Various misunderstandings are present about “Ijtehad” in our society at present. As a result at times we notice an extreme degree of inactivity and at other times an equal degree of over activity in this field.
Meaning of the word "Ijtehad":
The Arabic word "ijtehad" (or "ijtihad") is derived either from jahd which means difficulty, or juhd which means power. The Arabs used this word only for those actions which contained some hardship, difficulty, and inconvenience.
The meaning of "ijtehad" as a term, is the exertion of one's intellectual faculties in the search for a legal opinion/solution to the extent of full intellectual capability of the thinker. The word "reasoning" or "personal reasoning" has been used in the English language as a substitute for the Arabic word "ijtehad''.
In Shariah context, it refers to the process of deriving rules about issues not directly mentioned in the Quran and Sunnah.
“Ijtehad” is like a double- edged sword:
It is understood from the Qur’an, Hadith and verdicts of jurists of Islam, that “Ijtehad” is like a double- edged sword. If it is properly understood, and used within its limitations of fulfilling the conditions laid down for it, this can be a source of great treasure of Islamic laws and a matter of great pride for the Ummah.
But if it is allowed to be wrongly used by incapable persons it will result in creating false concepts and irreligious movements as we read in the books like ‘Al-milal Wan-Nihal’ ('The Book of Sects and Creeds', written by the Islamic scholar Muhammad al-Shahrastani (d. 1153 CE))*. Those views and claims had their sway for sometime but now they exist only in the pages of ancient books.
The same Ijtehad can be used to find practical ways for the Muslim Ummah, and the same can lead to ridiculous misinterpretations of the Quran.
It is through the same type of pseudo-Ijtehad that the modernists tried to make permissible every evil of Western Civilization; and it is through this that an endless chain of religious manipulations has been started.
It is in this context that I have called it a double-edged sword. If it is not used with necessary precautions and some one starts attempting it without having the required proficiency he would open the door to distorting the religion, and would lead to extreme degree of misleading conceptions.
Ijtehad cannot contradict Quran and Hadith:
Some people think that “Ijtehad” allows taking a decision through personal opinion in religious matters. This must be fully understood that this practice has never been regarded as “Ijtehad” in Islam. The one who considers it as “Ijtehad” has in fact fallen into great error. The door of “Ijtehad” had been opened by the Holy Prophet (PBUH), and the Hadith reported by Muadh bin Jabal R.A. has made it clear.
The Prophet (PBUH) asked Muadh R.A. “How will you decide on an issue not found in the Book of Allah?” He replied, “I will follow the Prophetic traditions (Sunnah). The Prophet (PBUH) then asked, “What would you do if you find nothing in Sunnah?” He replied, I will do “Ijtehad” with my personal opinion.” -(Abu Dawud)
It is quite apparent from this Hadith that there is no room for “Ijtehad” in matters explicated by the Qur’an and the Sunnah. If someone attempts Ijtehad in such matters it will not be called “Ijtehad” but rather fabrication or distortion (Tahreef).
If “Ijtehad” could be permitted in matters where explicit injunctions from the Qur’an and Hadith are present, there was no need for the advent of Prophets and Messengers. The purpose of Wahy (Divine Revelation) was that the right way be shown to people through Wahy in matters where Man cannot make the correct decision through his intellect.
Had it been an open field for everyone, to do as he or she thinks proper there was no need to follow the Qur’an or Prophetic traditions (sunnah/hadith). It would have been sufficient to say that people should lead their lives according to their personal likings, opinions and reasoning as the time and circumstances demand.
This misunderstanding must be removed about the application of Ijtehad.
Ijtehad has always been ongoing in the Ummah in all eras:
Sometimes, when there is a discussion on “Ijtehad”, an impression is given that the Qur’an and traditions have been revealed to us for the first time and no work has been done in the field of interpretation and explanation for all these fourteen hundred years and that the meanings deduced by us through personal reasoning shall be “Ijtehad” that must be implemented.
This concept is sometimes deliberately propagated while the fact is that we are not living in a vacuum but we are living in an era which has the background of fourteen centuries of laudable efforts in the field of Qur’anic learning by renowned Sahaba (companions of the Prophet (PBUH)), their followers (Tabaien), religious scholars, jurists of Islam and devoted personalities of the Ummah.
They spent their lives in devotion to the cause of exegesis of the Qur’an and interpretation of the Prophetic traditions, and the sacrifices they have made for this cause are beyond our imagination. They had to go through the troubles of starvation and rough clothing and poorest means of sustenance for this noble cause and left behind a huge collection of this work.
Now, if we throw all this intellectual legacy in a dust-bin and start making fresh interpretations, through the agency of “Ijtehad” unsupported by the Quran and the Sunnah, it will be an act of shameful self deception. It will mean that all the collections of the jurists be ignored and totally a new Fiqh and other sciences of Islam should be prepared.
The type of Ijtehad that is needed in the present time:
Solutions to new problems may be sought in the light of existing Usool (rules and principles) derived from the Qur’an and Sunnah. This is the right application of “Ijtehad” in the right direction.
Indeed countless problems may arise in every new period that are not defined by the Quran and the Prophetic traditions or no answer to these problems is provided by the available Fatawa (verdicts) of the jurists.
Being within these limits and seeking the solutions to newer problems and understanding the intentions of jurists and the intentions of the Shariah is called true “Ijtehad” and this is the “Ijtehad” whose doors have not been closed to anyone so far.
The door of valid Ijtehad was never closed:
This is a sheer propaganda that the door of Ijtehad is closed. Nobody has ever closed it. This door has been opened by the Holy Prophet (PBUH) and shall remain open till the Last Day, and as long as this Ijtehad remains in capable hands nobody can close it.
The required Ijtehad which the Muslim Ummah really needs is not a new thing. It was in practice before. If now an organized method is provided to it, it would be appreciable. But to think that the scholars of Islamic learning had not been doing this Ijtehad before is not correct. The true Ijtehad that is needed had been in process and shall continue in the future.----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
* Kitāb al–Milal wa al-Nihal (Arabic:كتاب الملل والنحل, The Book of Sects and Creeds), written by the Islamic scholar Muhammad al-Shahrastani (d. 1153 CE), is a non-polemical study of religious communities and philosophies that had existed up to his time, considered to be the first systematic study of religion. A French translation of the book by Gimaret, Monnot and Jolivet was sponsored by UNESCO (Livre des religions et des sects. Peeters: 1986, 1993). ------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
-(Adapted with some modifications) from Mufti Taqi Usmani's book 'Islam and Modernism'.