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Zaydī Madhhab

By:
Bernard Haykel, Jonathan AC Brown
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.

Zaydī Madhhab

The Zaydīs are a sect of Shiʿite Islam that takes its name from Zayd b. ʿAlī (d. 740), a great-great-grandson of the Prophet Muḥammad and a leading member of the Family of the Prophet in the mid-eighth century. Zayd led an abortive revolt in Kufa against Umayyad rule in 740 and died a martyr when it failed. His political example, as a rebel against unjust rule, has remained a cornerstone of Zaydi self-definition. On questions of law, the most significant repository of his learning is the work known as the Majmūʿ of Zayd b. ʿAlī. It has been claimed by Zaydīs, and some Western scholars, to be the earliest work of Islamic law. Zayd’s authorship, however, is a disputed matter. Wilferd Madelung, for example, has argued that it represents the early Kufan legal tradition and that Zayd is unlikely to have had a significant part in it.

Throughout the ages, very few Zaydīs have claimed to be followers of Zayd on questions of law. Rather, the Zaydī tradition has spawned several legal schools, each of them tracing its origin to an individual imam in the tradition. Of these imams, those with the most significant historical following were the Medinan descendent of the Prophet (via his grandson al-Ḥasan) al-Qāsim b. Ibrāhīm (d. 860); his grandson Yaḥyā b. al-Ḥusayn, known as al-Hādī ilā al-Ḥaqq (The Guide to Truth) and the founder of the Zaydī state in Yemen; and al-Nāṣir al-Ḥasan b. ʿAli al-Uṭrūsh (d. 917), the leading imam of the Zaydī community that settled in the mountains on the southern shore of the Caspian.

Zayd’s unimportance as a legal eponym has generated much controversy within Zaydī circles, as well as polemics with non-Zaydīs, about what specifically defines Zaydism. The classical response of the Zaydīs has been to state that Zaydism is defined by a commitment to a set of theological and political beliefs, and they have downplayed the importance of law. Furthermore, they have justified the diversity in legal opinions that characterizes their schools by stating that their imams, as mujtahids (independent jurists), are all correct in their views. This is known as the doctrine of infallibilism (taṣwīb), and it has played a major role in resolving tensions arising from the differences of opinion within the sect.

The Zaydīs have survived into modern times in the northern highlands of Yemen, where the legal school of al-Hādī Yaḥyā, the founder of the first Zaydī state in Arabia, has dominated under the name of al-Hādawiyyah. Al-Hādī’s most important legal text is the Kitāb al-Aḥkām, but his views were set in canonical fashion by Aḥmad b. Yaḥyā al-Murtaḍā (d. 1436) in his Kitāb al-Azhar. The latter remains the standard work of reference for Zaydī law in Yemen.

In the legal tradition that emerged around al-Hādī’s teachings it became commonplace to recognize three ranks of legal activity. The first consists of the explicit statements of the eponymic imams (aṣḥāb al-nuṣūṣ), for example al-Hādī Yaḥyā for the Hādawiyyah school. The second rank, that of the so-called muḥaṣṣilūn, is occupied by those who sifted and clarified these statements and articulated the principles upon which the imam’s decisions rested, a process that is sometimes referred to as takhrīj. The third rank is that of the mudhākirūn, who apply these principles to new cases. To the extent that the Zaydī madhhab in Yemen was identical with the elaboration of the teachings of al-Hādī by many generations of scholars, it had come to acquire an impersonal character. With its loss of a strong association with an eponymous founder, the followers of the school were challenged to provide a satisfactory theoretical explanation of how adherence to the madhhab constituted actual emulation (taqlīd) of an authoritative founder.

