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Shariah, Fiqh and the Sciences of Nature - Part 5
By Professor Nazeer Ahmed

(Dr. Nazeer Ahmed, educated at Cornell University and other institutions. He is author of several books and innumerable research papers. He has also been featured as an invited speaker in many countries. Dr. Nazeer Ahmed was a Chief Engineer for the Hubble Space Telescope and several Star War projects.  He was Institute Scholar at Caltech, and Adjunct Professor to University of New Mexico. He has also been Consultant to numerous other institutions of high training and research here and abroad.  He is currently President of WORDE, a non-profit NGO based on Washington, D.C. He is also Executive Director of American Institute of Islamic History and Culture and Consulting Dean to HMS Institute of technology, Bangalore, India)


The Shia-Sunni split runs like a major fault in Islamic history and on occasions it bursts forth like a monstrous earthquake. The split goes back to the earliest days of Islam when the Companions disagreed on the issue of succession to the Prophet. It continues to haunt the Islamic community today. Whether it is Pakistan or Iraq, hardly a month goes by when there is some bloodshed in the name of one sect or the other. To a student of history, this mayhem is astonishing, considering that the Shia-Sunni differences are historical, not religious. It is even more astonishing that on each side of the fence, there are further subdivisions among sects, sub-sects, jama’ts and movements, each claiming exclusive rights to the truth. As a contribution towards providing some insights into these differences, we trace here the origins of the Ithna Ashari (twelver) fiqh, the dominant school of jurisprudence among Shia Muslims.

The Ithna Ashari School of jurisprudence, also known as the Ja’afariya fiqh, developed autonomously and in parallel with the Sunnah Schools. And like its sister schools, its roots are in the Qur’an and the Sunnah of the Prophet. Although it follows an autonomous route for its sources, on most practical matters the positions of the Sunnah Schools and the Ja’afariya School are identical or similar. Indeed, on most issues, the differences in the positions taken by the Ja’afariya fiqh and the Sunnah Schools are smaller than the differences among the Sunnah Schools themselves.

A student of history must reject the polemical position taken by some Muslims that there are only four schools of recognized fiqh, namely, Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi’i and Hanbali. The Ja’afariya fiqh is as legitimate as the Sunnah Schools of fiqh by virtue of the historical fact that it has flourished since the time of the Prophet and is accepted by a sizable section of the Islamic community. We take this position on the basis of historical continuity, not on a doctrinal basis. Similarly, the Zaidi School of fiqh is also historically legitimate although we have made a conscious decision not to cover it here because it is followed by a relatively small number of Muslims.

The Qur’an accords a special place of honor to the Prophet’s household (“God wishes to remove from you all impurity, O Members of the Family and to make you pure and without blemish”, Qur’an, 33:33). The members of the Prophet’s household are referred to in the Qur’an as Ahl-al Bait. Sahih Hadith confirms that the term Ahl-al Bait refers to Ali (r), Fatima (r), Hassan (r) and Hussain (r), as well as Aqil, Ja’afar, Abbas and their offspring. Some other ahadith refer only to Ali (r), Fatima (r), Hassan (r) and Hussain (r) as Ahl-al Bait. On his return from the last pilgrimage, the Prophet stopped at a place called Gadeer e Qum and declared: “O people! I have left certain things; if you will love them you will not go astray. They are the Book, which is like a rope extending from the heaven to the earth and my family”. In addition, ahadith from both Sunni and Shi’a sources also confirm the exalted position of Ali (r) as the gateway to Prophetic knowledge and heir to the Prophet (Hadith: “Ali (r)is to me as Aaron was to Moses, except that there shall be no Prophet after me”).

Central to the Ja’afariya fiqh is the doctrine that the chain of authority for fiqh flows from the Qur’an to the Sunnah to Ahl-al Bait and by inference, exclusively to the Imams among the Ahl-al Bait. By comparison, the Sunni position accepts the chain of authority from the Qur’an to the Sunnah to the Ijma of the companions and is based on the confirmed ahadith: “O people! I leave for you the Book of Allah and my Sunnah. If you follow them, you will not go astray”. And again, “My Ummah shall never agree upon an error”. The Shia-Sunni positions show up for the first time with extreme clarity in the question put to Ali (r) and Uthman (r) by the committee to nominate a Caliph after the assassination of Omar ibn al Khattab (r). The question was: “Will you conduct the affairs of the community in accordance with the Qur’an, the Sunnah of the Prophet and the Sunnah of the two Shaykhs (Abu Bakr and Omar)?” Ali (r) answered that he would follow the Qur’an and the Sunnah of the Prophet. Uthman (r) said he would indeed follow the Qur’an, the Sunnah of the Prophet and of the two Shaykhs and was nominated as the Caliph, demonstrating that the majority among the Companions had accepted this position.

