Reason and Sharia in Sayyid Sistani’s Thought

By Hamid Reza Tamaddon | Translated by Shayan Shirazi

Ayatullah Sistani is one of the few jurists who has attracted the attention of researchers due to some of the similarities that exist in his lessons and ideas with discussions on the philosophy of law, as well as his special consideration of general expediency (maṣlaḥa). This highlights the importance of addressing these ideas more than ever.

Some of his ideas in this regard—which I have written about before—concern things such as legal authority (iʿtibār qānūnī)[1], special consideration of the objectives and spirit of the Sharīʿa, emphasis on the element of ‘right’ instead of ‘duty’ in his writings and statements, and belief in the centrality of general expediency (maṣāliḥ) in the practice of general guardianship (wilāya ʿāma) by the Prophet (s) and the Imāms (a).

Another one of Ayatullah Sistani’s noteworthy views can be found in his perspective on the relation between reason (ʿaql) and the Sharīʿa (in its general sense). While discussing the authoritativeness of solitary reports (khabar al-wāḥid) in his lessons on Mabāḥith al-Ḥujaj (transcribed by Sayyid Muḥammad ʿAlī Rabbānī), Ayatullah Sistani refers to the criteria that Muḥaqqiq al-Ḥillī transmits from Shaykh al-Mufīd in Maʿārij al-Uūl—which, of course, deserves a separate study on the difference between what Muḥaqqiq al-Ḥillī transmits and the transmissions in books of uṣūl of later generations. According to Maʿārij al-Uūl, Shaykh al-Mufīd’s belief is as follows:

قال شيخنا المفيد « ره » : خبر الواحد القاطع للعذر هو الذي يقترن إليه دليل يفضى بالنظر فيه إلى العلم، وربما يكون ذلك اجماعا أو شاهدا من عقل ، أو حاكما من قياس

Our Shaykh al-Mufīd (r) says: a solitary report that unequivocally exonerates [a person who acts upon it] is that which is accompanied with evidence that, when considered, leads to knowledge, and this [evidence] may be consensus, or supporting evidence from the intellect (ʿaql), or a judgement from analogy.[2]

This statement can be studied and researched from different perspectives. For example, at first glance, questions such as these come to mind:

1. How did Shaykh al-Mufīd name qīyās (analogical reasoning) among the criteria for evaluating solitary reports when, when he writes a rebuttal to his own teacher Ibn al-Junayd [al-Iskāfī] for the latter’s belief in qīyās?

2. Is there a connection between this belief of Shaykh al-Mufīd with the belief in Sunnī uṣūl al-fiqh of qīyās as one of the preferences in cases of conflicting evidence? In other words, is it possible that Shaykh al-Mufīd, like some Sunnī uṣūlī scholars, accepts agreement with qīyās as one of the preferences in cases of conflicting evidence?

Shaykh al-Anṣārī addresses this issue and provides a general report on it in Farā’id al-Uṣūl. For example, he names Sayyid al-Mujāhid as one of those who believed in the preference of qīyās in the instance of contradictory evidence, based on statements in Mafātīḥ al-Uṣūl, and proceeds to critique this view.[3]

3. How have uṣūlī works after Maʿārij transmitted and explained this statement [of Shaykh al-Mufīd]?

Of course, it seems that Ayatullah Sistani’s interpretation of the aforementioned qīyās is significant and must be addressed at another time.

Another noteworthy point is Ayatullah Sistani’s interpretation of the phrase “or a supporting evidence from the intellect (ʿaql)” in Shaykh al-Mufīd’s statement. In Mabāḥith al-Ḥujaj, he says:

والشاهد من العقل – بحسب ما نعتقد أنه ينبغي تفسيره به – هو عبارة عن ما تقدم توضيحه في مبحث الحسن والقبح العقلي وهو أنّه قانون فطري ملهم أودعه الله تعالى في النفوس البشرية، ونسبة هذا القانون الطبيعي إلى الشرائع الإلهية التي يؤديها الأنبياء (عليهم السلام) نسبة الأصول والأم إلى الفروع والمتفرعات، فإنّ الأنبياء (عليهم السلام) يبيّنون ما يكون مجملاً من هذه القوانين المرتكزة والمودعة في الذهن البشري، ويحدّدون مبهمها وغير متعينها، ويكمّلون ما كان فيه من قصور. فإنّ نسبة الشرائع الإلهية خاصة الشريعة الإسلامية بالنسبة إلى ما أودعه الله في الضمير الإنساني الذي فالهمها فجورها و تقواها نسبة المبين

