Islamic Perspectives

Ijtihad deserves new consideration

We need to energize the process if we are to find solutions to contemporary problems says Samar Fatany

Addressing the 36th annual meeting of the Islamic Development Bank recently, Minister of Finance Ibrahim Al -Assaf urged Muslim countries to adapt to the changing global environment in order to confront the challenges facing the Muslim world today. Meanwhile, many Muslim scholars, Arab and non-Arab, have stressed the need to revive the process of “ijtihad,” or the interpretation of Islamic law and recognize it as an Islamic science to enable Muslims of the 21st century to preserve their faith and apply the true tenets of Islam to their present-day needs.

However, to confront the new challenges and energize the process of ijtihad, Muslim countries need to conduct Shari’ah studies, encourage moderate and competent scholars, reform the educational system and upgrade academic Muslim councils. Only then can a more educated interpretation be adopted to effectively serve the needs of the contemporary Muslim society.

It is unfortunate that religious scholars terminated the practice of “ijtihad” 500 years ago and adopted a more conservative and negative stance toward innovation and adaptation. When the door of “ijtihad” was closed, a consensus was established that there would be no more independent reasoning in religious law and that all Muslims should follow the interpretation of the doctrine by the scholars of that era once and for all.

We live in a very different world today, and Muslims need to find solutions to contemporary problems that did not exist in the past. Moderate religious scholars today assert that “ijtihad” should remain an essential part of the Muslim tradition even if others disagree. The rigid interpretations of Islamic law by hard-liners no longer provide suitable solutions to the challenges facing the Muslim world today.

Conservative Muslims insist on keeping the doors closed to “ijtihad.” They argue that most Muslims today do not have the training in legal sources to conduct “ijtihad.” The moderates, however, assert that any competent scholar can perform “ijtihad” given that Islam has no generally accepted clerical hierarchy. Conservative scholars need to be reminded that Shariah law is based on two basic principles, mainly that what is basically beneficial is permitted and what is basically harmful is prohibited. Shariah law is based on the principle that always adopts the easier alternative after comparing a few of the available relevant cases. Therefore, the general rule for interpretation includes the removal of the rigid or the doubtful and applying a balance between the two. It is time to eliminate the weak Hadith and derive rulings only from the authentic ones. We cannot continue to allow only one legal authority on the interpretation of Shariah laws or recognize only one absolute judgment on judicial issues. Moderate scholars maintain that there could be more than one answer resulting from “ijtihad” on a particular issue - each ruling depending on the circumstances surrounding the situation.

During the 8th and 9th centuries, the science of “ijtihad” was developed by progressive religious scholars who were keen to understand and apply Islamic rulings to changing realities. Unfortunately, after that there were not many capable scholars who were willing to address old laws that do not apply to new social, economic and scientific developments. However, today we are finally witnessing concerted efforts to revive “ijtihad” and address some of the challenges of the 21st century. For example, the economic and social realities of contemporary life have created many complicated problems for Muslims, especially those living as minorities. They face financial and social difficulties and need direction from a Muslim religious authority. The Councils of Muslim Scholars in Europe and the United States decreed that it was permissible for Muslims residing in the West to buy houses with mortgages and to pay interest on these loans. Although this was contrary to Shariah law that forbids charging and paying interest, the Muslim scholars gave their consent declaring that it was a necessary rule for Muslims to meet their financial and social needs in the West.

Meanwhile, Muslim countries are working hard to train more Shariah experts who are needed to define Shariah-compliant rules and support Islamic finance. Other modern problems that needed attention include test-tube babies, organ donations, cloning and other current issues in science that require an Islamic ruling.

It goes without saying that we need pious scholars with a wide scope of knowledge who are experts in Arabic linguistics, social and political sciences, economics, international and Shariah laws to be delegated to exercise “ijtihad.”

Muslims should be wary of people with limited education who have reopened the doors to “ijtihad” and have taken a more rigid direction. There is a need for more trained scholars in methods of deduction so as to draw more accurate and logical conclusions. We also need to establish a stricter code to identify or accept a Hadith as authentic.

It is crucial for Muslims today to encourage Islamic researchers who can conduct studies on the aims and purposes of the Shariah law. No one should be allowed to give a ruling without an understanding of the events surrounding a Qur’anic revelation or derive laws in matters with no explicit judgment in the texts, or matters which cannot be defined or explained.

Reforming the Muslim educational system is also important. Students should be exposed to the four schools of thought. Muslim scholars in the past used to say, “This is my opinion, and I could be wrong. And this is someone else’s opinion, and he could be right.” Fundamentalists must understand that no one has absolute authority on the truth.

Another need of the hour is empowering academic Muslim councils and upgrading the qualifications of their members. There are currently several national and international councils of jurisprudence and interpretations of Shariah. However, they must work together collaboratively in order to be more effective. They should include both men and women who are professionals from various fields of life. Such councils should rise to the expectations of Muslims and make judgments and formulate legislation on issues related to the status of women, Muslim lifestyles, Islamic economies, the situation of Muslims in non-Muslim societies, the relation between Muslims and the West and so on.

The principles of Islam have been hijacked by fundamentalists who have confused and misguided many innocent believers. Moderates today reject past controversial conditions that were dictated by earlier scholars and continue to be a source of public disagreement. Muslim countries need to support a global consensus to restore the science of ijtihad among Islamic sciences and eliminate extremist practices not relevant to modern times. They must exert greater efforts to adapt to the changing global economic, social and scientific environment.

This article appeared in The Milli Gazette print issue of 1-15 March 2012 on page no. 21

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