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New York University Press

Epistle on Legal Theory: Al-Shafii's Risalah

Joseph E. Lowry (tr.)




The Risalah is the oldest surviving Arabic work on Islamic legal theory and a foundational document of Islamic jurisprudence. Its author, Muhammad Ibn Idris al-Shafi’i (d. 204 H/ 820 AD), was the eponym of the Shafi’i school of legal thought, one of the four in Sunni Islam. This work offers the first systematic treatment in Arabic of key issues in Islamic legal thought. These include a survey of the importance of Arabic as the language of revelation, principles of textual interpretation to be applied to the Qur’an and prophetic traditions, techniques for harmonising apparently contradictory precedents, legal epistemology, rules of inference, and discussions of when legal interpretation is required. The author illustrates his theoretical claims with numerous examples drawn from nearly all areas of Islamic law, including ritual law, commercial law, tort law, and criminal law. The text thus provides an important window into both Islamic law and legal thought in particular and early Islamic intellectual history in general.