Imam Al-Shatibi (d. 1288)
Ibrahim bin Mosa bin Muhammad Al-Shatibi grew up in Granada in Muslim Spain and died in the year 790 Hijri. He wrote al-Muwafaqat in the eighth century of Hijra and inscribed ijtihad as an intellectual exercise based on two pillars. The first pillar was complete knowledge of Arabic grammar and syntax and the second pillar was knowledge of the purposes behind the legislation of Allah as the ultimate Lawgiver.
With the end of the early Islamic period, Muslim scholars came to feel that a gap had begun to emerge between the teachings and principles of Islam and Muslims’ daily reality and practices. The most important means by which they sought to restore the intimate contact between Muslims and the Qur’an was to study the objectives of Islam, the causes behind legal rulings and the intentions and goals underlying Islamic Law (shari’a). In fact, every legal ruling in Islam has a function which it performs, an aim which it realises, a cause, be it explicit or implicit, and an intention which it seeks to fulfil, and all of this in order to realise benefit to human beings or to ward off harm.
Al-Shatibi raised the following question: what is the end of the shari’a? He discussed the issue at length and gave the following answer:
“The rules of Shari’a, have been designed to produce benefits (masalih) and remove evils (mafasid) and these are certainly their ends and objectives (…) The masalih are those which promote the preservation and fulfilment of human life, and the realisation of all that human nature and rational demands, until one is happy in every respect.” (Al-Muwafaqat, Vol. I, p. 195)
What makes Al-Shatibi’s theories unique and more relevant in contemporary time is that they were developed in eighth-century Spain when most of the Muslim territories had come under Christian rule. What was once a Muslim empire was declared an abode of war (dar ul-harb) by Muslim jurists as Muslims started living as minorities under a non-Muslim authority.
Under Islamic Law, the universal and fundamental principles are the spirit and the intention of Allah and should always override the specific legal rulings and other interpretations of law that seem to be at odds with the spirit of the law. According to this theory, the purpose of law in Islam is not necessarily to follow the letter of the law, but to fulfil a higher goal and greater purpose (maqasid), namely that of establishing a moral and just society. Whatever method can be used to reach this goal is then to be considered “islamically correct”.
Thus, the theories of maqasid al-shari‘a and masalih as interpreted by Al-Shatibi can enable Muslims to remain true to their identity, while at the same time taking part in a modern and pluralistic society.
His books include:
1. Al-Muwafaqat (The Congruences), his magnum opus in the field of jurisprudence and the legal theory of Islam
2. Al-Infaq, on the science of Ishtiqaq (the derivation of Arabic words from their roots)
3. Usul al-Nahw (“Principles of Grammar”)
4. Al-I’tisam (“Holding Fast,” i.e. to the Qur’an and the Sunnah)