1. A few concepts used in Islamic sciences
Ash-shahâda: the profession of faith and its testimony through the formulation with the heart and intelligence of “I bear witness that there is no god but God and that Muhammad is His prophet”. It is the foundation, the axis and the determination of “being a Muslim“.
Ash-sharî’a : There is no one single definition of the concept of sharî’a. Scholars have generally circumscribed its meaning from the standpoint of their own sphere of specialisation. Starting from the broadest to the most restricted, we may present the definitions as follows:
1. Ash-sharî’a, on the basis of the root of the word, means “the way”, “the path leading to the source” and outlines a global conception of creation, existence and death and the way of life it entails, stemming from a normative reading and an understanding of scriptural sources. It determines “how to be a Muslim”.
2. Ash-sharî’a, for the usûliyyûn and jurists, is the corpus of general principles of Islamic law extracted form its two fundamental sources, the Qur’an and the Sunnah, while also using the other main sources (al-ijma’ and al-qiyas) and secondary ones (al-istihsân, al-istislâh, al-istishâb, al-`urf).
Al-`aqîda: faith and all the matters related to the six pillars of al-imân (God, His names, His attributes, the angels, the prophets, the day of Judgement and predestination). In general, it studies what is beyond sensory perception. Unlike what some orientalists attempted to suggest, it does not exactly cover the sphere of theology nor that of Christian dogmatics,. Neither does it correspond to the sphere of philosophy, understood in the sense of Western philosophy.
Usûl al-fiqh: The fundamental principles of Islamic law: it expounds the principles and methodology by means of which the rules of law and jurisprudence are inferred and extracted from their sources. It involves the study and formulation of rules of interpretation, obligation and prohibition, global principles, ijtihâd (ijmâ’, qiyas), etc.
Al-fiqh: Islamic law and jurisprudence. It comprises two general sections which are based on different and opposed methodological approaches: al-`ibâdât, worship, where only what is prescribed is permitted; and al-mu`âmalât, social affairs, where everything is permitted except what is explicitly forbidden.
At-tasawwuf: Sufism. It is in fact a science, the science of mysticism, which has a specific framework, norms, and a technical and specialised vocabulary. It requires an initiation. Synthetically, it comprises the studies of different scholars or schools concerning the stages and states allowing intimate progress towards God. It is the dimension of al-haqîqa, of truth, of ultimate spiritual Reality, that only the nearest can know.
2. A few technical terms
_ Ahâdîth, plur. of hadîth: reported and authenticated traditions about what the Prophet said, did or approved.
_ Ahkâm, plur. of hukm: rulings, values, prescriptions, commandments, judgements, laws stemming from Islamic law.
_ Asl plur. usûl: root, origin, source, foundation.
_ Ayah, plur. âyât: sign, indication but also verse.
_ Dalâla: meaning, implication.
_ Dalîl: proof, indication, evidence, scriptural support and source.
_ Dhannî: un-explicit, leaving room for conjecture as to its origin and/or allowing scope to interpretation as to its meaning.
_ Dhâhir: manifest, apparent. The literal meaning of the text.
_ Far’, plur. furû’: branch, subdivision, secondary element as opposed to roots, f oundations (usûl). It also means a new case in the practice of qiyâs.
_ Fard ‘ayn: personal, individual duty or obligation.
_ Fard kafâ’î (kifâya): collective obligation. If part of the community takes care of it and fulfils it, the rest is relieved of it.
_ Fatwâ, plur. fatâwâ: specific legal ruling: it can be a mere reminder of a prescription explicitly stated by the sources, or else a scholar’s development on the basis of an un-explicit text or in the case of a specific situation for which there is no scriptural source.
_ Hukm taklîfî: restrictive law defining rights and obligations. It is based on human responsibility.
_ Ijmâ`: consensus of opinion, in the sense of unanimous or majority opinion.
_ Ijtihâd: literally “effort”, it has become a technical term meaning the effort accomplished by a jurist, either to extract a law or a ruling from un-explicit scriptural sources, or to formulate a specific legal opinion in the absence of texts of reference.
