The Importance of Learning the Meaning of Ijtihad

defines Ijtihad as follows:

Ijtihad (Arabic اجتهاد) is a technical term of Islamic law that describes the process of making a legal decision by independent interpretation of the legal sources, the Qur’an and the Sunnah. The opposite of ijtihad is taqlid, Arabic for "imitation". A person who applied ijtihad was called a mujtahid, and traditionally had to be a scholar of Islamic law or alim. The word derives from the Arabic verbal root jahada "struggle", the same root as that of jihad.  The "t" is inserted because the word is a derived stem VIII verb.

The common etymology is worth noting, as both words touch on the concepts of struggle or effort. In the case of form VIII verbs, this means to "struggle with oneself", as through deep thought. Ijtihad is a method of legal reasoning that does not rely on the traditional schools of jurisprudence, or madhabs.

In early Islam ijtihad was a commonly used legal practice, and was well integrated with the philosophy of kalam, its secular counterpart. It slowly fell out of practice for several reasons, most notably the efforts of the Asharite theologians, who saw it as leading to errors of over-confidence in judgement.

Al-Ghazali was the most notable of these, and his "The Incoherence of the Philosophers" was the most celebrated statement of this view.
It is debated whether Al-Ghazali was observing or creating the so-called "closure of the door of ijtihad". Some say this had occurred by the beginning of the 10th century CE, a couple of centuries after the finalizing of the major collections of hadith. In the words of Joseph Schacht: "hence a consensus gradually established itself to the effect that from that time onwards no one could be deemed to have the necessary qualifications for independent reasoning in religious law, and that all future activity would have to be confined to the explanation, application, and, at the most, interpretation of the doctrine as it had been laid down once and for all." This theory has been put in question recently by Wael Hallaq, who writes that there was also always a minority that claimed that the closing of the door is wrong, and a properly qualified scholar must have the right to perform ijtihad, at all times, not only up until the four schools of law were defined. What is clear is that long after the 10th century the principles of ijtihad continued to be discussed in the Islamic legal literature, and other Asharites continued to argue with their Mutazilite rivals about its applicability to sciences.

Another very succinct definition of ijtihad that I find appealing profers that ijtihad represents a struggle within the mind to comprehend the wider world.

The absence of ijtihad in Islam means the absence of critical thinking. Based on my reading of Maria Menocal’s important book"The Ornament of the World", which I have reviewed separately in this blog, ijtihad was prominent in Islam for hundreds of years—in particular during the Golden Age of Islam in the Iberian Peninsula from roughly the year 700 to 1200.  Toward the end of the 10th century, the doors of independent thinking in Islam were deliberately closed, largely for political reasons (Wikipedia notes this as well).  The Iberian city-state of Cordoba, in what is now modern Spain, had 70 libraries in the 11th century, and the Islamic Sunni world had 135 different schools of thought.  These libraries were shut down and these schools were reduced in number–  the Sunni schools shrank from 135 to 4.

A contemporary and tragic example of the need for ijtihad was published by the Middle East Media Research Institute on February 23rd:

The ritual of "the stoning of the Devil," which is part of the Muslim Hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca), ended this year with the deaths of 363 pilgrims in a stampede that occurred when 600,000 Muslims gathered prior to the ritual, which by tradition must begin at midday.

The disaster sparked harsh criticism of the clerics who had refused to allocate more time for the ritual – which would have reduced the crowding – even though circumstances had changed since the days of the Prophet and the number of pilgrims is now in the millions.

The following are the main responses to the incident:

For Years, Clerics Have Turned a Deaf Ear to Warnings [About Dangerous Crowding]

Hussein Shubakshi, Saudi columnist for the London daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, criticized the clerics’ rigidity: "One cannot investigate this tragic event without considering the fatwas that strictly forbade the holding of the stone-throwing ritual before noon. For years, the clerics have displayed rigidity [in religious ruling] and lack of independent thinking, turning a deaf ear to the voices which repeatedly warned [about the dangerous crowding] and which demanded a greater number of lenient fatwas…
"How sad it is that, even on the day of the ritual itself, [clerics] issued an opinion stating that adherence to the ‘prescribed hour’ is the ruling that must be followed. This position [surely] played some part in causing the crowding and confusion that led to the disaster. We must stop this disregard for human life based on religious rulings that adhere [blindly] to the written word without considering the [actual] situation and the conditions that have changed [since the days of the Prophet]…

