Ijtihad Still Valid in Our Times?

Ijtihad in Islam refers to striving to come to the correct ruling on a particular issue based on a qualified individual’s understanding and knowledge of the sources of Islamic law. It is something which is reserved for those who meet the qualifications to engage in it, known as Mujtahids. The Mujtahid is required to have reached a certain level of knowledge by which he can correctly derive rulings from the Quran and Sunnah. Shaykh Uthyameen states, “The Mujtahid must have knowledge of the Islamic legal evidences and knowledge of the basic principles and scholarly views which, if he knows them, he will be able to derive rulings based on that evidence without unwittingly going against scholarly consensus. If these conditions are met in his case, then he may engage in ijtihad. Ijtihad may be focused on a narrow area, so a person may research one issue of knowledge and examine it thoroughly, and become a Mujtahid with regard to that issue, or he could focus on one aspect of knowledge, such as issues having to do with tahaarah (purification), which he researches and examines, and thus becomes a Mujtahid in that area.”1 So, it is possible that a person be a Mujtahid in one particular issue of religion (tafseer, fiqh, aqeedah, inheritance, hadith, etc.) and not another.

The tradition of ijtihad is established from the lives of the companions during the lifetime of Muhammad (peace be upon him) and after it. And the ijtihad of the scholars who came after the companions’ times, especially the four imams, is well known in the Muslim world. The Imams did not limit ijtihad to themselves, rather, they encouraged their students to seek the truth wherever it may befall. In fact, they clarified explicitly that their ijtihads carry the possibility of error and not to rely on it in light of new evidences that may not be in their knowledge. For example, Imam Mailk said, “Truly I am only a mortal: I make mistakes (sometimes) and I am correct (sometimes). Therefore, look into my opinions: all that agrees with the Book and the Sunnah, accept it; and all that does not agree with the Book and the Sunnah, ignore it.”2

There are many people who believe that doors to ijtihad have been closed for centuries, therefore, no one is allowed to make ijtihad in our times. However, this understanding is incorrect and there is nothing in the Quran, Sunnah, or even those scholars who are held to be Mujtahids by such people that indicate that ijtihad is restricted to a particular time in history. Ijtihad has always been a tool used by scholars to derive rulings on issues for which there is no clear guidance from the Quran, Sunnah, or the statements of the companions. Some of these issues were due to the fact that they did not exist at the time of the Prophet (peace be upon him), so, it was not clear whether it is permissible or forbidden which resulted in an ijtihad from the Mujtahid. And at other times, it is an issue for which there is evidence but the particular scholar who made the ijtihad was not aware of the evidence or the correct understanding of a particular text in the Quran and Sunnah. And there were other reasons as well.

Shyakh Mashhoor Hasan Aal Salmaan states, “Allah’s virtue is not a monopoly for anyone as Allah opened up the way for some of the later scholars that which he did not open up for the earlier scholars. Even though the earlier scholars are generally better than the later scholars but this is not in every single one, so why would Allah restrict and limit His virtue? The facts of the matter which relate to the ummah is that there is no restriction placed upon it and the texts of the Book and the Sunnah are restricted and there is no answer to these facts (about the ummah having no restrictions placed upon it) except with ijtihad.”3 The conditions of the Muslims is constantly changing and they are facing issues which were not dealt by the four imams simply because these new conditions did not exist in their times.

The most practical example for our times is the issue of Muslims who live as minorities in non-Muslim countries. They are surrounded by issues which require ijtihad from those scholars who understand their situations and can give a practical solution to their particular circumstance. If these minorities were to follow the ijtihad of the scholars from the past, it would be something very difficult for them to abide by in the west. Either they will not find any ruling from the earlier scholars or the ruling will not be practical for their circumstance. They are facing issues which the four imams were not aware of because they lived at a time when Islam was strong, thriving, and they lived in majority Muslim lands. Another issue of debate is the concept of Dar us Salaam vs. Dar ul Harb and whether it still exists in our times or not. In many instances, it is easier to practice Islam in a western country than an actual Islamic one, so does this make the Islamic country less Islamic and the non-Muslim country more Islamic? Another example may be the absence of a caliph for the Muslims. There are certain rules in Shairah which is applied towards a caliph and his army, however, since we have no Islamic caliph in our times, do the same rules apply to Islamic countries’ heads and their armies? All these things require ijtihad and there is no clear guidance from the already established ijtihad of the scholars. In fact, ijtihad is a necessity in our times due to the massive change in circumstances throughout the Muslim world.

