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Abū Zahrah, Muḥammad

By:
Junaid Quadri
Source:
The [Oxford] Encyclopedia of Islam and Law What is This? An English-language legal reference for scholars of Islamic studies and Western engaged readers presenting the history and development of Islamic Law.

Abū Zahrah, Muḥammad

Muḥammad Abū Zahrah (1898–1974) was an Egyptian scholar of the Shariah and a biographer of the imams of juristic schools (madhāhib). Abū Zahrah was born to a prominent family in the industrial town of al-Maḥallah al-Kubra in the Egyptian delta. His early studies at a local kuttāb (elementary school) and at home with his mother resulted in him memorizing the Qurʾan by the age of nine. In 1913 he was sent to the regional Azhar institute, al-Maʿhad al-Aḥmadī, attached to the famous mosque in Ṭanṭā that houses the tomb of the saint Aḥmad al-Badawī. Upon showing signs of promise there, he elected to move in 1916 to the short-lived College of Shariah Judges (Madrasat al-qaḍāʾ al-sharʿī). Established only nine years prior to Abū Zahrah’s enrollment, its doors would already be closed by the time he graduated in 1925. He went on to train as a lawyer for a year before enrolling at the Dār al-ʿUlūm in Cairo for a second diploma. In 1927 he embarked upon a teaching career which took him to the preparatory school of the Dār al-ʿUlūm, and in secondary schools in Cairo and Suhāg, before landing him prominent teaching positions at al-Azhar (1933) and the Faculty of Law at Cairo University (1934).

Much of Abū Zahrah’s intellectual output in the field of law was characterized by a desire to rethink traditional legal writing, and especially to recast it in new forms for a modern audience. This included his production of works of tanẓīr (abstraction), in this case meaning the gathering together of related concepts, principles, and rulings historically scattered throughout works of fiqh and reassembling them into thematic monographs. These include his work on legal capacity, obligation, ownership and contracts, and criminal law.

This interest also manifested itself in his support for the project of rendering pre-modern fiqh in the form of legal codes. On the grounds that refraining from doing so would see Islamic law marginalized in Egypt, and supplanted by foreign codes, Abū Zahrah supported the codification of the Egyptian legal system on the pattern initiated by the Mecelle in the late Ottoman Empire, and the codes of Qadrī Pasha in Egypt. Indeed, he participated in some of this work in the field of personal status and encouraged authorities to continue along this path in other of his writings.

ʿUthman Shabbīr has called Abū Zahrah’s approach salafī because of both his insistence on revisiting the findings of fiqh through careful analyses of original texts, and his comparativist and remarkably ecumenical approach to analyzing each of the Islamic schools of jurisprudence.

As a result of the former, he encouraged original analysis of modern issues. Often, this resulted in a conservative reaffirmation of conventional fiqh positions, as in the case of his opposition to restricting polygamy and a man’s right to unilateral divorce, as well as his prohibition of commercial insurance and interest on bank deposits. However, in some cases his approach led to interesting rereadings, including his insistence that the diyah (blood-money penalty) for a woman was equal to that of a man.

His comparativist bent is evident in both his numerous writings on substantive law in which he makes use of a wide variety of sources from the Muslim tradition, including Shiite and non-canonical Sunni schools, as well as in his work on legal theory as evidenced by his collected lectures on Jaʿfarī uṣūl al-fiqh. This emphasis also spilled over into his biographical works, a popular series of biographies on the major imams of the juristic schools: including the four canonical Sunni imams; the eponyms of the Shiite schools Jaʿfar al-Ṣādiq and Zayd b. ʿAlī; as well as Ibn Ḥazm, Ibn Taymiyyah, and Ibn Khaldun.

Bibliography

  • Abu Zahrah, Muhammad. The Four Imams: Their Lives, Works and Their Schools of Thought. London: Dar Al-Taqwa, 2001. A selective compilation of Abū Zahrah’s biographical works which focuses only on the four canonical Sunnī imams.
  • Shabbīr, Muḥammad ʿUthmān. Muḥammad Abū Zahrah: Imām al-Fuqahāʾ al-Muʿāṣirīn wa-l-Mudāfiʿ al-Jarīʾ ʿan Ḥaqāʾiq al-Dīn. Damascus: Dār al-Qalam, 2006. A thorough discussion of Abū Zahrah’s life and major contributions.
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