The Role of ʿUrf (Culture) in Fiqh

ʿUrf means custom or local culture. In Fiqh, the local culture can be used as a basis for deriving laws in areas that are culturally sensitive and not explicitly detailed in the Quran and Sunnah. Although the term ʿUrf is primarily used by Ḥanafī and Mālikī scholars, the principle of utilizing the local culture in formulating Fiqh rulings is actually found in every madhhab.

This is because all four madhhabs agree upon the Fiqh Maxim, al-ʿādah muḥakkamah (local culture is the deciding factor) which is considered one of the Big Five agreed upon maxims and a core foundation of Fiqh.

But what does ʿUrf really mean and how does it work in Fiqh? ʿUrf means that the culture of the good people (ahl fitra) of a society is considered source of local laws.

This is because Islam is meant to be multi-cultural and practical in every time, place and culture. Islam was not sent to unite the world upon a single culture, it was sent to be practical in every culture in every era. To achieve this, the laws of Islam remain flexible enough to accommodate different cultures.

In many areas of Fiqh, the rules are shaped by the local culture, and even when Muslims migrate to a new land, they are expected to adapt to the culture of the lands. It is not part of Islam to force a foreign culture upon the people of any land.

The concept of ʿUrf is derived from many evidences. The clearest is the verse of the Quran regarding the rights of spouses, “Live with them with maʿruf (what is considered good in the culture)”[1] The Quran does not explicitly state what the rights of the spouse are, it leaves it up to ʿUrf. Thus, the details of the rights of the spouse depends from culture to culture. Related to ʿUrf, Ibn Masud said, “What Muslims deem good is good in the sight of Allah.”[2]

Conditions for acceptance of ʿUrf

However, not all cultural practices are accepted as good in Islamic Law. There are strict conditions in place to prevent this principle from being abused. These conditions can be listed as five:

  1. It must be popularly and consistently followed by the majority.
  2. It must be the current culture at the time of the ruling.
  3. It cannot contradict a stipulated condition.
  4. It must not contradict Quran, Sunnah, and Ijmaʿ
  5. When ʿUrf and Qiyas contradict, Istiḥsān can be used to resolve the conflict.

When ʿUrf meets these five conditions, it becomes accepted as a source of local law. It is also important to note that ʿUrf is used primarily in muʿāmalāt (social dealings), rarely in ʿibādāt (acts of worship). This is because acts of worship are derived primarily from revelation, whole social dealings change from culture to culture, so the shariʿa remains flexible regarding the second, but not as much regarding the first.

As a result, ʿUrf is primarily used as a principle in the Fiqh of business, marriage, family, food, clothing, entertainment, and other social issues. This makes it extremely relevant to our times, and one of the core components in the contemporization of Fiqh.

Examples of ʿUrf

The way Muslims dress is largely dependent on ʿUrf. While covering the awrah (navel to knees for men, everything except face and hands for women) is an obligation, there is no set ruling on what type of clothing is needed to do this. The idea of Islamic Clothing is a misnomer that developed only in recent times. In most Muslim lands, the style of clothing is largely dependent on ʿUrf as long as it meets the requirements of the Shariah.

Similarly, the rights of spouses are largely dependent on ʿUrf. The Quran simply calls for good treatment of one’s spouse, without going into details. Good treatment is a cultural variable, as what is considered good in one country may not be considered good in another. In some cultures, women are expected to cook for their families, in other cultures men provide the food, and some cultures may outsource food preparation to others (servants in ancient cultures, restaurants in modern cultures). The debate on whether it is a woman’s duty to cook or not is dependent on culture, and the ruling will change with the change of cultures.

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[1] Quran 5:19

[2] Musnad Ahmad

Posted by Ismail Kamdar

Ismail Kamdar is the Founder of Islamic Self Help, author of over a dozen books, research manager at Yaqeen Institute, and a freelance writer.

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