Ibn al-Ṣalāḥ’s fatwā

By Mariam Sheibani

Source: Ibn al-Ṣalāḥ al-Shahrazūrī. Fatāwā wa-masāʾil Ibn al-Ṣalāḥ. Edited by ʿAbd al-Muṭīʿ Amīn Qalʿajī. 2 vols. Beirut: Dār al-Maʿrifa, 1986/1406.

General Description:

This excerpt is a response (fatwā) authored by Ibn al-Ṣalāḥ, a prominent 7th/13th century Shāfiʿī jurist, in which he severely critiques the incorporation of logic and philosophy into legal theory. This intervention is part of an ongoing juristic debate, still ongoing in the Ayyubid and Mamluk periods, concerning the boundaries of rational sciences (philosophy, logic, and rational theology) and legal theory and substantive law, and the encroachment of the former on the domain of the latter.

Author & Source:

Taqī al-Dīn Abū ‘Amr ‘Uthmān al-Shahrazūrī, better known as Ibn al-Ṣalāḥ (577- 643/1181-1245), was born in Shahrazūr in Kurdish Northern Iraq.[1] Ibn al-Ṣalāḥ’s father was a scholar of some renown who received a rigorous education first in his native Shahrazūr before going on to the great centers of learning of his day, among them Mosul, Baghdad, Nishapur, and Marv, where he focused on the study of ḥadīth and Shāfiʿī law. Ibn al-Ṣalāḥ eventually settled in Damascus, where he was appointed at various madrasas and patronized at a specialized institution for the study of ḥadīth (dār al-ḥadīth) built especially for him. There students flocked around him and it was also where authored his most famous works. His two most important works were “An Introduction to the Sciences of Hadith” (Muqaddima fī ʿulūm al-ḥadīth), which quickly became the unrivaled work on the terminology of the science of ḥadīth around which nearly all future contributions on the subject revolved,[2] and the “Etiquettes for Giving and Seeking Fatwā” (Adab al-muftī wa-l-mustaftī), a quasi-work of legal theory that explicated how to issue legal response, developed a hierarchy of legal experts undertaking independent legal reasoning, and the duties of the lay person seeking a fatwā.

Ibn al-Ṣalāḥ was party to a lively debate in Ayyubid Damascus regarding the legitimacy of rational theorization in theology and legal theory (uṣūl al-fiqh). Ibn al-Ṣalāḥ was one of the few Shāfiʿī jurists in this period who lamented the encroachment of logic and philosophy – via the intermediation of Ashʿarī rational theology – on legal theory. Since the formative period of Islam, there has been an abiding tension between textualist and rationalist-oriented jurists, or ahl al-ḥadīth and ahl al-ra’y. In Ibn al-Ṣalāḥ’s Shāfiʿī school, this rift can be discerned among the direct students of Shāfiʿī, and it only deepened in the fourth/tenth and fifth/eleventh centuries as some Shāfiʿī jurists identified with Muʿtazilī and then Ashʿarī rationalist theology, which resulted in a more rationalist character to their legal theory.[3] By the 7th/13th century, the absorption of certain themes from rational theology into legal theory and the use of categories and terminologies drawn from Aristotelian logic had become standard practice and was widely accepted as a more developed discourse of legal theory. This included such topics as the permissibility of acts before revelation, reason’s ability to determine the goodness and badness of acts, the obligation to thank God the Benefactor, and the nature of moral-legal obligation.

The majority of Shāfiʿī jurists developed a rational legal theory without consternation, Ibn al-Ṣalāḥ was one of the few voices in the seventh/thirteenth century advocating for a discourse on legal theory free of the impingement of logic and philosophy. He believed the founder of the Shāfiʿī school, and before him the Prophet’s companions, and the early generations, had done.

This excerpt is drawn from a compilation of legal responsa to questions posed to and answered by Ibn al-Ṣalāḥ throughout his career. Collected by one of his students, the compilation is organized into four thematic sections: (1) Qur’anic exegesis; (2) hadith commentary; (3) theological topics and legal theory; and, (4) questions of substantive law (furūʿ al-fiqh), which comprises the lion’s share of the work. The collection of response was widely transmitted, copied, and studied after his death, as was typically the case with the responsa collections of leading jurists in every generation. At least one commentary was written about the work.

