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History and Eras of Shiʻi Imami Law

Jurisprudence has remained the most important subject amongst Muslim scholars and is considered a discourse that can be traced back to the time of the Prophet (p) himself.

The topic of our discussion is Shīʻī Imāmī jurisprudence (fiqh). Jurisprudence has remained the most important subject amongst Muslim scholars and is considered a discourse that can be traced back to the time of the Prophet (p) himself. Shī’ī scholars and companions of the Imāms themselves paid a lot of attention towards it. This can be witnessed by the sheer amount of questions that were posed to the Imāms, and the detailed answers given by them on many occasions. These responses also suggest that the Imāms and as well as the Prophet (p) ensured that the significance of this aspect of the religion is understood by the Muslims.

Furthermore, the Qur’ān itself has approximately 400 to 500 verses that deal with jurisprudence directly. These verses cover topics such as jihād, zakāt, khumus, nikāḥ, ṭalāq, ṭaḥārah and so on. Exegetes of the Qur’ān have spent considerable time analyzing the meanings of these verses, and often times their conclusions become the subject matter of jurisprudential discussions.

Definition of Fiqh

Before engaging in any discussion, it is imperative to get a familiarity with the definition of the terms being used. Given this work intends on discussing the history of jurisprudence, it behooves one to look at how Imāmi jurists themselves defined the subject.

Al-Mīrzā al-Qumī (d. 1231/1815) in his magnum opus al-Qawānīn al-Muḥkamah fi al-Uṣūl defined jurisprudence as: huwa al-‘ilm bil-aḥkām al-shar’īyyah al-far’īyyah ‘an adillatihā al-tafṣīlīyyah.[1]

هو العلم بالأحكام الشرعيّة الفرعيّة عن أدلّتها التفصيليّة

The term fiqh in legal jargon means much more than mere understanding. It is an understanding which comes with detailed precision and attention towards the evidence that forms the basis of an understanding. Thus, jurisprudence is a science that concerns legal verdicts and propositions that have been legislated by God – irrespective of how they have reached us – as found in the Qur’ān, the Sunnah, or the intellect.

The definition put forth by al-Qumī excludes principles and propositions that are beyond the scope of legislation, such as the principle of non-contradiction or other axiomatic propositions. The term al-far’iyyah in the definition intends to remove all principles that are covered within legal theory since jurisprudence deals directly with the actions of an individual who is of legal age.

The last condition taken into consideration in the definition is adillatiha al-tafṣīlīyyah. This excludes any cursory understanding of any legal verdict. In other words, jurisprudence is concerned with the detailed arguments of a verdict and if one were to pick up a copy of a manual of practical laws written by a jurisconsult and memorize them, they would not be considered a jurist. A jurist is one who has investigated the arguments of the verdicts in detail.

For the purpose of this series, this is the definition we will work with as it has remained a popular and well-accepted definition for a long time. How a jurist defines jurisprudence has evident consequences in the direction they take their discussion. For example, a more inclusive definition of jurisprudence may include subjects like rights, ethics, or politics, whereas a narrower definition may include some of these subjects and not others, while the definition commonly agreed upon is one that is not inclusive of anything other than what has been described above. In the latter case, how jurisprudence interacts with other subjects, such as ethics or rights, is an important discussion to have, but is outside the scope of this series.

Starting Point of Discussion

Any discussion pertaining to history is necessarily bound by a period of time that is being investigated. When discussing the history of jurisprudence, the starting point of its development is rooted in the lifetime of the Prophet (p) himself and the Imāms after him. We know some of the companions of the Imāms, such as Abān b. Taghlib, Zurārah, Muḥammad b. Muslim and others, were jurists who on many occasions performed ijtihād and issued legal verdicts. Of course, the nature of their ijtihād was substantially different than what we witness today. The systematic and rather organized approach to deducing law we see today, as well as the coherence witnessed between various discussions, only sprung out in the last couple centuries. Nevertheless, the notion of accessing sources of law and deducing verdicts based off of them had existed since the time of the Prophet (p) and as well as the Imāms.

As mentioned earlier, jurisprudence had remained a popular part and parcel of Islamic discourse, to the extent that some other subjects remained neglected or stagnant. To cite an example, Islamic ethics hardly remained a subject of study in the way jurisprudence was studied, and therefore one will not find more than a few ethical schools of thought. Likewise, Islamic philosophy was not able to produce more than three major schools of thought, namely the Peripatetics, Illuminists, and the relatively recently Transcendental philosophy. On the contrary, we find numerous schools of thought in jurisprudence, to the extent that various researchers attempted to identify the different eras during which these schools came to be. Some have counted up to eight or nine eras for jurisprudence, where each era sees a new school of thought inclusive of new ideas, methodologies and conclusions.

