Welcome to Kalamna, the student blog of the Hagop Kevorkian Center for Near Eastern Studies at NYU.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

<i>Sharīʿa</i> vs. <i>Fiqh</i>: an Essential Distinction

In my last post, I mentioned Vogel's discussion of codification of the sharīʿa in Saudi Arabia. This made me think of a separate methodological issue, which I have failed to mention until now.

One thing I explicitly want to avoid slipping into, is (implicitly) defining what is "genuinely" Islamic and what is un-Islamic. This is clearly irrelevant to my study of sharīʿa.

In studying the sharīʿa, one must endeavor, as Mahmoud Ayyub put it, to "remove his shoes before entering the mosque."*

I think this can be reasonably accomplished by distinguishing between sharīʿa and fiqh. Samuel L. Hayes III and Frank E. Vogel elaborate on this crucial distinction in Islamic Law and Finance: Religion, Risk and Return (1998):

A distinction is possible between the perfect, immutable Divine Law itself as revealed in the Qur'an and the Sunna, called sharīʿa (literally "the Way"), and the sum of human efforts to apprehend that law, some of which may be in error or at least in dispute, called fiqh (literally "understanding."

For example, while God knows His perfect Law in its last detail, human beings often differ about that Law, particularly in details. Many schools of thought see little point in differentiating between sharīʿa and fiqh, since they believe that fiqh is the only valid means to know the sharīʿa and that any apparent flaws in fiqh are divinely intended. Yet the distinction remains useful and valid.

The outsider who wishes to comment on Islamic legal phenomena in history without questioning either the perfection of the Divine Law or the truth of Muslim beliefs may find it indispensable.**

Overall, while remaining respectful, at the same time, (as I already mentioned), I do not see myself as an apologist for the sharīʿa.
*cited by Edmund Burke III, 1979 original phrase does not relate directly.
**Hayes and Vogel, 23. This distinction is a little simplistic, but enough to give the reader a general picture.

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