Tuesday, March 17, 2015

A Brief History: The Exegesis of the Legislative Verses of the Qur’an

The exegesis of the legislative verses of the Qur’an, ayat al-ahkam
(Emergence and Development)
By: Dr. Abdullah bin Said al-Mamari

The exegesis of the legislative verses of the Qur’an, ayat al-ahkam, is the science of providing, in a separate book, the meanings of the verses that contain practical teachings of the Shari’ah concerning rites, behaviour, and personal status alongside the other sciences of the Qur’an relevant to those verses. Some writers, such as Muhammad al-Dhahabi and Manna‘ al-Qattan, call this procedure the jurists’ interpretation or the interpretation of jurisprudence. This kind of interpretation dates back to the era of the Prophet. Many Hadiths of the Prophet, both verbal and practical, are explanations of the ayat al-ahkam. Indeed, the Prophet’s Sunnah, as stated by Imam al-Shafi’i, provides a detailed explanation of the Qur’an. It is also confirmed that one of the Prophet’s Companions asked him for the meaning of the verse about Prayer for travellers, because he understood it to be applicable only to a situation where one would be vulnerable to attack: “When you travel through the earth, there is no blame on you if you shorten your prayers, for fear the unbelievers might attack you” (Surat al-Nisa’, 4:101). The Prophet said to him: “It is a gift that Allah has given to you, so accept His gift.”

          Because the Qur’an is the main source of legislation, the Companions used it as the basis of most of their fatwa (legal rulings). During the life of the Prophet, the Companions used to refer their queries to him, as shown by the above example. However, when the Prophet’s interpretation was not available, the Companions had to work out the meaning themselves. Therefore, each opinion, based on an individual understanding of the verse in question, was an interpretation per se. Al-Rabi‘ ibn Habib, al-Bukhari and Muslim narrate in a sound Hadith that Ibn ‘Abbas said:
Abu Salamah ibn ‘Abd al-Rahman and I disagreed on the case of a pregnant woman who gave birth a few days after the death of her husband. I said that she should wait until the end of the longer of the two ‘iddahs. Abu Salamah ibn ‘Abd al-Rahman said that she was free [to marry] after giving birth. Abu Hurayrah joined us later, and when he was asked, he said; “I agree with Abu Salamah.” We sent Kurayb, Mawla ibn ‘Abbas, to Umm Salamah to ask her. She said: “Subay‘ah al-Aslamiyyah gave birth a few days after her husband had passed away. When I mentioned that to the Prophet, he said: ‘She is free’, that is, to marry.”

          This narration demonstrates that the Companions interpreted the Qur’an to provide the legal ruling on ‘iddah. It is also clear that they were divided into two groups. One group, who decided that the pregnant widow should wait until the end of the longer of the two ‘iddahs, based their view on the two pieces of evidence available concerning this legal question. There is a rule that, whenever possible, all the relevant evidence available must be considered and none of it should be ignored. The legal rulings are not regarded as conflicting because their source is one, that is, Allah.1 The verse in which Allah says: “If any of you [men] die and leave widows behind, they shall wait four months and ten days” (Surat al-Baqarah, 2:234) is a general ruling about any woman whose husband has passed away, whether or not she is pregnant and whether or not the marriage has been consummated. According to this verse, any woman in this category must wait for four months and ten days before remarrying. In another verse, Allah says: “For those who carry babies in their wombs [that is, pregnant], their waiting period is until they deliver their burdens” (Surat al-Talaq 65:4). This verse also provides a general ruling that any pregnant woman, whether divorced or widowed, must consider herself unavailable for remarriage until she has given birth. Now there appears to be a contradiction in the juristic rulings regarding the pregnant widow. Therefore, to avoid this situation and to put both rulings into practice, some jurists calculate which ‘iddah is longer, the four months and ten days or the period until the woman gives birth. Here, the pregnant widow waits for the longer period. In so doing, she applies both rulings.2

          The other group of Companions believed that the verse in Surat al-Talaq (65:4) described the specific application of the general ruling found in Surat al-Baqarah (2:234). According to the legal principle, the specific ruling carries greater weight than the general ruling. Therefore, when there are two pieces of evidence, one general and the other specific, the specific evidence should be applied because it is more relevant to the case in question. Here, Surat al-Baqarah (2:234) provides a general ruling about any woman whose husband has passed away, whether or not she is pregnant. On the other hand, Surat al-Talaq refers only to the pregnant woman, and so this specific reference carries greater weight. Therefore, the verse in al-Talaq excludes the ruling applied to the pregnant woman from the verse in Surat al-Baqarah, the latter now becoming specific to the non-pregnant widow/ divorcee unless another ruling excludes it. The Prophet’s tradition provides that excluding ruling in the narration of Subay‘ah al-Aslamiyyah, discussed above.

          However, some Companions considered Subay‘ah’s Hadith to be specific to her, and therefore, the ruling concerning her ‘iddah could not be applied to another woman, even if the two cases were similar. This argument was not accepted by the rest of the Companions. According to Ahmad al-Khalili, the validity of this narration can be shown from four aspects as follows:
1.     Originally, the rulings of the Shari’ah were not specific. Anyone asserting that a particular ruling is specific must prove that argument. Regarding Subay‘ah’s case, there is no evidence to support the argument that the ruling was specific to her.

2.     This Hadith is evidence that contradicts the group of Companions who said that the ‘iddah is the longest period, because Umm Salamah, who reported it, knew that it was not specific to Subay‘ah.

3.     It was mentioned in the tradition cited by al-Nasa’i that the Prophet, after explaining the ruling to Umm Salamah, recited the verse to her.

4.     Some traditions mention that the Prophet explicitly stated that the ruling was general.
Therefore, Subay‘ah’s Hadith interpreted the verse in Surat al-Baqarah as specific.

          This discussion shows that the Companions explained the verses containing juristic rulings when asked to do so by the people, though also when they themselves studied these verses during their meetings. Sometimes, it was necessary to provide a judgment on civil cases covered by these rulings, as was required by the Caliphs Abu Bakr and ‘Umar. At that time, there was no codified law on a particular case, nor was there a complete codification of the various ruling. The Companions depended on their sound knowledge of the Arabic lexis and their deep understanding of jurisprudence, even though that was not yet codified.

          Some of the terminology used by the Companions was changed later as a result of developments in the Islamic disciplines, which have continued throughout the history of Islam. For instance, in the case of the ‘iddah, Ibn Mas‘ud used the term “abrogation” to refer to what was later known as “specification”. He said: “The small Surat al-Nisa’ [that is, Surat al-Talaq] abrogated the big Surat al-Nisa’ [that is, Surat al-Baqarah].” Many scholars, including Ibn al-’Arabi, ‘state that it is specification rather than abrogation that should be concluded from these two verses.

          This discussion also proves that the Companions were skillful in collecting the various pieces of evidence, deciding which was the strongest, and choosing the most relevant whether the source was the Qur’an or the Prophet’s Sunnah. This practice is regarded as one of the most difficult of the Islamic disciplines. The discussion also tells us that because the Companions were familiar with the occasions on which the Qur’an was revealed and the cases on which the traditions were based, they were able to develop a deep understanding of the text of the Qur’an and the Sunnah. For instance, their familiarity with the story of Subay‘ah al-Aslamiyyah helped them to understand that the ruling concerning pregnant women in the ‘iddah verse was not specific to divorced women but also included widows. This does not mean that all the Companions knew everything about the juristic rulings. There was variation in the Companions’ level of knowledge, as can be understood from the tradition analysed above, which is reflected in their personal views. These differences are healthy and natural in Islamic jurisprudence, for throughout the history of Islam, jurists have differed in their intellectual abilities, practical skills, knowledge and views.

1 For example, the ruling derived from Surat al-Nisa' (4:82).
2 For instance, if the widow has just completed two months of her pregnancy when her husband dies, then she waits until she has given birth, the remaining seven months of pregnancy being longer than the four months and ten days. By waiting for seven months, she combines both rulings. On the other hand, if the widow has just reached the seventh month of her pregnancy, then she must apply the ruling of four months and ten days because that is the longer ‘iddah. If she waits only until she gives birth, that period of two months is not sufficient to fulfil the required ‘iddah.

Tarawih Magazine (Ramadan 1431/August 2010), by Ministry of Endowment and Islamic Affairs, page: 15-18.

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