Simply put, fiqh is the term assigned by the jurists (fuqaha) to refer to the rulings associated with various human actions.
These rulings are primarily derived from the central sources of law, namely, the Qur’an, the Sunna, Scholarly Consensus (ijma‘) and Legal Analogy (qiyas).
According to its scholars, the technical definition of fiqh is as follows: the science concerned with the judgements regarding human actions from the perspective of permissibility, impermissibility, soundness and corruptness.
What does that mean? Well, what is the ruling of somebody praying without a shirt on their back? This is the realm of fiqh. Is it permissible or not? Does it corrupt the prayer or not? What is the ruling of brushing your teeth during the fasting hours? This is also a question of fiqh. Does it have any bearing on the fast? And you can apply same set of questions to almost any issue.
Fiqh, then, is applicable to every single human action.
Why is it called Fiqh?
But why the term “fiqh”? In reality, this is a term used by the lawgiver to denote firm-footedness or a deep understanding. In a famous tradition (hadith), the Holy Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) said, “Whosoever God wishes well for, He gives them deep knowledge of religion.” (Bukhari)
Similarly, Allah Most High says, “Out of each community, a group should go out to gain understanding of the religion, so that they can teach their people when they return and so that they can guard themselves against evil.”(Sura al-Tawba 9:122)
Linguists explain that fiqh contains an idea of thorough understanding, as the aforementioned texts indicate. A process of assignment followed this early usage which historically resulted in the term fiqh being applied specifically to the science of legal rulings.
Of course, this is not something that later scholars came up with. Imams as early as Abu Hanifa (d. 150 AH), mere decades after the passing of the Holy Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace), are using the term to in reference to legal rulings. Famously, al-fiqh al-akbar was the knowledge and science of the articles of faith, and al-fiqh al-asghar was the rulings of the law.
The Reality of Fiqh
Now to address a more pertinent question, namely, the reality of fiqh.
In a beautiful passage, Abu’l Yusr al-Bazdawi in his Ma‘rifat al-Hujaj al-Shar‘iyya noted that fiqh is sometimes contained within the condition (shart), sometimes the cause (sabab), sometimes the reasoning (‘illa), and other times something else. But, in its essence, it is that which lies beneath the surface.
The point is not the specific words used by the circle of Imam Abu Hanifa, or anybody else, but something far more important. The fiqh lies in the meanings pointed to and indicated by the words. This is where the prophetic inheritance of this science lays.
A Case Study: Wudu and its Nullifier
Let’s take an example. If something exits from the body, the exiting may be either from the private parts or elsewhere. In the case of the former, the mere exiting of filth nullifies wudu. In the case of the latter, the condition is not only exit, but, additionally, flow. Why is there a difference?
There is an underlying legal consideration we are looking for (ma‘na) here. Filth is that which the lawgiver determines as such, and it is not subject to our opinions or cultural norms. Accordingly, flow is required to actualise a sense of movement of that which is inside the body, out. This is the meaning which we recognise and understand from the words of the lawgiver with respect to this issue.
Filth which normally exits from the private parts begins its life cycle as food and drink, which, eventually, transforms into something filthy and proceeds to pass through the intestines. The reality of movement, thus, has been realised. As for that which exits from elsewhere, it is usually blood — something that is always present beneath the skin. Movement with respect to blood is only realised when it flows out of the body and a wound, irrespective of whether this occurs deliberately, accidentally, forgetfully, by virtue of a needle, paper, knife or anything else!
The upshot? The flow of filth from inside the body to outside the body nullifies the wudu! Knowing this frees one of the need to memorise every single case mentioned in the books of fiqh.
When this process of deep thought and reasoning occurs for each individual ruling, doors of true understanding open. This is the kind of fiqh which is sought. Fiqh which is a living reality. Fiqh which breathes. Fiqh which works in every time and place. The jurists state in a legal maxim, “Consideration is given to meanings and not forms.”
Needless to say, words are needed and required to both discern the meanings, obviously, and to have something to memorise! — the faqih is the one who has memorised the furu‘. But they are ultimately secondary, and the faqih is not bound by them as long as he has encompassed the full meaning intended by the mujtahid.
This is the first in a series of posts, God-willing, on fiqh, usul al-fiqh, qawa ‘id fiqhiyya, and the methodology of teaching at Irshad Classes. If you’ve been inspired, consider supporting the writing here, and taking one of the offerings found here.