Casuistry, Contingency, Ambiguity: New Approaches to the Study of Ethics in the Islamic Traditions

4 July 2019 - 5 July 2019

SG1 and SG2, Alison Richard Building

Further details about this conference will be made available in the near future. 

Please email if you would like to be kept informed about the event, or have any other questions. 



Feriel Bouhafa (University of Cambridge)



The conference brings new perspectives to Islamic discourses on ethics during the pre-modern period across the disciplines of law, theology, philosophy and adab. While ethics is defined in broad terms to encompass various scholarly discussions of morality, the conference adopts a contextualist approach to address the following issue: How did scholars think about ethics in their conception of the divine discourse on morality in light of the contingent nature of human reality? Earlier emic approaches to Islamic law led many to declare its literalist tendency an obstacle to rationalist ethics (as espoused, for example, by the Mu‘tazilite theologians, and by the philosophers). Exploring the question of contingency in Islamic ethics is predicated upon new findings in Islamic theories of law which not only underline jurists’ contextualist approaches to producing norms, but also the epistemological grounds of the theories which accommodate contingency (Johansen, Hallaq, Zysow, Gleave). In fact, in his recent work, Die Kultur der Ambiguität, Thomas Bauer has drawn attention to the complexity of Islamic normative discourses, depicting the tolerance of ambiguity as a key feature in the argumentation deployed in the production of the communally accepted in Islam. Evidently, these perspectives make room for adopting a contextualist approach to ethics; they help us overcome the tired opposition between scripturalism and rationalism as the only authoritative approaches to normativity in Islam.

Taking as central to its methodology Bauer’s perspectives, along with the contextual ethics of casuistry put forward by Jonsin and Toulmin in The Abuse of Casuistry, the conference is intended to explore further and more widely the contingency of ethical discourses in Islam. More specifically, discussions will include articulations of moral discourse in legal reasoning and argumentation, theological discussions of theodicy and divine command theories, the epistemology behind collecting moral knowledge in hadith collections, adab, aphoristic literature, rhetorical speeches and sermons, epistemological and ontological claims on morality, the reception of Aristotelian corrective philosophy of ethic and discussion of virtues. The conference will also serve to identify new questions, answers to which could give substance to the notion of the flexibility of norms across Islamic ethical discourses. Questions are to be answered from the perspective of each discipline, and speakers will be asked to reflect on the philosophical and theological implications that can be drawn. Comparative perspectives across the various Islamic sciences are especially encouraged. 




Supported by the Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities (CRASSH), the Cambridge Humanities Research Grant Scheme, the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Centre of Islamic Studies, and the Faculty of Divinity's Hartwell Fund.