Islam and the Humanities

Conference 2014

Ruth Miller

Professor of History, University of Massachusetts-Boston

Bacterial, Computational, and Cloned Life? The Ottoman-Islamic Law and Politics of Nonhuman Vitality

This paper will explore Ottoman and Islamic juridical writing on non-human life. An assumption underlying much scholarship on life as a political or legal category is that such life must necessarily be human. Even apparent exceptions to this rule—for example, the animals that can achieve partial political or legal existence as honorary humans, possessed of rights and dignity—in many ways reinforces human-centric interpretations of political and legal life. The rights-bearing human, after all, remains the norm and model for incorporating these non-human lives into political and legal structures. 

But what about life that is not human and that cannot be made to resemble human life? Can it—or has it—ever had legal salience in an Islamic context? The hypothesis driving this paper is that it has. Indeed, the hypothesis driving this paper is that we can find a robust legal narrative of the lives of germs, viruses, bacteria, and even inorganic particles throughout the late Ottoman period and into the twentieth century. This paper will explore the implications of this narrative both for understanding theories of Ottoman political belonging and as a basis for analyzing contemporary, twenty-first century legal approaches to non-human life. Earlier interpretations of bacteria and viruses as political or legal figures might help us to make sense of ongoing interpretations of the artificial or inorganic lives of clones, computers, and autonomous algorithms.

Ruth Miller is a professor of history at the University of Massachusetts-Boston, with research and teaching interests in Ottoman history, comparative law, feminist theory, and science and technology studies. Her recent books include Snarl: In Defense of Stalled Traffic and Faulty Networks (2013) and Seven Stories of Threatening Speech: Women’s Suffrage Meets Machine Code (2011).