study of religion, adapted to comparative philosophy. One difference may be that its motivations include a concern to be wary of the intellectual legacy of colonialism. There are, on the other handd, various ways to motivate the phenomenological approach to religion.

  4. Very nice thoughts.

    As I am working on my dissertation, which is dealing with Indian philosophy/practice and modern clinical psychology, I have been amazed at how broken apart the western specialization departments are. The big thing that is standing out for me is that modern psychologists talk about Indic subjects with such ignorance and lack of proper references and sourcing; while the Asian studies and Philosophy departments have missed so much of the modern evolution of cultural sensitivity/cultural humility.

    The decentering that I hear in the blog post would relate to being conscious of one’s Eurocentric assumptions, and then speaking about a topic from within culture sensitivity. White academic culture is filled with unconscious ‘ethnocentric monoculturalism’ (as it’s called in the psychology field). The most amazing thing is that since it is the culture in these fields, and it lives unchecked, scholars in these areas continue to speak and write in this mode of thought, and don’t realize its so unprofessional. Yet since these departments don’t overlap, they live on in their ignorance.

    I think having a decentered discussion is an important approach, and to be clear that when one brings in the western thought/comparison, that is seen objectively as a western comparison, not as this is the right way to look at it.

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