Visiting professor discusses history of Islamic law in 15th century al-Andalus


Michelle Toussaint

University of Alberta professor Jocelyn Hendrickson speaks about the legal treatment of Muslims, Christians and Jews during the era of Reconquista in Spain and Portugal at The Union on Monday afternoon.

Jeremy Thomas

Jocelyn Hendrickson, a history, classics and religious studies professor at the University of Alberta, said the history of the Spanish conquest of al-Andalus in the 15th century includes issues that are still very relevant to Muslims today.  

“Muslims in Western Europe and North America have been faced with a lot of issues about how to be Muslim in environments where they’re a religious minority,” Hendrickson said. “About one third of the world’s Muslims now live in such contexts.”

Hendrickson said fatwas, or nonbinding Islamic legal opinions issued by qualified jurists in response to specific questions, offer a window into the application of law to actual concerns and problems that arose at particular historical moments.

Hendrickson emphasized the need to view Iberia and North Africa as independent Islamic kingdoms, rather than a unified, homogenous region.

“My research, which shows that the texts once thought to be a crucial importance for Iberian Muslims was likely written by, for and about [a different group of] Muslims serves as a powerful example of the need to widen our focus beyond the narrow confides of national borders and academic disciplines.”

Hendrickson said she is interested in how jurists working within a religious legal system, in this case Islamic law, maintain a balance between continuity with normative traditions and adaptation to changing historical circumstances.

Christopher Rose, graduate student and outreach director for the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, said Hendrickson is providing a new interpretation of documents that have long been held to express North African attitudes toward the Spanish Conquest of the al-Andalus in the late 15th century.

“I think a lot of people don’t do enough of that, particularly when it comes to reading a lot of these medieval legal rulings [and] coming up with some more interesting conclusions that are much more nuanced than previously assumed,” Rose said.

History graduate student Elizabeth Nutting said she suggested bringing Hendrickson to campus to talk about this particular period because she said she felt the topic has not received enough attention in the Middle East History Lecture Series.

“It is exciting to have a pre-modernist talking about the different texts we use,” Nutting said.