The Maliki madhhab (school, plural madhahib) is one of the four main extant schools of Sunni Islamic law. Historically, the Maliki school exercised near-hegemony in both legal thought and practice over wide swaths of northwest Africa. Maliki scholarship remains vibrant in Mauritania, Morocco, and elsewhere. Over the past century and more, however, internal and external voices have criticized the school’s methodology as well as its specific rulings on a host of issues. This article discusses Maliki responses to those criticisms, and in so doing shows that the Maliki school and the other madhahib are not simply being bulldozed by anti-traditionalist forces, nor subsumed into a generic “neotraditionalist” current – rather, some of the schools’ major exponents are defending, reinventing, and challenging the schools from the inside.
The Maliki school is not unique among the madhahib in facing criticism, although in some ways the school is in a distinct position. On the one hand, particularities of the school’s methodology, namely the school’s use of the “practice of the people of Medina” as one of its sources, means it is particularly vulnerable to the charge that some of its rulings clearly contradict sound hadiths. On the other hand, the school has profound resources for rebutting the charge that some of its rulings are poorly grounded in hadith – resources that begin with the argument that the school’s eponym, Imam Malik ibn Anas (d. 179/795), was unique among the major schools’ founders in being both a master hadith expert (muhaddith) and a master jurist (faqih).
The challenge to Malikism and to the other madhahib has come partly from the Salafi movement, and partly from the changing expectations of lay audiences who themselves may or may not be deeply influenced by Salafism. The Salafi tendency is scripturalist: in the realm of creed, Salafis propound a literalist understanding of God’s attributes as described in the Qur’an and the hadith literature; in the realm of law, Salafis are often skeptical or outright dismissive of the value and accuracy of the madhahib. When Salafis produce reams of hadith reports that appear to contradict certain rulings of the schools, supporters of the schools are placed on the defensive. Meanwhile, a combination of factors – not just Salafis’ emphasis on hadith, but also the impact of mass literacy and the widespread availability of diverse Islamic opinions and texts in print and online – has driven changes among contemporary Muslim audiences’ expectations. Such audiences now often appear hungry for scholars to provide the “dalil” – meaning, in general, the scriptural evidence – backing any particular ruling or opinion, even within an established legal school. Contemporary audiences, moreover, also have exponentially wider and more direct access to texts than any past generation of Muslims, meaning scholars can anticipate a significant level of autodidacticism among their students, fans, and critics.
“Against Salafis’ criticisms of the madhahib and audiences’ hunger for evidence, major Maliki scholars have not abandoned the traditional canon of the school. However, they have increasingly subjected the Maliki canon to a process that I would call “dalil-ization.”“
Against Salafis’ criticisms of the madhahib and audiences’ hunger for evidence, major Maliki scholars have not abandoned the traditional canon of the school. However, they have increasingly subjected the Maliki canon to a process that I would call “dalil-ization.” This process entails two maneuvers: first, moving the process of istidlal, or evidence-based argumentation, from the realm of legal specialists into the reach of the beginner; and second, breaking with some of the school’s famous rulings and selectively siding with other schools and/or with minority Maliki perspectives on those issues. Neither of these processes is new for Malikis or for followers of other schools, and the difference is one of degree rather than kind; in the past, istidlal would be introduced in stages throughout the learning process, and experts’ awareness of minority views within the madhhab was often paired with a sense that laypersons were better off adhering to the majority positions on given issues. Debates that occur now often have analogues in the past, including (ironically) in debates sparked by reformist Sufis who anticipated Salafis’ willingness to challenge the schools. The current change may lie in an acceleration of learners’ exposure to istidlal, as well as a more sympathetic consideration of minority views from the school. Through this combined process, dalil-ization represents an ongoing experiment that revitalizes and defends the school, but also surrenders some of its distinctiveness. Meanwhile, dalil-ization also potentially moves the locus of authority from the living shaykh to the written text.
In this article, I look at three major living Maliki scholars – Said al-Kamali of Morocco, Sadiq al-Gharyani of Libya, and al-Habib Ben Taher of Tunisia – and explore their approaches to dalil-ization. The first two are more Salafi-inclined, while the third is more traditionalist.
