Din and Theology in Qur’an and Sunnah

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Din and Theology in Qur’an and Sunnah


Interpreting Islam . Muslims and non-Muslims often ask what Islam says about God and religion, but these questions are posed the wrong way. Islam does not say anything. Muslims, believers in Islam, say and write things about God, the prophets, and the requirements of the Islamic religion. The Qur’an, the Holy Scripture of Islam, states, “Verily, the religion [din] of God [Allah] is Islam” (3: 19). To understand this passage in its full context, it is important to know exactly what Arabic terms such as din and Allah mean. Defining such religious concepts requires interpretation. Interpreting the religion of Islam is the subject of Islamic dogma. Interpreting the nature of God (Allah] is the subject of Islamic theology.

The Concept of Din and Religious Practice . Islamic dogma is based on the term din. In general, din is the Arabic word for “religion.” But din means more than the Western idea of a “church” or institutional religion. A Semitic language like Hebrew, Arabic is structured in a system of roots—two to five consonants in length—that form words that are related in meaning. The root of the Arabic word din is d-y-n .This root has four primary meanings: mutual obligation, submission or acknowledgment, judicial authority, and natural inclination or tendency. For example, the word dana, which comes from din, means “being indebted”; this term conveys an entire group of meanings related to the idea of debt. The word dain, depending on the way in which it is used, can mean either “debtor” or “creditor,” words that have opposite meanings but are based on the same concept. To be dain means that one is obliged to follow all of the laws, customs, and ordinances covering indebtedness. Being in debt also implies obligation, which is expressed in Arabic by the term dayn, another word that comes from the same root. Indebtedness may also involve formal judgment (daynunaK) or conviction (idanah), terms that relate to one’s obligation to pay or otherwise fulfill a debt or a contract. Commercial life, which is based to a large extent on the responsibility to fulfill one’s contracts and debts, is centered in a town or a city, both of which are designated in Arabic by the term madinah. A city has a judge, ruler, or governor, each of whom may be designated by the term dayyan. In Islamic society, belonging to a community, whether a family, a tribe, or an urban community, is fundamental to the human condition. Similarly, the concept of civilization has always been associated in Islam with towns and cities. Thus, it is not surprising to find that some of the Arabic terms for civilization are also derived from the root dyn: tamaddana means “to build or found cities” or “to refine” or “to humanize,” while tamaddun means “civilization” or “refinement of society.” When one considers the four primary meanings of the root dyn, one realizes that in Islam, religion (din) is natural to the human condition. Religion conveys the idea of obligation or indebtedness, the acknowledgment of indebtedness, and the requirement to repay one’s debts.

Responsibility . The logic that underlies the concept of religion in Islam can be summed up in two additional concepts that have important ethical and theological implications: responsibility and reciprocity. In Islam, human beings are indebted to Allah, the One God, for creating them, providing for them, and maintaining their existence. The spiritually aware human being believes that human intelligence and creativity are only pale imitations of divine knowledge and creativity. The human being cannot create a race of new beings or maintain an entire universe. According to the Qur’an, every human being acknowledges a debt to God at the core of his or her being. This debt is expressed as a covenant, established between humanity and its Creator even before the human race was placed on earth: “When thy Lord drew forth their descendants from the children of Adam, He made them testify concerning themselves [saying]: ‘Am I not your Lord?’ They replied, Yes, we do so testify’” (7:172).

