Ismaʿili legal theory: Mukhtaṣar al-uṣūl of ʿAlī b. Muḥammad b. al-Walīd (d. 612/1215)
The post examines Ismaʿili legal theory in "Mukhtaṣar al-uṣūl" by ʿAlī b. Muḥammad b. al-Walīd. It addresses scarcity of Ismaʿili uṣūl al-fiqh works, emphasizes the Imam's role in religious authority, refutes Sunni interpretations, and underscores the significance of seeking guidance from the Imams.
Ismaʿili legal theory: Mukhtaṣar
al-uṣūl of ʿAlī b. Muḥammad b. al-Walīd (d. 612/1215)
Kumail Rajani (University of Exeter)
Ismaʿili law and legal tradition remain an understudied area of research. Of course, we are familiar with al-Qāḍī al-Nuʿmān and his contributions to the Ismaʿili/Fatimid legal tradition, but Mustaʿlī-Ṭayyibī Ismaʿilis continued to compose legal works during both the Yemeni and Indian subcontinent daʿwa periods. One of these works is Mukhtaṣar al-uṣūl of ʿAlī b. Muḥammad b. al-Walīd (d. 612/1215), the fifth dāʿī muṭlaq of Mustaʿlī-Ṭayyibī Ismaʿilis. Mukhtaṣar al-uṣūl is a concise book on uṣūl that sets out to expound on the tenets of the Ismaʿili tradition by refuting the opinions espoused by Sunni legal and doctrinal schools. It should be noted that the word uṣūl in the title does not necessarily refer to the discipline of legal theory (uṣūl al-fiqh); it rather alludes to the key doctrines on which the foundation of Ismaʿili tradition is laid. In explicating these uṣūl, ʿAlī b. Muḥammad b. al-Walīd examines the theories of legal interpretation, legal hermeneutics, and legal authority - topics that are conventionally discussed in the works of uṣūl al-fiqh.
A critical study of Mukhtaṣar al-uṣūl reveals the reasons why Ismaʿilis, unlike Sunnis and other Shiʿi sects, did not produce scores of works on uṣūl al-fiqh. In the Ismaʿili doctrinal and legal framework, as ʿAlī b. Muḥammad b. al-Walīd implies religious authority is bestowed upon the Imam. In the absence of an Imam, the dāʿī occupies the same position with the exact same role and function. Religious guidance is, then, the exclusive prerogative of the Imam or the dāʿī, and the followers are expected to submit to the authority of these figures. Simply put their words and actions are ‘sources’ of law in themselves and not mere interpretations of the ‘sources’. The very presence of a central authoritative figure such as an imam (or, in his absence, a dāʿī) leaves no room for personal juristic reasoning, let alone the idea of legal theory, to emerge.
The chapter of Mukhtaṣar al-uṣūl edited in the Shiʿite Legal Theory: Sources and Commentaries highlights the importance of seeking religious guidance from the Imams in an Ismaʿili legal framework. In doing so, ʿAlī b. Muḥammad b. al-Walīd refutes what he sees as the dubious and flawed theories of legal interpretation adopted by the Sunnis. He lists four groups of people and explains their positions and approaches to interpreting the sharīʿa. They are Ḥashwiyya, Muʿtazilites, heretics, and the People of Truth and Sound Beliefs (Ahl al-ḥaqq wa-l-ḥaqīqa). The Ḥashwiyya is a broad category in ʿAlī b. Muḥammad’s categorization, encompassing Shāfiʿīs, Ḥanafīs, and Mālikīs (n.b., it is interesting that the Ḥanbalī school is not mentioned). These Sunni legal schools, he argues, limit themselves to the prima facie meaning of the Qurʾan and hadith and thus remain oblivious to the hidden core meaning of the sharīʿa. The Muʿtazilites (and by extension the Zaydis), ʿAlī b. Muḥammad b. al-Walīd asserts, engage in speculative reasoning. He adds that their excessive dependence on personal reasoning has led them to follow their own personal opinions and whims and not the sharīʿa’s incontrovertible proofs. The third group (i.e., heretics) are those who see revelation and reason as polar opposites. They denounce faith, deny revelation, refute the teachings of the prophets, and accuse them of falsehood. Consequently, they abandon Islam and indulge in apostasy, blasphemy, and heresy. The author shows no interest in including them within the Muslim community. The fourth group, ʿAlī b. Muḥammad b. al-Walīd introduces, has combined both esoteric (bāṭin) and exoteric (ẓāhir) traditions, grasped both apparent (bāriz) and hidden (kāmin) meanings of the Qurʾan and sharīʿa, mastered both rational (maʿqūl) and revelatory (sharʿ) discourses and remained firmly committed to both beliefs (uṣūl) and practices (furūʿ) of the religion. These characteristics, the author proposes, are manifested in the ‘followers of Ahl al-bayt’ by which he should mean the followers of Mustʿalī-Ṭayyibī Ismaʿili tradition. They submit to the religious authority of the Imams. This submission is neither blind (unlike the Ḥashwiyya) nor independent (unlike the Muʿtazilites) rather it is in accordance with the commands of God.
It is evident, then, that the divine authority of the Imams is central to ʿAlī b. Muḥammad’s arguments. It is this commitment towards Imams and Imamology that makes Ismaʿilism distinct not only from Sunnis but also from their Shiʿi counterparts such as Zaydis and Twelvers. Only infallible Imams (and by extension the living “quasi-infallible” dāʿīs) are the rightful interpreters of the sharīʿa and there is no scope and place for ijtihād in an Ismaʿili legal framework.