Ethical Perfectionism in Fiqh: The Example of Moral Exemplars

By Junaid Quadri*

How precisely to understand the ethical material found within works of fiqh has been a recurrent question of Western scholarship on Islamic law since its earliest period. If, in the first phase of this interest, scholars tended to find in fiqh a curious (and perhaps, objectionable) amalgam of law, religion and ethics, recent decades have witnessed a robust response.[1] A bulk of this literature has been focused on disentangling the fiqh’s religious or ethical norms from its legal ones, often with a view to locating a place for secular reason within what has been viewed as a sacred law, or a place for liberal rights in what has often been cast as a divinely-willed deontology. This has been a productive turn that continues to generate deep insights into the inner workings of Islamic law. It has been especially successful in identifying the rational and pragmatic elements of fiqh as opposed to the purely revelatory and textual, and in positioning the sharīʿa as a viable legal system suitable for comparison with counterparts.[2]

It is the conceit of this post, however, that there are also alternative ethical visions animating the fiqh literature that merit exploration. What if we regard the apparent commingling of law, religion, and ethics not so much as a problem to be solved, but rather a feature of a distinct normative tradition that invites investigation in its own right? I submit that this opens us up to imagining moral habits and psychological horizons that live beyond our own most immediate normative concerns. Such a reorientation would clear conceptual space for an examination of the intersections of fiqh with a different conception of ethics, a perfectionist ethics directed at cultivating certain qualities, or virtues, in the Muslim subject. This is an ethics that is much more often identified – because more readily apparent – in Sufism or falsafa, fields that are regularly placed in opposition to juristic discourse. Locating evidence of perfectionism in fiqh, then, would offer the further prospect of an overlap in ideas between otherwise distinct normative Islamic traditions, a possibility that is too often overlooked when these bodies of thought are read in isolation.

One avenue of inquiry that presents itself as a result of a shift in focus from rights to perfection is the place of moral exemplars. The exemplar is that figure in a normative system who exhibits a superior sense for what constitutes the good life and how to live it, and serves as a model for other moral agents aspiring to develop (or approximate) that same awareness and mode of cultivation. To be sure, the idea of a moral exemplar is not strictly speaking a requirement for a perfectionist ethics, and yet such examples as Aristotle’s phronimos and the Confucian sage point to the vital importance of a moral model to the process of self-cultivation.

For Muslims, of course, the ultimate moral exemplar is the Prophet Muḥammad, and the example to be cultivated is his sunna. It goes without saying that the concept of sunna is an undeniably central element of any articulation of Islam. As a consequence of this standing, it has received significant scholarly attention. Within Islamic legal studies, scholars have approached the topic from a number of angles, studying among other things the term’s pre-Islamic connotations; its connection to the communal practice of the early Muslim communities; its precise definition in the medieval fiqh tradition; its notable resurgence in modern Islamic thought; its interaction with the Qurʾān in the process of deriving legal rulings; and its relationship to the ḥadīth corpus, itself the site of fierce debates about origins and authenticity.[3] Underlying these various investigations is a recognition of the sunna as a normative model for conduct, a well-trodden path to follow (ṭarīqa maslūka fī al-dīn), as one definition has it.[4] Highlighting the fundamental place of the sunna in normative practice in this way tends to translate quite naturally into a foregrounding of the role of emulation in the Muslim aspirant’s moral life. Drawn from my own limited study of the concept in Ḥanafī juristic discussions, I explore below how thinking about the sunna in terms of moral exemplarity also recommends to the Muslim subject a second moral psychology, one that centers the emotion of admiration.

In a recent monograph and a series of articles, the philosopher Linda Zagzebski has argued at length in favor of an exemplarist moral theory, an account of ethics structured around orienting oneself toward moral exemplars as the pre-theoretic elements of our moral lives.[5] The central operative emotion she identifies with this way of thinking about morality is admiration. Indeed, she suggests that the admirability of the exemplar is prior to their imitability. “What I mean by an exemplar,” Zagzebski writes, “is a paradigmatically good person. An exemplar is a person who is most admirable. We identify the admirable by the emotion of admiration … A person who is admirable in some respect is imitable in that respect. This is rough because there are many reasons why we do not or cannot imitate the admirable. But the feeling of admiration is a kind of attraction that carries with it the impetus to imitate.”[6]

