Maqasid (Higher Objectives) of Shariah

Published June 5, 2012

By Dr. Mohammad Hashim Kamali

Al-Maqasid al-Shari’ah, or the Higher Objectives of Shari’ah, is a manifestly important and yet somewhat neglected discipline of the Shari’ah. The Shari’ah generally is predicated on benefits to the individual and the community, and its laws are designed to protect these benefits and to facilitate the improvement and perfection of the conditions of human life. The Qur’an is expressive of this when it points to a signature purpose of the prophethood of Muhammad (SAW): “We have not sent you but as a Mercy to the worlds” (Qur’an 21:107). This can also be seen in the Qur’an’s characterization of itself as “a healing to the (spiritual) ailments of the hearts” and “a Guidance and Mercy” for the believers and mankind (Qur’an 10:57). The objectives of rahmah (mercy or compassion) mentioned in these two verses are further substantiated by other provisions in the Qur’an and Sunnah (the Traditions of the Prophet) that seek to establish justice, eliminate prejudice, and alleviate hardship. The laws of the Qur’an and Sunnah also seek to promote cooperation and support within the family and the society at large.

Justice as a value or primary objective of the Shari’ah is mentioned in the Qur’an fifty-three times

Adl or qist (justice) is, indeed, a manifestation of God’s Mercy, but may also be seen as a principal objective of the Shari’ah in its own right. Certainly, the Qur’an sees it as such when it states: “We sent Our Messengers and revealed through them the Book and the Balance so that Justice may be established amongst mankind” (Qur’an 57:25). Justice as a value or primary objective of the Shari’ah is mentioned in the Qur’an fifty-three times.

Adl — literally meaning to place things in their right and proper place — as a fundamental objective of the Shari’ah, is seeking to establish an equilibrium between rights and obligations so as to eliminate excessive or undue disparity in all spheres of life.

Educating the individual (tahdhib al-fard) is also a very important objective of the Shari’ah. It fact, in order of priority, it may merit being placed before justice and maslahah (public interest or benefit). Tahdib al-fard seeks to make every individual a trustworthy agent and carrier of the values of the Shari’ah. Indeed, the overall purpose of a great number of the stipulations of the Shari’ah, especially in the spheres of  ’ibadah (ritual worship) and akhlaq (moral teachings), is to train the individual to acquire the virtues of taqwa (God-consciousness) and thus, become an agent of benefit to others.

The Qur’an is expressive, in numerous places and in a variety of contexts, of the rationale, purpose, and benefit of its laws, so much so that its text becomes characteristically goal-oriented. This feature of the Qur’an is common to its laws relating to both ’ibadah (devotional matters) and mu’amalah (civil transactions). Thus, when the text expounds on the ritual of wudu’, or ablution for prayer, it adds: “God does not wish to inflict hardship on you but to make you clean and to complete His favor to you” (Qur’an 5:7). With regard to the prayer itself, it declares: “Truly, Salah restrains promiscuity and evil” (Qur’an 29:45). With reference to jihad the Qur’an similarly proclaims its rationale: “Permission is granted to those who fight because they have been wronged” (Qur’an 22:39).

Maslahah (public interest) has generally been regarded as the quintessence of the higher objectives of Shari’ah

With reference to the law of qisas (just retaliation), the text similarly adds: “ And in the law of qisas there is life for you, O people of understanding” (Qur’an 2:179). And finally, with regard to zakah (wealth tax), the rationale is also given: “ In order that wealth may not circulate only amongst the rich” (Qur’an 59:7).

One can cite many more examples to demonstrate that the Qur’an and Sunnah are often explicit about the rationale, purpose, and benefit of the ahkam (rules). In all cases, whether the aim is spelled out or not, the underlying objective of each and every rule is the realization of maslahah (pl.- masalih), public interest or benefit. It is for this reason that maslahah has generally been regarded as the quintessence of the higher objectives of Shari’ah; indeed, justice is also a maslahah and so is education of the individual.

Classification of Maqasid

The ulema (Muslim scholars) have classified the entire range of maqasid-cum-masalih into three categories in the descending order of importance: the daruriyyat (the essential), the hajiyyat (the complementary) and the tahsiniyyat (the desirable or the embellishments). The essential masalih are enumerated as five: life, faith, intellect, lineage, and property. These are seen as absolute requirements to the survival and spiritual well-being of individuals, to the extent that their destruction or collapse would precipitate chaos and the demise of normal order in society. The Shari’ah seeks to protect and promote these essential values, and validates all measures necessary for their preservation and advancement. Theft, adultery, and the drinking of alcohol are punishable offences as they pose a threat to the inviolability of private property, the well-being of the family, and the integrity of the human intellect, respectively. In an affirmative sense again, but at a different level, the Shari’ah encourages work and trading activities in order to enable the individual to earn a living, and it prescribes elaborate measures to ensure the smooth flow of commercial transactions in the marketplace. The Shari’ah also encourages pursuit of knowledge and education to ensure the intellectual development of the people and the advancement of arts, sciences, and civilization. The essential masalih, in other words, constitute the all-pervasive central theme of the Shari’ah, and all its laws are i related to the protection of these benefits.

