This article is presented in five sections beginning with a general characterisation of the maqasid al-Shari’ah and its origins in the Qur’an. The next section addresses the classification of the maqasid and a certain order of priority that is integrated into the structure of the maqasid. Section three is devoted to historical developments and the contributions of some of the leading ‘ulama’, especially that of Abu Ishaq Ibrahim alShatibi, to the theory of the maqasid. Section four looks into the differential approaches the ‘ulama’ have taken toward the identification of the maqasid. The last section highlights the relevance of the maqasid to ijtihad and the ways in which the maqasid can enhance the scope and caliber of ijtihad.
Maqasid al-Shari’ah, or the goals and objectives of Islamic law, is an evidently important and yet somewhat neglected theme of the Shari’ah. Generally the Shari’ah is predicated on the benefits of the individual and that of the community, and its laws are designed so as to protect these benefits and facilitate improvement and perfection of the conditions of human life on earth. The Qur’an is expressive of this when it singles out the most important purpose of the Prophethood of Muhammad (peace be on him) in such terms as: “We have not sent you but a mercy to the world” (21: 107). This can also be seen perhaps in the Qur’an’s characterisation of itself in that it is “a healing to the (spiritual) ailment of the hearts, guidance and mercy for the believers (and mankind)” (10: 57).
The two uppermost objectives of compassion (rahmah) and guidance (huda) in the foregoing verses are then substantiated by other provisions in the Qur’an and the Sunnah that seek to establish justice, eliminate prejudice, and alleviate hardship. The laws of the Qur’an and the Sunnah also seek to promote cooperation and mutual support within the family and the society at large. Justice itself is a manifestation of God’s mercy as well as an objective of the Shari‘ah in its own right. Compassion (rahmah) is manifested in the realisation of benefit (maslahah) which the ‘ulama’ have generally considered to be the all-pervasive value and objective of the Shari‘ah and is to all intents and purposes synonymous with rahmah.
Educating the individual (tahdhib al-fard) is another important objective of the Shari‘ah so much so that it comes, in order of priority, even before justice and maslahah. For these are both socially-oriented values which acquire much of their meaning in the context of social relations, whereas tahdhib al-fard seeks to make every individual a trustworthy agent and carrier of the values of the Shari‘ah, and it is through educating the individual that the Shari‘ah seeks to realise most of its social objectives. The overall purpose of a great deal of the laws and values of the Shari’ah, especially in the spheres of ‘ibadat and moral teaching, is to train an individual who is mindful of the virtues of taqwa and becomes an agent of benefit to others.
The Qur’an is expressive, in numerous places and a variety of contexts, of the rationale, purpose and benefit of its laws so much so that its text becomes characteristically goal-oriented. This feature of the Qur’anic language is common to its laws on civil transactions (mu’amalat) as well as devotional matters (‘ibadat). Thus when the text expounds the rituals of wudu’ (ablution for prayer) it goes on to declare that “God does not intend to inflict hardship on you. He intends cleanliness for you and to accomplish his favour upon you.” (5: 6) Then with regard to the prayer itself, it is declared that “truly salah obstructs promiscuity and evil” (29: 45). With reference to jihad the Qur’an similarly proclaims its purpose in such terms that “permission is granted to those who fight because they have been wronged” (22: 39). The purpose, in other words, of legalising jihad is to fight injustice (zulm) and the purpose of salah is to attain spiritual purity and excellence that is accomplished together with physical cleanliness through ablution before prayer. With reference to the law of just retaliation (qisas), the text similarly declares that “in qisas there is life for you, O people of understanding” (2: 179); and with regard to poor-due (zakah), the Qur’an validates it “so that wealth does not circulate only among the wealthy” (57: 7). According to another text, the believers are under duty to lower their gaze in their encounter with members of the opposite sex, “for this will help you to attain greater purity” (24: 30).
One can add many more examples of the laws which show how the Qur’an and the Sunnah are expressive of their goal justification, cause and benefit in the affirmative sense, just as one finds numerous references to evil conduct and crime which is reprimanded and made punishable, in the negative sense, in order to prevent injustice, corruption and prejudice. In the area of commerce and mu’amalat, the Qur’an forbids exploitation, usury, hoarding and gambling which are harmful and jeopardise the objective of fair dealing in the market-place. The underlying theme in virtually all of the broad spectrum of the ahkam is realisation of benefit (maslahah) which is regarded as the summa of the maqasid. For justice is also a maslahah and so is tahdhib al-fard. The masalih (pl. of maslahah) thus become another name for the maqasid and the ‘ulama’ have used the two terms almost interchangeably.