_ ‘Illa: the actual cause of a specific ruling. It makes it possible to understand a ruling through its cause and thus opens the way to elaborating other rulings through analogy or extension.
_ Istihsân: judging something good, it is in fact the application of “legal preference”.
_ Istishâb: presumption of continuity of what was previously prescribed.
_ Istislâh: consideration linked to general interest.
_ Istinbât: both inductive and deductive extraction of the implicit or hidden meaning of a given text. More broadly, it means extracting, pointing out the laws and rulings specified by a scriptural source.
_ Jumhûr: majority trend, when referring to the majority opinion among the conflicting views of scholars; this does not affect the validity of a minority opinion if it is justified.
_ Kalâm: literally “speech”. In ‘ilm al-kalâm, it is linked to Islamic philosophy but also concerns fields which, according to the Western repartition of domains, partake of theology or dogmatics. This science is, in several aspects, situated at the intersection of the three above-mentioned spheres.
_ Madhhab, plur. madhâhib: juridical school.
_ Makrûh: abhorred.
_ Mandûb (or mustahab): recommended.
_ Maqâsid, sing. maqsûd: objectives, aims, finalities.
_ Maslaha: consideration of public interest.
_ Mubâh: permitted.
_ Mukallaf: someone having reached the age of puberty and in full possession of his/her mental faculties.
_ Muqayyad: limited, restricted, defined, determined, circumscribed. This also qualifies a mujtahid who formulates legal rulings within a specific juridical school.
_ Mutlaq: absolute, unrestricted. Also qualifies a mujtahid who is competent to formulate legal rulings beyond juridical schools, directly from the sources.
_ Qat`i: clear-cut, explicit, definite, leaving no scope for speculation as to its interpretation.
_ Rukhsa, rukhas: alleviations in the practice or implementation of prescriptions due for instance to age, illness, travel, poverty, social conditions etc.
_ Rukn, plur. arkân: pillar, fundamental principle.
_ Shart, plur. shurût: condition, sometimes criterion.
_ Shûrâ: consultation, concertation.
_ Sahîh: authentic, meeting specific authentication criteria.
_ Ta’wîl: interpretation, more specifically in the sciences of faith: allegorical or metaphorical interpretation.
_ Takhsîs: restriction from a general to a specific meaning.
_ Taklîf: responsibility, obligation.
_ Taqlîd: imitation. In legal matters, it means the blind imitation of one’s predecessors without questioning, assessing, checking or criticising their legal opinions.
_ Tazkiyyah (an-nafs): effort of spiritual purification, initiation to spiritual elevation.
_ Ummah: community of faith, spiritual community, uniting all Muslim men and women throughout the world in their attachment to Islam.
_ Wâjib: obligation, often used as a synonym of fard except by Hanafi jurists.
3. Terms used to qualify the status of scholars
‘Alim, plur. ‘ulamâ’: literally, “the one who knows”. A scholar, in a broad sense, who may be specialised in one particular branch of Islamic sciences. It can today qualify those who graduated from university with a degree in a field related to Islamic sciences (the term mawlâna is also used to express the idea of “scholar” or sheikh).
Sheikh, plur. shuyûkh : literally “old”: generally qualifies persons who have a degree in one branch or another of Islamic sciences. It is also very broadly used to express students’ respect or recognition of teacher’s abilities even if the latter does not have an official degree. One can note some obvious instances of excess in this respect. In mystical paths and circles, the sheikh is the initiating master who guides and accompanies the murîd (the initiate in quest of knowledge) on the path to knowledge and elevation.
Imâm, plur. a’imma : literally, “the one who is placed at the front”. Applies to any person, specifically trained or not, who directs prayer or officiates during Friday sermons. More particularly, this term is used to qualify a scholar who has historically left his mark on the development of Islamic sciences and knowledge, especially in the field of law and jurisprudence. One thus speaks of the “great imâms (a’imma)” when thinking of Abû Hanîfa, Mâlik, ash-Shâfi’î, Ibn Hanbal, or Ja’far as-Sâdiq, for instance. This may express the recognition of the community as a whole or sometimes, more specifically, of the circle, the school of thought or organisation in which the said scholar may have been involved.
