Islamic Law Lexicon :: Madhhab

By Alicia Daniel


Sherman A. Jackson, Kramer versus Kramer in a Tenth/Sixteenth Century Egyptian Court: Post-Formative Jurisprudence between Exigency and Law, Islamic Law and Society 8, no. 1 (2001): 27-51.

Sherman A. Jackson, The Primacy of Domestic Politics: Ibn Bint Al-Aʿazz and the Establishment of Four Chief Judgeships in Mamlûk Egypt, Journal of the American Oriental Society 115, no. 1 (1995): 52-65.

Sherman A. Jackson, King Faisal Chair in Islamic Thought and Culture and Professor of Religion and American Studies and Ethnicity, University of Southern California Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences

Short definition:

Madhhab = a school of thought in Islamic law; Islamic legal school; interpretive methodology

Long definition:

Like any legal system, Islamic law is complex and constantly evolving. Differences of opinion over not only the interpretation of texts but also the best way to govern dynamic societies are inevitable and have existed since Islamic law’s inception. One outgrowth of such differences has been the establishment of different schools of Islamic law, or madhhabs. The four Sunnī  madhhabs are the Ḥanafī, Mālikī, Shāfiʿī, and Ḥanbalī schools. [The main Shīʿī madhhab has been called the Jaʿfarī school; though that label refers to the interpretive Shīʿī tradition of jurists called Uṣūlīs, as opposed to the textual Shīʿī tradition of Akhbārīs.]

These different groups of scholars each interpret the law and resolve cases according to collectively agreed upon rules for interpretation. As each madhhab has its own methods of interpretation, scholars within them often hold opposing views on issues of Islamic law. Moreover, although each draws on the Qurʾān and Sunna as textual sources, they often rely on other sources and interpretive methods as well, and thus often reach different conclusions. Sometimes, even scholars within a single school disagree and reach conflicting opinions on certain issues. While the Islamic legal schools often exist in harmony, as shown by the establishment of “super-colleges,” where scholars from the different schools taught and studied side-by-side. At the same time, differences in interpretation and practice could also lead to sharp political divides.

It is worth noting that, within a single madhhab, although there can be multiple opinions, they do not all carry the same weight. One view, the mashhūr, is accepted by most scholars and hence constitutes the school’s predominant opinion. The rāji, on the other hand, is the view expounded by an individual scholar, the one he believes should be the school’s mashhūr, or majority or default, opinion. When individual jurists set out to write fatwās that might go against the mashhūr, they cannot ignore the mashhūr opinion. They must show either that the mashhūr is wrong or that their argument is not inconsistent with it.

In general, scholars of Islamic law issue advisory opinions, or fatwās, based on the texts of Islamic law and the previous legal scholarship and precedential majority-decisions of their own schools. After the founding period of Islamic law, when the four

Sunnī madhhabs had been settled and had conferred mutual recognition upon one another, as Sherman Jackson put it,

“[n]o longer was the unfettered and independent [reasoning] of the individual [jurist] sufficient to confer authority upon an opinion . . . Authority was now mediated through the endorsement of the association of jurisconsults as a whole, i.e., the madh[]ab.”

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