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Islamic Concept of Ijtehad

By: Professor Maqsood Jafri


Islam has two fundamental principles, jihad and ijtehad.  In strict Quranic terminology, Jihad means physical struggle or endeavor against suppression and aggression.  It is a defensive war.  It is not aggression.  Ijtehad means intellectual endeavor to seek the solutions of day to day matters.  Ijtehad has been much emphasized in Islam.  It is a rational and analytical approach, based on the Quran and on the teachings of the Sunnah, for interpreting religious matters.  Time and again the Quran says that its verses are for thinkers.  It stresses the exercise of the rational mind.  In Sura The Heifer the Quran says: “Do not treat Allah’s signs as a jest, but solemnly rehearse Allah’s favors to you, and the fact that He sent down to you the Book and wisdom, for your instruction.” (2:231).  This verse shows that Book and wisdom are prerequisites to keep society on track and a progressive and right path.  God has put our brain in our skull not in our ankle.  The place of the brain at the top of the human body signifies the value and importance of the mind.  The Book has laid down the foundations, but we have to be wise in taking steps to build our lives upon it through the course of time.


The Quran has given us fundamentals but we must interpret these fundamentals wisely in accordance with the spirit of the time in which we live. Suppose a man asks a Muslim Jurist, “can a lady drive a car or fly an airplane”? If the Jurist is retrogressive he will say: No- because in the time of prophet of Islam ladies did not drive a car or fly an airplane.  But if the jurist is modern and progressive he will respond: Yes – a lady can do both of these because at the time of prophet these means of transportation were not invented.  It is narrated that when the telephone was invented the great jurist of Saudi Arabia said: “we should not use it because it is the voice of Satan.” Here one thing must be mentioned that “Ijtehad” or rational enquiry is not permissible in the clear injunctions.  It is only permissible in their relative interpretation.  For instance, the five daily prayer times are obligatory in Islam.  This means that even all the Muslim clerics and then entire Umma decided through consensus to say prayers only twice a day, this would be regarded as blasphemy. However, itejihad could be used to discuss the method of offering these prayers in differing situations as well as the method of performing other rituals.  This is the reason the Quuran lays much stress on the need for rational analysis.


In Sura Al-Imran the Quran says: “And Allah will teach him the Book and wisdom, the Law and the Gospel.” (3:48) This verse is about Jesus Christ.  It also shows that not only the Quran but the Bible is also the book of wisdom.  Hence wisdom is the foundation stone of the divine building.  The Quran in Suras the Women, the Table Spread, Yunus, Yusuf, the Bee, the Israelites, Maryam, the Narration, the Confederates, Saad, the Believer, Gold Adornments, the Iron and the Friday Prayers mentions about the importance of wisdom.  Besides the Quran there are so many sayings of the Holy Prophet (PBUH) which stress the need for wisdom and Ijtehad.  Once the Holy Prophet (PBUH) said: “The first thing that God created is Intellect.” Once he said that the man who does research in religious matters will be rewarded, but if he reaches the wrong conclusion, he will only have half the reward. When asked by the companions how a man with wrong conclusion can be rewarded, the Prophet responded, he will be rewarded for the effort he made in reaching a conclusion through analytical pursuits.  At another occasion, when Harzat Maaz bin Jabal was assigned the duty to go to Yemen to preach Islam, he was instructed to use his mind to resolve the matters after consulting the Quran and the Sunnah.  Dr. Allama Iqbal, in his book entitled “The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam,” stresses the need for rational analysis through Ijtehad as well as the need for those called upon to do this analysis to be men of piety, knowledge and truth.


It is very tragic that the doors of Ijtehad have been closed for centuries.  Among the Shiites we have Mujtahids (The Jurists) and in the Sunnites we have Muftid (The Jurists) but mostly they are traditionalists who avoid considering modern or new interpretations.  On the other hand, some Westernized Muslim scholars having little knowledge of Islam, are totally misinterpreting or misrepresenting Islam in the name of liberalism or modernism.  Such unfounded innovation (Bidah) is a serious danger to the purity and integrity of Islam. Islam as a whole is never stale, static or stagnant.  It needs neither retrogressive nor so called progressive interpretation.  It needs original, real and wise interpretation.  There is a saying of the Holy Prophet (PBUH): “All innovation in matters of religion leads to straying, and all straying leads to hell fire.”  Here we must bear in mind that derivation and innovation are totally contrary even to any rational or scientific discoveries or deductions.  Fundamental Divine principles simply cannot be altered.  For instance, the sanctity of the covenant of marriage is what protects the unit of the family and thus the entire fabric of society.  This cannot be altered.  We can discuss different forms or conditions relating to this sacred covenant can be discussed, but we cannot abandon or dilute this foundational spiritual truth. In America I see so many writers who, in the name of modernity are creating confusion about basic laws and norms of Islam.  But some writers are doing service to Islam by raising radical questions and inviting Ijtehad.


The other day I had an opportunity to see Dr. Saleem Ahmed of Honolulu, Hawaii, USA.  He has written a book entitled: “Beyond Veil and Holy War”.  In this book he has raised many questions and has answered some of them.  He has given a clarion call for Ijtehad.  The book deals with the basic Islamic concepts and throws light on practical and rational aspects of Islam.  It is a remarkable and marvelous scholarly effort.  The man is basically a Geologist but his study of religion places him in the company of researchers.  On page 17 of the book he writes: “Being troubled by the actions of some Muslims which I feel may run contrary to the spirit of Islam, I have, in many places, called for Ijtehad, or objective soul-searching by Muslims, to help us differentiate between behaviors that Islam preaches and the practices some Muslims follow.  In all such cases, a plea is made for us to “go back to the drawing board” and rethink these practices vis-à-vis the blueprint provided by God Almighty in the Quran.”


Dr. Saleem Ahmed writes that the Quran and Sunnah are the basic sources of Islam.  In chapter 3 entitled “Hadeeth – Strengths and Shortcomings” he states that as some of the Hadeeth do not tally with Quran or the practice of the Prophet, they should not be accepted.  He does not refute Hadith, rather he points out that although we can find light and guidance in Hadith, we have fragmented into sects who fight each other over our differences in interpretation.  It is not the Quran that divides us, but interpretations of Hadith. In this regard, on page 55 he writes: “while the Quran was revealed to Muhammad through Divine inspiration, written during his life, and confirmed by him, Hadeeth are human compilations of Muhammad’s reported sayings and actions, complied some eight to ten generations after he had died and was no longer available to confirm them.” 


In Pakistan a rationalist, Ghulam Ahmed Pervaiz, has also written a book discussing the controversies in Hadeeth.  Dr. Saleem Ahmed only rejects controversial Hadeeth which cause discords and divisions.  Hence he writes: “Thus all kinds of inaccuracies, accidental or intentional, could have occurred.”  He rejects the theory of Professor Huntington and writes: “My intent is not to hurt anyone’s feelings but for all of us to move forward collectively as we grope for ways to turn around the foreboding of clash of civilizations in to a congruence of civilizations.”  Dr. Saleem Ahmed preaches peace and moderation, and rejects extremism and terrorism.  He lays much stress on human rights. In social and matrimonial matters he has given his opinion and has asked the Muslim Jurists to resolve these issues from the Quranic perspective.  Besides pure religious matters Dr. Saleem Ahmed discusses International issues such as the politics of Israel and Palestine in a rational way.  In my opinion, we need analytical and rational modes and methods to seek and search the real truth of Islam.  Both the traditionalist and modernist must be abandoned.  We need rationalists and realists for Ijtehad. 


 (The writer is an eminent speaker and scholar on comparative religions and a political activist. He can be reached at     

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