My principal line of inquiry in reading al‑Juwaynī has been to question whether his legal hermeneutic restrains or facilitates the natural human tendency to interpret texts so that they fit our assumptions and agendas. My conclusion is that his legal theory gives interpreters great power and flexibility to read their own presuppositions into the Qurʾān and Ḥadīth. He says that law is entirely a human construct, and makes plenty of room for a jurist’s reasoning and presuppositions to shape the law to his own ends, yet he insists that the law so created stems entirely from revelation, and constitutes in the end, if not direct knowledge of God’s will, then at least an entirely adequate fulfillment of God’s will. This means that legal theory can easily be used as a tool to claim divine authority for the preconceived opinions of jurists.
But legal theory cannot be used to legitimate just any opinion. Legal theory institutionalizes the collective authority of a communal interpretive tradition, so that defending widely accepted norms will always be easier than proposing changing. The preconceptions that legal theory enables jurists to read into the law are not their own idiosyncratic ideas, but only those ideas they share with the interpretive community in which they have been trained. Legal theory can be used to make revelation say whatever Muslims want it to say, but not whatever individual Muslims want it to say. Legal theory does restrain interpretation, not by forcing it to respect the texts of the Qurʾān and Ḥadīth, but by forcing it to respect the community and its tradition of interpretation.
This does not mean that legal theory is inherently conservative. If legal theory allowed the texts of the Qurʾān and Ḥadīth to limit what Islamic law can become, it would be conservative, because those texts are more or less static. But the Muslim community is not static. It is large, and therefore evolves slowly, but it does evolve. Legal theory is, therefore, a two-edged sword, both liberating and conservative, empowering and restraining. It can be used to justify the status quo, but it can also be used to legitimate profound changes in the law—as long as those changes occur gradually, never getting ahead of developments in the beliefs, values, and evolving presuppositions of the Muslim community.
Al‑Juwaynī’s legal theory does not meet my criterion for a morally adequate hermeneutic: it does not force the interpreter to really listen to the author of revelation, and submit his or her interpretations to correction by that author. It does, however, force the interpreter to listen to someone: to his or her fellow Muslims. As in so many other theories and practices of interpretation, it is the reading community, rather than the author or even the text, that gets the last word.
Whether or not you share my hermeneutical values, or agree with my analysis of what al‑Juwaynī is doing in his legal theory, I hope that you have joined energetically in this conversation with al‑Juwaynī. It is part of a much larger conversation, among contemporary Muslims and non-Muslims, about the nature of Islamic law and the sources of its authority. That conversation must be renewed in each generation, if Muslims are to maintain and renew a meaningful conception of the law, its relationship to God, and its relationship to their own thinking and their own values. That conversation is also a necessary component of a healthy relationship between Muslims and non-Muslims—a relationship characterized by both challenge and understanding, both integrity and sacrificial listening.