Mujtahid: a scholar working on scriptural sources in order to infer or extract judgements and legal rulings. He is recognised as competent to practise ijtihâd (same Arabic root, ja-ha-da) on un-explicit texts or in the absence of specific texts. Numerous qualities are required to reach this level of competence: 1. Knowledge of the Arabic language; 2. Knowledge of Qur’an and hadîth sciences; 3. Deep knowledge of the objectives (maqâsid) of the sharî‘a; 4. Knowledge of the questions on which there was a consensus: that makes it necessary to know the substance of the works on secondary questions (furû’); 5. Knowledge of the principle of analogical reasoning (qiyâs) and its methodology; 6. Knowledge of the historical, social and political context; that is, the situation of people living around him (ahwâl an-nâs). 7. Recognition of his competence, honesty, reliability and uprightness (see the detailed analysis in the second section of first part in To Be A European Muslim).
Scholars have distinguished two types of mujtahid for whom the required competence criteria are different:
1. al-mujtahid al-mutlaq (absolute): extracts legal rulings and opinions directly from the sources and beyond all specific school criteria. His recognised knowledge of texts and methodological principles enables him to formulate views which do not necessarily refer to juridical schools and their rules.
2. al-mujtahid al-muqayyad (limited) simply extracts prescriptions within the framework of a specific juridical school. The conditions required for the latter are of course less demanding; they also include the knowledge of the deduction rules linked to the juridical school to which he belongs or refers.
Muftî: some scholars have often made undifferentiated use of the terms “mujtahid” and “muftî”, as for instance ash-Shatibî (mentioned in the second section of the first part in To Be A European Muslim). The link indeed seems natural since the practice of ijtihâd is necessary to the formulation of a fatwâ (same root as muftî). A muftî is therefore someone who formulates specific legal opinions on the basis of un-explicit texts or in the absence of specific texts. Three slight specificities were pointed out by scholars to justify the differences in denominations and functions. The muftî is clearly at the disposal of the community or of individuals, his function is to answer questions and the latter direct his reflection; this is not the case for the mujtahid who is not necessarily asked questions and who can work upstream. More than the mujtahid, since he works downstream and interacts more directly with his environment, the muftî must know the people and society he lives among; this is also required of the mujtahid but less expressly. Lastly, some have noted a mere institutional difference: the muftî is a mujtahid who has been employed by the state or who serves a specific institution to formulate legal rulings and direct the administration of affairs. The muftî would thus simply be a mujtahid who has become a civil servant.
The same distinctions exist among scholars as regards the muftî mutlaq and the muftî muqayyad.
Usûlî, plur. usûliyyûn: a scholar conversant with the knowledge of the fundamental principles of Islamic law. He works on the Qur’an and Sunnah, must master the juridical instruments and know the principles and methodology by means of which the rules of law and jurisprudence are inferred and extracted from their sources. He studies rules of interpretation, the fields related to obligation and prohibition, as well as general orientation rules. The principles of implementation of ijtihâd, ‘ijmâ’ or qiyâs also fall within his province although this does not mean he is competent to implement them himself. His knowledge is first of all essentially theoretical. A mujtahid or a muftî necessarily master the field of knowledge and competence of an usûl scholar but the latter is not immediately nor necessarily a mujtahid or a muftî since his knowledge may be only theoretical, merely enabling him to identify the instruments of extraction and deduction without being competent to make use of them.
Faqîh, fuqahâ’: literally “who understands deeply”. Generally defines the jurist who masters the sciences of law and jurisprudence, but this title is sometimes used for scholars of very diverse abilities. By referring to etymology, one may apply this term to an individual possessing great religious knowledge, without thinking of a particular field of specialisation. In the language of specialists, the term rather refers to someone who is conversant with legal matters without necessarily being competent to develop and formulate specific and/or new legal rulings. His knowledge may relate to one particular school or to several, he may know the views expressed about a given legal issue, he may for instance know the points on which scholars disagree, he may also express one or several already formulated legal rulings, but this is generally where his competence stops. The mujtahid or muftî are generally acknowledged fuqahâ’ but a respected faqîh is not necessarily a mujtahid nor a muftî.