Debates on the authority of Hadith in early Islamic intellectual history: identifying al-Shafi'i's opponents in Jima al-Ilm.

Author:Hansu, Huseyin
Position:Critical essay

    Muhammad b. Idris al-Shafi'i (d. 204/820) recorded debates on hadith in many of his extant works, including in a number of the legal-theoretical treatises that were transmitted, and are published, alongside his major legal work, Kitab al-Umm. (1) One of them, the short treatise Jima' al-'ilm, presents the essence of these debates, held with groups of scholars whom al-Shafi'i considered opponents of hadith; it is consequently of central importance for understanding the controversies surrounding hadith in Islamic intellectual circles at the beginning of the ninth century C.E. After a brief introduction, the work offers two sections: the first summarizes the views of those who rejected hadith altogether, and the second presents the views of those who rejected only certain types of hadith, which al-Shafi'i terms khabar al-kha??a ("reports of the specialists"). In neither section does al-Shafi'i mention the names of individual opponents or specify the schools of thought to which they adhered. Identification of these opponents is thus foundational for understanding both al-Shafi'i and his ninth-century intellectual environment, but prior scholarly attempts to identify them have been inadequate for the most part, resulting in misunderstandings of the debates concerning hadith and especially of the position of the Mu'tazila on such questions. (2) Abu l-Qasim al-Balkhi's Kitab al-Maqalat, unexamined to date, and other classical sources of Islamic theology have provided new impetus for identifying al-Shafi'i's opponents.


    Analysis of al-Shafi'i's Jima' al-'ilm is part of a broader ongoing attempt to interpret his legal-theoretical legacy, understand the work's significance, and explain its relationship to the work of his contemporaries, including jurists and theologians. This has proven difficult, however, on account of al-Shafi'i's not naming his opponents in Jima' al-'ilm but referring to them only in vague terms; the modern scholar must rely on circumstantial evidence and hints in other sources to identify them, with the possibility that any identification may be mistaken. In general, the references to jurists associated with the circles of Abu Hanifa and Malik are relatively clear, but this is not true for the theologians with whom al-Shafi'i was engaged in debate, and various views have been expressed with regard to the prominence of the Mu'tazila among them.

    An early work to address al-Shafi'i's thought was the Egyptian jurist and historian Muhammad al-Khudari's (d. 1927) Tarikh al-tashri' al-islami (The History of Islamic Legislation), first published in Cairo in 1920. Al-Khudari concentrated on the first four Islamic centuries (although he appended an overview of Islamic legislation up until the early twentieth century) and treated al-Shafi'i in a short section devoted to al-Shafi'i himself and in sections treating major historical disputes over the sources of the law, including the place of the Sunna, qiyas, ra'y, istihsan, ijma', and the interpretation of scriptural commands and prohibitions in the justification of legal rulings. He drew on al-Shafi'i's Risala, al-Umm, and other legal-theoretical treatises, including Jima' al-'ilm.

    Joseph Schacht (d. 1969) examined the same treatises assiduously and reached conclusions about the origins of Islamic law and the formation and development of Islamic legal theory, some of which were at a variance with traditional Muslim scholars' views of Islamic legal history. Schacht's work nevertheless confirmed the traditional view that al-Shafi'i's legal scholarship represented a turning point in Islamic intellectual history, establishing once and for all the validity of the Sunna of the Prophet for the derivation of legal rulings, excluding the living tradition as a source of the Sunna, and restricting the Sunna to Prophetic hadith.

    Thirty years after Schacht's work, which was published in 1950 as The Origins of Muhammadan Jurisprudence, George Makdisi (d. 2002) published an article in which he argued that al-Shafi'i's Risala, which inaugurated the genre of usul al-fiqh, was intended to present a juridical theology as an antidote to the rationalist theology promoted by the dogmatic theologians, primarily the Muctazila. (3) Makdisi was followed in 1993 by Wael Hallaq and Norman Calder, who separately cast doubt on al-Shafi'i's importance as the founder of usul al-fiqh. Hallaq argued that rather than representing a watershed in the history of Islamic legal hermeneutics, al-Shafi'i's Risala was actually ignored throughout the ninth century, and furthermore the work's odd structure indicated that it could not have served as a model for later manuals in the genre of usul al-fiqh, (4) Calder called into question the date of al-Risala's composition, suggesting that it came into being not as an integral text authored by al-Shafi'i but rather as an organic school text that was compiled over time and grew through debate and commentary, attaining its definitive form nearly a century after al-Shafi'i's death. (5)

