March 19, 2004 - U.S. Institute of Peace Workshop on Ijtihad

Ijtihad in Islam


Muslims believe that Islam is the last divine religion God has revealed to humankind, and that Muhammad, peace be upon him and his family, is the last of messengers and prophets.  No other divine religion came after Islam.  The religion of Islam was revealed to complete and perfect the message and efforts of the previous two divine religions—Christianity and Judaism. This final message − Islam − encompasses in its tenets and legislation all the roots of perfection that humanity needs.  It presents the solution to every spiritual and social problem, which ensures happiness for humanity.  Thus, Islamic legislation as an institution, with the Holy Koran being at the forefront, contains all the answers that one needs.  As God says in the Koran, “And We have sent down to you the Book (Koran) explaining all things, a guide, a mercy and good tidings for those who submit.” (16:89).

Islam is not, however, simply a set of religious rites and practices that are conducted at a specific building or place.  It offers more than mere religious prospects and philosophy. It is an all-encompassing lifestyle that embraces all aspects of life, beginning with one’s relationship with God and reaching to one’s daily interactions with others in society.  But to introduce the Islamic ideology to the world, with its various domains and details, and to implement the rule of God, it is necessary that someone undertake the task of deriving Islamic law.  Once that is accomplished, the laws can then be presented to others who follow, which is essential because most people do not possess the necessary expertise in extrapolating Islamic law.  This process is what is known as “Ijtihad.” 

As Mohammad Baqer Al-Sadr states in his lessons on the science of jurisprudence, the definition of “Ijtihad,” was coined by Al-Muhaqqiq Al-Hilli, and in simple terms, it is the effort to derive Islamic laws from their original sources within one’s human comprehension.  Despite its seemingly simple definition, the process of extracting Islamic laws through Ijtihad is a very complex and intricate process.

Ijtihad has a role to play in today’s modern world.  As stated above, Islam is not a religion that is restricted to a certain period of time, to a specific place, or to a particular nation or group.  Islam is for all times and all places, for all nations and peoples.  The Koran says with respect to the mission of Muhammad, “And we have not sent you but as a universal (Messenger) to people.”  (34:28). In the last few decades, the world has experienced a remarkable rate of scientific and technological advancement.  With the onset of such changes and rapid developments, it is imperative for Muslims to have a clear standing in the modern world, and it is natural and anticipated that the religion of Islam should be able to cope with and accommodate such progression.  Muslims and their scholars believe that the system of Islamic law contains the ingredients for continuation and flexibility, and thus the system is fitted for every time and age. This belief then, essentially, calls for today’s Muslims to update the system of Ijtihad and make it more compatible with the challenges of modern time.  Prophet Muhammad has been narrated to say, “The one who is well-informed of his time shall not be confused.”

Ijtihad is key to avoiding confusion.  Today, the process of Ijtihad entails not only a deep understanding of Islamic sources and texts and acquiring the knowledge of the branches of jurisprudence.  It also requires facing the reality of the variations, conditions, and changes that transform nations.  Moreover, it calls for the accurate study of the compelling needs of Muslim societies, according to their contemporary aspirations.  Thus, Ijtihad makes the modern world clear in the light of Islam.

For example, a fellow scholar has informed me that a great Shiite Muslim scholar once had to modify several of his rulings regarding the Hajj, or the Holy Pilgrimage to Mecca.  The rulings that the scholar modified were derived from texts decreed at a time when fewer than ten thousand people were attending Hajj.  Later, the scholar himself performed the pilgrimage.  Upon experiencing the new atmosphere of the pilgrimage and its severe hardships and discovering that over a million people had performed the Hajj that year, he was compelled to abandon some of his earlier, strict rulings.  This exemplifies the precept that Islam is a religion that promotes ease, and that Islamic laws may be modified if they become unbearable.  With respect to this directive, the Koran says “He (God) has chosen you and has not laid upon you any hardships in religion (22:78).”  In another chapter, the Koran says, “On no soul does God place a burden greater than it can bear (2:286).”

