Open the Gates of Ijtihad

Open the Gates of Ijtihad

The solution to the turmoil gripping Muslim society today may be found in reintroducing ijtihad. Re-opening the gates of ijtihad will allow Muslims “to reinterpret Islam for the 21st century,” states a comprehensive August 2004 special report produced by the United States Institute of Peace.

“The practice of ijtihad,” stresses the report compiled with the participation of several respected Muslim scholars, “must be revived.” Ijtihad — or hermeneutics — refers to the institutionalised practice of interpreting Islamic law (sharia’h) to take into account changing historical circumstances and, therefore, different points of view.

Ijtihad is the independent or original interpretation of problems not covered by the Qur’an (Islam”s holy book), the Hadith (traditions concerning the Prophet”s life and utterances), and ijma” (scholarly consensus). In the early days of the Muslim community, every adequately qualified jurist had the right to exercise such original thinking.

Fearing too much change would weaken their political clout, the gates of ijtihad were closed to Sunni Muslims by religious scholars about 500 years ago. From then on, scholars and jurists were to rely only on the original meaning and earlier interpretations of the Qur’an and the Hadith. However, there is now a growing movement among scholars and intellectuals to revive the practice of ijtihad.

Today, Muslim society is experiencing turbulence; the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the continued occupation of Palestinian lands, the frustrations caused by oppressive regimes and the absence of democracy have all conspired to give birth to a radical, politicised and violent form of Islam, whose adherents have turned to terror as a means of achieving their aims. They have politicised Islam.

Contrary to Samuel P. Huntington”s belief that Islam and the West are headed for a clash of civilizations, other scholars argue that the real clash is between two diverging ideas within Islam itself. The clash is between the politicised Islam of a radical element which has turned to violence as a means of expressing itself, and the mainstream majority which remains largely silent. In fact, the violent tactics of this fringe-force of highly-politicised Muslims has proven useful in directly intimidating the mainstream into relative silence.

“Political Islam has proven a formidable force even though Islamic movements or organizations often constitute a minority of the community,” states John Esposito, a professor of religion at Washington”s Georgetown University.

As in most conflicts, solutions can only come from within. Similarly, the cures for finding what ails some Muslim communities can only emerge from Islam itself. Resolutions cannot be imposed from the West. But before that can come to pass, however, two things must happen.

Firstly, the Muslim mainstream must play a greater role in its community; and secondly, it must be given an authoritative tool enabling it to enact positive changes. That tool is ijtihad.

The re-introduction of ijtihad enjoys the support of a growing number of scholars, intellectuals and Islamic institutions, both in the West and in the Arab world. Even the Saudi Arabian Minister of the Waqf, or Religious Affairs, Sheikh Saleh Abdel Aziz al-Sheikh, and Ali Bardakoglu, president of the Diyanet, or the highest religious authority in Turkey, support this. Both al-Sheikh and Bardakoglu divulged in interviews that they were in favour of reinstating ijtihad.

“The general strategy is to expand the base of ‘moderates’,” said the Saudi minister. But he warned, however, that “so long as there were bad things” happening in Iraq and Palestine, it would prolong negative events in the rest of the world.

The roadblocks to ijtihad are numerous and tough. A preliminary study shows that the Muslim world remains divided over who should have the authority to implement ijtihad and how much should be allowed to change. There is no religious hierarchy in Sunnism, the branch of Islam that dominates the Muslim world, as there is in Shiism.

Still, the belief is that with time, effort and education, ijtihad will eventually be re-introduced, allowing important changes to be made.

Another hurdle is that historically, reform of Islamic law has often been confused with criticism of Islam itself. Conservative Muslims have, at various times, labelled those who have attempted to introduce reforms as non-believers. Fatwas, or religious edicts, have even been issued against potential reformers, at times condemning them to death. This hurdle is real and will require Muslims to see the difference between critiquing Islam in order to tear it down, and reforming Islamic law in order to build up Muslims and their societies.

If ijtihad”s doors remain closed and political Islam continues to rise, this will lead to a greater schism between the average Muslim and the radical as well as between Islam and the West. This would expand the existing conflict, turning it into the infamous ‘clash of civilizations’, and would have severe repercussions for Muslims everywhere, especially those living in the West.