The Epistle on Legal Theory: Muhammad ibn Idris al-Shafi'i. Edited and translated by Joseph E. Lowry. Library of Arabic Literature. New York: New York University Press, 2013. Pp. xl + 501. $40.
Thanks to the parallel text format of the Library of Arabic Literature, the experience of reading major works by Muslim authors is now available to more than just a handful of specialists. Al-Shafi'i's Risala (Epistle) is one of the earliest treatises compiled on Islamic legal theory and it has long been one of the most challenging to read and understand in its entirety. Joseph Lowry's comprehensive introduction and his accurate and readable translation will be welcome to all those interested in the early development of Islamic law and institutions.
In his introduction Lowry first provides a picture of the historical development of early legal thinking, which gives the reader a framework for understanding that of al-Shafi'i. After the Prophet died, his explicit legislative legacy did not provide for the kinds of political, social, and religious changes that accompanied the rapid expansion of the Islamic community into an empire. But the administrators of this empire, along with individual Muslims, wished to maintain the Prophet's normative practice (sunna), and to act in accordance with it. By the time al-Shafi'i began his legal studies (at the end of the second/eighth century), information about the Prophet's sunna was contained in a vast corpus of traditions, or hadith-reports. A main concern that al-Shafi'i had, as did the scholars with whom he studied, was how to organize and understand this material.
Al-Shafi'i died in 204/820. In 198/814, he settled in Egypt where he wrote the majority of his works. Previously he had studied with scholars in Mecca, Medina, Yemen, and Baghdad. I think it particularly useful to bear in mind two statements that Lowry makes about al-Shafi'i's educational formation. First, he points out that during the time he spent studying in Baghdad, "al-Shafi'i encountered two contrary but immensely important trends in the legal thought of the late second/eighth centuries: the pietistic commitment to Prophetic hadith-reports as the primary evidence for Prophetic Practice and thus as the primary guide to personal religious practice, and the attempt to make the law rationally consistent by testing the interrelationship of rules by means of analogical reasoning and dialectics" (p. xix). Second, he remarks that "There is some...