The supporting evidence from the intellect (ʿaql)—according to how we believe it should be interpreted—means that which has been previously explained in the discussion of the intelligibility of good and evil (moral rationalism). It is an inspired innate (fiṭrī) law that God, the Exalted, has entrusted in the souls of mankind. The relation between this natural law and the divine Sharāʾiʿ (plural of Sharīʿa) brought by the Prophets (upon them be peace) is a relation of roots to branches, of the foundation to derivatives. For the Prophets (upon them be peace) elucidate a general summary of these laws, which are based and entrusted in the human mind, and they define what is ambiguous and unspecified in them and perfect [the human mind’s] shortcomings. Thus, the relation between the divine Sharāʾiʿ, especially the Islamic Sharīʿa, and what God has entrusted in the human conscience [regarding] which [the Qur’an says] “And inspired it [to know] its own right and wrong” (91:8) is a relation of a clarifier (mubayyin).

Then, Ayatullah Sistani refers to the Qur’ānic verses that indicate the inherent nature of good and evil (ḥusn wa al-qubḥ al-dhātī) and finishes his explanation as follows:

فالحاصل: إنّما بعث الأنبياء ليوضّحوا ما هو مرتكز في عقول البشر والنفوس ويعدّ قانوناً فطرياً

To sum up: The Prophets were only sent to explain and clarify what rests in the intellect and souls of mankind, and this is considered to be an innate (fiṭrī) law

He also explains his belief about the verse “These are the bounds set by God” (2:229):

المراد من الحدود هو المقدار، أي إذا كان هناك إبهام أو إجمال في حدود العدل مثلاً فالشرائع الإلهية تبيّنها […] فدور الأنبياء هو التذكير ورفع الحجب الموجودة، فإنّ الشرائع بشكل عام محددة ومبينة ورافعة للإبهام عن القانون الفطري الذي يعبر عنه المتجددون بالقانون الطبيعي ونحن نعبر عنه بالقانون الفطري لقوله تعالى: فطرة الله التي فطر الناس عليها لا تبديل لخلق الله

The intended meaning of ‘bounds’ is the amount. That is to say, if there is any ambiguity or generality in the bounds of a concept such as justice for example, then the divine Sharāʾiʿ clarifies it […] Therefore, the role of the Prophets is to remind [the people] and to lift the existing veils. For the Sharāʾiʿ, in general, are specific, clear and remove ambiguities from the innate (fiṭrī) law, which is termed ‘natural law’ by enlightenment thinkers and which we term ‘innate law’ as per God’s word “This is the natural disposition (fiṭra) God instilled in mankind. There is no altering God’s creation” (30:30)

According to this view then, the Sharīʿa is merely a detailed elucidation of the intellect and reason. Of course, it seems the naming of ‘innate law’ chosen by Ayatullah Sistani is due to verse 30 of Sūra al-Rūm “This is the natural disposition (fiṭra) God instilled in mankind”. Those who have spoken of natural rights such as Thomas Aquinas have also distinguished between ‘natural law’ and ‘divine and innate law’ rather than perceiving them to be the same.

Lastly, like many other discussions, we must not neglect the influence of Mīrzā Mahdī Iṣfahānī on Sayyid Sistani. For example, similarities can be seen regarding the place of reason (ʿaql) and revelation (sharʿ) between the statements of the Sayyid mentioned in this article and those of Mīrzā Mahdī in chapter 14 of Abwāb al-Hudā. This influence and comparison itself could be the topic of an independent study.


[1] Meaning that the relationship between God and humans is one of a law-maker who deals with humans as rational beings. For more, see A Cursory Glance at Sayyid Sistani’s Unique Ideas In Ijtihad.

[2] Muḥaqqiq al-Ḥillī, Maʿārij al-Uṣūl, p. 187.

[3] For further explanation, see Farā’id al-Uṣūl, v4, pp. 143-145.