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What Makes a Maḏhab a Maḏhab: Zaydī debates on the structure of legal authority

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Abstract Over the centuries Zaydīs have been called upon to respond to a series of challenges from within and without to the internal cohesion of their tradition. Noting that Zaydīs did not commonly follow the legal opinions of their eponym Zayd b. ʿAlī (d. 112/740), Sunnī critics challenged them to justify their adoption of the label Zaydī. The classical response was provided by the Yemeni imam al-Manṣūr ʿAbd Allāh b. Ḥamza (d. 614/1217), who explained affiliation to Zayd in theological and political terms. Within Zaydism itself, however, disagreement among leading imams on questions of law occasioned dissent among their followers. To counter this threat to unity within their ranks, Zaydī jurists widely adopted the theory that all qualified legal experts (muğtahids), including the Zaydī imams, were equally correct. More technical were the questions that came to surround the character of the legal school (maḏhab) that became dominant among Yemeni Zaydīs. These concerned both the source of the legal opinions that made up the doctrine of the school and the related question of the school’s structure of authority. These historical and theoretical questions acquired a particular urgency from the 11th/17th century and were popularized with the circulation of Isḥāq b. Yūsuf’s (d. 1173/1760) short poem, ʿUqūd al-taškīk, which directly challenged Yemeni Zaydīs to clarify their legal identity. Equally challenged was the structure of authority of all the Sunnī maḏhabs, and therefore issues raised here pertain to Islamic law more generally. This poem evoked a variety of responses in prose and verse, including a short treatise by the poem’s author, al-Tafkīk li-ʿUqūd al-taškīk. While several respondents sought to affirm the viability of the legal school, others, notably Ibn al-Amīr al-Ṣanʿānī (d. 1182/1769) and Muḥammad b. ʿAlī al-Šawkānī (d. 1250/1834), argued that it could not be saved. Their objections to traditional legal authority (taqlīd) within Zaydism were widely disseminated by 19th- and 20th-century Muslim reformers interested in undermining the Sunnī schools of law and continue to enjoy great currency.

Affiliations: 1: Princeton University

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