The Classical Maliki Methodology
The Maliki madhhab grew out of the study circles around Imam Malik, the preeminent jurist in Medina at the time of the third generation of Muslims. Imam Malik understood himself as the heir to, and transmitter of, a Medinan transition rather than as the founder of a school – hence the emphasis in his own writings on the practice of the people of Medina. For Imam Malik and for later Malikis, early Medinan practice constituted, in and of itself, a source of transmission; given that Medina was the site where the Prophet Muhammad and thousands of Companions lived and died, Malikis argue that the continuous practice of the second and third generations in Medina, up through Imam Malik’s time, could on some issues yield a higher level of certainty than hadith reports transmitted through a handful of people – although these issues are extraordinarily subtle and complex, even when debated among Malikis who accept the basic premise that Medinan practice is an independent source of the law. Imam Malik’s own central work, a collecton of hadith narrations and Medinan opinions called al-Muwatta’, became one of two main foundational texts in the school; the other, even more influential text within the school was al-Mudawwana, compiled as a transmission of Imam Malik’s opinions.
Much of the subsequent intellectual labor within the school involved scrutinizing, interpreting, and debating the contents of the Mudawwana. The culmination of this process was the Mukhtasar (Abridgment), a legal manual by the Egyptian Maliki scholar Khalil ibn Ishaq al-Jundi (d. 776/1374, according to the most common date). The Mukhtasar distilled the leading Maliki rulings based on the Mudawwana and other key works of the school. Imam Khalil’s Mukhtasar became such a standard reference work within the school that some Malikis came to refer to themselves as “Khaliliyyun” – “Khalil-ists.”
The Salafi Challenge
Malikis were generally aware of other madhahib and other approaches – a key site for intellectual production within the school was Egypt, a cosmopolitan and multi-madhhab milieu. But it was contact with the Hijaz, and the mashriq more broadly, that brought fresh challenges for Malikis starting in the nineteenth century and increasingly in the twentieth century.
One key area where differences between the Malikis and other approaches are apparent has to do with prayer practices. Each school has its distinctive way of praying, but Maliki prayer is perhaps the most distinctive. For example, Malikis leave their hands at their sides (a position called sadl or irsal) during the standing portion of the prayer, as do the Shi‘a and the Ibadis, whereas other Sunnis fold their hands across their chests/beneath the navel (a position called qabd) while standing.
The Salafi movement, which claims to reincarnate early Islam but whose origins critical historians have dated to roughly the 1920s, made prayer – and various issues pertaining to embodied worship – one of its central foci. For example, one of the most influential figures in twentieth-century Salafism, Muhammad Nasir al-Din al-Albani (d. 1420/1999), published a controversial book in 1951 called Sifat Salat al-Nabi, SallAllah ‘Alayhi wa-Sallam, min al-Takbir ila al-Taslim kannaka Taraha (The Manner of the Prophet’s Prayer, may God Bless Him and Grant Him Peace, From Start to Finish, As Though You Are Seeing It). At the level of methodology and identity, Salafis laid claim to the core Islamic notion of the Sunna or normative model of the Prophet, and in so doing portrayed the Sunna as the totality of the hadith – setting up tensions with the madhahib and their competing conceptualizations of Sunna, including with the Maliki notion of the Sunna as rooted in not only hadith but also early practice.
In northwest Africa, as the flow of pilgrims and students returning from the Hijaz and Egypt increased, intra-Maliki and Maliki-Salafi polemics raged over sadl versus qabd, and over raising the hands, for decades. These issues could divide congregations and feed upon various social and political tensions, with prayer postures sometimes proxying congregants’ larger attitudes about religious, political, and social hierarchies – a process that occurred in other parts of the Muslim world as well.
“In northwest Africa, as the flow of pilgrims and students returning from the Hijaz and Egypt increased, intra-Maliki and Maliki-Salafi polemics raged over sadl versus qabd, and over raising the hands, for decades.”
With time, traditionalist Maliki practice was challenged in parts of the region. Based on my own experiences in mosques in Mauritania’s capital Nouakchott and Mali’s capital Bamako (although not, it should be noted, in Senegal’s capital Dakar), many worshippers stand in qabd and raise their hands before and after prostrating. At the same time, debates over prayer postures – and over Salafism more broadly – proved wearying for many Muslims. It is in this context, where Salafism won in some ways but in so doing became partly diluted, that one can understand the approaches of some prominent Malikis today.