The second category of benefits, known as the hajiyyah or the complimentary benefits, are defined as benefits that seek to remove severity and hardship in cases where such severity and hardship do not pose a threat to the very survival of normal order. A great number of the rukhas (concessions), such as the shortening of the salah and the forgoing of the fast by the sick or the traveler, may be classified as hajiyyah. In almost all areas of obligatory ’ibadah, the Shari’ah has granted such concessions. These concessions are aimed at preventing hardship, the benefit being derived from the permission granted to lessen an obligatory action or accommodate a temporary inability to perform such action.

The Shari’ah encourages pursuit of knowledge and education to ensure the intellectual development of the people and the advancement of arts, sciences, and civilization

The third category of masalih, known as the tahsiniyyah, is in the nature of desirabilities as they seek to attain refinement and perfection in the customs and conduct of the people. The Shari’ah thus encourages cleanliness of the body and attire for the purposes of ’ibadah, and recommends, for example, the wearing of perfume when attending the Friday congregational prayer. The Shari’ah also encourages the giving of charity to those in need, over and above the obligatory charity (zakat). Again in the area of ’ibadah, it recommends supererogatory prayers and voluntary fasting. In customary matters and interpersonal relations, the Shari’ah encourages al-rifq (gentleness), husn al-khulq (pleasant speech and conduct) and ihsan (fair dealing). Even in the sphere of criminal law, relating to both the removing of hardship or severity and to desirabilities, the judge and the head of state are advised not to be too eager in the enforcement of penalties, as seeking of a lesser punishment is desirable if any doubt about guilt exists, as indicated in the hadith related by Al-Hakim and As-Suyuti: “Refrain from enforcing hudud on Muslims as much as you can. If you find a way out for a Muslim, let him (or her) go, as it is better for the imam (ruler) to wrongly forgive than to wrongly punish.” Being too eager or severe in meting out punishment is thus considered to be undesirable. The purpose of all this is the attainment of refinement and excellence in all areas of human conduct.

The tahsiniyyah are a very important category, as they are all-pervasive and relate to all the other masalih. One can perform the obligatory salah, for example, with full and proper concentration, giving each of its parts the proper attention; conversely, one can perform it with haste and thoughtlessness. The difference between the two ends of the spectrum is that at one end the individual performing the salah aims to attain both the essential and the desirable, i.e., discharging a duty but in such way as to reap the greatest spiritual benefit; and at the other end, it can at best be seen as a perfunctory discharging of duty. One can extend this analysis to the implementation of almost all the ahkam of the Shari’ah, and indeed, to almost every area of human conduct.

History of Maqasid (Higher Objectives)

Although maqasid, as a distinct science of the Shari’ah, is of obvious relevance to ijtihad (the intellectual effort to make independent interpretations and derive legal rulings from the accepted juridical sources of Islam), it has not been treated as such in the conventional expositions of the theory of  ijtihad. Generally speaking, Islamic legal thought has, on the whole, preoccupied itself with concerns over conformity to the letter of the divine Text, and the legal science of usul al-fiqh has played a crucial role in the advancement of this methodology. This literalist orientation of  juristic thought was generally more pronounced on the part of the Ahl al-Hadith (The Traditionalists) than of the Ahl al-Ra’y (The Rationalists). The Traditionalists thus tended to view the Shari’ah as a set of rules, commands and prohibitions, which were addressed to each individual with the sole expectation of his or her conformity. The precedents of the leading Sahabih (Companions of the Prophet) indicate, on the other hand, that they saw the Shari’ah not only as a set of rules but also as a system of values, where the specific rules were the tangible manifestations of those underlying values. The textualist tradition of the early three centuries, however, did not take much interest in this deeper observation and it was not until the time of al-Ghazzali (d. 505H), and then al-Shatibi (d. 790H), that significant developments were made in the formulation of the theory of al-maqasid.

