That old cliché: Abridgment and commentary are proof that fiqh stagnated

I’m always a baffled whenever people repeat the claim that abridgment [ikhtisar] and commentary [sharh] are proof that Islamic law stagnated. The reason I am baffled is that my experience reading of Shafii legal material compels me to arrive at the opposite conclusion, namely: that lots and lots of changes are going on. Three quick groupings of changes come to mind:

  • Legal texts are full of examples where later the later author disagreed with the prior author’s view on official positions, transmission of the school itself, definitions, examples, and new issues. This is apparent when one reads different books from a single author, and it’s even more apparent when one reads books from different parts of a single genealogy of books (e.g., Al-Umm, Mukhtasar al-Muzani, Nihayat al-Matlab, al-Basit [unpublished], al-Wasit, al-Wajiz, Al-Sharh al-Kabir, Rawdat al-Talibin, Al-Rawd, Asna al-Matalib). And differences didn’t end in the post-Nawawi era, either: al-Ansari, Ibn Hajar, and al-Ramli do sometimes disagree.
  • There are also obvious stylistic changes (e.g., like the formulaic “the basis in it – prior to consensus – is from the Quran and Sunnah” that is absence pre-Nawawi and pops up generations after him), stronger sourcing (e.g., the move to the six major hadith collections), stronger evidence (especially after takhrij works spread), and increased reliance on a set of common legal maxims (especially after al-Izz bin Abd al-Salam).
  • There is the re-organization of legal texts where chapters, sections, and issues are placed into (several) common arrangements (e.g., what happens within the aforementioned genealogy, especially when compared to the genealogies that include al-Lubab, al-Hawi al-Saghir, and Minhaj al-Talibin).

Compare a few derivative works (e.g., abridgments and commentaries) against their prior works, and you’ll see ample examples of all of these types of changes – and many others. These changes are especially apparent when you compare two books separated by several centuries and from different regions.

So the claim that abridgment [ikhtisar] and commentary [sharh] prove that Islamic law stagnated: it sounds like a conclusion that could only be reached by someone who doesn’t read fiqh.

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