Reconciling through Interests

By Omar Khaled Abdel-Ghaffar

This post is part of the Digital Islamic Law Lab (DILL) series, in which a Harvard student analyzes a primary source of Islamic law, previously workshopped in the DIL Lab.


Ibn Qudāma (d. 620/1223) argues in his ​Mughnī​ for the validity of the ​muzāraʿa​ contract, a form of sharecropping contract. In this form of contract, a laborer offers to labor on a designated piece of land in exchange for a ratio of the harvest. By comparing two apparently contradictory ḥ​adīths on the matter, Ibn Qudāma argues that the ​muzāraʿa ​contract is a valid contract in Islamic law. He attacks the dominant opinion of the Shafiʿīs to the contrary, using the principle of public interest (maṣlaḥa) to arbitrate between seemingly contradictory Prophetic narrations.


Ibn Qudāma defines ​muzāraʿa​ as “the handing over of land to he who will cultivate it and labor upon it, while splitting the harvest.”[1] He presents two parties that are privy to the contract: the laborer (​al-‘āmil​) and the landowner. Ibn Qudāma argues that the ​muzāraʿa ​contract is valid based on three factors: the questionable validity of the narrations his opponents use to argue for the impermissibility of sharecropping, the presence of alternative ​ḥadīths that support ​muzāraʿa​, and the general benefit to Muslims accrued by the practice. Throughout his discussion, the underlying thread of Ibn Qudāma’s argument is that there is immense benefit in ​muzāraʿa​, and no strong textual evidence against it. Ibn Qudāma uses ​maṣlaḥa to arbitrate between two contradictory narrations, thereby implying that valid narrations must benefit people in the temporal realm. I argue that in doing so, Ibn Qudāma rejects a separation between the positive and the normative, using the positive case of his community to prove the validity of normative texts. In fact, Ibn Qudāma uses the ​maṣlaḥa of his community as a hermeneutic tool to interpret unclear wording or silence in the canonical texts. This case, as I will demonstrate, shows how the jurist’s awareness of social realities allow him to interpret the texts in a way that is in line with public interests.

Ibn Qudāma was a prominent Ḥanbalī scholar of the Ayyubid period, born to a scholarly family near Jerusalem who later traveled to Baghdad with his uncle to study Ḥanbalī law there. By the time he died in Damascus at the age of 80 in 1223, he was a celebrated scholar who continued to be influential among Ḥanbalī scholars in the Mamlūk period and beyond.[2] Ibn Qudāma presents his ​Mughnī​ as a commentary on al-Khiraqī’s (d. 334/945) ​Mukhtaṣar. In commenting on the original text, he indicates where al-Khiraqī ​​ and therefore the predominant Ḥanbalī opinion according to Ibn Qudāma ​differs from other schools. In his chapter on muzāra​ʿ​a​, Ibn Qudāma presents the opinions of dissenting scholars, indicating where he sees these scholars falling short and defending what he sees as the correct opinion.

Contradictory Narrations

Ibn Qudāma recognizes that the main opposition to ​muzāraʿ​​a​ comes from scholars who cite a set of ḥ​adīths narrated by Rāfiʿ ibn Khadaj. In these narrations, Rāfiʿ​ ​says that although his family owned much land in Mecca, and despite the fact that they benefited greatly from it, the Prophet prohibited them from ​mukhābara,​ a form of land-leasing.[3] The main ​ḥadīth cited by supporters of ​muzāraʿa​ is that the Prophet employed the people of Khaybar to “work on” a set amount of land and the residents gave the Prophet a portion of the annual harvest.[4] Both accounts according to Ibn Qudāma are problematic; the former due to its questionable authenticity, the latter due to the vagueness of the language used in the ​ḥadīth. Ibn Qudāma reads the two narrations as mutually exclusive and contradictory[5] and so embarks on an explanation of how to grapple with the two ḥadīths.

Ibn Qudāma argues that Rāfiʿ’s ḥ​adīth is of questionable authenticity due to an inconsistency in the chain of narration: at times Rāfiʿ narrates directly from the Prophet, and other times he narrates the quote from his paternal uncles.[6] The quote itself appears in various forms that are deeply muddled (muḍṭariba jiddan​) and so the ​ḥadīth cannot be used in a matter of such grave importance, according to Ibn Qudāma.