What Does the Word ‘Era’ Refer To?

‘Eras of Jurisprudence’ is a genre that discusses various jurisprudential schools of thought that came to exist in various time periods soon after the demise of the Prophet (p). Various scholars and researchers have employed different standards to define the term ‘era’ and subsequently came up with different divisions. Within the context of Shī’ī law, some may argue there are four eras, others may argue there are six,[2] while others yet may claim there are nine. These differences are partly rooted in the way these researchers have defined the term, and so it is necessary to clarify what is intended by the term ‘era’ in this series.

During the remainder of this work, the word era is not being used in its common definition, which refers to a span of time. If this were the case, one would be bound to divide their discussion into various time-periods, whereas that is not what is intended in this work. The word ‘era’ is being used to refer to any jurisprudential school of thought, an ideology, or a framework for deriving law, that not only existed at one point in time, but also had a significant number of proponents. Given this definition of an ‘era’, one can argue that two or more eras of jurisprudence can coexist. As an example, today, at the very least three schools of thought exist and are active, that of Sayyid al-Khū’ī, Imām al-Khomeynī, and as well as the Akhbārī school of thought.

In places such as Bahrain or the al-Aḥsā region, there are a considerable amount of Akhbāri scholars who are active, publish books, and continue to defend their jurisprudential school of thought. Therefore, in our time period there are three ‘eras’ existing alongside one another, and each of these schools of thought looks at the sources through which legal verdicts are derived very differently. This will become a constant theme by which one school of thought will be differentiated from another during the course of this work. For example, it will become clear that the way Fayḍ Kashānī was looking at the sources and deriving law was by no means similar to the way Shaykh al-Anṣārī was looking at the very same sources and deducing verdicts.

To put it in other words, given the aforementioned definition, these posts are not discussing the different schools of thought from the perspective of what time-period they existed in, even if there happens to be a chronology to them – as will be the case at times – but rather it is concerned with the salient features of these schools of thought. These schools came into existence during various time periods, and while some have ceased to exist, others have continued to exist until today or may reemerge in the near future.

Scholars who held rare views or methodologies that never gained wide acceptance and were also not able to produce a series of students and followers are not significant enough to be considered founders of a school of thought.

Benefits of Studying the Different Eras of Jurisprudence

There are numerous benefits to studying the various eras or schools of jurisprudence. A few of these are as follows:

  1. Familiarity with Methods & Methodologies of Deriving Law

One becomes acquainted with the various approaches used by jurists to derive law. This opens up room for greater tolerance if one comes across a differing opinion. For example, a jurist today may pass a verdict while following the approach of Muḥaqqiq Ardebellī, and while even if this approach is no longer accepted or popular today, it still gives one enough reason to say that the opinion is not without any basis whatsoever.

Jurists like Shaykh Ṣādiqī Tehrānī, Sayyid Faḍlullah, and Sayyid Kamāl al-Ḥaydarī can be considered proponents of a school of thought that claims to be Qur’ān-centric. Their discussions and conclusions reflect this, and while this approach may not be mainstream, it is still an approach that exists within the seminary and has some precedent. Some can argue ‘Allāmah Ṭabatabāī was similar in his approach and views to these jurists, though since he did not enter too deeply into the domain of jurisprudence, he himself is not considered a jurist in the technical sense.

  1. Recognizing the Strengths and Weaknesses of Different Schools

One can compare and contrast the salient features of different schools, in context of the eras they were in, and determine each of their strengths and weaknesses. For example, the time period when the Akhbārīs were initially active, we will come to realize that this school of thought possessed a lot of strong qualities. At the same time, we will also become familiar with their weaker points. The greater our understanding of the different qualities a school possessed, the greater our ability will be to compare and contrast.

Eventually, one can gather all the strengths together and develop an ability to present something new, more complete than what existed in the past, and subsequently start an era of their own. For a student who is on their way to ijtihad, this is perhaps the most important benefit of studying the various eras of jurisprudence.

  1. Recognizing the Strengths and Limitations of Different Jurists

One can better affirm who amongst the scholars were strong and who were considered relatively weaker. As an example, one can determine which of the Akhbārī scholars were strong and their opinions worth considering, or who are the well-known scholars within the school of thought of Shaykh al-Anṣārī, or which of the jurists are considered strong in political jurisprudence, and so on.

