Legal language in al-Qaʿnabī’s recension of the Muwaṭṭaʾ

By Raza Baqai, Zainab Hermes and Ahmed El Shamsy

Previous studies of Mālik’s Muwaṭṭaʾ have relied primarily on the recension of Yaḥyā b. Yaḥyā al-Laythī (d. 234/848) to understand Mālik’s legal reasoning.[1] The recent publication of other full recensions of the Muwaṭṭaʾ and the discovery of a manuscript of ʿAbd Allāh al-Qaʿnabī’s (d. 221/833) full recension have made it possible to reconstruct Mālik’s legal thought with a higher degree of detail.[2] This essay begins to address this task by comparing the legal language used in four recensions: those of Yaḥyā b. Yaḥyā, Abū Muṣʿab al-Zuhrī (d. 242/856), Yaḥyā b. Bukayr (d. 231/845), and al-Qaʿnabī.[3]

In his landmark study of the Muwaṭṭaʾ, Umar F. Abd-Allah Wymann-Landgraf reconstructs Mālik’s legal reasoning largely on the basis of a set of terms used repeatedly in Yaḥyā b. Yaḥyā’s version of the Muwaṭṭaʾ.[4] Abd-Allah contends that these legal terms can broadly be divided into amr terms and sunna terms, the former originating in discursive legal reasoning and the latter in authoritative decisions. He argues that these two categories can be divided further on the basis of the degree of consensus they enjoyed in Medina. For example, terms such as al-amr alladhī lā ikhtilāf fīhi ʿindanā (“the precept without dissent among us,” henceforth abbreviated A-XN) and al-sunna allatī lā ikhtilāf fīhā ʿindanā (“the ordinance among us about which there is no dissent,” S-XN), as well as variations such as maḍat al-sunna allatī lā ikhtilāf fīhā ʿindanā (“the ordinance has been established, regarding which there is no dissent among us,” MḍS-XN) and al-amr al-mujtamaʿ ʿalayhi ʿindanā wa-lladhī lā ihtilāf fīhi (“the agreed precept without dissent among us,” AMN-X), indicate complete consensus among the scholars of Medina in Mālik’s lifetime, while less semantically differentiated terms such as al-amr ʿindanā (“the precept among us,” AN) and al-sunna ʿindanā (“the ordinance among us,” SN), as well as the variation maḍat al-sunna (“the ordinance has long been established,” MḍS), represent a norm that is subject to some dissent in Medina.[5] The following table summarizes these terms.

Type Term Abbreviation Translation
Amr terms indicating complete consensus al-amr alladhī lā ikhtilāf fīhi ʿindanā A-XN the precept without dissent among us
al-amr al-mujtamaʿ ʿalayhi ʿindanā wa-lladhī lā ihtilāf fīhi AMN-X the agreed precept without dissent among us
Amr terms indicating some dissent al-amr ʿindanā AN the precept among us
Sunna terms indicating complete consensus al-sunna allatī lā ikhtilāf fīhā ʿindanā S-XN the ordinance among us about which there is no dissent
maḍat al-sunna allatī lā ikhtilāf fīhā ʿindanā MḍS-XN the ordinance has been established, regarding which there is no dissent among us
Sunna terms indicating some dissent al-sunna ʿindanā SN the ordinance among us
maḍat al-sunna MḍS the ordinance has long been established

Our analysis focuses on three terms: A-XN, S-XN, and AN. We sought to gauge the degree to which Mālik’s terminology is consistent across the recensions, and to ask what we might learn from any discrepancies. We began with the assumption that if the most semantically differentiated terms represent the widest consensus in Medina, these terms should also exhibit the highest level of agreement across the various recensions.[6] Methodologically, we looked for differences in the use of these terms between the printed recensions and referenced the manuscript of al-Qaʿnabī’s recension whenever the printed editions differed from one another.[7]

S-XN: al-sunna allatī lā ikhtilāf fīhā ʿindanā

There are twelve instances of S-XN (or MḍS-XN) in the three printed editions. Among these twelve, we identified four instances in which the legal terminology used differs between the three. Below we provide a summary of each case and a chart to illustrate the differences.

Case 1: The ruler’s departure for the festival prayer.[8] The first case concerns Mālik’s position regarding the time at which the ruler ought to depart for the festival prayer. Yaḥyā and Ibn Bukayr use the same term, MḍS-XN, whereas Abū Muṣʿab and al-Qaʿnabī use the less exclusive term MḍS. In each case, Mālik’s statement follows the term, with only minor differences in word order that do not lead to differences in meaning.