Despite the differences on the issue of succession and of the disastrous civil wars (657-658 CE), there were no separate schools of fiqh for the first one hundred years after the Prophet. The differences were political; they were not on fiqh or the Shariah. There are many instances when Amir Muawiya ibn Abu Sufyan asked for guidance from Ali (r) on specific issues of fiqh, even though the two were locked in a bitter civil war. The Ahl-al Bait, specifically the house of Ali (r) and Fatima (r), had heard and transmitted many Ahadith directly from the Prophet. The sayings of Ali, Nahjul-Balaga, are unsurpassed as a source for Islamic ethics and teaching.

The crystallization of fiqh as a cultivated discipline occurred at the time of Imam Ja’afar-as-Saadiq (d. 765 CE). Imam Ja’afar-as-Saadiq was a genius - a scholar, teacher, guide and Imam. He initiated and held halqas (study circles) wherein some of the greatest scholars of the age would gather, consult and learn. Imam Abu Haneefa was a contemporary of Imam Ja’afar and attended many of these halqas. Imam Abu Haneefa is reported to have paid tribute to Imam Ja’afar in these words, “Were it not for the two years that I spent with Imam Ja’afar as Saadiq I would still be searching”.

Like Imam Abu Haneefa, Imam Ja’afar as Saadiq did not write down the fiqh named after him. He was the teacher who lectured and elaborated on the principles of jurisprudence using the methodology of the qura’a (reciters) prevalent in early Islam. It was left to his disciplines to catalogue and document the teaching of Imam Ja’afar. The most important of the Imamiya writer was Muhammed ibn al Hasan al Qummi (d. 903 CE). It was he who documented the doctrines of Wilayat and Imamate, although both doctrines were in existence since the period of Caliph Ali (r). Wilayat comes from the word wali (guardian, master, kinsmen) and is a central Shi’a doctrine. It affirmed that the guardianship of the Islamic community after the Prophet must be in the hands of a wali, the first of whom was Ali (r) ibn Abu Talib. The community must have a master and such mastership must reside exclusively and uniquely with Ahl-al Bait. As God has purified the household of the Prophet, the Imams are consequently pure and innocent and are uniquely and exclusively qualified to provide the wilayat for the community. The Ja’afariya School accepts the Imamate of twelve Imams: Ali (r), Hassan (r), Hussain (r), Ali, Zainul Abedin, Muhammed Baqir, Ja’afar-as-Saadiq, Musa Kazim, Ali Rida, Jawwad Razi, Hadi, Hasan Askari and Muhammed Mahdi. Due to its acceptance of twelve Imams, the Ja’afariya School is referred to as Ithna Ashari (Those who believe in twelve Imams). The Ja’afariya School also believes in Isma, meaning that God shields the designated Imams from sin, religious error and forgetfulness.

It is in matters of personal law that the Ja’afariya fiqh has certain differences with Sunni fiqh. In matters relating to the community, the Ja’afariya fiqh is stringent, like the Shafi’i fiqh. On issues that have no precedence, it allows for ijtihad, much like the Hanafi School, which admits the process of istihsan.
The development of Ja’afariya fiqh reflects the political fortunes of the Shi’a movement, much as the Hanbali fiqh reflects the political context of Imam Hanbal. After the tragedy of Karbala (680 CE), the Ja’afariya movement was primarily apolitical, avoiding a head-on collision with the Omayyad Caliphs (661-751 CE). The Abbasid revolution (751 CE) seemed to present some hope since the Abbasids were fellow Hashemites. These hopes were dashed as the Abbasids first used the Shi’as and then persecuted them even more harshly than had the Umayyad. Bereft of all hope for restoring to Ahl-al Bait the political authority they believed they deserved, the Shi’a movement became (except for the Fatimid interlude- 950-1180CE) increasingly introspective.

However, there was no escape from the philosophical controversies raging in the 8th century. Much like its sister Sunnah Schools, the Ja’afariya fiqh evolved along two broad lines during this period- the rationalist and the traditionalist. The rationalist schools evolved into the Akhbari School, which emphasized the primacy of relevant text as a source of fiqh. The acceptable texts included the Qur’an, Hadith of the Prophet and the Hadith of the Imams. The traditionalist Schools coalesced into the Usooli School and emphasized methodology and principle over textual authenticity. In its approach, the Usooli School of the Ja’afariya fiqh was very much like the Usooli Schools of Imam Abu Haneefa and Imam Shafi’i. And, like the Hanafi School, it accepted ijtihad as an acceptable methodology for fiqh where there was no clear and explicit guidance from the Qur’an and the Sunnah of the Prophet.
Thus the Ja’afariya and the Sunnah Schools of fiqh are like different streams taking off from the same mighty lake and watering the Islamic landscape from different directions. Their deductions are often the same because they are based on the Qur’an and the Sunnah of the Prophet, although their intermediate sources may be different. Shia-Sunni differences belong to history, and that is where they must lay buried.



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