Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Interesting Perspectives: Towards Understanding the Islamic Legal Mind

Assalamu 'alaykum warahmatullahi wabarakatuh

I have to forewarn readers that the following mas'alah is not for the faint-hearted (lol).

We've seen in a previous post a perspective that Ibn Hisham al-Ansari has put forward to explain the kasrah & fathah readings of the lam of أرجلكم in the Wudhu' verse. However, it should be added that Ibn Hisham's perspective did not necessarily affect the legal conclusions already drawn from this and other related legal texts on the issue in any significant way. For Ibn Hisham it appears merely to have been an issue of having to account linguistically that is, for the two variant readings since in the final analysis you still have to wash your feet even if just lightly. I don'y doubt if one scrutinises his perspective more closely then it might have some minor legal implications, but that was not what Ibn Hisham's explanation is really all about.

Anyhow, I would like to move on to another mas'alah also pertaining to Wudhu' but this time from a more legal perspective. It should be borne in mind that a legal analysis does not necessarily a linguistic or hermeneutical analysis. If you are going to deal with textual evidence then it is always going to involve language and more speficially interpretation which falls within the ambit of language study. Anyone with only minimal understanding of Usul al-Fiqh knows the imprtance accorded to language when it concerns the process of extrapolating legal meaning or values from the primary Islamic texts.

The mas'alah that I would like to discuss is the verdict or ruling on washing your hands before dipping them in the ablution container as treated in Ibn Rushd's masterpiece "Bidayah al-Mujtahid wa Nihayah al-Muqtasid" which is a comparative Fiqh manual that really takes you to the heart and crux of the matter in every mas'alah that it discusses, and our current mas'alah is no exception. The heart of the matter for Ibn Rushd is the reason for disagreement on a particular legal issue, which he never fails to mention as well as systematically unpack in every mas'alah in which there is disagreement amongst the jurists.

The analysis that I'm providing here is imported from a discussion forum ( on which I discussed the mas'alah together with a brief treatment of Ibn Rushd's methodology as explained very succinctly and systematically in his introduction to the al-Bidayah. So without any further ado, I here quote what I have stated over there:
Issue 1: Washing one’s hands before placing them in the ablution container

The first mas’alah (legal issue) that we will be discussing from a linguistic perspective is the mas’alah dealing with the washing of one’s hands before placing them into the wudhu contain. The Arabic text can be obtained from this link. Ibn Rushd treats this mas’alah in section on wudhu under the sub-heading of “the Rules pertaining to Wudhu”.

This mas’alah is particularly interesting in that it shows how a single text can often give rise to multiple and diverse interpretations based on how and from which angle the text is viewed. The text under discussion is a single hadith from the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him), the wording of which goes as follows:

‏‏"‏إذا استيقظ أحدكم من نومه فليغسل يده قبل أن يدخلها الإناء، فإن أحدكم لا يدري أين باتت يده"

(When one of you wakes up from his sleep, then let him wash his hand before placing them into the container, for he does not know where his hand has spent the night).

In another wording of the hadith, it states: "فلْيَغْسِلْهَا ثَلاَثاً" (… let him wash it thrice…)

Ibn Rushd states that there exist four views on the issue of washing one’s hands before placing them into the ablution container:

(1) it is an established practice of the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) even should the hands be believed to be clean,

(2) it is recommended in the case of someone who is in doubt concerning his hands being clean,

(3) it is compulsory in the case of someone who has woken up from sleep (whether nighttime or daytime sleep), and

(4) it is compulsory in the case of someone who has woken up from nighttime sleep only.

These four views, Ibn Rushd says, are the result of the interpretation of a single authentic hadith which is the one mentioned above.

In my view, there are two aspects of the mas’alah that warrant our consideration:

(1) the degree of binding force contained in the command indicated by the Prophet’s words: "فلْيَغْسِلْهَا" , (via the Lam al-Amr):

The general view is that a command in whichever form signifies obligation / compulsion unless there is something else that brings it down to the level of mere recommendation. Here the scholars differ concerning the command in this hadith in terms of the degree of “bindingness”, due to disagreement on how they view additions to what is already mentioned in the Wudhu verse as regards the compulsory elements that comprise Wudhu. Those that view the addition in the hadith not to be in conflict with the elements stated in the Wudhu verse, interpret the command in the hadith as signifying obligation / compulsion, whereas those who maintain that a conflict exists between the Qur’anic text on the one hand and the Prophetic text on the other hand, bring the degree of legal force in the command down to that of recommendation. Moreover, should it have been established that the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) regularly and consistently washed his hands before dipping them into the container, then the degree of binding force is raised to that of an established Prophetic practice. This, then, is as regards the binding force contained in the command-expression in the hadith.

(2) the category of person that the washing of hands applies to as indicated by the following expressions in the hadith: "إذا استيقظ أحدكم من نومه" (when one of you wakes up from his sleep …) and,"فإن أحدكم لا يدري أين باتت يده" (… for he does not know where his hand has spent the night):

The main point here is what exactly does the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) mean when he says: “when one of you wakes up from his sleep” and “… for he does not know where his hand has spent the night”? Does he mean that the command to wash one’s hands only applies to:

- someone waking up from sleep (without qualification as to whether it is nocturnal or daytime sleep), and the fact that he used the verb باتت (to sleep during the night, spend the night) is of no consequence, or

- someone waking up from nighttime sleep only because of the Prophet’s use of the verb باتت , or

- someone who is in doubt as to whether or not his hands are clean, and that the one sleeping is only an instance of someone who is in doubt.

The latter interpretation seems to be supported by the Prophet’s words: فإن أحدكم لا يدري (for he does not know …) such that if he did know, then the ruling would have different. Thus, “he who wakes up from sleep’ is a particular expression used in the general sense of “someone in a state of doubt”.

Finally, Ibn Rushd concludes with the interesting observation that the apparent meaning of the hadith is not so much about whether or not washing one’s hands constitutes a part of Wudhu rather it is about not contaminating the water in the container with potentially dirty or filthy hands. The former is a ruling that pertains to the hands with respect to them being the first act in Wudhu, and the second is a ruling that pertains to the water with respect to it being contaminated by potentially filthy hands based on the view that doubt can have legal effects or consequences. Ibn Rushd states that the hadith can be interpreted either way.

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