Shafi?i, al- (C. 767–820)

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SHAFI˓I, AL- (C. 767–820)

Muhammad ibn Idris al-Shafi˓i, the jurisprudent, was probably born in ˓Asqalan (Ashkelon) in Palestine. He was a pure Arab on both sides, and on his father's side he was a third cousin, six times removed, to the Prophet. He grew up in Mecca and northern Arabia and became renowned for his archery and Arabic as well as law. He is said to have studied under Malik ibn Anas in Medina for as long as ten years and later debated with al-Shaybani in Baghdad. He emigrated to Old Cairo about six years before his death there. Accounts vary as to how he died: of an illness; from the after-effects of a beating at the hands of aggrieved adherents of the Maliki school, one of whom he had denounced to the governor for insulting him in the course of a debate; or from a beating by adherents of the Mu˓tazili theology.

Writers of the later Shafi˓i school distinguish between Shafi˓i's early teaching (al-qadim), in Iraq, and his later (aljadid), in Egypt. Nine or ten short works on jurisprudence are extant, as many as half of which may be early; otherwise, the early teaching is lost except for scattered quotations. The later works that survive are the Risala (Epistle), an exposition of how to infer ordinances from the evidence of revelation; the Umm (Guidance), a large, systematic collection of ordinances; and the rest of the short works. Two large works sometimes published in his name, a substantial collection of hadith and a collection of ordinances from the Qur˒an, are later extracts from known works. Other works (statements of his creed, comments on asceticism) are likely pseudonymous.

At the level of theory (usul al-fiqh), medieval Muslim commentators credit Shafi˓i with reconciling the two great early approaches to discerning the law, mainly hadith and ra˒y, traditionalism and rationalism. The traditionalists proposed to base Islamic law entirely on what had been transmitted from the earliest generations, especially hadith reports of what the Prophet had said and done. The rationalists allowed more play to reason and sometimes, when it came to revelation, argued for reliance on the Qur˒an to the exclusion of hadith. With the traditionalists, on the one hand, Shafi˓i's Risala argues for reliance on revelation before reason and for hadith as a necessary complement to the Qur˒an. On the other hand, with the rationalists, it proposes a sophisticated system of manipulating the revealed texts to justify the law.

One of Shafi˒i's greatest accomplishments was to systematize analogical reasoning. According to Shafi˒i, the jurisprudent looks for a strictly defined condition common to known and unknown cases, concerning which there is a certain ruling from elsewhere in Qur˒an or hadith. So, for example, the Qur˒an expressly forbids grape wine; the reason (ma˓na in Shafi˓i's exposition, ˓illa in the later tradition of usul al-fiqh) is that it intoxicates (not, say, that it is red or imported from Byzantine territory); date wine also intoxicates; therefore, date wine also is forbidden.

Later writers in the Shafi˓i tradition argued expressly that the law had basically four sources, meaning four sorts of evidence by which the jurisprudent discerned God's will: Qur˒an, hadith, consensus, and analogy. However, Lowry has shown that the Risala itself ultimately recognizes only two sources, Qur˒an and hadith. For Shafi˓i, analogy is just a means toward understanding the application of Qur˒an and hadith. His concept of consensus is fairly undeveloped. However, as made explicit by later tradition, consensus does not invent new ordinances but rather rests on data from the Qur˒an and hadith lost to later generations but known to the Companions of the Prophet, who could scarcely have agreed unanimously without the hardest evidence.

Among modern writers, Schacht stresses an argument Shafi˓i made expressly in two of the short works: that local custom, hadith from experts of the previous centuries, and common sense are always outweighed by hadith from the Prophet. (The Risala assumes without discussion that only hadith from the Prophet have weight.) Calder (1983) finds that the Risala legitimizes disagreement among jurisprudents by distinguishing between simple questions whose answers all Muslims know and abstruse questions only experts can address and whose answers even they can know only probably, not certainly. Adherents of all schools from the tenth century onwards legitimized disagreement in roughly the same way, although it is hard to say to what extent Shafi'i's arguments were what caused the theory to spread. Hallaq argues that just because it sought a middle course between traditionalism and rationalism, well in advance of majority opinion, the Risala attracted little attention until the tenth century.

The Umm as we know it manifestly includes some interpolations by later authors. Calder (1993) proposes that the Risala and the Umm (and implicitly the other extant works of Shafi˓i as well) are primarily the work of later disciples writing in Shafi˓i's name. Among other things, Calder argues that these works appeal to prophetic hadith (as opposed to the opinions of earlier jurisprudents) in the fashion of other works from the early tenth century, not from the early ninth. Calder's opinion has not commanded wide assent, but the question of attribution remains open.

A Shafi˓i school of law was constituted when, first, Shafi˓i's doctrine had been collected and organized and, second, a regular procedure had been developed for training and certifying new Shafi˓i jurisprudents. The two came together with Ibn Surayj (863–918) in Baghdad. He trained his advanced students with the Mukhtasar (Epitome) of al-Muzani, Shafi˓i's most important Egyptian disciple. The other surviving schools of law formed similarly over the course of the tenth century. The Shafi˓i school is distinguished by the acuity of its juridical reasoning, so that writing about the theory of Islamic law was long dominated by Shafi˓i jurists, although doubtless their preponderance will appear to diminish as more and more non-Shafi˓i works are studied. Outside North Africa, the Shafi˓i and Hanafi schools for centuries almost divided the Islamic world between them. At the end of the Middle Ages, however, the Hanafi school was favored by Turkish rulers from the Ottoman Empire to the Mogul, so the Shafi˓i school is now predominant only on the edges of the Islamic world, as in Indonesia, Yemen, and East Africa.

See alsoLaw ; Madhhab .


Calder, Norman. "Ikhtilâf and Ijma in Shâfi˓i's Risâla." StudiaIslamica 58 (1983): 39–47.

Calder, Norman. Studies in Early Muslim Jurisprudence. New York: Clarendon Press, 1993.

Hallaq, Wael B. A History of Islamic Legal Theories. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

Khadduri, Majid, trans. Islamic Jurisprudence: Shafi˓i's Risala. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1961.

Lowry, Joseph Edmund. "The Legal-Theoretical Content of the Risala." Ph.D. diss., University of Pennsylvania, 1999.

Schacht, Joseph. The Origins of Muhammadan Jurisprudence. Oxford, U.K.: Clarendon Press, 1950.

Christopher Melchert