Within Shī’ī Imāmī theology, when it comes to jurisprudence there is no real difference between the Prophet’s (p) time and the time of the Imāms (a). The scholars consider all narrations reported on the authority of either the Prophet (p) or any of the Imāms (a) as one and the same. Thus, if there ever appears a contradiction in the apparent meanings of these traditions, the scholars will treat it as a case of conflicting traditions, not that the Prophetic tradition has precedence over that of the Imāms (a).
The Ahl al-Sunnah, on the other hand, deem the Prophetic era to be a precedent and the era of the companions and their followers to simply be an era where these individuals were transmitting and interpreting the statements of the Prophet (p).
Nevertheless, we can still divide the first era into smaller periods of time. First of them being the Prophet’s (p) lifetime which we can further separate into the Meccan and Medinan periods, and the Imāms (a) lives can be divided into four periods: 1) Before Imām al-Bāqir (a), 2) Imām al-Bāqir (a) to the early stages of Imām al-Kāẓim (a), 3) Imām al-Kāẓim (a) until minor occultation and 4) Minor occultation until the beginning of the major occultation.
When we look at the lifetime of the Prophet (p) we see that two of the most important sources of jurisprudence were revealed during his 23 years, the Qurān and the Sunnah. The Qurān is the most important source for Islam, its theology and laws. The statements of the Prophet (p) constitute a part and parcel of the religion of Islam. Historians have generally accepted that the Meccan period was primarily foundational and the notion of tawḥīd was being put forth. The Medinan period, however, is mostly concerned with law. Fāḍil Miqdād al-Suyūrī (d. 826 AH) in his work Kanz al-‘Irfān believes there are 400 verses of the Qurān that concern law, and many of these verses have repetitions in them. For example, many verses mention that the prayers should be established and zakāt needs to be given. If one omits these omissions, we are left with roughly 300 verses.
These verses cover topics of ṭahārah, ḥudūd, wuḍū, tayammum and so on. They range from laws that concern solely an individual to those that concern a society, politics, family life etc. In narrations, one will find traditions complementing these verses and provide further explanations.
Ibn Ḥajr al-Asqalānī in his work Bulūgh al-Marām also compiles 1,520 narrations (though some are mawqūf) that concern jurisprudence (from taḥārah, jihād, tayammum, wuḍū, ṣalāt etc.) and at the end, there is a section on ethics.
Did the Companions do Ijtihād?
There is a popular view amongst the Ahl al-Sunnah that the Prophet (p) on many occasions also did ijtihād in different matters. The Shī’as have generally rejected this idea, but it does seem that the Prophet (p) would do ijtihād in issuing laws that concerned socio-political matters, or in cases where an application of a law was to be determined. This is important because if we know that the Prophet (p) did ijtihād in some matters of executing a law, then it is possible for a later Imām or even a jurist to come and do their own ijtihād in its execution. As a clear example, in our traditions, it indicates that Imām ‘Alī (a) applied Zakāt on horses, something not done at the Prophet’s (p) time.
‘Alī b. Ibrahīm narrates from his father, from Ḥammād b. ‘Īsa from Ḥarīz from Muḥammad b. Muslim and Zurārah who said the following: “The two Imams (a) have said that Amīr al-Mu’minīn levied two dinār of Zakāt on every Arabian horse every year and one dinār of Zakāt on non-Arabian horses.”
It seems apparent that the Prophet (p) had legislated certain laws that were directly in accordance to his specific time and geographical conditions, particularly certain societal and political laws. Even if we say that the laws themselves were not a matter of ijtihād, we can definitely argue that their applications in certain cases were a matter of ijtihād by the Prophet (p).
We know for sure that many of the companions of the Imāms (a) did ijthād and even issued verdicts, however what about the companions of the Prophet (p)? Even during the Prophet’s (p) time there are a few instances where we find the companions doing ijtihād. For example, when the Prophet (p) sent Mu’ādh b. Jabal to Yemen, he (p) was pleased with him doing his own ijtihād when required.
Some men who were companions of Mu’ādh narrated from Mu’ādh that the Messenger of Allah (p) sent Mu’ādh to Yemen, so he (p) said:
“How will you judge?” He said: “I will judge according to what is in Allah’s Book.” He said: “If it is not in Allah’s Book?” He said: “Then with the Sunnah of the Messenger of Allah (p).” He said: “If it is not in the Sunnah of Messenger of Allah (p)?” He said: “I will give in my view (ajtahidu ra’yī).” He said: “All praise is due to Allah, the One Who made the messenger of the Messenger of Allah suitable.”
There are various other examples in the works of Ahl al-Sunnah and as well as in works of history that show the companions engaging in ijtihād. Often times these reports show that the Prophet (p) was satisfied with what they did, or at times reprimanded the conclusions they reached but not necessarily condemned their attempt to do ijtihād itself.
In a sermon recorded in Nahj al-Balāgha, Imām ‘Alī (a) explains how the companions would understand or misunderstand the words of the Prophet (p) and this could very well have also been a reason for ijtihād amongst the companions.
