In Defense of Ambiguity: The Legal Hermeneutics of al‑Bāqillānī

My very first national conference presentation was given in the warm, congenial, and supportive setting of the American Oriental Society meeting in 2002. I presented highlights of the first chapter I wrote for my dissertation, which eventually became Chapter 5 of The Formation of Islamic Hermeneutics:

“In Defense of Ambiguity: The Legal Hermeneutics of Abū Bakr Muḥammad b. al‑Ṭayyib al‑Bāqillānī (d. 403/1013).” American Oriental Society, Houston, March 23, 2002.

Here is a pdf of the paper.

Here is the abstact:

In al‑Taqrīb wa‑l‑irshād, a recently discovered early work on Islamic legal theory, the Ashʿarī theologian and Mālikī jurist Abū Bakr Muḥammad b. al‑Ṭayyib al‑Bāqillānī (d. 403/1013) employs the Ashʿarī defense of God’s eternal speech to advance the hermeneutical project of al‑Shāfiʿī’s Risāla.

al‑Bāqillānī constructs his interpretive theory around the ambiguity of the language of revelation.  He consistently maintains that a revealed expression may be interpreted only in accordance with established Arabic usage, but if it has more than one possible literal meaning, one must suspend interpretive judgment.  For example, he argues that without additional evidence one cannot decide whether or not an imperative expresses a command; whether a command entails an obligation or a recommendation; whether an utterance means one or more than one of its possible meanings; whether an expression that could be general is intended as general or particular; or whether a particular text modifies a general text.

This systematic defense of ambiguity supports the hermeneutical vision embodied in al‑Shāfiʿī’s Risāla.  Recent scholarship on the Risāla has studied its attempt to reconcile the law with the Qurʾān and Prophetic Sunna, but has failed to identify its key methodological tool:  the systematic exploitation of the ambiguity of the Arabic language, which allows interpreters to reconcile divergent texts into a coherent legal system.  al‑Bāqillānī’s Taqrīb provides the theological underpinnings for this hermeneutics of ambiguity.  He argues his case for the indeterminacy of meaning by appealing to the Ashʿarī doctrine that God’s speech is an eternal attribute (maʿná), of which the words of revelation are a created expression (ʿibāra).  He uses this separation between maʿná and ʿibāra to create an interpretive space between verbal forms and the meanings they express.  His work therefore represents a justification of the Shāfiʿī vision of legal theory on the basis of Ashʿarī theology.

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