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Book Review: Imam Shafi’i: Scholar and Saint

In Muslim Views, Review, Scholar on July 23, 2012 at 10:25 pm

Published at Muslim Views

Muhammad ibn Idris al-Shafiʿi (d. 204/820) was one of Islam’s foundational legal thinkers. Drawing on the most recent scholarship on Shafi’i’s work as well as her own investigations of his life and writings, Kecia Ali explores Shafi’i’s innovative ideas about the nature of revelation and the necessary if subordinate role of human reason in extrapolating legal rules from revealed texts. This study sketches his life in his intellectual and social context, including his engagement with other early figures including Malik and Muhammad al-Shaybani.

Ali studies the life and works of Shafi’i from his early life through to his death, looking specifically at his travels and their influence on his thought, his metamorphosis from student to Shaykh to saint, the development and refinement of his legal theory and substantive law as well as his rise to sainthood posthumously, and his contemporary image as one of great popular interest and veneration.

Beyond the legalities, Ali succeeds in providing a glimpse into the mind of a fascinating man, whose life as a prominent historical figure deserves studying. She achieves an in-depth assessment of his life, through bringing together in one place, his many biographies.

Of the many books attributed to Shafi’i (113 according to some narrations), Ali focuses on the impact of two of his major works – the Risala and the Umm.

The most important contribution Shafi’i made to Muslim civilization, according to Ali, was his conviction that prophetic Hadith was a necessary and unique supplement to the Qur’an as a source of law. Although not the first to value the status of Hadith, it was him who cemented its position in the hierarchy of sources of law. He did so in the Risala, where he laid the foundations of his legal theory (how the sources interact and the proper means of deriving laws) upon which he would build his substantive law in the Umm.

Another unique feature of Shafi’is methodology was his compromise between “the partisans of opinion and the advocates of tradition” by opting for a restricted notion of Qiyas (analogical reasoning) based on explicit revealed texts. This unique marriage of the two dominant schools meant that he able to bridge a gap in Islamic legal thinking.

Ali mentions that scholars like Ibn Khaldun and al-Razi affirmed Shafi’i’s primacy in organizing the sources of law into a coherent system, although this claim has been contested. Nevertheless, its centrality to promoting the dual nature of revelation and the subordinate role of human reason are evident.

Ali emphasises that Shafi’is magnum opus, the Umm,is the finest example of scholarly exchange or heated argument, and gives us a glimpse into the man behind the works. It offers a sense of his “predilection for consistency and his mania for logic.”

Ali provides a fascinating hagiography of Shafi’i’s rise to sainthood and the prominence of his Masoluem in Cairo, Egypt; to this day. She attributes his status as a “friend of God” as having been conferred onto the scholar after his death, for in life he was renowned for his sharp mind, skill in debate and formidable eloquence.

Amongst his spiritual mentors however, Ali delves into his relationship with Sayidda Nafisa (d. 208/824). Nafisa, a great-granddaughter of Hasan (the grandson of the Prophet) and daughter in law of shi’i Imam Ja’far al Sadiq, is often lauded as the spiritual mentor of Shafi’i, and modern accounts speak of her participation in his funeral prayers- whilst their relationship is of consequence, Ali questions the extent of her involvement and influence, raising questions about the use of stories to suit new contexts.

According to Ali, “Shafi’i considered law vital to social and cosmic order. He placed law at the heart of Muslim life since the key obligation of each Muslim was to obey God and God’s plan culminated in the law.” In contemporary times, where Islamic law is a highly contested and controversial area of discussion, understanding one of the pioneers of jurisprudential methodology is important, specifically for those aiming to shape the course of future Islamic legal thinking. Ali maintains that “his enduring significance is deeper and broader than his undeniable contribution to the science of jurisprudence and the formation of the core of the Sunni intellectual tradition. He transformed the trajectory of Sunni thinking about the law, the sunna, about language and ultimately, about God.”

This book is recommended both for those interested in the lives of early Islamic scholars, as well as those interested in Islamic legal theory, as it provides both a biography and a summation of Shafi’i’s most important ideas.

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