To appreciate an iteration of the sunna that depicts the Prophet as not only a model to emulate, but also an object of admiration, I turn to the Ḥanafī category of the “emphasized sunna” (al-sunna al-muʾakkada). Latter-day Ḥanafis took an interest in theorizing this concept so as to elucidate its contours. As part of this effort, they considered the question of how to make sense of a person who disregards an act that falls under this norm. One response, found most fully in Ibn Nujaym (d. 970/1563) and anticipated in earlier scholars like Ibn al-Humām (d. 861/1457), was to affirm the sinfulness of such disregard when the omission is habitual.[7] The assiduity (muwāẓaba) with which the Prophet is said to have practiced such an act is mirrored in a demand for consistency in his followers. Sinfulness accrues when this consistency lapses in such a way that the lapse becomes a habit of its own. A different tack was taken by two fourteenth century Ḥanafīs, al-Zaylaʿī (d. 743/1343) and al-Taftazānī (d. 792/1390), who focused instead on the consequences attending someone who disregards a sunna muʾakkada, conceptualizing them in terms of a comparison with a person who violates the straightforwardly prohibited (ḥarām). While the latter merits a punishment (ʿuqūba) in hellfire, they claimed, the former is deserving of a censure (ʿitāb) that takes the form of being deprived of the Prophet’s intercession (ḥirmān al-shafāʿa).[8]

The introduction of shafāʿa here in connection with sunna gives us a deeply ethical formulation in which censure is envisioned in terms of distance from the moral exemplar. I want to suggest that the appearance of intercession in this passage allows us a window onto the second, less discussed, mode of exemplarism in the fiqh that I gestured towards above. In his gloss on the famous Jamʿ al-Jawāmiʿ of al-Subkī (d. 771/1370), the nineteenth-century shaykh al-Azhar Ḥasan al-ʿAṭṭār (d. 1250/1835) makes reference to an illuminating passage found in a work attributed – though the attribution is disputed – to al-Ghazālī (d. 505/1111). In al-Maḍnūn bi-hi ʿalā Ghayr Ahlihi, (pseudo-)Ghazālī glosses shafāʿa as “a light that radiates from the Divine Presence to the Prophetic essence (jawhar al-nubuwwa), and from there, spreads to every substance whose correspondence to the Prophetic essence is formed through ardent adoration (shiddat al-maḥabba), assiduously attending to the sunan (muwāẓaba) and invoking prayers on him (ṣalāt ʿalayhi).”[9] In this explanation, in addition to the familiar invocation of the sunna as an assiduous emulation of the Prophet, we are presented with a second mode of devotion that renders one worthy of the Prophet’s intercession: deep love and reverential prayers.

I have translated maḥabba in the above text as adoration precisely because it captures the dual sense of veneration and admiration I wish to portray here as a constituent element of the moral psychology of the normative Muslim aspirant. Digging deeper into the way the word has been understood reveals its entanglement with the kind of perfectionist ethics I detect in the fiqh. In his celebrated tafsīr, Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī’s (d. 606/1210) preferred understanding of maḥabba positions moral perfection (kamāl) as one of two fundamental and irreducible objects of love. Just as we seek to attain pleasure (the other object), we all desire this sort of perfection, whose exemplars are the prophets and saints. These figures are adored “solely because the qualities of perfection are attributed to them. When we hear stories of the courageous like Rostam and Esfandyar and come to know of the nature of their courage, our hearts incline towards them.”[10] This account is of a deeply affective relationship to the moral exemplar. Like the heroes of the Shahnameh whose exploits inspire us, our hearts incline towards the prophets and saints in recognition of their paradigmatic moral perfection. We admire them for these qualities, as Zagzebski would put it, and this motivates us to want to cultivate the same qualities in ourselves through emulation. In accordance with Zagzebski’s emphasis on the importance of stories in an exemplarist system, the reference by al-Rāzī to Ferdowsi’s epic puts on display the close relationship between inclination and admiration, on the one hand, and virtuous action on the other.

Reading the Prophet’s exemplary sunna in tandem with his shafāʿa gives us a fuller, more rounded view of the ethical approaches deployed in works of fiqh. Popular understandings of Prophetic intercession portray it as an act of grace, a favor bestowed upon the undeserving sinner with God’s permission. Here, though, it is precisely the sinful to whom intercession is denied, a device clearly designed to encourage the devotee to work to better themselves. It is by both emulating his practice and adoring and venerating his example that the Prophet’s intercession is achieved. There is a distinct affective component to this relationship – the person denied the intercession of the object of admiration is bereft; the one granted it enjoys bliss – but this affect is part of a moral psychology in which it is placed in the service of a moral exemplarism that encourages virtuous conduct.


* I am grateful to Ali Altaf Mian and Basit Iqbal for their comments on this post.

