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Albānī, Muḥammad Nāṣir al-Dīn al-

By:
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.

Albānī, Muḥammad Nāṣir al-Dīn al-

Muḥammad Nāṣir al-Dīn al-Albānī (1914–1999) was one of the most influential scholars of ḥadīth in the twentieth century and the most important propagator of the anti-madhhab Salafī school. Al-Albānī moved from Albania to Damascus with his family as a child, and his father became a leading Ḥanafī scholar in the Albanian Muslim community in Syria. From a young age al-Albānī disagreed with his father and the Albanian Ḥanafī community. He rejected an allegiance to the Ḥanafī school of law and instead advocated a strict adherence to the Qurʾān and sunnah. His scholarly career was full of tug-of-war battles with traditional jurists over the validity of following a madhhab and particular principles of Islamic legal theory. Although best known for his voluminous and sometimes controversial writings on ḥadīth (his decision to divide the Four Sunan into weak and sound ḥadīths and his assertion that scholars could criticize ḥadīths found in the illustrious Ṣaḥīḥayn are but two examples), al-Albānī’s legal scholarship was equally salient and controversial. Its primary feature was a resilient anti-madhhab campaign.

For al-Albānī the use of reason and anything but the text (naṣṣ) of the Qurʾān, ḥadīths, and understanding of the Prophet’s Companions must be banned from the legal process at all costs. Following the Qurʾān and sunnah according to the methodology of the salaf dispenses with the need to follow a madhhab or unquestioningly conform to the authority (taqlīd) of scholars, whether the great scholars of the past or senior contemporary ones. Ḥadīths must be placed at the heart of the process of finding legal answers not given in the Qurʾān. Although al-Albānī uses certain legal principles, such as qiyās, and ʿāmm wa khāṣṣ, he insists that these legal principles must be directly drawn from the Qurʾān and ḥadīths. He often accused those who adhere to the madhhabs of having legal principles that have no basis in scripture and preferring them over clear texts. The intellect, independent of the primary texts, has no role to play in determining law and can only be used to passively understand what the law is. He assumed that the opinions of the madhhabs or scholars are not based on the Qurʾān and sunnah because they also include reason-based arguments rather than an exclusive emphasis on scriptural authority. Hence, he discards every fiqh opinion that does not conform to the “clear” meanings found in the Qurʾān and sunnah. That is why he consistently promoted Salafism as “authentic” and “correct” Islam.

Muslim jurists had developed and utilized a wide range of hermeneutic tools for mining legal answers from the Qurʾān and ḥadīths, and they elaborated rational tools as well. Against this notion that Islam’s scriptures need to be extended and added to by reason, implicit in al-Albānī’s claim to follow only the Qurʾān and sunnah and not fiqh is that scripture is clear and speaks for itself. Because he considers scripture to be explicitly clear, his legal methodology often approaches the Qurʾān and sunnah as law itself rather than sources of law. The Qurʾān and Sunna contain dalīls (indications), namely indications of what God intends. Unless a dalīl is qaṭʿī (certain) in its meaning, then any jurist’s inference from it on what God intended is only probable and cannot be ascertained to be the absolute intent of God.

As a result of the probabilistic nature of legal derivation, Muslim jurists have accepted that there are sometimes multiple opinions that all jurists consider valid, if not preferred. Since these opinions are probable, a jurist must choose one as more probable, or closer to the truth, than others. This is where al-Albānī differed with most jurists. Since he considered most of the meanings in the Qurʾān and ḥadīths to be self-evident, there would be no need for interpretation because there is nothing to interpret. If he acknowledged that he was following his interpretation of scripture rather than scripture itself, al-Albānī risked appearing to reproduce the same work of the jurists working within the madhhab traditions that he so criticized. Not surprisingly, traditionalist (i.e., non-Salafī) Sunnī jurists often criticized al-Albānī for implying that his understanding of scripture was objectively the only correct view.