In addressing the changing burdens and growing needs of Muslim societies in the twenty-first century, Muslim scholars must be motivated to enact more compatible legislation with the current status of Muslims.  Adhering to the superficial understanding of text and being confined to narrow and limited interpretations is inappropriate and improvident.  


Examples of Ijtihad

Let me here set forth a few examples that demonstrate the malleability of Ijtihad:


For centuries, many Muslim scholars have maintained that human autopsies are prohibited.  They considered autopsy a form of violating the deceased’s dignity and also an act of disfiguring the body, which consequently mandated its utter prohibition.  That edict caused Islamic jurisprudence to enter a crisis, for it was necessary for many Muslim students attending medical schools to conduct autopsies as part of their medical studies.  A group of Muslim scholars have continued to repeat the same edict, while not at all considering the need of Muslim societies to have proficient physicians, which requires them to have participated in autopsies during their studies.  There has been a group of modern and open-minded scholars, however, who realized the significance of such needs.  Thus, they issued fatwas, or decrees, allowing medical students to conduct autopsy.  These decrees stem from a basic and prominent Islamic law known as “the law of priorities.”  This law states that when two Islamic laws conflict with each other, the resolution is to follow the law that is more important.  The application of the law priorities to autopsies, according to those scholars, is that preserving the lives of people through medical treatment is more important than protecting the dignity of the deceased.

Mortgage System

The use of mortgages in today’s society provides another example.  Muslims scholars believe in the prohibition of usury based on verses from the Koran that outlaw it.  Therefore, dealing with the mortgage system was prohibited, as it involves giving interest in turn for home loans.  That creates a problem, however, because there are approximately seven million Muslims living in the United States, along with millions of other Muslims living elsewhere in the Western world, who widely depend on the mortgage system.  Given these circumstances, Muslims living in the West have two options:  they can either live in rented homes, or they can purchase their homes by acquiring loans from mortgage lenders.  The first option is undesirable for many, as it causes physical instability and psychological unrest in the long run, and it weakens one’s concept of citizenship and sense of belonging to one’s country or community.  The second option is to purchase a home via the mortgage system—something which many Muslims are doing anyway. Since most Muslims, like other groups, are unable to purchase homes in one cash payment, some Muslim scholars, upon recognizing the negative impact of this dilemma, have ruled that Muslims residing in the West may purchase homes through the mortgage system.  This recent fatwa stems from a basic Islamic law that says “necessities permit prohibitions.”


The majority of Shiite Muslim scholars hold the playing of chess to be a sinful act simply because it is deemed to be a form of gambling according to many Islamic ahadith.  Consequently, playing chess, with or without betting, has been prohibited.  These days, however, chess is more widely recognized as an intellectual game, and it is not generally associated with gambling in people’s minds.  Thus, a few contemporary Shiite Muslim scholars, after observing this trend, have ruled chess playing to be permissible, provided that no betting is involved and the ancient game is viewed within this new common perception.

Food and Diet System

Concerns about Islam’s stringent dietary requirements in light of the modern world also show the importance of Ijtihad.  For example, let us imagine that Islam becomes the national religion of China.  China is a country whose population exceeds 1.3 billion people, and one of the greatest challenges that the Chinese government faces today is how to provide food for all of its 1.3 billion people.  Thus, the people, often from necessity, eat all sorts of creatures.  When I visited China three years ago, I asked our tour guide if it was true that Chinese people eat snakes and rats, and she humorously replied, “In our country, people eat everything that flies except airplanes, and everything that strides the earth except cars.”  Under such circumstances, important questions arise:  “How does the Islamic jurisprudence, known for its flexibility and compatibility, accommodate such a challenge, given the paucity of food sources?”  “What can Muslim scholars, reacting to address this problem, say or do given the strict diet system in Islam?”  Ijtihad is the means by which Muslims can find answers to those questions.


