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Renewal of Islamic Civilization: Ijtihad
By Professor Nazeer Ahmed

A continual renewal of Islamic civilization requires extending the envelope of Ijtihad to include nature, history and the self (nafs). A creative effort in this direction must preserve historical continuity and be meaningful enough to incorporate change. Importantly, it would open the doors of Ijtihad to every capable believer.
Ijtihad has its roots in Qur’anic terminology. However, its development is historical. As such the application of Ijtihad is a historical process and must embrace the totality of human struggle to be in divine presence, to obey, worship and serve Him.
The accepted definition of Ijtihad is that it is the rigorous application of the principles of the Shariah to specific issues of jurisprudence by a person or persons of knowledge and training. The term Ijtihad has its origin in the Arabic trilateral verb ja-ha-da which means to strive or struggle. Arabic, reshaped by the cosmic power of the Qur’an, is a comprehensive language capable of expressing powerful, universal thoughts in ways so subtle yet so distinct. Like a giant tree wherein a single trunk supports a hundred branches, each root verb in the Arabic language generates, sustains, titillates and vibrates a myriad of nouns, attributes and verbs providing a host of subtle meanings and nuances.
The accepted usage of the term Ijtihad must be understood in its historical context. As long as the Prophet was alive, he directed the molding of the Islamic edifice. After him, the first generation of Companions, witnesses to the example of the Prophet, continued the work. Even here, differences of opinion were not uncommon. These collegial differences led to a flowering of the different schools of fiqh in later centuries.
We have covered in some depth, the historical development of the various schools of fiqh in our books, Islam in Global History, Vols. 1 and 2 (Suhail Academy, Lahore, 2000). As the Arab empire expanded and Islam found increasing acceptance in the lands of the Mediterranean and Persia, there arose the challenge to codify the broad principles that governed Islamic life. The two centuries after the Prophet saw a flowering of the sciences of fiqh. The first and foremost exponent of the Sunnah schools of fiqh was Imam Abu Haneefa (d 768 CE), followed by Imam Malik bin Anas (d 695) and Imam al Shafi’i (d 820). The last of the major Sunnah schools of fiqh, named after Imam Hanbal (d 855) was a result of the complex and turbulent interaction between the Mu’tazalite and Usuli schools. The Ithna Ashari School of the Shi’as follows a parallel development in the same period. Imam Ja’afar as Sadiq (d 765) was the fountainhead of that school. There are also other schools of fiqh such as the Zaidi but they are followed by a comparatively small number of Muslims.
The development of fiqh was the first historical application of Ijtihad. The sciences of fiqh received a firm foundation when the great Muhaddithin, including Imam Bukhari (d 889) and Imam Muslim (d 874) sorted out and documented collections of hadith and its sources in the volumes named after them. This happened in the ninth and tenth centuries CE, a full hundred years after the first attempt to systematically develop a school of fiqh.
The first two centuries of Islam witnessed other unsuccessful attempts at Ijtihad. The Mu’tazalites attempted a reconciliation of rational thought and theology. Elevated to positions of power during the early Abbasid period (765-846CE), they became coercive and oppressive, overextended themselves and were disgraced during the period of Khalifa Mutawakkil. Thereafter, Ijtihad remained the exclusive privilege of the jurists and its application limited to the field of jurisprudence.
The Mu’tazalite experimentation reduced the historical tolerance to Ijtihad. The general population was fatigued from the convulsions and the intellectual turmoil wrought by the Mu’tazalites and their erroneous application of Greek rational thought to theological issues. Stability was needed. The principles of applied jurisprudence were made more restrictive as evidenced by the emergence of the Hanbali School of fiqh (circa 840 CE) and Ijtihad was discouraged. For instance, unlike the Hanafi School of fiqh, the Hanbali School does not recognize the principles of Qiyas or Istehsan as valid in the development of applied jurisprudence.
The Mongol invasions (1219-1301) further curtailed the development of Ijtihad. Faced with the prospects of near extinction, the Islamic world closed in on itself. It found its renewal within the womb of tasawwuf and went on to conquer the conquerors and to extend the reach of Islam into the Indo-Pak subcontinent, Indonesia, sub-Saharan Africa and southeastern Europe.
The inadequacy of this closed-in world became apparent in the eighteenth century when it was challenged by the empiricism of a resurgent Europe. Europe went on to conquer much of the Islamic world. The initial response of much of the Islamic world was to reject anything western and to withdraw further into its own shell. The Tanzeemat of Ottoman Turkey were an exception and proved to be too little too late. It was not until the latter half of the nineteenth century that the Muslims woke up to the challenge of the west and produced reformers like Syed Ahmed Khan of India, Jamaluddin Afgani of Afghanistan and Mohammed Abduh of Egypt.
The dialectic of Islam with the west continues to this day, and has become even more intense. The calls to resurrect Ijtihad get louder by the day in Muslim quarters. However, such calls are within the classical paradigm of Islamic jurisprudence.
If there is to be genuine renewal of Islam, this effort must be expanded both horizontally to embrace more disciplines than just jurisprudence, and vertically to formulate answers to those questions that are new and were not faced by earlier generations.
In addition to the injunctions to worship and obey the Creator, the Qur’an extols humankind in these words: “I will show you my signs on the horizon and within yourselves until you have certainty”. The phrase “on the horizon” includes time and space, meaning all of empirical and natural science. The phrase “within yourselves” refers to the nafs which is a unique attribute of the human genre. Collectively, it refers to the struggle of man on earth, which is history. The signs manifest in history are exhibited in their most cogent, apparent and compelling form in the history of the prophets.
The discipline of Ijtihad must embrace nature and history so that one may study, reflect, ponder and learn from “the Signs on the horizon and within yourselves”. This requires bold and innovative thinking on the part of Muslims and the courage to sail un-chartered waters. Ijtihad is not just the privilege of muftis and mullahs. It is the right of every capable believing man and woman. The term “alim” is not just applicable to a person who attends a madrassah for four years and earns a diploma of “alim” but to any scholar who has mastered the arts of science or sociology and has the wisdom to see in them the signs of divine presence and divine compassion. Was Ibn Khaldun not an “alim”? Or, for that matter al-Baruni?
Ijtihad has largely become inert because it has been marginalized to legal issues and has been delegated to muftis, some of whom are highly respected and others are totally incapable. The privilege of issuing fatwas has been commandeered by so many mullahs that most Muslims just disregard them.
The doors to Ijtihad must open immediately and open wide enough to include all disciplines relevant to a study of God’s creation and enable one to become a witness to divine presence. This means, unequivocally, that Ijtihad must expand and embrace empirical science, the sciences of man and the sciences of the soul, in addition to laws, rules and regulations relevant and useful in modern life. Only such inclusiveness can spark the next wave of internal renewal that is so vital for the survival and prosperity of Islamic civilization.


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