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Shariah, Fiqh and the Sciences of Nature - Part 3
By Professor Nazeer Ahmed

(Dr. Nazeer Ahmed, educated at Cornell University and other institutions. He is author of several books and innumerable research papers. He has also been featured as an invited speaker in many countries. Dr. Nazeer Ahmed was a Chief Engineer for the Hubble Space Telescope and several Star War projects.  He was Institute Scholar at Caltech, and Adjunct Professor to University of New Mexico. He has also been Consultant to numerous other institutions of high training and research here and abroad.  He is currently President of WORDE, a non-profit NGO based on Washington, D.C. He is also Executive Director of American Institute of Islamic History and Culture and Consulting Dean to HMS Institute of technology, Bangalore, India)


In the dialogue between civilizations, the Shariah occupies a central place. Fiqh is the historical dimension of the Shariah and is the rigorous attempt to apply the Shariah in the matrix affairs. The Shariah is immutable. Fiqh, on the other hand, is dynamic. It is a moving principle of history and has evolved into different schools. The words Shariah and fiqh ought not to be used interchangeably. In this article we summarize the development of Maliki and Shafi’i fiqh and provide an introduction to the Mu’tazilite school. An understanding of this history helps in inter-civilizational dialogue and it helps explain some of the differences within the large and diverse global Islamic community.

The Madinite School was much more orthodox in its approach to fiqh. While Kufa, the city of Imam Abu Haneefah, was a border town, subject to the influence of other civilizations, Madina was the cradle of Islam and the city of the Prophet. The Madinites attached the utmost importance to the Sunnah of the Prophet. The first and foremost scholar of the Madinite School was Imam Malik bin Anas (d. 795). He spent most of his life in Madina and like Imam Abu Haneefah in the previous generation, took issue with the ruling Abbasids on juridical matters, for which he was publicly flogged and imprisoned. Concerned that the Istihsan of Imam Abu Haneefah would open the gate to unwelcome innovation, Imam Malik tightened the rules of Ijma. While accepting the primacy of the Qur’an, he insisted on the consensus of all of the Companions as the basis of verified Sunnah (as compared to Imam Abu Haneefah who maintained that the consensus of some of the Companions was a sufficient basis for jurisprudence).
The Maliki School spread through Egypt, Libya, Algeria and Morocco through the Hajj. The North African Hajis visited Mecca and Madina and learned their fiqh from the Madinites. They had little reason to visit Kufa and Iraq and therefore had only occasional contact with the Hanafi School. According to Ibn Khaldun, the cultural affinity between the unsettled Berbers of North Africa and the Bedouins of Arabia also contributed to the acceptance of the Maliki School in Libya and the Maghrib.
From North Africa, the Maliki School spread to Spain and was the only official School sanctioned by the Umayyad dynasty in Cordoba. As Islam spread from the Maghrib into sub-Saharan Africa through trade routes, the Maliki School also spread to Mauritania, Chad, Nigeria and others countries of West Africa. Most Africans today follow the Maliki School. The brief interlude of Fatimid rule in Egypt in the 9th and 10th centuries did not materially change the contacts between the Berbers of the Maghrib and the Bedouins of Arabia and the Maliki School returned to North Africa when Salah Uddin captured Egypt from the Fatimids (1170 CE).

The first one to establish a formal school of fiqh was Imam Muhammed ibn Idris al Shafi’i (d. 820 CE). Through his Risalah (journal), he was the first scholar to systematically document the basis of fiqh and critically examine its methodology. A Syrian by birth, Imam Shafi’i traveled to Madina and Kufa and learned from the disciples of Imam Abu Haneefah and Imam Malik. He took issue on certain of the positions taken by the Hanafi and Maliki jurists and adopted an independent position on some of the methodologies. According to Imam Shafi’i, the sources of fiqh are: (1) The Qur’an, (2) The Sunnah of the Prophet (on the issue of the Sunnah, Imam Shafi’i relaxed the rules of the Maliki School and suggested that the Sunnah was a valid source of jurisprudence even if it was supported by a single, reliable source. (3) Qiyas, provided that it was rigorously supported by prior cases decided on the basis of the Qur’an and the Sunnah. Imam Shafi’i did not accept Istihsan as a valid source of fiqh.

Thus Imam Shafi’i’s positions were somewhat less orthodox than those of Imam Malik, but not as liberal as those of Imam Abu Haneefah. The Shafi’i School spread to Egypt, the Sudan, Eritrea, East Africa, Malaya and the Indonesian Islands. Like the Hanafi School, the Shafi’i School produced many brilliant scholars. One of them, the great Abu Hamid al Ghazzali (d. 1111 CE), not only influenced the development of fiqh, but also changed the course of Islamic history through his brilliant dialectic.
It is appropriate at this stage to refer to the Mu’tazilite School of thought and its counterpoint, the Asharite School. As the Muslims captured Syria, Egypt and North Africa, they became custodians of not just the people of those countries, but their ideas as well. Most of those lands had been under Eastern Roman or Byzantine control where Greek thought was dominant. Historically, the term “Greek thought” is applied to the collective wisdom and classical thinking of the people of the eastern Mediterranean, which includes a broad geographical arc extending from Athens in Greece through Anatolia, Syria, Egypt and Libya. Greek civilization extolled the nobility of man and placed human reason at the apex of creation. Plato, Aristotle, Ptolemy, Euclid and Archimedes are some of the household names from the galaxy of thinkers produced by this civilization. The enduring achievement of Greek thought is that it perfected the rational process and left its lasting legacy for humankind.

