Two Theories of Ijtihad

Muqtedar Khan
Muqtedar Khan Former Brookings Expert, Professor, Department of Political Science and International Relations - University of Delaware

March 21, 2006

As tensions between the Muslim and Western worlds continue to grow, there is one largely overlooked area of activity that may play a role in building bridges: ijtihad. While ijtihad can be a tool for understanding Islamic principles in a way that fits the needs and challenges of individuals and societies, there is no universal agreement on its proper role.

The Islamic tradition has two conceptions of ijtihad. One is a very
narrow, legalistic notion of it as a process of juristic reasoning
employed to determine the permissibility of an action when primary
sources, namely the Qur’an and Sunnah (Tradition of the Prophet), are
silent and earlier scholars of shari’a (Islamic law) had not ruled on
the matter. For those who hold this view of ijtihad, who can perform ijtihad is often more important than the need for ijtihad.

In reality, this view is designed to stifle independent thought among
Muslims and to confine the right to understand and explain Islam to
Muslim jurists. It is also opposed to reasoning, because it essentially
says that reason shall be employed only when the texts are silent and
no medieval scholar has addressed the issue under scrutiny. Reason,
according to this viewpoint, is the last resort for understanding the
will of God. For those who hold this view, opening the doors of ijtihad
would make no difference, since their very conception of it is
impoverished and limited.

The second view, often espoused by non-jurists and particularly by
those who advocate some form of Islamic modernism and liberalism,
envisions ijtihad more broadly. For modernist Muslims – and I believe
that Islamic modernism deeply influences all “moderate” Muslim thinking
– ijtihad is about freedom of thought, rational thinking and the quest
for truth through an epistemology covering science, rationalism, human
experience, critical thinking and so on.

When modernist Muslims claim that the door of ijtihad has been closed,
they are lamenting the loss of the spirit of inquiry that was so
spectacularly demonstrated by classical Islamic civilisation at its
peak. They are, in a sense, nostalgic for Ibn Sina’ (Avicenna) and Ibn
Rushd (Averroes), for al-Farabi, al-Biruni and al-Haytham —
scientists, philosophers and jurists of Islam’s “Golden Age”. Thus,
modernist Muslims see ijtihad as the spirit of inquiry and desire for
all forms of knowledge, not just religious and juristic, that needs to
be revived to revitalise and restore Islamic civilisation.

As long as a majority of Muslims equates Islam with shari’a, Islamic
scholarship with fiqh (jurisprudence) and real knowledge with juristic
knowledge, ijtihad will remain a limited jurisprudential tool and
closed minds will never open. Islamic modernists have been trying,
since the time of Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, the great Muslim reformer of the
19th century, to re-instil a sense of the value of knowledge and an
appreciation for science and philosophical inquiry. Yet, as a Muslim, I
acknowledge that there is no research institution worthy of recognition
in this way in the entire Muslim world.

Muslims must go back and read Ibn Rushd [Fasl al-Maqaal, The Decisive
Treatise], and learn how he bridged science and religion, in order to
understand that Islam has nothing to fear from reason and so to open
their hearts and minds to rational thought. This is the goal that Ibn
Khaldun, the great 14th century Arab historian and philosopher, would
have called the “engine of civilisation”. Modernist Muslims subscribe
to and advocate this spirit of Islam.

Islamic reformation can be understood in two different ways. It can
mean the reform of society to bring it back to what have been
considered Islamic norms and values: most Islamic and Islamist
reformers are pursuing this type of reform. The other reform strategy
is to question the existing understanding of Islam and seek to
articulate a reformed understanding of Islam: this is where Islamic
modernists and rationalists have always plied their trade.

Here, ijtihad is employed as an instrument to critique prevalent
understanding and articulate a more compassionate, more modern and,
perhaps, even a more liberal understanding (which some would call the
truly-traditional understanding). The rethinking of Islam vis-à-vis
democracy is an area in which Islamic reformist thinking is taking

In my opinion, Muslims can modernise without de-Islamising or
de-traditionalising. India and Japan have shown that societies can
modernise without losing their traditional cultures. Muslim societies
today have to distinguish between Islam and culture, retain their
Islamic essence and reform dysfunctional cultural habits that hinder
development, progress, equality and prosperity.

Without holding fast to revelation, Muslims will lose their connection
with the divine, which would cause life to lose meaning and purpose for
many. The challenge for Muslims today is to latch on to the currents of
democracy, modernity and globalisation without cutting the umbilical
cord to the heavens. I believe that we can do it. American Muslims are
demonstrating this in their lives.

When it comes to the modern practice of ijtihad, American Muslims are
miles ahead of other Muslim communities. Not only are there a large
number of scholars pushing for ijtihad in the US, but there are also
national organisations and prominent Islamic centres that are, in
principle, willing to put initiatives advanced by ijtihad into practice.

An excellent practical example of this is the adoption of guidelines
for women-friendly mosques by many Islamic centres. An outstanding
theoretical example is the now widespread acceptance in the US, and to
some extent in Europe, of the idea of Fiqh al Aqliyaat (minority
jurisprudence), which is the idea that Muslims who live as minorities
need to revisit and rearticulate Islamic legal positions, keeping in
mind their minority status. We can see the product of American ijtihad
in the progressive role that women play in the American-Muslim
community and in Islamic scholarship. Another important indicator is
the absence of embedded radicalism in American Islam and the enormous
appetite that American Muslims and their organisations express for
democracy, civil rights, pluralism and civic engagement.

Thus, a broad vision of ijtihad ensures that Islam and Muslim
communities continue to reform in positive ways without losing the
connection to Divine revelation and traditional culture. Muslims must
continue to embrace this spirit of inquiry and desire for all forms of
knowledge in order to revitalise and restore Islamic civilisation.