Law: The Four Sunnì Schools of Law

Overview
This entry initially examines the factors that precipitated the rise of the four legal schools in Sunnì
Islam, the various methodologies the schools utilized in the derivation of juridical rulings, and the
cultural factors that influenced the rulings they
issued. These were important considerations in the
issuance of rulings on women in Sunnì jurisprudence. Based on the rulings stated in various juridical tracts, the entry also compares and contrasts the
treatment of women in these schools.
The establishment of the
schools of law (madhàhib)
With the establishment of the Umayyad dynasty
in the eighth century, Muslims were living under
rulers who were not regarded by many as the
proper authority to create the Qur±ànic ideal of a
just social order. It was at this time that the office
of a definitive group of scholars interested in
recording traditions took shape. Many Followers
(tàbi ≠ùn) of the Prophet are also mentioned as having acumen in juridical matters. These experts in
the legal field tried to define and expound Islamic
legal doctrine especially on issues that pertained
to rituals, inheritance, marriage, divorce, and so
forth. The early scholars in the legal field formed
the provenance of the fuqahà± – a group of scholarly elite who specialized in the study of Islamic
legal science, the Sharì≠a.
Initially, the jurists were private individuals who
were keen to discern God’s intent on a particular
ruling. The goal of the jurists’ endeavor was to
reach an understanding ( fiqh) of the Sharì≠a, that is,
to comprehend in precise terms the law of God.
Guided by a corpus of precepts and laws and their
own independent reasoning, the jurists, especially
in the ≠Abbàsid period, attempted to construct a
legal edifice by developing and elaborating a system of Sharì≠a law binding on all Muslims. They
began to interpret and develop Islamic law, invoking various hermeneutical principles such as
maßla™a (derivation and application of a juridical
ruling that is in the public interest), qiyàs (analogy),
ijtihàd (independent reasoning), isti™sàn (preference of a ruling that a jurist deems most appropriate under the circumstances), and other innovative
interpretive principles. They aimed to respond to

the needs of the times and to go beyond the rulings
stated in the revealed texts while at the same time
paying respect to the very texts that had empowered them.
Increased legal activities by the fuqahà± led to the
development of ancient schools of law in different
parts of the Islamic world. Initially, the schools of
law did not imply a definite organization or strict
uniformity of teachings within a school. Gradually,
the jurists constructed a program for private and
public living centered on the Sharì≠a. The Sharì≠a, as
articulated by these jurists, became a structured
normative praxis and a comprehensive system that
governed personal and public demeanor. The
schools were named after their founders or prominent jurists in the area.
The jurists of the schools of
law
Derivation of legal rulings (a™kàm) was contingent on local circumstances and the employment of
different sources of law. In Medina the sunna (practices of Mu™ammad) was informed not only by
transmitted reports from the Prophet but also by
the transmitted practices of the community. The
local character of the traditional practices was
partially incorporated in the Medinese concept of
Prophetic sunna. Preponderance was frequently
given to local practice over reports of Prophetic
practice since it was argued by the Medinese that
contemporary practice could interpret or supplement earlier practice.
In his al-Muwa††a±, Màlik b. Anas (d. 179/795)
often transmits earlier or contemporary Medinese
practice on a legal point. He also cites different
reports on the practices of the Prophet to vindicate
his own legal opinion. He then accepts or rejects
these in the light of his own reasoning and based on
the practices of Medina. This selective process can
be corroborated from his frequent usage of the
statement, “This is the opinion that we [the people
of Medina] hold.” In essence, Màlikì jurisprudence
attempted to forge a closer link to practical considerations by attaching greater weight to social customs than did jurists in other areas.
In contrast to the Màlikìs, the jurists of Kufa saw
their interpretations based on reasoning (ra±y) as
an equally authoritative factor in the decision of a
point of law. The ra±y of a scholar was partially

differed considerably from those of Medina and Kufa. Even though many of these traditions were spurious. the main thesis of the ahl al-™adìth (people of tradition) was that traditions transmitted from the Prophet and his companions superseded local traditions and legal injunctions that were derived independently of revealed sources.overview incorporated by Abù £anìfa (d. even claimed that weak traditions were better than human reasoning. Idris al-Shàfi≠ì (d. The jurists of Kufa also used qiyàs (analogy) in the extension of Prophetic practice and often formulated the law on rational grounds as opposed to ruling on the basis of transmitted practice that purportedly reflected Prophetic practice. By insisting on the sunna of the Prophet. Kufan society was very cosmopolitan as it was exposed to different cultures and classes. In contrast to the other schools of law. the four schools came to subscribe to a common theory of the sources of law (Qur±àn. 241/855). he said. Mu™ammad b. consensus. 205/820). such as A™mad b. Shàfi≠ì nullified the concept of local practices and arbitrary reasoning. derivation. the sunna as reported in accredited traditions. The use of various hermeneutical devices. Its class distinctions were not felt in the closely-knit Arab society of Medina. £anbal (d. The school of Medina was conservative and bound to the laws established in Medina. the ahl al-™adìth spurned all forms of reasoning and some jurists. 150/767) as an important element in jurisprudence. animated by a spirit of independent thinking and analogy. They produced traditions to vindicate their views and based their legal system on the Qur±àn and traditions purportedly transmit- 441 ted from the Prophet. .” Shàfi≠ì further circumscribed the definition of the sunna. and analogy). the school of Kufa was eclectic and receptive to foreign legal systems. Although he depended on traditions from the Prophet. The views of another prominent jurist of the time. then the sunna cannot be accepted as it might have arisen from the opinions of local authorities or arbitrary reasoning. tradition. Recognizing the presence of spurious traditions he stipulated strict conditions for the acceptance of traditions. If this cannot be demonstrated. and a variegated understanding of the sources. The Medinese and Kufans would have to base their rulings on a universal standard. Focusing on the famous Qur±ànic verse “Obey God and His messenger. restricting it to a textual and transmitted record of Prophetic practice. Shàfi≠ì also allowed limited usage of analogy and a more restricted form of reasoning excluding arbitrary opinions and discretionary decisions. The Kufans also incorporated the customs of the divergent cultures that were prevalent there including some Sassanian customs appropriated from Persia. and contents of the sunna were thus important factors that precipitated differences between the schools and influenced the rulings that were issued by them. Through his efforts. whereas. Shàfi≠ì contended that the personal opinion of the jurist must arise within rather than outside of the perimeters of Prophetic sunna. exposure to diverse cultural influences.

Law and Politics General Editor Suad Joseph Associate Editors Afsaneh Najmabadi Julie Peteet Seteney Shami Jacqueline Siapno Jane I.Encyclopedia of Women & Islamic Cultures volume ii Family. Smith brill leiden – boston 2005 .

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