In this series of four blog essays, Rob Gleave and Kumail Rajani of the University of Exeter, UK, introduce the digital database of Twelver Shīʿī legal theory writings – the Twelver Uṣūl Bibliography or TUB.
Premodern Islamic scholarly legal literature (from the 7th to the 19th centuries CE) is characterised by powerful generic traditions. When composing a work in a specific discipline (e.g. fiqh, uṣūl, fatāwā and nawāzil), premodern Muslim legal scholars usually see themselves as continuing in their present a time honored juristic intellectual endeavour; they see themselves as extending and expanding a literary corpus stretching back over the scholarly generations.
I know what some of you are thinking: “what does he mean by premodern?” You can read about this in a footnote if such discussions are your penchant.
A premodern jurist might write a work of Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh): its contents can be explained by referencing various contributory factors (including legal practice, contemporary politics, non-fiqh sources like fatwās or legal theory, reflections on wider theoretical concerns etc.). I would argue, though, that a premodern fiqh work is, first and foremost, in conversation with other fiqh works (whether or not the scholar references them). To a large extent, the tradition of composing works in a specific literary genre explains why such works are (mostly) predictably structured; why a set of (mostly) repeated issues are tackled and reappear across the scholarly generations; and why particular forms of legal reasoning are (mostly) used to demonstrate and support particular legal doctrines. The stability of the fiqh genre over time is one of its remarkable features. This could probably be said for other premodern Islamic religious genres also.
When a work deviates from the generic norm (in form, content or both), our research antennae twitch: deviation needs explanation. This is natural and not to be condemned. I would argue, though, that the common place – the supposedly “unremarkable,” perhaps, dare I say it… the “unoriginal” – needs to be understood alongside the unusual. The field of Islamic legal studies is not yet in a position to make secure judgements about the historical development of premodern Islamic legal literatures. This, in my view, is because we have not yet grasped the size and shape of the literary corpus we are dealing with, and we are yet to fully understand how these various genres of writing served the scholarly disciplines of the law.
The Twelver Uṣūl Bibliography (TUB) aims to be a contribution to addressing this challenge. TUB aims to be database of all known works of uṣūl al-fiqh and related disciplines written by Twelver Shīʿī scholars. It is an on-going project with a team of contributors. To date we have constructed a database of over 1800 titles of works of uṣūl and related disciplines. Some of these works appear original and daring; others were workaday and humdrum. Some were highly valued by subsequent scholars; others were ignored and disappeared except for a sole surviving manuscript; some are not extant, though we have their titles from biobibliographical sources. What the Twelver uṣūl tradition considers (or considered) to be valuable and noteworthy, or what academic scholarship has identified as original and important, are not our prime concern in constructing the database. The aim is to capture the literary output in a specific genre in a particular intellectual tradition. To date we have constructed the database of titles from the earliest time until the composition of Kifāyat al-uṣūl of Ākhund al-Khurasānī (d. 1329/1911). We had plans to extend this into the 20th century – but we ran out of money and time.
TUB is an offshoot of the European Research Council Advanced award Law Authority and Learning in Imami Shiʿite Islam (LAWALISI: award no. 695245). The larger LAWALISI project aimed to chart the history of Twelver Shīʿī law through a series of case studies; it ran from 2016 to 2022, was based at the University of Exeter, and utilized the expertise of 12 postdoctoral researchers in various capacities with me, Rob Gleave, as the Principal Investigator.