The Pious Slave of God . In Islam, the most important debt that the human being owes to God is that of his or her existence. Thus, the Qur’an often portrays the human being as a “slave of God” (‘Abd Allah}. Because he owes his existence to God, the spiritually aware person knows that he is the substance of his own debt and must repay God by giving himself over to the service of his Creator and submitting to God’s commands and ordinances. This total submission to God is what is meant by the term Islam. The person who submits to God is called a Muslim (feminine: muslimah). In a saying of the Prophet Muhammad, Islam is described metaphorically as a form of indentured servitude: “The intelligent man is he who indentures himself (dana nafsahu) to God and works for that which shall be after death.” This saying is echoed in the Qur’an by the statement, “Verily God has purchased from the believers their persons and possessions in return for Paradise.… So rejoice in the sale of yourself which you have concluded; for it is the supreme achievement” (9: 111). Today, the idea of being the slave of anyone, even God, is difficult to accept. When the subject of slavery is brought up, people usually associate it with abuse, exploitation, and the denial of the inalienable human right of freedom. However, when the Qur’an was revealed in the seventh century, slavery was a more complex phenomenon, and the metaphor of slavery as a form of salvation was commonly employed. People often sold themselves or members of their families into slavery to pay off debts, and in certain cases a trusted slave might be given a wide degree of individual freedom. Educated slaves often managed the business affairs of their masters and at times traveled hundreds of miles from their homes to conduct transactions. In early Christianity, the Apostles of Jesus were called “slaves of God,” not as a term of disrespect but as a token of the high esteem accorded them in the Christian community. Only as a “slave of God” could a believer become a “friend of God” and attain honor in heaven. A similar idea of divine friendship arising from divine slavery also exists in Islam. The Islamic word for worship, ’ibadah, comes from the same Arabic root as ’Abd, the word for slave. ’Ubudiyyah, the term used to describe the state of worship in Islam, literally means “slavery.” The pious Muslim was often called mutaabbid, “one who makes himself into a slave.” Mutaabbid is also used in Islam to describe the friend of God, who “shall neither fear nor grieve” (10: 62).

Reciprocity . The responsibility to acknowledge and repay one’s debt to God demands reciprocity. In a sense God “owes” the human being a fair return for his worship. “Who is the one who will lend to God a goodly loan, which God will double to his credit and multiply many times?” asks the Qur’an (2: 245). The Qur’an also affirms that the human being’s “loan” to God is to be paid not only in worship but also in charitable works: “Verily, we will ease the path to salvation for the person who gives out of fear of God and testifies to the best. But we will ease the path to damnation for the greedy miser who thinks himself self-sufficient and rejects what is best” (92: 5–10). The idea that a merciful God rewards human beings for their acts of mercy was an important doctrine for the Spanish Sufi Ibn al-’ArAbi (1165–1240). The Moroccan Sufi Abu al-’Abbas Sabti (died 1205) once said, “Divine grace is stimulated by acts of generosity.” For Sabti, each charitable act performed by a person calls forth a response from God that rewards the giver in proportion to the gift. Sabti, the patron saint of the Moroccan

city of Marrakesh, used this doctrine to encourage the elite classes of the city to provide charity for the poor.

Religious Knowledge and Religious Practice . The relationship between the concept of din and religious practice in Islam is summarized in a well-known tradition of the Prophet Muhammad, the Tradition of Jibril (Gabriel), which Muslims take as a semi-official creed. In this account, the angel Jibril comes to the Prophet in the form of a man and says, “Oh Muhammad, tell me about Islam.” The Prophet replies, “Islam means to bear witness that there is no god but Allah, that Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah, to maintain the required prayers, to pay the poor-tax, to fast in the month of Ramadan, and to perform the pilgrimage to the House of God at Mecca if you are able to do so.” Then Jibril says, “Tell me about faith [iman]” The Prophet replies, “Iman is to believe in Allah, His angels, His books, His messengers, and the Last Day, and to believe in Allah’s determination of affairs, whether good comes of it or bad.” “You are correct,” Jibril replies. “Now tell me about the perfection of religion [ihsan]. The Prophet responds, “Ihsan is to worship Allah as if you see Him; for if you do not see Him, surely He sees you.” In this tradition, Islam represents religious practice; iman represents religious knowledge; and ihsan represents the union of knowledge and practice. Most scholars of religion think of religious practice as coming after religious knowledge. People follow the rules and commandments of God because they believe in God and know that His rules must be obeyed, but in the Tradition of Jibril these roles are reversed. Instead of faith coming before practice, practice defines and confirms faith. To be a true Muslim, it is not enough to be born a Muslim or to call oneself a Muslim. The believer must also perform the actions that confirm one as a Muslim before God. These actions are summarized in the “Five Pillars of Islam” that appear in the first part of the Tradition of Jibril:

  1. To affirm that there is no god but Allah and that Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah (Shahadati)
  2. To maintain the five required daily prayers (Salat)
  3. To pay the poor-tax (Zakat)
  4. To fast during the lunar month of Ramadan (Sawm Ramadan)
  5. To perform the pilgrimage to Makkah at least once in one’s lifetime (Hajj).