The only thing that needs cautiousness in relation to ijtihad is the individual who performs it. There is no doubt that ijtihad has conditions which must be met in order for an individual to be considered qualified to make ijtihad. It cannot be given into the hands of those “who have not specialized in study of the shariah sciences or have not reached the level necessary for being able to engage in ijtihad and being qualified to issue fatwas (Islamic verdicts). These are the majority of people, or those who are educated and specialize in fields other than Shariah.”4 Perhaps, it can be said that the doors of ijtihad are closed to those who do not qualify but it cannot be used in absolute terms. And historically, Muslim scholars in various parts of the world have always made ijtihad throughout the centuries despite the emphasis on taqleed (blind following).

As far as the conditions of ijtihad, Shaykh Uthyameen listed six5:

1) That he know the legal evidences that are necessary for ijtihad, such as, the verses of Ahkaam and its hadiths.
2) That he know that which is connected to the authentication and weakness of a hadith, such as, knowing the chain of narrators, etc.
3) That he know the abrogating text from the abrogated, the placement of consensus on matters, etc. This is so he may avoid giving a ruling contradictory to the consensus or based on a text which is abrogated.
4) To know from the evidences what differentiates the ruling from allocation, restriction, etc., so that he does not rule contradictory to it.
5) To know from the language and principles of fiqh that which is connected to the meaning of the words, for example, the general, the specific, the absolute, the restrictive, the abstract, the clear, etc. Therefore, he rules as required by the semantics.
6) That he has the ability that will enable him to derive rulings from the evidences.

Works Cited


Understanding Ijtihad – The Thinking Muslim

By Surkheel Abu Aaliyah

The science that evolved in understanding the shari‘ah, or Sacred Law of Islam, is called fiqh: usually translated as “jurisprudence”, and comes from the word faqiha, meaning: “to understand”. Fiqh, therefore, is all about understanding these divine laws and the way they shape the life-pattern of believers. Strictly speaking, shari‘ah refers to the body of laws revealed to the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ which he taught and lived by in his day to day life; while fiqh is the science of understanding, extracting and developing these laws – and this involves human effort.

Now “effort” in the area of jurisprudence is known as ijtihad (lit. “exertion”), and is the task of the mujtahid – a jurist qualified and capable of such juristic efforts, though only after receiving rigorous and prolonged legal training. For uncovering the intent of the Lawgiver – the murad al-shari‘ – and to infer new rulings and legislation from the root sources of Islamic law – the Qur’an and Sunnah, as well as analogy (qiyas) and scholarly consensus (ijma‘) – can be an uphill task. Often a mujtahid must struggle through long days and nights to reach a conclusion.

The phrase used to describe this effort is: بَذْلُ المَجْهُوْد or اِسْتِفْراغُ الْوُسْعِ – “expending every possible effort” so as to reach a legal judgement.[1] The significance here is that ijtihadis not just one of juristic effort or exertion, but one of exhaustion! The mujtahid spends every possible effort, leaving no stone unturned, in order to arrive at a ruling. Ijtihad is certainly not merely surfing a few websites on the internet, or skimming some pages of a few Arabic books. It is nothing less than examining and interrogating all the relevant proof-texts on the matter before arriving at a legal judgement or hukm– however many hours, days weeks or months it may take.

Jumping the gun slightly, let’s just get an idea into what level of learning is required so as to undertake ijtihad. Now ijtihad has varying levels. The highest is when a jurist can perform absolute ijtihad – i.e. they can infer rulings directly from the primary texts of the Qur‘an or Sunnah, unrestricted by anyone else’s legal framework. A mujtahid who reaches this rank is called a mujtahid mutlaq. Imam Ibn Hazm was one such mujtahid-jurist. Contextualising Ibn Hazm’s words: ‘I follow the truth, make ijtihad, and do not confine myself to a single law school (madhhab),’ Imam al-Dhahabi wrote:

