The Ja’fari School

Part 14 in a series

Having covered the four prominent Sunni schools of fiqh, we now move on to the Ja’fari school, the pre-eminent Shi’a school. This school is followed by most Twelver and Ismaili Shi’a, and is therefore prominent in Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, and most other places with substantial Shi’a populations. There are some key differences between the Ja’fari school and the Sunni schools, but despite the theological distinctions between Sunni and Shi’a, numerous rulings have been issued clarifying that seeking Ja’fari counsel is appropriate for Shi’a and Sunni alike. The Amman Message made it clear: you do not have to be a Shi’a to follow this school, although the majority of its followers are Shi’a.

The Ja’fari school is named after the Sixth Imam, Jafar al-Sadiq. He was a descendant of the Prophet Mohammed (pbuh) and, according to Shi’a tradition, carried infallible authority, like the other imams. The Shi’a position is that, rather than specifically referring to the authority of Jafar, the school relies on the authority and wisdom of the ahl al-bayt, the House of the Prophet (his family and descendants, specifically the Fourteen Infallibles of the Twelver tradition). According to the Shi’a, they are the true and proper interpreters of the Quran, and their wisdom should guide the Islamic world. The reason the school specifically bears Jafar’s name is that during his lifetime he was an accomplished jurist who taught many students and collected hadith narratives. It is difficult to unwind which books were written by him and which by his students, but he is known to be the intellectual father of Shi’a fiqh. Books written by his students include Usul al-Kafi by al-Kulayni, Man La Yahduruh al-Faqih by al-Saduq, and al-Tahdib and al-Istibsar by al-Tusi (the so-called “Three Muhammads”).

One area in which the Ja’fari school notably diverges from Sunni schools is its acceptance of ijtihad over qiyas. This is not the same as ra’y or personal opinion; ijtihad is extended, meticulous consideration meant to derive a novel rule based on known information. Moreso than Sunni schools, the Ja’fari school takes into account factors such as time and place to properly contextualize rulings. In the Shi’a tradition, ijtihad is mainly an attempt to derive what the ruling of the Imam would be, were he present. Given that the Imams are infallible, figuring out how they would have ruled can generate an authentic ruling with the force of law.

In order to guide the people to follow only properly constructed laws, four categories of rulings were introduced. First is qat, or certainty; next is zann, or valid conjecture; third is shakk, or doubt; and finally comes wahm or erroneous conjecture. These epistemic rankings can help determine whether a specific ruling must be abided by and what consequences should follow for failing to do so.

The Ja’fari school is known for a few specific rulings. For instance, mu’tah or temporary marriage is still allowed by the school — it allows two people to marry for a set time under contract, which expires automatically at the end of its duration. Though it has been criticized as sexually licentious by some scholars, mu’tah services the function of allowing young people who lack the time and resources to commit to a permanent marriage a degree of freedom to engage in romantic activities without committing adultery or other sins.

There is one other Shi’a school, which I will cover next. After that, I’d like to discuss some of the political challenges facing the schools and sharia in general. As always, I welcome any questions, comments or suggestions.

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