Islamic Law (Part 5)

Islamic Law (Part 5) February 8, 2018


Rifa‘i and park
A scene in Cairo, near the Mosque of al-Rifa‘i
(Wikimedia CC photo by David Sánchez Núñez)


Continuing with my manuscript on Islam for Latter-day Saints:


Al-Bukhari’s Sahih, which holds undisputed pride of place among Sunnis, is worth describing here in a bit of detail. It is com­posed of ninety-seven books divided into a total of 3,450 chapters. Each book is devoted to a general subject, such as prayer, fasting, alms, testimony, buying and selling, marriage, and the like. About 2,762 separate hadith reports occur in Bukhari’s volumes, but they are often repeated under different headings, for a total of approxi­mately 7,300. As the name of his vast work indicates, it is com­posed only of hadith reports that were judged by Bukhari and his associates to be sahih, or “sound.” These were the best he could find. Muslim tradition says that these “sound” reports were culled from the best 200,000 hadith Bukhari had encountered in the course of a lifetime spent crisscrossing the Arab empire in quest of anecdotal material about the Prophet and his companions. The obviously spurious or biased reports he had not even taken into account. These facts give some idea of the magnitude of the prob­lem of forgery faced by Muslim scholars and jurists in those early centuries.

Western scholars, in their turn, have been quick to criticize the classical Islamic method of testing hadith by their chains of transmitters, or isnads. They have pointed out, no doubt correctly, that anybody clever enough to forge the substance of a plausible hadith report could also, if he knew it would come under scrutiny, forge a perfectly plausible chain of transmitters for his report. In fact, as biographical dictionaries began to appear, he would have at his disposal a highly useful set of reference works to help him do precisely that. Such criticism is well aimed, it seems, but there can be little doubt that Muslim isnad-criticism did manage to exclude the most blatantly propagandistic forgeries of the first and second centuries after the Prophet. And we must also be grateful for the impetus given by these investigations of hadith and hadith-transmitters to the study of history, which grew up as a side—or sub—discipline to them.

The greatest contribution to the study of hadith, however, was the creation of the vast, complex, and sophisticated body of Islamic law known as the shariah.[1] The ulama began an attempt early to codify Islamic law, to systematize it on the basis of the Qur’an and the sunna. Several basic principles governed their work. The first and perhaps most important was that, if clear commands existed in the Qur’an or in authenticated hadith, those were to be accepted without human speculation or modification. (This is actually less rigid than it sounds, though, since the human mind had to deter­mine how widely a given rule applies and precisely what it means. This called for the minute study of Arabic grammar and of the meanings of words, including metaphors, and allowed for some dif­ferences of opinion and emphasis.) If, on the other hand, a situa­tion was not covered in either the Qur’an or the hadith, most jurists would permit the use of “analogy” (qiyas), by which an old princi­ple could be applied to a new situation.[2] For instance, if the Prophet had forbidden the marriage of a Muslim girl to a pagan Arab on the grounds that he worshiped many gods, a later Muslim judge might rule against the marriage of a Muslim girl to a Hindu, reasoning by analogy from the first case.


[1] Pronounced (roughly) “sha-REE-ah.”

[2] Pronounced (approximately) “kee-YAASS.”




I’ve been urged by several Latter-day Saints — including my Cuban-born daughter-in-law — to get on board with this project, and I’m happy to do so.  (How can I resist my daughter-in-law, when my granddaughter is so astoundingly cute?).  So here it is:


Alif Baa Taa: An Arabic Alphabet Board Book for Kids!: A modern, visually appealing Arabic alphabet board book. Each page features an Arabic letter, modern illustration & transliteration


My wife and I are going to make a small donation to the Kickstarter campaign.  I hope that others will, as well.




Some out there may, perhaps, be able to endure this:


“What Missionaries (and members) need to know about Islam – Interview with Daniel Peterson”



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