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Ijtihad & Applying Islam in the 21st Century- Part 1


Due to the intellectual decline that has affected the Muslims throughout the last few centuries the subject of Ijtihad has become vague in the minds of many unfortunately including some thinkers and Ulema. Different extremes exist, some believe the doors of Ijtihad are closed whereas others have broken the doors of Ijtihad altogether. The following are some of the key misconceptions that have crept into the minds:

a) The doors of Ijtihad are closed i.e. it is impossible and not permitted to undertake Ijtihad today.

b) To undertake Ijtihad one has to be similar in knowledge to Imam Malik and it is not permissible or possible for someone with less knowledge than him.

c) The scope of Ijtihad includes most things including definitive matters such as the prohibition of Riba (usury) and the prohibition of having nation states with a multiplicity of rulers in the Muslim world. It allows Islam to be reformed in order to apply to the modern age.

d) Ijtihad is only personal reasoning and not the hukm of Allah i.e. it is the reasoning of an individual and therefore cannot be a shariah rule.

e) Ijtihad only occurs in those areas where the Islamic evidences have not discussed directly i.e. upon new issues.

f) Ijtihad is an individual obligation (Fard Ayn) and therefore Taqleed (following an opinion of a Mujtahid) is prohibited (haram).

In order to clarify these misnomers we must understand the subject of Ijtihad from its root, this means its definition and then understand its scope, evidences, reality and limitations.

Definition and scope of Ijtihad

Linguistically Ijtihad in the Arabic language means to make the utmost effort to realise a matter that entails a measure of discomfort and difficulty. It comes from the root word jahada (stuggle).

The scholars of Usul ul Fiqh gave it a specific definition as the linguistic meaning alone is not accurate when discussing the shariah rules. The great scholars of Usul such as Abu al-Husayn 'Ali otherwise known as al-Amidi (d. 631 A.H.) and Mohammad bn Ali Al-Shawkani (d.1255A.H.) defined it as the total expenditure of effort made by a jurist in order to infer, with a degree of probability, the rules of Shari'ah from their detailed evidence in the sources. [Amidi, Ihkam, IV, 162; Shawkani, Irshad, p. 250.]

Others add, ‘in a manner the Mujtahid feels unable to exert any more effort’ to this definition.

This Usuli definition of Ijtihad was derived from the evidences which discuss ijtihad and establish its obligation, these will be elaborated in a following chapter. Unfortunately some today believe that Ijtihad is a mere personal reasoning of an individual and have abandoned this definition of the Usuli scholars which has been established for centuries. The consequence of this is that people mistakenly think that Islam doesn’t contain a process to derive rules for modern problems. Therefore when talking about Ijtihad it is paramount that we refer to the established Usuli definition rather than how the term is used today.

In order to understand the scope of Ijtihad it is necessary to understand the types of ahkam shariah (divine rules) in order to ascertain to which area it applies.

It is unanimously agreed that there are two types of ahkam shariah:

1. Qati (definitive), such as the obligation of the five times daily Salah (prayer), the prohibition of Riba (usury) and the obligation of ruling by whatever Allah (swt) has revealed. These types of rules are definitive as they are established by Qati Thuboot (definitive transmission) and Qati Dalalah (definitive meaning).

2. Zanni (speculative), either they are established from Zanni Thuboot (speculative transmission), Zanni Dalalah (speculative meaning) or both. These include rules such as whether intention is a condition for Wudhu, whether it is conditional for the Khalifah to be from the lineage of the Quraish and whether leasing agricultural land is prohibited.

A text which is definitive text in meaning is one which is clear and specific; it has only one meaning and admits of no other interpretations. An example of this is the text on the entitlement of the husband in the estate of his deceased wife, as follows: “In what your wives leave, your share is a half, if they leave no child" [TMQ al-Nisa', 4:12]. Other examples are:

“The adulterer, whether a man or a woman, flog them each a hundred stripes” [TMQ al-Nur, 24:2]

“Those who accuse chaste women of adultery and fail to bring four witnesses [to prove it], flog them eighty stripes” [TMQ al-Nur, 24:4]

The quantitative aspects of these rulings, namely one half, one hundred, and eighty are self-evident and therefore not open to interpretation.

The second type of ahkam shariah are those which are considered speculative (Zanni), as either they are established from Zanni Thuboot (speculative transmission), Zanni Dalalah (speculative meaning) or both.

