Understanding Ijtihad

By Surkheel Abu Aaliyah

The science that evolved in understanding the shari‘ah, or Sacred Law of Islam, is called fiqh: usually translated as “jurisprudence”, and comes from the word faqiha, meaning: “to understand”. Fiqh, therefore, is all about understanding these divine laws and the way they shape the life-pattern of believers. Strictly speaking, shari‘ah refers to the body of laws revealed to the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ which he taught and lived by in his day to day life; while fiqh is the science of understanding, extracting and developing these laws – and this involves human effort.

Now “effort” in the area of jurisprudence is known as ijtihad (lit. “exertion”), and is the task of the mujtahid – a jurist qualified and capable of such juristic efforts, though only after receiving rigorous and prolonged legal training. For uncovering the intent of the Lawgiver – the murad al-shari‘ – and to infer new rulings and legislation from the root sources of Islamic law – the Qur’an and Sunnah, as well as analogy (qiyas) and scholarly consensus (ijma‘) – can be an uphill task. Often a mujtahid must struggle through long days and nights to reach a conclusion.

The phrase used to describe this effort is: بَذْلُ المَجْهُوْد or اِسْتِفْراغُ الْوُسْعِ – “expending every possible effort” so as to reach a legal judgement.[1] The significance here is that ijtihadis not just one of juristic effort or exertion, but one of exhaustion! The mujtahid spends every possible effort, leaving no stone unturned, in order to arrive at a ruling. Ijtihad is certainly not merely surfing a few websites on the internet, or skimming some pages of a few Arabic books. It is nothing less than examining and interrogating all the relevant proof-texts on the matter before arriving at a legal judgement or hukm– however many hours, days weeks or months it may take.

Jumping the gun slightly, let’s just get an idea into what level of learning is required so as to undertake ijtihad. Now ijtihad has varying levels. The highest is when a jurist can perform absolute ijtihad – i.e. they can infer rulings directly from the primary texts of the Qur‘an or Sunnah, unrestricted by anyone else’s legal framework. A mujtahid who reaches this rank is called a mujtahid mutlaq. Imam Ibn Hazm was one such mujtahid-jurist. Contextualising Ibn Hazm’s words: ‘I follow the truth, make ijtihad, and do not confine myself to a single law school (madhhab),’ Imam al-Dhahabi wrote:

نَعَمْ، مَنْ بَلَغَ رُتْبَة الاجْتِهَاد، وَشَهِد لَهُ بِذَلِكَ عِدَّة مِنَ الأَئِمَّةِ، لَمْ يَسُغْ لَهُ أَنْ يُقَلِّدَ، كَمَا أَنَّ الفَقِيْه المُبتدئ وَالعَامِي الَّذِي يَحفظ القُرْآن أَوْ كَثِيْراً مِنْهُ لاَ يَسوَغُ لَهُ الاجْتِهَاد أَبَداً، فَكَيْفَ يَجْتَهِدُ، وَمَا الَّذِي يَقُوْلُ؟ وَعلاَم يَبنِي؟ وَكَيْفَ يَطيرُ وَلَمَّا يُرَيِّش؟

“Yes! Whoever reaches the level of ijtihad, and a number of scholars testify to it, taqlid is not allowed to him. Much like how a novice jurist, or a layman who has memorised the Qur’an or most of it, is not permitted to attempt ijtihad at all. How could he make ijtihad? What could he possible say? On what can he base his opinion? How can he fly and he has yet to grow wings?[2]

He then proceeds to detail the type of learning needed to reach a rank of ijtihad below that of the highest or absolute level. He says:

الفَقِيْهُ المنتهِي اليَقظ الفَهِم المُحَدِّث، الَّذِي قَدْ حَفِظ مُخْتَصَراً فِي الْفُرُوع، وَكِتَاباً فِي قوَاعد الأُصُوْل، وَقرَأَ النَّحْو، وَشَاركَ فِي الفضَائِل مَعَ حِفْظِهِ لِكِتَابِ اللهِ وَتشَاغله بتَفْسِيْره وَقوَةِ مُنَاظرتِهِ، فَهَذِهِ رُتْبَة مِنْ بلغَ الاجْتِهَاد المُقيَّد، وَتَأَهَّل لِلنظر فِي دلاَئِل الأَئِمَّة، فَمتَى وَضحَ لَهُ الحَقُّ فِي مَسْأَلَة، وَثبت فِيْهَا النَّصّ، وَعَمِلَ بِهَا أَحَدُ الأَئِمَّةِ الأَعْلاَمِ كَأَبِي حَنِيْفَةَ مِثْلاً، أَوْ كَمَالِك، أَوِ الثَّوْرِيِّ، أَوِ الأَوْزَاعِيِّ، أَوِ الشَّافِعِيِّ، وَأَبِي عُبَيْدٍ، وَأَحْمَدَ، وَإِسْحَاق، فَلْيَتَّبع فِيْهَا الحَقّ وَلاَ يَسْلُكِ الرّخصَ، وَلِيَتَوَرَّع، وَلاَ يَسَعُه فِيْهَا بَعْدَ قيَام الحُجَّة عَلَيْهِ تَقليدٌ.

‘An extremely versed and brilliant jurist who – having committed to memory a primer in law, as well as a book on juristic maxims and on legal theory; has mastered grammar; memorised the Book of God and busied himself with its exegesis; possessing a sharp, analytical mind – has now reached a rank of restricted ijtihad and is thus qualified to investigate the textual reasoning of the leading scholars. Thus when the truth becomes apparent to him in a given issue, and the proof well established, and it has been acted upon by one of the great Imams like Abu Hanifah, for instance, or Malik, al-Thawri, al-Awza‘i, al-Shafi‘i, Abu ‘Ubayd, Ahmad or Ishaq, he follows [what he sees as] the truth; without chasing concessions, but instead by being diligent. Taqlid is unlawful to him in the issue after the proofs have been established to him.’[3]

Now compare this with the da‘wah that insists (or at the very least, encourages) those who don’t have even an iota of the above depicted skill-set to “investigate” and “weigh-up” the proofs! Such an insane approach isn’t just reckless. It is possibly the single most significant cause for religious anarchy, extremism, and undermining shari‘ah structures to have ever afflicted the body of the ummah. For when juristic restraints are loosened, and handed to those wholly unfit for purpose, all things run amok!


1. See: al-Ba‘li, Talkhis Rawdat al-Nazir (Riyadh: Maktabah al-Rushd, 1429H), 347.

2. Siyar A‘lam al-Nubala (Beirut: Mu’assasah al-Risalah, 1419H), 18:191.

3. ibid., 18:191.

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Categories: Usul ul Fiqh (Principles of Islamic Jurisprudence)

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