The 'Risālah' and Islamic Legal Theory
  • Mon, 11/23/2015
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The Risālah is an original and unprecedented work. It was the first book ever written on Islamic legal theory. Though scholars had written extensively on law before, they never articulated their operating principles and underlying assumptions in a systematic and cohesive manner. Al-Shāfi`ī, the author of the Risālah, is considered up to this day a foremost authority in legal theory. Many of the topics he first addressed in that landmark work are still discussed today in the same terms. There were a number of reasons that pushed Al-Shāfi`ī to establish this new academic discipline, the most important of which are:
1. The differences between al-Shāfi`ī’s era and the era of the Prophet and his Companions were substantial. Many things had changed in the intervening centuries, culturally, politically, socially, scientifically, and economically. These matters needed to be addressed in a rigorous and objective manner.

2. The Arabic language had changed, with new terminology entering its lexicon, old words developing new usages, and new idioms coming into play. All of this could alter how people understood the sacred texts.

3. There was a sharp escalation in disagreements during al-Shāfi`ī’s time, with debate and formal disputation becoming the order of the day. Muslims jurists were polarized into two broad groups, the “school of hadith” in Madinah and the “school of opinion” in Iraq. This gave al-Shāfi`ī a very strong impetus to develop Islamic legal theory. Jurists needed to have a solid and systematic conceptual framework that could serve as a basis for their deliberations and a frame of reference for their disagreements.

4. There were numerous changes afoot in the Muslim world. The realm of Islam was vast, encompassing many cultures, and in every province there were new developments taking place. Every region had its own customs and traditions. Most of these matters did not have a precedent in Islamic Law, nor a clear and unambiguous reference in the sacred texts. This required jurists to apply analogical reasoning in order to refer new cases to existing ones with established rulings based on the Qur’an and Sunnah. In this way, the new issues could be referred back to the sacred texts in a sound and coherent manner. It is essential, when engaging in this kind of reasoning, to correctly identify the legal rationale for the original ruling and determine whether or not it is present in the new case under study. There was a need, therefore, to address this process in an academically rigorous manner, and this is one of the things that al-Shāfi`ī did in his Risālah.
The Risālah is considered by many to be al-Shāfi`ī’s greatest achievement. It is in print and widely available in Arabic bookstores today. There is an excellent critical edition of the book edited by Ahmad Muhammad Shākir, published as a single large volume.

The Risālah is devoted exclusively to legal theory. It sets forth the criteria for deriving legal rulings from the sacred texts directly and by way of analogy. It sets forth clear principles, most of which are universally accepted, that allows a jurist to engage properly with the Qur’an and Sunnah to determine matters of law.

It is said that the Risālah represents an original Arabic alternative to the Greek logic of Aristotle. Al-Shāfi`ī, himself referred to legal theory as home-grown Arabic logic, and he regarded the Arabs of his era to be as extremely intelligent and rational people.

The most basic assumptions of al-Shāfi`ī’s legal theory were the following:
1. Every legal question has an answer for it in the Qur’an and Sunnah., for Allah says: “We have explained everything in detail.” [Sūrah al-Isrā’: 12] This means that Allah has a ruling for every matter. It might be obligatory, forbidden, or merely permitted.

2. Every legal ruling is to be established with evidence. No one has a right to issue a legal verdict without evidence from the Qur’an, Sunnah, juristic consensus, or analogy.
These are the two basic underlying principles for his legal theory. Thereafter, he goes into considerable detail explaining how to engage with the texts, distinguishing general statements from specific ones, and categorical phrases from qualified ones. He discusses abrogation between the verses of the Qur’an. He discusses the criteria for determining the authenticity of hadith narrations. He details the principles of analogical reasoning. He also discusses why he disagrees with Abū Hanīfah’s concept of juristic preference.

Al-Shāfi`ī provided a great service to Islamic thought in writing the Risālah. It helped to bring the contending schools of law closer together. The followers of the school of hadith were able to become more comfortable and proficient at the exercise of legal reasoning as well as more wary of some of the weak hadith narrations they had been relying on, while the school of opinion was able to identify some of the false and unconvincing analogies they were using in their legal reasoning.

The principles al-Shāfi`ī set forth provided common ground for both schools, and jurists of every persuasion benefitted equally. This was an achievement al-Shāfi`ī’s education made him particularly suited for, having studied under Mālik, the foremost jurists of the school of hadith, as well as under Muhammad al-Shaybānī, one of the leaders of the school of opinion. Ibn Hajar al-`Asqalānī observes:
Mālik was the foremost Islamic scholar of Madinah. Al-Shāfi`ī travelled to him and studied under him. In Iraq, the foremost Islamic scholar was Abū Hanīfah. Al-Shāfi`ī studied under his close associate Muhammad b. al-Hasan al-Shaybānī. He studied with him extensively and received from him every benefit he could. In this way, al-Shāfi`ī brought together the knowledge of the school of opinion and that of the school of hadith. He continued to work with this knowledge until he developed from it Islamic legal theory, setting forth clear principles for legal reasoning. It was an achievement that everyone acknowledged, those who agreed with him as well as those who otherwise disagreed.
Thereafter, scholars of the other schools of thought wrote works responding to the Risālah in the terms of their own approaches. Likewise, al-Shāfi`ī’s students and followers continued to expand and elaborate on the field according to their teacher’s methodology. The field of Islamic legal theory developed in to one of the most sophisticated and dynamic fields of study in the Muslim world.