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Early Islamic Legal Theory
The Risala of Muhammad Ibn Idris Al-Shafi'i

Joseph E. Lowry

ISBN: 9004163603 / 978-9004163607

Joseph E. Lowry, Ph.D. (1999) in Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, University of Pennsylvania, is Assistant Professor of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations at the University of Pennsylvania.

Few works in the classical Islamic intellectual tradition have received as thorough a guide as Joseph Lowry's new study of Muhammad b. Idris al-Shafi'i's Risala. Such a study is both merited and needed. As the earliest extant text on Islamic legal hermeneutics, Risala poses problems of interpretation that are partly a function of the work's foundational status (the absence of an established terminology, for example) and partly due to its complex structure and subtlety--if not obscurity--of expression. Until now, English-speaking readers have most likely approached the Risala through Majid Khadduri's translation, which contains a useful introduction but all too often renders the text itself incomprehensible. Lowry's work surpasses Khadduri's in all respects: Lowry's translations of key passages are consistently superior, his analysis of these passages effectively disentangles al-Shafi'i's difficult language, and his discussion brings together existing Western literature on aspects of al-Shafi'i's work in a succinct and informative way. As a result, Lowry's book provides both a high-level introduction to early Islamic legal theory for neophytes and an original contribution to the subject for specialists in Islamic law. Through its holistic assessment of al-Shafi'i's thought, Lowry's study confirms what Hans-Thomas Tillschneider (Die Enstehung der juristischen Hermeneutik (usul al-fiqh) im fruhen Islam, Wurzburg, 2006) has shown with respect to the specific topic of the amm/khass distinction, namely, that beneath al-Shafi'i's rudimentary terminology lies a sophisticated legal theory. The two works thus convincingly counter Wael Hallaq's charge that the Risala does not represent a work of legal theory properly speaking ("Was al-Shafi'i the Master Architect of Islamic Jurisprudence?" IJMES 25 [1993]: 587-604).

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