What makes a madhab a madhab: Zaydi debates on the structure of legal authority

Bernard Haykel, Aron Zysow

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

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Over the centuries Zaydis have been called upon to respond to a series of challenges from within and without to the internal cohesion of their tradition. Noting that Zaydis did not commonly follow the legal opinions of their eponym Zayd b. 'Ali (d. 112/740), Sunni critics challenged them to justify their adoption of the label Zaydi. The classical response was provided by the Yemeni imam al-Mans r 'Abd Allah b. H amza (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, Zaydi jurists widely adopted the theory that all qualified legal experts (mug?tahids), including the Zaydi imams, were equally correct. More technical were the questions that came to surround the character of the legal school (madhab) that became dominant among Yemeni Zaydis. 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 Ishaq b. Yusuf's (d. 1173/1760) short poem, 'Uqud al-taskik, which directly challenged Yemeni Zaydis to clarify their legal identity. Equally challenged was the structure of authority of all the Sunni madhabs, 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-Tafkik li-'Uqud al-taskik. While several respondents sought to affirm the viability of the legal school, others, notably Ibn al-Amir al-S?an'ani (d. 1182/1769) and Muhammad b. 'Ali al-Sawkani (d. 1250/1834), argued that it could not be saved. Their objections to traditional legal authority (taqlid ) within Zaydism were widely disseminated by 19th-and 20th-century Muslim reformers interested in undermining the Sunni schools of law and continue to enjoy great currency.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)332-371
Number of pages40
Issue number3-4
StatePublished - 2012

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Cultural Studies
  • Language and Linguistics
  • Religious studies
  • Literature and Literary Theory


  • Igtihad
  • Legal Authority
  • Mudakirun
  • Muhassilun
  • School of Law
  • Si'ism
  • Tahrig
  • Taqlid
  • Taswib
  • Zaydism
  • madhab


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