Case 2: Zakāt on gold and silver.[9] The second case is about the minimum amount of wealth subject to the alms-tax (zakāt). Here, Abū Muṣʿab, Yaḥyā, and al-Qaʿnabī are in agreement, using the term S-XN. Yaḥyā’s recension reads, “Mālik states that the S-XN is that the alms-tax is due on eighty-five grams (twenty dinars) of pure gold, just as it is due on 600 grams of pure silver (200 dirhams).”[10] Ibn Bukayr, by contrast, uses the less exclusive term SN. In the Mudawwana, Saḥnūn (d. 240/854) uses the term sunna māḍiya, which according to Abd-Allah is equivalent to maḍat al-sunna (MḍS)[11] and thus to SN, corroborating Ibn Bukayr’s version.

Case 3: Zakāt on inherited property.[12] The third case relates to the suspension of the alms-tax on inherited property until a year has passed from the date of inheritance. While Yaḥyā uses S-XN and Abū Muṣʿab and -Qaʿnabī use SN, Ibn Bukayr, surprisingly, does not include any legal terminology in reporting this position. As in Case 2, the most common legal term in the recensions is the most general one, representing the lowest degree of consensus in Medina.

Case 4: The right of first refusal.[13] The last case of difference is found in the discussion of the right of first refusal on property offered for sale. The case starts with the same prophetic report in all the recensions, though with a difference in wording within the ḥadīth: al-Qaʿnabī and Yaḥyā have the same matn while Abū Muṣʿab and Ibn Bukayr share a different matn.[14] At the end of the ḥadīth, Yaḥyā is the only one to include a legal term from Mālik (S-XN).

The following table summarizes the legal terms used in these cases in each of the four recensions.

Yaḥyā Abū Muṣʿab Ibn Bukayr al-Qaʿnabī
Case 1 MḍS-XN MḍS MḍS-XN MḍS
Case 2 S-XN S-XN SN S-XN
Case 3 S-XN SN SN
Case 4 S-XN

The table shows that only Abū Muṣʿab’s and al-Qaʿnabī’s legal terminology agrees across all four cases. As noted earlier, where the three printed recensions were in agreement in their use of S-XN we did not consult al-Qaʿnabī’s version, but given the close correlation between al-Qaʿnabī’s and Abū Muṣʿab’s recensions in the cases we did check, it is likely that they agree in the remaining cases, too. The table also shows that when the recensions differ, Yaḥyā always uses the more semantically exclusive term compared to the others. Overall, the significant degree of concordance across the four recensions in their use of S-XN points to a high level of differentiation of S-XN as a technical term for Mālik.

A-XN: al-amr alladhī lā ikhtilāf fīhī ʿindanā

There are at least twenty-six cases of A-XN across the various recensions.[15] In contrast to the cases involving S-XN, there is significantly less agreement between the three printed recensions in their use of A-XN: they agree in only ten of the twenty-six instances (38%). But if we remove Yaḥyā’s recension from the analysis and compare Abū Muṣʿab and Ibn Bukayr with al-Qaʿnabī instead, we have eight additional cases of agreement, which yields a 69% consistency rate between these three recensions.[16] The chart below illustrates the overlaps in the use of this term between the four recensions. Of the remaining eight cases in which the recensions disagree, three were entirely absent from al-Qaʿnabī’s recension.[17]

Looking solely at the legal terms used, we see a relatively high level of consistency between the recensions of Abū Muṣʿab, Ibn Bukayr, and al-Qaʿnabī, with Yaḥyā’s recension being usually an outlier. We then looked at a few individual cases to provide additional insight on the way in which Yaḥyā’s recension differs from the others.

Case 5: Shaving the head at the end of the pilgrimage.[18] The treatment of this topic starts with the same two reports in all the recensions, and they are typically followed by Mālik’s statement of the rules governing the ritual shaving of the head at the conclusion of the pilgrimage. In Yaḥyā’s recension, Mālik’s statement begins with A-XN. He then says, “It is impermissible to shave one’s head or trim one’s hair until one has completed the ritual sacrifice of an animal,” and cites as evidence the Qurʾānic verse “And do not shave your heads until the sacrificial animal reaches its destination” (2:196). The other three recensions instead use the term al-sunna al-thābita (the firmly established tradition), while citing the same Qurʾānic verse. Abd-Allah’s differentiation between amr and sunna terms would indicate that in the latter three recensions, there would have been no need for Mālik to support his statement with a quotation from the Qurʾān, because his terminology presents the ruling as based on an established practice and not on discursive reasoning (which would have called for proof). If we assume that the latter form of Mālik’s statement, being found in the majority of the recensions, is closest to his actual position, this case shows that the distinction between amr and sunna terms is not always clear-cut or consistent.

