The Economy of Certainty: An Introduction to the Typology of Islamic Legal Theory.

Author:Belhaj, Abdessamad
Position:Book review

The Economy of Certainty: An Introduction to the Typology of Islamic Legal Theory. By ARON ZYSOW. Resources in Arabic and Islamic Studies, vol. 2. Atlanta: LOCKWOOD PRESS, 2013. Pp. xxviii + 330. $32.95 (paper).

A major difficulty of Islamic legal theory (usul al-fiqh) is that it is a dialectical discipline. Being a theory does not mean that usul al-fiqh is a coherent framework within which defined principles regulate a number of cases; rather, it is a deliberative structure of logical, linguistic, legal, and hermeneutic problems on which scholars express different opinions. In addition, it makes a difference whether an usuli belongs to the school of the theologians (mainly Mu'tazilis and Shafi'is) or the jurists (Hanafis).

The method of Islamic legal theory owes much to kalam. Few books have understood that, and no study has grasped this essential feature of usul al-fiqh the way The Economy of Certainty does. This book combines a great sense of technicality (especially an ability to translate terms accurately and to clarify the problems at hand) with a dialogical approach to the diverse standpoints. One important achievement of the volume under review is that it deals with usul al-fiqh as a philosophy of law, highlighting the issues of interpretation and legal certainty.

The success story of the work began in 1984 as a Ph.D. dissertation at Harvard University. Since then, it has helped a generation of students and scholars of Islamic law to elucidate problems of Islamic legal hermeneutics. The book became both a manual of usul al-fiqh for those who do not read medieval Arabic literature and a guide to the minutiae of the field. The current edition contains the same content as the dissertation with addenda at the end of each chapter. In the manner of a commentary, the author adds references to recent literature on similar questions discussed in the book.

Zysow reads usul al-fiqh as a series of debates between formalists and materialists. The formalists, represented by Hanafis, believe that jurisprudence often yields probability. However, they still maintain that the framework of Islamic law is certain. Thus, formalists lean toward accepting divergence more easily. In contrast, the materialists believe that law is law only if it is certain. There must be an authority (the scripture or the imam) to ensure that no doubt exists in the realm of law. For the materialists, represented by Zahirls and Shi'ites, there is no way to accept probability...

To continue reading