The intellectual criteria of a Marja’ – Part 2 – Understanding Judicial Laws vs Understanding Religion

When we say that the problem of tradition and modernity can be solved through the process of ijtihad – bearing in mind that human development and modernisation comprises all aspects of life, including natural and intellectual dimensions – it is because the quranic meaning of fiqh is broader and more comprehensive than the mere judicial laws governing the relationship between God and the human being (as is commonly understood by contemporary scholars and the religious seminaries as a whole), but should also include the relationship between the human and his fellow human, and the human and his surrounding environment. Quranically, fiqh is not what is written in the books of practical laws (risalah ‘amaliyah), but should address all issues and problems in our daily lives, both on a personal level and in society as a whole.

On a religious level, this comprehensiveness must therefore include all aspects of ones belief, of which doctrines (aqa’id) should be at the forefront of a mujtahid’s specialisation. Aspiring scholars should ask themselves: should there be ijtihad in theology, philosophy, morals, etc?

This brings us back to the verse in the last postلِّيَتَفَقَّهُوا فِي الدِّينِ (‘to obtain understanding in religion’), where the word ‘fiqh’ linguistically means ‘to arrive at an unknown (piece of knowledge) through a known (piece of knowledge), so it is more specific than knowledge.’ [1]; since knowledge can occur by merely standing in front of an object, where that object is imprinted as a mental image in the mind, which is a piece of knowledge gained by the individual without any effort.

So ‘obtaining understanding in religion’ by necessity means to obtain understanding in all aspects of religion (in the absolute sense [2]) in order to answer and deal with all contemporary issues faced by muslim communities around the world. However, this isn’t generally the case when one investigates the current seminary system, or what is generally understood the role of the mujtahid to be (unfortunately and to the detriment of this respected establishment, however don’t be fooled in thinking that this has always been the case..! [3]).

Narrations supporting the Quranic definition of ‘fiqh’

1) ‘When a true believer dies the angels and the parts of earth where he worshipped Allah weep because of his death. Also the doors of the heavens through which his good deeds had been taken up weep and it causes an irreparable damage in the Islamic system. It is because the true believing Fuqaha, people of proper understanding in religion and its laws are the strongholds of the Islamic system just as the fortress around a city is a stronghold for it.’ [4]

So, if someone specialises in one aspect of religion, like judicial laws dealing with an individuals relationship with God, does that make him a protector of Islam? In fact, he is but one part of a larger ‘fortress’ that is protecting Islam, and not the entire structure.

And this is why we need to be more specific on who we class to be a specialist in lesser fiqh (in the commonly understood sense of the word), and those experts or mujtahids in greater fiqh (in the more general sense of the word, which includes doctrines and akhlaq, etc), since we will rarely find someone who will encompass and be knowledgeable in all aspects of religion.

2) ‘The scholars are the heirs of the prophets,…’ [5]

It is evident that the role of the Prophets wasn’t limited to explaining the judicial laws, especially considering that only 10% (or less) of the Quran deals with such matters. So for those who wish to become heirs to the Holy Prophet (s) and his pure progeny (as), should think deeply about these narrations and the preceding quranic discussion before taking on such a heavy burden…! Yet how easy it is to spend 5-10 years studying laws dealing with purity of water and doubts in salat…!! And yet even with such a limited and narrow view of the word fiqh, we find dereliction in dealing with contemporary issues of muslim communities living in the west.


[1] Al Mufradat (arabic lexicon of quranic words and their meanings), by Ragheb al-Isfahani, pg 642, under the root word (f q h).

[2] ‘Religion’ or ‘deen’, is quranically defined to mean that way of life that brings mankind happiness in this world with spiritual perfection in the herafter. (for further info see blog posts under ‘Philosophy of Religion’)

[3] One example of a traditional understanding of fiqh can be seen in the words of Imam  al-Ghazali and Sheikh al-Baha’i, who considered this contemporary definition of fiqh to be a new phenomenon unheard of in previous eras of scholarly work. Al Ghazali considered the word fiqh to mean the science of the hereafter and to understand the issues dealing with the soul and those deeds that harm it, and with the ability to understand the material world vis a vis other realms especially the hereafter. He uses the verse of warning (Al Tawbah:122) as evidence in this regard, since warning involves knowledge of those aspects of religion dealing with doctrines in general, and the hereafter in particular. (see Al Mahajah al Baydha’, by Faidh al Kashani, Vol1, pg81).

[4] Usool Al Kafi, Vol1, pg38, H3.

[5] Usool Al Kafi, Vol1, pg46, H5.


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