The 1800+ titles fall into genre categories within the broader disciplinary category of Islamic legal theory (i.e., uṣūl al-fiqh). The principal, and perhaps best known, category is that of the uṣūl monograph. Works of uṣūl al-fiqh follow a reasonably predictable format. They attempt to cover all the legally relevant hermeneutic and epistemological topics. Uṣūl monographs employ a comprehensive approach, aiming to position the Law (sharʿ, sharīʿa – which, Muslim jurists believe, should govern all human action) within a totalized theoretical framework. If someone asks why Muslims should abide by a particular norm (such as abstaining from consuming swine meat, or fasting during the month of Ramadan), the ultimate justification lies not in straightforward statements like “because God says so in the Qurʾān,” but in the legal theory set out in works of uṣūl. The answer to such questions comprises, for sure, references to sources (the Qurʾānic text, the saying and actions of legal authority figures, the agreed pronouncement of the Muslim community); these sources, though, need to be verified as accurate and probative (through an investigation of their provenance); they then need to be understood and interpreted (through a trustworthy hermeneutic procedure or set of procedures); and when they are understood to be limited or irrelevant, there may be other sources the jurists are permitted to follow (reason, societal custom, past juristic precedent etc.); and finally, once the scholar has derived the legal norm, what authority does their pronouncement have? Who is permitted to carry out rule derivation and what authority do their pronouncements have? All of these “meta” questions are the domain of uṣūl al-fiqh. Those of us who study works of Islamic legal theory are quite familiar with the content and structure of such works; though there are variations and innovations, such works are reasonably standard in layout. The uṣūl monograph is, then, a familiar category to both researchers and to those involved in the on-going scholarly elaboration of Islamic law. It includes the famous comprehensive works of Islamic legal theory such as al-Mustaṣfā fī uṣūl al-fiqh of Abū Ḥāmid al-Ghaẓālī (d.505/1111) or al-Iḥkām fī uṣūl al-aḥkām of Sayf al-dīn al-Āmidī (d.631/1233).
Uṣūl monographs often attract commentary. Sometimes an uṣūl monograph appears written specifically to be the subject of commentary (i.e., written to be a matn). Commentarial activity spawns additional uṣūl-related genres, and TUB aims to capture these as well. Within the scholarly discipline of legal theory, a successful (i.e., influential, widely read, widely studied) uṣūl monograph usually attracts scholarly commentaries (shurūḥ), glosses (ḥawāshī), and marginal comments (taʿlīqāt). It may be subject to abbreviation (khulāṣa), translation (tarjuma) and versification (manẓūma). Controversial works receive not merely criticism: they can receive specific, directed works of refutation (rudūd). These are more than mere critical commentaries – they are full-frontal attacks. Furthermore, when a jurist teaches uṣūl within the legal curriculum of a seminary, the students’ lecture notes create new texts (called taqrīrāt). Certain topics of legal theory prove particularly controversial or in need of further research, and scholars are inspired to write treatises (rasāʾil) on a specific point of legal theory (e.g., how can an isolated report/khabar al-wāḥid be legally probative? What types of analogical reasoning/qiyās are acceptable?).
Within the field of Twelver Shīʿī legal theory, all these types of literature constitute uṣūl-related literary genres. Those of us who work with the tradition have a sense of this variety, but we do not yet have a clear notion of the historical development and impact of these compositions on the wider tradition of Twelver Shīʿī legal theory. As of now, we do not know the answers to simple questions such as: Which texts were the principal subjects of commentary and when, by whom, and where? Which types of writing were popular by Twelver scholars of uṣūl at which points in time? Which uṣūl topics were considered so important they received discrete treatise treatment? These are fundamental questions for anyone attempting to describe the history of a discipline such as Twelver Shīʿī Legal Theory. With TUB, preliminary and statistically supported assessments can be made about these topics since we can interrogate the data with specific questions in mind.
To sign off for this essay, we have an example. Many scholars, even those who are not immersed in Twelver Shīʿī uṣūl, will have heard of the uṣūl work al-Dharīʿa ilā uṣūl al-Sharīʿa by Sharīf al-Murtaḍā (d. 436/1044). Although it was written by a Twelver Shīʿī jurist, it reflects and records wider Muʿtazilī legal theoretical doctrine from 5th/11th century Baghdad, and has been rightly recognized as an important source for early Muʿtazilī (and wider Muslim) legal theory. Using TUB, one can quickly discover the following interesting facts:
- There are around 50 manuscripts of al-Dharīʿa found in various libraries around the world. This is not so many given the work’s stature and profile.
- While the earliest manuscript of Dharīʿa may date from around the time of the work’s composition (11th century CE), the next dated manuscript is from four centuries after the work’s composition (dated to 969/1561). This is a long gap in the manuscript history of this work.
- There have been just four recorded commentaries on Dharīʿa, and none after the mid-7th/mid-13th Interesting, it is (to our knowledge) unique in being the only uṣūl work by a Twelver Shīʿī to receive commentary from someone outside of the Twelver Shīʿī tradition. For an important work, this seems a limited amount level of commentarial activity.
We can compare these features with another slightly later work of Twelver Shīʿī legal theory – Mabādiʾ al-wuṣūl ilā ʿilm al-uṣūl by al-ʿAllāma al-Ḥillī (d. 726/1325):
- There are over 120 manuscripts of the Mabādiʾ.
