Joseph Schacht

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Joseph Franz Schacht
Born (1902-03-15)15 March 1902
Ratibor, Poland
Died 1 August 1969(1969-08-01) (aged 67)
Englewood, New Jersey, United States
Nationality British-German
Occupation historian, academic

Joseph Franz Schacht (born in Ratibor, 15 March 1902, died in Englewood, 1 August 1969) was a British-German professor of Arabic and Islam at Columbia University in New York. He was the leading Western scholar on Islamic law, whose Origins of Muhammadan Jurisprudence (1950) is still considered a centrally important work on the subject. The author of many articles in the first and second editions of the Encyclopaedia of Islam, Schacht also edited the second edition of The Legacy of Islam for the Legacy series of Oxford University Press and authored a textbook under the title An Introduction to Islamic Law (1964).

Life and career[edit]

Schacht was born into a Catholic family but, with a zeal for study, became at an early age a student in a Hebrew school. In Breslau and Leipizig he studied Semitic languages, Greek, and Latin, under famous professors, including Gotthelf Bergsträßer. In 1925 he obtained his first academic position at the Albert-Ludwigs-Universität Freiburg in Breisgau. In 1927 he became there a professor extraordinarius, making him the youngest professor in all of Germany, and in 1929 a professor ordinarius of Semitic languages. In 1932 he was appointed a professor at the University of Königsberg. But in 1934, without being directly threatened or persecuted, Schacht, as a strong opponent of the Nazi regime, went to Cairo, where he taught until 1939 as a professor. At the outbreak of World War II in 1939, he happened to be in England, where he offered his services to the British government and worked for the BBC. In 1947 he became a British citizen.

Schacht taught at Oxford University from 1946. In 1954 he moved to the Netherlands and taught at the University of Leiden. In the academic year 1957–1958, he taught at Columbia University, where, in 1959 he became a full professor of Arabic and Islamic studies. He remained at Columbia until his retirement in 1969 as professor emeritus.

One of Schacht's major contributions to the history of early Islam is the recognition that Hadith probably stems from those in whom the different traditions of the past converge, and this convergence Schacht describes as "common link". This concept was later used productively by many other orientalists.[1][2][3]

The Origins of Muhammadan Jurisprudence[edit]

As a whole, Origins critiques the methods and standards of ḥadīth verification as they were first articulated by Imām al-Shāfiʻī (d. 820 CE) and subsequently developed by his students in the eighth and ninth centuries CE, an early and centrally important stage in the formation of Islamic jurisprudence. His research builds upon the work of important figures in the nineteenth- and twentieth-century study of Islamic law in Europe, such as Gustav Weil and Ignác Goldziher. In particular, Schacht advocates a skeptical approach to medieval forms of 'isnād criticism, which he views as fabricated and comprising the greater part of Sunni approaches to verifying Prophetic traditions of a legal nature.[4]

Argument and Method[edit]

Schacht locates the origins of 'ilm al-ḥadīth in the eight and ninth centuries CE, a moment in the development of Islamic legal reasoning coinciding with the professionalization of the traditionalist (muḥaddith) and jurist (faqīh) classes in the urban centers of the Middle East. According to Schacht the rules and standards of Islamic law are derived from four primary sources: from the Qurʾān, from the ḥadīth comprising the sunna of the Prophet Muḥammad and his Companions, from the consensus or ijmāʿ of the Muslim community and from analogical reasoning or qiyās. The essentials of this fourfold methodology were initially and perhaps most clearly articulated by Imām al-Shāfiʻī, a noted legal scholar of the eighth and ninth centuries CE and founder of an eponymous school of Islamic jurisprudence.[5]

Following the work of Goldziher before him, Schacht argues that it was al-Shāfiʻī who first elevated the sunna and its constituent traditions to great legal prominence. The material importance of the Qurʾān and ḥadīth thereafter enjoyed a status comparable to that of juristic consensus, though for al-Shāfiʻī traditions credibly attributed to the Prophet were to be considered more authoritative than those of his Companions, and indeed could supersede all other sources of legal authority. Moreover, an already-existing legal standard based on such a tradition could be overturned only upon the emergence of a ḥadīth that could be more credibly attributable to the Prophet.[6][7] Al-Shāfiʻī goes as far as to claim that such well-established traditions invite no debate as to their validity; their truth simply imposes itself upon the human mind, leaving no room for doubt or speculation.[8][9] Schacht points out, however, that al-Shāfiʻī inconsistently applies this rule in his own work, alleging that in some cases the jurist favored 'aḥādīth transmitted from Companions that openly contradicted those attributable to the Prophet. These traditions usually included those which validated ritual practices that were either universally agreed upon or else independently verifiable (such as daily prayer), and those which disputed the legal positions of al-Shāfiʻī's opponents.[10][11]