Contemporary Maliki Scholars
The core texts of the Maliki madhhab retain tremendous appeal as teaching texts and as authoritative sources on legal practice. More broadly, the core methods of classical Islamic instruction have survived and even thrived amid the transitions from manuscript to print culture and then to internet culture. Those methods center on the intensive, tutorial-style reading of a text, line by line, with a shaykh. Within all four madhahib and within the Salafi milieu, classical texts remain popular as points of departure for learning the law, hadith, or other subjects. The classical texts also continue to possess, for many Muslims, an aura of authority; the Maliki school, particularly its Mauritanian incarnation, also has developed a global image as a particularly pure and austere form of learning. Even amid the rise of a kind of “DIY Islam,” facilitated by the wide opportunities for self-study online and offline, studying a classical text with a shaykh can make lay Muslims today feel connected to the Islamic tradition as a whole. Significantly, for example, al-Azhar University, a bastion of traditionalism, has its own YouTube channel, facilitating this very process.
“Contemporary Maliki scholars, however, often go well beyond simply transmitting or commenting upon classical texts. Commentary was rarely ever rote; for centuries, commentaries served as a means of refining the school’s rulings and opening new vistas for the application of legal methodologies. The difference today, though, is that some key oral and written commentaries are istidlal-centric….”
Contemporary Maliki scholars, however, often go well beyond simply transmitting or commenting upon classical texts. Commentary was rarely ever rote; for centuries, commentaries served as a means of refining the school’s rulings and opening new vistas for the application of legal methodologies. The difference today, though, is that some key oral and written commentaries are istidlal-centric; older commentaries and advanced works often contained extended discussion of the evidence supporting rulings and opinions, but now some contemporary scholars place istidlal firmly in the foreground. The locus of istidlal is also changing, with mass audiences sometimes less interested in hearing evidence from the “mother books” of the school than in hearing direct citations from the Qur’an and the canonical hadith collections. Major exponents of the Maliki school take various paths for anchoring the school’s rulings in evidence from the source-texts of Islam, meaning the Qur’an but especially, in the present-day context, the hadith literature, given the surge of direct, lay access to hadith collections and given Salafis’ eagerness to deploy individual hadith reports as trump cards in intra-Muslim debates.
The Maliki scholars discussed here represent three paths for dalil-ization. The first path is simply to provide the underlying evidence for the school’s rulings, without throwing out any of those rulings. The second path is to teach a core text from the school but to dismiss certain rulings as being weak in light of hadith evidence. And the third path is to teach a hadith collection and explain the school’s rulings in light of the hadith. Given the complexity of these issues and the scholars’ respective positions within the political fields of their societies, the following discussion can only scratch the surface of where contemporary Malikism is heading.
The Tunisian scholar al-Habib Ben Taher, who comes out of Tunisia’s Zaytouna University, represents the first path. In his seven-volume Al-Fiqh al-Maliki wa-Adillatuhu (Maliki Fiqh and its Evidences), Ben Taher uses the works of Ahmad al-Dardir (d. 1204/1786), a major commentator and explicator of Khalil’s Mukhtasar, as a structuring device for his own dalil-based commentary. In the heavily footnoted text, Ben Taher moves through the school’s dominant rulings on each topic, providing the evidentiary basis for those rulings. Ben Taher’s approach is Maliki-centric; where possible, he provides hadith citations from Imam Malik’s Muwatta’ before citing other hadith collections. He routinely cites major classical thinkers within the school as well as a few twentieth-century Maliki heavyweights (particularly the Tunisian scholar Muhammad al-Tahir Ibn Ashur, [d. 1394/1973]) to convey their interpretations of the source-texts. The resulting work explains the Maliki school to its adherents and implicitly defends it against its critics, without giving much ground in terms of discarding any rulings from the school.
