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 Literalists' Approach and Complications (1/3)

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Obedient Angel

Join date : 2011-04-30
Posts : 2448

PostSubject: Literalists' Approach and Complications (1/3)   Sat Apr 27, 2013 10:45 am

Literal interpretations of Islam, in the past and present, pose serious complications in introducing Islam and its values.

The problem is even more complex in the modern world of today owing to global complicated conditions, scarce Islamic knowledge resources and institutions, and ineffectiveness or even lack of Muslim-Muslim dialogue to fix such serious problems.

Though modern literalists do not accept to be described as “zahiri”, they rigidly follow the spirit of the zahiri school in confining themselves to literal meanings of texts and disregarding their deeper meanings and objectives. They pay no attention to the fact that the early zahiri school failed to gain proponents and was opposed by leading Muslim jurists and scholars throughout many centuries.
I never doubt the sincerity and faith of the zahiri scholars, nor even of the so-called modern zahirists, as this is known to Allah alone; and my aim here is to objectively study their approach for the benefit of Muslims in particular and all humans in general.

I will first trace back the origins of the modern zahirists or neo-literalists by means of studying the early zahiri school, their approach, and scholars’ criticism. Then, I will analyze the new zahiri trend, its approach, its features, and its impacts on day-to-day life. I will critically study some of their juristic views and fatwas in order to present their methods and features through an academic approach. Finally, I will conclude the study by proposing some workable solutions to face some unacceptable methods of interpreting Islam.

The Early Zahiri School: Methodology and Principles

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Early zahiri scholars such as Abu Dawud a­z-Zahiri (d. 270 AH) and Ibn Hazm (d. 456 AH) are known for their vast knowledge of the Qur’an and Sunnah. However, their literal interpretations of Islam has led them to commit grave errors when deducing some Shari`ah rulings.
The zahiri school of fiqh is known for its strict adherence to texts and their apparent meanings. They have invalidated qiyas (analogy)—let alone other secondary sources of Shari`ah such as istihsan, al-masalih al-mursalah, `urf, etc.,—on the grounds that qiyas partakes in speculation. According to them, the rules of Shari`ah must be founded on certainty, and this is only true of the clear injunctions of the Qur'an, the Sunnah, and ijma`. Anything other than these is mere speculation, which should be renounced.(1) In this regard, Ibn Hazm (d. 465 AH), one of the founders and pioneers of the zahiri school, says, Allah Almighty says,

"O ye who believe! Obey Allah, and obey the messenger and those of you who are in authority." (An-Nisaa, 4: 59) Therefore, nothing should be declared as obligatory without a text or ijma`. . . . Whoever declares anything as obligatory without nass or ijma` would introduce laws into religion without Allah's permission, which is invalid. Allah says, "And speak not, concerning that which your own tongues qualify (as clean or unclean), the falsehood: 'This is lawful, and this is forbidden,' so that ye invent a lie against Allah." (An-Nisaa, 4: 116) ...(2)

"If any of them is reported to have deduced a ruling by means of reasoning, he should have denounced this later"
Ibn Hazm
Moreover, the zahiri school is very clear in renouncing ijtihad on the basis of ra'y (reasoning). Ibn Hazm unequivocally says,
It is not permissible for anybody to deduce rulings [in Shari`ah] on the basis of reasoning. Allah Almighty says,

"We have neglected nothing in the Book (of Our decrees)" (Al-An'am, 6: 38), and "O ye who believe! Obey Allah, and obey the messenger and those of you who are in authority; and if ye have a dispute concerning any matter, refer it to Allah and the messenger if ye are (in truth) believers in Allah and the Last Day." (An-Nisaa, 4: 59) . . .

Moreover, `Abd Allah ibn `Amr ibn Al-`Ass said, "I heard Allah's Messenger saying, 'Allah does not take away the knowledge by taking it away from (the hearts of) the people, but He takes it away by the death of the religious learned men till when none of the (religious learned men) remains, people will take as their leaders ignorant persons who, when consulted, will give their verdict without knowledge [on the basis of ra'y]. So they will go astray and will lead the people astray.'" (Bukhari) (3) . . .

