Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Graduate Group

Near Eastern Languages & Civilizations

First Advisor

Joseph E. Lowry


This dissertation is a study of the “legal distinctions” (al-furūq al-fiqhiyya) literature and its role in the development of Islamic legal thinking. It reconsiders how linguistics, law, and public performance intersect with knowledge production to develop new packaging of legal information. This study identifies the origins of this tradition in linguistic and medical literature which demonstrated the possibilities of ‘distinctions’ reasoning. The linguistic furūq literature is largely a theological endeavor aimed as denying the existence of synonymy in Arabic while the medical literature was interested in diagnosing illnesses. After establishing the trends that led to the writing of this genre, I demonstrate the implications of the legal furūq and how changes to this genre reflect shifts in the social consumption of Islamic legal knowledge. The earliest interest in legal distinctions grew out of the performance of knowledge in formalized legal disputation (jadal). Disputation was an important activity for creating and defining tools of legal knowledge and distinction played an important part therein. From here, the genre of legal distinctions adapted to incorporate elements of play and entertainment through interplay with the genre of legal riddles (al-alghāz al-fiqhiyya). As play, books of legal distinctions functioned as supplements to performance in literary salons, study circles, and court performances (majlis); these books also served as mimetic objects, allowing the reader to participate in the majlis virtually through reading. This study demonstrates the analytical strength of genre as a tool for understanding the history Islamic law and the social and intellectual practices that helped shape its development.

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