Case 6: The zakāt due on debt.[19] In Yaḥyā’s recension, Mālik states, “A-XN is that a creditor is not obliged to pay the alms-tax on a debt owed to him until he collects it. Even if it remains outstanding with the borrower for a number of years before he collects it, he needs to pay the alms-tax on it only once.”[20] The other three recensions give Mālik’s statement with the AN term, implying less than full consensus in Medina. It is unlikely, however, that Yaḥyā’s wording is an error since he uses the more complicated term.

Case 7: The eligible beneficiaries of the alms tax.[21] In the third example case, Mālik states that the ruler has the authority to determine how to distribute the alms-tax and how to prioritize among those eligible to receive it. In a reverse of the situation in Case 6, here the three recensions of al-Qaʿnabī, Ibn Bukayr, and Abū Muṣʿab agree that Mālik uses A-XN, the more semantically differentiated term, whereas Yaḥyā uses the AN term for the same ruling.

The differences in legal language between Yaḥyā and the remaining three recensions cannot be based solely on errors or sloppy transmission. In Case 5, Yaḥyā’s use of A-XN corresponds with Mālik’s legal reasoning, indicating that the use of A-XN is not a mistake. It is more likely that Mālik in fact changed the legal term he used. The same can be said for Case 6, in which Yaḥyā uses the more exclusive term: we might speculate that the other three recensions were written in shorthand. Another possible explanation for these divergences is that Yaḥyā relied on a base recension that was different from the base used by the other three.

These possibilities are supported by Yaḥyā’s biography. He is known to have first read the Muwaṭṭaʾ in al-Andalus with Ziyād b. ʿAbd al-Rahmān (d. 204/819) and Yaḥyā b. Muḍar (d. 189/805), who were students of Mālik.[22] Both Ziyād and Yaḥyā b. Muḍr were older than Yaḥyā, and they would have traveled to Medina at an earlier point in time without having had a chance to update their copies of the Muwaṭṭaʾ subsequently. It is thus likely that the recension of the Muwaṭṭaʾ that Yaḥyā studied before traveling to Medina himself differed from the recension that was circulating in the East in the meantime. This theory is supported by the fact that Yaḥyā drew on the recension he had received from Ziyād to fill in a gap in his own recension.[23] Further investigation of Muwaṭṭaʾ recensions in al-Andalus would help test this explanation.

AN: al-amr ʿindanā

Finally, we analyzed the use of AN terms between Yaḥyā’s and Abū Muṣʿab’s recensions and found 141 instances of this term.[24] Given the large number, we limited our examination to nineteen instances showing disagreement between Yaḥyā and Abū Muṣʿab and compared these cases with both Ibn Bukayr and al-Qaʿnabī. Six of these nineteen cases were either unreadable in al-Qaʿnabī’s recension because of damage to the manuscript or unlocatable in the text. Of the remaining thirteen cases, six exhibited agreement between al-Qaʿnabī, Ibn Bukayr, and Abū Muṣʿab. In each of these cases, all three recensions consistently used AN, whereas Yaḥyā’s recension featured a semantically exclusive term such as A-XN or its functional equivalent, al-amr al-mujtamaʿ ʿalayhi ʿindanā (AMN). These differences further support our theory that Yaḥyā was relying on a different base recension, as sloppiness or shorthand would generally be expected to lead to the simplification of the terminology used. The chart below summarizes the overlaps between the recensions in these nineteen cases.

Overall, the differences in legal terminology among the four recensions studied here portray Mālik’s Muwaṭṭaʾ as a book that was well established across the Islamicate world already within its author’s lifetime. We know that both Yaḥyā and Muḥammad b. Idrīs al-Shāfiʿī (d. 204/820) studied the Muwaṭṭaʾ in their respective homelands before they traveled to read it directly with Mālik. Since Mālik continued to edit the text throughout his life, it is likely that regional recensions emerged as soon as his first foreign students returned to their homelands and began to teach the work to students of their own. The existence of regional recensions of the Muwaṭṭaʾ is shown by the fact that Saḥnūn, the compiler of the Mudawwana, is known to have drawn on multiple recensions from North Africa and Egypt such as those of Ibn Ziyād (d. 183/799), Ibn Wahb (d. 197/813), and Ibn al-Qāsim (d. 191/806).

