Ijtihad (Arabic: اجتهاد ijtihād, "diligence") is an Islamic legal term that means “independent reasoning” or “the utmost effort an individual can put forth in an activity.” As one of the four sources of Sunni law, it is recognized as the decision making process in Islamic law (sharia) through personal effort (jihad), which is completely independent of any school (madhhab) of jurisprudence (fiqh). As opposed to taqlid, it requires a “thorough knowledge of theology, revealed texts and legal theory (usul al-fiqh); an exceptional capacity for legal reasoning; thorough knowledge of Arabic.” By using both the Qu'ran and Hadith as resources, the scholar is required to carefully rely on analogical reasoning to find a solution to a legal problem, which considered to be a religious duty for those qualified to conduct it. Thus, a mujtahid is recognized as an Islamic scholar who is competent in interpreting sharia by ijtihad. Today, there are many different opinions surrounding the role of ijtihad in modern society, and whether or not the “doors of ijtihad are closed.”
Etymology and definition
The word derives from the three-letter Arabic verbal root of ج-ه-د J-H-D (jahada, 'struggle'): the "t" is inserted because the word is a derived stem VIII verb. Specifically, ijtihad means to "struggle with oneself" through deep thought. Ijtihad is defined as a “process of legal reasoning and hermeneutics through which the jurist-mujtahid derives or rationalizes law on the basis of the Qu'ran and the Sunna; during the early period, the exercise of one's discretionary opinion (ra'y) on the basis of the knowledge of the precedent (‘ilm).”
During the early years of Islam when religious law was first being formulated, ijtihad was a common process practiced by trained jurists, which was recognized as ra'y. Jurists used ra'y to help reach legal rulings, in cases where the Qur'an and Sunna did not provide clear direction for certain decisions. It was the duty of the educated jurists to come to a ruling that would be in the best interest of the Muslim community and yet still promote the public good.
As religious law continued to develop over time, ra'y became insufficient in making sure that fair legal rulings were being derived in keeping with both the Qur'an and Sunna. However, during this time, the meaning and process of ijtihad became more clearly constructed. Ijtihad was “limited to a systematic method of interpreting the law on the basis of authoritative texts, the Quran and Sunna,” and the rulings could be “extended to a new problem as long as the precedent and the new situation shared the same clause.”
As the practice of ijtihad transformed over time, it became religious duty of a mujahad to conduct legal rulings for the Muslim society. Mujahad is defined as a Muslim scholar that has met certain requirements including a strong knowledge of the Qur'an, Sunna, and Arabic, as well as a deep understanding of legal theory and the precedent; all of which allows them to be considered fully qualified to practice ijtihad.
Around the beginning of the 900s, most Sunni jurists argued that all major matters of religious law had been settled, allowing for taqlid, “the established legal precedents and traditions,” to take priority over ijtihad. However, the Shi'i Muslims recognized “human reasoning and intellect as a legal source that supplements the Quran and other revealed texts,” thus continuing to acknowledge the importance of ijtihad. Due to the Sunni movement towards taqlid during this era, some Western scholars today argue that this period led to the notion of the “closure of the doors of ijtihad” in Islam. Joseph Schacht, a well-known Western scholar argued, "closure of the door of ijtihad" had occurred by the beginning of the 10th century CE: "hence a consensus gradually established itself to the effect that from that time onwards no one could be deemed to have the necessary qualifications for independent reasoning in religious law, and that all future activity would have to be confined to the explanation, application, and, at the most, interpretation of the doctrine as it had been laid down once and for all."
During the turn of the seventeenth century, Sunni Muslim reformers began to criticize taqlid, and promoted greater use of ijtihad in legal matters. They claimed the instead of looking solely to previous generations for practices developed by religious scholars, there should be an established doctrine and rule of behavior through the interpretation of original foundational texts of Islam—the Qu'ran and Sunna.
