Fiqh literally means an understanding and knowledge of something. At more than one place the Qur'an has used the word fiqh in its general sense of ‘understanding.’ In the early days of Islam the terms ilm (knowledge) and fiqh were frequently used to denote an understanding of Islam in general. This shows that in the Prophet’s time the term fiqh was not applied in the legal sense alone. The Prophet once blessed ibn Abbas (d. 68) in these words: ‘Allahumma faqqih ho fiddin,’ that is, O God, give him understanding in religion. By these words the Prophet did not mean exclusively knowledge of law. He meant in fact a deeper understanding of religion.
Brief History of Fiqh
After the Prophet, the Companions settled in different parts of the vast Islamic empire. Here they were confronted with new problems, and they had no option but to exercise their personal judgement. The Prophet was no longer amidst them to turn to him for the solution of these problems. Therefore whenever any problem arose they first consulted the Qur'an and hadith and only if they failed to find the solution there, they resorted, to the exercise of their personal judgement, while observing fully the spirit of the Qur'an and hadith.
At this stage when the exercise of reason was done to deduce a law, the term fiqh came to be frequently used for this endeavour. Towards the end of the first century a movement of collecting hadith started. Large numbers of people devoted their entire lives to collect and record the traditions. Now the knowledge of the traditions came to be termed as ilm and the traditionists began to be called ulama.
At this stage there was another group who was interested only in those traditions from which some legal rule could be deduced. For this purpose they resorted to the exercise of reason and personal judgement. This knowledge coming from this second group came to be termed as fiqh as against ilm.
During the age of successors (Tabiun) the Arabs settled in different parts of the vast Muslim empire. Consequently they came into contact with different cultures and civilizations—confronting with problems they had never faced before. In their endeavour to solve these problems they made great advances in various fields of learning. Islamic law was also developed as a science. According to Ibn Khaldun the teachers of the Qur'an were no longer called qurra, they were rather known as fuqaha and ulama. Among the successors there were fuquha and ulama, that is, those who were authorities in law and hadith.
The most well-known scholar of Madina was Said b-al-Musayyib (d 94 AH). In this second period of the development of fiqh the phrases ahl al-ilm and ahl al-fiqh were often used interchangeably. Al-Muwatta of Imam Malik the most famous book of this period, provides an example when fiqh and hadith was not yet fully separated. It is neither exclusively on hadith nor on fiqh. Both these terms were used for those scholars who derived rules from the Qur'an and the Sunnah, to give verdicts on legal matters.
Now in the third stage, towards the middle of the second century of Hijrah books, began to be written exclusively on fiqh.