The Higher Objectives of Islamic Law (Maqasid Ash-Shariah)

Islam provides us with certain rules that help us live the way Allah wants us to. In the Quran and the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), there are several do’s and don’ts, as well as recommendations. Collectively, these practical teachings are known as the Shariah, which linguistically means ‘path’ or ‘way’.

Sometimes, it might seem there is no purpose behind these rules; and that they’re only there to test us whether we’ll obey Allah or not. This is tantamount to being told to stand on one leg for no good reason except to test your obedience.

For example, the Quran mentions in the story of Prophet Dawud (David, peace be upon him);

{When Talut (Saul) set out with his forces, he said to them, ‘Allah will test you with a river. Anyone who drinks from it will not belong with me, but anyone who refrains from tasting it will belong with me; if he scoops up just one handful (he will be excused).’ But they all drank (deep) from it, except for a few.} (Al-Baqarah 2:249)

The Quran makes it clear that this was merely a test of obedience for the soldiers. There was nothing intrinsically wrong with drinking the water.

Pressing Questions

The questions then arise: what about all the rules that Islam has prescribed? Are the obligations to speak the truth, be just, wear modest clothing, pray, fast, and give charity, just tests of obedience, with no intrinsic value? 

Is avoiding alcohol, drugs, pork, adultery and fornication, interest and usury, and slander also just a test of pure obedience? Or is there some greater purpose behind these rules?

Muslim scholars asked these same questions thousands of years ago. They concluded that there is a definitive purpose, not to just some of the rules in Islam, but all of them.

History

One of the earliest Muslim scholars to discuss in detail the underlying purpose behind the teachings in Islamic Law was the Sufi philosopher Al-Hakim At-Tirmidhi. He searched for the hidden wisdom behind the legal rulings in his writings and was one of the first scholars to employ the term ‘higher objectives of Islamic Law’ (Maqasid Ash-Shariah).

The term Maqsad, plural Maqasid, may be translated as ‘higher objective’ or ‘underlying intent’. It refers to the end result of what something is aiming to accomplish.

It became clear to early Muslim scholars, after analyzing all the rules in Islam, that beyond the apparent objective of every rule, it also had a higher objective which is to ultimately achieve benefit (maslahah) for people or prevent harm (mafsadah) from them.

Furthermore, they understood that the intent and higher objective is sometimes explicit in the Quran and Sunnah. But at other times requires a deep understanding of how Islam manifests with the framework of time and space.

Later, scholars of Usul Al-Fiqh (Jurisprudence Principles) such as Al-Juwayni in his Al-Burhan and his disciple Al-Ghazzali in Al-Mustasfa were among the thinkers that developed the idea of Maqasid further.

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