However, in more recent years, ijtihad has been the center of public discussion as reformers argue for the “replacement of taqlid with ijtihad as a way to confront legal issues raised by contact with modern Western society.” Many jurists have attempted to revise certain laws that are associated with modern issues, in light of the fact that the overall legal philosophy necessary to alter the foundations of Islamic law remains completely unchanged. Thus, this has caused many individuals to question whether or not these new rulings can be fully considered ijtihad, and if the doors of ijtihad are still in fact closed.
Qualifications of a mujtahid
A mujtahid (Arabic: مجتهد, "diligent") is an individual who is qualified to exercise ijtihad in the evaluation of Islamic law. In general mujtahids must have an extensive knowledge of Arabic, the Qur'an, the Sunnah, and legal theory (Usul al-fiqh). Sunni Islam and Shi'i Islam, due to their divergent beliefs regarding the persistence of divine authority, have different views on ijtihad and the qualifications required to achieve mujtahid. In order to clarify how ijtihad differs in Sunni and Shi'i Islam it is necessary to explore the historical development of this position in both branches. The female equivaent is a mujtahida.
In the years immediately following the Prophet's SAW death, Sunni Muslims practiced ijtihad because they saw it as an acceptable form of the continuation of sacred instruction. Sunni Muslims, therefore began to practice ijtihad primarily through the use of personal opinion, or ra'y. As Muslims turned to the Quran and Sunnah to solve their legal issues, they began to recognize that these divine proponents did not deal adequately with certain topics of law. Therefore, Sunni Muslims began to find other ways and sources for ijtihad such as ra'y, which allowed for personal judgment of Islamic law. Sunni Muslims justified this practice of ra'y with a particular hadith, which cites Muhammad's approval of forming an individual sound legal opinion if the Qur'an and Sunnah contain no explicit text regarding that particular issue. Therefore during the first two and a half centuries of Islam there were no restrictions placed on scholars interested in practicing ijtihad. Beginning in the ninth century, jurists began to make more restrictions on who could practice ijtihad and the kinds of qualifications necessary. Therefore, the practice of ijtihad became limited to a qualified scholar and jurist otherwise known as a mujtahid. Abu'l-Husayn al-Basri provides the earliest and most expansive outline for the qualifications of a mujtahid, they include:
- Enough knowledge of Arabic so that the scholar can read and understand both the Qur'an and the Sunnah.
- Extensive comprehensive knowledge of the Qur'an and the Sunnah. More specifically, the scholar must have a full understanding of the Qur'an's legal contents. In regards to the Sunnah the scholar must understand the specific texts that refer to law and also the incidence of abrogation in the Sunnah.
- Must be able to confirm the consensus (Ijma) of the Companions, the Successors, and the leading Imams and mujtahideen of the past, in order to prevent making decisions that disregard these honored decisions made in the past.
- Should be able to fully understand the objectives of the sharia and be dedicated to the protection of the Five Principles of Islam, which are life, religion, intellect, lineage, and property.
- Be able to distinguish strength and weakness in reasoning, or in other words exercise logic.
- Must be sincere and a good person.
From the declaration of these requirements of mujtahid onwards, legal scholars adopted these characteristics as being standard for anyone looking to practice ijtihad. In order for the reasoning of these mujtahids to be accepted as law multiple mujtahids had to reach ijma. This allowed for mujtahids to openly discuss their particular views and reach a conclusion together. The interaction required by ijma allowed for mujtahids to circulate ideas and eventually merge to create particular Islamic schools of law (madhhabs). This consolidation of mujtahids into particular madhhabs prompted these groups to create their own distinct authoritative rules. These laws reduced issues of legal uncertainty that had been present when multiple mujtahids were working together with one another. However, with this introduction of common laws for each madhhab, legal scholars began to dismiss the practice of independent ijtihad and instead maintained the title of mujtahid only for the founders of the four main schools of Islamic law (Hanafiyya, Malikiyya, Shafiyya, Hanbaliyya). Therefore, from the twelfth century onwards jurists could occupy the position of a mujtahid or access ijtihad in only two cases when distinguishing between the manifest and the obscure views of their particular schools or when they served as “imitators” of mujtahids, expressing the views of the more qualified mujtahids before them. Therefore, the practice of ijtihad was restricted in favor of taqlid. These Sunni restrictions on the power of the mujtahid and were due to historical developments and should not be accepted as terms of the original legal theory of ijtihad.
