Question: What does the legal term ‘common understanding’ (urf) mean?
Wa alaykum assalam wa rahmatullahi wa barakatuh,
Thank you for your important question.
Common understanding/practice (urf) is a legal concept (fiqhi) and not a source of law (asl shariyy). We do not determine what Allah allows or forbids based on what people do or don’t do, rather we use common understanding and practice to fill in gaps when primary texts are linguistically vague, or concepts in our religious practices are not definable from other sources.
For example, we might use common understanding/practice (urf) to determine “improper use” of a car or tool that was borrowed, or we might use it to determine the value of a certain item or service provided if there was a dispute over fair payment. Similarly, if the Sacred Law hasn’t defined what something exactly is, such as what exactly moving around “a lot” in prayer is, we would look to what is normally termed “a lot” by the average onlooker (Minhaj al Talibin, Nawawi).
As mentioned, we might defer to common understanding/practice (urf) when interpreting the Quran and hadith. However, that would only apply after first trying to interpret the text in light of the Sacred Law’s own definitions of things, and then in the light of the Arabic language itself. If both approaches don’t give us any clarity, we resort to common understanding/practice (urf).
For example, when interpreting a verse of the Qur’an referring to menstruation, we are at a loss because, according to many scholars, the Sacred Law itself has not given its particular legal definition (haqiqa shariyya), and its dictionary meaning in Arabic is also not exactly clear. So, we have to resort to the medical norm in order to define it. For this reason, Imam al Shafii tried to find an exact definition of what counted as “menstruation” from the common understanding/practice (urf) of the time. He found that no one had reported menstruating for less than 24 hours or more than 15 days and that no one had reported menstruating before the age of nine lunar years. Thus he resorted to common understanding/practice (urf) to interpret the Quran and hadith (al Umm, Shafii; Tuhfat al Labib, Ibn Daqiq al Eid).
All of this fits under the legal principle ‘Norm and conventional shall have the weight of the law’ (al Ashbah wa al Nadhair, Suyuti). Again this is a legal concept and not a primary source of law. We only use it in law when the Sacred Law itself calls for it. It does not independently define what Allah wants us to do or not do.
I pray this helps.
Checked and Approved by Shaykh Faraz Rabbani
Ustadh Farid Dingle has completed extensive years of study in the sciences of the Arabic language and the various Islamic Sciences. During his studies, he also earned a CIFE Certificate in Islamic Finance. Over the years he has developed a masterful ability to craft lessons that help non-Arabic speakers gain a deep understanding of the language. He currently teaches courses in the Arabic Language