Rules, rigour and relaxation in Islam and Christianity
This chapter tackles common stereotypes of the Islamic sharia through a comparative approach, arguing that the history of Christian casuistry provides a rich source for an alternative conceptual vocabulary for describing such rule-dense ethics. In contrast to stereotypes of sharia as ‘strict’, Christian casuistry fell into disrepute as being too lax. This was especially in the form of the doctrine of ‘probabilism’, which allowed the following of any learned opinion, even if not the most widely attested. This was to ameliorate the effects of ‘tutiorism’ – always taking the safest path to salvation. These concepts for discussing the uses of rules are put to work to help understand how contemporary Shi’i Muslims cope with the dilemmas of life in the UK. In questions such as when to break one’s Ramadan fast when a British summer day might last more than twenty hours, or whether one can shake hands with someone of the opposite sex, the rules developed by scholars in the Middle East may not sit well with the realities of life in Britain. Ethnographic fieldwork shows how people take up a variety of tactics in response, whether it be playing it ‘safe’, following a more liberal opinion or using one’s ‘common sense’. Most importantly, rules are neither necessarily rigid nor strict. Rather, legalistic forms of ethics offer a variety of ways to facilitate good conscience, even when faced with the seemingly irreconcilable demands of religious ideals and life in a non-Muslim society.
This introductory chapter makes the case for studying systems of ethical rules as an important historical phenomenon in their own right. It shows that both history and anthropology have tended to overlook the importance of rules in many ethical systems. It argues that this is due to a number of impulses within contemporary ethical and legal thought, including the move towards virtue ethics and an enduring distinction between the purviews of law and morality. Having established that the boundaries between law and morality are not as clear-cut as many assume, the Introduction sets out the case for thinking instead in terms of ‘ruly’ or legalistic ethics. It argues that rules can enable ethical life and coexist with virtue ethics. Finally, it argues for the retention for comparative purposes of the concepts of conscience and casuistry. Both have become too strongly identified with particular instances of the Christian tradition. When defined in broader terms as awareness of the moral dimensions of one’s actions, conscience can be reclaimed as a helpful concept, which allows us to interrogate complex problems such as dilemma and doubt. In the case of general rules, such problems arise precisely through the consideration of particular cases – or casuistry. These points made, the Introduction summarises the chapters that follow and sets out the arguments of the book as a whole: that rules can underpin and enable ethical life; that rules interact in important ways with virtue ethics; and that ‘ruly’ ethical systems engender moral rules about rules.
This book examines the importance of rules for many of the world’s great moral traditions. Ethical systems characterised by detailed rules – Islamic sharia and Christian casuistry are notable examples – have often been dismissed as empty formalism or as the instrument of social control. This book demonstrates, on the contrary, that rules often enable, rather than hinder, personal ethical life. Here anthropologists and historians explore cases of rule-oriented ethics and their dynamics across a wide range of historical and contemporary moral traditions. Examples of pre-modern Hindu ethics, codes of civility from early modern England and medieval Christian casuistry demonstrate how rules can form an essential element of what Michel Foucault called ‘the care of the self’. Studies of Roman exemplary ethics, early modern Christian theology and the calculation of sin and merit in contemporary Muslim Palestine highlight the challenges posed by the coexistence of moral rules with other moral forms, not least those of virtue ethics. Finally, explorations of medieval and modern Islamic sharia, Christian moral theology and Jewish halakhah all highlight how such traditions develop complex meta-rules – rules about rules – for managing the tensions and dilemmas that the use of rules can entail. Together, these case studies and the theoretical framework proposed in the book’s Introduction offer a more nuanced, cross-cultural appreciation of the role of rules in moral life than those currently prevalent in both the anthropology of ethics and the history of morality.