The key to the Five Pillars of Islam is the Shahadah, the “Act of Bearing Witness,” which symbolizes the complementarity of faith and practice in Islam. The statement “There is no god but Allah” confirms the believer’s acceptance of divine reality. As a formal proclamation of divine oneness, it represents the essence of knowledge (ilm). The statement “Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah” confirms the believer’s submission to God, which is the meaning of the word Islam. By making this statement, the believer responds to God by acknowledging the Prophet Muhammad, both as the transmitter of the Islamic message and as the quintessential Muslim. The person of knowledge in Islam is both a “knower” and a “doer.” The knowledge of the nature of God informs religious practice and is confirmed by it. By maintaining a complementarity between faith and practice, the sincere Muslim follows the example of the Prophet Muhammad, who was exalted (muhammad) above all others because he embodied religion both inwardly and outwardly. This dual embodiment is exemplified in the final portion of the Tradition of Jibril, where ihsan, the perfection of religion, is defined as “worshipping Allah as if you see Him; for if you do not see Him, surely He sees you.”

Sources of Religious Knowledge . The primary source of religious knowledge in Islam is the Qur’an, the “Speech” of God. The Arabic term Qur’an is most often translated as “reading” or “recital.” It can also be translated as “scripture.” Grammatically, Quran is a verbal noun that carries the connotation of a “continuous reading” or something that is recited and listened to over and over again. For Muslims, the Qur’an is a spiritual touchstone and a literary model. As a spiritual touchstone, it is the revelation sent down by God to the Prophet Muhammad between the years 610 and 632. The Qur’an calls itself Umm al-Kitab, “Mother of the Book” or “Sourcebook,” a model of divine communication (13: 39). As a form of literature, it is often regarded as the source of the Classical Arabic language. The Qur’an is the earliest known major text to appear in Classical Arabic, and it includes all the rules of Arabic grammar. It is regarded as a literary model not only by Muslims but also by Arab Christians.

Revelation from God . For Muslims, the Qur’an consists of the actual “word” or “speech” of God (9: 6) and is written exactly as it was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad. As a revelation from God, the entire text of the Qur’an is sacred. Its significance for Muslims is similar to that of the logos (divine word) in Christianity. In Christianity, the divine word is embodied in the person of Jesus Christ. In Islam, the divine word is not embodied in the Prophet Muhammad. Muhammad was only the bearer of the divine word; as a prophet and a mortal man, he transmitted and interpreted the word of God, but he was not the word of God himself. This divine attribute is reserved for the Qur’an alone.

Reading the Qur’an . The Qur’an is divided into 114 sections (surah), each of which includes from 3 to 286 or 287 “signs” or “verses” (ayah). An ayah is a “statement in the speech of God.” The purpose of these divine statements, which may include anything from the written text of the Qur’an to the signs of God in nature, is to awaken the human spirit to the reality of God’s existence. To be a person of knowledge in Islam, one must learn two levels of discourse: the Arabic text of the Qur’an and the “text” of the natural world, which is also seen as an ayah in the speech of God. The person of knowledge in Islam must learn to “read” the signs of God in the world as a “book.” This aspect of knowledge is exemplified in the Qur’an by the prophet Abraham, who understood God to be the cause of heavenly events (6: 75-79), and the prophet Solomon, who was inspired by God to understand the “discourse of the birds” (27: 16). This attitude toward knowledge also inspired the great achievements of Muslim scholars in philosophy, science, and medicine.

Divine Transcendence in the Qur’an . As a theological document, the Qur’an demonstrates the existence and nature of Allah, the One God. In doing so, it refers to itself as a “criterion of discernment” (furqan). The discernment or certainty that is gained by a Muslim who assimilates the message of the Qur’an is the same as that bestowed by God on His prophets and messengers. A messenger of God (Rasul Allah) is a bearer of divine scripture. The prophets Muhammad, Abraham, Moses, David, and Jesus are messengers because they were the bearers of divine books. A prophet of God (NAbi Allah) does not bring a revealed book but is chosen by God to remind humanity of Allah’s message. In the Qur’an, these messengers include biblical prophets such as Lot and Solomon and nonbiblical ones such as Luqman and the ArAbian prophets Salih and Hud. The knowledge brought by prophets and messengers leads the spiritually aware human being to perceive an absolute and all-encompassing reality—Allah—whose nature, unique and exalted, lies beyond the limits of the human imagination: “Say: He is Allah the One; Allah the Perfect beyond compare; He gives not birth, nor is He begotten, and He is, in Himself, not dependent on anything” (112).

This short surah of the Qur’an provides the classic Islamic expression of divine transcendence, the idea that God is beyond all comparison with the physical world.

