Dawud ibn ‘Ali ibn Khalaf Dhahiri of Isfahan (d. 270/883) and ‘Ali ibn Ahmad Abu Muhammad ibn Hazm (d. 456/1064) were not Hanbalis but Dhahiris. Whether they were mujtahids (qualified to issue expert Islamic legal opinion) is debatable, not only for reasons I will discuss, but also because little that was written by Dawud al-Dhahiri has come down to us, and as for Ibn Hazm, if someone doesn’t even know about theSunan of al-Tirmidhi (d. 279/892) as it is well established that Ibn Hazm did not, I’m not sure that he can be considered a mujtahid.
What the Dhahiris are most famous for is their denial of all qiyas or analogy. It is recorded, for example, that Dawud held that the prohibition in hadith of urinating into a pool of water does not show that there is anything wrong with defecating in it; and it is also related that he believed the Qur’anic prohibition of saying “Uff” (in disgust) to one’s parents did not prove that it was wrong to beat them. These are two examples of denials of what is called an a fortiori analogy, or qiyas jaliyy. Denying the validity of a fortiori analogy is so obviously wrong, that Imam al-Juwayni (d. 478/1085) has said:
The position adopted by the most exacting of scholars is that those who deny analogy are not considered scholars of the Umma or conveyers of the Shari‘a, because they oppose out of mere obstinacy and exchange calumnies about things established by an overwhelming preponderence of the evidence, conveyed by whole groups from whole groups back to their prophetic origin (tawatur). For most of the Shari‘a proceeds from ijtihad, and the uniquivocal statements from the Qur’an and hadith do not deal [n: in specific particulars by name] with even a tenth of the Shari‘a [n: as most of Islamic life is covered by general principles given by Allah to guide Muslims in every culture and time, and by analogy (qiyas) from established rulings], so these [Dhahiris] are considered like unlearned, common people” (Dhahabi,Siyar a‘lam al-nubala’ [Beirut: Mu’assasa al-Risala, 1401/1984], 13.105).
From the latter paragraph, we can understand a main difference of Dhahiri thought from the four schools of Sunni Islam; namely, that it radically truncated the range and relevance of the Shari‘a to nothing more than those rulings established by the literal wording (dhahir) of hadiths or verses. And this is perhaps one reason today for renewed interest in the long-dead school, namely, that it frees people from having to learn and follow a large part of the Shari‘a, which is deduced from the general and comprehensive ethos revealed in the Qur’an and sunna.
After reflecting for a moment, you may have guessed what name Dhahiri literalism goes under today—though nothing justifies identifying the Islam of the salaf or ‘early Muslims’ with this sterile school of thought. Indeed, in classical scholarship, which was more precise, the term salafi meant a Muslim who died within four hundred years of the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace).
To put it more briefly, a great many of the “Salafi ijtihads” that we see today are not salafi (early Muslim) at all, but mere Dhahiri interpretations of hadiths. For example, a bearded-engineer type, after leading us at salat al-fajr prayer in Chicago a few months ago, told a latecomer to the first rak‘a (who had been finishing his sunna prayer when the iqama (call to commence) was made): “If the prescribed prayer begins, you don’t finish the sunna, but quit and join the group. Don’t listen to Abu Hanifa, or Malik, or Shafi‘i; the hadith is clear: ‘There is no prayer after the iqama except the prescribed one.’”
Now, the dhahir or ‘literal meaning’ of the hadith was as he said, but the Imams of Shari‘a have not understood it this way for the very good reason that Allah says in the Qur’an , “And do not nullify your works” (Qur’an 47:33), and to simply quit an act of worship (e.g. the sunna rak‘as before fajr) is precisely to nullify one of one’s works.