Ijtihad does not occur except in the ahkaam shariah whose daleel is speculative (Zanni) and not when the rule is decisive (qat’i). [Shawkani, Irshad, p. 250; Zuhayr, Usul, IV, 223-25; Badran, Usul, p. 471.] Therefore there can be no Ijtihad the definitive rules such as those mentioned. To reject these ahkam or any others established through Qati thuboot (definitive narration) and Qati dalalah (definitive meaning) is Kufr (disbelief) as it would be a rejection of the definitive revealed rule from Allah (swt). Thus those who reject that the five times daily prayer (Salah) is fard (obligation) or that ruling by whatever Allah is revealed is obligatory undoubtedly become Kuffar (disbelievers) even if they were great ulema who had committed the entire Quran and all the ahadith (narrations) to memory.

An example of a text with a Zanni meaning is the verse 'God will not call you to account for what is futile (al-laghw) in your oaths, but He will call you to account for your deliberate oaths . . .' [TMQ al-Ma’idah, 5:92]. The text then continues to spell out the expiation, or kaffarah, for deliberate oaths, which consists of either feeding ten hungry persons who are in need, or setting a slave free, or fasting for three days.

The ulema have differed on the definition of futile, as opposed to deliberate, oaths, which occur are mentioned in the verse. According to the Hanafis, a futile oath is one which is taken on the truth of something that is suspected to be true but the opposite emerges to be the case. The majority have, on the other hand, held it to mean taking an oath which is not intended, that is, when taken in jest without any intention. Similar differences have arisen concerning the precise definition of what may be considered as a deliberate oath (yamin al-mu'aqqadah). There is also disagreement as to whether the three days of fasting should be consecutive or could be three separate days. Hence the text of this ayah, although definitive on the basic requirement of kaffarah for futile oaths, is speculative as to the precise terms of the kaffarah and the manner of its implementation.

A Qur’anic injunction may simultaneously possess a definitive and a speculative meaning, in which case each of the two meanings will convey a ruling independently of the other. An example of this is the injunction concerning the requirement of ablution for prayers which reads in part “ … and wipe your heads” [TMQ al-Ma’idah, 5:6]. This text is definitive on the requirement of wiping (mash) of the head in wudu', but since it does not specify the precise area of the head to be wiped, it is speculative in regard to this point. Hence we find that the jurists are unanimous in regard to the first, but have differed in regard to the second aspect of this injunction. [Badran, Usul, p. 66.]

When it comes the area in which Ijtihad is permitted it is important to realise that it does not occur after a brief look at the shari’ah texts, rather it means that the Mujtahid struggles to his utmost such a manner that the jurist feels an inability to exert himself further in order to derive the hukm of Allah. If the jurist has failed to discover the evidence which he was capable of discovering, his opinion is void. [Ghazali, Mustasfa, II, 102; Amidi, Ihkam, IV, 162.]

Therefore if one claimed to have made Ijtihad upon an issue after only studying one text related to it and ignored all other relavent texts even though they were readily available, this would not be considered legitimate Ijtihad.

The definition of Ijtihad itself clarifies a misconception that it is only a personal reasoning and not the hukm of Allah. Often Western thinkers refer to Ijtihad in this manner as if it is only a product of the mind and nothing to do with law of Allah. It is not just a personal reasoning of a jurist rather it is an extraction of the hukm of Allah from the sources of shariah. To believe that it is only a personal reasoning is dangerous as it infers that it is a product of the mind alone like in Western legislation. For example the rules of divorce in Western legislation completely differ from the rules of divorce in Islam, as the West believes the mind is a source of legislation whereas in Islam we apply the mind in order to understand the revelation of the Creator.

The scope of Ijtihad does not include the matters of Aqeeda (belief) as it is not allowed to do ijtihad in ‘Aqeedah from the Usuli meaning. This is because the ‘Aqeeda is definite and decisive and cannot be taken except from the definite daleel (evidence) and it is prohibited to take it from the speculative evidence. Therefore there can be no Ijtihad regarding the belief in angels, the day of judgement, jannah (paradise), jahannum (hell) and the like.

He (swt) says: “And verily guess is no substitute for the truth.” [TMQ 53:28]

And He (swt) says: “Verily, those who dispute about the ayat (proofs, evidences, verses) of Allah, without any authority having come to them, there is nothing else in their breasts except pride (to accept you [Muhammad (saw)] as a Messenger of Allah and to obey you) They will never have it (i.e. the Prophethood which Allah has bestowed upon you).” [TMQ 40:56]

And He (swt) said: “They have no (certain) knowledge. They follow nothing but conjecture. For surely; they killed him not (‘Isa).” [TMQ 4:157]

"Do you have Ilm for that which you claim so that you provide us with? You follow nothing but conjecture (Zann)." [TMQ 6:148]

"These are nothing but names which you have devised, you and your fathers, for which Allah has sent down no authority. They follow nothing but conjecture and what their Nafs desire. Even though there has already come to them the Guidance from their Rabb" [TMQ 53:23]

