Sunday, December 30, 2007

Review of al-Fiqh al-Akbar

By Mansur Ali

Abdur-Rahman ibn Yusuf, ImÁm Abu Hanifa’s Al-Fiqh al-Akbar Explained, (California: White Thread Press, 2007). Pp. 239. £ 12.99

Mufti Abdur-Rahman’s translation of the above mentioned book is warmly welcomed as it is the only readily available published translation of al-Fiqh al-Akbar (other translations available – other than the ones that have been mentioned by the author –- are by William Montgomery Watt and Sheikh MuÎammad b. YaÎyÁ al-NinowÐ). It is also commendable as it facilitates for the English speaking students the next level up in studying ÝaqÐda after SÐdÐ Hamza Yusuf’s translation of the al-ÝAqÐda al-ÓaÎÁwiyya and finally it is a waft of fresh air in the midst of non-orthodox dogmas from within Islam, (due to large amount of money being pumped in from the Middle East into sectarian publishing houses to promote a bigoted, non-tolerant and politically motivated version of ÝaqÐda).
The translation initially took form as the translator’s thesis for his degree program. It is in reality a translation of few books glossed together with informative notes from the translator. The book consists of a detailed introduction, the text of al-Fiqh al-Akbar with its commentary, a bibliography and a useful index. The introduction has an excellent discussion on the authorship of the text. In contrast to A.J. Wensinck and ÝAllÁmÁ ShiblÐ NuÝmÁnÐ, the translator brings convincing proofs, calling upon Ibn al-NadÐm, KÁtib †elebi, ÝÀrif Íikmat and ÝAllÁma ZÁhid al-KawtharÐ amongst others to prove the attribution of the text to ImÁm AbÙ ÍanÐfa. It goes without saying that this conclusion is based upon external criteria and not form analysis used in literary studies.
The text of al-Fiqh al-Akbar is slightly more advanced and more philosophical than the text of al-ÝAqÐda al-ÓaÎÁwiyya. Apart from being a primer on ÝaqÐda, it also reflects some of the intellectual tensions that were around at that time, such as the issue of wiping over leather socks and the concept of bilÁ kayf (without a modality) also known as balkafa. The balkafa was introduced as a defence mechanism against the muÝtazilites who explained away many verses of the QurÞÁn and rejected many aÎÁdÐth that were seemingly anthropopathic and anthropomorphic in nature.
The translation is lucid, clear and makes sense unlike some translations of ÝaqÐda texts (I had to use the Arabic to understand Earl Elder’s English translation of al-TaftazÁnÐ’s SharÎ al-ÝAqÁÞid al-Nasafiyya). I love the translation of the term azal al-ÁzÁl as the ‘limitless reaches of past eternity’ (p.13). Flow of ideas and thoughts are smooth and – in my opinion - could have been better if the translator did not take the pain in spraying the translation with Arabic words such as, “[a]quisition (kasb) and creation (khalq)[.]” further on he writes “[QÁrÐ] The difference between acquisition (kasb) and creation (khalq)...” and 12 lines below “and acquisition (kasb) of the servant.” (p. 122). The word ‘mufassirÐn’ is not necessary to know who the commentators of the QurÞÁn are. (p.117).
The translation is idiomatic and loyal to the Arabic language; however, at times loyalty to the translator’s theological orientation (MÁturÐdÐ/AshÝarÐ) can be sensed such as the word ‘countenance’ is used to translate the word ‘wajh’ which literally means face. (p. 99). An even more extreme loyalty to this theological persuasion can be seen in Sheikh NinowÐ’s translation of the same passage,
28- He added to Himself meanings of Yad (literal meaning is a Hand), Wajh (literal meaning is Face), and Nafs (literal meaning is Self); as Allah Ta’ala mentioned in the Qur’an. Hence, what Allah Ta’ala mentioned about the Yad, Wajh, and Nafs, are meanings He added to Himself, without a “how” (modality). (NinowÐ, p. 7)
Apart from imparting knowledge, the commentary also functions as a reading mechanism of the text. Therefore, we find Abdur-Rahman translating the sentence “aÒl al-tawÎÐd wa mÁ yaÒiÎÎ al-iÝtiqÁd Ýalayh an yaqÙl…” as “[[t]his treatise is on] the fundamentals of divine oneness and [tenets] upon which it is correct to base [one’s] belief [.]” (p. 63) is a direct translation of ÝAlÐ al-QÁrÐ’s statement, “hÁdha al-kitÁb asÁs maÝrifat al-haqq ÝalÁ wajh al-ÒawÁb…wa mÁ yaÒiÎÎ iÝtimÁd al-iÝtiqÁd Ýalayh fÐ hÁdha al-bÁb…” Also the word fiÔra (p. 155) literally means natural disposition, however, Abdur-Rahman’s translation of this word as ‘natural faith’ (ÐmÁn fiÔrÐ) is based on al-MaghnÐsÁwÐ’s reading of the text which he contrasts with ‘acquired faith’ (ÐmÁn kasbÐ). (p. 119).
Abdur-Rahman is not only a passive translator, on the contrary he is an active scholar who disagrees with and corrects the materials that he is working with whenever necessary. Therefore we find him correcting al-QÁrÐ’s misunderstanding of the muÝtazilites’ stance regarding the attributes of AllÁh. (p. 75). He points out variations in the different manuscripts and differences between the published work and manuscripts. (See n. 125, 126 on p. 117, also see p. 226, mss. 4405 and 33366). His notes are highly informed and erudite and help to understand the text better (see n. 99 for a good description on the development of state of knowledge regarding AllÁh’s attributes, and n. 117, for an excellent discussion on difference between true waÎdat al-wujÙd, distorted waÎdat al-wujÙd and pantheism). A detailed note on the will and desire of AllÁh could have made the issue easier to understand. (p. 81).
Some methodological flaws in the book are: (a) reference to sources are sometimes mentioned in footnotes and sometimes mentioned in the main body of the book, (e.g. p. 15, p. 17, 20), (b) Few dates of deaths are missing (e.g. p. 20), (c) sometimes inflection in case endings are shown in the transliteration (p. 75) and most of the time not shown. It would have been prudent – in my opinion – on the translator’s part if he were to leave out some of the out-dated, highly abstract, confusing philosophical debates, based on syllogistics and Hellenistic rhetoric, which were surely a product of their time and are of no practical use anymore (other than to the historian of medieval Islamic thought and the serious academic) such as the discussion on the use of the word ‘Kun’ for creation, (p. 79).
Other than these few shortcomings (in my opinion), the book is a great (if not altogether original) contribution to knowledge and is a must to have for the student who wants to take the study of ÝaqÐda one step forward. MuftÐ Abdur-Rahman has once again given us a display of his excellent scholarship and acute erudition. May AllÁh give us the ability to learn from him, and give him the ability to enlighten us with more of his scholarly insight and increase him in knowledge and taqwÁ. ÀmÐn.