Building on this lattermost point, Schacht contends that far from constructing the standards of a legitimate epistemic enterprise al-Shāfiʻī's science of ḥadīth amounts to little more than an uncritical acceptance of Prophetic traditions which justified his own legal preferences. These same traditions, claims Schacht, could not survive a stronger program of investigation.[12] Although the technical evaluation of traditions would continue to evolve across many generations of Muslim scholars, it seems to have largely proceeded along the lines of the deficient form of ’isnād criticism first articulated here by al-Shāfiʻī.[13] Later in Origins Schacht presents evidence which in his estimation suggests that there was in fact a large scale fabrication of Prophetic ’isnāds in the generation preceding the life of al-Shāfiʻī's own teacher, Mālik ibn ’Anas (d. 795 CE). Even in Mālik's esteemed golden narrative chain there are suspicious gaps and obvious substitutions, sowing significant doubts as to credibility of the relationships he was said to have had with certain key transmitters. For these reasons modern scholars cannot be nearly as optimistic about the historical-analytic value of ḥadīth literature as were their medieval Muslim counterparts.[14]


Schacht's views on this matter have come under criticism from scholars in recent decades. His notable critics include M. Muṣṭafā al-Aʻẓamī[15] and Wael Hallaq. Al-A'zami's work On Schacht's Origins of Muhammadan Jurisprudence is a systematic response to Schacht's thesis. Hallaq argues that Schacht mistakenly assumes that medieval Muslims scholars held ḥadīth to be apodictically true. According to Hallaq, it is more likely the case — and indeed apparent to the careful reader upon inspecting the literature — that at least where matters of law were concerned medieval Muslim scholars judged the majority of ḥadīth as only probabilistically true. It was the epistemic sum of probable traditions, and not the assured truth of any one tradition in particular, upon which they built their legal rulings.[16]


  • Bergsträsser, Gotthelf: Grundzüge des islamischen Rechts. Editor: Joseph Schacht. Berlin-Leipzig 1935.
  • Islam in Northern Nigeria. In: Studia Islamica 8 (1957) 123-146.
  • Schacht, Joseph: An Introduction to Islamic Law. Oxford 1964.
  • Schacht, Joseph: The Origins of Muhammadan Jurisprudence. Oxford University Press 1967 (with corrections and Additions).


  1. ^ Wakin, Jeanette: Remembering Joseph Schacht (1902–1969). Islamic Legal Studies Program. Harvard Law School. Occasional Publications 4, January 2003.
  2. ^ Rainer Brunner (2005), "Schacht, Josef Franz", Neue Deutsche Biographie (NDB) (in German), 22, Berlin: Duncker & Humblot, pp. 491–492 ; (full text online)
  3. ^ Bernard Lewis (1970). "Joseph Schacht". Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, vol. 33, part 2. pp. 378–381. Archived from the original on 2009-10-20. Retrieved 2012-12-01. 
  4. ^ Schacht, Joseph (1967). The Origins of Muhammadan Jurisprudence. Oxford: Clarendon Press. pp. 1–20. 
  5. ^ Schacht, Joseph (1967). The Origins of Muhammadan Jurisprudence. Oxford: Clarendon Press. pp. 1–2. 
  6. ^ Schacht, Joseph (1967). The Origins of Muhammadan Jurisprudence. Oxford: Clarendon Press. pp. 2–5; 11–13. 
  7. ^ al-Shāfiʻī. Treatise III, Ikhtilāf Mālik wal-Shāfiʻī. pp. 177–249. 
  8. ^ Schacht, Joseph (1967). The Origins of Muhammadan Jurisprudence. Oxford: Clarendon Press. pp. 13–14. 
  9. ^ al-Shāfiʻī. Ikhtilāf al-ḥadīth. p. 33. 
  10. ^ Schacht, Joseph (1967). The Origins of Muhammadan Jurisprudence. Oxford: Clarendon Press. pp. 14–5. 
  11. ^ al-Shāfiʻī. Ikhtilāf al-ḥadīth. p. 57 & 88. 
  12. ^ Schacht, Joseph (1967). The Origins of Muhammadan Jurisprudence. Oxford: Clarendon Press. p. 16. 
  13. ^ Schacht, Joseph (1966). An Introduction to Islamic Law. Oxford: Clarendon Press. pp. 35–6. 
  14. ^ Schacht 163-4. compares the unique matn of al-Muw. i.371 with the same in al-Bukhārī, who has Abū Hurayra relate the tradition and not ‘Urwa. At 165-6 Schacht compares al-Shāf‘ī Tr. II with Muw. Al-Shay. 166 and Muw. ii.II.
  15. ^ al-Aʻẓamī, M. Muṣṭafā (1985). On Schacht's Origins of Muhammadan Jurisprudence. Riyadh: King Saud University. 
  16. ^ Hallaq, Wael B. (1999). "The Authenticity of Prophetic Ḥadîth: A Pseudo-Problem". Studia Islamica. No. 89: 77–84. 

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