The Muwaṭṭaʾ tradition of al-Andalus must have begun with Ziyād, as he was Mālik’s first student to bring the Muwaṭṭaʾ to that region. Ziyād’s recension was then transmitted onward by his primary student Yaḥyā b. Yaḥyā. By the time of Ibn ʿAbd al-Barr (d. 463/1071), Yaḥyā’s recension had clearly become the dominant Muwaṭṭaʾ recension in al-Andalus. Ibn ʿAbd al-Barr used it as the basis of his al-Tamhīd, in which he states:

I have relied particularly on the recension of Yaḥyā b. Yaḥyā because of his special status among the people of our region due to his trustworthiness, religious commitment, virtue, knowledge, and understanding, as well as to their frequent use of his recension, which they inherited from their teachers and scholars. However, if a foundational legal hadith (ummahāt aḥādīth al-aḥkām) or the like has been omitted from his recension, I quote it from another recension. Every community should adhere to the path of its predecessors in whatever goodness they have reached and follow their method for righteousness, even if other options are permissible and desirable.[25]

Our analysis shows that the differences in the usage of legal terms across recensions complicate the prospect of relying on the semantic differentiation of amr and sunna terms to reconstruct Mālik’s legal reasoning. Further research is needed on the instances of disagreement to determine the extent to which the terms used reflect specific forms of reasoning or particular degrees of Medinan consensus. With additional biographical and bibliographical research into the recensions, it may eventually be possible to map the chronology of Mālik’s changes of position on particular legal issues.


[1] For studies that utilize Yaḥyā b. Yaḥyā al-Laythī’s recension, see Yasin Dutton, The Origins of Islamic Law: The Qurʾan, the Muwaṭṭaʾ and Madinan ʿAmal (Surrey, England: Curzon, 1999) and Umar F. Abd-Allah Wymann-Landgraf, Mālik and Medina: Islamic Legal Reasoning in the Formative Period (Leiden: Brill, 2013).

[2] We use a variation on Ahmed El Shamsy’s methodology in “The Ur-Muwaṭṭaʾ and Its Recensions,” Islamic Law and Society 28, no. 4 (2021): 352–81, but we focus primarily on differences in legal language.

[3] References to Yaḥyā’s recension are to al-Muwaṭṭaʾ, ed. FuʾādʿAbd al-Bāqī, 2 vols. (Beirut: Dār Iḥyāʾ al-Turāth al-ʿArabī, 1985), henceforth “Muwaṭṭaʾ (Yaḥyā).” References to Ibn Bukayr’s recension are to al-Muwaṭṭaʾ: Riwāyat Yaḥyā b. ʿAbd Allāh b. Bukayr al-Miṣrī, ed. Bashshār ʿAwwād Maʿrūf and Muḥammad ʿAlī al-Azharī, 3 vols. (Beirut: Dār al-Gharb al-Islāmī, 2020), henceforth “Muwaṭṭaʾ (Ibn Bukayr).” References to Abū Muṣʿab’s recension are to al-Muwaṭṭaʾ li-imām dār al-hijra Mālik b. Anas: Riwāyat Abī Muṣʿab al-Zuhrī al-Madanī (150–242), ed. Maḥmūd Khalīl and Bashshār ʿAwwād Maʿrūf, 2 vols. (Beirut: Muʾassasat al-Risāla, 1412/1991 or 1992), henceforth “Muwaṭṭaʾ (Abū Muṣʿab).” References to al-Qaʿnabī’s recension are to MS Süleymaniye, Carullah 428, henceforth “Muwaṭṭaʾ (MS al-Qaʿnabī).”

[4] Abd-Allah, Mālik and Medina, 273–89.

[5] We adopt the translations and abbreviations used by Abd-Allah (ibid., 293–94, 437, 473), but we follow Mohammad Fadel and Connell Monette in translating sunna as “ordinance.” See Al-Muwaṭṭaʾ: The Recension of Yaḥyā Ibn Yaḥyā al-Laythī (d. 848), trans. Mohammad Fadel and Connell Monette (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2019).

[6] We have assumed that where the recensions agree, the position conveyed most likely reflects Mālik’s authentic opinion. One could, however, also argue that the recension produced last in Mālik’s lifetime is most likely to represent his final views.

[7] Our method is thus not exhaustive, as it leaves open the possibility of additional instances of terminological difference between the manuscript, on the one hand, and the three printed editions, on the other.

[8] See Muwaṭṭaʾ (Yaḥyā), 1:183; Muwaṭṭaʾ (Abū Muṣʿab), 1:231; Muwaṭṭaʾ (Ibn Bukayr), 1:460; Muwaṭṭaʾ (MS al-Qaʿnabī), fol. 29a.

