Scholarship in “Plain English”: Najm al-Din Yousefi on Ibn Al-Muqaffaʿ

By Sheza Alqera Atiq

Citation: Yousefi, Najm al-Din. 2017. “Islam without Fuqahāʾ: Ibn Al-Muqaffaʿ and His Perso-Islamic Solution to the Caliphate’s Crisis of Legitimacy (70–142 AH/690–760 CE).” Iranian Studies 50 (1): 9-44. doi:10.1080/00210862.2015.1073912.





















Major Sources:

In Islam without Fuqahāʾ: Ibn al-Muqaffaʿ and His Perso-Islamic Solution to the Caliphate’s Crisis of Legitimacy author Najm al-Din Yousefi seeks to underscore the political and legal significance of 8th century Persian secretary and belles-lettrist ʿAbd Allāh Ibn al-Muqaffaʿ’s written treatise, Risāla fī ’l-Ṣaḥ āba (Epistle Concerning the Entourage). The Risāla, purportedly addressed to the second Abbasid caliph al-Mansụ̄r, is, according to the author, an ingenious consolidation of Islamic, Iranian and ancient Sasanid knowledge used to recommend ways of ensuring political legitimacy of the caliphate and state. Ibn al- Muqaffaʿ’s proposal, as laid out by Yousefi, consists of a dual relationship concerning legal and political authority vis a vis the state and subject. On the one hand Ibn al-Muqaffaʿ calls on the Caliph to consolidate legal doctrine, taking on the responsibility of interpreting and executing the law according to key Islamic sources. On the other, he cautions him to remain mindful of his reliance on God, and of the principle that obedience to a (human) authorial figure should never take precedence to obedience to God. This simultaneous privileging of the head of state – ascribing him divine status –  and am adherence to Islamic principles is, according to the author, what make al-Muqaffaʿ’s treatise a historically and theoretically compelling work that also reveals the socio-political milieu of a fragmented empire. Ultimately, however, Yousefi argues, it is this very amalgamation and attempt at deconstructing normative practices of Islamic legal interpretation as carried out by the fuqahāʾ (private jurists), that leads to a rejection of Ibn al-Muqaffaʿ’s Risāla, and the political theory contained therein.


In addition to a close reading of the Risāla fī ’l-Ṣaḥ āba Yousefi’s research relies upon other, notably, earlier publications of Ibn al-Muqaffaʿ including Khwadāynāma, Kitāb ’l-Tāj, Ᾱʾīnnama, and Sakisarān. These works are cited to identify Ibn al-Muqaffaʿ’s familiarity with, and affinity for, ancient Iranian and Sasanian texts. The author also credits Ibn al-Muqaffaʿ with significant contributions to Arabic literature, notably prose, however, and for helping pioneer the emergence of adab literature. Yousefi cites Ibn al-Muqaffaʿ’s Arabic translations Tājnāma, Kalīla wa Dimna (based on the Indian Fables of Bīdpāy) and his Arabic compositions on court mannerism such as al-Adab ‘l-Kabīr and ʿAhd Ardashīr.

Regarding previous studies and scholarship on Ibn al-Muqaffaʿ and the Risāla, Yousefi looks both at medieval and modern treatment of the 8th century secretary. Medieval scholarship as evidenced through the writings of figures such as al-Jāḥiz and Abū Rayḥān Bīrūnī often sought to decry Ibn al-Muqaffaʿ’s status and writing. On the whole, Yousefi notes, medieval writers were largely interested in Ibn al-Muqaffaʿ’s literary feats rather than his political and legal thought. In contrast, modern scholars have engaged more fully with the Risāla’s status as a forerunner text in the field of Islamic political thought. Yousefi draws considerably on Joseph Schacht’s work on codification and legislation in relation to this treatise (An Introduction to Islamic Law; The Origins of Muhammadan Jurisprudence), as well as Shelomo Dov Goitein’s identifications of the Iranian elements within the text (A Turning Point in the History of the Muslim State). Of particular importance is the work of Patricia Crone and Martin Hinds who discuss more broadly the development of the Islamic polis and also contextualize the Risāla with reference to the development and use of the term, sunna, and its legal implications. As Yousefi acknowledges, his argument builds upon the work of the two scholars. Finally, the author also purports to extend and fill the gap in Joseph Lowry’s work which examines legal epistemology and interpretation as discerned in the Risāla (The First Islamic Legal Theory: Ibn al-Muqaffaʿ on Interpretation, Authority, and the Structure of the Law).

Contributions to the Field:

For Yousefi, part of Ibn al-Muqaffaʿ’s ingenuity rests upon his ability to identify the failings of the prevailing legal customs, practices, and implementation of justice. In pointing out this feature, Yousefi ultimately argues for the Risāla’s interest in resolving the issue of political legitimacy, and the combined political-judicial theorizing – a feature hitherto gone unnoticed in modern scholarship – reflected in Ibn Muqaffaʿ’s thought. Commenting upon the secretary’s discussion of the existing legal practices at the time of the Abbasid caliphate, and their fragmented and arbitrary nature, Yousefi notes, “-the Risāla brings to light a different usage of sunna as legal precedent within the ancient schools of Islamic law. However, Ibn al-Muqaffaʿ engages this concept to expose the shaky foundation of received legal practice and then proceeds to offer his proposal” (25). The text is distinctive for articulating a political-judicial solution to the crisis of political legitimacy that calls for extended authority of the Caliph (the caliph as “the sole interpreter of the divine law” 27), a codification of diverse rulings into a single corpus, and a reliable caliphal entourage. Running through these recommendations is the singular consolidation that Yousefi sees Ibn al-Muqaffaʿ achieving through his syncretic use of Iranian, ancient and Islamic sources. Commenting upon these proposals, the author notes, “To mend this dysfunctional state of the law, Ibn al-Muqaffaʿ proposes that the caliph consider consolidating laws into a comprehensive corpus (kitāban jāmi‘an)… Remarkably, as this passage suggests, the caliph’s judgment enjoys divine inspiration, thus providing the comprehensive legal code with divine sanction, which may be noted as another instance of Iranian influence and which reinforces the author’s syncretic approach” (27). In the end, Yousefi acknowledges the Risāla’s ultimate failure in enacting any real change, but points to the very innovative nature of Ibn Muqaffaʿ’s thought as a reason for the rejection of his writings. The epistle, perhaps too innovative for its time, could not contend with the more deeply entrenched tradition and infrastructure of Islamic legal interpretation, and the authorities, namely, the fuqahāʾ, responsible for it.

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