Maqasid ash-Shari‘ah Theory: Between Use & Misuse


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By Mufti Muhammad Taqi Usmani

Translated by Waqar Akbar Cheema

A number of scholars have written books to describe the benefits (masālih) and objectives (maqasid) of the Shari‘ah rulings. Their aim was not to suggest that rulings are exclusively dependent on these objectives and beneficial purposes to the oblivion of the Shari‘ah pronouncements (nusoos) rather their intention was to mention the beneficial purposes which are found within the pronounced rulings so that it becomes known that Shari‘ah enjoins no rulings except for some benefit of the people in this world or the hereafter and that these objectives be considered in deciding about the lawful and in the issues for which we find no Shari‘ah injunction (nass ash-shari‘i). However, the authority in determining the benefits is Shari‘ah and its injunctions and not mere reason or whims of the people. This is because these objectives like the protection of the life, property and honor are desirable neither in absolute terms nor in every situation. The truth rather is as stated by ash-Shatibi, may Allah have mercy on him, “The benefits and the harms are normally relative and not absolute. The meaning of relative is that the benefits and the harms are different for different situations, persons and times.”[1]Therefore, what defines the benefit or harm is the Shari‘ah (law) given by Allah, hence an apparent benefit that contradicts the injunctions of Shari‘ah is not a benefit in reality. It is rather the product of whimsical desires which the Shari‘ah has come to nullify.

In our times, a people have appeared who cling to the phrase “al-maqasid ash-shari‘ah” and tend to put it ahead of the injunctions (nusoos) of Shari‘ah, contending that the purpose of the rulings are some of these beneficial purposes and establishing some of these objectives. (They say) since these beneficial purposes and objectives vary in appearance with regards to acting upon the apparent import of the injunctions we are commanded to seek after these objectives and beneficial purposes and not the injunctions as such. Certainly such rationalism leads to nothing short of demolition of the entire Shari‘ah and doing away with the burden of responsibility in the name of suspected and imagined objectives and beneficial purposes.

The truth is that whatever Allah has legislated in our religion (deen) is based upon beneficial purposes and objectives. No one doubts this fact, for Allah the Almighty did not prescribe a useless or harmful ruling for His creation. However, “beneficial purposes” and “objectives” are ambiguous and loose terms. Everyone who reflects on the affairs of life only with his own mind assumes something to be a beneficial purpose and an objective while another person assumes that it is not from the beneficial purposes and objectives of life. Therefore, mere intellect that is not based on divine revelation cannot lead to a universal standard for determining such purposes and objectives.

Consequently, whatever is recognized as one of the objectives of Shari‘ah is not absolute rather it has limitations and regulations. For instance, protection of life is no doubt one of the important objectives of Shari‘ah, but a murderer cannot refer to this objective of Shari‘ah and invoke it to save himself from retribution. The same applies to all the objectives. The fundamental question regarding these objectives is: who determines these objectives and who defines the operational limits and scope of these objectives? If we leave this determination to mere reason the Shari‘ah will fall into chaos. The Shari‘ah presents organized rulings regarding issues on which mere reason may not find its way to the truth. If the human intellect was enough for this determination there would have been no need to send messengers or for the revelation of divine books. The evident truth is that there is no way to determine these objectives and their scope without recourse to the Shari‘ah texts from the Noble Qur’an and the Sunnah of the Messenger of Allah – may the peace and blessings of Allah be upon him. Therefore, we cannot take any of these ambiguous objectives in preference to established and explicit injunctions – whether the injunctions are from the Qur’an or Hadith. Likewise, we cannot take these objectives and beneficial purposes as the primary source of legislation and twist the injunctions accordingly. The truth is that the beneficial purposes and the objectives are derived from the injunctions, so whatever Allah and His Messenger has made beneficial is beneficial and not what we assume to be so as per our personal opinions. In fact the scholars of the maqasid ash-shari‘ah like ash-Shatibi, al-Ghazali and Wali Ullah ad-Dehlawi all agree that the rulings depend upon their underlying causes (‘ilal) and not mere wisdoms. [They also agree that] the wisdoms and the beneficial purposes contradicting the pronouncements (nusoos) of Shari‘ah are nothing but what Qur’an terms as “whims.” Imam ash-Shatibi – the pioneer in expounding the objectives (maqasid) of Shari‘ah – said: “The Shari‘ah has come to relieve the people from the obedience to their desires so that they become the true servants of Allah. When established, this principle cannot be combined with the assumption that Shari‘ah is laid in compliance with the whims of the people and immediate benefits, however it may be. Verily our Lord has said: “Had the truth followed their desires, the heavens and the earth and all those therein would have fallen in total disorder.” (Qur’an 23:71)[2]

Wali Ullah ad-Dehlawi also said: “Indeed, just as the Sunnah of the Prophet obligated, and on which the consensus (ijma‘) occurred, the Sunnah of the Prophet also obligated that the revelation of a decree obligating or forbidding to be a great cause in its own right – regardless of these beneficial purposes – for rewarding of the obedient and punishment of the disobedient … The Sunnah also required that it is not permitted to depend on recognizing these beneficial purposes when complying with the rules of the divine law if these ruling have been confirmed through hadith reports.”[3]

—  Usmani, Muhammad Taqi, Usool al-Ifta wa Adabuhu, (Karachi: Quranic Studies Publishers, 2011) 245-248


[1]ash-Shatibi, al-Mawafaqat, Vol.2, 65

[2] ibid., Vol.2, 62

[3] ad-Dehlawi, Wali Ullah, Hujjat Allah al-Balighah, Vol.1, 32-33

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Waqar Akbar Cheema

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