Monthly Lectures on Islamic Legal Genres: “Form, Function, and Historical Development of Sharh-Literature as a Genre: A Quantitative and Qualitative Study” by Dr. Sohail Hanif

By Memduh Erdoğan

This is a summary of the lecture by Dr. Sohail Hanif entitled “Form, Function, and Historical Development of Sharh-Literature as a Genre: A Quantitative and Qualitative Study,” delivered on March 31, 2021 at 12 noon (EST), 6 pm (Münster) 7 pm (Istanbul) via Zoom.  The video recording of the lecture can be accessed here.

In his lecture, Dr. Hanif discussed the rise, forms, and purposes of sharḥs. Periodizing the history of sharḥ literature must be school-sensitive due to their distinctive features of development. Thus, Dr. Hanif concentrated on the Ḥanafī school. The first authoritative texts that give rise to a flurry of sharḥ activity in the Ḥanafī school are al-Jāmi’ al-ṣaghīr and al-Jāmi’ al-kabīr attributed to Muḥammad b. Ḥasan al-Shaybānī (d. 189/805). The majority of sharḥs written until the 7th/13th century focused on these primary sources of the Ḥanafī doctrine. Yet, following 7th /13th century, commentators started to give importance to other texts, including Abū al-Ḥusayn al-Qudūrī’s (d. 428/1037) Mukhtaṣar al-Qudūrī and Abū al-Barakāt al-Nasafī’s (d. 710/1310) Kanz al-daqāʾiq.

Dr. Hanif emphasized sharḥs as the primary reservoirs of legal theory and epistemology. At the epistemological level, Ḥanafī legal doctrine is formulated on three fundamental pillars: (1) a literalist theory of language, (2) deference to insights of the early juristic community, and (3) deference to the habit of the law. These three pillars function to identify the legal meanings that underpin the legal rulings. According to Dr. Hanif, sharḥs provide clear examples of how these epistemological pillars of Ḥanafī uṣūl operated. The employment of these pillars in the sharḥ presents a type of legal reasoning especially valuable for pedagogical purposes. This structure of sharḥ also indicates the close relationship between furūʿ al-fiqh and uṣūl al-fiqh at the level of underlying epistemology.

Sharḥ literature is a distinct genre that fulfills a specific role in the larger corpus of Islamic legal literature, being meant primarily for an audience of students within the madhhab. Arguments in the classical sharḥ tradition do not aim to polemically defend the school’s positions, as this argumentative role is fulfilled by khilāf literature. Sharḥs, on the other hand, present intra-madhhab legal reasoning that ensures consistency within the school. Furthermore, sharḥs function at different levels. At the first level, authors explore the formative law of the madhhab. Whereas mukhtaṣars are abridged works providing an organized core of legal cases, sharḥs explain these cases by presenting how the application of scripture and rational inference lead to the legal opinions upheld by the madhhab. This engagement of the commentary with the mukhtaṣar at this level is not because the mukhtaṣar is the law to be applied. Instead, the sharḥ reflects on the rationale behind legal cases and provides students training in legal reasoning and argumentation. Another dimension to the sharḥs highlights the hegemonic legal opinions of the school and the practical considerations with references to the fatwā and tarjīḥ positions. Thus, the commentator does not only consider the law of the mukhtaṣar but goes further by applying the ancient tradition and epistemological background to newly emergent social conditions. Indeed, the fatwā-position is not always included in sharḥs unless the fatwā is widely accepted within the school. Dr. Hanif deduces that the sharḥ is not the site for contested fatwās and current debates. Many sharḥ texts focus on certain parts of an original text, allowing scholars to engage the ontology of a legal opinion without becoming mired in debates and defenses.

Dr. Hanif further points out some specific topics that merited sharḥ at different points over time. Firstly, he observes an increasing number of sharḥs on inheritance law beginning from the 8th/14th century onwards. For instance, Dr. Hanif notes eleven sharḥ books on the inheritance section of Khalīl b. Isḥāq al-Jundī’s (d. 767/1366) Mukhtaṣar Khalīl alone. Another spike in sharḥ production occurred for the topic of ritual worship from the 8th/14th century onwards. Considering the stable and fixed nature of inheritance law, Dr. Hanif questioned the reasons behind the particular interest in sharḥs on inheritance. For the topic of ritual worship, Dr. Hanif posed the question of how ritual worship was recorded and taught for the first seven centuries of Islam considering the topic rose to prominence only in the 7th/14th century. He also added that a small number of sharḥ texts on qaḍāʾ, khilāfiyyāt and marriage have survived, but no sharḥs on fatāwā.

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