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David Vishanoff’s The Formation of Islamic Hermeneutics is a significant
contribution to the study of Islamic legal theory and legal hermeneutics. Vishanoff’s
main objective is to examine how Sunni legal hermeneutics became
a systematic and institutional discipline. For this purpose, he strives to restore
the reception and development of al-Shafi‘i’s (d. 820) legal hermeneutics during the pre-classical period (ninth to eleventh centuries). He presents the imam
as the first scholar to have codified an Islamic legal theory and reads him in
light of four hermeneutical models: the Zahiri, Mu‘tazili, Ash‘ari and, what
he calls, a law-oriented model. The book is organized into seven chapters, five
of which are devoted to al-Shafi‘i’s hermeneutics and the four responses to it.
Chapter 1 and 7, respectively, serve as analytic introduction and conclusion.
The most authoritative source investigated by the author, and to which
Chapter 2 is devoted, is al-Shafi‘i’s Al-Risālah fī Uṣūl al-Fiqh. Central to this
text is al-Shafi‘i’s argument that a system of law can and should be inferred
from revelation: the Qur’an and Sunnah. The Risālah, Vishanoff confirms, is
the first work to have raised a consequential hermeneutical question in the Islamic
legal theory: How does one reconcile revealed texts with legal rules?
Al-Shafi‘i’s solution, one that places the Qur’an’s equivocalness or linguistic
ambiguity at the centre of its argument, was one of the most debated legal
themes at the time; a deliberation that has largely contributed to the formation
of classical uṣūl al-fiqh ...