The Shi'i Muslims understand the process of ijtihad as being the independent effort used to arrive at the rulings of sharia. Following the death of the Prophet and once they had determined the Imam as absent, ijtihad evolved into a practice of applying careful reason in order to uncover the knowledge of what Imams would have done in particular legal situations.The decisions the Imams would have made were explored through the application of the Qur'an, Sunnah, ijma and ‘'aql (reason). It was not until the end of the eighteenth century that the title of mujtahid became associated with the term faqih or one who is an expert in jurisprudence. From this point on religious courts began to increase in number and the ulama were transformed by Shi'i Islamic authorities into the new producer of ijtihad. In order to produce perceptive mujtahids that could fulfill this important role, principles of Shi'i jurisprudence were developed to provide a foundation for scholarly deduction of Islamic law. Shaykh Murtada Ansari and his successors developed the school of Shi'i law, dividing the legal decisions into four categories of certainty (qat'),valid conjecture (zann), doubt (shakk), and erroneous conjecture (wahm). These rules allowed mujtahids to issue adjudications on any subject, that could be derived through this process of ijtihad, demonstrating their great responsibility to the Shi'i community  Furthermore according to Shi'i Islamic Jurisprudence a believer of Islam is either a Mujtahid (one that expresses their own legal reasoning, or a Muqallid (one performing Taqlid of a Mujtahid) and a Muhtat (one who acts with precaution). Most Shi'i Muslims qualify as Muqallid, and therefore are very dependent on the rulings of the Mujtahids. Therefore, the Mujtahids must be well prepared to perform ijtihad, as the community of Muqallid are dependent on their rulings. Not only did Shi'i Muslims require:
- Knowledge of the texts of the Qur'an and Sunnah
- Justice in matters of public and personal life
- utmost piety
- Understanding of the cases where Shi'i mujtahids reached consensus
- Ability to exercise competence and authority
However, these scholars also depended on further training that could be received in religious centers called Hawza. At these centers they taught the important subjects and technical knowledge a mujtahid needed to be proficient in such as:
- Arabic grammar and literature
- Extensive knowledge of the Qur'anic sciences and Hadith
- Science of narrators
- Principle of Jurisprudence
- Comparative Jurisprudence
Therefore, Shi'i mujtahids remain revered throughout the Shi'i Islamic world. The relationship between the mujtahids and muqallids continues to address and solve the contemporary legal issues.
A woman can be a mujtahid and there are dozens who have attained the rank in the modern history of Iran (for instance, Amina Bint al-Majlisi in the Safavid era, Bibi Khanum in the Qajar era, Lady Amin in the Pahlavi era, and Zohreh Sefati during the time of the Islamic Republic). There are diverging opinions as to whether a female mujtahid can be a marjaʻ or not. Zohreh Sefati and some male jurists believe a female mujtahid can become a marjaʻ, but many male jurists believe a marjaʻ must be male. In other words, they believe that believers perform taqlid (emulation) of a female mujtahid.
Present Day Application
There is a prevailing notion that in Sunni Islam about 500 years ago the gates of ijtihad had closed. Yet, we can see in this present era that this is certainly not the case. Both Progressive and even some sects of more Radical Muslims have been championing ijtihad's prominence in our ever-changing and modernizing world. In order to examine ijtihad's implementation in the present day, it is crucial to observe both the Progressive Muslims and Conservative' standpoints on the matter.
