Aug 282011
I will briefly explain three fundamental concepts of Islamic law that are at times confused with each other. These are “Shari‘a,” “Fiqh,” and “Usul al-Fiqh.”

 1. Shari‘a

This term, which is usually translated as “Islamic law,” refers to the divine law that was revealed by God through Prophet Muhammad. Muslim scholars believe that there are two sources of Shari‘a. First, the Qur’an, which is the book that God revealed to Prophet Muhammad. The Qur’an has been preserved in the mushaf. I have discussed earlier The Difference Between “Qur’an” and “Mushaf.”

Second, the “Sunna” or “customary behaviour” of the Prophet. As explained in The Meaning of “Sunna” in the Qur’an, the Sunna denotes the “words and deeds of Prophet Muhammad, and what he approved and disapproved of, explicitly and implicitly.” Hadith, which I discussed in The Meaning of “Hadith,” is the main source of the Sunna.

The Qur’an mentions some legal rulings and principles but many more are found in the practices and sayings of the Prophet. But as what the Prophet said and did is considered to have been guided and inspired by God, taking the Sunna as a source of Shari‘a is consistent with seeing Shari‘a as divine revelation.

Given that Islamic law is considered to be of divine origin and that Islam is the last religion, Islamic law is “immutable,” i.e. it does not change with time. As it is not the work of man and is not subject to change, studying Shari‘a means to discover not make it. The human effort can only focus on understanding that revelation; it cannot change or replace it.

However, while some scholars consider all the specific rulings contained in the Qur’an and the Sunna as immutable, others think that some of those laws were introduced for specific cases and may therefore change with time, place, and circumstances.

2. Fiqh

The science of studying Shari‘a is known as “fiqh.” While this is the technical meaning of “fiqh,” the term itself is a general Arabic word that means “understanding.” Fiqh is usually translated as “Islamic jurisprudence.” The scholar of fiqh, i.e. the student of Islamic law, is known as “faqih” or “jurist.”

So the main difference between Shari‘a and fiqh is that the former refers to divine revelation whereas the latter denotes the human activity that is focused on studying and understanding that revelation.

3. Usul al-Fiqh

Scholars of fiqh have developed a number of principles that they use to study Shari‘a. These are known as “Usul al-fiqh” or the “principles in Islamic Jurisprudence.” One of these principles is “ijma” or “consensus,” which refers to the use of the consensus of scholars as the basis for ascertaining certain laws. Another principle is known as “qiyas” or “analogical reasoning,” which is the process of using the established ruling for a certain legal question to derive a ruling for a new legal issue.

Muhammad bin Idris al-Shafi’i (150-204 H) is usually credited with founding the principles of Islamic Jurisprudence. His renowned work al-Risala (The Treatise) is the first attempt ever by a Muslim jurist to write down his legal theory.

Copyright © 2011 Louay Fatoohi
All Rights Reserved

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