Islamic Law Sciences of Qur'an and Hadith Seeking Knowledge

Understanding Usul al-Fiqh

rule of thirds, hishaam siddiqi

Usul al-Fiqh Series: Part I

Primer in Conceptualizing Usul al-Fiqh

The following series is intended to introduce usul al-fiqh in a systematic manner. In this section, we will introduce some key concepts that outline briefly what usul al-fiqh is about, what is beneficial about this science, and why it is important.

Defining and Describing Usul al-Fiqh

Usul al-fiqh is the body of knowledge which clarifies the various research methods and principles that aid us in understanding the Qur’an and Sunnah and it shows us how to derive benefit from them.

Secondly, usul al-fiqh outlines for us what is a proof in the Shar’iah, why it is considered a proof and how to understand how to properly work with proofs especially when they are unclear in meaning and or when they appear to contradict each other.

Thirdly, it teaches us the appropriate means by which we can derive rulings from the Qur’an and Sunnah – rulings that guide human action by determining if an act is:

  1. Prohibited            (haram)
  2. Disliked               (makruh)
  3. Obligatory            (wajib)
  4. Recommended     (mandub, mustahab)
  5. Permissable         (mubah)

Fourthly, usul al-fiqh outlines for us the rules that govern the patterned way the Arabic language works in the Qur’an and the Sunnah so that we know what is being communicated to us and we understand how to properly interpret them based on linguistic or textual evidence.

The process of understanding the primary sources and extracting from them guidance and ruling in a systematic manner is called ijtihad (independent research).

Benefits of Usul al-Fiqh

Usul al-fiqh gives us a research framework for understanding the language of the Qur’an and Sunnah and how to use the various types of evidences in a manner in which they serve as a guide to our Islamic practices and belief. By understanding usul al-fiqh as a research methodology, we also come to understand how scholars construct their positions through the use of evidences found in the Arabic language or in the Qur’an and Sunnah.

Through usul al-fiqh, we also learn that positions that are not constructed by referring to the principles and means found in the sciences are positions which are not considered acceptable to follow, because they are constructed and concluded without properly attending to acceptable research methodology and therefore have no binding authority. Authoritative positions in Islam are only concluded and constructed by way of proper research techniques. These techniques guide research by outlining what constitutes a source for research and what principles are to be used to understand that source. Furthermore, the techniques emphasize how, when, and why a rule is derived from that source under research and what qualifications must he or she possess as a researcher in order to qualify for such an undertaking.

Goal of Usul al-Fiqh

Usul al-fiqh helps us to develop the proper research skills and mental frame that allow us to have a systematic understanding (research method) necessary to properly comprehend the Qur’an and Sunnah. It supplies us with the necessary tools for engaging in ijtihad and developing not only legal minds and juristic capacity, but the mind capable of properly interpreting the source texts of Islam and applying them to life. In short, the goal of usul al-fiqh is ijtihad (independent reasoning, research).

Framing Usul al-Fiqh: Three Primary Concerns of the Science

There are 3 key areas of study in the science of usul al-fiqh:

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These key areas of study are focused studies, which clarify the following themes.

Qualities of the Mujtahid:

By understanding these criteria we understand who is skilled and qualified in matters of scholarship versus who is not. The person not skilled in and qualified to practice ijtihad is known in usul al-fiqh literature as a muqalid.  The muqalid is a person not qualified to engage in independent investigation because he lacks the qualifications, meaning that he has not mastered the principles of research methodology. Consequently, this category of persons is obligated to follow the research of those who are qualified to research, but he is encouraged to make an effort to learn and understand with time and gradually how scholars come to conclusions and the reasoning governing their positions.

