Ijtihad The etymology of ijtihad is derived from the Arabic root j-h-d, which means “to struggle”. In Islamic law, the term refers to a process or methodology whereby a legal ruling or decision relating to a specific issue or situation is inferred or deduced through a critical interpretation of the sources and methodological principles of Islamic jurisprudence. The fundamental sources of Islamic law are the Holy Quran and the recorded conversations, actions and precepts of the Prophet Muhammad (SAAW), known as Hadith. The methodological principles of Islamic jurisprudence include analogical deduction (qiyas), juristic consensus (ijma) and juristic preference (istihsan). Istihsan refers to a method whereby a jurist decides to give precedence to a given legal ruling over other options. This is done after a careful weighing of the merits of all available legal options and with a view to reduce the hardships of people.
The antecedents of ijtihad can be traced back to the time of the Prophet. When he appointed Muadh ibn Jabal as governor of Yemen, he asked him: “How will you give a judgement (in a given matter)?” Muadh said: “According to the Quran”. The Prophet asked him: “What if you do not find (any guidance) therein?” He said: “I will judge according to the Prophet’s precepts”. The Prophet then asked him: “What if you do not find (any guidance) in that also?” He replied: “I will then use my own independent judgement”. The Prophet was highly pleased with Muadh’s reply. After the passing away of the Prophet, when his Companions were faced with knotty issues, they sought to resolve them, both individually and collectively, through the principle of ijtihad.
Islamic law has an inherent dynamism. It maintains a balance between universalism, on the one hand, and historical and cultural specificities, on the other. It takes due cognizance of cultural diversity that characterises human societies around the world, including Muslim societies, as well as changing historical, social and cultural conditions. It provides for a substantial measure of modifications in legal prescriptions relating to social life in response to changing circumstances. The principle of ijtihad symbolises the dynamic character of Islamic law and reflects its accommodative, inclusive and humane ethos. It has enabled Muslim scholars and jurists down the ages to deal with unforeseen situations and circumstances and to find solutions to intractable issues.
Ijtihad is a highly specialised and sophisticated branch of Islamic learning and is therefore accompanied with a set of qualifications and prerequisites. In order to be eligible to exercise ijtihad, a scholar must fulfill the following conditions.
- He must possess a thorough and deep understanding and knowledge of the Holy Quran, especially of the historical and social context and circumstances of the revelation of the verses of the Quran, and particularly of those verses—estimated to be about 500—which explicitly deal with legal matters. He must have an adequate familiarity with the classical works on Quranic exegesis.
- He must have a thorough knowledge of Hadith literature and the principles relating to the critical study of Hadith.
- He must have an adequate knowledge of the precepts and legal rulings of the Prophet’s Companions (sahaba) and the Followers (tabiun), as well as of the legal rulings (fatawa) of prominent jurists of earlier times.
- He must be thoroughly conversant with the subtelities of the Arabic language.
- He must have an adequate understanding of the purposes of Islamic Shariah (maqasid al-Shariah), including those which relate to “considerations of public interest” and the “removal of hardhsips” for the people. This pertains to what may be described as Islamic hermeneutics.
- He must possess an exceptional degree of intellectual capability, sagacity and intuition and must have a fair sense of judgement.
- He must be sufficiently familiar with the prevailing social, economic and cultural conditions of his time.
Related entries: Islamic law, qiyas, ijma, istihsan, istislah, maqasid al-Shariah