A Code

By Mahmood Kooria

The Minhāj al-ṭālibīn of Yaḥyā al-Nawawī (1233-1277) is the text that codified Shāfiʿī school of Islamic law. No other text has attracted as many commentators from within the school in such a wide range of ages and places. Nawawī’s Minhāj is an abridgement of the Muḥarrar by the Persian jurist ʿAbd al-Karīm al-Rāfiʿī (d. 1226), a text that aimed to codify Shāfiʿī law by putting together all existing literature into a coherent narrative and avoiding confusions and ambiguities that emerged out of the vast textual corpus of the school by the twelfth century.[1] The Muḥarrar gave new life to the almost benumbed legal discourses in a time of turbulent politics and changing trends in the way legal knowledge was applied. In the thirteenth century, Nawawī found this manual the best recent abridgement in Shāfiʿīsm. He wrote, “Our companions, may God bless them, have proliferated compositions as long manuals and abridgements. The optimum abridgement is the Muḥarrar of Imām Abū al-Qāsim al-Rāfiʿī, may God bless him, that has concrete opinions. It is rich with valuable knowledge, a pillar for confirming the school, an accepted [work] for the law-giver and other aspirants.”[2]

Nawawī went on praising the text demonstrating his fascination with it, yet he also expressed many severe criticisms, so much so that its rulings came to be seen as matters of speculation for Shāfiʿīs. Its imperfections made way for ensuring the legitimacy and legacy of the Minhāj and Nawawī within the Shāfiʿī tradition. Once the Minhāj came out, the Muḥarrar lost prominence in educational institutions and legal circles. It retained only some limited currency in the personal practices of Shāfiʿīs such as in the subordinate opinions of the second or third rank.[3]

The themes discussed in the Minhāj and its most textual predecessors and descendants include almost every legal theme commonly found in premodern legal texts. They are categorized as “books”, and each “book” and its chapters discuss laws ranging from rituals to slavery. Most of these books have several chapters and subsections, especially in ritual law, but several do not have any separated chapters, as in the sections on commercial, marital and criminal law. Some specialists of Shāfiʿī textual tradition have enumerated the total number of legal problems (masāʾil) it analyzes and say that there are 70,000 problems explicitly discussed, and many more implicitly, to be identified after examining the minutiae of the text.[4]

What makes the Minhāj idiosyncratic is the fact that the best juridical text is one which is presented most systematically. The Minhāj arranged hierarchically legitimate opinions within Shāfiʿī legal thought, which by that time had developed extensively with many contradictory rulings on the same issues. Its task was to prioritize these contradictory viewpoints by giving preference to the rulings of one particular scholar or group of scholars over another scholar or group. This was done on the basis of intellectual integrity and commitment to the opinions of the founder al-Shāfiʿī. It achieved this goal by a closer examination of the vast amount of literature produced over a period of about four centuries.

Nawawī presented his findings and arguments using specific technical terms that connote opinions of an individual scholar or a group of scholars. These are elaborated in the introductory lines of the Minhāj through doctrinal attention to specific phrases and nouns.[5] This “paraphernalia of disputes,” as Norman Calder calls it, indicated by many technical terms, shows on the one hand the richly multiplied contrasting views within the school, and on the other hand, how important it is to read and understand the multiple layers of Shāfiʿī discursive tradition.

By accommodating many contradictory and complimentary views of the school, the Minhāj wanted to achieve three goals: first, categorize different strands of opinions; second, hierarchize multiple views; and third, prioritize the most dependable view of different categories which often cut across hierarchies. These goals were entangled with four categories of opinions in Nawawī’s juridical past and present: (i) the views of al-Shāfiʿī; (ii) the views of his disciples; (iii) the views of other previous scholars; (iv) the views of the author.

The Minhāj hierarchized these categories in descending order: (i) naṣṣ or statements of al-Shāfiʿī without contradicting himself; (ii) qawl or al-Shāfiʿī’s views with contradictions; both naṣṣ and qawl are sub-hierarchized as new and old views; (iii) wajh or opinions expressed by the companions of al-Shāfiʿī; (iv) ṭarīq or disputes among the companions of al-Shāfiʿī in citing the madhhab; (v) qultu or the personal views of the author. In this hierarchy, the order of prioritization is: (i) naṣṣ or the uncontradicted opinion of al-Shāfiʿī; (ii) aẓhar or the strong qawl; (iii) mashhūr or the weak qawl; (iv) aṣaḥḥ or the strong wajh; (v) ṣaḥīḥ or the weak wajh; (vi) wa fī qawl kaḏā or the view contradictory to qawl; (vii) wa qīla kaḏā or the view contradictory to wajh; (viii) qultu or the personal views.[6]

This “paraphernalia of dispute” not only set a trend in later Shāfiʿī legalism, but it also became crucial in understanding the intellectual tradition of the school. The naṣṣ of al-Shāfiʿī, sub-hierarchized above as old and new views, is either found in al-Shāfiʿī’s own writings or is narrated by two respective sets of his students. The old views emerge from his book Ḥujja and is recounted by his four students.[7] The new views can be found in his Umm, Imlāʾ and the two Mukhtaṣars of his students, Buwayṭī (d. 846) and Muzanī (d. 878). Apart from these two, other disciples also have narrated his new opinions. Generally, the new opinions should be prioritized over the old ones, but Shāfiʿī scholars have often gone against this rule (on at least eighteen occasions), as did the Minhāj on twenty-eight occasions by mentioning the old view.[8] Its use of the term naṣṣ implies that later scholars took a view which is opposite to the opinion of al-Shāfiʿī, and that their opposition is weak and cannot be taken into account. The same can be said in the case of other hierarchized opinions, such as wajh or ṭarīq, although the degree of validity and recognition changes contextually. In fact, the Minhāj itself often prioritizes such weak opinions over stronger ones.[9]