Divine Immanence in the Qur’an . In the Qur’an the image of a unique and transcendent deity is complemented by a more complex image of a deity who is present, or immanent, in the world because He is the source of existence itself: “He is the First and the Last, the Outward and the Inward; And He is the Knower of every thing” (57: 3). Through an understanding of divine transcendence and divine immanence, the Muslim gains knowledge of tawhid, the concept of divine oneness that is the fundamental premise of Islamic theology.

Monotheism . Islam has often been called the most radically monotheistic of world religions. The Qur’an repeatedly stresses that Allah is one, unique, perfect, and incomparable; He has no spouse, children, or partners and does not form part of a trinity. Despite this radical monotheism, however, the discourse of the Qur’an often fluctuates between transcendence and immanence, abstract and concrete, logical and analogical: although God is not tied to place, He is Lord of the East and the West (55: 17). He is beyond the world; yet, he sends rain and revives the earth (29: 63). He is unlike anything; yet, his “face” will abide forever (55: 27). To aid the understanding of God’s nature, the Qur’an uses ninety-nine terms to convey aspects of divine being. These terms are known as the ninety-nine “Excellent Names of Allah” (7: 180). Many of these divine names are incorporated into personal names, such as (Abd al-Rahman (Slave of the Merciful), Abd al-Jabbar (Slave of the Overpowering), or ’Abd al-Aziz (Slave of the Glorious). Most of the divine names in the Qur’an can also be applied to people, thus reminding believers of Allah’s immanence in the world. With the exception of the supreme name Allah and the name al-Rahman, which refers to the divine mercy that creates and maintains the universe, divine names refer to attributes that are shared by both God and humans.

God and Humanity in the Qur’an . The sharing of the “Excellent Names of Allah” with human attributes is an important aspect of the spiritual humanism of the Qur’an. In the Qur’an, the human being is the key to the divine plan and the ultimate beneficiary of God’s creation of the world. Significantly, the word insan, the term used in the Qur’an to designate the human being, is generic: it includes both men and women. The use of a term for “human being” rather than “man” or “woman” in the Qur’an demonstrates that men and women are spiritually equal. It is not man or woman but humanity in general that occupies an intermediate position between heaven and earth. All human beings are faced with the existential and moral choices that make up the “criterion of discernment” in the Qur’an. Each person, man and woman alike, is responsible for his or her own soul. The most significant duty of every Muslim is to submit his or her personal will to the criterion of truth in the Qur’an. Choosing between fundamental truth and falsehood is what separates Islam from unbelief (kufr) a denial of truth that “covers up,” falsifies, or rejects God’s message as expressed in His revelations.

Covenant . In the Qur’an human accountAbility is epitomized by a covenant in which humanity takes responsibility for the heavens and the earth before creation. This covenant constitutes another criterion by which faith and actions are judged. Sometimes called “God’s covenant” (2: 27), it separates hypocrites and those who assign spiritual or material partners to God from true believers who maintain their trust in the Qur’anic message (33: 73). The person who trusts in Allah and is true to God’s trust in him by not breaking the covenant in thought, word, or deed is the trustee or vice-regent (khalifati) of God on earth (2: 30-33). A society made up of such individuals constitutes a normative community, one that serves as an example and is a collective witness to the truth (2: 143). The Qur’an calls this normative community Ummah Muslimah (2: 128). In Islamic salvation history, the first Ummah Muslimah was the community created by the Prophet Muhammad and his Companions in Madinah between the years 622 and 632.

The Prophet Muhammad . Although Muslims do not believe that the Prophet Muhammad wrote the Qur’an, neither do they believe that he was an ordinary person. A well-known Sufi saying states: “Muhammad was ‘merely a man as a ruby is ‘merely’ a stone.” Muhammad and the Qur’an are inseparable. First, the Prophet Muhammad was the vehicle of the Qur’an’s revelation. For Muslims, this “unlettered prophet” (7: 157) was chosen by God to transmit the divine word because he uniquely exemplified the goodness, justice, and spirituality required for a bearer of the divine message. When asked about Muhammad’s personality, the Prophet’s wife ‘A’isha summarized it by saying, “His way of life was the Qur’an.” Second, as the messenger of the divine word, Muhammad was more qualified than anyone else to interpret the meaning of the Qur’an. The Qur’an says to Muhammad: “We have revealed unto you the Remembrance, so that you may explain to humanity that which has been revealed to them” (16: 44). It is reported that in the last year of his life, the Prophet reviewed and edited the text of the Qur’an with the scribes of his community so that the written Qur’an would be an exact copy of the revelation sent down to him. Third, Muhammad was the first political leader in Islam. The Qur’an admonishes Muslims to heed the Prophet’s advice and follow his injunctions. Finally, the Prophet Muhammad was a paradigm, a human norm of Islam in all of its aspects, ranging from the spiritual to the terrestrial and from the individual to the collective. The Qur’an calls the Prophet a “fine example” (33: 21) and a “sufficiency to all of humanity” (34: 28). He exemplified in a single, integrated personality all three facets of the Islamic concept of din: Islam as practice, Islam as knowledge, and Islam as the combination of knowledge and practice.

