Seeking a coherent Islamic law

In order to be applicable to all contexts, the Shariʿah cannot be arbitrary or incoherent, nor can it be exhaustible or of limited lifetime. Rather, it must be systematic, consistent, and coherent. It must also be comprehensive and durable in order to provide guidance for humanity until the end of their earthly existence. The madhhabs, or schools of Islamic law, exhibit legal theories and bodies of law that, thus far, meet all of these qualities. These schools have demonstrated the ability to grow to address new cases and contexts without losing these qualities. Alternatives have yet to exhibit and sustain these qualities, leaving the madhhahbs as the best tool for approaching the Shariʿah.

Each of the schools of Islamic law has its own theory of law (usul al-fiqh). These theories of law include what sources to use, how to interpret evidence, the prerequisites for deriving rulings from sources. While each school has its own theory of law, the structure and content of the theories are very similar. The variations in legal theory are a main factor leading to variations in legal rulings both within and across the legal schools. (If you wish, think of language dialects like American English and British English, or closely related languages like Swedish and Danish: when they meet they can immediately engage in conversation, and the overlap they start with is more than enough to build on.) Each school uses its underlying legal theory to gather and interpret evidence, the results are used to arrive at a deduction. Given a fixed legal theory, similar evidence would be interpreted in similar ways, thus producing similar deductions. Applying this to the entire corpus of evidence resulted in a systematic body of deductions, including legal judgments for specific issues, in addition to the conditions, triggers, inhibitors, causes, and purposes of those issues.

These initial deductions form a core body of issues mentioned in the Quran and Sunnah, both explicitly and inferred. While the legal sources and the core body of law contain a finite number of issues, each school’s legal theory contained principles for extending known issues to new cases (e.g., legal analogy [qiyas]). Here again: the application of a fixed legal theory to its own deductions led to similarly systematic derivative deductions.

Systematic growth was not only outward via extending existing deductions. There was also a look within for similarities between issues within a topic as well as across disparate topics. This resulted in inductive principles and regulators (qawaʿid and dawabit) which simultaneously facilitated simplifying the existing body of deductions as well as its extension to new issues. Their look within was also to ensure that an analogy applied to one issue was also applied to similar issues, often producing two answers and even more material for analysis. As with the outward look mentioned above, this inward look resulted in systematic growth (here inwardly). But it also resulted in inward systematic growth, bringing with it increased internal coherence.

This outward and inward growth has occurred since each school began, some twelve centuries ago. These schools are not a collection of arbitrary, unrelated rulings. Rather, they a coherent and consistent body of systematically-derived rulings which was able to retain both qualities as its grew. But all of this comes with some inconveniences.

One inconvenience is the cost of recording and learning the legal corpus. Recording each issue; the underlying evidence, its interpretation, and an argument showing its superiority amongst the alternatives; the conditions, triggers, inhibitors, causes, and purposes; its relationship to other rulings and the like, all result in multi-volume, encyclopedia-sized tomes. Although the essentials can be distilled down to the 4–6 volume texts that form today’s “advanced” Islamic legal curriculum, getting to these texts requires several years of devoted study, and finishing them tends to require the same. These shortened, distilled versions still present a core set of issues with evidence and argumentation that are systematic and coherent, as well as the information and tools needed to extend them outwardly to new cases without loosing these qualities.

A second inconvenience is the cost of growth. New issues require searching through the existing legal corpus, deducing its answer according to the school’s established legal theory, and then verifying that the answer fits well with the school’s existing body of law. While these costs were relatively low toward the beginning of a school’s life, the costs increase as the corpus grows. While inductive legal principles and regulators (qawaʿid and dawabit) helps reduce the cost of systematic growth, with their generality comes the risk of reduced coherence due to the existence of exceptional cases. So while these inductive rules suffice for approximate answers, these answers are often at odds with the madhhab of their user.

Although several alternative legal approaches have been proposed or used in writings (especially of those doing so in the name of reform, progress, and modernity), none has yet to exhibit and sustain the qualities of being systematic, consistent, and coherent. Some lack any sort of legal theory whatsoever, pick and choose whatever is needed to arrive at a predetermined conclusion, or employ an interpretive framework incompatible with the very material it seeks to interpret. Others do have a set legal theory, but either apply it inconsistently or reject conclusions they deem inconvenient, undesirable, or at odds with the times. As for those who do have an underlying legal theory to which they hold themselves: they have yet to produce a body of rulings large enough to evaluate for coherence – let alone whether it can endure and grow while remaining systematic, consistent, and coherent.

Those interested in a legal theory and body of laws that are systematic, consistent and coherent, that can retain these qualities as it grows, and shows promise of enduring; will need to look elsewhere. The madhhabs remain the best tool for approaching the Shariʿah, so those interested in answers need to dive deeper and seek answers from within.


This is a companion to If We Stop Teaching How Fiqh Is Done and Ignore Hypothetical Issues. I had the current piece in mind when writing

Many of our approaches to contemporary issues incorporate work from fuqaha who were looking at issues that were purely hypothetical in their own age.

and

And the argument that classical fuqaha work on ‘useless hypothetical cases,’ that we have enough groundwork to function just fine from day-to-day, isn’t very convincing – sometimes, fringe and hypothetical cases are important.