Mustafa Ahmad Al-Zarqa was born in Aleppo, Syria, in 1904 into a family with long history of learning and Islamic scholarship. His father, Sheikh Ahmad Al-Zarqa, was an Islamic scholar of distinction, while his grandfather, Sheikh Muhammad Al-Zarqa, was recognized as one of the top Fiqh scholars of the 19th century. Hence, it was not surprising that the young Mustafa should show in his early years the signs of great promise in the same field of scholarship. He was later to rank among the top ten Islamic scholars of the twentieth century.
His early education saw him as a pupil in the kuttab, the traditional pre-elementary school which taught little more than the Qur’an and reading and writing. He then attended Al-Ghadeer, a French language school, before moving on to the Fereres, a secondary French school. He then joined Al-Khusrawiyah, an Islamic religious school. This mixed education gave him solid grounding in both modern and Islamic education. But it was clear where his preferences were.
He regularly attended the study circles of Muslim scholars held at mosques. In this field he showed early distinction. It was as if he was on his home ground whenever he attended to his Islamic studies. This traditional learning in circles was the method of Islamic education through which a long line of distinguished scholars had graduated over the centuries.
Mustafa Al-Zarqa was one of these, but he combined with this type of specialized education a love of ‘modern’ education. This saw him graduating with two degrees from the University of Damascus one in law and the other in literature. He then obtained a diploma in Islamic Jurisprudence from the King Fuad I University in Cairo, (which was later to be called the University of Cairo).
His career saw him first teaching Fiqh and Arabic literature in his old school, Al-Khusrawiyah. He then worked as a lawyer for ten years, a period which gave him close interaction with people and their problems. That was to stand him in good stead later in his career when he addressed fundamental issues affecting human life.
In 1944, he became a lecturer at the University of Damascus, teaching civil law, Hadith and other disciplines.
He continued to teach in the university until 1966 when he retired. He wrote his famous book, Al-Madkhal Al-Fiqhi Al-Aam, (A Comprehensive Introduction to Islamic Law), in three large volumes. This served as a text book in the Faculty of Law and the Faculty of Shari’ah for a long time. Written in modern, simple style, this book gives a thorough introduction to Fiqh, or Islamic jurisprudence, to law students who are unfamiliar with Islamic studies. Thus, it bridges the gap between traditional Islamic scholarship and modern university study.
A parallel line in his career was his involvement in the struggle for independence and politics. In the 1930s he joined Al-Kutlah Al-Wataniyah, or the Patriotic Bloc, which grouped together all politicians and notable figures working to put an end to the French mandate and gain independence for Syria.
After independence, the Bloc split into two parties, and Al-Zarqa joined Al-Hizb Al-Watani, or the Patriotic Party. In political terms, this was a right of center party whose leadership included no figures hostile to Islam. At the time there was no Islamic party or grouping for him to join. He continued to be a member of the party until it was dissolved in 1958 when the dissolution of all parties was a condition imposed by Nasser for the union between Egypt and Syria. Mustafa Al-Zarqa felt that by joining such a party, which was often in government, he could influence the political set up so as to remain close to Islam.
In the case of Professor Mustafa Al-Zarqa, this proved absolutely right. He was elected to parliament every time free elections were held in Syria between 1947 and 1961. Three times he was a member of the Cabinet, holding the posts of minister of justice and minister of religious endowments. But what is more important than that is the fact that he was closely involved in the drafting and enactment of the family and civil laws in Syria, ensuring that the first was fully Islamic and the second as close to Islam as possible.
During the short-lived union between Syria and Egypt, Mustafa Al-Zarqa presided over a committee charged with the task of drafting a unified family law for the United Arab Republic, (the name given to the union). Again in 1981, the Arab League sought his help, appointing him to a committee to formulate a unified civil law for all Arab countries on the basis of Fiqh.