Linguistic Indications:

The Arabic language is governed by usages and patterns. Upon understanding these, it is possible to conclude what is being indicated by a particular pattern. For simplicity’s sake, we only refer to those indications which tell us if a ruling is a command to do something or not do something, or if the pattern only recommends to do or not to do an action, or just leaves the matter up to decision. There are other patterns found in the Arabic language that refer to understanding if a matter is general or specific, but we will suffice with mentioning that the language is governed by patterns which must be understood in order to conclude their meaning.

Rules for Dealing with Proofs:

In usul al-fiqh we also learn how to weigh, rank and distinguish between proofs by determining their strength and relationship to other proofs and principles. When an apparent conflict arises among these proofs, the scholar must understand how to reconcile these proofs. Upon determining that the proofs cannot be reconciled after thorough and long investigation, it may be determined that one of the two proofs is to be abrogated. The rules governing the process of ranking, reconciliation, and abrogation when working with evidences are a major concern of usul al-fiqh and this is an area wherein only the most skilled of scholarship can maneuver and show itself.

Key Questions:

  1. What is the goal of usul al-fiqh?
  2. Why is usul al-fiqh important?
  3. What are the 3 main areas of study in usul al-fiqh?
  4. Why is it proper to have methodology in understanding the Qur’an and Sunnah?
  5. Who is the person that can independently research the Qur’an and Sunnah?
  6. Can a person research the Qur’an and Sunnah without understanding the criteria that determines research and the researcher?

About the author

Yusuf Rios (Abul Hussein)

Yusuf Rios was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. While becoming a Catholic priest, Yusuf discovered the path to Islam. He studied Islamic sciences for a period of seven years, studying with scholars in Cleveland, Ohio before receiving a work-study contract with the Islamic American University. At the Islamic American University, he read Arabic and a limited number of Islamic sciences intensively for one year. He then traveled to Cairo, Egypt where he resided for five years. There, he attended a number of intensive courses at Arabic learning centers. After these courses, he joined various scholarly circles, reading Islamic sciences with a host of scholars of diverse expertise and orientations. Yusuf takes particular pride in having studied intimately with a number of scholars from al-Azhar University. Likewise, he has great love and attachment to Egypt and especially al-Azhar Mosque where he studied for the major portion of his residence in Egypt. Yusuf has a Bachelors in Western Philosophy and Sociology and is working on a Masters in Education. He serves as an instructor in Islamic Sciences with Islamic American University and in local mosques in Dearborn, Michigan and Cleveland, Ohio. His four main research areas in Islamic sciences are in the areas of Usul al-Fiqh, Maqasid ash Shar’ia, Hadith Sciences, and Fiqh.


  • “The muqalid is a person not qualified to engage in independent investigation because he lacks the qualifications, meaning that he has not mastered the principles of research methodology. Consequently, this category of persons is obligated to follow the research of those who are qualified to research”

    Two questions:
    1. Does this research methodology change over time as knowledge of research increases?

    2. What is the basis for the authority to say, “this category of persons is obligated to follow the research of those who are qualified to research”?

  • AS

    Very pertinent questions indeed. Thank you for taking the time to enlighten us by sharing them. The first question requires an expanded answer so given its nature. Let us work with the second question first because of the nature of the first question. Although the second question to, it must be mentioned, is also one which requires an expanded response.

    Firstly, this question is classified in the works of the scholars of “fiqh and usul al-fiqh” within the topic of “ijtihad and taqleed.” There are plenty of resources to study on this topic in order to become familiar with the debates and position on these two matters. Imam Shah Wali Ullah wrote al-Iqd al-Jid Fi Ahkam al-Ijtihad Wa’l Taqlid which was translated by Dr. Marcia Hermansen in Shah Wali Ullah’s Treatises on Islamic Law. This book gives a good sound thorough scholarly introduction and presentation into the topic.

    On the other hand when we look to the primary sources of Islam we can find in the Qur’an an exhortation to: “ask the people of reminder (knowledge) in the event we are not versant on a matter.” From experience and reason we have the example of the expert (the person well versed in a matter), we refer to these people in the course of daily life very often. So we have examples in medicine or engineering or dentistry, we refer to these people with training and education to solve our problems or address our needs or to avail ourselves of a service. Indeed not all “experts” are at the same level but nonetheless they are more likely to come closer to a more thought-out position.

