Book Review: “Evolution of Fiqh: Islamic Law and the Madh-habs”

Book Review: "Evolution of Fiqh: Islamic Law and the Madh-habs"
تاريخ المذاهب الفقهية (The Evolution of Fiqh: Islamic Law and the Madh-habs) Book Cover تاريخ المذاهب الفقهية (The Evolution of Fiqh: Islamic Law and the Madh-habs)
Abu Ameenah Bilaal Philips
Islamic law
International Islamic Publishing House (IIPH)

Publisher Summary:

In The Evolution of Fiqh: Islamic Law & the Madh-habs, Dr. Bilal Philips presents a brief overview of the historical development of Islamic law and its schools of jurisprudence (the madh-habs). This authentic Islamic book on fiqh identifies the main reason for the appearance of the madh-habs and the factors leading to differences among them, with a call to understanding juristic differences and removing them where possible.

Author Credentials: 

Dr. Philips was born January 7, 1947 in Jamaica, but grew up in Canada, where he converted to Islam in 1972. He received his B.A. degree from the Islamic University of Medina and his M.A. in Aqeedah (Islamic Theology) from the King Saud University in Riyadh, then to the University of Wales, UK, where he completed a PhD in Islamic Theology in the early 90s. Philips comes from a family of educators, as both his parents were teachers and his grandfather was a Christian minister and Bible scholar. The Islamic Online University (IOU) is the brainchild of Dr. Bilal Philips.


There seems to be some confusion about the different Madh’habs in the Sunni world, down to the point where some blame the four Imams for causing divisions among the umma, saying that were the Imams really great scholars, they would not have caused these divisions and divide people into four different camps. However, if you read this book “Evolution of Fiqh: Islamic Law and the Madh-hab”, you will realise that they did not. The four Imams, as explained eloquently in simple language in this book, did not cause divisions in the Sunni world.

This book describes chronologically how the Islamic law evolved, from the time of the Prophet SAW, then the time of the four rightly guided caliphs, further to the Umayyad and Abbasid as well as the Ottoman era, right down to contemporary times. It also describes about how the Madh’hab evolved, being influenced by history and political environment.

It explains that differences of opinion in Islamic law existed since the time of the sahaba (companions), but they all treated each other respectfully and always gave preference to rulings based on authentic sources. The four Imams emerged after the time of the companions when the Islamic territory expanded and scholars spread across the territory to teach the religion. Some of these Imams were contemporaries of each other (such as Imam Malik and Imam Abu Hanifah), or student of another (Imam Shafi’ie was a student of student of both Imam Malik and Imam Abu Hanifah), or came generations later (such as Imam Ibn Hanbal). In fact,  in the early era of Islam there were many other Imams with their different Madh’habs spread across the Muslim land and all of them co-existed peacefully. As the scholars spread in distant location from each other and there was no vast means of communication and transportation like in modern days, they had to solve their local Fiqh issues based on their own knowledge of Quran and Hadith. And while the Quran is uniform across the board, the Hadith in the inventory of one scholar pertaining an issue may be different than the Hadith inventory of another scholar, and it was difficult to consult and verify with each other due to distance. Also, scholars living close to Makkah and Madinah had more access to a large number of Hadith, while those living far away had to rely on logical deduction (Qiyas) if they could not find the Hadith pertaining the issue at hand. That were between others the reasons why the rulings of Imam Abu Hanifah in Kufa (a city in Iraq) may sometimes be different with the rulings of Imam Malik in Madinah regarding the same issue. However, none of the Imams compelled others to accept their rulings as the best and superior ruling. As a matter of fact, when the governing Umayyad Caliphate proposed for Imam Malik’s Muwatta to be the law of the land, Imam Malik himself refused because he realised that while he had access to the vast majority of Hadith, there still existed other Hadith across the land of which he had no knowledge of, which rendered his rulings in the Muwatta not final. The scattering of Hadith across the Islamic land was acknowledged by the scholars amidst political turmoil in the Muslim world, so that generations later Imam Ibn Hanbal pioneered the collection and inventory of existing and scattered  Hadith by travelling across the Muslim land to collect and record them. Among his students was the famous Al-Bukhari.