In customary matters and interpersonal relations, the Shari’ah encourages al-rifq (gentleness), husn al-khulq (pleasant speech and conduct) and ihsan (fair dealing)

The basic outlook on the Shari’ah advocated by the theory of al-maqasid was, however, never completely denied by any of the leading madhahib (schools of fiqh.) Some were more open to the theory and science of al-maqasid than others. Indeed, except for the Zahiris, who maintained that the maqasid can only be known when they are identified by clear text, the majority of the ulema did not confine al-maqasid to the clear text alone. They perceived and understood the Shari’ah to be rational and goal orientated,  with its rules generally founded in identifiable causes. A mere conformity to rules dissociated from the purpose and vision of the Shari’ah was, therefore, deemed insufficient. And yet, detailed elaboration on the aims and objectives of the Shari’ah was generally not encouraged. This tacit attitude contrasted with the fact that the Qur’an itself conveyed considerable attentiveness to the purposes and objectives of its laws and often expounded the causes and rationale on which they were founded. The general reticence of the ulema in respect to the identification of the maqasid might have been partly due to cautiousness regarding the human speculation and projection that such an exercise was likely to involve.

It was not until the early fourth century of the Hijrah (the Islamic calendar) that the term ‘maqasid’ was used in the juristic writings of Abu ‘Abd-Allah al-Tirmidhi al-Hakim. Recurring references then appeared in the works of Imam al-Haramayn al-Juwayni (d. 478H), who was probably the first to classify the maqasid of the Shari’ah into the three main categories of the daruriyyah , the hajiyyah, and the tahsiniyyah, which has ever since been generally accepted. Al-Juwayni’s ideas were then further developed by his pupil, Abu Hamid al-Ghazzali (d. 505H), who wrote at length on the doctrines of maslahah (public interest) and ta’lil (logical reasoning) in his works Al-Shifa’ Al-Ghalil and Al-Mustasfa min ’Ilm Al-Usul. Al-Ghazzali was generally critical of the doctrine of public interest as a source of proof, but validated it where it promoted the maqasid of the Shari’ah. As for the maqasid themselves, al-Ghazzali wrote categorically that the Shari’ah pursued the five basic objectives of life, intellect, faith, lineage and property, and that these were to be protected as absolute priorities.

A number of prominent scholars subsequently contributed to the development of the theory and science of al-maqasid. Sayf al-Din al-Amidi (d.631/1233) identified the science as al-tarjih, a studied grid or criteria to ascertain preference amongst conflicting interests. He elaborated on a structure of internal orders of priorities, within and across the different categories of the maqasid. However, Al-Amidi also confined the essential maqasid to only five. The Maliki jurist Shihab al-Din al-Qarafi (d. 684/1285) added a sixth, namely, the protection of al-’ird  (honor). This was later endorsed by Taj al-Din ‘Abd al-Wahab ibn al-Subki (d. 771/1370) and Muhammad ibn Ali al-Shawkani (d. 1250/1834). The list of the five essential values was evidently based on a reading of the relevant parts of the Qur’an and Sunnah on the hudud (the prescribed penalties). The value that each of these penalties sought to vindicate and defend was consequently identified as an essential maqasid. The later addition, al-’ird, was initially thought to have been covered under al-nasl (lineage), but the proponents of this addition argued that the Shari’ah had enacted a separate hadd  (punishment) for al-qadhf (slanderous accusation), and hence, that the new addition must be seen as an essential maqsud (objective) in its own right.

Izz al-Din Abd al-Salam al-Sulami’s (d. 660/1262) renowned work, Al-Qawa’id Al-Ahkam, was, in his own characterization, a work on the “maqasid al-ahkam.” The work provides a comprehensive treatment of the various aspects of the maqasid, especially with regard to the doctrines of  ’illah (effective cause) and maslahah (public interest). It was at the outset of this work that al-Sulami wrote that “the greatest of all the objectives of the Qur’an is to facilitate benefits and the means that secure them,” and that “the realization of benefits also includes the prevention of evil.” Al-Sulami adds that “all the takalif  (obligations) of the Shari’ah are predicated on securing benefits for the people, in this world and the next, for God Most High is in no need of the obedience of His servants. He is above all creation and cannot be harmed by the disobedience of transgressors.” The Shari’ah is, in other words, concerned, from beginning to end, with securing benefits for God’s creatures.

Taqi al-Din ibn Taimiyyah (d. 728/1328) was most likely the first scholar to depart from the notion of confining the maqasid to a specific number. He added to the existing list of the maqasid such things as the fulfillment of contracts, the preservation of the ties of kinship, and respect for the rights of one’s neighbors. In relation to the quest for reward in the Hereafter, he added an inventory of qualities, including love of God, sincerity, trustworthiness, and moral purity. Ibn Taimiyyah thus revised the scope of the maqasid, from a designated and specified list to a completely open-ended list of values. This approach is the one generally adopted by contemporary scholars, including Ahmad al-Raisuni and Yusuf al-Qaradawi. In fact, al-Qaradawi has further extended the list of the maqasid to include human dignity, freedom, social welfare, and human fraternity.  These objectives are undoubtedly upheld by the weight of both general and detailed evidence in the Qur’an and Sunnah. Building on the extended list of al-Qaradawi, I propose that we add economic development and the advancement of science and technology. These are crucially important in determining the standing of the ummah (the Muslim community) in the world community.