Jalaluddin as-Suyuti, a Mujtahid Imam of the Shafi madhab has commented on this verse, that the people had zann (conjecture) which is opposed to knowledge (ilm) i.e. certain knowledge. He also stated that Allah had sent down definitive proof (Burhan Qati) for the truth of the Islamic Aqeeda. [Tafseer al Jalalayn page 627. It is stated in Reliance of the Traveller Ahmed ibn Naqib al misri (ra) (769/1368) Book of Qada (Judiciary)]

In all of these and other ayaat (verses) to do with beliefs Allah (swt) censures those who take the beliefs through conjecture (Zann) and decisively prohibits them from this.

Since Ijtihad, according to its definition, relates to Zanni evidences then it does not occur in beliefs.

It is incorrect to say that if the mujtahid makes a mistake then he gets one reward and hence there is no harm in making ijtihad in ‘Aqeedah because he will be rewarded if he makes a mistake. This cannot be said because the one who makes a mistake in ‘Aqeedah is not rewarded or excused, rather he is sinful and he will be going astray even if he had exerted all his effort and energy he will not be safe. This is because such effort does not give him anything (definite) and he will have no excuse to save him from the punishment of Allah.

The ulema are in agreement that in regard to the essentials of Aqeeda, such as the oneness of Allah (tawhid), His attributes, the truth of the Prophethood of Muhammad, the hereafter, and so on, there is only one truth and anyone, whether a mujtahid or otherwise, who takes a different view automatically renounces Islam. [Shawkani, Irshad, p. 259]

Therefore people such as the followers of Gulam Ahmad Mirza Qadian who believe he was a Prophet and Salman Rushdie who defamed Muhammad (saw) are definitely Kafir (disbelievers) and cannot be called Mujtahids as all.

Abu Ismael al-Beirawi


Anonymous said…
A much needed clarification and exposition of the subject matter. Alhamdulillah a very difficult subject has been made accessible and digestible ...I pray it is published and made available soon.

May Allah (SWT) bless you with success in this world and the next.
Anonymous said…
A very informative article
Shep said…
What say you to this?

Ibn Taymiyah rejected the division of Islamic teachings into matters of "creed" and matters of "law", whereby all the matters that are counted as "creed" become canonical matters above dispute while those of "law" remain open for discussion. He said [Majmû` al-Fatâwâ (19/207)]:

The division of religious issues into matters of "creed" and matters of "law" is the idea of some innovators from among the scholastic theologians, the Mu`tailah, and the Jahmiyyah. The idea was then passed on to those who were investigating matters of legal jurisprudence without those jurists fully appreciating its meaning and its implications.

The distinction between "creed" and "law" is something that was introduced later into Islamic discourse. It is neither established by the Qur'an, nor by the Sunnah, nor by consensus. It was never invoked by the Pious Predecessors or by the early scholars. Moreover, reason dictates that the idea is patently false. Those who distinguish between what they regard as matters of creed and what they regard as matters of law have no clear standard to determine what goes into each category. The few criteria that they suggest are invalid.

Ibn Taymiyah writes elsewhere [Majmû` al-Fatâwâ (13/ 125)]:

None of the Pious Predecessors and early scholars distinguish between matters of creed and matters of law. Indeed, dividing the religion into these two categories was something unknown to the Companions and Successors. None of them ever claimed that a scholar who expends his every effort seeking the truth about a question will be sinful for doing so, regardless of whether the question is a matter of creed or one of law. The Mu`tazilah first invoked this distinction and from them the idea was passed on to the discipline of Islamic jurisprudence.

Anonymous said…
Assalaamu Alaikum dear brother, I have read your question and I believe that the issue of performing Ijtihaad as explained in this article relates to determining whether a Mas'alah should be approached by Ijtihaad or not. As such it lays down a principle which is: Any text related to a Hukm that is Qat'iy in meaning is not subject to Ijtihaad and that it is not permissible to perform Ijtihaad in it because it is clear cut and not open to deliberation or interpretation. The original sources of Islaam represented in the Quraan and Sunnah are the same whether the issue relates to the Aqueedah or the actions of the servants and shariah rules without distinction. However applying the ruling of the prohibition of performing Ijtihaad in areas that are Qat'iy means that it must be applied upon the issue of Aqueedah which must be Qatiy due to the prohibition of taking Zhann into the Aqueedah. So there is no place for Zhann in the Aqueedah and as such there is no Ijtihaad in the issue of the Aqueedah just as there is no Ijtihaad in other definite issues like the obligatory prayers and the like as mentioned in the article. Baarakallahu feekum.

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