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The History of Usul al-Fiqh

Shazim Krishingee is a second year student at the Al-Mahdi Institute and holds a Diploma in Economics and a BSc in Management.  He also studied in the hawza of Qum.

The original meaning of fiqh in Arabic grammar is the understanding and knowledge of something.  The term fiqh was originally used by Arabs for telling the pregnancy of camels. A person who could distinguish the she-camels that were in heat from those that are pregnant, in this way it meant that a person had deep understanding of a particular field (a)1. The Qur'an has used the word fiqh in its general sense of   "understanding" in more than one place. The Qur'anic verse:

"And it does not beseem the believers that they should go forth all together. Why should not then a company from every party from amongst them go forth that they may apply themselves to obtain understanding in religion, and that they may warm their people when they come back to them that they be cautious?"  (b)2

The Qur'anic words, "that they may gain understanding in religion," show that in the Prophet's (s.a.w.) time the term fiqh was not applied in the legal sense alone, rather it carried a wider meaning encompassing all aspects of Islam such as the theological, political, economic, social and legal. (c)1
It is the same meaning that the Prophet (s.a.w.) gave to the term fiqh, this can be seen in one of the many ahadith by the Prophet (s.a.w.): "To whom so ever Allah wishes good, he gives the fiqh (true understanding) of religion".
However as time elapsed the usage of the term fiqh was gradually narrowed and ultimately began to be applied to legal problems. Therefore fiqh in modern terminology would mean laws, or in other words, fiqh is the detailed rules of Islamic Law and its various branches. (d)2

Usul on the other hand, according to both modern and classical Arabic dictionaries means "principles", "fundamentals", "rudiments" or "elements" of a particular thing. Putting both these meanings together would therefore mean the principles of jurisprudence of Islamic Law. Usul al -fiqh in other words would be the systematisation of the methods used for resolving ambiguity in, and deriving judgements from, the two-fold source of Qur'an and Sunna, a form of methodology for deriving Islamic Law (e)3. This however would be a shallow, vague and pre-empted view of usul al- fiqh. Before we can say what usul al- fiqh exactly is, we must understand what are the fundamentals of fiqh, what constitutes fiqh, what are its sources, what