The Libyan scholar Sadiq al-Gharyani, who has served as Grand Mufti of Libya (in a highly contested and fragmented political environment), represents the second path. In his extensive (and still-being-uploaded) commentaries on al-Dardir’s commentary on Khalil’s Mukhtasar, al-Gharyani’s main goal is simply to explain the text. The Mukhtasar is terse to the point of being nearly incomprehensible without some level of commentary, and al-Dardir’s commentary can also be difficult, especially as he often gives substantial additional detail. As al-Gharyani proceeds, however, he not infrequently departs from the Maliki school’s dominant opinions on key points, always on the basis of hadith reports that he views as stronger, more numerous, or more probabilistic. On the issues of raising the hands before and after prostration, and of folding the hands across the chest, al-Gharyani breaks with the school. One notable element here, and with al-Kamali as discussed below, is that some contemporary Malikis present those decisions as matter of fact – whereas a generation or two prior, bitter polemics raged over these issues, now figures such as al-Gharyani and al-Kamali dispassionately present what they view as the stronger evidence and then move on. Al-Gharyani, notably, has also published extensively on the Maliki school and on other topics in Islam, and has his own five-volume dalil-based Maliki manual – offering a less traditionalist approach than Ben Taher’s.
Said al-Kamali, a popular Moroccan preacher, represents the third path. His extensive and unfinished oral commentary on Imam Malik’s Muwatta’ represents a remarkable exploration of the classical Islamic tradition as a whole, with frequent forays into hadith criticism, comparative jurisprudence, grammar, poetry, and biography. The resulting product is Maliki in multiple senses – al-Kamali consistently frames himself and the audience as Maliki, almost always referring to the school as something “we” do and follow; al-Kamali draws extensively on the works of the Maliki school, including Khalil’s Mukhtasar, to assist in the explanation of legal rulings; and Maliki opinions are always the center of gravity in his discussions of comparative jurisprudence. At the same time, like al-Gharyani, al-Kamali dispenses with certain Maliki opinions, including when it comes to prayer postures, providing the Maliki school’s reasoning but ultimately privileging hadith reports over the school’s dominant opinions and, in the case of contradictions, privileging strong hadiths over the practice of the people of Medina.
“Yet dalil-ization does not automatically mean Salafization. Al-Gharyani and al-Kamali sometimes pause, in their commentaries, to defend and celebrate the complexity of traditionalist jurisprudence. Without necessarily naming the Salafi movement, these Maliki thinkers dismiss as simplistic and even juvenile the technique of treating individual hadith reports as decisive…”
Yet dalil-ization does not automatically mean Salafization. Al-Gharyani and al-Kamali sometimes pause, in their commentaries, to defend and celebrate the complexity of traditionalist jurisprudence. Without necessarily naming the Salafi movement, these Maliki thinkers dismiss as simplistic and even juvenile the technique of treating individual hadith reports as decisive – al-Gharyani and al-Kamali point out that each report must be scrutinized, contextualized, interpreted and, perhaps most importantly, weighed against and where possible reconciled with other relevant narrations. Al-Gharyani and al-Kamali also connect themselves to previous generations of Maliki scholars in their respective countries and beyond, thus blending the “dalil paradigm” with a sense that trans-generational, shaykh-to-shaykh transmission is also key to religious authority. Salafism is thus implicitly or explicitly rejected on at least two counts: as methodologically simplistic and as too autodidactic.
These Malikis break with the school’s majority in various ways. They side with minority Maliki positions and in so doing end up implicitly or explicitly siding with other schools and/or with Salafis on specific issues, especially in the domain of prayer. They downgrade the probative value of the practice of the people of Medina. Also – at least in al-Gharyani’s and al-Kamali’s case – they embrace a literalist reading of God’s attributes, departing from the classical northwest African linkage of Malikism with the Ash‘ari theological school. Nevertheless, these Malikis reject the idea that the law is a straightforward process of digesting and then applying individual hadiths. The result is an intricate defense of the Maliki madhhab and the madhahib in general, as living traditions that offer lay Muslims a framework with continued relevance for practicing Islam, even as the landscape of Sunni Muslim authority is increasingly fragmented.
*I thank David Drennan and Matthew Steele for their insightful comments on an earlier draft of this article.
Alexander Thurston is Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Cincinnati. His publications include Salafism in Nigeria: Islam, Preaching and Politics; Boko Haram: The History of an African Jihadist Movement; and Jihadists of North Africa and the Sahel: Local Politics and Rebel Groups.