Ijtihad in Islam refers to striving to come to the correct ruling on a particular issue based on a qualified individual’s understanding and knowledge of the sources of Islamic law. It is something which is reserved for those who meet the qualifications to engage in it, known as Mujtahids. The Mujtahid is required to have reached a certain level of knowledge by which he can correctly derive rulings from the Quran and Sunnah. Shaykh Uthyameen states, “The Mujtahid must have knowledge of the Islamic legal evidences and knowledge of the basic principles and scholarly views which, if he knows them, he will be able to derive rulings based on that evidence without unwittingly going against scholarly consensus. If these conditions are met in his case, then he may engage in ijtihad. Ijtihad may be focused on a narrow area, so a person may research one issue of knowledge and examine it thoroughly, and become a Mujtahid with regard to that issue, or he could focus on one aspect of knowledge, such as issues having to do with tahaarah (purification), which he researches and examines, and thus becomes a Mujtahid in that area.”1 So, it is possible that a person be a Mujtahid in one particular issue of religion (tafseer, fiqh, aqeedah, inheritance, hadith, etc.) and not another.
The tradition of ijtihad is established from the lives of the companions during the lifetime of Muhammad (peace be upon him) and after it. And the ijtihad of the scholars who came after the companions’ times, especially the four imams, is well known in the Muslim world. The Imams did not limit ijtihad to themselves, rather, they encouraged their students to seek the truth wherever it may befall. In fact, they clarified explicitly that their ijtihads carry the possibility of error and not to rely on it in light of new evidences that may not be in their knowledge. For example, Imam Mailk said, “Truly I am only a mortal: I make mistakes (sometimes) and I am correct (sometimes). Therefore, look into my opinions: all that agrees with the Book and the Sunnah, accept it; and all that does not agree with the Book and the Sunnah, ignore it.”2
There are many people who believe that doors to ijtihad have been closed for centuries, therefore, no one is allowed to make ijtihad in our times. However, this understanding is incorrect and there is nothing in the Quran, Sunnah, or even those scholars who are held to be Mujtahids by such people that indicate that ijtihad is restricted to a particular time in history. Ijtihad has always been a tool used by scholars to derive rulings on issues for which there is no clear guidance from the Quran, Sunnah, or the statements of the companions. Some of these issues were due to the fact that they did not exist at the time of the Prophet (peace be upon him), so, it was not clear whether it is permissible or forbidden which resulted in an ijtihad from the Mujtahid. And at other times, it is an issue for which there is evidence but the particular scholar who made the ijtihad was not aware of the evidence or the correct understanding of a particular text in the Quran and Sunnah. And there were other reasons as well.
Shyakh Mashhoor Hasan Aal Salmaan states, “Allah’s virtue is not a monopoly for anyone as Allah opened up the way for some of the later scholars that which he did not open up for the earlier scholars. Even though the earlier scholars are generally better than the later scholars but this is not in every single one, so why would Allah restrict and limit His virtue? The facts of the matter which relate to the ummah is that there is no restriction placed upon it and the texts of the Book and the Sunnah are restricted and there is no answer to these facts (about the ummah having no restrictions placed upon it) except with ijtihad.”3 The conditions of the Muslims is constantly changing and they are facing issues which were not dealt by the four imams simply because these new conditions did not exist in their times.
The most practical example for our times is the issue of Muslims who live as minorities in non-Muslim countries. They are surrounded by issues which require ijtihad from those scholars who understand their situations and can give a practical solution to their particular circumstance. If these minorities were to follow the ijtihad of the scholars from the past, it would be something very difficult for them to abide by in the west. Either they will not find any ruling from the earlier scholars or the ruling will not be practical for their circumstance. They are facing issues which the four imams were not aware of because they lived at a time when Islam was strong, thriving, and they lived in majority Muslim lands. Another issue of debate is the concept of Dar us Salaam vs. Dar ul Harb and whether it still exists in our times or not. In many instances, it is easier to practice Islam in a western country than an actual Islamic one, so does this make the Islamic country less Islamic and the non-Muslim country more Islamic? Another example may be the absence of a caliph for the Muslims. There are certain rules in Shairah which is applied towards a caliph and his army, however, since we have no Islamic caliph in our times, do the same rules apply to Islamic countries’ heads and their armies? All these things require ijtihad and there is no clear guidance from the already established ijtihad of the scholars. In fact, ijtihad is a necessity in our times due to the massive change in circumstances throughout the Muslim world.
The only thing that needs cautiousness in relation to ijtihad is the individual who performs it. There is no doubt that ijtihad has conditions which must be met in order for an individual to be considered qualified to make ijtihad. It cannot be given into the hands of those “who have not specialized in study of the shariah sciences or have not reached the level necessary for being able to engage in ijtihad and being qualified to issue fatwas (Islamic verdicts). These are the majority of people, or those who are educated and specialize in fields other than Shariah.”4 Perhaps, it can be said that the doors of ijtihad are closed to those who do not qualify but it cannot be used in absolute terms. And historically, Muslim scholars in various parts of the world have always made ijtihad throughout the centuries despite the emphasis on taqleed (blind following).
As far as the conditions of ijtihad, Shaykh Uthyameen listed six5:
1) That he know the legal evidences that are necessary for ijtihad, such as, the verses of Ahkaam and its hadiths.
2) That he know that which is connected to the authentication and weakness of a hadith, such as, knowing the chain of narrators, etc.
3) That he know the abrogating text from the abrogated, the placement of consensus on matters, etc. This is so he may avoid giving a ruling contradictory to the consensus or based on a text which is abrogated.
4) To know from the evidences what differentiates the ruling from allocation, restriction, etc., so that he does not rule contradictory to it.
5) To know from the language and principles of fiqh that which is connected to the meaning of the words, for example, the general, the specific, the absolute, the restrictive, the abstract, the clear, etc. Therefore, he rules as required by the semantics.
6) That he has the ability that will enable him to derive rulings from the evidences.