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The Usuli Thought of Shaykh Ansari

In the closing decades of the 12th century AH, Wahid Bihbahani, the symbol of usuli campaign against the Akhbaris, breathed new life into the practice of usuli principles among Imami circles. This was carried further by the likes of Shaykh Ja`far Kashif al-Ghita’, Mulla Ahmad Naraqi and Sahib al-Jawahir (i.e., the author of al-Jawahir, Shaykh Muhammad Hasan Najafi). However, the greatest link between the Jawahirite fiqh and that of the century and half later was established by Shaykh Murtada Ansari (d. 1281 AH), whose expansion of the usul al-fiqh in its practical aspect reshaped the Imami usuli fiqh and left a deep impress on the next generations of faqihs. The most prominent and distinctive aspect of Shaykh Ansari’s system is his way of approaching various fiqhi fundamentals, an approach whose main lines are delineated in the introduction to his al-Fara’id. In this most seminal of his works, Shaykh Ansari, instead of getting entangled in the discussions of the prevailing usuli methods of his time, envisages the state of a bewildered religious practitioner (mukallaf) faced with a multitude of shar`i rules and obligation and divides the level of his knowledge with regard to these issues into the three categories of certainty (qat`), probability (zann) and doubt (shakk). His method is based on the assumption that in case of clarification of these categories for the mukallaf, he would gain the competence to navigate his way through the wide array of shar`i rules and practices.

The Shaykh devotes minimum space to the discussion of certainty, given its innate and indisputable authority. The authority of zann which was widely accepted, with some variations as to its scope of application, among the jurists of Hillah and which has been discussed in the science of usul al-fiqh as a digressive issue is given extensive treatment in al-Fara’id as a well established theory. The most salient discussion in al-Fara’id, and the high point of the Shaykh’s theoretical genius, relates to the topic of doubt and the way in which it figures in the life of the mukallaf vis-à-vis the religious rules and practices. Shaykh Ansari posits four types of practical principles: istishab, takhyir (having the option to choose), bara’ah, and ishtighal (or ihtiyat, i.e. caution). None of these notions are the inventions of the Shaykh and all have their roots in the teachings of the first few centuries AH. None the less, the integration of these four principles within the framework of a single system aimed at dealing with cases of uncertainty is an innovation of Shaykh Ansari. He adopts a philosophical approach in his elaboration of the various possibilities under which doubt may occur. According to him, doubt may occur in connection with a previous matter (an instance of istishab) or not. In the case of the latter one may exercise caution (an instance of takhyir) or not. In the case of the former, the subject of doubt is either the actual necessity of the obligation (an instance of bara’ah) or the necessity of its performance by the mukallaf.

It should be noted that in the fiqhi system of Shaykh Ansari and his followers, practical principles or, in the legal terminology, legal obligations are given the largest scope, a fact that contributed to a wider application of formal argumentation in the resolution of fiqhi issues. The fiqhi idea of a “system of practical principles” was given a practical framework by the Shaykh in his book of al-Makasib, his masterwork in terms of setting forth a system of fiqh based on an usuli foundation.

* source: Pakatchi , Ahmad "Islam Entry" The Great Islamic Encyclopedia. Ed. Kazem Musavi Bojnourdi.Tehran: The Center of Great Islamic Encyclopaedia , 1989-, V.8 ,pp.454 - 455

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