In religious and sometimes pseudo-religious discussions in media as well as formal and informal gatherings, it has become customary to throw around various legal cliches. The discussion would seem strange if terms related to particular disciplines of theology are not used to enforce the argument. ‘Fiqh’ is one such term and rarely a common person using it, holds a fair idea of actual meaning, implication and scope of the term itself. I tried to carry out an informal survey among friends so as to gauge the different shades of understanding about this term. Those who rightly comment upon the meaning of the term have difficulty expounding upon the exact scope which the term carries.
While going through my informal studies of basics of different schools of Fiqh, it never occurred to me that I am not myself clear about the exact definition and nature of the term. It was this sense of confusion that compelled me to revisit and reflect upon the term itself rather then wasting my efforts on the methodologies of particular schools of Fiqh. I have tried to study the definition from few books but I have found Nyazee’s book to be best in terms of clarity and teaching method. I try to concisely summarize my understanding of definition of Fiqh here.
The method Nyazee uses in his book is the most common in Islamic Law. It consists of selection of a word called definiendum, setting of the word into its genus and distinguishing it from other members of the genus.
The Literal Meaning
The literal meaning is ‘understanding’, ‘perception’, ‘discernment’ or to some extent ‘appreciation’. When it is used in Quran 4: 78 and 7: 179, it means what a judicious person is likely to conclude from obvious evidences.
By earlier definition I mean the informal definition that was used before al-Shafi’i came on the scene and developed a more technical definition. The pre-Shafi’ite concept of Fiqh incorporated the meaning of the term kalam within it. It was not separated until the time of al-Mamun (d. 218H). The definition coined by Abu Hanifa includes both the theological problems as well as the legal issues. However at the time of Mamun when the term was restricted to law, it was sometimes called al-fiqh al-asghar to distinguish it from the wider definition of Abu Hanifa.
The definition which is attributed by some to al-Shafi’i himself is generally held to be developed by the Shafi’ite jurists of later time. In a technical sense it is as follows:
It is the knowledge of the shar’ai ahkam (legal rules), pertaining to conduct, that have been derived from their specific evidences.
This definition is presently of our interest and requires a brief analysis for developing a better understanding. Each word in the definition affects the required meaning and helps us understand the scope better.
It is Knowledge
This is the first segment which identifies the genus we are concerned with. If the definition is restricted to this segment, it will mean all kinds of knowledge.
Knowledge of ahkam
The wider meaning of knowledge is again qualified by the word ahkam (rules) thereby excluding all kinds of knowledge not pertaining to rules.
Knowledge of shar’ai ahkam
The meanings are further narrowed down by the term shar’ai. It is pertinent now to have a brief look at ghayr shar’ai rules which are of three types:
- Rational rules like 2 + 2 = 4, meaning that the sum is always greater then the parts.
- Those perceived by senses like fire burns.
- Those discovered through experience.
These are the non legal rules and compared to this, the shar’ai ahkam are of two types:
- Those related to belief (aqeedah).
- Those related to acts (aa’mal). These are further divided into three categories:
- Pertaining to physical acts like prayer etc.
- Those that take place within heart like intention, love and hate.
- Those pertaining to speech like recitation in prayer.
Rules pertaining to conduct
In this step the knowledge is further restricted to rules pertaining to acts (ahkam-e-amaliyah) and those related to belief are confined to the discipline of ilm al-kalam.
Next the definition is further qualified by the use of word al-muktasabah, which means derived or acquired. This in turn excludes following types of knowledge of legal rules:
- Knowledge of rules that rests with Allah.
- Knowledge of rules that was granted to Prophet.
- Knowledge of rules granted to Jibril (Gabriel).
Derived rules through specific evidences
Further restriction comes with inclusion of phrase, adillah tafsiliyah or specific evidences. These evidences are primarily the individual texts whether Quran or Sunnah. This term actually excludes from the definition of Fiqh, the knowledge of layman (muqallid) and only restricts it to knowledge of the faqih (jurist).
The final definition of Fiqh thus includes knowledge of the rules of conduct that are derived by the jurist from specific evidences find in Quran, Sunnah, ijmaa and qiyas. It is actually the knowledge of Islamic law and not the law itself. It excludes the opportunity for the layman to derive law from the specific evidences, as does the faqih. The muqallid gets his knowledge from the jurist, as in other laws, the layman gets his knowledge of law from legal experts.
Fiqh is thus an important term to understand for a student who further likes to dwell into the detailed discussions about different legal schools. Making distinctions between terms like fiqh and usul al-fiqh, mujtahid and faqih, ijtihad and taqlid and muqallid and faqih also becomes easy if one grasps the in depth understanding of this term.
A good book for elementary understanding is Asim Haddad’s Usul al-fiqh. The book from which I have concised this definition is Imran Ahsan Khan Nyazee’s Islamic Jurisprudence.
Imran Ahsan Khan Nyazee, Islamic Jurisprudence, footnote  to p. 18
A person’s knowledge of his rights and duties.