So, reasoning [or deducing rulings on the basis of ra'y] is totally unacceptable in religion.(4)

As for the reports that the Companions issued fatawa on the basis of ra'y or maslahah, Ibn Hazm is categorical in saying that "If any of them is reported to have deduced a ruling by means of reasoning, he should have denounced this later".(5) Also, he argues,

"There is no infallible one except the Prophet (peace be on him). . . There is no authentic report that proves that any of the Companions issued a ruling on the basis of ra'y. Moreover, you will not find any of them give an opinion by means of reasoning but you see another one of them issue that fatwa on the basis of a text" … (6)

It is evident now that the zahiri school confines interpretations of Islam to clear literal meanings of texts of the Qur’an and the Sunnah as well as ijma`. They do not accept qiyas or reasoning in deducing legal rulings from Shari`ah.

Critical Review and Analysis

Confining the deduction of shar`i rulings to literal meanings of texts and ijma` only is in fact against the spirit of Shari`ah itself. In spite of the vast knowledge of the early zahiri scholars, their methodological approach and dependence solely on literal meanings of texts, have caused them to err in deducing many Shari`ah rulings. Ibn Hazm and other leading zahiri scholars have offered wonderful ijtihad to deduce rulings from Shari`ah, which should be appreciated, but their mythological approach has led them to commit serious mistakes in many legal stances and rulings they have adopted.


Ibn Hazm’s argument that the Companions did not consider the deeper meanings of texts and did not apply reasoning to reach legal rulings is not passable. The fact is that the Prophet’s Companions generally considered both the apparent meanings of texts and their deeper meanings in their actions and ijtihad. The practice of the Companions tends to suggest that they enacted laws and took measures in pursuance of maslahah despite the lack of a particular textual authority to validate it. In this context, the prominent scholar Al-Qarafi says,

The Companions (may Allah be pleased with them) actually enacted laws and took measures on the basis of al-masalih al-mursalah and they reached ijma` regarding them. Among those issues are . . . the compilation of the Qur'an . . . and the introduction of the second adhan for the jumu`ah in the time of the rule of `Uthman (may Allah be pleased with him).(11)

Al-Ghazali reports Imam Ash-Shafi`i's observation regarding the Companions’ ijtihad, saying,

Ash-Shafi`i assures that the Companions (may Allah be pleased with them) resorted to istirsal in issuing fatawa. They did not confine themselves [to texts], as texts and their indications do not cover all questions. Issuing fatawa on the basis of al-maslahah is needed.(12)

One of the complications of the zahiri approach is, as Al-Ghazali has pointed out above, that it does not give solutions to new issues that have no specific textual evidence in the Qur’an or the Sunnah, or ijma`. By such a literal methodology, the well-established principle of applicability of Shari`ah to all times and places may be questioned by those who are not well-acquainted with Shari`ah and its objectives. Ibn `Ashûr, thus, warns,

"If one looks at the methodological principles of the Zahiris, one finds that they almost deny that the Shari`ah associates its commands with any deeper wisdom (hikmah). This is because they rejected deduction by analogy and the consideration of deeper meanings (ma`ani) and, therefore, stopped at the level of the apparent meanings (zawahir) of the texts. This also explains why their argumentation and polemics do not go beyond the letter of the Traditions and the actions of God’s Messenger and his Companions. This attitude is clearly manifested in Ibn Hazm’s book al-I`rab `an al-Hayrah wa al-Iltibas al-Waqi`ayn fi Madhahib Ahl al-Ra’y wa al-Qiyas, for this was the axis of his debates with the proponents of deduction by analogy.

Indeed, by following this course, the Zahiris ran the risk of suspending the Shari`ah commands concerning the situations and cases about which the Lawgiver has mentioned no specific rules. This is a dangerous attitude, for there is the real risk that one who wavers about this issue might eventually deny the relevance and applicability of the Islamic Shari`ah at every time and in every place. In conjunction with his discussion of the Tradition concerning the splitting of the Muslim community in his book al-`Aridah, Abu Bakr ibn Al-`Arabi aptly summarized the Zahiri’s position in poetry:

They (the Zahiris) said: zawahir are a rule that we must

not depart from to any kind of opinion or reflection

[We say:] zawahir are limited in number and occurrence:

how then can they provide rules for people’s changing condition?(13)

Also, the zahiriyyah’s denial of qiyas (analogy) goes against the vastness and flexibility of Shari`ah that enables it to cover the ever-emerging problems that result from the change of time, place, and circumstances. Imam Al-Juwayni (b. 419 AH – d. 487 AH), who is known as Imam Al-Haramayn, says,