Ibn Qudāma proposes three explanations to the ​ḥadīth of Rāfiʿ. First, it may indicate the law’s prohibition of the division of ​land​ rather than ​usufruct​, as the landowner in pre-Islamic Arabia would lay claim to the produce of specific plots of land. That the Prophet prohibited this practice is a unanimous opinion amongst scholars according to Ibn Qudāma because of the uncertain yield inherent in such a contract. Second, Ibn Qudāma points out that Ibn ‘Abbās narrated a ḥadīth in​ Ṣaḥīḥ Bukhārī, one of the canonical books of Sunnī ​ḥadīth narration, where Ibn ʿAbbās explains Rāfiʿ’s ​ḥadith. Ibn ‘Abbās indicates that the Prophet preferred that a man simply hand over to his brother ownership of land he could not cultivate rather than employ the said brother on it. Ibn Qudāma therefore argues that Muslims should understand Rāfiʿ’s ​ḥadīth not as a prohibition of sharecropping, but as a recommendation of donation.[7] Finally, Ibn Qudāma claims that there is a possibility that this ​ḥadīth was in fact abrogated by the ḥ​adīth of Khaybar,[8] an idea I shall explore below. This final opinion is the opinion that Ibn Qudāma holds as most correct.

Ibn Qudāma claims that Rāfiʿ​’s ḥ​adīth cannot​ be correct because it mentions that muzāraʿa ​was prohibited despite people benefiting from it​. There must be some misunderstanding, Ibn Qudāma argues, because “this is evidence of a mistake on the part of the narrator (g​halaṭ al-rāwī), for the Legislator does not prohibit that which is beneficial; only that which is corrupting and harmful.”[9] This intervention identifies the temporal interests of the community of believers and uses it to evaluate the validity of a canonical text. Each informs the other; the law necessarily serves the public interests of the community, so any explicit mention of harm necessarily implies a textual error. For Ibn Qudāma, the spirit of the law is so clear that it can be used to evaluate the texts from which it is to be deduced.

The ​ḥadīth apparently contradicting the above ḥ​adīth has to do with accounts that the Prophet allowed the people of Khaybar to cultivate land in exchange for a portion of the harvest that he and his family would consume. According to Ibn Qudāma, the issue that arises with such ḥadīths is that they are exceedingly vague, discussing “​‘amal​” or “labor” rather than either muzāraʿa​ or ​musāqā​; cultivation or irrigation respectively. Ibn Qudāma cites an account in ​Ṣaḥīḥ Bukhārī that ​muzāraʿa​ was recorded to have been practiced by the Rightly Guided Caliphs ʿUmar and ʿAlī along with Ibn Masʿūd, ʿUmar ibn ʿAbd al-ʿAzīz, al-Qāṣim, ʿUrwa, and the families of Abū Bakr, ʿAlī, and Ibn Sīrīn. Ibn Qudāma contrasts the problems in both verbal narrations on the one hand with the clear actions of the Rightly Guided Caliphs on the other, arguing that the validity of ​muzāraʿa​ ought to be accepted.[10] He argues that all of these virtuous men could not have taken on the practice of sharecropping if the Prophet had prohibited it, particularly those of them who were his direct companions. Here also we see a continuation of the interplay between the positive and the normative; because the companions benefited from sharecropping, as did “every house in Medina,”[11] the texts of the law cannot contradict their conduct.

Ibn Qudāma claims that we do know that the people of Khaybar contributed their labor to a given piece of farmland, and shared the harvest with the Prophet. The narrations in ​Bukhārī​ and Muslim clearly indicate that the Prophet benefitted from land cultivated by the people of Khaybar, and that after his death, his wives and companions continued to do so. This according to Ibn Qudāma means that benefitting from the agricultural labor of another party was seen as permissible up until the death of the Prophet. Anything that occurred after his death is irrelevant, according to Ibn Qudāma, because there can be no abrogation after the end of revelation.[12]

The Shāfi​ʿ​ī Attempt at Reconciliation

Ibn Qudāma is not convinced by what he considers to be the Shāfi​ʿ​ī attempt to reconcile the two narrations: that the law permits the employment of labor only in order to water existing orchards, and to cultivate the land between such orchards. To cultivate previously unused land using another person’s labor according to the Shāfi​ʿ​īs is prohibited.[13]

Ibn Qudāma’s opposition to this attempt lies in that the Prophet makes no mention of “empty land” (​arḍ bayāḍ) in any of the narrations.[14] This silence allows for flexibility, not contrived rulings according to Ibn Qudāma. He also cites Ibn Ḥanbal, who narrated that the controversial “labor” that took place in Khaybar was in fact the irrigation of already cultivated land, ​as well as​ the cultivation of uncultivated land.[15] Ibn Qudāma seems pleased with this explication and says that although these two acts today are separate contracts, the law allows them to be enacted simultaneously.[16] Ibn Qudāma therefore uses the idea of public interest to interpret the vagueness of the adīths. By arguing that the Shāfi​ʿ​ī ruling is contrived, unfounded, and impractical, Ibn Qudāma uses ​maṣlaḥa as a hermeneutical tool to engage the validity of other schools’ rulings. The silence of the normative text is assumed to speak in favor of the positive needs of the community.

