Experiments in Inter-Communal Legal Citation

By Raha Rafii

The Courts & Canons (CnC) Project at SHARIAsource leverages data science tools to explore questions in Islamic law and society historically through mapping the controversies and values reflected in courts (from taʾrīkh, ṭabaqāt) and legal canons (qawāʿid fiqhiyya). We experiment with ways in which the data science tools we are developing at SHARIAsource (CnC Qayyim) can aid in that research. 

Recently, there have been some important shifts in understanding the relationship between sectarianism and the history of Islamic law. The Orientalist tradition has created a body of scholarship where the history of Islamic law mainly overlaps with the history of Sunnī law; as a result, it sidelined other traditions, including that of Twelver Shīʿī jurisprudence. As Devin Stewart emphasized in his book Islamic Legal Orthodoxy, in the premodern period in Iran, Iraq, and the Levant, both Shīʿī and Sunnī scholars taught and studied under each other.[1] However, his study focused on the borrowing and conformance of the Twelver jurists to Sunnī legal concepts. If Sunnī scholars also had studied under Twelver teachers, were there any indication that Sunnī scholars had read them, just as many Twelver jurists had done with Sunnī scholars?

This is a sweeping question that I decided to break down into a smaller, manageable part: looking for citations in non-Twelver texts that occur within a few decades of the lifespans of the Twelver jurists, using the examples of Twelver jurists al-Shaykh al-Ṭūsī (d. 460/1067) and al-Shahīd al-Thānī (d. 966/1559). My expectations were that there would be more references to Twelver scholars in the earlier periods but that citations would decrease over time, especially by the Safavid period, as Twelver jurists stabilized their access to patronage and ruling powers. It would be an enormous, time-consuming task to search for whether certain names appeared among an endless number of books, or even knowing where to start. Furthermore, a persistent challenge is that many Twelver scholars are often known by multiple honorifics and names.

With the Qayyim tool I was able to search the Courts and Canons current database while excluding Twelver texts for my query—this meant I was able to search 24 texts in the Ḥanafī, Ḥanbalī, Shāfiʿī, and Mālikī legal traditions to obtain results within a few seconds. In addition to its search function, the CnC Qayyim tool allows for linking these multiple names to one figure via tagging so that over time, searching becomes more efficient and accurate. In this way, “Shaykh al-Ṭāʾifa,” “Muḥammad b. al-Ḥasan al-Ṭūsī,” and “al-Shaykh Abū Jaʿfar al-Ṭūsī” would all be properly associated with “al-Shaykh al-Ṭūsī,” reducing the need for multiple search queries for one person. In this way, the researcher is able to get refined results across thousands of pages with just one search quickly, a process that may have otherwise taken months. Furthermore, the thoroughness and accuracy of Qayyim’s search process free the researcher from the need for cross-checking.

In my search queries, I found that Shaykh Ṭūsī did not appear in sources outside of Twelver texts, and even in Twelver texts he was not mentioned in any text prior to the 8th/14th century. Since Shaykh Ṭusī was a major figure whose methodologies and opinions were discussed, contested, and rehabilitated by Twelvers well before the 8th/14th century, these results indicated a source issue. The CnC database currently holds mostly texts that are categorized as legal canons, and so search results will heavily reflect that genre. My results tentatively indicate that the genre of legal canons had a different scholarly trajectory from what I would expect from other forms of Twelver/Sunnī legal engagement. However, with increasing users of Qayyim who are uploading additional texts for their own research questions, the database of texts will increase and diversify over time, allowing us to start seeing patterns of citation (or none) over a wider array of legal texts, especially non-Twelver works. With my preliminary results from Qayyim, I can refine my search to collections of legal texts other than legal canons to test my hypothesis about decreasing citation over time.

There is also the question of the nature of citation. Whereas Twelver jurists tend to cite non-Twelver scholars by name, Sunnī jurists will occasionally refer to Twelver jurists as a whole as “the Shīʿa,” even though that designation would indicate a group greater than the Twelvers. A search for “al-Shīʿa” results in a citation by Tāj al-Dīn al-Subkī, an 8th/14th-century Shāfiʿite scholar, regarding a position on triple ṭalāq (ṭalāq al-thulāth).

A search for ‘al-Shīʿa’ on Qayyim.

Otherwise, Qayyim results do not give non-Twelver citations of Twelver scholars by name except for al-Shahīd al-Thānī—searched by his full name as Zayn al-Dīn ibn ʿAlī ibn al-Aḥmad al-ʿĀmilī—in a legal canon by the contemporary Salafi scholar Yaʿqūb ibn ʿAbd al-Wahhāb al-Bāḥusayn (d. 2022), who refers to several legal schools in his text. Although the other findings have not yet provided answers to my queries, they help refine and focus the initial research question to ask how genre may affect citation and citation norms.

Zayn al-Dīn ibn ʿAlī ibn al-Aḥmad al-ʿĀmilī


[1] Devin J. Stewart, Islamic Legal Orthodoxy: Twelver Shiite Responses to the Sunni Legal System (University of Utah Press, 1998), 63.

(Suggested Bluebook citation: Raha Rafii, Experiments in Inter-Communal Legal Citation, Islamic Law Blog (June 29, 2022), https://islamiclaw.blog/2022/06/29/experiments-in-inter-communal-legal-citation/)

(Suggested Chicago citation: Raha Rafii, “Experiments in Inter-Communal Legal Citation,” Islamic Law Blog, June 29, 2022, https://islamiclaw.blog/2022/06/29/experiments-in-inter-communal-legal-citation/)

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