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By  Ibrahim B. Syed, Ph.D

President, Islamic Research Foundation International, Inc
7102 W. Shefford Lane
Louisville, KY 40242-6462 
Phone: (502) 894-6262
FAX: (502) 894-6935 

Finding the causes for the decline and fall of the Muslim Ummah has become a life long pursuit for me. One of the most important causes of Muslims deterioration is the low literacy rate. Even the Islamic faith's fundamental requirement of knowledge of the Qur'an and the Sunnah is marginal. They lack knowledge of even the simple and basic laws of Islam. Those who have read books of collections of Ahadith and have devotedly and extensively studied the Qur'an are ignorant of the many fundamental Aqaid(canons) of Islam including Fiqh. The term Fiqh means knowledge of all the laws of Islam(Shari'ah). Shariah is synonym for Fiqh. It is necessary for Muslims to understand there are four basic sources for the Sharia, viz: (1) Qur'an (2) Sunnah (3) Ijma(consensus) and (4)Qiyas(analogical deduction). These laws cover every action performed by an individual or society.  

Today we live in a highly complex and technologically advanced world as a result we are facing very complex problems- to give some examples such as genetic engineering, permissibility eating of genetically altered cattle or vegetables /fruits, gene therapy, in vitro fertilization, organ transplants, space travel(in the near future), etc., Problems of this nature cannot be solved by the Shariah.

To solve problems like these, Prophet Muhammad (SAS) himself introduced the fifth component (if I would say so) of the Shariah called Ijtihad which is individual intellectual effort. One who performs Ijtihad is a Mujtahid. The word Ijtihad is derived from the Arabic root word of jihad. Ijtihad was once an important force in the articulation and interpretation of Shariah. Some of the greatest minds in the history of Islamic jurisprudence used Ijtihad during the first centuries of Hijra. With time for reasons given below, Ijtihad faltered and was replaced by the doctrine of taqlid or blind imitation. Taqlid not only discouraged individual interpretation but also prohibited it. Some Muslim scholars throughout the ages have been protesting the prohibition of Ijtihad as it violates the original spirit and intention of Islam. Muslims all over the world are fond of saying that Islam is applicable to all places and in all times. How can this be achieved without Ijtehad?  

In order to perform Ijtihad, a Muslim man or woman should be thoroughly familiar with the sciences of Qur'an and the Sunnah, comprehend the wider purposes of the Sharia and understand Arabic correctly. On complicated and complex issues of law, Ijtihad should be purviewed by trained scholars. Any Muslim or Muslima with some knowledge of religion can perform Ijtihad on certain matters, particularly those of personal concern. For example Muslims have been practicing Ijtihad routinely in determining the direction of Qibla or to ascertain the times of prayer by the position of the sun. The Hanbali scholar, Imam Ibn Taymiyah(1263-1328 CE) wrote that " a Muslim can perform Ijtihad for himself or herself on certain questions, it is permitted, because Ijtihad is not an absolute-the pivotal point is ability or the lack thereof. Thus a person might be able to perform Ijtihad on certain questions and not others." Taqlid (blind imitation) is based on an absence of intellectual activity on the part of the believer, and early Muslims held that it was permissible only if one was incapable of understanding due to a lack of mental ability or faculties. Dr. Taha J. al-Alwani of IIIT (International Institute of Islamic Thought) argues that" both the Prophet (SAS) and the Qur'an rejected taqlid, the Sahabas (companions of the Prophet) and many others considered it an evil and also rejected it." He further quotes one of the successors to the companions as saying, "There is no difference between an animal that is led and a person who makes taqlid." By the end of 4th century Hijra taqlid became the rule rather than the exception in Shariah, in spite of the early contempt for taqlid and judgments against its permissibility. Ultimately a majority of the medireview.

Muslim scholars (ulama) declared the door of Ijtihad to be closed and ruled that all future Muslims must practice taqlid. Why did they do this? Because after 400 years they thought all conceivable questions and situations had been explored and resolved by the ulama, obviating the need for new judgments. Some historians say that the door of Ijtihad was closed because Muslim Ummah was under attack from external forces such as the Crusades and Mongol invasion and sacking of Baghdad on June 6, 1258 CE (seventh century Hijra). However taqlid was adopted one hundred before Crusades and 300 years before the devastation by the Mongol hordes who were still in the far Asian steppes. The real reason there was a serious split between different schools of law and theology among individual jurists and imposition of taqlid was the best way to resolve, but at a tremendous cost. Secondly the jurists such as Imam Abu Hanifa, Imam Malik wanted to preserve their intellectual and juristic independence and did not want to rule in accordance with the wishes of the caliphs. As time passed the pressure from the rulers increased, until the ulama declared the Shariah complete to provide an excuse in the face of an angry ruler. On the one hand the ulama preserved the Shariah from dissolute and corrupt Muslim rulers, but on the other they ensured that the Shariah would remain static and therefore stagnant. As a result we are living in a state of withered intellectual activity, starved for fresh ideas and insights.  

In the past a number of scholars have claimed the right to Ijtihad. Eminent scholars like Ibn Taymiyah, al-Suyuti, Muhammad ibn Abdal-Wahhab, al-Sanusi,Muhammad Abduh of Egypt, Allama Iqbal of the Indian subcontinent and Ben Badis of Algeria (1889-1940) called for the reactivation of Ijtihad to rouse the Muslim world from its intellectual lethargy and recreate the vigor and elan of the early Muslim community. Today this calls for Ijtihad continues louder and more insistent. Modern scholars are demanding the systematic reinterpretation of the Islamic tradition using the Qur'an and the Hadith as a foundation. In the face of new technologies, new philosophies and new challenges, Muslim thinkers are demanding the right to individual interpretation. Allama Muhammad Iqbal in his famous book "The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam" (p.178, Ashraf, Lahore, 1988) declares, "The closing of the door of Ijtihad is pure fiction suggested partly by the crystallization of legal thought in Islam, and partly by the intellectual laziness which, especially in the period of spiritual decay, turns great thinkers into idols. If some of the later doctors have upheld this fiction, modern Islam is not bound by this voluntary surrender of intellectual independence." A modern scholar said taqlid is a renunciation of "critical faith", while Ijtihad is the key to "the Islam of those who understand." Today's Muslims must be critical in their beliefs and in their actions, and have freedom to question, discuss and debate issues that are of personal and collective importance. Only through the exchange of ideas (through Ijtihad) it will be possible to safeguard the Muslim world from deterioration and empty westernization.

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