Is Islamic Purposivism (maqāṣid al-sharīʿa) a Thinly-Disguised Form of Utilitarianism?

Thanks to the efforts of modern Muslim legal reformers, the medieval jurisprudential doctrine of maqāṣid al-sharīʿa has become ubiquitous, not only in the legal writings of contemporary Muslim jurists and scholars of Islamic law, but also among the educated Muslim lay-public. Yet, the appeal to maqāṣid al-sharīʿa – which I will translate as purposivism in this post – is not without its detractors. For many traditionally-trained jurists, such as the late Syrian traditionalist, Muhammad Said Ramadan al-Buti, the discourse of purposivism threatens to undermine the established schools of law, replacing their rigorous and systematic doctrines with an ad hoc, and potentially licentious understanding of Islamic law that is too ready to grant concessions, pretextually, to frail human desire in the name of the law’s purposes. Academic critics of purposivism have latched on to the inherent connection between purposivism and the idea of maṣlaḥa (often translated as “benefit,” “interest,” or “public interest”) to argue that much of modern Islamic reform is little more than utilitarianism in an Islamic garb, with concepts such as “need (ḥāja)” and “necessity (ḍarūra)” displacing the rigorous moral and legal reasoning of prior Muslim jurists.

That dubious appeals to purposivism are ubiquitous in contemporary Muslim discourse cannot be denied.  But that hardly justifies the traditionalist (or neo-traditionalist) attempt to discard purposivism. To reject purposivism outright would be to reject the rational structure of Islamic law itself, and thereby render the entire project of Islamic legal science (which is, after all, what fiqh means) untenable, if not utterly superfluous. Even a cursory reading of traditional legal doctrines leads to the inescapable conclusion that classical Muslim jurists assumed that legal rules existed to serve certain purposes or ends (maqāṣid), and that if a jurist misunderstood those purposes, legal reasoning would go astray.

Assumptions about the legitimate purposes of particular contracts and institutions also served to demarcate different areas of the law and distinguish different spheres of rationality, e.g., the rationality of the marketplace from that of the family. Accordingly, Ḥanafī doctrine did not permit a child to hire a parent as an employee on the theory that the arm’s length relationship implicit in an employment contract necessarily is inconsistent with the child’s duty of filial loyalty to the parent. The reasoning behind the rule is that the child as employer would be entitled as a matter of contract to compel the parent’s performance, but the child could not exercise such a right without contradicting the prior and superior duty of love and respect the child owes the parent. Numerous such examples abound in pre-modern Islamic law. It would amount to willful blindness to deny that jurists assumed the law was structured for the purpose of achieving certain determinate ends, and that the particular rules of law, in the aggregate, served these determinate ends.

There is, of course, a connection between purposivism and subjective utility insofar as jurists claim that adherence to the rules of Islamic law are conducive to achieving the subjective happiness of individual legal subjects (mukallafīn), in this life and the next. It is the interconnectedness of the law’s objective purposes with the subjective desires of the law’s subjects that give rise to the accusation that reform arguments grounded in purposivism are nothing more than an attempt to substitute subjective calculations of utility for the objective demands of the law. The celebrated Andalusian Mālikī jurisprudent, Abū Isḥāq al-Shāṭibī, whose work al-Muwāfaqāt is often pointed to as representing the pinnacle of purposivist jurisprudence in late medieval Islamic law, devoted substantial space in that work (particularly in Kitāb al-Maqāṣid) to reconciling the idea of the divine law as expressing, and rationally furthering, certain universal ends objectively consistent with human flourishing, and the idea that the shariʾa’s vindication of these goods is not tantamount to giving human beings a license to pursue their own ends whichever way they seek or desire. Accordingly, he argues that in all cases, even in those areas of the law that are free of positive regulation (mubāḥ), human beings remain under moral obligation (taklīf) toward God.

Of particular interest in this context is his polemic against previous jurisprudents such as Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī, accusing them of conflating empiricalconsiderations of subjective interest – which Shāṭibī calls manfaʿa– with the law’s idea of maṣlaḥa. Shāṭibī argues that subjective interest is always relative and particular, and accordingly, can never justify a universal rule; therefore, individual interest can never underwrite universal rules. On the other hand, the universal rules of the shariʿa must be such that they are meaningfully responsive to a wide range of the subjective interests of its subjects for the law to be effective and garner the free obedience of its subjects. Shāṭibī refers to this latter category of interests as maqāṣid al-ʿibād or maqāṣid al-mukallafīn.  In all cases, he argues that the Lawgiver attempts to shape the desires of human beings – as expressed in their own, private ends – toward expression in manners that further the universal ends of the law. Accordingly, when human beings fulfill their own ends in accordance with divine purposes, they are, simultaneously, acting freely – from a subjective perspective – and acting under divine command – from the perspective of the law’s universal proscriptions. In effect, Shāṭibī suggests that a dialectical relationship exists between the subjective interests of human beings and the goods that the shariʿa seeks to secure through the logic of its own purposivism. At all times, however, it is the shariʿa that adjudicates which human interests are to be vindicated and affirmed, and when they are to be ignored and resisted.

To conclude, Islamic purposivism, particularly in its cruder modern applications may appear to be a form of utilitarianism, but its classical formulation, particularly in the thought of a figure like Abū Isḥāq al-Shāṭibī, is better understood as a kind of eudaimonia – a comprehensive conception of what it means to live a good human life. From this perspective, purposivism can justify legitimate legal reform without becoming either licentious or a crude form of utilitarianism.

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