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In the modern era, liberal thinkers have emerged to re-establish and reform Islamic law and its interpretations. These Muslims "want to recover the freedom of the mind". Progressive Muslims have re-opened the gates of ijtihad, in order to accommodate the religion with modern society. However, this ijtihad they have advocated is one that is quite novel. Progressive Muslims want to “apply contemporary intellectual methods to the task of reforming Islam”. This reformed ijtihad and its new ideals were put forward by progressive thinkers such as Sir Sayyid Ahmed Khan, Jamal al-din Al-Afghani, and Muhammad Abduh in response to elements of modernization. These thinkers all wanted to reconcile Islamic traditions with the rapid pace of the modernizing world. Yet, it was truly Al-Afghani that proposed the new ijtihad we see today. He argued that Islam could be reconciled with modernization by utilizing the concept of ijtihad. Al-Afghani believed that ijtihad would enable Muslims to think critically and apply their own individual interpretations of the innovations of modernity in the context of Islam. This new form of ijtihad would allow Muslims to combine their religious perspective with that of their academic or scientific thoughts.
Progressive Muslims assert that this new implementation of ijtihad should encompass elements of both legal reasoning and "creative impulse". They believe that as the world advances, ijtihad's creative elements should be further used and developed. This adaptation of ijtihad encourages scholars and other leaders to take more of a role in its practice. Likewise, Progressive Muslims assert that the closing the doors of ijithad has debilitated “intellectual growth”, thus doors must be re-opened to reinvigorate such stimulation. This re-opening must also vindicate religion from political influence, reform Muslim education, incite the effort of the collective, and catalyze the implementation of democracy.
One can view today how such a notion of ijtihad enables present-day Muslims to respond to the "changing needs of Muslim societies" and utilize reason. However, while many sects of Islam accept and support ijtihad, the majority of Muslims still remain unconvinced about the matter. Thus, as of late, one can conclude that such groups have failed to appeal to the masses. Yet, groups are continuing to mobilize and rally support in favor of what could be an integral and revolutionary aspect to the Muslim religion. This revitalization of ijtihad could be crucial to the role and status of women within the religion, differing sects, economics, and the relationships between Muslims and non-Muslims.
Present-day Islamists maintain differing stances on the matter of ijtihad. Islamist groups such as the Salafis are major proponents of ijtihad. Salafis believe ijtihad makes modern Islam more authentic and will guide Muslims back to the Golden Age of early Islam. They criticize taqlid and tradition. Salafis assert that such a concept has led to Islam's decline. Similarly, political groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood trace their founding philosophies back to al-Afghani's Ijtihad. The Muslim Brotherhood feels that ijithad strengthens the faith of believers because they have to better familiarize themselves with the Quran and come to their own conclusions about its teachings. Yet, as a political group the Muslim Brotherhood faces a major paradox between ijtihad as a religious matter versus that as a political one. Ijtihad weakens political unity and promotes pluralism. Hence, due to this fact many oppressive regimes reject ijtihad's legitimacy.
Many Islamist regimes impose harsh restrictions on ijtihad and its modern day application. These regimes can implement such restrictions by posing limits on individual freedoms. These institutions are against the modification and individual interpretation of Islam to accommodate modernity. They believe this accommodation signifies a surrendering to both westernization and secularization, which is deemed evil. Therefore, oppressive regimes primarily emphasize and promote sharia and taqlid, while ijtihad is regarded as "sinful". Such regimes' strive to promote the authenticity of Islam and the exact teachings of the prophet and word of Allah. Additionally, it is important to note that Islamists, such as Osama Bin Laden supported ijtihad. He criticized the Saudi regime for disallowing the “free believer” and imposing harsh restrictions on successful practice of Islam. Thus, Bin Laden believed his striving for the implementation of ijtihad was his “duty” that he must achieve.
- Grand Ayatollahs
- Islamic Golden Age
- Liberal movements within Islam
- List of Islamic terms in Arabic
- Biblical Hermeneutics
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