For the purposes of research, this saves one a lot of time as one does not have to exhaust all their efforts looking into figures who were relatively unknown, unpopular, or simply unaccepted. In other words, not only does it help in one’s research process, but it helps one research efficiently and correctly.

As an example, someone who intends to write a paper on Ijtihād and Taqlīd or simply study the discussion, cannot ignore the works of scholars like Shaykh al-Anṣārī, Sayyid al-Khū’ī and Imām al-Khomeynī.

Published Works

Unfortunately, not a lot of works have been written under this genre, and some of the works written are not that fruitful. Even within Western academia not a lot of attention has been given to this historical aspect of Shī’ī law until very recently, and if there do exist any works, they are not exhaustive and tend to focus only on a specific jurist or specific school of thought. Two of professor Robert Gleave’s works Inevitable Doubt: Two Theories of Shī’ī Jurisprudence and Scripturalist Islam: The History and Doctrines of the Akhbārī Shī’ī School are well-known English works which specifically compare the epistemology of Shaykh Yūsuf al-Baḥrānī with that of Waḥīd Bihbahānī’s and discuss the Akhbārī school of thought respectively.

Hossein Modaressi Tabātabā’ī’s An Introduction to Shī’ī Law: a bibliographical study is another invaluable work which specifically covers the various periods of Shī’ī law, perhaps being the earliest work written under this genre in English. Recently, Professor Hasan Ansari also announced two new works, namely From ḥadīth to fiqh: a study of the history of the use of Ḥadīth in Imāmī law from al-Muḥaqqiq al-Ḥillī (d. 1277) to Abu-l Qāsim al-Khūʾī (d. 1992), which should be completed by the end of this year, and Seeking Certitude: Scriptural Authority in Early Shiʿi Jurisprudence.[3]

In the Arabic language, the work Tārikh al-Fiqh al-Islāmi wa Adwār written by Ayatullah Ja’far Subḥānī is worthy of being mentioned. The author discusses both Shī’ī and Sunnī schools of thought and divides the former into 7 eras.

In Persian, some relevant works are as follows:

  • Adwār-e Fiqh (3 volumes), by Ustādh Maḥmūd Shahābī. The author had an ijāzah of ijtihād and taught this subject at one of the schools. After the duration of the course, publishers from the University of Tehran sought his notes so they could publish them in a series of books. While the book has some valuable discussions, there are a lot of unrelated discussions as well. For example, volume 2 is dedicated to Fiqh al-Qur’ān and is not concerned with the history of different schools of thought.
  • Āshenāyī bā Fiqh, by Murtaḍa Muṭahharī. This is part of his series on Introduction to Islamic Sciences.
  • Tārikh Fiqh wa Fuqahā, by Abū al-Qāsim Gurjī. The author was a student of Sayyid al-Khū’ī and was one of the few individuals who the Sayyid directly gave an ijāzah of ijtihād to. This book was written primarily for university students and is perhaps the better book out of the rest.
  • Adwār-e Fiqh wa Kayfīyyat Bayān Ān, by Ayatullah Ibrahīm Jannātī. In his work, he divides the eras of Shī’ī law into 8 eras.
  • Mawsū’a Fiqh al-Islāmī, an introduction written by Ayatullah Hāshemī Shāhrūdī. In this roughly 30-page introduction, the author divides these eras into 6.
  • Madkhal-e ‘Ilm-e Fiqh, by Shaykh Reza Islāmī. The author dedicates one section to the different eras of Shī’ī law and divides them into 10 parts.



[1] Al-Mīrzā al-Qumī, Abū al-Qāsim b. Muḥammad (1430 AH). Al-Qawānīn al-Muḥkamah fi al-Uṣūl, vol. 1, pg. 36‏. Qom: Iḥyā al-Kutub al-Islāmiyyah

[2] Shāhrūdī, Ayatullah Hāshemi (1423 AH). Mawsū’a Fiqh al-Islāmī Tibqan li-Madhhab Ahl al-Bayt, vol. 1, pg. 48. Qom: Intishārāt Muassasah Dāirah al-Ma’ārif al-Fiqh al-Islāmī

[3] See: http://ansari.kateban.com/post/3397

This writing, first published in iqraonline, is based on lecture notes taken in classes given by Ustādh Rafī’īpūr, in the city of Qom. Ustādh Rafī’īpūr is a senior teacher in the Ḥawzah of Qom where he gives advance classes in jurisprudence and legal theory.

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