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

Registration for this conference is now open. Fees are £20 (full fee) or £10 (student / unwaged) and are inclusive of lunches and refreshments. One-day registration is also available.  

Registration will close on Monday 1 July 2019.



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.


Administrative assistance:


Unfortunately, we are unable to arrange or book accommodation for registrants. The following websites may be of help:

Day 1 - Thursday 4 July

8.45 - 9.00


9.00 - 9.30


Feriel Bouhafa (University of Cambridge)

9.30 - 10.15

Panel 1: Philosophy and Ethics 

Chair: Tony Street (University of Cambridge)


Anna Akasoy (City University of New York)

'Philosophy in the Narrative Mode: Alexander the Great as an Ethical Character from Roman to Medieval Islamic Literature'

10.15 - 10.45


10.45 - 12.15

Panel 1 (continued)

Frank Griffel (Yale University)

'The Place of Ethics Within the Post-Classical Discourse on ḥikma: Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī’s Kitāb ʿIlm al-akhlāq'


Ahmed al-Rahim (University of Virginia) 

'Adab and Enchiridia of Guild Professions in Islamicate Intellectual History'

12.15 - 13.30


13.30 - 15.00

Panel 2: Theology and Ethics

Chair: John Marenbon (University of Cambridge)


Sophia Vasalou (University of Birmingham)

'Ethics as Medicine in al-Ghazālī'


Ayman Shihadeh (SOAS University of London)

'Al-Ghazālī, al-Malāḥimī, al-Rāzī: A Meta-ethical Debate'

15.00 - 15.30


15.30 - 17.00

Panel 2 continued

Omar Farahat (McGill University)

'Ashʿarī Skepticism and the Epistemological Necessity of Revelation'


Hannah Erlwein (Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich)

'Why Worship God? — Reason and Obligation in al-Rāzī’s Qur’anic Commentary'

17.00 - 17.30


17.30 - 18.30


Baber Johansen (Harvard University)

Day 2 - Friday 5 July

9.00 - 10.30

Panel 3: Law and Ethics

Chair: Khaled Fahmy (University of Cambridge)


Robert Gleave (University of Exeter)

'Moral Qualities and Normative Assessments: The relationship between rational ethics and the five legal categories in post-classical Imāmī Shī‘ī legal theory'


Felicitas Opwis (Georgetown University)

'The Value of God’s Silence: Inquiries into the Relationship between Legal Analogy (Qiyās) and the Moral Value of Rulings'

10.30 - 11.00


11.00 - 11.45

Panel 3 continued

Ziad Bou Akl (Centre Jean Pépin, CNRS Paris)

'The Ethical Roots of al-Ghazali’s Radical Infallibilism'

11.45 - 12.30

Panel 4: Qur’an, Hadith and Ethics

Chair: Feriel Bouhafa (University of Cambridge)


Mutaz al-Khatib (Hamad Bin Khalifa University)

'Individual Creative Efforts and the Question of Moral Act'

12.30 - 13.30


13.30 - 15.00

Panel 4 continued

Tareq Moqbel (University of Cambridge)

'Theory, Contingency, and Moral Reasoning in Qurʾānic Commentaries: A Case Study of Q. 20:92–94'


Ali Zaherinezhad (Hamburg University)

'Epistemic Considerations of Compiling Prophetic Traditions: The Adab al-Mufrad by al-Bukhari (d. 256/870) as a Case Study'

15.00 - 15.30


15.30 - 17.00

Panel 5: Adab and Ethics

Chair: James Montgomery (University of Cambridge)


Enass Khansa (American University of Beirut)

'The Legal Program of Alf Layla wa-Layla and the Question of Justice'


Jeannie Miller (University of Toronto)

'The Scholar’s Justice in al-Jahiz’s Epistemology'

17.00 - 17.30


17.30 - 18.15

Panel 5 continued 

William Ryle-Hodges (University of Cambridge) 

'Muḥammad ʿAbduh’s Notion of Political adab: Ethics as a Skill of Modern Citizenship in Late 19th century Khedival Egypt'

18.15 - 18.45

Closing Comments