So how come the umma was then reduced to four  Madh’habs with some sense of fanaticism within each Madh’hab? “Evolution of Fiqh” explained how other Madh’habs beside the four disappeared from history either due to lack of written record of the respective Imam’s teachings, the Imams being in exile, jailed, or executed due to clash with political authorities, or other reasons. The division and fanaticism was rooted in the final period of the Abbasid caliphate (generations after the four Imams passed away), when rulers started to open a court debate competition between the four Madh’habs. At first the court presented real issues prevalent in the society and each Madh’hab had to give their Fiqh ruling based on their own established method. Theese rulings were then contested between them. As the real issues were exhausted during the course of centuries, the court started to make up hypothetical issues, some of these were quite bizarre. Due to the competitive nature of this court debate, during the course of time and generations, people became more inclined and then fanatic to the Madh’hab they support, up to the point where you could not adopt the Fiqh ruling of a different Madh’hab than yours. You had to stick to one particular Madh’hab to the extent that marriages between different Madh’habs were also discouraged. After the fall of the Abbasid Caliphate by the Mongolian conquest of Baghdad, many scholars and muslims alike were assasinated and those who survived had to flee and spread. The remaining scholars agreed to close the door of ijtihad and promoted taqleed (blind following of Fiqh rulings). This in order to prevent corruption in Islamic laws because there was no one anymore qualified enough to give new rulings. And furthermore, most issues had been exhaustively discussed in the court debates. When the Ottoman Caliphate rose to power, they implemented the Hanafi school of thought as the law of the land. However, the Hanafi rulings that had evolved over centuries in many instances were different than the original rulings by Imam Abu Hanifa.

Fast forward to relatively recent times, scholars had again reopened the doors of ijtihad and suggested the commoners/layman to implement ittiba’ (following the ruling of scholars with careful thinking and verification) instead of taqleed. Dr Philips in his book suggests to reconcile the differences between the Madh’habs, based on authentic resources. Something easier to do in modern days due to current advancement in communication and transportation. This, however, requires a strong leadership between contemporary scholars.

This book is the main textbook for the course Fiqh 101 at the Islamic Online University. I find the book very informative and enlightening. And while some other reviews comment that this book lacks details and depth regarding fiqh issues, I think this book is a good introductory guide to the gates of Fiqh. The book is good for the layman and commoner who just got acquainted with the topic as it is very well written and clears up confusions. There are so much more details in this book than what I describe in this short commentary, including between others what methods each Madh’hab based their rulings on, and the historical and political background that led to the shaping of Islamic Law and the Madh’habs. The book can be purchased via Amazon or the original publisher (IIPH). I just wish there are purchasable digital versions, either in the form of Kindle book or others. The cover image displayed above is not of the most recent edition.

I realise that I may have misunderstood some parts or details of this book, which may have resulted in errors in my commentary. Therefore I apologise in advance and I am open to correction. However, the aim of this review is to tickle your mind and curiousity about the book, so that you may check it for yourself and feel enlightened like I do once you have read it 🙂


  1. Very interesting and thought-provoking. Jazakallah for sharing.


  2. My curiosity is definitely tickled.

    Would love to read this insha Allah.

    Fiqh is on of those insightful fields that I wish to delve deeper into by Allah’s permission. Jazaakillah.


  3. Love this piece, I will try get this book inshaa allaah seems like an interesting read.


  4. this was one of the books IOU used. i read this when i was still studying there. hihi. i loved it. it’s simplified.


  5. I was thinking to do an online course..may take a look at this book too. Thanks for sharing


  6. JazakAllah for your notes – it’s very relevant and informative to our times.


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