The position adopted by the most exacting of scholars is that those who deny analogy (qiyas) are not considered scholars of the Ummah or conveyers of the Shari`ah, because they oppose out of mere obstinacy and exchange calumnies about things established by an overwhelming preponderance of the evidence, conveyed by tawatur (uninterrupted transmission). For most of the Shari`ah proceeds from ijtihad, and the unequivocal statements from the Qur'an and Hadith do not deal [in specific particulars by name] with even a tenth of the Shari`ah [as most of Islamic life is covered by general principles given by Allah to guide Muslims in every culture and time], so they [the literalists] are not considered of the learned.(14)

To conclude this section, I should emphasize that it is the literal interpretation of Islam that has led Ibn Hazm and other early zahiri scholars to commit such grave mistakes when deducing Shari`ah rulings. This, however, does not underestimate their scholarship or juristic and usuli works. They have offered wonderful ijtihad in the past to serve Islam and Muslim communities.


(1) See abû Muhammad `Alî ibn Ahmad ibn Sa`îd ibn Hazm, al-Ihkâm fî Usûl al-Âhkam, 8 vols., (Bruit: Dar al-Âfâq al-Jadîdah, nd), 7: pp. 55-56.; ibn Hazm, an-Nubaz fî Usûl al-Fiqh, ed. Muhammad Ahmad `abd al-`Azîz (Bruit: Dar al-Kutub al-`Ilmîyyah, 1405 AH), pp. 16-17 & 62-67.

(2) Ibn Hazm, an-Nubaz, p. 52.

(3) Al-Bukhârî, al-Jâmi` as-Sahîh, vol. 1, part 1: pp. 31-32.

(4) Ibn Hazm, an-Nubaz, pp. 59-60.

(5) Ibid, p. 62.

(6) Ibn Hazm, al-Ihkâm, 6: p. 18.

(7) Al-Bukhârî, al-Jâmi` as-Sahîh, hadîth no. 239; Muslim, as-Sahîh, hadîth no. 282.

(Cool At-Tirmidhî, as-Sunnan, hadîth no. 68; An-Nasâ’î, as-Sunnan, hadîth no.

(9) Ibn Hazm, al-Muhalâ, 11 vols. (Cairo: Dar Al-Fikr, n.d.), 1: pp. 135-140.

(10) Ibn al-Qayyim al-Jawzîyyah, I`lâm al-Mûwaq`în `an Rabb al-`Ålamîn, 4 vols., ed. Ta-ha `abder-Ra’ûf Sa`ad (Cairo: Maktabat al-Kuliyyât al-Azhariyyah, 1388 AH – 1968 AC), 1: p. 265.

(11) Shihâb ad-Dîn Ahmad ibn Idrîs al-Qarâfî, Nafâ'is al-Usûl fî Sharh al-Mahsûl, 9 vols., ed. `Adil Ahmad `Abd al-Mawjûd and `Alî Muhammad Mu`awd (Makkah: Maktabit Nazâr Mustafâ al-Bâz, 1416 AH – 1995 AC), 9: p. 4087.

(12) Abû Hâmid al-Ghazâlî, al-Mankhûl fî Ta`liqât al-Usûl, ed. Dr. Muhammad Hasan Hîtû, (Damascus, Dar al-Fikr, 1400 AH), p. 357.

(13) Muhammad at-Tâhir ibn `Âshûr, Treatise on Maqâsid al-Sharî`ah, annotated and trans. Mohamed el-Tahir el-Mesawi (Herndon: The International Institute of Islamic Thought, 1427 AH – 2006 AC), p. 61.

(14) Abû `abd Allah Muhammad ibn Ahmad ibn `Uthmân adh-Dhahabî, Siyâr A`lâm an-Nubalâ’, 23 vols., ed. a group of editors supervised by Shu`ayb al-Arnâ’ût (n.p.: Mu’assasat ar-Risâlah, n.d.), 25: pp. 97-98.


Dr. Wael Shihab holds a PhD in Islamic Studies from Al-Azhar University and is the Head of the Shari`ah and Fatwa sections at the English website of Also, Dr. Shihab is a member of the International Union for Muslim Scholars (IUMS). You may reach him at this e-mail address:

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