The Muslims were the first inheritors of Greek thought. It was through the Muslims - more specifically the Spanish Muslims - that rational thought reached the Latin West. And it was only after the 12th century that the West woke up from its slumber and adopted the Greek civilization as its own, while about the same time, Muslims turned away from rational thought towards more esoteric and intuitive thinking.

The early Muslims not only adopted the rational approach but set out with enthusiasm to explain their own beliefs in rational terms. Questions relating to the nature of man, his relationship to creation, his obligations and responsibilities, as also the nature of Divine attributes were tackled. No Muslim scholar would embark on an intellectual effort unless his approach had a basis in the Qur’an. The rationalists saw a justification for their approach in Qur’anic verses ("Behold! In the creation of the heavens and the earth…There are indeed signs for a people who are wise”, Qur’an: 2,164) and in the Sunnah of the Prophet. Indeed, the Qur’an invites human reason to witness the majesty of creation and reflect on its meaning and understand the transcendence that suffuses it. The philosophical sciences that evolved as a result of this effort are referred to as Kalam (discourse, usually a religious discourse). Sometimes, Kalam is vaguely translated as Theology, but Theology as a science never caught on in Islamic learning as it did in Christianity, because the Muslims strove and succeeded in preserving the transcendence of God. Christianity adopted the position that God is knowable in person and is hence accessible to human perception. The Muslims, despite the philosophical challenges of the Greeks, succeeded in maintaining the position that God is knowable by His names, attributes and through the majesty of His creation, whereas His transcendence is hidden by His light.

The first Islamic scholar who tackled questions of Islamic belief from a rational perspective was Al Juhani (d. 699 CE). Note that the rational approach places human reason at the apex of creation and makes the world knowable. Al Juhani maintained that men and women not only have the capacity to know creation through their reason, but also have the capacity to act as free agents. Belief is the result of knowledge and understanding. Indeed, humankind has the moral imperative to understand God’s creation. Man, as a rational being, is mandated not only to understand the world, but also to act on it using his free will. Thus Al Juhani’s views bestowed upon humankind reason and responsibility. Heaven and hell were consequences of human action. This school of philosophy was known as the Qadariyya School (root word q-d-r, meaning power or free will. The Qadariyya School of philosophy is not be confused with the Qadariyya Sufi brotherhood, founded by Shaykh Abdul Qader Jeelani of Baghdad, in the 12th century).

The Qadariyya approach, when pushed to the limit, takes God out of the picture of human affairs in as much as it makes heaven and hell mechanistic and solely predicated upon human action. This was unacceptable to the Muslim mind. Furthermore, the rationalists overreached themselves and applied their techniques to the Qur’an itself. To preserve the transcendence of God, they came up with the absurd postulate that the Qur’an was “created” in time.

Reaction from the more orthodox quarters was bound to surface and this happened with the emergence of the Qida (pre-destination) School. The founder of this School was Ibn Safwan (d. 745 CE). According to Ibn Safwan, all power belongs to God and man is predetermined in his actions, good and evil, as well as his destination towards heaven or hell. Like the Qadariyya School, the Qida School sought its justification in the Qur’an (“Say! I have no power over any good or harm to myself except as God wills”, Qur’an, 7:188) and the Sunnah of the Prophet.

The battle lines were now drawn. Like the Christian civilization in earlier times, the Islamic civilization was just beginning to come to grips with Greek rationalism. What was going to be the outcome? The answers were not clear and were hidden in the womb of the unknown future. Both Imam Ja’afar as Saadiq and Imam Abu Haneefah were well aware of the arguments of Qida and Qadar, but stayed clear of being drawn into its controversies.

Wasil ibn Ata (d. 749 CE) combined, developed and articulated the Qadariyya Schools into a coherent philosophy, which came to be known as the Mu’tazilah School. We may also look upon the Mu’tazilah School as the first response of Islamic civilization to the challenge of Greek thought. This School flourished for almost two hundred years and at times was the dominant School of thought among Muslims. Its influence was comparable to the Schools of Imam Abu Haneefah, Imam Ja’afar as Saadiq or Imam Malik. The Caliph al Mansur adopted the Mu’tazilite doctrine as court dogma (765 CE) and for almost a hundred years, the Mu’tazilites guided the intellectual ship of Islam until they were disowned and repudiated by the Caliph al Mutawakkil (845 CE).

The Mu’tazilite School was challenged by Imam Hanbal (d. 855) and Hasan al Ashari (d. 935) and was finally vanquished by al Ghazzali (d. 1111). This battle of ideas had a profound impact on Islamic history. It influences Muslim thinking even to this day. (To be continued) 


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