The sayings of the Prophet used to be of two types. One was particular and the other common. Sometimes a man would hear him but he would not know what Allah, the Glorified, meant by it or what the Messenger of Allah meant by it. In this way, the listener carries it and memorises it without knowing its meaning and its real intention, or what was its reason.
Among the companions of the Messenger of Allah all were not in the habit of putting him questions and ask him the meanings, indeed they always wished that some Bedouin or stranger might come and ask him (peace be upon him) so that they would also listen. Whenever any such thing came before me, I asked him about its meaning and preserved it. These are the reasons and grounds of differences among the people in their traditions.
Some Sunnī scholars, like Ibn Ḥazm in al-Iḥqān fī Uṣūl al-Aḥkām, and Ibn Qayyim al-Jawzīyya in his I’lām al-Mawqi’īn divide the companions into three categories: Those who issued a lot of edicts (mukthirūn), those who would issue edicts sometimes (mutawassiṭūn), and those who would issue very few edicts (muqillūn).
Amongst the group of mukthirūn, names include:
- Imām ‘Alī
- ‘Umar b. Khaṭṭāb
- ‘Abdullah b. ‘Umar
- ‘Abdullah b. ‘Abbās
- ‘Abdullah b. Mas’ūd
- Zayd b. Thābit
Amongst the group of mutawassiṭūn, names include:
- Umm Salamah
- Anas b. Mālik
- Abū Sa’īd al-Khudrī
- Abū Ḥurayrah
- Uthmān b. ‘Affān
- Abū Bakr
- ‘Abdullah b. Amr ‘Ās (scribe)
- ‘Abdullah b. Zubayr
- Abū Mūsa al-Ash’arī
- Sa’d b. Abī Waqqās
- Salmān Fārsī
- Jābir b. ‘Abdullah al-Anṣārī
- Mu’ādh b. Jabal
Era of the Imams – Before Imām al-Bāqir (a)
The political roles of the Prophet (p) and that of Imām ‘Alī (a) have only been given a lot more thought over the last century, particularly due to the Islamic Revolution in Iran. This has resulted in a whole series of jurisprudential discussions concerning politics. Imām ‘Alī (a) himself seems to have possessed a book with matters of law in it, and later Imāms do seem to reference it in some of the traditions. From a theological perspective, some Shī’ī scholars argue that the later Imāms referencing the book of ‘Alī (a) was for themselves to show that they have something dating back to the time of the Prophet (p) so as to garner trust amongst the laity.
However, between Imām al-Ḥasan (a) to Imām al-Sajjād’s (a) we do not have a lot of jurisprudential narrations or discussions taking place. There is also a tradition in Uṣūl al-Kāfi to this extent, where it states:
…The Shī’a before Abū Ja’far (Imām al-Bāqir) did not know the rules of Ḥajj, the lawful matters and the unlawful matters until there was Abū Ja’far (a). He opened the system of religion for them and explained to them the rules of their Hajj, as well as the lawful and unlawful matters. People began to realize that they needed him very much while before they would ask other people for what they needed. This is how the facts are.
Imām al-Bāqir (a) to the Beginning of the Minor Occultation
This period, especially the lives of al-Bāqir to Imām al-Kāẓim (a) were crucial periods for the development of Shī’ī jurisprudence. The Imāms began to encourage their companions to write down all that they would learn from them. This became a popular practice to the extent that 400 Aṣl works were compiled by various companions. An Aṣl was an independent work written by a direct student of an Imām or a student of a student, where traditions that were transmitted in classes would have been compiled. The Aṣl works were not restricted to one subject matter except in a few cases, like the Aṣl of Ḥarīz which was about prayers. These 400 Aṣl works became the basis for many later significant works such as Uṣūl al-Kāfī and Tahdhīb al-Aḥkām.
It was also this period that produced the greatest Shī’ī scholars, such as Zurārah, Ḥarīz, Abān b. Taghlib and so on. Various principles, such as the principle of continuity (istiṣḥāb), that are discussed in jurisprudence and legal theory can also be dated back to this era.
After Imām al-Kāẓim (a) as the political situation got difficult for the Shī’as, even though Imām al-Riḍā (a) had a special political role, not a lot of traditions concerning jurisprudence were recorded during this period before the minor occultation. Nevertheless, both ijtihād and fatwas existed during the time of the Imāms, and companions who were residing in distant cities often had to resort to it within their communities.
 The book has also been translated into Persian
 Uṣūl al-Kāfī, vol. 3, Kitāb al-Zakāt, ch. 17, h. #1
 Jāmi’ al-Tirmidhī – https://sunnah.com/tirmidhi/15/7
 The original source of this sermon is Kitāb Sulaym b. Qays, and the authenticity of this book is contested. Source: https://www.al-islam.org/nahjul-balagha-part-1-sermons/sermon-210-certainly-what-current-among-people
 Uṣūl al-Kāfi, vol. 2, book 1, ch. 10, h. #6
Sayyid Ali Imran studied in the seminary of Qom from 2012 to 2021, while also concurrently obtaining a M.A in Islamic Studies from The Islamic College of London in the summer of 2018. He continued his seminary studies in legal theory, jurisprudence and philosophy, eventually attending the advanced kharij of Usul and Fiqh in 2018. He is also a regular instructor for Mizan Institute.