Scholars rather understand the hadith to mean that one may not begin a sunna (or other nafila) prayer after the call to commence (iqama) is given. And this is very usual in human language: to use a general expression, in this case “There is no prayer” to mean a specific part or aspect of it; namely, “There is no initiating a prayer.” Consider how the Qur’an says, “Ask the village we were in, and the caravan that we came with” (Qur’an 12:82), where the literal meaning (dhahir) of village and caravan; namely, the assemblage of stone huts and the string of pack animals, are not things that can be asked—but rather a specific aspect or part of them is intended; that is, the people of the village and the people of the caravan, or rather, just some of them. There are many similar expressions in every language, “Put the tea on the stove,” for example, not meaning to heap the dried leaves on the stove, but rather to put them in a pot, add water, and light the stove, and so on. It is all the more surprising that anyone, Dhahiri or otherwise, could have ever imagined that Arabic, with its incomparable richness in figures of speech, could be so impoverished as to lack this basic expressive faculty.
When we consider the important scholars of the early period of the Companions (Sahaba) and those after them, we simply do not find this Dhahiri methodology had any currency among them. It is hence difficult to see why we should accept it as “a return to the way of the early Muslims (Salaf),” much less to “the Qur’an and sunna.” Especially when we consider that the earliest generations after the Companions (Sahaba) did not leave the task of issuing fatwa to the commonality of Muslims (saying, “the hadith is clear, and it says . . .”), but rather tended to choose one scholar in each main city to decide legal questions, in deference to the Qur’anic imperative,
“Had they referred it to the Messenger and to those of authority among them, those of them whose task it is to find it out would have known the matter” (Qur’an 4:83),
where “those of them whose task it is to find it out (yastanbitunahu),” as I will discuss below, refers to those possessing the capacity to draw inferences by ijtihad from the texts of the Qur’an and sunna, which is called in Arabic istinbat. This is how the Companions (Sahaba) understood the verse, for Usama ibn Zayd [al-Laythi] (d. 153/770) relates from Safwan ibn Sulayyim (d. 132/750) that “no one [of the Companions] gave legal opinion (fatwa) in the mosque at the time of the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) other than these: ‘Umar [ibn al-Khattab], ‘Ali [ibn Abi Talib], Mu‘adh [ibn Jabal], and Abu Musa [al-Ash‘ari]” (Dhahabi, Siyar a‘lam al-nubala’ [Beirut: Mu’assasa al-Risala, 1401/1984], 2.389).
Finally, if the poverty of Dhahiri interpretation is plain enough in fiqh, in ‘aqida, is can amount to outright kufr, as when someone reads the Qur’anic verse,
“Today We forget you as you have forgotten this day of yours” (Qur’an 45:34),
and affirms that Allah forgets, which is an imperfection, and not permissible to affirm of Allah. Of this sort of literalism, Dawud al-Dhahiri and Ibn Hazm were innocent. (“Forgetting” in this verse rather means to abandon the unbelievers to their chastisement, as we shall see below.)
Ibn Hazm criticized Ash‘arism on the basis of what had reached him about it, though to read his main work on tenets of faith, the five-volume al-Fisal bayn al-milal wa nihal [Distinction between religions and sects] (Beirut: Dar al-Jil, n.d.) one finds that he was an Ash‘ari on tenets of faith (‘aqida) in everything but name, with the exception of one question, which was that he believed that Allah’s omnipotence related not only to creating the possible (al-mumkin) but to the impossible as well. He is reported to have said, “If Allah had wanted, He could have begotten a son,” which conflicts with the Ash‘ari position that the inherently impossible, such as this, or such as “creating a square circle” are mere verbal absurdities, and not relevant to the divine attribute of omnipotence, such that it could be asked whether or not Allah could create them.
As for Dawud al-Dhahiri, little in his biographical literature indicates deviant positions on tenets of faith (‘aqida). Although he was accused of believing in the createdness of the Qur’an , it turns out to have been the same as the position of Bukhari and others: that our writing and voicing of the Qur’an are created, and that Allah’s attribute speech is beginninglessly eternal.
© Nuh Ha Mim Keller 1995