    In the case of Islam it is quite similar and that is that there are people who are more versed (although not infallible) in understanding the primary sources. This path, the path to understanding is open to all who would invest the time, exert the effort and exercise discipline in study and reflection while relying on scholarly principles and practices.

    Speaking on a matter without knowledge in Islam in no well taken and in some case prohibited. So in light of this principle and because the Qur’an teaches us that the person who is knowledgeable is not equal to the person who is ignorant we gather that there is an authority that comes with learning. The aim here is to make a case for authoratativeness not authoritarianism.

    As for question number one. It is a complex question but simply put research methodology at the core does not change with regard to understanding the primary texts. Like the scientific method, the research methods that we term Usul al-Fiqh do not change but rather insights into the texts change. In the case of Usul al-Fiqh the texts of study are Qur’an & Sunnah and in the case of the scientific method the text is Nature.

    Allahu Alam

    • Thank you for this clear explanation, but can you clarify one point.

      As per your examples, I visit doctors (and other professionals) for their expertise. Yet, I may decide to get a second or third opinion. I weigh those opinions, and I may decide to follow one of them or not. In no way am I “obligated” to take their advice.

      Similarly, as per your citing of the Quran: “ask the people of reminder (knowledge) in the event we are not versant on a matter.”

      How does one logically move from being told to ask someone for advice to being “obligated” to following that advice?

      • I understood term ‘obliged’ to have a slightly more classical meaning than the much more specific modern usage implying force. As in, someone not qualified logically ought to prefer the opinion of someone who is, over his own unqualified opinion. In this context, he might compare the opinions of several people who are equally qualified, and might choose what he feels makes the most sense – but not over his own opinion which is likely to be less structured, less informed and sometimes mostly driven by emotion and whim.

        In practice, obviously unless it is law of the land, he can still follow his own wishes, however derived. But he has absolutely no grounds to claim it is the “correct” or “better” opinion. Going by logical reasoning, if he is to determine the *best quality* conclusion (as opposed to what he *wants* to be the result), he is “obliged” to defer to a knowledgeable person over an ignorant.

      • Replying just to mention a point came in my mind. We can choose among doctors or lawyers because though we cannot have their knowledge or expertise, we do can see the outcome of their prescription. We can check how successful they are based on previous outcomes.
        This is not the case for Faqihs. We cannot judge them in this way.

  • My question:

    Does the category of “those who are qualified to research” include them having basic intelligence and critical thinking skills? Simply learning the classical methodologies and memorization is not enough.

    To be blunt, some of these characters are just plain stupid.The “fatwas” advising a grown man to drink a grown woman’s breast milk to become her “mahram” and be able to work with her….or the recent genius mandating a burqa for infant girls…or any of the hundreds examples of total stupidity from the Taliban all come to mind.

    I have no problem following Imam Suhaib, Shaykh Hamza, Imam Omar Suleiman, Shakyh Abdullah bin Bayyah etc. etc….but sadly thousands graduating from Muslim institutions who are nowhere at these aforementioned individuals level.

    I would not trust a large portion of them to make me a sandwich let alone be advise me on the deen. It’s like “Hmmm…this one is stupid, let’s send him to mollah school”. What are the standards at the these places man? Simply learning the methodologies and texts is not enough. They gotta put in some kind of required criticial thinking test at these places and if you don’t pass, sorry you cannot represent the deen…

    It’s not some mystery many of us are in awe of and flocking to Imam Suhaib, Shaykh Hamza, Imam Omar, etc. It’s like a breath of fresh air man…Like…WOW…intelligence

  • AS

    Excellent point! We have a principle which states that a means which is necessary for you to accomplish an obligation becomes an obligation to take. In this case because acting with knowledge is an obligation in Islam, meaning that it not acceptable to act out of ignorance, and because in this case in order to seek knowledge one has to consult an expert than following an opinion base on knowledge is an obligation.

