Usul al-Fiqh: The (Misunderstood) Key to Islamic Fanaticism

An interesting but little remarked upon linguistic distortion may hold the key to understanding the Muslim mentality.

Whoever undertakes a deeper study of Islam must early on encounter the Arabic term uṣūl al-fiqh, which is almost always translated as "sources of jurisprudence."  Here is a standard definition from the Encyclopædia Britannica:

Uṣūl al-fiqh, the sources of Islamic law and the discipline dedicated to elucidating them and their relationship to the substantive rulings of the law. ... [They are] the Qurʾān, the Prophet's Sunnah (practice of the Prophet Muhammad as transmitted through his sayings, actions, and tacit approval), ijmāʿ (consensus of scholars), and qiyas (analogical deductions from these three)[.]

This last point is key: Islamic law is fundamentally based on four sources: the Koran, the Sunna, ijmāʿ, and qiyas.

The reality, however, of the term uṣūl al-fiqh is deeper.  Whereas the word uṣūl is correctly translated as "sources" — and those are its four sources — the original meaning of fiqh has nothing to do with law, but rather knowledge.  Thus, the term uṣūl al-fiqh means Islam's "sources of knowledge" and is therefore much better translated by the word epistemology.

The standard Arabic-English dictionary, Hans Wehr, validates this; its primary definition under its entry for fiqh states: "understanding, comprehension; knowledge."  After that general definition comes the more technical and familiar "jurisprudence in Islam."

Why does this ostensibly academic point matter?  Because a people's epistemology — defined as "the nature and grounds of knowledge especially with reference to its limits and validity" — has, as opposed to that people's mere laws, a much greater if not profound impact on people's psyche.

By way of analogy, consider the Western mainstream.  Its epistemology — largely limited and defined by secularism; materialism; and, increasingly, an omnipresent media — has a much greater impact on the average Western person's understanding of the world, as opposed to the mere law, which remains secondary, an objective thing in the background.  One may acknowledge and try not to transgress it, but the law does not necessarily influence one's perception of reality.

Indeed, it is precisely because Western epistemology holds religion in little account that Western translators tend to understand the Arabic word fiqh as meaning "law."  (Newer Arabic-English dictionaries do not even acknowledge fiqh's etymology in "knowledge" and go straight to "jurisprudence").  The reason for this is obvious: it is easier for Western people — who, like all peoples, tend to project their values onto others — to believe that the Koran, Sunna, ijmāʿ, and qiyas are used only to establish Muslim law as opposed to establishing the very perimeters of Muslim thought and knowledge.

And yet, when we understand that these four are not just sources of the law, but rather sources of general knowledge — that, much more than merely establishing the "laws" of a Muslim society, the Koran, Sunna, etc. are meant to establish the Muslim's perceptions of reality — only then do the persistence and prominence of what is termed "radical Islam" make complete sense.

Incidentally, from here one also comes to understand why translating sharīʿa as "Islamic law" is insufficient.  The root, sharʿa, means "to go (into), to enter start something; to begin, start, commence."  Thus, the Muslim whose epistemology consists of the Koran, the Sunna, etc. "goes into" and "starts something" new — namely, life in the light of Islamic knowledge.  This is further underscored by the fact that, in pre-Islamic Arabia, centuries before "Islamic law" came into being, the word sharʿa was a reference to "the clear, well-trodden path to water" — that is, the way to life.  Only later did it take on the technical meaning of "Islamic law."

Notwithstanding, it needs to be stressed that epistemologies are not innate or genetic; all the above does not mean that the roots of knowledge for anyone born into or identifying with Islam are limited to its four acknowledged sources.  In other words, yes, a person can perceive himself as a Muslim yet see the world through, say, a Western epistemology.

But for those who treat the Koran, the Sunna, the consensus of their ulema, and analogical reasoning therefrom, as they are supposed to be treated — that is, as ultimate and divine sources of knowledge, intimately establishing their every perception of reality — such are and will continue to be the world's "radical Muslims."

Raymond Ibrahim, author of Sword and Scimitar, The Al Qaeda Reader, and Crucified Again, is a Shillman Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center, a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Gatestone Institute, and a Judith Rosen Friedman Fellow at the Middle East Forum.

Image: David Stanley via Flickr (cropped), CC BY 2.0.