Prophetic and Divine Traditions . In ArAbia before the coming of Islam, the leaders of towns and tribes kept the records of important decisions, local laws, and customary practices in special places, such as temples or sacred precincts. Collectively, these records of a community’s traditions were known as its sunnah. When referring to the way things were done in a particular locality in ArAbia, people would speak of the “Sunnah of Ta’if,” or the “Sunnah of Makkah.” With the advent of Islam, sunnah gradually lost its local connotation, and came to be understood as the “way of the Prophet Muhammad.” Sunnah comprises all aspects of the Prophet’s life and teachings and is derived from four sources: (1) the Qur’an, which at times refers to incidents in the Prophet’s life, hints at the nature of his personality, and corrects his behavior; (2) orally transmitted traditions (hadiths), which recount the Prophet’s actions and decisions; (3) “battle accounts” (maghazi), which describe the battles fought by the Prophet; and (4) later biographical works (sirati) that detail the life and career of the Prophet. Sirah biographies often attempt to draw parallels between events in the life of Muhammad and the lives of biblical prophets.

Hadiths . Of the four sources of Sunnah, the most important are the orally transmitted traditions known as hadiths. Literally, hadith means “saying” or “event.” As a source of Islamic knowledge, hadiths are second only to the Qur’an in significance and authority. In some collections, hadith accounts are paired with accounts of the actions and sayings of the Prophet’s Companions and the first generations of Muslim leaders. One can also find collections of so-called holy traditions (hadith qudsi): inspirational sayings revealed by God to the Prophet Muhammad, but not part of the Qur’an.

Wisdom and Guidance . As a body of knowledge, Sunnah is a compendium of wisdom and guidance covering every facet of Islamic thought and life. The hadith traditions that make up Sunnah describe how the Prophet ate, slept, treated his neighbors, practiced hygiene, and earned a

livelihood. Other traditions deal with the social, economic, and political regulation of Muslim society. Many traditions deal with the ritual aspects of Muslim life, such as the rules for prayer, fasting, alms giving, pilgrimage, and ablutions. Still others, including the “holy traditions,” are more theological in nature and deal with metaphysics, cosmology, and eschatology (accounts of the afterlife).

’Ilm . For most of Islamic history, ’Urn, the Arabic word for knowledge, primarily meant “knowledge of traditions.” The “person of knowledge” (’alirn) was trained in hadiths before being trained in more-specialized disciplines. Although some traditions were collected and disseminated in written form during the Prophet Muhammad’s lifetime, it was only in the ninth century that they were systematically organized into collections. When the Prophet was alive, traditions were disseminated in three ways. The most direct method was dictation. Since Muhammad could not write, he dictated portions of the Qur’an and administrative correspondence to his scribes. At least forty-five such scribes are known by name. The most common form of hadith transmission was verbal teaching. It was the practice of the Prophet to repeat important regulations and interpretations of Qur’anic passages, so that listeners could learn them by heart or write them down. The final form of hadith transmission was practical demonstration. In matters of ritual, such as ablution, prayer, and pilgrimage, the Prophet demonstrated required behaviors to observers, who would then pass on his example to others. Hadiths that were not written down were discussed in study circles. The Prophet commissioned teachers to organize study circles in regions of ArAbia beyond Makkah and Madinah, such as Najran, Yemen, and Hadramawt.

