Islamic Studies

Origins Of The Science Of Maqasid Ash-Shar’iah

By Ustadh Faraz Mir

Originally published in Bitesize Islam

In this post we will look briefly at the history of the science of Maqasid al-Shari’ah and how it developed over time. As with most of the Islamic Sciences, if we were to look back to the time of the Prophet Muhammad (s) and his Companions (ra), we would be not find them referring to these sciences as we do today.

That’s not to say they did not exist. Fiqh, Hadith, Tafsir etc were being taught and applied by the Prophet (s) and his Companions (ra), but as applied knowledge rather than as scientific disciplines. What developed in subsequent generations is how this knowledge was classified, interpreted and understood. With this evolution, the separate subject areas became distinct sciences in the Shari’ah and with that much easier to understand and access. Scholars too became specialised in particular fields, dedicating their entire lives to the advancement of Islamic knowledge.

The science of Maqasid is no different. It too evolved over time but as with all the sciences, the concepts and knowledge therein were being understood and applied by the Prophet (s), his Companions (ra) and later generations, just not in the form we do today.

Note: When we look at Usool al-Fiqh after completing our discussion of Maqasid, we will spend a little longer looking at the Evolution of the Shari’ah, as it’s a fascinating topic in itself.

Maqasid in relation to Fiqh and Usool
In terms of its relationship with other sciences of the Shari’ah, Maqasid is closely linked with Fiqh and Usool al-Fiqh in that it evolved directly from the science of Usool al-Fiqh (Principles of Islamic Law), which itself evolved from Fiqh (Jurisprudence) itself.

To summarise the subject matters of each of these sciences, we can say that Fiqh is concerned with the details of application, which if we step back from, we enter the realm of Usool, which looks at principles underpinning these details. Stepping back further still, we enter the realm of Maqasid which looks at overarching objectives which guide both these principles and their detailed application.

We can illustrate this by looking at the example of a house. Maqasid can be thought of as the foundations. Usool as the pillars holding up the structure and Fiqh, the building itself, the end result.

Maqasid gives us a ‘bird’s eye view’of the Shari’ah, which is essential for understanding the details which follow, as we know where everything fits in; we already have a map in our head to guide us. This is of particular importance for scholars of Fiqh (Fuqaha) when they are giving fatawa.

Notable Scholars and their Contributions
The development of the science of Maqasid was advanced by some of the greatest minds of the Islamic Ummah. The names of some of these scholars and the contributions they made are listed below. (Their names are linked to external sites, so if you want to find out a bit more, just click on the name…)

Ways of Deducing the Maqasid
As we’ve already mentioned the main thrust of the science of Maqasid is that the Shari’ah has clearly defined aims and objectives. We’ve seen that this science developed from Usool al-Fiqh and the scholars who contributed, but the question remains, how exactly did the scholars arrive at this list of aims and objectives? We don’t find them conveniently listed together in the Qur’an or in a hadith, so what was the process that the scholars used to deduce them?

Through extensive research into the source texts, common themes were found; that all the rules and laws in the Shari’ah can be grouped as aiming to achieve one or more of these objectives. One of the pioneers of this science, Imam al-Shatibi listed the following ways for deducing the Maqasid:

  1. The whole of Islamic Law can be broken down into “dos” and “don’ts.” The first thing to understand is that absolute obedience to these is of primary importance and iteself an objective of the Shari’ah.
  2. Once the previous point has been understood, the search for reasons behind the legislation can begin, which as the Imam re-iterates, is a secondary endeavour. These reasons can be broken down into known (ma’looma) and unknown (ghair ma’looma) which are equivalent to ‘illah and hikmah respectively, i.e. a reason can be clear, apparent and measurable or not.
  3. The maqasid or aims which a particular law (hukm) aims to achieve are of two types, primary (‘asliyah) and secondary (taabi’ah). An example to illustrate this is marriage. The primary objective of marriage is the protection of lineage and a secondary objective is sexual enjoyment. So laws can have more than one objective, but one is highlighted as the principal objective, with others following as subsidiary objectives.
  4. Through investigation and examination (istiqraa’) of all the laws (ahkam) of the Shari’ah the aims and objectives can be extracted.
  5. As a final note, the maqasid of the Shari’ah must be understood through the Arabic language, of which an understanding is crucial, as Arabic is the medium by which the aims and objectives of God’s final revelation are communicated.

Another and perhaps simpler way of understanding this is by looking at the principle laid down by Imam ‘Izz al-Din ibn ‘Abd al-Salam [d. 660AH], who stated that in deriving and understanding the objectives of the Shari’ah in wordly matters we can use our intellect (‘aql), but when it comes to matters of religion (belief, worship etc) we must limit ourselves to the source texts (naql).

Hopefully now we’ve got some idea of what Maqasid al-Shari’ah is about, how it fits into the Shari’ah and how it developed as a science. In the next post Insha Allah, we shall look at the foundations underpinning this science, meaning those axioms around which our understanding of the subject will develop.

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  • Thanks for referring us to Ust. Faraz mir’s website! I am sure we all could benifit quite a lot from his website.

    And wow! I didn’t know Imam Ghazali wrote about 70 books in his entire lifetime!

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