    What is an obligation is to follow an opinion based on knowledge not an individual. The madhab of the muqallid is that of the person that you follow as stated in the books of Usul but you are not obligated to follow one person. You may choose who to follow though but you are obligated to follow a knowledge based opinion.

    Knowledge becomes important in this regard given that in the event that one is open to learning one is better suited to be convinced by force of proof and argument. The obligation derives from commitment to knowledge and a trust relationship only in a secondary manner but rather the obligation in and of itself is a consequence of necessity. Because it is a necessity to act with knowledge you are obligated to follow an opinion grounded in knowledge and hence the need for experts.

    Allahu Alam

  • “Does the category of “those who are qualified to research” include them having basic intelligence and critical thinking skills? Simply learning the classical methodologies and memorization is not enough.”

    Thank you. Permit me to be critical and there is nothing personal in the matter but it needs to be said that the gist of the question is understood but the way the issue is couched is lacking. Really there is no question but rather a statement of critique that looses it importance and potential for giving us a critical insight because sarcasm and generalization cloud the point of what you are really getting at which actually is a serious and important issue that is multi-layered.

    To entertain your point we agree there is at times a lack of critical insight but critical thought alone is not a measure of truth. Not all critical thought is worth recognition to believe so is a fallacy. Criticism must be coupled with understanding lest it be based on a faulty foundation and be dismissed as a rant rather than real insight and scholarly insight.

    Firsly, with respect to the positions that you mentioned as lacking in intelligence these are really an anomaly positions rejected in scholarly circles and material for joking and ridicule in the media. Agreed they are foolish positions but nonetheless without authentic scholarly methodology we fall into a clamour of refutations. We are not a literate Ummah at this point whether in the East or West we are an illiterate Ummah in need of learning. Your point is well taken but I would add that
    we see foolish positions taken by people in the West as well and some are supposed to be educated and enlightened! Whether it be the position of a woman leading ju’mah to converts wanting to jump ship to go to another country because everything is deemed haram we see strange opinions some more scholarly than others but all falling short of reaching the desired targets and aims charted by Islam.

    Thirdly, Usul al-Fiqh calls for thought following the Qur’anic imperative “consider! oh people of intellect.” These methodologies are followed so that people learn how to come to solid positions removed from whim, fancy and desire. So I would differ with you on the appellation you give to Usul al-Fiqh methodologies: “classical methodologies” devoid of critical thought. Shall we call the scientific method classical its been around for quite a long time but in inverted form. Roger Bacon borrowed the concept from the scholars of Usul. Usul al-Fiqh is a critical insightful research tool and intellectual prowess is an essential element of being qualified to do research. So not every opinion put out there is representative of scholarship but because this is the case we have to clarify what is scholarship rather than silencing people we need to demonstrate what real scholarship is.

    Fourthly, you comment intimates to an important point and that is the crisis of education. There is no such thing as being a practioner of Usul al-Fiqh and conforming to memorization because Usul al-Fiqh demands understanding over memorization as layed out in the rules of research outlined in the section of ijtihad. Now we have to admit that many institutions of learning do not promote ijtihad but neither do all of them reject it. We have some excellent scholars coming out of our institutions despite the crisis of education. Even more so we have some excellent scholars who have transcended the limits of these institutions. Hopefully with political freedom the effects of suppression these institutions experienced will be remedied.

    Your right to be critical I agree with you in large part that some of what is out there is nonsense but not all. I am glad you can relate to some of our leaders here in the West. On the other hand we still need you to invest your intellect to understand the methods of scholarship so that you can be there as a support for others someday if you are not already.

    Forgive me for my shortcomings.

    Allah knows best

    • Thank you. What you are saying makes a lot of sense, that it’s not an individual but knowledge that one is obligated to follow.

