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Principles of Islamic Jurisprudence

Posted May 4, 2009

Filed under: Usul al-Fiqh |

Definition of Usul Al-Fiqh


By Imam Ahmad Sa’d


Coming to the core of your question, let’s first understand what is the translation of the term ‘usul al-fiqh’. The term ‘usul al-fiqh‘ is a composition of two words the first of which can be translated as ‘principles’ and the second one can be translated as ‘jurisprudence’.


Sometimes the term is elongated to ‘Usul Al-fiqh Al-Islami‘ and thus translated as the ‘Principles of the Islamic Jurisprudence’. Yet, it is commonly used as ‘usul al-fiqh‘ referring to the Islamic Jurisprudence and not any other jurisprudence.


As may be perceived from the term, this branch of knowledge does not deal with the topics of Islamic worship, rituals or transactions which are normally the subject matter of the Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh); rather, it discusses the sources of the science of jurisprudence itself.


Scope of Usul Al-Fiqh


Since the science of Islamic jurisprudence is mainly composed of Islamic rulings regarding many issues and the texts that support such rulings, the concern of the science of usul al-fiqh is to discuss these rulings.


So, the scope of usul al-fiqh is: the definition of a ruling, the categories of rulings and the evidence used to support such rulings, the sources from which such supportive texts are taken, the weight of such sources in Shariah, who is addressed with such rulings and when they are binding on him and when not, how such rulings are deduced from such sources and what is the process that is followed to reach them as conclusions at the end.


In addition, the science of usul al-fiqh also deals with some of the main objectives of the rulings of fiqh and what is the main wisdom behind such rulings and what exactly they aim at.


In that sense, it tackles the well known issue of the five main objectives whose protection is a big aim of Shariah; namely, soul, reason, honor, property, and belief.


From this we can realize that the science of usul al-fiqh deals with topics like, what is the definition of a ruling, what are the various categories/levels of rulings and what is the definition of each.


It also deals with whose authority it is to give rulings and what are the sources of these rulings and how do we deal with such sources, i.e., which takes precedence over another.


In addition, it also deals with the ways of reaching rulings and deducing them from their sources. Therefore, we can say that usul al-fiqh is like the tools needed for reaching the say of Shariah regarding various issues. It searches beyond the rulings, that is, rulings are amongst its subjects.


History of Usul Al-Fiqh


If the science of usul al-fiqh is searching in the roots and the sources of fiqh, then it can be easily understood and realized that it came into existence after the emergence of the science of fiqh itself.


Scholars of fiqh say that the science of fiqh came into existence with the emergence of Islamic Shariah itself, because it relates closely to faith, worship and morals and this necessitates the existence of rulings regulating them from the very onset of their existence.


As for the science of usul al-fiqh, it was already there during the early days of Islam because it also relates to its sources. Yet, it was written down and research started to be directed towards it after the writing down of the science of fiqh itself.


This is because the science of fiqh needed a course or a foundation upon which it can formulate its maxims and usul al-fiqh represented such a much needed formula.


Historical records go to the fact that the first one who wrote a book on usul al-fiqh was Imam Abu Yusuf Yakub ibn Ibrahim Al-Ansari of Kufa the well known student of Imam Abu Hanifah (may Allah bless his soul). Imam Muhammad ibn Al-Hasan Ash-Shaybani, the other well known student of Imam Abu Hanifah wrote a book as well.


Yet, their writings did not reach us, which means we do not know exactly what they wrote. Therefore, we cannot consider something being the first writing in a branch of knowledge unless that piece of writing is in our hands.


The first of these writings that has reached our hands and is considered today as the earliest book in this science is the well known book of Al-Risalah (The Treatise) by Imam Ash-Shafi.


The well know Muslim scholar Al-Razi confirmed this fact when he wrote about the qualities and the merits of Imam Ash-Shafi saying:


“Before Imam Ash-Shafi, scholars used to talk about the subjects of usul al-fiqh, argue and prove things without having any framework or logical sequence of a whole sciences. Ash-Shafi was the one who founded usul al-fiqh and formulated a way or a process for all people to know the levels of Shariah sources and what take precedence over the other. Therefore, ascribing usul al-fiqh to Ash-Shafi is like ascribing the science of reason and philosophy to Aristotle.” (Introduction to Al-Risalah, printed by Mustafa Al-Babi Al-Halabi, Cairo 1983, p. 4)


Scholars came later on and wrote many books in this important branch of knowledge, added to the writings of Ash-Shafi and contributed to the development of its formula and order.


Amongst the well known books in this science written by Shafi scholars are: Al-Burhan by Al-Juwayni, Al-Mustasfa by Al-Ghazali, Al-Mahsul by Al-Razi and Al-Ihkam fi Usul Al-Ahkam by Al-Amidi.


As for the books written by Hanafi scholars they include Al-Usul by Abi Al-Hasan Al-Karkhi, Al-Usul by Fakhr Al-Islam ‘Ali ibn Muhammad Al-Bazdawi and Al-Usul by Abi Bakr Al-Gassas Ar-Razi.


In addition to these traditional books, there is a plethora of modern works that make the science itself easy to the modern reader. Amongst these we can note Usul Al-Fiqh by Abdul-Wahab Khallaf, Usul Al-Fiqh by Muhammad Al-Khudari and Taysir Usul Al-Fiqh by Sheikh Abdullah Yusuf Al-Judai.


In the English language, we highly recommend Muhammad Hashim Kamali’s The Principles of Islamic Jurisprudence.


I hope by this I have given you an idea about this important branch of knowledge. Please keep in touch.


By Imam Ahmad Sa’d


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