Hadith Dissemination . About 150 years after the Prophet’s death, the dissemination of hadiths became more formalized. New forms of dissemination included oral recitation of traditions by a teacher, dictation of traditions from a written collection, and recitation back to a teacher by a student. Although written traditions became more common, the transmission of hadiths retained its original oral character throughout the medieval period. In order to teach hadiths to others, a student had to obtain a written document known as an ijazah from his teacher. A sort of diploma, the ijazah confirmed the Ability of the student to recite traditions accurately from memory. The ijazah also confirmed that the student knew the entire chain of transmission of each hadith account, leading back to the Prophet Muhammad. By the end of the eighth century, a formal discipline of hadith criticism had grown up, which judged hadith accounts on the basis of their content and the truthfulness of their transmitters. Evidence of faulty memory or questionable personal behavior weakened the reputation of a hadith transmitter and lessened the authority of the accounts he transmitted. A significant number of women attained notoriety as hadith transmitters. One of the earliest of these was the Prophet’s wife ‘A’isha, who was also an important political figure.

Shari’ah: The Road to God . One of the most important reasons for the collection of hadiths was the need to find a model for integrating the teachings of the Qur’an into the lives of believers. Besides providing a common standard for religious practices, hadiths gave Muslims rules by which to regulate social and political life, following the example set by the Prophet in Makkah and Madinah. Just as knowledge came to be associated with knowledge of Qur’an and Sunnah, so “understanding” (fiqti) came to be associated with the analysis and application of the rules and regulations in the Qur’an and hadiths. The outcome of applying such analysis to the Qur’an and hadiths is Shari’ah: the “path,” or road, of Islamic practice that leads the believer to God. Shari’ah is the generic term for Islamic law. Fiqh is the analytical process by which Shari’ah is understood and applied. Its practitioners were specialists in Islamic jurisprudence, the most important “people of knowledge” in premodern Islamic society.

Divine Law, Human Application . The most important distinction between Shari’ah and fiqh is that the source of Shari’ah is divine, whereas the source of fiqh is human reasoning. That is, the primary source of Shari’ah is the Qur’an, which is believed by Muslims to be the word of God. The divinity of Shari’ah even extends to the rulings that are derived from hadiths because the Prophet Muhammad was divinely inspired. Thus, any rule or regulation from a hadith text that conveys the words or intent of the Prophet Muhammad is nearly as authoritative as a ruling based on the Qur’an. Some medieval jurists even went so far as to say that the text of the Qur’an is authoritative because each verse meets the strongest criteria of source criticism applied to hadiths.

Legal Interpretation . Muslim legal scholars were aware that a text could be interpreted in different ways and that experts trained in the methods of text interpretation were needed by the Muslim community. Early jurists understood that every text—even one that is divine in origin—has a context, and that many questions had to be asked before a ruling of God or the Prophet could be applied in practice. Human behavior was judged on a scale of five values, which set the standard for Islamic morality: (1) obligatory actions: the major obligations of Islam, such as prayer, fasting, and pilgrimage; (2) approved actions: deeds that are morally positive but are not required by the Qur’an or Sunnah, such as treating the poor with kindness or giving charity beyond the minimum; (3) neutral actions: most acts performed by human beings, which are not deemed to fall under religious supervision; (4) disapproved actions: deeds that are morally negative but are not specifically forbidden in Qur’an or Sunnah, including many interpersonal issues, such as treating a spouse badly or acting inappropriately in business; (5) forbidden actions: behaviors that are banned in the Qur’an and Sunnah, including religious transgressions, such as rejecting the obligations of Islam, or moral transgressions such as wine drinking, gambling, theft, and murder.

Schools of Law in Islam . Before an action could be placed on the scale of five values, questions relating to background and context had to be asked: Which is primary in judging an act, permission or prohibition? If an act is not specifically prohibited in Qur’an or Sunnah, is it allowed? Which obligations should everyone perform, and which obligations may be performed by only a sufficient number of Muslims, who act for the community as a whole? If an act is forbidden, is it forbidden because the act is wrong in and of itself or because it may lead to a moral transgression in the future? Is the application of a legal ruling limited to the context in which it appears, or does it have a wider application? Questions such as these led to the development, by the mid eighth century, of the first “schools” of Islamic law. The Arabic term for a school of law is madhhab, which means “traveled path.” When applied to Islamic law, the term means “method of reasoning” or “methodology.” Each madhhab follows its own method of reasoning and interpretation of legal sources, which include the Qur’an and Sunnah. Many schools of legal interpretation were created between the eighth and the tenth centuries, but in Sunni Islam the number was eventually reduced to four.

