Kitab al-Risāla Fī Uṣūl al-Fiqh, often abridged as Kitāb al-Risāla or simply al-Risāla, is the best known work of al-Shafi'i, noted especially for its clear Islamic jurisprudence. The word risāla in Arabic means a letter, or simply a communication in writing made to an absent person. Shafi'i's treatise received its name owing to a traditional, though unverified, story that Shafi'i composed the work in response to a request from a leading traditionist in Basra, ‘Abd al-Raḥmān bin Mahdī; the story goes that Ibn Mahdī wanted Shafi'i to explain the legal significance of the Quran and the sunna, and the Risāla was Shafi'i's response.
In this work, al-Shafi'i is said to have outlined four sources of Islamic law, though this division based on four has been attributed to later commentators on the work rather than to Shafi'i himself.
- On al-Bayān (Perspicuous Declaration)
- On Legal Knowledge
- On the Book of God
- On the Obligation of Man to Accept the Authority of the Prophet
- On the Abrogation of Divine Legislation
- On Duties
- On the Nature of God's Orders of Prohibition and the Prophet's Orders of Prohibition
- On Traditions
- On Single-Individual Traditions
- On Consensus (Ijmā‘)
- On Analogy (Qiyās)
- On Personal Reasoning (Ijtihād)
- On Juristic Preference (Istiḥsān)
- On Disagreement (Ikhtilāf)
The above list of contents follows Khadduri's translation. However, Khadduri rearranged the treatise in two places. Khadduri's chapters 8 and 3 (in that order) both follow Shafi'i's chapter on Traditions in the original. Khadduri rearranged those chapters because they did "not appear to fit into the logical order of the book." Therefore, if one wishes to read Khadduri's translation while following Shafi'i's original arrangement, one can read the chapters in the following order: 1, 2, 4, 5, 6, 7, 9, 8, 3, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15.
Sources of law in Al-Risāla
The primary sources of law attributed to Shafi'is book are the Qur'an and the prophetic tradition. Most Muslim commentators have also referred to Shafi'is sections on consensus and analogical reason as comprising legal sources.
On the question of consensus, Shafi'i obligated affirmation of all living Muslims - both the learned and the laymen - in order to declare a true consensus. Later followers of his school considered this to be practically impossible, and thus expanded upon the definition.
- Islamic Jurisprudence: Shafi'i's Risala, trans. by Majid Khadduri, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1961, pp. 19-21 (Translator's Introduction).
- McNeill, William H., and Marilyn Robinson Waldman. The Islamic World. University of Chicago Press, 1973.
- "Does Shafi'i Have a Theory of 'Four Sources' of Law?, taken from the PhD dissertation of Joseph E. Lowry, The Legal-Theoretical Content of the Risala of Muhammad B. Idris al-Shafi'i, University of Pennsylvania, 1999.
- Khadduri, p. 53 (Translator's Introduction).
- Khadduri, Introduction to Shafi'i's Risala, pg. 33
- Khadduri, pp. 38-39