The Gate of Ijtihad

""The practice of ijtihad," stresses the report compiled with the participation of several respected Muslim scholars, "must be revived."
    Ijtihad — or hermeneutics — refers to the institutionalized practice of interpreting Islamic law (sharia) to take into account changing historical circumstances and, therefore, different views.
    Ijtihad is the independent or original interpretation of problems not covered by the Koran (Islam’s holy book), the Hadith (traditions concerning the Prophet’s life and utterances), and ijma’ (scholarly consensus). In the early days of the Muslim community, every adequately qualified jurist had the right to exercise such original thinking.
    Fearing too much change would weaken their political clout, religious scholars closed the gates of ijtihad to Sunni Muslims about 500 years ago. From then on, scholars and jurists were to rely only on the original meaning and earlier interpretations of the Koran and the Hadith. However, there now is a growing movement among scholars and intellectuals to revive the practice of ijtihad. "  Salhani

All of the above applies only to Sunni Islam because the "Gate of Ijtihad" never closed in Shia Islam.  The certified religious scholars known as "Ayatollahs" are by definition "Mujtahids."  (those who practice Ijtihad)

The prospect of the re-opening of the Gate of Ijtihad is incredibly important to both the Sunni World and to the West.  The specifics of religious law upon which the Jihadis base their justification of unrelenting war against the West are presently held to be effectively immutable by Sunni scholars because of the closure of the Gate of Ijtihad long ago.  A re-opening of the gate would make basic and transformative re-interpretations of the "Roots of the Law" possible in Sunni Islam. 

The prospects could be breathtaking.  Considering the degree of pressure now being exerted on the strategic position of the Islamic peoples, there would be a good chance that the main centers of Sunni Islamic learning could reach a consensus that provided all Sunni Muslims with a convincing refutation of the Jihadis insistence on the religious necessity of armed jihad against the West.

In addition, a cultural and historic bias against innovation, which has long hampered the economic and political development of the Islamic World might be affected in a positive way throughout the Sunni world.

Is any of this certain?  No.  The Shia have never been deprived of the benefits of Ijtihad and they still have produced a society which elects people like Ahmadinejad.

Nevertheless the possibilities are fascinating.

Pat Lang

This entry was posted in Current Affairs. Bookmark the permalink.

18 Responses to The Gate of Ijtihad

  1. Babak Makkinejad says:

    The roots of the Shia doctrine of Ijtihad, as far as I know, go back to late 18 century. The doctrine is not quite new but is not ancient either.
    I also believe that there has been many more flexible and enlightened modifications of the Islamic Law in Iran over the past 27 years. One that comes to my mind is the modification that equalized the blood money of all the Iranian citizens regardless of religion.
    The last point about the President of Iran is rhetorical; one could equally well ask why Israeli people voted for a war criminal to lead their country.

  2. W. Patrick Lang says:

    Yes. One could easily ask that.
    In re Shia doctrine on Ijtihad, what did they profess before that? pl

  3. Glen says:

    Interesting read. Sounds like a good thing. Exactly where is the pressure coming from which would force this change? This could have been in the linked article, and I just missed it.
    One sentence did jump out at me:
    “They have politicized Islam.”
    I could make the same comment about certain folks in the US too.

  4. W. Patrick Lang says:

    The GWOT.

  5. Babak Makkinejad says:

    In the earliest period, Shi`i ulama such as Kulayni (d. 940 C.E.) and Ibn Babuya (d. 991 C.E.), felt themselves to be primarily transmitters of the Traditions (hadith) of the Imams. They decried the Sunni used of analogical reasoning (qiyas) and innovative exegesis (ijtihad). In the later Buyid period, the balance swung towards those ulama, such as Shaykhu’t-Ta’ifa al-Tusi (d. 1067 C.E.) who wanted to be able to give judgements in an increasingly wide range of social matters. This was accompanied by a move towards Mu’tazilite rationality and increased social involvement of the ulama in directing the affairs of the community. The same conflict between different attitudes of the ulama can be seen in the conflict between the Akhbari and Usuli schools of jurisprudence. This disagreement, which had undoubtedly been brewing for some centuries, emerged during the Safavid era (16th – 17thcentury C.E.). The Akhbaris were conservative in giving legal judgements. They confined themselves to those areas in which they felt there was clear, unambiguous guidance from the Qur’an and Traditions and were content to leave other matters to secular courts. They tended towards piety, mysticism and mystical philosophy. The Usulis were prepared to use the tool of ijtihad to deliver legal judgements (fatwas) on almost any social or personal issue. They were therefore able to extend the social role of the ulama. This conflict was eventually won by the Usulis at the beginning of the eighteenth century.

  6. Mac Nayeri says:

    Ahmedinejad isn’t the pruduct of the Shia establishment – far more complex than simply that. Besides, the decision-makers are not faithful adherents to the religion, Shia or otherwise, anyhow – they hide behind the cloth so to speak, but you already know that.
    Are u the Pat Lang? Small world.
    Great reading.

  7. W. Patrick Lang says:

    Well, I am at least one Pat Lang. Do we know each other in some other life?
    I did not mean to imply that A———– is a product of the Shia clerical establishment, only that his election reflects the fact that Iran is still not where you would probably want it to be.
    This in spite of the Gate being open.

