In Islam, when talking about Fiqh and Usul al-Fiqh, which is normally translated as “Jurisprudence,” though that doesn’t convene the full or exact meaning of the expressions, we deal with various “schools” of law. In Arabic these “schools” are called “maḍhab” (مذهب). These schools, which are named Hanafi, Hanbali, Shafi’i, Maliki (which are forming the four Sunni-schools), Jafari, and Zayidiyyah (forming the two Shi’a-schools), convey various approaches to how to deduce law from the primary sources (for Sunni-Islam they are the Quran and the Sunnah, compiled in the six works of Hadith, for Shi’a-Islam they are the Quran, the four works on Hadith, as well as the sayings of the Imams), which are not clear.
So today we have two major streams of Islam, namely Sunni- and Shi’a-Islam, which each have a number of “schools,” structured around a number of authorities. I am aware, of course, that there are more streams and groups than just the ones mentioned here, but we have to keep a certain focus, in order to get – at least – a basic understanding of things at hand.
Why do I state all this? Well, when I was sitting and studying the principles of the four Sunna-schools (please forgive me all you Shi’as, I haven’t forgotten you, just need to keep one thing at a time), suddenly thought about the Jewish ditto, or rather, whether there is a Jewish ditto, whether we can make some comparison between the Islamic situation and the Jewish situation. For example, in Judaism we talk about two major traditional schisms, namely the Ashkenazi and the Sfaradi, normally being translated to the “Western” and the “Oriental” traditions, though this is highly misleading. These two traditions are again parted in smaller traditions with their differences. These two traditions are being expressed in laws, prayers, and attitudes. For example, during Pessah, Passover, Ashkenazim do not eat “kidniyot,” rice and the like, while Sfaradim do. There are also differences in prayers, not so much in which prayers we pray, though also, but more dialects and certain wordings being different between the two traditions. The most well-known difference, I think, is the time we wait between eating meat and milk, which is six hours for the Sfaradim and three or one hour for Ashkenazim (again depending on which stream you belong to).
But the Sfaradi-Ashkenazi schism isn’t the one I’m focused on the most, since it doesn’t refer much to what is at stake when we talk about the Islamic schools of law, at least, that is, I don’t feel that it is so. I’d rather focus on the schism between the schools of Eretz Yisrael, the Palestinian schools, and that of Babylon, which laid the foundation for the two Talmuds, the Bavli and the Yerushalmi. Of course, these were finished in around 650 CE and 425 CE respectively, but the two areas kept on having a mutual struggle and disagreement of authority, which – among other things – can be witnessed by the fight for authority on the calendar between Sa’adia Gaon and R. Meir, Z”L.
In order to get to a better understanding on the similarities, if any, between the two religions, I need to establish a basis for comparison. I have chosen to focus on the understanding of the term maḍhab, in order to see if the two religions share any basis in the foundation of their legal traditions. The problem here is that we don’t have a term in Judaism which answers to the Islamic term maḍhab, at least not what I know of, so in order to find out what can be compared, we need to know what to compare with, the mentioning of the term maḍhab not being enough, at least not in the understanding of “school,” for what does a “school” constitute.
More on that the following days.