Monday, June 03, 2013

Wael Hallaq 0/Francis Galton 2

I am currently most of the way through Shari'a, an interesting book on Islamic law by a leading scholar of the field. It's a book that should be of particular interest to libertarians, since a large part of his thesis is that traditional Islamic law was decentralized, mostly out of state control, worked very well, and was destroyed during the 19th and 20th century by the rise of the nation state.

One problem with reading such a book is that much of the argument depends on evidence I cannot readily check, since I am not a specialist in the field and do not read Arabic. But I have been trying to check it where I can, looking both at sources he cites and translations of primary source material. My conclusion is that, while his thesis may be largely true, he badly overstates the strength of the evidence for it, viewing what he approves of through rose colored glasses and what he disapproves of through whatever are the opposite of rose colored glasses.

That conclusion was reinforced when I came across the following passage in support of an argument blaming western influence for the nationalist and patriarchal nature of modern Islamic states, and did a little online research to see if it was true:
"In nineteenth century Europe, the blood of a nation was not only a matter of symbolism and semiotics, but a scientific project. Galton, Spencer, Darwin and Gardiner, among others asserted that every part of the human body and every attribute of personality contribute, through the blood, to the formation of the sperm. ... From this logic followed the conception that it was the man, not the woman, who determined national attributes, ..."
Not only is it not true, it is very nearly the opposite of true, a fact Hallaq could have easily discovered. Darwin did conjecture that every part of the human body provided particles, which he called "gemmules," that contributed to the formation of the sperm—but also of the egg. To check that, all it takes is a google search on [Darwin Sperm egg gemmules]. And when Darwin's cousin Francis Galton demonstrated that blood did not carry heredity by doing a blood transfusion exchange between rabbits of differing appearance and observing the offspring, Darwin responded that he had not claimed the particles moved through the blood, that perhaps they were transmitted in some other way.

Not only did Galton demonstrate by experiment the opposite of what Hallaq claims he believed with regard to the role of blood in heredity, he also demonstrated the falsity of the view Hallaq  attributes to him about the roles of men and women. In Hereditary Genius, Galton investigated the inheritance of intellectual characteristics by compiling lists of prominent individuals in various fields and analyzing their relationships, looking at both male and female lines. His conclusion, in the chapter on English judges:
“Consequently, though I at first suspected a large residuum against the female line, I think there is reason to believe the influence of females but little inferior to that of males, in transmitting judicial ability.”
The whole passage I quoted above from Hallaq is false, easily demonstrated to be false, and the author uses it to support one of his claims. The conclusion is that he cannot be trusted to get the facts right, at least when they are facts that he thinks support his argument.

While it is disappointing to learn that Hallaq's work, however interesting, is unreliable, I am in his debt for calling my attention to Francis Galton, who turns out to be an interesting and impressive figure.


At 1:57 PM, June 03, 2013, Blogger chriscal12 said...

Also, re: Spencer, a bit of searching through Principles of Biology turns up lines like,
"Sundry facts tend likewise to show, that there does not exist the profound distinction which we are apt to assume, between the male and female reproductive elements."

And "...since, if sperm-cells and germ-cells have natures not essentially unlike those of unspecialized cells in general, their natures cannot be essentially unlike each other."

At 7:47 PM, June 03, 2013, Anonymous Matthew said...

From what I understand, the opposite of Rose coloured glasses are Jade coloured glasses

At 8:43 PM, June 03, 2013, Anonymous kzndr said...

I just finished reading Hallaw's book for a class on the history of Islamic law and had some similar reactions. While I found his exposition of the development of Islamic law to be comprehensive and insightful, I thought his tone became extremely apologetic and tendentious when discussing the record of the Shari'a and the advantages it offered over codified systems of law. It's unfortunate to hear that you were so easily able to debunk a passage, though given the ambition of his project (leading inevitably to him straying beyond his expertise) and the fact that he is clearly motivated by a particular critique of colonialism and modernity I'm not surprised.

I can read Arabic, though I don't have the specialization or time to be able to check his work. Since many of his more substantive comments on the Islamic legal tradition are the culmination of his previous research and writings (e.g., on the controversy over the "closing of the gate" of ijtihad or on the formation of the Sunni schools of law and the role of their eponyms--interesting papers, by the way), they have hopefully been subjected to scrutiny by his fellow scholars.

Thank you for your blog post, and I hope you find the rest of the book to be of value in spite of its shortcomings.

At 8:55 AM, June 04, 2013, Blogger Kevin said...

Wow, if the innovations attributed to him on Wikipedia are accurate, it's crazy that Francis Galton isn't a household name!

At 9:03 AM, June 04, 2013, Blogger Tibor said...

Well, I knew Galton's name from some statistics classes, but I surely didn't know he was such a polymath. The only thing that scares me a bit is that all the big names in science (and statistics in particular) from England of the 19./20. century (well at least Fisher, Pearson and Galton) were eugenists. And the pattern seems to be similar in other countries. And ideal environment for the WW2 nazi ideology...and because of it, everyone who makes attempts of eugenics today (on a voluntary basis, which is a sharp difference from the engenists in the past) is looked upon almost as a nazi by a lot of people.