As mentioned above, one of the bases by which Ibn Qudāma argues that the adīth of Rāfi​ʿ​ must be of questionable authenticity is that Rāfi​ʿ​ admits that the prohibition prevented a great benefit, and sharī‘a categorically cannot cause harm. This conjecture is based on the fourth of the five universal legal canons of Islamic law, “harm is to be removed.”[17] Therefore, Ibn Qudāma suggests that either Rāfi​ʿ​ misunderstood the Prophet, or Rāfi​ʿ’​s narrators misunderstood what was narrated.[18] Muzāraʿa​’s permissibility is guaranteed by a social reality: those who have land cannot cultivate all of it, and those who have labor do not have enough land to expend all of their labor. Such contracts are therefore of benefit to all parties.[19]  This deduction seems to contradict the ḥadīth of the Prophet that Ibn Qudāma himself cites, narrating that a man who has more land than he can cultivate should give that land away, a contradiction that the author does not address.

Ibn Qudāma’s ultimate explanation for ​muzāraʿa’​ s permissibility is his explanation that such labor relations are absolutely necessary: because ​muzāraʿa​ typically has to do with cultivating food, thereby sustaining Muslims, the cultivation of land is a necessity. Here, Ibn Qudāma seems to be collapsing public interest with necessity, using one to bolster the other. He implies that having ​muzāraʿa i​s of interest to the general Muslim population because without it, there will be a great deal of harm due to waste. The contract then is beneficial because it provides a way to combine land with labor, and necessary because, as the ​ḥadīths mentioned above demonstrate, without it there is harm to those directly involved. Because land alone cannot sustain life, as land cannot cultivate itself, labor is needed to make the land of benefit to Muslims in general. Not having a systematic way to do this will cause harm to the landowners and the laborers. According to Ibn Qudāma, the contract of ​muzāraʿa​ simply arranges the relationship between land and labor in a way that will bring benefit to Muslims as a whole. Because of its benefits to people, it could not possibly be prohibited, and so the vagueness of the Prophet’s words must be interpreted in favor of ​muzāraʿa.​ Ibn Qudāma’s social and economic observations of his surroundings clearly informed how he interpreted the commands of the canonical texts.


[1] Muwaffaq al-Dīn Ibn Qudāma, ​Al-mughnī,​ ed., Abdullah bin Abd al-Muḥsin al-Turkī (Riyadh: ‘Ālam al-Kutub, 1997), 7:555.

[2] Shams al-Dīn Sibṭ ibn al-Jawzī, Mir`āt al-zamān fī tawārīkh al-a​ʿ​yān​, eds., Muḥammad Barakāt, Kāmil Muḥammad al-Kharrāṭ, ‘Ammār Rayjāwī, Muḥammad Raḍwān ‘Irqsūsī, Anwar Ṭālib, Fādī al-Maghrabī, Raḍwān Māmū, Muḥammad Mu’tazz Karīm al-Dīn, Zāhir Isḥāq, Muḥammad Anas al-Khan, Ibrahīm al-Zaybaq (Damascus: Al-risālah al-​ʿ​ālamiyyah, 2013), 22:625.

[3] Ibn Qudāma, ​Mughnī,​ 7:555.

[4] Ibid., 7:550.

[5] Ibid., ​​7:559

[6] Ibid., ​7:558.

[7] Ibid., ​7:560

[8] Ibid., ​7:559

[9] Ibid., 7:561.

[10] Ibid., 7:556

[11] Ibid., 7:560

[12] Ibid., 7:557

[13] Ibid., 7:556

[14] Ibid., 7:560

[15] Ibid., 7:561.

[16] Ibid., 7:562.

[17] Musa, Khadiga, “Legal Maxims as a Genre of Islamic Law,” ​Islamic Law and Society 2​1, no. 4 (2014): 325­–65.

[18] Ibn Qudāma, ​Mughnī​, 7:560

[19] Ibid.

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