Leor Halevi is associate professor of history and law at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee.
His research explores the interrelationship between religious laws and material objects in various social contexts. He is the author of Muhammad's Grave: Death Rites and the Making of Islamic Society (2007), which won the Ralph Waldo Emerson Award and the Albert Hourani Award as well as other prizes. He is currently writing a history of twentieth-century Salafi thought in relation to everyday things, where he is focusing especially on fatwas concerning new technologies.
My project examines historically Muslim legal perceptions of non-Muslim commodities, from the rise of Islam to the present day. Many experts on Islamic law earned their livelihood as merchants and thus appreciated the benefits of cross-cultural trade. Yet they worried that through such trade they would expose their bodies and communities to impurity, and so proposed ideological restrictions to regulate this commerce. This resulted in a productive tension in Islamic legal thought between an economic interest in porous communal boundaries and a religious interest in social exclusivity. As jurists reflected on non-Muslims and their worldly goods, they also sought, in different ways in different historical circumstances, to define an Islamic social identity. During my fellowship term at the Institute for Advanced Studies of Paris, I will focus specifically on Salafi responses to modern technologies.
My topic has been neglected due to the disciplinary boundaries that tend to confine academic research in the humanities and social sciences. Economic historians have paid little attention to pious Muslim ideals concerning trade with non-Muslims either because it is difficult to measure the impact of religious interests on economic behavior or because of a neoclassical tendency to dismiss religious interests as economically irrelevant. Religious scholars, on their part, have paid no serious attention to the ethics of cross-cultural trade. Perhaps this is due to the impression that an economic topic such as trade lies outside of the proper study of religion. But the Shari‘a, Islam’s sacred law, includes legislation not only about purity rites and scriptural dogmas, but also about commercial transactions, behavior in the marketplace, and the production of worldly goods. Studying this moral economy will lead to a deeper methodological understanding of the impact of economic exchange upon religion.