Contestations of Ijtihad: The Need For Debate

Posted on June 28, 2010 by


by A.A Khalid

In liberal circles of religious scholarship there is a contention that ‘’ijtihad’’ is the epistemic tool which will solve all our grapples and puzzles of establishing a suitable religiosity for our time.

Ijtihad is elevated from its formal place as a mere tool of legal reasoning restricted in the classical tradition to books of law, to that of an intellectual principle and a citadel of a rational religiosity. Ijtihad is indeed forms part of the rationalist tradition of Islam and as such is the natural ally for reformists and liberals in the Muslim World. But ijtihad, which means intellectual exertion and in a technical sense juridical adjudication, to solve legal problems which have no precedent in the normative texts or in the jurists’ corpus is not naturally an epistemic tool for liberals.

Ijtihad can also be illiberal and can also be disastrous; one can argue the totally unprecedented phenomenon of violent extremism instigated by demagogues and ideologues is indeed ijtihad gone tragically wrong. If ijtihad is taken to mean that all Muslims can interpret their faith as they wish in accordance to what they see as new soicio-political circumstances and new contexts then we must be cautious. After all conservatives and radicals can forward absolutely shocking and regressive opinions as ijtihad as much as a liberal can forward progressive and enlightened opinions as ijtihad. We need to avoid this epistemic anarchism and try and elaborate sensible parameters. Though the determination of these parameters in terms of dealing violent extremism will be easy as violent extremism and radicalism clearly are beyond the pale and their actions clash with the fundamentals of Islam, the real issue is betweeen conservatives and liberals/reformists. Issues such as Islamic law, politics, ethics, morality and epistemology will be where trying to agree on a set of sensible parameters will be difficult.

The bitter truth for liberals to concede is that ijtihad has been and can be easily used for conservative ends and conservative means, hence there needs to be a systematic exposition of the liberals’ vision of ijtihad to counter any possible conservative assertions about ijtihad.

The one who does ijtihad is a mujtahid. Hence the question still remains as to what ijtihad is, whose ijtihad is valid, who has the authority to carry it out, what are the qualifications of it, how can we institutionalise it and do we need to rethink the classical notions of ijtihad? Perhaps the most important question is who has the right to carry out ijtihad? We need to answer these questions to reach a sensible consensus to distinguish between epistemic anarchy and truly enlightened understandings of religion. How do we establish a framework of determining whether a certain tendency of reasoning and deliberation of the religious sources is acceptable? Or do we simply rely on political convenience, and drag the religious discourse as the conservatives have towards a crass utilitarianism? In short who speaks for the legal discourse in Islam, and how do classical notions of authority clash with the liberals call for an expansive ijtihad?

These are all pressing questions. Prominent reformist intellectual AbdolKarim Soroush calls for an ijtihad on ijtihad itself. Many others say classical notions of ijtihad which the clergy have constructed as a purely legal notion to do with fiqh need to be abandoned. There needs to a more expansive ijtihad, and if this is the case then liberals and reformists have to quickly ground this new type of ijtihad on the normative texts of the faith. Also there are many other Muslim reformists and liberals grappling with these questions of modernity and reform (subsumed under issues and debates of ijtihad as ijtihad itself is seen as a mechanism). A discourse which we can term as ‘’Reformist Islam’’, is dealing frankly with these questions of change, modernity and reform.

Though there is agreement among liberals and progressive scholars on expanding the notion of ijtihad, as a principle of intellectual change, the free exchange of ideas and encompassing fields other than law such as philosophy, theology and the social sciences. There can be an ijtihad in theology, Quranic hermeneutics, religious interpretation, usual al fiqh (in terms of a methodology for determining Islamic law), in short there can be total reconstruction of the Islamic tradition when put into critical conversation with other traditions and phenomena.

Hence liberals conceive ijtihad as almost a tool of epistemic emancipation, freeing the believer from the shackles of retrograde traditionalism whilst appropriating the fundamentals of the faith with parts of the tradition which are deemed acceptable whilst putting the Islamic traditions in critical conversation with modernity.

Ijtihad has become from being a humble legal tool, to a way of thinking, as a powerful idea for reform. Hence Ibn Rushd, Ibn Sina, the rationalism of the Mu’tazilites, to the powerful spirituality of Sufi poets can all be deemed as that quest for knowledge on the path of ijtihad. Furthermore ijtihad is seen by many from Iqbal to Abduh, to other rationalist-inclined reformists of Islam as evidence of Islam’s inherent respect for the robust workings of human reason.

Conservatives and traditionalists even regard ijtihad as something far more mundane, a mere tool for solving unprecedented legal problems. Not even legal problems which have been pronounced on can be reconsidered by some traditionalists. Ijtihad is not a way of thinking; it is subsumed under a conservative and traditionalist framework and as such is subservient and thoroughly restricted by the parameters set up by the clergy and traditionalists. The importance of ijtihad they can conceive is important; however traditionalists argue that liberals are merely using ijtihad as a guise for harmful innovation (bidah). Hence the age old debate in terms of distinguishing bidah from ijtihad, creativity from heresy has been reignited. This is a delicate debate, what is creativity and what is heresy? There has always been a fine line between heresy and creativity in religious traditions not just Islam and trying to determine that line now is perhaps harder than ever. Whatever the final outcome it is clear the State needs to stay clear from these religious debates and not use its awesome coercive power to help one side of the discussion or the other.

