The Risāla of Muḥammad ibn Idrīs al‑Shāfiʿī (d. 204/820): Its Structure, Composition, and Significance

At the 2004 American Oriental Society meeting I presented part of Chapter 2 of my dissertation:

“The Risāla of Muḥammad ibn Idrīs al‑Shāfiʿī (d. 204/820): Its Structure, Composition, and Significance for Islamic Legal Theory.” American Oriental Society, San Diego, March 13, 2004.

Much of this material did not make it into my monograph The Formation of Islamic Hermeneutics, but was published later in a separate article “A Reader’s Guide to al-Shāfiʿī’s Epistle on Legal Theory (al-Risāla).

Here is a pdf of the conference paper.

Here is the abstract:

Despite several important studies, the structure and composition of al‑Shāfiʿī’s Risāla, and its relation to subsequent legal theory, remain a puzzle.  Several scholars have been driven to reorder the text or posit multiple stages of redaction in the late 3d/9th century.  Its reputation as the founding text of Islamic legal theory has been rightly called into question.

The difficulties presented by the text may be substantially alleviated if it is read as a sequence of three related but distinct parts, each with its own thesis and internal organization.  These parts are distinguished by formal characteristics as well as content.  Part 1 (through ¶568) seeks to demonstrate that the Qurʾān is a clear, consistent, and comprehensive statement of the law, by using the Prophetic Sunna and analogy to elaborate on summary Qurʾānic injunctions, and by exploiting the many ambiguities of Arabic to reconcile conflicting texts.  Part 2 (¶569-960) shows how to resolve conflicting traditions within the Prophetic Sunna, principally by exploiting linguistic ambiguities.  Part 3 (¶961-1821) gives procedures for arriving at formally correct rulings when, even with the aid of the well-established Sunna, the Qurʾān does not yield definite answers to legal questions.

When read in this way, the text as it now stands appears sufficiently coherent to represent the minimally edited lectures of a single scholar, possibly al‑Shāfiʿī.  Furthermore, although the Risāla does not display the same structure as later legal theory manuals, it does introduce both the major hermeneutical problem of legal theory (the correlation of law with revelation) and the classical solution to that problem (the analysis of linguistic ambiguity.)  This contribution was not ignored, but on the contrary was disputed and elaborated already during the 3d/9th century.  This paper thus reaffirms but also redescribes the central role of the Risāla in the development of Islamic legal theory.

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