" Ijtihad makes the modern world clear in the light of Islam "

Reviving Ijtihad and Who Has the Right To It

One of the gravest mistakes Muslims have committed in the past is that they have closed the doors of Ijtihad.  They have limited it to only four prominent scholars: Malik Ibn Anas, Abu Hanifa Al-No’man, Muhammad Ibn Idris Al-Shafi’i, and Ahmad Ibn Hambal– the heads of the Shafi’i, Maliki, Hambali and Hanafi schools of thought.  History clearly reveals that the reason behind this was political.  The Abbasid Dynasty made the decision to outlaw all other sects from being recognized. It limited worship within the four sects mentioned above.  The Abbasid Dynasty intended to maintain strict control of religion as well as other political matters. It wanted to ensure that the religious decisions would be made according to its interests.

Closing the doors of Ijtihad has had extremely detrimental ramifications for the Muslim world.  It has led Muslims to chronic intellectual stagnation and has frozen the abilities of thousands of potential Mujtahids and scholars to offer new solutions to new problems.  It has kept Muslims incapable of challenging pervasive theories whose only merits were that they were made by an acceptable Mujtahid from long ago.  Muslim thinkers have become captive to the rules that they have made, and they have left no room for liberal and challenging thinking.

Governments in Muslim countries today, many of which are corrupt, greatly benefit from the lack of Ijtihad, and they contribute, in one way or another, to keeping the doors of Ijtihad closed.  It is an attempt to control the religious establishment, which is already subdued by government policies. Thus, religious establishments in Muslim countries rely entirely on government resources for their financial needs.  Such utter reliance consequently makes the religious establishment captive to government policies.  The domination of the religious establishments in secular Muslim governments has been so powerful that it has made the religious authority to be occasionally seen as a mockery.  To illustrate, one may recall the latest fatwa issued by the Grand Sheikh of Al-Azhar, in which he bowed to the pressures of his government to permit women in France to remove their veils so that they could abide by the new laws enacted by the French government.  This conspicuous breach by Sheikh Al-Azhar stirred massive outcry throughout the Muslim world, so much so that there have been voices calling on the Sheikh to resign.

I must emphasize the fact that the first step toward opening the door of Ijtihad in the Muslim world should be the liberation of the religious establishments from the influence of the political regimes.  The religious establishment must disassociate itself from political regimes so it can issue legislation with complete independence.  Opening the door to Ijtihad will enable the religious community in the Muslim world to independently improve the religious well being of Muslims.  It is worth mentioning that the Shiite Muslim community is the only Muslim community that has kept the door of Ijtihad open.  This commitment to Ijtihad is perhaps one of the greatest elements of the Shiite establishment, since it is totally independent from political regimes and free from their influence.

Concerning the issue of who has the right to Ijtihad, it would be ludicrous to say that the door of Ijtihad is open to anyone who has read a few chapters of the Koran and has obtained a four-year degree in Islamic history from a university.  Such lax guidelines would actually further complicate the problems Muslims already face.  To the contrary, the right to Ijtihad can only belong to an individual who has attained a high status in jurisprudence that qualifies him to derive Islamic law from their original sources.  That would absolutely require wide expertise and lengthy years of studying fields of knowledge such as jurisprudence, the fundamentals of jurisprudence, hadith, “the science of men” (the biography of hadith narrators), commentary of the Koran, Arabic grammar and eloquence, and logic.  Additionally, philosophy, economics, and sociology are increasingly required.  Having a strong grasp of these fields contributes in one way or another to the complex process of Ijtihad.  In addition to all that has been mentioned, a Mujtahid (Muslim scholar who has attained the level of Ijtihad), should display qualities such as piety and moral integrity.  Only a person with such qualities would have a right to interpret religious law for the benefit of others.


