Maslaha is an Arabic term that, in law and social ethics, means "the common social good or welfare." Medieval jurists and theologians defined maslaha in contrast to its antonym, mafsada, which means "that which causes or constitutes a harm." According to historical and legal texts, it was the second caliph, ˓Umar ibn al-Khattab (r. 634–644), who applied the principle of pursuing public policies that contribute to the common good over those that do not, although he did not use the term maslaha, as such. The issue arose over the booty taken by Muslim militias during the conquest of Iraq and beyond during his reign: how should captured land be divided? In many cases, material goods and property taken in battle were distributed among the warriors as payment for their actions on behalf of Islam. The caliph ˓Umar ruled that, in the case of the rich alluvial land in southern Iraq between the two rivers Tigris and Euphrates, the land should remain under the control of the state, to serve as a source of tax income. This would allow a land tax (kharaj) to be levied against owners, to be used for the general good (˓umum alnaf˓) of Muslim believers.
The medieval theologian and jurist, Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (d. 1111), argued that maslaha is the main intent of shari˓a, the sacred law of Islam. It is the purpose of the law to offer guidance and governance in establishing a state in which the religious and material welfare of Muslim believers is maintained and preserved. Ghazali and other medieval theorists held that, while the general welfare of Muslims with respect to needs and improvements should be linked to the shari˓a through legal reasoning, that which was deemed in context to be necessary to the welfare of the community required no other justification for implementation.
The nineteenth-century Egyptian reformer and modernist theologian, Muhammad ˓Abduh (d. 1905), also found great value in the legal conceit of maslaha. Like Ghazali eight centuries earlier, ˓Abduh was a seminal thinker who gave clear articulation to the intellectual currents of his age. In nineteenth-century Egypt and elsewhere, Western legal thought and colonial rule was having an enormous influence on Islamic laws and courts, in effect challenging their authority and relevance. ˓Abduh argued that the demands on Muslims to find religious guidance in the ever-changing social circumstances of modern society necessitated giving preference to those meanings which contributed to the common social good of the Muslim umma (community), thus following Ghazali and medieval jurists but for modernist purposes.
For ˓Abduh, maslaha took precedence over the sources of the law in cases of necessary social reform. He and other modernists took the concept of maslaha a step further by using it as an argument against prophetic traditions (hadith) and religious practices that were difficult to justify in modern times. Islamist critics of the modernists rejected the notion of permitting any principle other than those contained in the shari˓a to take precedence over the sources of the law. Nonetheless, the principle of maslaha remains of vital interest and discussion among Muslim jurists, theologians, and social theorists in contemporary Islamic thought.
Kerr, Malcolm H. Islamic Reform: The Political and LegalTheories of Muhammad ˓Abduh and Rashid Rida. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1966.
Richard C. Martin