In the fifteenth century, at the time that Kitāb al-Azhar was written, the Zaydī school came under attack from internal critics who rejected the fundamental principles of the existing legal schools, including their own. The first scholar in this anti-madhhab tradition was Muḥammad b. Ibrāhīm al-Wazīr (d. 1436), and perhaps the most famous in this lineage is Muḥammad b. ʿAlī al-Shawkānī (d. 1834). Given that the theory of taqlīd would require reliance on a mujtahid, one of the most troubling questions that emerged from the attack of the anti-madhhabists was where precisely in the complex scholastic tradition that emerged around al-Hādī’s doctrine his followers could find the requisite authority on which to base their taqlīd. The solution the anti-madhhabists proffered was a total rejection of taqlīd, and with it the whole madhhab structure, to be replaced by a reliance on the perpetual practice of ijtihād (independent legal derivation and judgment). By this they intended a constant referral and citation by qualified scholars of revelatory texts, especially the canonical Sunnī ḥadīth collections, when elaborating legal opinions. The legal methodology of these anti-madhhabists is the strict constructionism of the early Sunnī Traditionists (ahl al-ḥadīth), which in contemporary times is associated with the Salafī school of thought.

In terms of its substantive law, it has been argued that the Zaydī tradition does not differ greatly from Sunnī schools. It is often compared to the Ḥanafī school, which also emerged from the Kufan milieu. Like Imāmī Shiʿites (and Sunnī Mālikīs), Zaydīs pray with their arms at their sides. Also like Imāmī Shiʿites, they include the phrase “Come to the best of deeds (ḥaya ʿalā khayr al-ʿamal)” in the call to prayer. The most distinct legal features in the Zaydī tradition stem from the Zaydī conception of the caliphate/imamate, which sees only just rulers as legitimate. Friday prayers held in a state not ruled by such a person, for example, are considered invalid by many traditional Zaydī authorities.

In the eighteenth century, the Zaydī state dominated most of geographical Yemen and was headed by the imams of the House of Qāsim. These sought to establish dynastic and patrimonial forms of rule, which clashed directly with the traditional Zaydī political doctrine that only persons fulfilling strict scholarly, physical, and ethical qualifications could become imams. A convergence of interests arose between the Qāsimid rulers and the anti-madhhabist jurists, and this was concretized when al-Shawkānī assumed the post of Chief Judge from 1795 until 1834. In return for state patronage, al-Shawkānī developed a Sunnī-oriented legal and ideological framework that legitimized Qāsimid rule. In this period the majority of the state’s subjects were actually Sunnī Muslims following the Shāfiʿī rite. These found favor under, and would identify with, al-Shawkānī’s Sunnī teachings.

In the twentieth century, the Zaydī state was reconstituted under the Hamīd al-Dīn imams (r. 1918–1962) after the defeat of the Ottomans in World War I. These imams perpetuated the forms of rule established by the Qāsimids while maintaining the Hādawiyyah madhhab as the official school of law. A process of legal codification, influenced by Ottoman reforms as well as traditional imamic “choices” (ikhtiyārāt), was initiated by the Hamīd al-Dīn imams, but it remained unaccomplished in 1962 when the dynasty was overthrown by republican revolutionaries. The modern Republic of Yemen has codified its laws but did so primarily on the basis of Egyptian codes and processes. Officially, Zaydism is one of the recognized schools of law in Yemen, but de facto the state has decided to abandon its doctrines and rulings, which are applied ever more infrequently by an aging generation of judges who were trained in its legal manuals.

Bibliography

  • Haykel, Bernard. Revival and Reform in Islam: The Legacy of Muhammad al-Shawkānī. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2003.
  • Haykel, Bernard, and Aron Zysow. “What Makes a Madhab a Madhab: Zaydi Debates on the Structure of Legal Authority.” Arabica 59 (2012).
  • Madelung, Wilferd. Der Imam al-Qāsim ibn Ibrāhīm und die Glaubenslehre der Zaiditen. Berlin: Walter De Gruyter, 1965.
  • Messick, Brinkley. The Calligraphic State: Textual Domination and History in a Muslim Society. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993.
  • Würth, Anna. Aš-Šarīʿa fī Bāb al-Yaman: Recht, Richter und Rechtspraxis an der familienrechtlichen Kammer des Gerichts Süd-Sanaa, (Republik Jemen) 1983–1995. Berlin: Duncker & Humblot, 2000.
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