Monthly Lectures on Islamic Legal Genres: “Fatāwā Compilations: Exploring a legal genre in the Islamic West” by Prof. Maribel Fierro

By Omar Khaled Abdel-Ghaffar

This is a summary of the lecture by Prof. Maribel Fierro entitled “Fatāwā Compilations: Exploring a legal genre in the Islamic West,” delivered on June 30, 2021 at 12 noon (EST), 6 pm (Münster) 7 pm (Istanbul) via Zoom.

Thus far in the ILG series, each speaker has touched on how a given genre is closely related to certain structures of legal authority. Professor Fierro’s lecture articulated this point clearly by examining trends of fatwā compilation in Andalusia and North Africa. Fierro started the lecture by presenting a chart – generated with the help of emerging online databases- to point to the peculiar fact that the Almohad period (1121-1269) produced only one fatwā compilation. This dearth of responsa contrasts with other historical periods in the Maghreb, where fatwā compilations were more plentiful. The data on HATA  (History of Authors and Transmitters of al-Andalus) and HATOI  (History of Authors and Transmitters of al-Maghrib) allowed Fierro to demonstrate the decline of the genre and set the stage for her compelling explanation for this trend. Fierro argued that the presence of fatwā compilations is closely connected to two phenomena: legal codification, and the presence of “Sunnī-style ʿulamāʾ.” By this latter term Fierro means the presence of a legal institution independent of the Caliph-Sultan’s authority. She argues that presence of various voices of near equal standing, debating points of law, generates fatwā compilations and that therefore a great discrepancy in authority causes the decline of the genre. 

The Almoravids (1040-1157) were a North African dynasty with all the trappings of a Sunnī monarchy: loyalty to the Abbāsids, promotion of Mālikism, and the preservation of an independent scholarly community. Fatwā literature reached its apogee in the Islamic West under their rule: scholars compiled responsa for pedagogical as well as practical purposes, and the opinions of mushāwirūn were written down and exchanged between scholars and administrators alike. The Almohads in contrast created their own dependent, salaried scholarly elites, known as the ṭalaba. Furthermore, Averroes (d. 1198) compiled his famous Bidāyat al-mujtahid under the Almohads, and presented the text to the Caliph. Fierro reads this process as emblematic of a trend towards legal codification under Almohad guidance. The Almohads were not the first to attempt this codification. Ibn al-Muqaffaʿ (d. 759) had failed in convincing the Abbasids to create a similar system, whereas Qāḍī Nuʿmān (d. 974) was more successful in establishing his own legal opinions as the unequivocal legal codes of the Fatimid polity. After Qāḍī Nuʿmān, therefore, Ismāʿīlī jurisprudence remained within the orbit of the jurist’s writings. Like the Fatimids, the Almohads did not have a system of “Sunnī-style scholars,” and had their own mahdī with a claim to infallibility. The presence of fatwā compilations therefore was unnecessary, because the system did not accept the possibility of valid dissenting opinions. The only surviving fatwā compilation was penned by the Caliph al-Manṣūr (d. 1199), demonstrating the Almohad Caliph’s role in legal codification.

After the Almohads, the Nasrids (1230-1492) attempted to cultivate Sunnī legal culture in the Maghreb once again. Nasrid fatwā texts were mostly compiled by jurists who also served as qāḍīs, and oftentimes the opinions of many muftīs were compiled into one volume. The rich environment of post-Almohad fatwā production produced one of the most famous fatwā compilations in Islamic history: those of al-Wansharīsī (d. 1509). Fierro argues that fatwā compilation during this later period was an important tool to resist the spread of the mukhtaṣar genre and thereby to protect the equivocality of legal opinions from the winds of codification blowing from the Islamic East.

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