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Newsletter for February 2009
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THE DEFINITION AND PRACTICALITY OF IJTIHAD
By Imam Dr. Zijad Delic
A general opinion of scholars has been that the right to exercise independent judgment was gradually restricted by approximately the tenth century, in what they have described as "the closing of the door of Ijtihad." (Schacht 1964) Schacht (1991) asserts that Islamic law is no longer relevant to modern life because of its inflexibility and consequent inability to meet the constant change of post-modern times.
Yet classical legal scholars found a remedy within Ijtihad itself for this apparent inflexibility. The tool of Ijtihad contributed to easing the law’s rigidity by serving as a dynamic device to adapt Islamic law to be more relevant to everyday life. This tool, however, was abandoned by many later jurists, which led to an assumption that the gate of Ijtihad had been closed during the middle of the ninth century, initiating from that moment the period of Taqlid, or imitation. (Schacht 1964). This assertion was echoed by many scholars, especially the Orientalists (Anderson 1976; Khadduri 1961; Gibb 1970; Coulson 1964) and soon became the predominant style of expression among Islamic scholars.
But there was also another opinion among scholars who claimed that the idea of Ijtihad being a closed door (insidad bab al-ijtihad) was wrong and that all who are qualified, who possess knowledge and understanding of their society, must have the right to perform Ijtihad at all times.
Contemporary scholars such as Hallaq (1984) and Watt (1974) suggest that Ijtihad always functioned in Islamic jurisprudence. Hallaq (1984) argues that "such views on the history of Ijtihad (that is, about its abandonment) after the eighth century [CE] are entirely baseless and inaccurate." Hallaq believes that in one way or another, the principle of Ijtihad has been applied from the dawn of Islam to the present day. He concedes, however, that from the sixth century CE on, Ijtihad was not generally used and certainly not widespread, and that the number of Mujtahids dropped considerably.
In his article "Was the Gate of Ijtihad Closed?" Hallaq (1984) proves that the scholars had never abandoned the notion of Ijtihad, in theory or in practice. After analyzing relevant sources dating from the tenth century CE onward, he concluded that his findings contradicted the theory suggested by Schacht and others. He claims in his findings that Islamic law had witnessed a number of scholars who had reached the level of Ijtihad and had practiced it. So any argument based on the notion of total closure of Ijtihad is simply unsupportable.
Despite this, some scholars date the closure of Ijtihad back to the eleventh century CE. The claim of scholarly consensus regarding such a closure seems unlikely, given the number of subsequent books written by scholars who called for or believed in it. (Hallag, 1984) Ibn Abd Al-Barr (d. 463 AH/1070 CE) for example, devoted a whole chapter in his writings to the refutation of taqlid, and called for eligible scholars to undertake Ijtihad (1994). Al-Mawardi (1971) made the same plea and further insisted that those who practice Ijtihad must apply the results of their own discernment even though they may disagree with pre-existing Ijtihad, which they are not bound to follow. These scholars clearly called for Mujtahids to practice Ijtihad and refute Taqlid (imitative or derivative thinking) and thus there is a clear continuity of Ijtihad even to this day as a fundamental juristic method.
If Ijtihad were universally regarded in this light, it would steer a new course in Islamic law and consequently throughout the Muslim community - a course that would stay within the boundaries of Islamic sources, while at the same time avoiding the blindness of simple adherence or imitating the earliest scholars (taqlid) and cultures of origin without taking societal changes into consideration.
In other words, for reformists Ijtihad is a prerequisite for any meaningful intellectual contribution, as well as for the survival of Islamic traditions in times of turmoil and uncertainty, like our own. Al-Alwani
(1993) holds that taqlid leads to the paralysis of mental creativity and calls on Muslim intellectuals to recreate the atmosphere of Ijtihad.
Unless the call to Ijtihad becomes a widespread intellectual trend, however, there is little hope that the Ummah (Muslim community) will be able to make any useful contribution to world civilization.
Ijtihad in present times differs from its historical precursor in both complexity and scope. In earlier times, Mujtahids did not experience such rapid social change as is the case today. Social reality was quite different then because a Mujtahid was able to engage in Ijtihad with a degree of probability which is no longer possible. Kamali (2002) suggests that due to the accelerated pace of social change and the complexities it generates contemporary Ijtihad ought to be multi-disciplinary and should not be inhibited by fear of departing from the earlier Islamic legal formulations.
The existing legacy of Islamic law is largely a product of earlier scholarship; and just as earlier scholars arrived at judgments relevant to their particular circumstances, Muslim scholars of subsequent ages are also entitled to interpret Islam in the light of their own times and conditions.
According to Muhamad Iqbal (1962), a great Indo-Pakistani reformer, "the teaching of the Qur’an that life is a process of progressive creation necessitates that each generation, guided but unhampered by the work of its predecessors, should be permitted to solve its own problems."
And as Kamali (2002) argues, Ijtihad is a resolute effort to upgrade the state of education at all levels, from fighting illiteracy to modernizing academic facilities and programs, to promulgating knowledge of the Qur’an and integrating its values in schools and universities. Those who sincerely dedicate themselves to this cause in order to serve God and the Muslim community, help to advance the greater Jihad of our era. The process of Ijtihad enables Muslims to be flexible and to learn from other cultures and civilizations.
Courtesy: Canadian Islamic Congress Friday Magazine.
Imam Dr. Zijad Delic is CIC’s National Executive Director in Ottawa.)
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