Tuesday, 15 September 2009

Al-Risala – Imam al-Shafii


Imam Shafii’s al-Risala is one of the earliest available treatises on Islamic jurisprudence. For those who have not heard of Imam Shafii, he is the founder of one of the four major schools of Islamic law in the 8th century (the other three being Abu Hanifa, Malik bin Anas and Ibn Hanbal).

Risala is targeted at those familiar with the basics of Islamic jurisprudence, undergraduate levels and above. Beginners may find it a little heavy.

Iraqi born translator Majid Khadduri, professor of Middle Eastern studies at the Johns Hopkins School for Advanced International Studies, is a well known authority on many Islamic subjects including history and politics. He undertook this translation in the 1960s, so it does lack a lot of terminology which has since become standard in works of this kind. He adds a comprehensive introduction to the translation, starting with the historical background of the Risala. He explains the state of Islamic jurisprudence before the advent of Shafii, outlines Shafii’s biography, discusses the old and new Risala and provides an overview of some of the key ideas of the Risala.

Fundamental Ideas of the Risala

The Risala begins with an introductory chapter discussing the religious basis of Islamic jurisprudence, aimed at reforming mankind into a God fearing community. The Quran and the orders of Muhammed (pbuh) comprise two important elements of the new and final religion.

The next chapter focuses on the Quran as the basis of legal knowledge, its rules addressing all matters, spiritual and temporal. From a juridicial point of view, Shafii identifies legal rules, general principles and groupings which Shafii summarises into five categories:

  • specific legal provisions from the Quran,
  • provisions from the Quran where modes of observance are specified by Muhammed (pbuh),
  • broad provisions particularised by Muhammed (pbuh),
  • provisions laid down by Muhammed (pbuh) and rules sought through Ijtihad.

This analysis was innovative at the time and provided a significant prism through which the Quran was viewed in the following centuries.

Shafii discusses the legal contribution that the Sunnah makes in clarifying the meaning of particular Quranic legislation or elaborating law and explains its role as a source of law. In this discussion, Shafii made it clear that only authenticated traditions of the Prophet (pbuh) were binding and considered authoritative sources of legislation. This was in sharp contrast to existing Hijazi and Iraqi schools that often took traditions based on local customs or embodied a personal opinion as valid for legislation. Shafii spends considerable time clarifying what constitutes an authentic tradition, who are reliable transmitters and why certain authentic traditions are contradictory to one another. Furthermore, Shafii categorised traditions relating back to the Prophet (pbuh), the companions or leading jurists with the latter being accepted to clarify the meaning of text but is not binding.

In the following chapters, Shafii discusses the principle of abrogation, where Quranic injunctions were repealed by later ones. He does not accept that the Quran can abrogate the Sunnah or vice versa. The Prophet (pbuh) would replace any Sunnah action contradicted by Quranic revelation thus clarifying the Sunnah’s role as a second source.

The latter part of the Risala covers the remaining important subjects of Islamic jurisprudence: Ijma (consensus), Qiyas (analogy), Ijtihad (personal reasoning), Istihsan (juristic preference) and Ikhtilaf (disagreements) albeit with less coverage than the Quran and Sunnah.

Shafii formulates the concept of ijma as consensus of the scholars as a method of expounding law acceptable to contemporary jurists but invests the community with higher authority. This has led to successive jurists from his own school differing with him, primarily, due to the absence of any mechanism of implementing consensus of the community.

There is a more detailed discussion of Qiyas and Ijtihad due to the widespread and sometimes unrestricted usage of Qiyas with a number of critics denying it in its entirety. Shafii limits the usage of Qiyas and imposes a number of conditions on its usage.

In addressing Istihsan, which was primarily used by the Iraqi jurists, he rejects the principle due to its unlimited and unrestricted use of discretion. He states that personal reasoning through the mechanism of Qiyas should be used following Quran, Sunnah and Ijma.

Finally Shafii considers Ikhtilaf in interpretation which at his time was quite fluid and tolerated. Having proposed a systematic approach to dealing with the sources of jurisprudence, he limited the degree of interpretation to those texts that have the propensity for different interpretations and where personal reasoning can be exercised in Qiyas. This was much stricter than the prevailing views and created significant discussion.


A number of jurists across the various legal schools of thought have historically provided detailed critique of the concepts introduced in the Risala. However, over time much of the contents of Risala have been incorporated into all the schools of thought. The systematic organisation and development of the primary and secondary sources, the critical acceptance of narrations, the differentiation of sources which are authoritative and those which are supportive to mention but a few.

However the main failing of Risala is that of the concept of ijma, which Shafii mandates as ijma al-ummah. This is weak for two reasons - firstly the evidences used to show it is a source are not definitive and are open to a multitude of interpretations, and secondly, ijma al-ummah has historically occurred only on a small number of credal matters, rendering the principle inoperable for the purposes of legislation.

Risala has had a major historic impact which continues to reverberate to modern times. A clear and systematic methodology has been adopted by all modern Islamic jurists influenced by Shafii.