After retiring from the University of Damascus in 1966, Al-Zarqa worked in Kuwait, supervising the preparation of the Encyclopedia of Islamic Fiqh, which was a project undertaken by the Ministry of Endowments and Islamic Affairs. His methodology was adopted as the basis of the work which continued after he left in 1971 to take up a teaching post in the Jordanian University of Amman. He continued to teach in the Faculty of Shariah there for 18 years, retiring in 1989. Again in Jordan, he took part in the drafting of the Jordanian civil law.
Professor Mustafa Al-Zarqa’s high standing as a scholar was recognized throughout the Muslim world. He served for many years on the Islamic Fiqh Council (Majmaa’ Al-Fiqh Al-Islami) in Makkah and was a member of the Consultative Council of the Islamic University of Madinah. In 1984, he was awarded the King Faisal International Prize for his work on Islamic Fiqh. Later he was to serve on the award committee of this prize.
What is most significant in Mustafa Al-Zarqa’s work in the field of Fiqh is the fact that he looks at Islamic rules from a very broad perspective which is, to him, exceedingly important, since Islam is meant to be implemented in all societies and at all times. Hence, the flexibility and practicality of its laws in all human situations must be evident. It will not be so if Muslim scholars limit themselves to a certain social model, trying to recreate it in our modern times.
There could be many models of Islamic society to suit every age and every community. The important thing is that the basic rules and principles of Islam must be observed. Within this framework people may conduct their lives as they wish. Hence, it is the duty of scholars to consider new issues and give rulings on them to determine their permissibility from the Islamic point of view. Throughout his life, Mustafa Al-Zarqa continued to show his interaction with the social problems of the Muslims, considering solutions that are acceptable from the Islamic point of view.
His meticulous method and independence of mind enabled him to stand out as a pioneer among contemporary scholars, giving his rulings, or fatwas, on a wide variety of questions. On certain issues considered by the Islamic Fiqh Council in Makkah, he differed with the other members, sometimes standing in a minority of one. But when we look at the arguments he makes and the evidence he gives from the Qur’an and the Sunnah in support of his fatwa, we realize that he has given the issue in question his full attention, reviewing it thoroughly, overlooking no little detail of the question, and always guided by the Qur’an and the Sunnah. It was often the case that other scholars would later realize the validity of his view. Thus he was a pioneer among peers.
Perhaps he was the first scholar to rule that Muslims who found themselves credited with interest for their bank deposits must not leave that interest to the bank. They must take it and use it for the benefit of the poor in the Muslim community. He argued that the other three options of leaving the interest to the bank, destroying it, or using it for one’s own benefit, are not sanctioned by Islam. Later many scholars deferred to his view, which is now endorsed by most scholars in the Muslim world.
Mustafa Al-Zarqa was among the earliest scholars, if not the first, to rule that insurance is permissible in Islam. This view was in conflict with that adopted by the Islamic Fiqh Council, but more and more scholars are now in agreement with Al-Zarqa’s view. His book on the subject shows that he has studied the issue in depth before giving his ruling. It also reflects the richness of his Islamic knowledge. Another example of his independence in his rulings is his view that the place to begin ihraam, or consecration, by people traveling for pilgrimage or Umrah by air or sea is Jeddah. He might have not been the first scholar to give such a ruling, but his pamphlet on the subject reflects his independent attitude.
An academic of exceptional standing and a successful politician, Mustafa Al-Zarqa was nevertheless close to the people. He taught in mosques, spoke on the problems faced by the Muslim people everywhere, addressed many conferences worldwide. He was always trying to find solutions to problems of Fiqh, economics and politics, from an Islamic point of view.
Mustafa Al-Zarqa died in Riyadh on 3 July 1999. His first wife died in 1942, and his second wife in 1983. Two of his sons, Nawfal and Mazin, also predeceased him. He is survived by his son, Anas, a distinguished Islamic economist and former professor of economics at the King Abdulaziz University in Jeddah. May God bestow His mercy on Mustafa Al-Zarqa and bless his soul.