What is Islamic Jurisprudence?

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  • Written By: Gregory Hanson
  • Edited By: Susan Barwick
  • Last Modified Date: 01 February 2020
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Islamic jurisprudence is a system of legal theory and practice, known as fiqh, which is based on the sacred law, or sharia, derived directly from the Quran, the Sunnah, and the Old Testament. These original source materials have been expanded and interpreted by Islamic legal scholars and teachers. The rulings and doctrines of Islamic jurisprudence cover many areas, but much attention is devoted to issues of faith and religious observance. Issues that relate to the cohesion and structure of communities are also central to this system of legal scholarship.

All of the world’s major monotheistic religions have a tradition of religious law. All base those traditions on scriptural sources which are held to be infallible, and all then extrapolate from those sources to answer questions beyond the direct scope of the original source materials. In Islamic jurisprudence, the opinions of legal scholars, or faqih, are given great weight but are not held to be absolutely correct and may be disputed. Direct commandments from scripture may not be contradicted, but, as is the case with other monotheistic religions, may be interpreted, under the assumption that while divine intent is eternal and perfect, human understanding is certainly not, and may well change and improve with time.


Legal scholars in the Islamic world have focused much of their attention on issues of behavior, and classify various actions on a spectrum including mandatory, recommended, permitted, discouraged, and forbidden activities. Prayer, fasting, and charity are among the mandatory actions, while blasphemy and acts that violate the Ten Commandments are among those that are forbidden.

Religious practices are closely regulated by Islamic jurisprudence. The practice of daily prayer and of pilgrimage are explained. Other practices of primarily spiritual significance, often having to do with taboos linked to cleanliness, both physical and spiritual, are also addressed.

The community occupies a very important place in Islamic thought and is similarly important in Islamic jurisprudence. Fiqh addresses issues of charity and economics in an effort to mitigate the disruptive effects of both wealth and poverty, by mandating such practices as a tax on wealthy Muslims to be used to aid the poor. The family is seen as a key element of the community, and much of Islamic jurisprudence deals with issues relating to marriage and divorce and the exchanges of property that accompany them, as well as the larger family alliances that marriages have often been designed to promote.

Divisions have arisen among the faqih, as Islamic jurisprudence has evolved in different directions within different parts of the Islamic world. The most pronounced split is between Sunni and Shia, as the different customs and practices of these two groups have been embodied in two different understandings of law. Each of these two sides has fractured as well, and debates over issues of law continue within both communities.


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