At 4:36 PM, June 04, 2013, Blogger David Friedman said...


My larger criticism of Hallaq's argument concerns the Ottoman Empire. By his account, what destroyed the traditional legal system was seizure of control over the content of the law, the training of legal experts, and the courts by the state. But the Ottomans started doing that long before the point at which they were under pressure from the west.

Further, the Ottomans are the only source, so far as I can tell, of extensive surviving court records. It looks as though all or almost all of Hallaq's evidence of how well the "traditional" system worked, in particular its support for the weak against the strong, is from late Ottoman sources, mostly 17th and 18th c. (in particular from Gerber's book, which Hallaq cites and I've read). That was a legal system with a single monopoly school of law (entirely in the core area, and in areas that had been dominated by other schools verdicts had to be approved by the Hanafite chief qadi), with a government appointed official in charge of the legal system and legal education, with a ruler who sometimes told the qadis how they had to interpret the law.

In other words, his data on the traditional system is largely from a system lacking all of the features to which he attributes the virtues of the traditional system.

At 4:39 PM, June 04, 2013, Blogger David Friedman said...


I'm not sure if Galton actually was in favor of eugenics. The introduction to Hereditary Genius raises the possibility, but the context is not an argument for or against doing it but rather the point that it's going to be an issue in the future and that's one reason to find out to what extent characteristics are heritable, which is the subject of the book.

He might have taken a more definite position elsewhere.

I actually met Fisher, when I was a schoolboy in Cambridge in the 1950's for a year. By my parents' account, I was very impressed by the width of his knowledge. He not only knew more about dinosaurs than I did, that being an interest of mine at the time, he also knew more about comic books.

At 4:46 PM, June 04, 2013, Blogger David Friedman said...


A few other criticisms of Hallaq.

He keeps saying "Western," but when he gets specific its almost always "French." English common law is much more like his account of fiqh, with judges rather than legal scholars setting precedent, than like his account of modern law--a point he half concedes at one point.

His view of western law and the western nation state, apparently based largely on Foucault, strikes me as badly distorted. Thus, for instance, one virtue to him of multiple madhabs is that you can choose which legal rule to set up your contract under. But precisely the same is true in modern American law, since you can specify that the contract will be interpreted under the law of a particular state, and you can choose which state to incorporate in.

Somewhere he offers, as evidence of the tolerance, in practice, of fiqh, the existence of lots of prostitutes in large cities, even though what they were doing was zina and so illegal. But he could have said the same thing about modern western cities.

Lots of other stuff. His general thesis about the attractiveness of fiqh is interesting and might be true, but there are strong ideological biases running through his work.

At 3:05 AM, June 05, 2013, Blogger Tibor said...

David: Well, I guess I was too hasty and it might be wrong. Your comment helped me realize I should be more careful next time - reading a label "eugenist" in a wikipedia article and making conclusions based on that was pretty stupid of me.

I've never met Fisher (it would be impossible without a time machine), but our professor who taught me basics of mathematical statistics kept talking about Fisher and Pearson and their quarells all the time. They must have hated each other but quite a lot of good came out of that since each tried to best the other and a lot of good mathematics came out of that struggle. I don't doubt both were geniuses. An interesting thing is that Pearson started as a Germanist and a german language teacher and then turned to statistics...which seems to me to be even a bigger leap than from physics to economics :)

At 12:32 PM, June 05, 2013, Blogger David Friedman said...

Fisher stories:

My father spent a year visiting at Cambridge when I was about nine. The senior common room took two copies of the London Times--for the (famous) crossword puzzle. One was for Fisher, one for the rest of the common room, and it was a contest.

When I met Fisher, he was introduced to me as Sir R.A.Fisher, so I asked him what kind of knight he was. His response was "a knight bachelor with three daughters and four sons" (or whatever the numbers were).

At 4:46 AM, June 06, 2013, Blogger Tibor said...


Shame I forgot most of the stories our teacher told us about Fisher and Pearson. But basically the problem was both of them hated when someone pointed out their mistakes while both of them loved to point out mistakes of others. And since everybody makes mistakes, they managed to find them in each others works...and each time it took each of them a lot of time to recognize that the other one is right. However this rivalry not only resulted in correcting mistakes but with a motivation on both sides to create something better than the other.

It seems this mentions some of their quarells:

At 10:21 AM, June 06, 2013, Anonymous Wonks Anonymous said...

Galton advocated "positive eugenics", encouraging desirable births. Nowadays most people assume any reference to eugenics to be "negative eugenics", discouraging undesirable births.

At 6:10 PM, June 06, 2013, Blogger David Friedman said...

Re Eugenics:

The version I approve of is libertarian eugenics--technologies that let a couple choose, among the children they could have, which ones they do have. Heinlein has a plausible version of such a technology in Beyond This Horizon.


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