[1] Examples of this earlier orientation are C. Snouck Hurgronje, “De la Nature du Droit Musulman,” in G.-H. Bousquet and J. Schacht, eds., Selected Works of C. Snouck Hurgronje (Leiden: Brill, 1957); and Ignaz Goldziher, Introduction to Islamic Theology and Law, tr. Andras and Ruth Hamori (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1981).

[2] Works  representing this latter trend include Baber Johansen, Contingency in a Sacred Law: Legal and Ethical Norms in the Muslim Fiqh (Leiden: Brill, 1999); Mohammad Fadel, “The True, the Good and the Reasonable: The Theological and Ethical Roots of Public Reason in Islamic Law,” Canadian Journal of Law and Jurisprudence 21, no. 1 (January 2008): 5-69; and Khaled Fahmy, In Quest of Justice: Islamic Law and Forensic Medicine in Modern Egypt (Oakland: University of California Press, 2018).

[3] Ignaz Goldziher, Muslim Studies, trans. C. R. Barber and S. M. Stern, 2 vols. (Chicago: Aldine, 1971); M. M. Bravmann, The Spiritual Background of Early Islam: Studies in Ancient Arab Concepts (Leiden: Brill, 2009); G. H. A. Juynboll, “Some New Ideas on the Development of Sunna as a Technical Term in Early Islam,” Jerusalem Studies in Arabic and Islam 10 (1987): 97-118; Joseph Schacht, The Origins of Muhammadan Jurisprudence (Oxford: Clarendon, 1950); Wael B. Hallaq, The Origins and Evolution of Islamic Law (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005); Yasin Dutton, The Origins of Islamic Law: The Qurʾan, the Muwaṭṭāʾ, and Madinan ʿAmal (Richmond: Curzon, 1999); Daniel W. Brown, Rethinking Tradition in Modern Islamic Thought (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996);  Jonathan Brown, Hadith: Muhammad’s Legacy in the Medieval and Modern World (Oxford: Oneworld, 2009); Harald Motzki, “Dating Muslim Traditions: A Survey,” Arabica 52, no. 2 (2005): 204-253.

[4] For an extensive discussion of this definition, see Muḥammad ʿAlī al-Tahānawī, Kashshāf Iṣṭilāḥāt al-Funūn, ed. ʿAlī Daḥrūj (Beirut: Maktabat Lubnān Nāshirūn, 1996), 980-82.

[5] Linda Trinkaus Zagzebski, Exemplarist Moral Theory (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017); Linda Zagzebski, “Exemplarist Virtue Theory,” Metaphilosophy 41, no. 1/2 (January 2010): 41-57; Linda Zagzebski and T.H. Irwin, “The Moral Significance of Admiration,” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 89 (2015): 205-221.

[6] Zagzebski, “Exemplarist Virtue Theory,” 54.

[7] Zayn al-Dīn ibn Nujaym, al-Baḥr al-Rāʾiq Sharḥ Kanz al-Daqāʾiq, vol. 1 (Beirut: Dār al-Kutub al-ʿIlmiyya, 1997), 527.

[8] Saʿd al-Dīn Masʿūd b. ʿUmar al-Taftazānī, Sharḥ al-Talwīḥ ʿalā al-Tawḍīḥ, vol. 2 (Cairo: Maṭbaʿat Muḥammad ʿAlī Ṣubayḥ wa-Awlāduhu, 1957), 126. Al-Zaylaʿī’s position is quoted in ʿAlāʾ al-Dīn al-Ḥaṣkafī, al-Durr al-Mukhtār, on the margins of Muḥammad Amīn ibn ʿĀbidīn, Radd al-Muḥtār, vol. 5 (Deoband: Maktabat Fayḍ al-Qurʾān, n.d.), 337.

[9] Ḥasan al-ʿAṭṭār, Ḥāshiyat al-ʿAṭṭār ʿalā Jamʿ al-Jawāmiʿ, vol. 2 (Beirut: Dār al-Kutub al-ʿIlmiyya, n.d.), 477-78.

[10] Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī, al-Tafsīr al-Kabīr, vol. 4 (Beirut: Dār Iḥyāʾ al-Turāth al-ʿArabī, 1999), 176.

(Suggested Bluebook citation: Junaid Quadri, Ethical Perfectionism in Fiqh: The Example of Moral Exemplars, Islamic Law Blog (Dec. 16, 2021),

(Suggested Chicago citation: Junaid Quadri, “Ethical Perfectionism in Fiqh: The Example of Moral Exemplars,” Islamic Law Blog, December 16, 2021,

Leave a Reply