Experiments in Searching for Islam’s Universal Canons on the CnC-Qayyim Platform

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. 

What role do qawāʿid works play in delineating the spread of legal maxims? Mairaj Syed recently pursued this question by utilizing Qayyim’s ability to detect the citation of “universal canons”—groups of maxims that all fiqh questions can be supposedly reduced to—across different qawāʿid works. Examples of later references to such universal canons include al-Ashbāh wa’ l-Naẓāʾir of al-Suyūtī (d. 911/1505) and other scholars such as Ibn Nujaym (d. 969/1563) and Ṣalāḥ al-Dīn al-ʿAlāʾī  (d. 761/1359). These scholars also cite Qurʾān and ḥadīth literature as scriptural justification for the authority of such maxims.

Ranking of citation frequency of various canons

As a way to learn more about qawāʿid literature, Syed phrased his research question as follows: How extensively were these universal canons and their scriptural justifications cited in premodern canons collections? He began by searching the genre of qawāʿid fiqhiyya in CnC-Qayyim and started with the earliest reference to universal canons in the corpus, that is, al-ʿAlāʿī’s al-Majmūʿa al-Madhhab fī qawāʿid al-madhhab. Using the canon al-yaqīn lā yuzālu bi’ l-shakk (certainty is not to be superseded by doubt) as a test case, Syed was able to use CnC-Qayyim to highlight the phrase and tag it as a canon that created a separate list of all citations of that canon. Using CnC-Qayyim features for automatic tagging, Syed was able to immediately retrieve a list of results indicating in which texts this canon occurred. Furthermore, CnC-Qayyim features for fuzzy searches included in the list of results canons with slightly different wording.

Network visualization of the canon al-yaqīn lā yuzālu bi’ l-shakk.

By searching for the tagged canon , Syed was able to search all the texts in the current CnC-Qayyim qawāʿid fiqhiyya corpus to see where else the canon al-yaqīn lā yuzālu bi’ l-shakk (and variations of that formula) appeared, as well as how many times it was cited in the texts. CnC-Qayyim’s network visualization then showed the authors, genres, titles, and legal schools that used the canon. Through additional tagging of ḥadīth reports in similar ways, multiple canons can also be cross-indexed to see with which ḥadīth they tend to occur (if any). CnC-Qayyim also displayed the frequency of occurrence of each canon in a selected corpus, and whether particular legal schools tend to referencing certain canons over others.

Importnatly, Syed’s quick research revealed, through CnC-Qayyim’s visualizations, the canon al-ḍarar yuzālu (harm is to be removed) occurs most frequently in his select corpus of qawāʿid fiqhiyya (canons collections), while the canon lā thawāb illa bi’ l-niyya (there is to be no benefit or reward without intention [behind undertaking an act] —which Ibn Nujaym introduces as a sixth universal canonoccurs only in Ḥanafī works. Still in development with the growing field of Islamic legal interpretation and legal canons, CnC-Qayyim searches are sure to reveal previously hidden connections between legal schools and their inter-madhhab use—or lack thereof—of certain canons over others.

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