Fiqh (Islamic Jurisprudence)

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Islamic jurisprudence, or Fiqh (فقه‎), is the activity Islamic jurists engage in as they elaborate the Shari'ah, or "Islamic law"/"God's Law", based directly on the Qur'an and Muhammad's Sunnah or "way", as compiled in the hadith. Fiqh can be described as "the human understanding of the divine laws of God as revealed to Muhammad".

Fiqh comprises both its methodologies (as detailed by the four Sunni madhabs, or two/three Shi'ite madhabs) and its products, which are the rulings, or fatwas, arrived at by jurists. Broadly speaking, all jurisprudence methods and rulings must not introduce anything new to or remove anything from the Islamic scriptures, as this is considered religious innovation, or bid'ah, and is categorically prohibited.

While the prohibition on bid'ah stifles meaningful and substantive reform (that could, for instance, overturn the laws implemented by Muhammad in 7th century Arabia), neither the interpretive methodologies/schools (madhabs) nor systematic rulings existed during Muhammad's lifetime. Both of these would only begin to be introduced nearly a hundred years later, both making their first appearance during the life of the Sunni Imams Abu Hanifa (d. 767), Malik (d. 795), Shafi'i (d. 820), and Ibn Hanbal (d. 855), and develop into more formal schools thereafter[1]

Key terms

Ijtihad - novel jurisprudential enterprise the consists of creating new rulings in Islam law or altering the methodology through which those rulings are arrived at.

Mujtahid - a scholar of Islamic jurisprudence considered sufficiently competent in the field to be able to engage in ijtihad.


There are, generally, "five rulings" (الأحكام الخمسة, or al-aḥkām al-khamsa) that any action can be categorized under according to the theory of Fiqh:

Fard (or wajib) - actions which are obligatory

Mustahab (or mandub) - actions which are preferred and advisable

Mubah - actions which are neutral in the eyes of God and which incur no judgement from him

Makruh - actions which are disliked and reprehensible, but are not considered sins (avoiding them, however, is supposed to earn one "good deeds")

Haram (or mahzur) - actions which are forbidden absolutely and which incur sin

Traditional developmental chronology

The development of Fiqh is traditionally understood to consist of the following important phases[2]:

  1. Muhammad's life time (571-632), during which rulings come directly from Muhammad and Allah
  2. Following Muhammad's death, until about 670, Muhammad's companions, or sahaba issue "personal interpretations" and rulings regarding Islamic law
  3. Between 670 and the early 8th century, competing scripture-based ("traditionalist") and "rationalist" interpretive tendencies emerge in the Hijaz (western Arabia) and Kufa, Iraq, respectively.
  4. Between the 8th and 10th centuries, formal schools of law emerge, including those of the four Sunni and major Shi'ite jurists. This is referred to as the "golden age of classical Islamic jurisprudence". Novel jurisprudential thought is mostly limited to this period, and "rationalist" tendencies are mostly suppressed, but end up maintaining a limited degree of expression in the schools of Imam Abu Hanifa and Imam Malik (though even their schools are best characterized, hereafter, as "traditionalist").
  5. Between the 10th and 13th centuries, the existing major schools of law are elaborated and systematized in great detail, though no new major systems of law are introduced. At the end of this period, it is famously said that the "doors of ijtihad were closed".
  6. Between the 13th and 19th centuries, the "doors of ijtihad" remain closed. This is the so-called "dark age" of Islamic jurisprudence. In the 19th century, Muhammad ibn Abdul-Wahhab, building on Ibn Hanbal's ideas, gives start to what will become the Salafi movement, seeking to overturn the complicated methodologies of the four Sunni schools of law in favor of a more literal and direct reading of scripture - preferring direct reference to a hadith in lieu of a more complex fatwa.
  7. Between the 19th and 21st centuries, the Salafi movement grows and fractures into various strains, one of which gives rise to radical Islamism, though never grows larger than the four traditional schools of Islamic law. Modernizers emerge, such as Muhammad Abduh, Abd al-Razzak al-Sanhuri, and Tariq Ramadan, among others. These modernizers place less emphasis on literal readings of scripture and more emphasis on the broad themes and purposes of the Shari'ah (maqasid al-Shari'ah). The modernist movement, even less impactful than the Salafi movement, however, fails to overwhelm or substantially redirect the "traditionalist" mainstream.

The Principles of Jurisprudence (Usul al-Fiqh)


The jurisprudential methodology (Usul al-Fiqh, lit. "the Principles of Jurisprudence") developed by the schools of Islamic law comprise of a hierarchy of various proofs, or adillah (sing. daleel). Though this hierarchy differs for every school of Islamic law, the all generally agree that the Qur'an, hadith, ijma (scholarly concensus), and some form of qiyas (analogy) are, in that order, among the first five daleels.


External Links


  1. Muhammad Hashim Kamali, Principles of Islamic Jurisprudence, 1989
  2. El-Gamel, Islamic Finance, 2006