""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.