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Comparative study on the law schools and overall structure of Islam and Judaism – Defining the Schisms



Considering finding the comparison of the evolution of the Jewish maḍhab, I think there are some things that need to be in place, before we can begin the comparison. First off, one of the reasons the various maḍâhib appeared was the internal split as well as the geographical distance between the centers. People became more focused on their local center than on the overall center. When do we see the same in Judaism? Another thing which needs to be in place, is the acknowledgment of the same basic sources. When talking about Islam the split in the legal sources is the Sunnah and the Imams, where the Shi’as don’t acknowledge the Sunni compilations of Hadith, so the Sunnis don’t acknowledge the Shi’a ditto as well as the status of the Imams. Within the Sunni maḍâhib the basic sources where agreed upon, as they were, I believe, in the case of the Shi’a maḍâhib.

So we have two levels of comparison here. One is in the schism of disagreement on basic sources, that is, the sources considered holy and thus basic for further understanding of Allah’s will, the other the schisms within the major movements, where it is a question more about different principles in the interpretation of these sources, than the sources themselves.

When I think of examples on the first schism in Judaism, I find many and from various periods of time. During the Biblical times the obvious example is that of the Samarians and the Judeans. During the time of the Second Temple there are the schisms between the Pharisees and the Sadducees, the Essenes and the other Jewish groups (in regards to the status of the Temple as well as the priesthood of the Essenes), and later on between the Rabbinic Jews and the Karaites. Today we might even talk about the schism between the Orthodox on the one hand and the Reform on the other (with the Conservative movement somewhere in between). What is worthwhile to notice here is that we are talking about schisms, which emphasis the struggle on who are the right ones to define what “true Judaism” is, that is, where do we put the limits. That is also the case in the Islamic schism between the Sunnis and the Shi’as. Of course, which I dare say is obvious, it doesn’t mean that the two parts in each schism, whether Jewish or Muslim, denies the other side’s right to leave an imprint on the religion, as well as the case can be that sometimes the one part denies the other side’s right, while the other side acknowledge the right of the first side.

The schisms which I believe cannot be placed within this category of schisms, let’s call it the Schism of Who is Right, are those of the Ashkenazim and Sfaradim, and that of the Talmuds Yerushalmi and Bavli, simply because we have two sides, in both cases, agreeing on the basic sources.

This leaves me though with maybe even more work. First off, which groups should I focus on? It is clear that I need to decide on whether I focus on the Rabbinical Jews, the Sadducees, the Reform, the Sunni, or the Shi’as, for the sake of focus. Second off, I also need to establish whether we can find examples on the maḍâhib in all cases. Maybe I find it among the, let’s say, Karaites, but it doesn’t mean that it exists in the case of the Sadducees. I need to define my approach, my focus, and be able to explain why I chose that focus.


Some recommended reading:


“Studies in Usul al-Fiqh,” Iyad Hilal, can be found at www.islamic-truth.fsnet.co.uk

“Principles of Islamic Jurisprudence,” M. H. Kamali, can easily be found by search on Google.

“Hadith : Muhammad’s Legacy in the Medieval and Modern World,” Jonathan A. C. Brown. Oneworld Publication, 2009.

“The Most Learned of the Shi’a: The Institution of the Marja’ Taqlid,” edited by Linda S. Walbridge. Oxford University Press, 2001.

“Introduction to Islamic Theology and Law,” Ignaz Goldziher (translated by Andras and Ruth Hamori). Princeton University Press, 1981.

“Halakha in the Making: The Development of Jewish Law from Qumran to the Rabbis,” Aharon Shemesh. University of California Press, 2009.

“The Talmud: A Selection,” Edited by Norman Solomon. Penguin Books Ltd, 2009.

“Who Owns Judaism? Public Religion and Private Faith in America and Israel,” edited by Eli Lederhendler. Oxford University Press, 2001.

“For the Love of God and People: A Philosophy on Jewish Law,” Elliot N. Dorff. The Jewish Publication Society, 2007.

“An Introduction to the History and Sources of Jewish Law,” edited by N. S. Hecht, B. S. Jackson, S. M. Passamaneck, D. Piatelli, and A. M. Rabello. Oxford University Press, 1996.

“The Sages,” R. Ephraim Urbach. The Magnes Press, 1987.

“The Halakhah: Its Sources and Development,” R. Ephraim Urbach. Modan Ltd, 1996.

Comparative study on the law schools and overall structure of Islam and Judaism



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.