Major Obstacles Facing Muslims and How to Address Them

Major obstacles and problems facing Muslims and the practice of Ijtihad today are prejudice, intellectual stagnation, political dictatorship, rejection of others, lack of democracy and free climate, factionalism, and extremism.  These are pervasive illnesses found in today’s Muslim societies, and regrettably, they are even worsening and reaching a point where it may spiral out of control.  The latest bombings in Karbala, Baghdad, and Madrid, and the previous attacks on New York are vivid examples of how extremism is spreading throughout the world.  All of the illnesses facing Muslims, especially extremism, mainly have two components.  The first is an internal one, which results from the closed environment and narrow-mindedness in which extremism has been nesting.  The other component is an external reaction to the wrong policies of local governments, which are occasionally backed and supported by superpowers such as the United States.

It is important to discuss how to combat these problems.  Having free, pluralistic, and democratic regimes in Muslim countries will definitely encourage the creation of a free intellectual climate in which tolerant dialogue will prosper. This dialogue will recognize others and will work toward building bridges with them. Thus, one should admit that it is not only Muslims who are responsible for the chronic problems of Muslim societies. Other countries, aiming at maintaining their interests, have backed dictatorial and tyrannical regimes that have played a major role in creating the conditions in which deprivation, extremism and backwardness have prospered. These countries are equally responsible.


How Muslims Can Address Their Problems Without the Use of Violence

Building bridges to those whom we differ with and recognizing their rights are the best way to dispel tensions between Muslims. This helps in avoiding violence as a means of resolving differences. The Holy Koran teaches us to respect others and recognize their rights to disagree. The Holy Koran says, “And certain it is that either we or you are on right guidance or in manifest error (34:24).” The Koran has been the first divine book to promote establishing a common ground for dialogue among the People of the Book – Christians and Jews. The Koran says, “Say ‘O People of the Book! Come to common terms as between us and you: That we worship none but Allah; that we associate no partners with him; that we erect not, from among ourselves, Lords and patrons other than God.’ If then they turn back, say you: ‘Bear witness that we (at least) are Muslims (bowing to God’s Will).’”  (3:64).

The Holy Koran teaches its followers a great lesson by instructing them to respect and treat kindly non-Muslims who have never displayed violence against Muslims. The Koran says, “God forbids you not, with regard to those who fight you not for (your) Faith nor drive you out of your homes, from dealing kindly and justly with them: for God loves those who are just (60:8).” Our respected leaders also have taught us to respect others and not attack them once they differ with us in their opinions. Imam Muhammad Ibn Idris Al-Shafai’i says, “My opinion is right; however, it has the prospect of being incorrect.  And the opinion of others seems wrong, but it also holds the prospect of being right.”  Muslims must understand that the only way they can solve their problems is by tossing away the idea of condemning others and ultimately using violence. Instead, they must sit on a common plane to resolve their differences.  They must understand that using violence does not help any of their societies to progress.  They must also understand that before seeking dialogue with non-Muslims, they must initiate dialogue among themselves.

The panel we are participating in today, in which the entire Muslim spectrum is represented—men and women, Shiites and Sunnis, religious scholars and academic scholars—can give the Muslim world an ideal image of Islam’s tolerance and openness.  There is no doubt that living in the U.S. gives one a sense of appreciation to the diverse and pluralistic life that this country enjoys, and I think Muslims in this country enjoy more freedom, even in the religious sense, than many Muslim countries.  I consider this a gift from God for which we should be very grateful.  I believe that Muslim Americans are more capable of transferring this promising image, which includes their openness with each other, their tolerance and their participation in interfaith dialogue, to the greater Muslim world.  My hope is that this image will become a model for millions of Muslims around the globe.  Needless to say, American Muslims visiting Muslim countries, aiming at educating Muslim masses, may significantly contribute in improving the conditions from which Muslims suffer, and I urge Muslim leaders always to promote in their sermons, speeches, writings and encounters with other Muslims the values of freedom, democracy, and tolerance.




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