- A number of these manuscripts date from the lifetime of al-ʿAllāma himself and with steady production after that date into the 19th century CE.
- There are 18 recorded commentaries on this work, with the work still being the subject of commentary into the 19th century CE.
Discovering such facts would not be impossible without TUB, but discovering each piece of data would take many hours of research. With TUB, we can uncover statistically important features of the tradition and we might, in time, adjust our assessment of works and their role in the history of Twelver Shīʿī legal theory.
 By premodern, we are not prejudging an answer to the “rupture” question. We do think, though, that regarding the scholarly elaboration of Islamic legal topics specifically, and perhaps Islamic thought more generally, there are recognizable characteristics which form a continuous intellectual tradition in the period before (let’s pick a date…) 1850 CE; these characteristics were such that we can say some general things (but not everything) about Islamic thought and literature during this period, and remain sensible. Whether these recognizable characteristics were abandoned, adapted or continued to be dominant when the “modern” arrived is an open question. For a similar approach to the term “postclassical”, see A. Ahmed and R. Gleave, “Rationalist Disciplines and Postclassical Islamic Legal Theories,” Oriens, 46, nos. 1-2, (2018): 1-5.
 The terminus of Ākhund’s Kifāyat al-uṣūl is a convenient terminus for us – we had to stop somewhere as our funding period ended. The Kifāya formally inaugurated a new modality in the study of Twelver uṣul in the Shīʿī seminaries. The volume of commentarial material on Kifāya is huge and continues to this day. Modern Twelver Shīʿī uṣūl has been, to an extent, a reaction to or confirmation of the intellectual framework of the Kifāya.
 For example, the Jamʿ al-Jawāmiʿ of Tāj al-Dīn al-Subkī (d. 771/1370) is described as a summary of many previous works of uṣūl al-fiqh. As such, it has itself attracted numerous commentaries over the centuries, including the Tashnīf al-Masāmiʿ bi-jamʿ al-jawāmīʿ of Muḥammad al-Zarkashī (d. 794/1392). There are also numerous glosses (ḥawāshī) on the Jamʿ al-Jawāmiʿ, and its commentaries on the Jamʿ – such as Ḥāshiyat al-ʿAṭṭār on the Sharḥ Jamʿ al-Jawāmiʿ of Jalāl al-Dīn al-Maḥallī (d. 864/1460) by Ḥasan b. Muḥammad al-ʿAṭṭār (d. 1250/1834). There are also abbreviations of the Jamʿ al-Jawāmiʿ (though it is not itself a lengthy text) such as the Mukhtaṣar Jamʿ al-jawāmiʿ of Muḥammad b. ʿUmar al-Ḥalabī (d. 916/1511). Finally, there are versifications of the work such as al-Kawākib al-Sāṭiʿ naẓm Jamʿ al-Jawāmiʿ of Jalāl al-Dīn al-Suyūṭī (d. 911/1505).
 They are: Sharḥ al-Dharīʿa by Kamāl al-Dīn al-Marʿashī (d. after 525/1130), Sharḥ Masāʾil al-Dharīʿa by ʿImād al-Dīn al-Ṭabarī (fl.553/1158), al-Mustaqṣā fī sharḥ al-Dharīʿa by Hibatallāh ‘Quṭb al-Dīn al-Rāwandī (d. 573/1177) and al-Iʿtibār ʿalā kitāb al-Dharīʿa ilā uṣūl al-sharīʿa by the Sunnī Shāfiʿī Ibn Abī al-Ḥadīd (d. 655/1257 or 656/1258).
(Suggested Bluebook citation: Robert Gleave, Resources for the History of Twelver Shīʿī legal Theory: The Twelver Uṣūl Bibliography, Islamic Law Blog (June 8, 2023), https://islamiclaw.blog/2023/06/08/resources-for-the-history-of-twelver-shi%ca%bfi-legal-theory-the-twelver-u%e1%b9%a3ul-bibliography/)
(Suggested Chicago citation: Robert Gleave, “Resources for the History of Twelver Shīʿī legal Theory: The Twelver Uṣūl Bibliography,” Islamic Law Blog, June 8, 2023, https://islamiclaw.blog/2023/06/08/resources-for-the-history-of-twelver-shi%ca%bfi-legal-theory-the-twelver-u%e1%b9%a3ul-bibliography/)