    In response to these two challenges Joseph Lowry and Ahmed El Shamsy have presented historical evidence of the early existence of al-Risala and other works by al-Shafi'i as integral, complete texts. They were able to identify quotations of al-Shafi'i's work in other works of the ninth and tenth centuries, which suggest that they may be reliably attributed to al-Shafi'i himself and that their ideas reflect his intentions. (6) Lowry's monograph on al-Shafi'i explains the legal-theoretical content of al-Risala, recognizing that its logic and structure differ from those of later works of usul al-fiqh and that it does not present a four-source theory of legal hermeneutics; rather, its structure and hermeneutical system revolve around al-Shafi'i's concept of bayan (divine communication), which is that God communicates His law to the believers through the Quran and the Prophet's Sunna according to five modes of interaction between those two corpora of texts. (7) Lowry has also addressed some of al-Shafi'i's shorter treatises having to do with legal hermeneutics, such as his Ibtal al-istihsan. (8)

    Other scholars have also taken up the hermeneutic angle. Mehmet Hayri K?rba?o?lu published two studies that critiqued al-Shafi'i's views on hadith as presented in al-Risala. In the first he argued that an examination of this work confirms early hadith scholars' accusations that al-Shafi'i was not expert in the field of hadith and owed his reputation to his legal thought alone; in the second he offered a general criticism of al-Shafi'i's approach to hadith. (9) Bilal Aybakan has examined the place of the Quran and Sunna in al-Shafi'i's thought, concentrating on his concept of bayan. In Aybakan's view, al-Shafi'i uses bayan as an umbrella term covering various methods of interpretation used to discover God's concealed will by deduction from the revealed texts. Aybakan noted in particular al-Shafi'i's inclusion under the term bayan of the Arabic language, socio-cultural and historical contexts, and methods of logical deduction. (10) More recently, David Vishanoff's 2011 study treated the historical development of Islamic legal hermeneutics, focusing on the thought of al-Shafi'i and others, including al-Qadi 'Abd al-Jabbar (d. 415/1025) and Abu Bakr al-Baqillanl (d. 403/1013). He assigned al-Shafi'i a leading role and dominant influence in developing the parameters of legal hermeneutics that would become widely accepted by Sunni jurists by the turn of the fifth/eleventh century. Though Vishanoff treated a number of topics relevant to al-Shafi'i's thought on the place of the Sunna and to his relations with the theologians of his day, he concentrated on al-Risala and did not analyze al-Shafi'i's other legal-theoretical treatises. (11)

    Finally, both Mohyddin Yahia and Ahmed El Shamsy have produced major works on al-Shafi'i's legal hermeneutics, drawing on many of al-Shafi'i's legal works, including his shorter treatises. (12) Both recognized that al-Shafi'i's legal hermeneutics differed substantially from the four-source theory that was attributed to him in later works, and both stressed, as did Schacht, al-Shafi'i's role as a champion of the Sunna as a major source of the law. Yahia contended that al-Shafi'I's legal hermeneutics are actually based on the conception that there are only two sources of the law--the Quran and the Sunna; consensus and analogy do not figure as sources, even though they might represent viable methods of interpretation. El Shamsy similarly stressed al-Shafi'i's emphasis on the status of hadith as a textual basis of the law and ascribed to al-Shafi'i the achievement of canonization--that is, setting the parameters for textual legal interpretation that were accepted as normative by Muslim jurists from his time onward. El Shamsy's discussion drew on large numbers of legal and biographical texts in order to situate al-Shafi'i's work in the context of debate with contemporary groups, primarily the Malikis and Hanafis, and he offered an important analysis of Jima' al-'ilm, as will be discussed below.


    A few of the scholars who have studied al-Shafi'i's thought have used Jima' al-'ilm as a source and have attempted an identification of al-Shafi'i's opponents. Al-Khudari presented al-Shafi'i's main arguments in Jima' al-'ilm and described his opponents as belonging to ahl al-ra'y and ahi al-kalam, both rationalist groups opposing hadith traditionalists. (13) On the basis of a statement by al-Shafi'i in Kitab al-Umm that an opponent who justified the rejection of hadith reports was "associated with Basra" (mansub ila l-Ba?ra), al-Khudari concluded that this was the same opponent as the one portrayed in Jima' al-'ilm, which indeed appears very likely, and that he was probably a Muctazili theologian. (14) Apparently following al-Khudari in this...

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