The Hanafi School . The oldest Sunni madhhab is the Hanafi, named after the jurist Abu Hanifah (circa 699–767). This school originated in the Iraqi city of Kufah and is noted for its skeptical attitude toward traditions. During the lifetime of Abu Hanifah, hadith accounts proliferated throughout the Muslim world. Many of these accounts were political in nature and sought to justify either the rulers of the time or their opponents. Clearly, most such accounts did not represent the true words and opinions of the Prophet Muhammad. For this reason early jurists of the Hanafi madhhab relied more on the text of the Qur’an than on hadith accounts. To be acceptable, a hadith had to pass rigorous tests of authenticity, which included a form of content criticism that compared the text of the hadith with texts in the Qur’an. If the hadith seemed to contradict the meaning of a Qur’anic passage, it was rejected as unsound. This method derives from the Hanafi school’s reliance on ray, the interpretation of a text based on the rules of logic. This reliance on reasoned opinion led the Hanafi madhhab to associate with rationalist trends in Islamic thought, such as the theological movement known as the Mu’tazila. In addition, relatively few Hanafi scholars were Sufi mystics because the rationalism of their method led to skepticism about Sufi claims of extraordinary spirituality and the miracles of saints. Historically, the Hanafi school was the official madhhab of the Abbasid khilafah (caliphate) and was the dominant school of Islamic law from the eighth through the eleventh centuries. In the later medieval period, it was associated with Turkish regimes, such as those of the Saljuks of Iran and Anatolia. It was also the official madhhab of the Ottoman Empire.

The Maliki School . The second madhhab in chronological terms was the Maliki, named for its founder, Malik ibn Anas (circa 712–795). Like the Hanafi, the Maliki school was relatively skeptical of hadiths. But unlike the Hanafis, the Malikis were not content to base their madhhab as heavily on the logical reasoning of jurists. Malik ibn Anas looked instead to the local tradition that had the best chance of preserving a record of the Prophet’s words and deeds. He found this tradition in Madinah, the capital of the first Muslim state. Malik’s reliance on the traditions of Madinah preserves the earlier, pre-Islamic notion of a local sunnah. It also meant that he had to rely heavily on the Prophet Muhammad’s Companions and their successors as sources of information. For this reason, al-Muwatta (The Trodden Path), Malik’s collection of traditions from Madinah, includes many accounts that are not reported directly from the Prophet but come instead from his Companions. In the ninth century, the traditions of the Maliki madhhab were codified by Sahnun ‘Abd al-Salam (died 854), who wrote a multivolume collection of the decisions of Malik and his students, which was called al-Mudawwanah (The Compendium). After Sahnun, Maliki jurists relied on logic-based interpretation much like that of the Hanafis, with the exception that the Malikis traced many decisions back to Malik and his students. Other characteristics of the Maliki madhhab included a relatively open attitude toward the incorporation of local custom into Islamic law and the requirement that a believer give evidence of his or her adherence to Islam through public participation in Islamic rituals. Historically, the Maliki madhhab was dominant in North and West Africa, upper Egypt, Islamic Spain, and Sicily. The Maliki attitude toward Sufism was divided. Although some of the strongest opponents of Sufism were Malikis, many of the best-known mystics of North Africa and Islamic Spain belonged to this school of law.

The Shafi’i School . The third and most influential school of Islamic law is the Shafi’i, named after Muhammad ibn Idris al-Shafi’i (767–820). A native of Gaza in Palestine, Shafi’i studied under Malik ibn Anas in Madinah and under students of Abu Hanifah in Iraq. Living at a time when the discipline of hadith criticism had succeeded in eliminating many false accounts, Shafi’i was concerned that both the Hanafi and the Maliki schools of law were in danger of adding unwarranted innovations to the body of Islamic law. In the case of the Malikis, Shafn opposed their reliance on the traditions of Madinah and the tendency of Maliki jurists to develop their legal school in isolation from other trends in Islamic thought. He reserved his strongest criticism for ray, the method of logical reasoning employed by both Hanafi and Maliki jurists. For Shafi’i, ray was little more than opinion mongering: he portrayed the “people of ray” as making arbitrary decisions about legal matters with little regard for their compatibility with either the Qur’an or Sunnah.

