Usul al-Fiqh

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Usul al-fiqh (Arabic: أصول الفقه; Principles of Jurisprudence) are the principles used by Islamic jurists to derive legal rulings. It is a specific discipline within the Shi'ite seminary system; next to Islamic law itself, it is the center-piece of a seminary education in the Sh'ite world. Mastery of it is one of the most important requirements for being a religious jurist.



Usul al-fiqh is a discipline, and it is an integral part of Ijtihad, the process of scholarly legal interpretation of religious sources. Usul al-fiqh is the sum-total of hermeneutic principles that a jurist uses in deriving Islamic laws from their various sources. Shi'ite scholars have had some minor disagreements about the exact definition of usul al-fiqh, and many works on usul al-fiqh begin with a detailed discussion of what it is and what it is not.


Early and Medieval Days

Depending on how one defines usul al-fiqh, its history is as long as Shi'ism itself. However, it is usually argued that Shi'ite jurists relied primarily on hadiths, without laying down solid principles for how to interpret these texts. Shaykh al-Mufid is usually credited with being one of the first scholars to begin laying down rational principles for dealing with issues of Islamic law. He lived during the heyday of the Mu'tazilah rationalists in Baghdad, and so much of his scholarly worked developed in a period where logic and rationalized theology were becoming important in the Muslim world. His works laid greater emphasis upon the use of reason, and set the stage for formalizing the subsequent development of Islamic law.

As time developed, an attempt was made to rationalize Shi'ite juristic sciences more and more. The leader in this field was Ash-Sharif al-Murtada. His works made much wider use of reason then was used by even many later scholars of usul. Much of his worked focused on the importance of certainty, and refuting rival schools of Sunni law on the grounds that they use their sources uncritically, and make use of principles like analogy that do not prove legal rulings with any certainty. He was also quite critical of the use of single narration hadiths without some kind of context to establish their legal value (such as conformance to the Qur'an or juristic consensus, or soundness of the chain of narrators). His methodology, as such, was very different from that of some of the earlier scholars, who tended to rely much more uncritically on the use of hadith, as would be done by later Akhbari scholars.

Shaykh Tusi, then continued to lay down systematic hermeneutical principles for dealing with Islamic law.[1] Nonetheless, most of the basic legal principles are themselves discussed within the Shi'ite hadith literature. In his works, we see some of the earliest examples of a jurist attempting to reconcile conflicting hadith reports, and to deduce what types of rulings are being indicated in those sources.

During the 16th century, controversies began to arise about the scope of usul al-fiqh, and a movement known as the Akhabriyyun arose to challenge the widening scope that was being given to the discipline. It was argued that religious scholars must submit literally to what is in the hadith literature, and the use of non-textual interpretive principles for dealing with these texts was prohibited. At this point, Twelver Shi'ite jurists split into two camps; those making use of the traditional usul al-fiqh were classed as Usulis. Though Akhbari scholars have their own usul, its scope is much more limited, and the use of independent reason is expressly prohibited. Principles like Bara'ah, Ihtiyat, and Istishab are all used by Akhbari scholars, as these principles are explicitly discussed within the Shi'ite hadith literature. The most well-known Akhbari scholars of this period were Allama Majlisi, author of the mammoth hadith encyclopedia Bihar al-Anwar, and Shaykh Hurr Al-Aamili, author of the hadith compendium Wasa'il ash-Shi'a. Usulism eventually became the most prominent force within the Shi'ite juristic world, though small numbers of Akhbari scholars continue today.

Modern Day

Ayatullah Muhammad Baqir as-Sadr, who was executed by Saddam Hussein in 1980, was one of the most important scholars of usul al-fiqh in the 20th century. His three-volume work Durus fi ilm al-usul[2] has become the standard text for teaching usul al-fiqh in the Shi'ite seminary, and many consider it to be a complete substitute for earlier works on usul. His work sought to dispense with many philosophical issues he considered unnecessary for the study of usul, and sought to tightly define the scope of juristic ijtihad to what can be logically deduced from religious sources.

External Links


  1. Jurisprudence and its Principles, by Ayatullah Murtada Mutahhari
  2. Volume 1 in Arabic. The book has also been translated into English twice: Lessons in Islamic Jurisprudence ISBN 1851683933 & Principles of Islamic Jurisprudence: According to Shi'i Law ISBN 1889999369
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