      And herein lies a problem I’ve been trying to resolve for some time: the assumption that experts will have that knowledge. Let me explain. As a non-Arabic speaker, I always follow the opinion of experts on the meaning of the Arabic in the Quran. I also always accept scholars’ opinions on whether a particular hadith is sahih. I simply don’t have enough knowledge to form a valid opinion in these two areas.

      Now let me turn to another example, one of other religions. Let’s look at Christianity. Based on what’s been said so far, a Christian who lacks knowledge should be expected to follow the opinions of his or her scholars, those who have the knowledge of that religion. In such a case, that person could never become a Muslim or at least never come to the position that Jesus was not divine. In this example, following those who have the knowledge of the religion results in shirk.

      So, there seems to be situations in which an individual who lacks specific training and knowledge in the religion must go against the experts in the religion.

      So, I wonder, What are the principles that can guide an individual in deciding when to follow or not to follow the opinions of the scholars?

  • AS

    In this case, the position (madhab) of the person not grounded and trained in scholarly principles is that of the person he is following.

    To be able to differentiate between opinions requires education and that process requires learning from scholars. It is not a DIY (do it yourself) effort. The easiest way here is to commit yourself to a program of study and start at a foundational level until you develop literacy.

    In principle you are free to choose what opinion you feel comfortable with but that can become confusing. So you start off by developing a relationship with teachers. Today this is easier than yesterday. This site can be a resource until you commit to a program of studies. You are free to choose from legitimate opinions that are out there but from experience we see that it becomes confusing so out of necessity it is important to have a reference point and slowly work out a program of studies in a systematic way and with teachers.

    For now I recommend you listen to Dr. Umar Faruq’s Four Imams Lecture online or get the Cds

    Then read:

    First: Islamic Law: Understanding Juristic Differences by Dr. Ahamd Zaki
    Second: Shaikhul Hadith Maulana Zakiriya’s ” The differences of the Imams

    Third: Shah Wali Allah’s Insaf which is printed in Dr. Marcia’s Hermansen’s Shah Wali Allah’s Treatiss On Islamic Law

    This will give you an understanding of the formation of schools of interpretation and the reasons scholars differ.

    If you are interested in studying send me the admin a notice with a private email address and we can speak further.

    • Dear Imam Yusuf Rios
      Assalaam alaykum wa rahmatLlah wa barakaatuh.
      Today, as I was surfing the internet looking for some good resources on Fiq’h, i tumbled upon your website and before I know it, I was caught stuck in the responses to your article: Understanding Usul al-Fiqh, particularly impressed by Mr Reed’s provocative questions and your insightful answers.

      I am one of the millions cught in a web of internet fat’was where contradiction is mostly a rule rather than an exception. I had of recent made a decision to take matters in my hands and study my deen. I am currently studying a bachelors degree in Aerospace Engineering, but whn I compare how much time I invest in these studies everyday, I can stop feeling guilty about how much I could really learn of my own Deen if only I invested even only a quarter of the time.

      That is the reason I am writing to you. My schedules are so tight given my extended family obligations I may never be able to sit in a classroom for formal study again after my current degree, in shaa Allah. So I am need of urgent help. Usul al_Fiq’h sounds like a good area to engage, but polishing my very rusty Arabic skills looks like a necessity too, at least based on your rule of “a means which is necessary for you to accomplish an obligation becomes an obligation to take”.

      I will be very happy toi hear from you brother Sheikh Yusuf and barakaLlahu fiika for your endeavours.
      Ma’a ssalaam

  • Assalaamu’alaykum.

    Is there any Part II of this? I tried to go through the web but I didnt find it, but then this has been for over 1.5 years..


  • Assalaamua’laikum wa rahmatullah,

    Alhamdulillah. An interesting topic and discussion. Yes, is there any Part II of this?

    Many thanks. Wassalaam.

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