  8. W. Patrick Lang says:

    I thank you for the learning.
    Do you think that the Mu’tazila had a real chance of becoming the dominant thought pattern in Sunni Islam? And, is it true that Mu’tazila thinking still governs among the Zeidiyeen? PL

  9. Minnesotachuck says:

    Considering how radicalized much of the Muslim world appears to have become as a result of the provocations of the USA’s neo-con policies, what’s to say the practice of ijtihad won’t be in that direction instead of a more accommodating one?

  10. W. Patrick Lang says:

    Golden Gopher
    You may be right although most people shrink from pain. pl

  11. Mac Nayeri says:

    No argument there – Iran is not where I would like it to be.
    If the advent of Khatemi had not occurred, then I would favor much more aggressive US/EU policies toward it. Even though unsuccessful on some important fronts, the shortlived Tehran Spring was nonetheless a significant development, a milestone if u will on the road towards a sustainable civil society. That said, we are not there yet. But Iran’s evolution, like that of our own and others will be a journey littered with fixed stars to follow – a history of challenges defined, obstacles overcome and new horizons secured.
    Did u know u were on the History channel Saturday night? That’s why I thought it a small world, not because we’ve met before, although I think we could muse about the international system, our position therein and the like for hours and hours.
    All the best,

  12. W. Patrick Lang says:

    Somebody else told me that as well. These TV productions are produced months in advance and I often have a hard time remembering when they are going to be broadcast.
    What did you think? pl

  13. Mac Nayeri says:

    In all candor, I was disappointed.
    Instead of taking the time to produce an objective overview of the nuclear issue, the writers elected to engage in the same old tired, crass regurgitation of the entrenched anti-Iran bureaucracy’s talking points. Another wasted opportunity to shed light on the US-Iran estrangement. That said, you stole the show!!
    I just have difficulty believing conflict is inevitable.

  14. Babak Makkinejad says:

    Col. Lang: Regarding “Zeidiyeen” (of Yemen, I suppose) I know nothing beyond the fact that they have relationship to Shia Islam.
    Regarding your speculation if “Mu’tazila had a real chance of becoming the dominant thought pattern in Sunni Islam”, I would say no. The reason is the following:
    In my opinion Quran is the central pillar of the Muslim faith; it is the Word of God. Note that Christ, “the Word of God made flesh”, is similarly the central pillar of Christianity. Without the presence of this Word of God neither religion can exist.
    The Mu’tazila doctrine of the created Quran takes away from the Quran its extreme sanctity as an uncreated and pre-existent Word of God. Of course then its rulings could be seen as temporary and thus changed by the holders of political and religious office when necessary.
    If Quran’s rulings are temporary, and thus the entire text is subject to Time, then , in my opinion, there would be nothing left that could sustain and engage the religious yearnings and imaginations of Muslim people over time. That religion would have died since it could no longer offer certainty to and sanctify human lives, joys, and agonies. In my opinion.

  15. WatchfulBabbler says:

    Is’t it true, however, that modernist radical Islamists, following thinkers such as Maududi and Qutb, actually justify themselves through ijtihad? After all, taqlid was the primary stabilizing force that kept Islam from becoming a political force.

  16. W. Patrick Lang says:

    I had not thought that they specifically cited ijtihad as justification. something new to me. pl

  17. ibrahim ali says:

    Dear Sir,
    Please check homepage of our website The Christianity and Islam are mutual friends as per Quranic Verses 5:82. Off late we are bombarded with news in the world media about the priesthood in Catholicism, which is already mentioned in the holy Quranic Verses 57:27-28.
    We have sent the following messages to the governments of the world, media centers, churches, synagogues and Islamic foundations to spread the message of universal peace,brotherhood, security and prosperity for all mankind in these troubled times.
    Our LORD Almighty has praised Christians in the Holy Quranic Verses 3:55,5:82,57:27,28, except Quranic Verses 5:14,15,16 & 57,9:31. As per Quranic Verses 4:59 and 83, it is our duty to spread the message of universal peace and human brotherhood.
    Please download from web site http://WWW.GOLDENDUAS.COM prayers from Holy Quran regarding the same. The message may be circulated to all concerned through government websites, media publications in all languages and through all mediums of communication as per Quranic Verses 2:2,10:57,17:11,16,28:59, 39:55,57,13:37&65:8. Otherwise it will amount to refusal to follow our Lord’s Order, guidance and direction as per Quranic Verses 6:26.
    With kind regards

  18. ibrahimali says:

    The Islamic Govts and all other Islamic organizations in the world failed
    to notice that Christians are not arrogant and amongst them are priest and monks according to
    the Quranic verse 5: 82.In the absence of the same ,there is no peace between the 2 largest
    population of the world.Once the Holy Quran recognized Christianity ,
    then no Christian can criticize that Islamic community is false or Satanic community.
    All the Muslims in the world are the followers of Our Prophets Jesus ,Moses and
    Muhammad ( peace be upon them). We have no other intention except to spread
    the messages to all the communities in the world posted in our website
    to promote harmony, peace and security of mankind in the world. The
    question of converting Christians and all other communities in the
    world into Islam does not arise on the reason that the Holy Quran
    banned compulsory conversion as per Quranic verse 2:256. The Christians
    in the world are service minded people,who work towards peace, research, etc. to
    serve public in the world and as such no one can act against
    Christianity in the world . Please check our homepage
    cooperate and advertise to all persons,to allow all the communities in
    the world to visit and download from our website
    in the interest of public peace,humanity,jobs,business,security,health and wealth of mankind
    in the world and oblige.
    With Kind Regards,
    Ibrahim Ali.

Comments are closed.