Ijtihad (Arabic) is the term used to designate innovations in
Sha'aria (Muslim law). The word comes from
"struggle" - the same root as "Jihad." The
"t" is added because it is a reflexive grammatical construction.
Sunni Islam is arrived at by independent
interpretation of existing law (the Quran and
Sunnah). The opposite of Ijtihad is
generally held to be Taqlid - imitation or emulation. A person who is qualified by extensive training to devise Ijtihad
is called a Mujtahid.
Ijtihad was extremely necessary as the new Muslim religion met very changed conditions of society during its rapid
expansion from the Arabian peninsula, and caliphs were generally known for their
innovation. However by the eleventh or twelfth century, following the Asharite commentator Al-Ghazali, most Sunni
authorities had declared that the "doors of Ijtihad are closed." Minority views continued to discuss and support Ijtihad,
but in fact there was little innovation. Al-Ghazali was against Ijtihad, which he believed led to errors and excesses,
but it is not clear whether his dictum that the doors of Ijtihad are closed was prescribing what ought to be the case,
or in reality describing the actual case. The closure of the doors of Ijtihad is often blamed for stagnation of Muslim
societies, but this argument can be turned on its head: the end of innovation may have been due to the stagnation. In
European societies that were in ferment, religious objections never sufficed for long to stop the progress of science or
changes in government. Religion adapted itself to society.
The argument that stagnation was due to closure of Ijtihad also ignores the fact that the
Ottoman Empire arose more than a century
after "closure of the doors of Ijtihad" and flourished for several centuries thereafter, for a time remaining well in
advance of Europe in innovative government and military organization. It also ignores the circumstance that many of the
most reactionary prohibitions of conservative Islam were not really part of Sharia law. Some were rooted in pre-Muslim
tribal customs. Nothing in the Sharia encouraged corruption or put secular rulers above the law. The worst aspects of
repression of women, such as female circumcision, were rooted in tribal customs that pre-dated Islam. Other repressive
laws, such as the prohibition on printing, were necessarily due to a reactionary sort of "Ijtihad." There were no
printing presses in the time of
Muhammad. The prohibition against them had
to be based on an interpretation. In the same way, nothing in the New Testament forbade translating the Bible, but the
Catholic church objected on "religious" grounds. Likewise there was nothing in the New or Old Testament that would
necessarily support "divine right" of kings, but religious authority was used to bolster monarchies and stymie
democracy. In more recent times, there have been repeated movements to rekindle Ijtihad in Sunni Islam.
Ijtihad in Shia Islam
Some sources assert with great assurance that there is no Ijtihad in
Shia Islam, while others assert that there has
always been Ijtihad in Shia Islam, or that it was revived by the Ayatollah Khomeini. Shia Islam believes that Ijtihad is
extraction of the true meaning of Sha'aria law, rather than innovation, and in that sense there has always been Ijtihad
in Shi'a Islam, though the latitude of interpretation allowed may have varied.
A Shia Islamic scholar explains the differences in approach thus:
Two Different Conceptions of Ijtihad
The term ijtihad as used in the writings of scholars of
different Islamic sects conveys two different meanings, each of which gives rise to different viewpoints regarding the
sources of Shar'i ahkam. In the first conception ijtihad means derivation of Shar`i hukm through
personal judgement and ray for an issue for which the mujtahid does not find any express text in the Quran or the
Sunnah. Such a meaning of ijtihad is found in the writings of `Abd al‑Wahhab al‑Khallaf and most of Sunni fuqaha'
also subscribe to this view.
Ijtihad in this sense is. considered by most of Sunni scholars
as an independent source parallel to the Quran, the Sunnah, ijma` and `aql, and is acknowledged as one of
the bases for determining the ahkam.
It means that in the same manner as a mujtahid relies on
sources like the Quran, the Sunnah, `aql and ijma` for deriving ahkam, he can also rely on ray
and subjective opinion by taking recourse to instruments of presumption (like qiyas, istihsan, masalih mursalah,
istislah, madhhab al‑Sahabi, fath al‑dhara'i`, sadd al‑dhara'i`, etc.) for issues on which there is no express text
in the Quran and the Sunnah.
In the second conception ijtihad means deduction of the
fari ahkam from the reliable sources (the Quran, the Sunnah, ijma` and `aql). Ijtihad in this sense
occurs in the writings of Ahmad Mustafa al‑Zarqa', the author of al‑Madkhal al‑fiqhi al‑`amm, and Shi'i fuqaha'
have subscribed to this view long since. According to this conception, the activity of the mujtahid involves
deduction of the laws of the Shari'ah for emergent issues and new phenomena of life by employing general principles and
rules. Thereby the mujtahid refers new secondary issues to the general principles and applies the general laws to
their particular instances in external reality, thus obtaining the ahkam governing them. According to this
conception, ijtihad is not counted as an independent source of law parallel to the Quran and the Sunnah, but
merely as a means for deriving and determining the ahkam from the sources. (Source: Jannati,
Muhammad Ibrahim, Ijtihad: Its Meaning, Sources, Beginnings and the Practice of Ra'y, al Tawhid Islamic Journal,
Vol. 5 No. 2 &3, Vol. 6, No. 1, Vol. 7, No. 3 Qum - The Islamic Republic of Iran )
Synonyms and alternate spellings: