Shia Jurisprudence: a brief introduction

Roughly since the tenth century, Shi jurisprudence has had a rich history of literature and dialogue from either an educational standpoint or a critical one. Regardless of one’s approach, there are three rudimentary components one should understand, as well as two books worth reading to better equip oneself before engaging in such a topic. The two pieces of literature are, Abdulaziz Sachedina’s The Shi concept of the “Authority of the Jurist”: in theory and in practice and Chibli Mallat’s The renewal of Islamic Law: Muhammad Baqer as-Sadr, Najaf and the Shi’i International. And the three questions, (which will be answered in this paper) are, what features of Shi theological-judicial traditions appear to be central in the development of Shi jurisprudence? Who will assume the adjudicating role for the Shi ummah[1] following the occultation of the twelfth Imam, and who will give them such authority? And how have these individual’s in power made their judicial decisions?

The purpose of this paper is merely to introduce the reader to the conversation of Shia jurisprudence. Therefore, one must not expect an exhaustive discussion of all the nuances and arguments surrounding such a topic. Instead, this paper will lay the foundation for those who seek to find a starting point on a topic that has been discussed in great lengths for over ten centuries.


In Shia Islam, the Imam’s are the grandchildren, and the subsequent lineage, of the Prophet Muhammad, beginning with the prophet’s son-in-law/cousin and the first Imam, Ali, who married Muhammad’s daughter, Fatimeh. Ali and Fatimeh had two sons, Hasan and Housain, who were the second and third Imam’s respectfully. This line of succession continued until the twelfth Imam, Mehdi, who has been in occultation since 941 CE. Because of their lineage to the prophet, the twelve Imams are believed to have been infallible, which has given them certain inalienable rights. For one, they were able to govern over their followers with full authority and hold executive power over all branches of Islam (religious, political, social, ethical, civil, and so on). They also had the “sole right to political authority in a Shia public order” (Sachedina, 300). Furthermore, they had full military authority, for example “…only the Imam as the head of Islamic polity could initiate war against non-believers…” (300). Painting this backdrop is critical because many scholars, including Sachedina and Mallat, believe that Shia jurisprudence sits on the shoulders of the twelve Imams, thus making the teachings of the Imams a central feature in Shia jurisprudence.

Sources of Shia Jurisprudence

With this in mind however, if one is to recognize the Imams as the key contributors in the development of Shia jurisprudence, the Hadith (the words and deeds of Muhammad compiled in four books in the Shia tradition) and the Quran (the words of God) cannot be overlooked in this equation because one source (the Imams) would have little-to-no validity or impact without its predecessor (the Hadith, and of course prior to that, the Quran). Sachedina makes this clear on page 288 when he states that the “delegation of the Imam’s authority in the form of deputyship was necessary in the performance of a number of religious duties covered under the religious-moral obligations derived on the authority of the revelation.” On the other hand however, because of the Imams infallibility there was no need for usul al-fiqh[2] because the “Imams were still capable of decreeing the proper law to follow without any help from methodological construction” (Mallat, 29). Thus an interesting relationship is molded where Shia jurisprudence has much of a linkage to the Quran and Hadith as it does to the Imams.

Authority of the Jurist

Nevertheless, when Imam Mehdi went into greater occultation in 941 CE the main concern of the Shia community was who will assume the leadership role of the Shia ummah. It is at this critical juncture where the tradition of the Imams begins to develop Shia jurisprudence. One critical note to keep in mind is that Imam Mehdi did not designate “any specific individual to function as his deputy during” his absence (Sachedina, 294). Therefore, if jurists were to assume this position that would invite criticism and skepticism for the sheer fact that they were not the Imam and of course fallible. Sachedina explains how the jurists dealt with this danger:

This danger was perceived by the jurists, who took upon themselves to produce a coherent response to this situation in their works of jurisprudence in which the Imamite doctrine that the Imam is the only Just Ruler was asserted. Pending the return of the Hidden Imam [Mehdi], the possibility of absolute claim to political power and religious authority resembling that of the Imam himself was ruled out. Nevertheless, the rational need to exercise authority in order to manage the affairs of the community was recognized and authoritatively legalized. Consequently, the duty of guiding the community was undertaken by the qualified Shia jurists who, according to the Shia belief, became the leaders of the community through a general designation of the Hidden Imam. (295)

As the jurists appear to have established a foundation for their judicial practices, the next question is, on whose authority do jurists have the power to bear such responsibility? Mallat answers this question when he draws support from Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr who argued for the legitimacy of the Islamic State as well as the ulama’s (jurists or a functional imam, the leader of the Shia community after the twelfth Imam) position in it from the Quran (5:44).

إِنَّا أَنزَلْنَا التَّوْرَاةَ فِيهَا هُدًى وَنُورٌ يَحْكُمُ بِهَا النَّبِيُّونَ الَّذِينَ أَسْلَمُواْ لِلَّذِينَ هَادُواْ وَالرَّبَّانِيُّونَ وَالأَحْبَارُ بِمَا اسْتُحْفِظُواْ مِن كِتَابِ اللّهِ وَكَانُواْ عَلَيْهِ شُهَدَاء فَلاَ تَخْشَوُاْ النَّاسَ وَاخْشَوْنِ وَلاَ تَشْتَرُواْ بِآيَاتِي ثَمَنًا قَلِيلاً وَمَن لَّمْ يَحْكُم بِمَا أَنزَلَ اللّهُ فَأُوْلَـئِكَ هُمُ الْكَافِرُونَ.

It was We who revealed the law (to Moses): therein was guidance and light. By its standard have been judged the Jews, by the prophets who bowed (as in Islam) to Allah’s will, by the rabbis and the doctors of law: for to them was entrusted the protection of Allah’s book, and they were witnesses thereto: therefore fear not men, but fear me, and sell not my signs for a miserable price. If any do fail to judge by (the light of) what Allah hath revealed, they are (no better than) Unbelievers.

Although Sadr’s interpretation of this passage is from a Shia perspective, he makes an interesting connection between the three levels of authority. The first line of authority is the Prophet, the second is the Imam’s (which he interpreted from the Rabbis) and the third is the jurists (which he understood to be the Doctors of Law). Sadr’s interpretation makes for a compelling argument in support of the jurists holding power in the absence of the Imam.

Practical Perspective

With an understanding of the sources that are central in the development of Shia jurisprudence, as well as the authority on which jurists are designated to continue the judicial processes, we now attempt to answer the question, how have the jurists made judicial decisions? Before answering this question however, there is a passage from Sachedina worth mentioning here which contextualizes the dichotomy that confronts jurists who attempt to practice their profession.

The idea that the Shia jurist-theologian can assume the all comprehensive authority […] accrues to the theological Imam in the Twelver Shia state […] an innovation of sorts which deviates from the fundamental aspects of the doctrine of Imamate. The innovation appears to be in the extension of the Imam’s authority to a Shia jurist-theologian. (287)

This dichotomy presented by Sachedina is fascinating because on the one hand there are the jurists who could not claim absolute political and religious authority and on the other hand there is an absence of the Imam (the last just ruler on Earth). This absence left a void that needed to be filled, thus allowing the jurists to exercise some sort of authority “in order to manage the affairs of the community [which included] preservation of social order, collection of religiously ordained taxes like zakat and khums, and administration of justice” (287, 300-301). Sachedina goes on to elaborate even further on the jurist’s authority:

The jurists regarded deputyship as a sort of trust on behalf of the Hidden Imam, making it legally permissible for any of them to act as a trustee of the Imam among his followers, to undertake all those functions that the Imam as the head of the community was entitled to undertake himself, or would have delegated to someone qualified to represent him (this being the deputies). The underlying juridical principle in this legitimation process was the rationally derived rule about the general interest of the community that authorized the jurists to undertake functions of political nature as functional imams. (302)

Thus, the traditions, teachings, examples from, and information about the Imams acted as a guide for the jurists’ own decision making processees, as well as a validation for how and in what capacity the jurists can assume the role and responsibility of adjudicators in Shia Islam. Even though this paper only scratches the surface of what is a very compelling topic, it is, nonetheless, critical to understand these few components of Shia jurisprudence before fully immersing oneself in this conversation.

[1] Ummah is a term used to identify the community (whether it is a nation or a small local community) within which Muslim’s reside.

[2] Usul al-fiqh is the study of the sources of Islamic jurisprudence by Islamic theologians.


One thought on “Shia Jurisprudence: a brief introduction

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