This scheme of hierarchization and prioritization in the Minhāj involves differentiation through inequality and equalizing. Hierarchization denotes sequentially positioned categories of unequal weight. Each item in this hierarchy claims a position for itself. Religious attributes along with the juridical notions of a prior time, text, context and institutionalization help sustain the hierarchy. But the prioritization seeks the possibility of equalizing opinions and stands for equalizing hierarchies beyond any temporal, textual, or institutional sequence. The context of the text and the author demands equalization beyond sequentiality and timelines. That is what actually makes the system of criteria of the Minhāj a historical product of its particular context, inasmuch as it endeavors to stand within a long tradition.

The Minhāj was the star-text of the school ever since its production, attracting the attention of thousands of students and teachers and hundreds of commentators and abridgers. It owes its production and reception to the institutional dynamics that the fuqahāʾ estate encouraged in the Islamic world, reacting to changing social, religious, economic and political conditions. Thanks to its time and place in the thirteenth-century Arab world, or more precisely in late-thirteenth-century Damascus, it was infused with normative requirements which continued through the longer tradition of Shāfiʿī legal discourses, and it catered to the specific expectations of its time and place in the eastern Mediterranean, as I argue in my book, Islamic Law in Circulation. This dimension facilitated its extensive transmission, which in turn stimulated the longer commentarial tradition of the Shāfiʿī clusters, bringing about standardized, hierarchized and systemized legal rulings, notions, and norms. It represented an author’s life-long project to codify and canonize the school’s law through multiple strategies. The final product was fine-grained, a text for the code of Shāfiʿī law, a code that condensed many canons of the school and outshone all other previous codes, including the Muḥarrar by Rāfiʿī.


[1] Abū al-Qāsim ʿAbd al-Karīm al-Rāfiʿī, al-Muḥarrar fī al-fiqh al-Shāfiʿī, ed. Muḥammad Ḥasan Ismāʿīl (Beirut: Dār al-Kutub al-ʿIlmiyya, 2005).

[2] Nawawī, Minhāj al-ṭālibīn, Princeton Garret 1388Y, fol. 1b; Leiden Or. 2227, fol. 3a.

[3] Muḥammad al-Kurdī, Fawāʾid al-Madaniyya fī man yuftā bi-qawlih min aʾimmat al-Shāfiʿiyya, ed. Bassām ʿAbd al-Wahhāb al-Jābī (Limassol: Dār al-Jaffān wa al-Jābī & Damascus: Dār Nur al-Sabāh, 2011), 29, 39-40, 67, passim.

[4] Aḥmad Mayqarī Shumaylat al-Ahdal, Sullam al-Mutaʿallim al-muḥtāj ilā maʿrifat rumuz al-Minhāj, ed. Ismāʿīl ʿUthmān Zayn (Jeddah: Dār al-Minhāj, 2005), 619.

[5] Nawawī, Minhāj al-ṭālibīn, Princeton Garret 1388Y, fols. 1b-2a; Leiden Or. 2227, fol. 2; cf. Norman Calder, Islamic Jurisprudence in the Classical Era, ed. Colin Imber, intro. and afterword Robert Gleave (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 100.

[6] The aẓhar and mashhūr together are known as rājiḥ; thus, wa fī qawl kaḏā is opposite to rājiḥ. Likewise, wa-qīla kaḏā is opposite to either aṣaḥḥ or ṣaḥīḥ.

[7] They are Ḥasan al-Zaʿfarānī, Aḥmad bin Ḥanbal, Abū Thawr Ibrāhīm bin Khālid al-Kalbī (d. 854), and Abū ʿAlī al-Ḥusayn al-Karābīsī (d. on or after 859).

[8] Minhāj’s prioritization of qadīm views over the jadīd ones have been minutely studied by Muḥammad Sumayʿī Sayyid ʿAbd al- Raḥmān Rastāqī, al-Qadīm wa al-jadīd min aqwāl al-Imām al-Shāfiʿī min khilāl kitāb Minhāj al-ṭālibīn: dirāsa muqārana bi-ashhar al-maḏāhib al-fiqhiyya (Beirut: Dār Ibn Ḥazm, 2005).

[9] For a detailed description of Minhāj’s use of these terms, see Nawawī, Minhāj, ed. Ḥaddād, 1: 31-42; Ayman al-Badārīn, “Iṣṭilāḥ al-Shāfiʿīyya min khilal Iṣṭilāḥ al-Nawawī fī Minhāj al-ṭālibīn,” Hebron University Research Journal 4, no. 2 (2009): 277-306.

(Suggested Bluebook citation: Mahmood Kooria, A Code, Islamic Law Blog (May 14, 2021), https://islamiclaw.blog/2021/05/14/a-code/)

(Suggested Chicago citation: Mahmood Kooria, “A Code,” Islamic Law Blog, May 14, 2021, https://islamiclaw.blog/2021/05/14/a-code/)

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