Usul al-Fiqh . Although this critique of ray was unfair, it received a sympathetic hearing. There was clearly a need to unite Islamic legal thought under a common standard. In addition, the association of many Hanafi and Maliki jurists with the ruling classes led Muslims to suspect them of tailoring their opinions for political or personal reasons. Shafi’i’s answer to this problem was the doctrine of usul al-fiqh—“roots” or “principles of jurisprudence”—which he laid out in al-Risalah (The Treatise). This book, which Shafi’i wrote in Egypt during the latter part of his life, was the first theoretical treatise on Islamic law. Shafi’i’s usul method relies heavily on tradition; that is, he considered the two most fundamental sources of Islamic jurisprudence to be the Qur’an and Sunnah, as given in accepted hadith collections. Only after the jurist fails to find guidance in the Qur’an or hadiths should he use his own reasoning in judging whether an action conforms to the teachings of Islam. This reasoning process, called qiyas, must conform to strict rules of analogy. The jurist starts by finding a Qur’an or hadith text that matches the new case as closely as possible. Then, by deducing the inner logic of the text, he sees whether or not the new case conforms to the same logic. Shafi‘i’s conception of qiyas is similar to what modern judges do when they use the example, or precedent of earlier cases, to guide their decisions. In Islamic law, the decisions resulting from this process are not necessarily binding. The closest equivalent to binding precedent is to be found in Shafi‘i’s fourth principle of jurisprudence, ijma: the unanimous consensus by legal scholars on a single issue. In practice, however, such unanimous consensus was nearly impossible to obtain. Thus, the usul method allowed a wide range of disagreement among scholars in legal matters.

Shafi‘i’s Influence . Shafi‘i’s teachings have had a great influence on Islamic legal thought: so much so, in fact, that the Hanafi and Maliki schools were eventually forced to adopt them, and even Shi’ite Islam could not escape being affected by the usul method. The Shafi’i madhhab was also a favorite of Sufis. According to the Iranian Sufi Abu Said ibn Abi al-Khayr (967–1049), the Sunnis embraced the Shafi’i method because it exacted a greater rigor in the performance of religious obligations. Geographically, the Shafri madhhab was first dominant in Egypt, where it was developed, and was later spread by the juridical and mercantile classes throughout the eastern Muslim lands, from Iran to Indonesia.

The Hanbali School . The fourth Sunni madhhab is the Hanbali, named after the jurist and hadith scholar Ahmad ibn Hanbal (780–855). A student of Shafn from Baghdad, Ibn Hanbal created a legal doctrine that was quite similar to that of his teacher, except that it relied even more heavily on hadiths and imposed greater restrictions on the process of juridical reasoning. During his lifetime, Ibn Hanbal became well-known as the compiler of al-Musnad (The Authoritative Collection), one of the largest hadith collections in Sunni Islam. Although he was sometimes accused of not being critical enough of hadith accounts, Ibn Han-bal’s collection was so comprehensive that he could refer most legal questions to texts included in al-Musnad. The Hanbali madhhab has been extremely influential in modern times because it is the official madhhab of Saudi ArAbia, and its doctrines form the basis of so-called Islamic fundamentalism. In medieval Islam, however, it was in the minority. It was associated with the most conservative elements among the “people of Hadith” and was geographically restricted to Iraq and parts of Syria and Iran. Its most important claim was that it was popular among the lower classes of Muslim society and promoted an ethic that stressed personal virtue and the denial of wealth and luxury. For this reason, despite the literalistic and antimystical nature of Hanbali teachings, one occasionally finds Sufis who followed Hanbali legal doctrines. Such a Sufi was ‘Abd al-Qadir al-Jilani (1077–1166), the great teacher and saint of Baghdad who founded the Qadiriyyah Sufi order.


Abdullah Yusuf All, trans., The Holy Quran (N.p.: Holy Koran Publishing House, 1934).

Muhammad Asad, trans., The Message of the Quran (Gibraltar: Dar al-Andalus, 1980).

Syed Muhammad Naquib al-Attas, Prolegomena to the Metaphysics of Islam: An Exposition of the Fundamental Elements of the Worldview of Islam (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia: International Institute of Islamic Thought and Civilization, 1995).

Vincent J. Cornell, Realm of the Saint: Power and Authority in Moroccan Sufism (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1998).

Mohammad Hashim Kamali, Principles of Islamic Jurisprudence, revised edition (Cambridge: Islamic Texts Society, 1991).

Marmaduke Pickthall, trans., Holy Quran (Karachi: Dawood Foundation, 1930).