[9] See Muwaṭṭaʾ (Yaḥyā), 1:248; Muwaṭṭaʾ (Abū Muṣʿab), 1:252; Muwaṭṭaʾ (Ibn Bukayr), 1:494; Muwaṭṭaʾ (MS al-Qaʿnabī), fol. 31b.

[10] The translation is Fadel and Monette’s (Al-Muwaṭṭaʾ, 223).

[11] Abd-Allah, Mālik and Medina, 295.

[12] See Muwaṭṭaʾ (Yaḥyā), 1:253; Muwaṭṭaʾ (Abū Muṣʿab), 1:259; Muwaṭṭaʾ (Ibn Bukayr), 1:504; Muwaṭṭaʾ (MS al-Qaʿnabī), fol. 32a.

[13] See Muwaṭṭaʾ (Yaḥyā), 2:714; Muwaṭṭaʾ (Abū Muṣʿab), 2:269; Muwaṭṭaʾ (Ibn Bukayr), 3:133; Muwaṭṭaʾ (MS al-Qaʿnabī), fol. 109a.

[14] The main difference in the matn of the prophetic report is that al-Qaʿnabī and Yaḥyā start with qaḍā bi-shufʿa (“[Muḥammad] judged regarding the right of first refusal”), whereas the other two recensions do not refer to the action of judging.

[15] We say “at least” because there is the possibility of additional instances of A-XN in the Qaʿnabī manuscript that we did not identify, and we may also have missed instances in Ibn Bukayr’s recension.

[16] It is important to note, however, that in these eight additional instances of agreement the term used is not always A-XN: in two cases it is AN and in one case it is AMN-X, which, according to Abd-Allah, is largely equivalent to A-XN. See Abd-Allah, Mālik and Medina, 437.

[17] Of these three cases, in the first, each of the three printed recensions uses a different term; in the second, Yaḥyā and Abū Muṣʿab agree; and in the third, Yaḥyā and Ibn Bukayr agree.

[18] See Muwaṭṭaʾ (Yaḥyā), 1:392; Muwaṭṭaʾ (Abū Muṣʿab), 1:537; Muwaṭṭaʾ (Ibn Bukayr), 2:185; Muwaṭṭaʾ (MS al-Qaʿnabī), fol. 57b.

[19] See Muwaṭṭaʾ (Yaḥyā), 1:255; Muwaṭṭaʾ (Abū Muṣʿab), 1:261; Muwaṭṭaʾ (Ibn Bukayr), 1:506; Muwaṭṭaʾ (MS al-Qaʿnabī), fol. 32a.

[20] The translation is Fadel and Monette’s (Al-Muwaṭṭaʾ, 228).

[21] See Muwaṭṭaʾ (Yaḥyā), 1:269; Muwaṭṭaʾ (Abū Muṣʿab), 1:271; Muwaṭṭaʾ (Ibn Bukayr), 1:529; Muwaṭṭaʾ (MS al-Qaʿnabī), fol. 34b.

[22] This practice of studying a text by a faraway author in one’s homeland is not uncommon; al-Shāfiʿī reportedly memorized the Muwaṭṭaʾ before he went to study with Mālik. See al-Dhahabī, Siyar aʿlām al-nubalāʾ, ed. Shuʿayb al-Arnāʾūṭ, Bashshār ʿAwwād Maʿrūf, et al., 25 vols. (Beirut: Muʾassasat al-Risāla, 1985), 10:520.

[23] See Muwaṭṭaʾ (Yaḥyā), 1:316–22 (Book of Pious Seclusion).

[24] Abd-Allah found 117 instances of AN in the Yaḥyā recension (Mālik and Medina, 473); our higher figure includes instances in Abū Muṣʿab’s recension.

[25] Ibn ʿAbd al-Barr, al-Tamhīd li-mā fī al-Muwaṭṭaʾ min al-maʿānī wa-l-asānīd, ed. Bashshār ʿAwwād Maʿrūf, 17 vols. (London: al-Furqān, 2017), 1:201.

(Suggested Bluebook citation: Raza Baqai, Zainab Hermes and Ahmed El Shamsy, Legal language in al-Qaʿnabī’s recension of the Muwaṭṭaʾ, Islamic Law Blog (March 21, 2024),

(Suggested Chicago citation: Raza Baqai, Zainab Hermes and Ahmed El Shamsy, “Legal language in al-Qaʿnabī’s recension of the Muwaṭṭaʾ,” Islamic Law Blog, March 21, 2024,

Leave a Reply