The two responsa in this excerpt (#51 and 55) are among the most famous in the entire collection and were widely cited and debated in the years after his death. Found in the third section of the compilation on theology and legal theory, these two responsa excoriate the study of philosophy and logic (#55) and their incorporation into legal theory (#51).

In responsa #51, Ibn al-Ṣalāḥ was asked whether it is legally permissible to study a work of legal theory that is unblemished by rational theology and logic and “comprises only legal theory proper.” The questioner seems to be already be aware of Ibn al-Salah’s position on theologically-inflected works of legal theory. Sure enough, Ibn al-Salah’s responded that if a book was devoid of “establishing a blameworthy innovation or inclination towards philosophy,” then it was not only permissible to study it, but with the correct intention, it was praiseworthy.

In contrast, he was highly critical of the philosophically-inclined legal theorists who had gained prominence in his time and whose rationalist legal theory embellished the study of philosophy for his readers. Few works of legal theory in circulation in this period would meet the standards suggested by the questioner and by Ibn al-Ṣalāḥ. They seem to suggest that what would be considered “legal theory proper” are the principles of linguistic interpretation governing scriptural interpretation and the qualifications of those who engage in this interpretation. As mentioned above, Ibn al-Ṣalāḥ’s Adab al-muftī wa-l-mustaftī may be seen as a quasi-replacement for Shāfiʿī works of legal theory.

The second responsa (#55) asks more generally about the permissibility of the study of logic and philosophy, and whether the early authorities among the companions of the Prophet, their pious successors, and the eponymous Imams permitted it. Specifically, the questioner was concerned with the deployment of these sciences in the service of establishing legal rulings. He also asked about the Sultan’s responsibility towards these individuals, especially when jurists who were engaged in the study and teaching of the speculative sciences were appointed in madrasas patronized by the state.

To this question, Ibn al-Ṣalāḥ responded first with an incisive critique of philosophy as misguidance and stupidity, and an impediment to perceiving the endless miracles of the Prophet and following his guidance. Logic he described as the ‘gateway to evil’ inasmuch as it was a prerequisite to the study of philosophy. He emphatically asserted that Islamic law did not permit their study; or neither did any of the companions, successors, or Imams, and all those who followed their guidance. As for the use of the terminology and conceptual tools of Aristotelian logic and philosophy in deriving and discursively analyzing legal rulings, Ibn al-Ṣalāḥ considered this an evil innovation. He emphatically stated that the provisions of the law were not in need of any this and that the law was perfected before the introduction of the rational sciences to Muslim societies. Ibn al-Ṣalāḥ called upon the Sultan in the strongest terms to expel from the madrasas all those who were involved in the study and teaching of philosophy, and suggested a range of punishments to which they should be subjected, from imprisonment, to house arrest, and even execution. There is some speculation that he had in mind here as in response #51 where he referred to those who had gained prominence in his time, the great Ashʿarī theologian and legal theorist, Sayf al-Dīn al-Āmidī who had retired in Damascus. Historians in this period have affirmed that al-Āmidī was sacked by al-Ashraf Mūsā (r. 626- 35/1229-37), and some have suggested that this was by Ibn al-Ṣalāḥ’s prompting.[4]


[1] On Ibn al-Ṣalāḥ’s, see Abū Shāma, Ṭarājim, 175-176; Sibṭ Ibn al-Jawzī, Mir’āt, 8:744-5; al-Dhahabī, Siyar, 23:140-145; al-Subkī, Ṭabaqāt, 8:326-36; Dickinson, “Translator’s Introduction,” xiv-xxiii; Pouzet, Damas, 29-32.

[2] On Ibn al-Ṣalāḥ’s significant contribution to the science of hadith, see Davidson, “Carrying on the Tradition,” 13-17, 30-31, 101, passim; Dickinson, “Ibn al-Ṣalāḥ al-Sharazūrī and the Isnād.”

[3] See, for example, El Shamsy, “Al-Buwayṭī The First Shāfiʿī”; “Bridging the Gap.”

[4] Al-Nuʿaymī, al-Dāris, 1:16; Dickinson, “Translator’s Introduction,” xxii, n. 48.

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