Authoritarianism is authoritarian whether it is for a liberal or conservative agenda. To truly liberate religious discourse from political concerns as so far as the State exercises its coercive power in championing one form of religiosity whilst repressing another does seem to be counter-productive if one is to establish a liberal political theology.

A note here for the reader, the prevalent understanding that the gate of ijtihad was closed (journal article by noted scholar Wael B Hallaq ‘’ Was the Gate of Ijtihad Closed?’’) has become a popular urban myth and has greatly reduced a complex topic which on closer inspection reveals that greater nuance and care has to be taken. From modern evaluations of Islam’s juristic history and traditions it has become clear the gates of ijtihad were not really closed but we can deliberate on the substance of that ijtihad whether it was liberating or simply used for conservative ends.

Reconciling the issue of ijtihad is a much needed resolution in the current Pakistani encounter with modernity. Whilst the ulema have erected socially constructed and restrictive parameters and contours on the question of ijtihad to guard their sphere of religious exclusivity, the liberals and progressives have never really gotten to grips with the issue of ijtihad in relation to multiple traditions in law, ethics and political thought in Islam and to that of modernity. When is ijtihad not valid and when is it heresy? When is regressive and when is it progressive? When does it adhere to the spirit of Islam, and when does it violate it?

Furthermore, can ijtihad supersede the arguments and opinions of scholars of the past or can it only take place when there is no authorative opinion from scholars? Can we revise the intellectual traditions of our predecessors or do we simply accept them as gospel truth? Should ijtihad have a democratizing effect on religious interpretation? Or should it be based on purely meritocratic and hierarchical merits? Can ijtihad take into account considerations and input from other domains of human knowledge?

It is clear the classical definition of ijtihad is too restrictive and does not take into account advances in knowledge in other domains of human knowledge. The epistemic underpinnings of ijtihad in the classical traditions are too restrictive in so far as they do not take into account the full body of religious believers. There are many questions as one can read about the issue of ijtihad, and whilst there are plenty of opinions and tendencies about the issue there are no clear theories about ijtihad for our age by scholars or intellectuals in Pakistan. There has not been a systematic exposition of ijtihad, by fully engaging with the traditions of Islam and the new intellectual and epistemic realities of today.

Iqbal has been cited as an example, and rightly so and perhaps comes closest in deliberating and discussing the issue of ijtihad frankly and robustly in Pakistan (though Professor Fazlur Rahman has made some equally important strides in this regard and practically speaking Ghamidi too can be seen as following within this tendency of Islamic liberalism).

Iqbal regards ijtihad quite clearly as an intellectual attitude, calling it the principle movement in the structure in Islam. He does notice the dual edged nature of ijtihad has having a liberating effect and a conservative tendency, however offers no new hermeneutical framework, no new conception of religious authority. He talks of ijtihad in philosophical terms, and clearly Iqbal as one of the modern fathers of Islamic liberalism (or modernism, the nomenclature of Islamic movements is notoriously diverse) has influenced this continuing tradition of modern Islamic thought as viewing ijtihad in philosophical terms but never elaborating concrete reforms in law. We can credit Iqbal for trying to initiate a reform in theology and is one of the few to try and redefine the conceptualization and problems of Islamic theology in our time and to be sure he makes many perceptive observations in the field of law (fiqh), but never offers a proper alternative as such to the tradition of legal reasoning dominant for the last millennium or so. Iqbal identifies that there are intellectual assumptions underpinning the juridical tradition in Islam, and that is indeed a complex process of inference. Though we have criticised Iqbal for not possessing an hermeneutic scheme, we can commend him to recognize the plurality and complexity of interpretation, which he clearly sees as having multi-layered stages. Iqbal does not outline a detailed modern alternative in terms of a legal methodology. His call like other Muslim liberals and reformists was for a change in intellectual attitude but unfortunately never elaborated on concrete proposals (in terms of hermeneutics, epistemology, ethics and methodology) for institutionalizing this reformism in the context of a modern nation state. Iqbal can be credited for the suggestion of the creation of an institution in the form of Legislative Assembly by the combination of Ijtihad and Ijma institutions, and his democratizing intent on involving laymen in the determination of the Law.

The issue of ijtihad has not been fully discussed in the public arena in Pakistan, many take for granted that ijtihad must necessarily open the doors towards liberty and freedom with the religious discourse, but there have been examples were the opposite is true. Even if one accepts that ijtihad is necessarily inclined towards religious liberalism, many will be disappointed to know that ‘’progressive Islam’’, is not a readymade solution ready to take off the shelf.

There is no calibrated theory of Islamic law, no school of theology, nor is there a clearly defined school of political thought and ethical deliberation, though one characterise there is an established tendency and attitude, stretching for about 150-200 years, in terms of the the Muslim encounters with modernity. Whilst conservative strains of Islam have been organized in their grass roots initiatives, savvy use of the media and internet in terms of publishing output and material (though the quality of that is to be greatly debated), progressives in Pakistan have lagged behind in this respect in appealing to the religiously tinged conscience and political language of the people, hence the emergence of radical, violent and conservative religiosities within this vacuum. We need to elaborate an alternative liberal political theology

In short this piece is a call to debate and deliberation about the nature, scope, meanings and issues associated with ijtihad.