Al-Maqasid and Ijtihad

The chief exponent of Maqasid, Abu Ishaq Ibrahim al-Shatibi spoke affirmatively of the need to respect and observe the explicit injunctions, but added that adherence to the obvious text must not be so rigid as to alienate the rationale and purpose of the text from its words and sentences. Rigidity of this kind, al-Shatibi noted, was itself contrary to the objectives (maqasid) of the Lawgiver, just as would be the case with regard to neglecting the clear text itself. Having expounded his theory of  the maqasid, al-Shatibi advocated and accentuated the need for knowledge of the science of al-maqasid as a prerequisite to the attainment of the rank of a mujtahid (jurist). Those who neglected acquiring mastery of al-maqasid did so at their own peril as it made them liable to error in ijtihad. Included amongst these were the ahl al-bida’ (the proponents of pernicious innovations) who looked solely at the apparent text of the Qur’an without pondering over its ultimate aims and objectives. These innovators (an allusion to the Kharijites) held steadfastly to the literal text of even the mutashabihah (the intricate segments of the Qur’an) and produced many conclusions on them. They took a fragmented and atomistic approach to the reading of the Qur’an which failed to correlate the relevant parts of the text. The leading ulema have, on the other hand, always viewed the Shari’ah as a unity, looking to understand any particular verse of the Qur’an in light of other germane verses, and in which the detailed rules were to be read in the light of their broader premises and objectives.

Tahir Ibn ’Ashur, the author of a landmark work on the maqasid, also stressed that knowledge of the science of  al-maqasid  was indispensable to ijtihad in all its manifestations. Some ulema, who confined the scope of their ijtihad only to literal interpretations, found it possible, Ibn ‘Ashur observed, to project their personal opinions into the words of the text, but fell into error as they were out of touch with the general spirit and purpose of the surrounding evidence. Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyyah, for example, in considering the general spirit and underlying objective, observed that where the ahadith on the subject of sadaqah al-fitr (the charity due on the Eid after Ramadan) sometimes referred to dates and at other times to raisins or food grains, the common purpose was to fulfill the needs of the poor, which could be done with any of these staple foods of Madinah and its environs at that time.

An important feature of the maqasidi (objectives-based) approach in relation to ijtihad is that the mujtahid must pay attention to the end result and consequences of his ruling, otherwise it would be deficient. The importance of such contemplation is demonstrated by the Prophet’s Sunnah where we note instances in which the Prophet paid much attention to the possible consequences of his rulings, often in preference to other considerations. Thus, for example, although acutely aware of the treason and subversive activities of the munafiqun (the hypocrites), within and outside the Muslim community, he decided not to pursue them, stating simply that “I fear people might say that Muhammad kills his own Companions.” The Prophet also avoided changing the location of the Ka’bah to its original foundations where the patriarch Phophet Ibrahim had laid them. The pre-Islamic Arabs of Makkah had evidently changed that location and when ‘A’ishah Siddiqah suggested to the Prophet that he perhaps should restore the Ka’bah to its original location, he responded: “I would have done so if I didn’t fear that this may induce our people into disbelief.” In both these instances the Prophet did not take what would have been thought to be the expected course of action; his foresight as to the potential adverse consequences guided his decisions.


The maqasid are undoubtedly rooted in the textual injunctions of the Qur’an and Sunnah, but they look mainly at the general spirit and objectives of these injunctions, often beyond the particularities of the text. By comparison to usul al-fiqh, the legal theory of the sources, the maqasid are not burdened with methodological technicalities and literalist readings of the text. As such, the maqasid integrate a greater degree of comprehension and versatility into the reading of the Shari’ah that is in many ways unique and takes into account the vicissitudes of time and circumstance.

Some of the important disciplines of usul al-fiqh such as ijma’ (general consensus), qiyas (analogical reasoning), or even ijtihad, seem to be burdened — in the prevailing socio-political climate of the present day Muslim countries — with somewhat difficult juridical conditions.  The maqasid have thus become the focus of attention as they tend to provide ready and convenient access to the Shari’ah. It is naturally sensible and expedient to understand the broad contours of the objectives of the Shari’ah before moving on to specifics. An adequate knowledge of the maqasid equips the student of Shari’ah with insight and provides him or her with a theoretical framework in which the acquisition of detailed knowledge of its various doctrines can be more meaningful and interesting.

Dr. Mohammad Hashim KamaliAuthor Dr. Mohammad Hashim Kamali is the Chairman of the Intl. Institute of Advanced Islamic Studies, Malaysia. He is the author of “Principles of Islamic Jurisprudence”, a classic study on the subject.

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