نَعَمْ، مَنْ بَلَغَ رُتْبَة الاجْتِهَاد، وَشَهِد لَهُ بِذَلِكَ عِدَّة مِنَ الأَئِمَّةِ، لَمْ يَسُغْ لَهُ أَنْ يُقَلِّدَ، كَمَا أَنَّ الفَقِيْه المُبتدئ وَالعَامِي الَّذِي يَحفظ القُرْآن أَوْ كَثِيْراً مِنْهُ لاَ يَسوَغُ لَهُ الاجْتِهَاد أَبَداً، فَكَيْفَ يَجْتَهِدُ، وَمَا الَّذِي يَقُوْلُ؟ وَعلاَم يَبنِي؟ وَكَيْفَ يَطيرُ وَلَمَّا يُرَيِّش؟

“Yes! Whoever reaches the level of ijtihad, and a number of scholars testify to it, taqlid is not allowed to him. Much like how a novice jurist, or a layman who has memorised the Qur’an or most of it, is not permitted to attempt ijtihad at all. How could he make ijtihad? What could he possible say? On what can he base his opinion? How can he fly and he has yet to grow wings?[2]

He then proceeds to detail the type of learning needed to reach a rank of ijtihad below that of the highest or absolute level. He says:

الفَقِيْهُ المنتهِي اليَقظ الفَهِم المُحَدِّث، الَّذِي قَدْ حَفِظ مُخْتَصَراً فِي الْفُرُوع، وَكِتَاباً فِي قوَاعد الأُصُوْل، وَقرَأَ النَّحْو، وَشَاركَ فِي الفضَائِل مَعَ حِفْظِهِ لِكِتَابِ اللهِ وَتشَاغله بتَفْسِيْره وَقوَةِ مُنَاظرتِهِ، فَهَذِهِ رُتْبَة مِنْ بلغَ الاجْتِهَاد المُقيَّد، وَتَأَهَّل لِلنظر فِي دلاَئِل الأَئِمَّة، فَمتَى وَضحَ لَهُ الحَقُّ فِي مَسْأَلَة، وَثبت فِيْهَا النَّصّ، وَعَمِلَ بِهَا أَحَدُ الأَئِمَّةِ الأَعْلاَمِ كَأَبِي حَنِيْفَةَ مِثْلاً، أَوْ كَمَالِك، أَوِ الثَّوْرِيِّ، أَوِ الأَوْزَاعِيِّ، أَوِ الشَّافِعِيِّ، وَأَبِي عُبَيْدٍ، وَأَحْمَدَ، وَإِسْحَاق، فَلْيَتَّبع فِيْهَا الحَقّ وَلاَ يَسْلُكِ الرّخصَ، وَلِيَتَوَرَّع، وَلاَ يَسَعُه فِيْهَا بَعْدَ قيَام الحُجَّة عَلَيْهِ تَقليدٌ.

‘An extremely versed and brilliant jurist who – having committed to memory a primer in law, as well as a book on juristic maxims and on legal theory; has mastered grammar; memorised the Book of God and busied himself with its exegesis; possessing a sharp, analytical mind – has now reached a rank of restricted ijtihad and is thus qualified to investigate the textual reasoning of the leading scholars. Thus when the truth becomes apparent to him in a given issue, and the proof well established, and it has been acted upon by one of the great Imams like Abu Hanifah, for instance, or Malik, al-Thawri, al-Awza‘i, al-Shafi‘i, Abu ‘Ubayd, Ahmad or Ishaq, he follows [what he sees as] the truth; without chasing concessions, but instead by being diligent. Taqlid is unlawful to him in the issue after the proofs have been established to him.’[3]

Now compare this with the da‘wah that insists (or at the very least, encourages) those who don’t have even an iota of the above depicted skill-set to “investigate” and “weigh-up” the proofs! Such an insane approach isn’t just reckless. It is possibly the single most significant cause for religious anarchy, extremism, and undermining shari‘ah structures to have ever afflicted the body of the ummah. For when juristic restraints are loosened, and handed to those wholly unfit for purpose, all things run amok!

1. See: al-Ba‘li, Talkhis Rawdat al-Nazir (Riyadh: Maktabah al-Rushd, 1429H), 347.

2. Siyar A‘lam al-Nubala (Beirut: Mu’assasah al-Risalah, 1419H), 18:191.

3. ibid., 18:191.