From Tradition to Law: The Origins and Early Development of the Shāfi‘ī School of Law in Ninth-Century Egypt

Thesis Type:

PhD dissertation


Unraveling the complex dynamics that created and sustained the hegemony of the four principal schools of Sunni Islamic law necessarily requires an appreciation of the schools' historical genesis. This dissertation provides the first comprehensive account of the emergence and early development of a Sunni legal school (madhhab fiqhī), drawing on new evidence from a range of hitherto unstudied primary sources. Through a reconstruction of the socio-political, intellectual, and textual history of the Shāfi'ī school during its formative stage in ninth-century Egypt, my study identifies the factors that contributed to the emergence and success of Shafi'ī doctrine; traces how this doctrine was propagated and re-interpreted, and from where it derived its authority; and explores the intimate connection between writing and thought in Islamic legal discourse. The dissertation concludes that the innovative legal hermeneutic of Muhammad b. Idrīs al-Shāfi'ī (d. 204/820), which enshrined normativity in a clearly demarcated canon of sacred sources, played a crucial role in the transformation of Islamic law from a diffuse oral tradition into a written legal science.

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