Al-Albānī’s crusade against the madhhabs is best understood in light of his conviction that his understanding of scripture is the absolute truth. The main difference between al-Albānī and his traditionalist detractors is that the latter recognized that subjectivity was always present in the process of interpretation and that scholars will naturally disagree in cases when scripture is not definitive and clear cut. Accordingly, traditionalists hold that no one can condemn another for holding a position based on valid ijtihād. This means that ikhtilāf (differences of opinion) will always exist and no amount of insistence on following authentic ḥadīths will unify them. However, al-Albānī considered it his scholarly duty to refute all interpretations that contradicted his understanding of scripture. He attempted to remove ikhtilāf and unite the Muslims on what he considered authentic Islam.

Al-Albānī holds that ikhtilāf is usually the result of not knowing a particular proof-text or the authenticity of a proof-text. If a true scholar of the Qurʾān and sunnsh was aware of the particular proof-text and its authenticity then he would arrive at the same conclusion as al-Albānī and all other “true” scholars of the Qurʾān and sunnah.

Although traditionalist jurists acknowledged the frequency of disagreement in interpretation, they also often invoked consensus (ijmāʿ) to claim the definitive correctness of a particular position. Al-Albānī followed along with many Salafī scholars, and along the lines of the medieval “literalist” approach of Ibn Ḥazm (d. 1064), in a skepticism toward claims of ijmāʿ. Like Ibn Ḥazm, al-Albānī cast doubt about the practicality of consensus and pointed out how it is often erroneously claimed. Of course, al-Albānī did not reject the possibility or authority of true ijmāʿ. He just doubted many claims of it, allowing it only on those core agreed-upon questions that are labeled as apodictic tenets of the faith (maʿlūm min al-dīn biʾl-ḍarūra). This approach allowed him the flexibility to assert opinions in law, theology, and ḥadīth that would otherwise have been foreclosed by consensus.

Al-Albānī’s legal methodology posed a threat to traditionalist jurists because it circumvented the madhhabs in order to interpret the texts anew. His disdain for the madhhabs led him to discredit them and replace them with his version of authentic Islam. However, when analyzed closely, al-Albānī’s claim to follow only the Qurʾān and sunnah is primarily a rhetorical strategy designed to present Salafism as the absolute truth and distinguish it from being categorized as another madhhab or religious movement.

Al-Albānī had several unique and controversial legal opinions, such as prohibition of circular gold jewelry (such as rings or bracelets) for women, his view that masturbation does not break one’s fast, and that iʿtikāf (secluding oneself for worship in the mosque) is legislated only in Islam’s three holy mosques. He also called for Palestinians to leave the occupied territories since, according to al-Albānī, they were unable to practice their faith there as they should. His controversial fiqh opinions and iconoclastic attitude toward the madhhabs led scholars from the Arab world and Indian subcontinent to write book-long refutations of his ideas. Despite his many critics al-Albānī remains as one of the most influential and admired scholars in Salafī circles.

Bibliography

  • Amin, Kamaruddin. “Nāṣiruddīn al-Albānī on Muslim’s Ṣaḥīḥ: A Critical Study of His Method.” Islamic Law and Society 11, no. 4 (2004): 149–175.
  • Brown, Jonathan. “Is Islam Easy to Understand or Not? Salafis, the Democratization of Interpretation and the Need for the Ulema.” Journal of Islamic Studies 26, no. 2 (2015): 117–144.
  • Brown, Jonathan. The Canonization of al-Bukhārī and Muslim. Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 2007.
  • Hamdeh, Emad. “Qurʾān and Sunna or the Madhhabs?: A Salafi Polemic against Islamic Legal Tradition.” Islamic Law and Society 24, no. 3 (2017): 211–253.
  • Hamdeh, Emad. “The Formative Years of an Iconoclastic Salafi Scholar.” The Muslim World 106, no. 3 (2016): 411–432.
  • Haykel, Bernard. “On the Nature of Salafi Thought and Action.” In Global Salafism, edited by Roel Meijer. New York: Columbia University Press, 2009.
  • Stephen Lacorix, Stephen. “Between Revolution and Apoliticism: Nasir al-Din al-Albani and his Impact on the Shaping of Contemporary Salafism.” In Global Salafism, edited by Roel Meijer. New York: Columbia University Press, 2009.
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