Understanding Usul al-Fiqh

Benefits of understanding Principles of Jurisprudence (usul al-fiqh) – The Shi’i perspective



Principles of Jurisprudence or Usul al-Fiqh is a science, also referred to as Ilm ul-Usul, deals with the technique of derivation of specific rulings from validated sources. The history of Usul al-Fiqh has existed as long as fiqh has existed. Although in the times of the Prophet and Imam’s (pbuh) muslims have the opportunity to clarify legal rulings with them directly, due to geographical distances and sometimes having to no access to the Imam’s, their followers were encouraged to learn and then teach in their respective local areas. This essay will explain briefly what Usul al-Fiqh is and its benefits among other Islamic Sciences

What is Usul al-Fiqh

Fiqh is defined as “the science of studying practical and religious rulings and how these are derived from their detailed sources”. This definition is important as some of its word narrow down the scope of Fiqh to focus on specific areas. For example, use of the word ‘practical’ rulings excludes all rulings that at relating to roots of religion or usul al-din, similarly ‘religious’ rules out any rational ones. The four detailed sources in Shi-i fiqh are the Quran, Hadith, Consensus and Reasoning. ‘Detailed sources’ is used to differentiate between a common man (or a muqallid who follows the rulings made available to them) and a mujhtahid (one who studies fiqh and know how and where the rulings have been derived). Principle of Jurisprudence is defined as a discipline that specifies the general rules and procedure of deriving rulings from their sources. For example understanding the instructions from a verse of the Holy Quran or the hadith of Prophet or Imam. If no related verse or hadith is found than referring to consensus of scholars of the particular issue and finally if no verse, hadith or consensus exists that making use of reasoning to derive a ruling.

The subject of discussion is the fact that as Quran and Hadith is not prescriptive in the rulings required to perform actions as required by religion, there needs to be a way to determine the best course of action using the information available. The Holy Quran is believed to have around 500 verses relating to the verses of rulings [1]. The early scholars after the time of Imam did their best to compile hadith into books but due to the complex time and process there were not able to detail their work or distinguish between different types of hadith. The four key books referred to in Shi’i are Usool Al-Kafi, Tahdhib Al-Ahkaam, Al-Istibsar and Man La Yahduruhu Al-Faqih along with others like Wasail us-Shia and Bihar al-Anwar and more. The need was to define rulings in such a way which forms a hujjat on muslims in performing their actions. Some meanings of the Quran are very apparent or the solitary narrations or widespread legal opinions. Others needed to go through a process of verifying the source, understanding the instruction, and coming to a conclusion. This is what Usul al-Fiqh deals with

The goal of learning Principles of Jurisprudence (Usul al-Fiqh) is to create mujhtahids who are able to master this science by having good knowledge of the Arabic language as most of the sources original language is Arabic. Know the different method of exegesis of the Quran to gain the maximum knowledge from a particular verse and be familiar with existing commentaries from current and previous scholars. The need to know Logic or the science of reasoning and using valid argumentation. They should have extensive knowledge of traditions and the transmitters. Hadith is a complex subject as over the period time after last Prophet, muslims have been divided in their understanding of principles and made various uses of same hadith. The mujhtahid can critically analyse a hadith or related hadith, look at the reliability of the chain of transmitters, carefully examine the words and patterns and derive a ruling from it. In the case where no references are available in Quran or Hadith, using the knowledge of them and other sciences, the mujhtahid looks at what are the consensus of scholars of the time on the topic and the basis of that consensus and come up with a ruling. Finally, he makes use of Reasoning based on common understanding and what the intellect diverts the opinion to conclude the ruling. In all cases he justifies his decision and there is a possibility to update the ruling if circumstances change and new information is discovered.

Benefits of (Usul al-Fiqh)

Now that we have a basic idea what the science of Usul al-Fiqh is we can start to see the numerous benefits it brings to advancement of religion

In this day and age when so many religions and school of thoughts exist, one needs to do their own research and find out the best divine path for them. Islam out of most of the prominent religions has its foundations on principles to understand what GOD as the creator requires from human beings. Those who don’t believe in GOD are saved from these duties due to their own choices but those who do believe want to know and accept their belief so they can determine if Islam is the right religion for them. Usul al-Fiqh lets muslims compare their method of deriving rulings with those of other religions and feel confident that this is well researched and validated process behind this

Alongside other Islamic sciences like Theology, Logic, Mysticism, Philosophy and Jurisprudence, Usul provide a systematic and scientific approach to deriving rulings that form the basis of actions in the day to day life of muslims. The holy Quran is meant to be guidance to all mankind until the end of time and therefore the meanings of verses are being explored and used as phases on knowledge are advancing. Similarly, the Prophet and Imam’s have limited time to explain all the principles to muslims and answer all their questions. So early Muslim scholars developed in this system for the coming generations to use and improve based on their requirements but following the same principles

Having Usul al-Fiqh as a science helps in differentiating scholars from those who are not. Just like there are doctors who are specialised in a particular field of medicine and can easily be identified based on there knowledge and experience. Someone who issues rulings for muslims to benefit from undergo an extensive process to become a master in a number of disciplines including Usul al-Fiqh and can easily be distinguished from people with limited knowledge or those who are experts in other fields. Once identified, and the criteria for choosing a Marja is specified too, the onus is on them to do their job and the follower only has to follow.

The world is evolving, spreading to more geographical locations and more inventions and discoveries are being made, resulting in diverse range of actions required. The curious mind wants to know the religious perspective about them. For example, if the action is allowed and has a rewards in it, or its forbidden or doesn’t matter. This is where the science of Principles of Jurisprudence helps in dealing with contemporary issues. The mujhtahid is presented with the questions (or request for fatwa) and he has the tools to analyse the question on detail but conducting an extensive search of sources, applies principles and come up with an answer. Since every mujhtahid has different research methods and ways to apply the principles based on their experiences and expertise in the subject they can come up with different answers. However as all of them have followed a validated process, this is sufficient for the follower.


Usul al-Fiqh is still taught in Islamic Seminaries as one of the key subjects to give scholars the skills to understand the sources of existing rulings and be able to progress their knowledge to a stage they where they can become mujtahids themselves. The first faqih’s were the companions of the Prophet and Imams pbuh themselves. Then after the 12th Imam (May GOD hasten his reappearance) went into occultation, His four deputies continued to serve as faqih’s for the Muslim communities. A number of faqih’s in the time of the Imams have also been mentioned by Sheikh Kulayni quoting a hadith from Imam Sadiq validating their knowledge.  Present day Marja are the best example of the outcome of studying Usul al-Fiqh and the books from scholars like Sheikh Murtadha Ansari, who passed away in 1281 A.H in Najaf still form the basis of this practical science and prove that Ijtihad will continue to be keep the religion relevant in present times


Ali Jaffri

Jan 2023 – London