"There are many fatwas regarding the pilgrimage; some reflect a limited and ineffective [approach] to religious ruling, and others reflect a belief – not only theoretical but practical – that shari’a is valid in all eras and places…
"The role of the religious [scholars] is to constantly study the religious texts and [to seek] suitable interpretations that protect the sanctity of the Muslims’ lives… [and not to] cling to the interpretation of some human [cleric] who rules according to his own religious judgment and limited knowledge."(1)

Clerics Talk of Opening the Gates of Itjihad – But in Practice, They Seldom Do

Al-Sayyid Walad Abahu, columnist for the daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, wrote: "I have participated in the Hajj a number of times, and I always noted that the main cause of the logistical problems is failure on the part of the Muslim clerics to find religious solutions for contemporary difficulties. The pilgrims cannot expect the supervising authorities to find solutions, since the problems have to do with religious rituals and are not [only] with logistics…
"In recent years, the [stone-throwing] ritual has been the major [arena] for catastrophes during the Hajj. Even though the issue is controversial, and was never agreed upon unanimously, most clerics still stress that [pilgrims] must follow the most widespread and well-known ruling [i.e. that the ritual take place after midday]. [They adhere to this opinion] even at the cost of hundreds of lives, disregarding the fact that it is impossible for two million pilgrims to pass over one bridge during a period that usually lasts no more than six hours.

"This rigid outlook has become a dangerous problem in the method of interpreting, reading and applying the [sacred] text. The problem exists [not only with respect to the Hajj but] also with respect to other essential issues that concern the modern Muslim who wants to adhere to his religion but also [wants] to march with the times… Most clerics… talk a great deal about opening the gates of it ijtihad [i.e. independent judgment in religious ruling], and about creating a climate of renewal. But in practice, they seldom do this, [since] this would require a systematic effort of interpretation that goes beyond the repeated dissemination of an ancient hadith…"(2)

Ijtihad may start with applying common sense to save lives in religious rituals, but it shouldn’t stop there.  In my view, the major challenge facing the Muslim world, Arab and non-Arab, is to find a non-violent way to transform honor into dignity.  Mainstream literal interpretation of the Qur’an prevents Islams entry to modernity, despite a powerful historic record of the application of critical thinking to scripture during the Golden Age of Islam. Perhaps ijtihad can help save lives at the Hajj and build new bridges of understanding between the three monotheistic faiths that are recognized with respect in the Qu’ran.

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One Response to “The Importance of Learning the Meaning of Ijtihad”

  1. John Lerwill Says:

    My understanding of Islam, and of any major faith for that matter, is that its true teaching comes from within, and true understanding therefrom comes through the heart (qalb). As Rumi himself is quoted as saying (e.g. in ‘The Sufis’, Idries Shah) that the Qur’an has seven levels of understanding, and that as Rumi demonstrated by his life and teachings that formal Islam is not the be-all-and-end-all, how can applied ijtihad be truly successful unless one’s heart is traveling in a guided direction (through a teacher)? As we all know, if the intellect is left to its own devices, round can become square and tall can become short with the application of a few choice words, so – to my way of thinking – applied ijtihad is not likely to be as successful unless it is transmuted by the Sufi method, which is through Love.
    There is the matter of the Shia Isma’ilis, who, of course, believe in the tradition that the Prophet directed that Muslims should, after his demise, follow the ‘Rope of Allah’, which was/is his family, and the reason for the success of the Isma’ilis in adapting to modern conditions over the centuries is through the leadership of their ‘Rope’. I mention this in a similar sense, in fact, to my previous para on Rumi, as the Isma’ilis’ leader (Imam) draws his followers to him via love and loyalty, and they generally follow – in gratitude and peace – as children (“You will not know the kingdom of God unless you turn round and be as a child”, Jesus).
    The nub of my issue/question is this: How can ijtihad be applied successfully unless there is a truly wise guiding light who knows the Qur’an and can teach the meaning of the Qur’an according to the level of understanding of his/her listeners? Even Ghazzali realized his limitations on that one (and became a Sufi)!
    That Muslims should question their own religion is, of course, a pre-emptive need. Perhaps Muslims should ask, if they believe in Isa (Jesus) as a prophet, why they do not understand his teaching, which was (perhaps) the ideal to which all those who submit themselves to God (Muslims) should aspire through Islam, and as taught by the Sufis.
    If only we would all learn that Heaven and Hell is here with us – now; not after physical death.
    With love and peace,

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