Can Muslims Reopen the Gates of Ijtihad?

imagesCAW9P52Fby Harold Rhode

The way things look now, only if the forces which want to bring back seventh century Islamic society were to suffer a massive defeat, could there be much hope. Only then, after the anti-ijtihad forces were defeated and no longer had access to unlimited financial resources with which to spread their anti-critical thinking, can things change.

The exercise of critical thinking and independent judgment – or Ijtihad –was an important way to address questions in the early centuries of Islam. After approximately 400 years, however, the leaders of the Sunni Muslim world closed the “Gates of Ijtihad;” Muslims were no longer allowed use itjihad to solve problems. If a seemingly new problem arose, they were supposed to find an analogy from earlier scholars and apply that ruling to the problem that arose. From the 10th century onwards, Sunni Muslim leaders began to see questioning as politically dangerous to their ability to rule. Regrettably, Sunni Muslim leaders reject the use of itjihad to this day.

As questioning could very likely upset the established order and bring down the autocracies and despotic regimes which rule most of the Muslim world, even Muslims who live in freer Muslim countries such as Turkey often hesitate to exercise ijtihad. How did the Muslim world succumb to this situation, and is there a way out?

Ijtihad in historical context

Ijtihad was important in early Islam: when questions arose – even while Muhammad was alive – for which there were no answers, Muhammad would call the Muslims together in their mosque. They would discuss the issues at hand, reason them through, and come to a consensus — so came into being the Islamic concept of ijma’ (consensus among the scholars).[1]

After Muhammad died, however, the Muslim community rapidly expanded; the community of scholars became too large, and ijma’ no longer practical. What developed was a body of traditions – called hadiths – sayings and deeds attributed to their prophet Muhammad. When new questions arose, people would seek out individuals who had known Muhammad and ask them whether they had seen or heard Muhammad address the matter at hand.

Within 200 years, the number of hadiths was thought to be in the hundreds of thousands, but people had no way of knowing which were true and which were fabricated. The great Muslim scholar, al-Bukhari (810 -870 CE), who analyzed them, concluded that only a few thousand were reliable.[2]

Later, when still more questions arose, diverse schools of thought developed. The Quran, the hadiths, and those schools of thought were collected into Islamic law. This body of Islamic religious guidance is known as the Shari’a, or “The Path.”

During the first four centuries of Islam, Muslim scholars seem to have exercised independent judgment freely, and debated rigorously new issues that arose. The Muslim world at that time seems to have been inclusive and flexible; it accepted differing views, differing conclusions and differing sorts of influences that arose as part of the cultures of its large empire.[3]

Muslim scholars studied Arabic translations of ancient Greek texts which they thought might help them understand the nature of mankind as well as other aspects of life. These texts, though clearly non-Islamic, nevertheless provided scholars with useful insights. There were also intellectual interchanges with Jewish scholars, particularly in the fields of science, medicine, language, and geography. There seems to have been, however, little discussion with Christians.[4]

With time, however, the situation became unwieldy. Certain groups (called ghulat) were accused of extremism – going too far — and attempts were made to rein them in.[5] Questions arose as to the limits of divergent views, and whether “extremist elements” could still be considered Muslim. The many schools of Islamic thought were reduced to four; these became the basis of the Sunni Shari’a.

As Islamic rule started to become more autocratic, Islamic rulers began to see discord as potentially able to undermine their rule.

All four schools accepted the Quran as the divine word of God, and the hadiths as the source for legal decisions. But it soon became apparent that the larger the number of hadiths a school of thought accepted, the more restrictive and rigid this school became. The Hanafi school of law, for example — the most liberal school of thought, founded by Abu Hanifa (699-767 CE) — accepted over a few thousand hadiths. In contrast, the most restrictive of the four schools – founded by Ahmad ibn Hanbal (778-863 CE) — accepted tens of thousands. It is not surprising, therefore, that in the 18th century Wahhabism — probably one of the most restrictive forms of Islam — developed out of the Hanbali School of law.

The Islamic authorities possibly still worried that despite four schools of thought, dissent would become unmanageable. Towards the end of the eleventh century, therefore, they officially closed the “Gates of Ijtihad.” There may have been too many different answers to the same questions, leading to confusion. Possibly this, in turn, may have made it difficult for the authorities to maintain order as well as to justify their autocratic rule.

Muslim scholars also appear to have decided that as all questions had been addressed, there was no longer any need to exercise independent judgment. The result was that exercising independent judgment became no longer permissible.

During the twelfth century, nevertheless, there were still attempts to use rational and deductive reasoning. In Muslim Spain, for instance, Averroes (aka Ibn Rushd, 1126-1198 CE), one of the founders of secular reasoning in Europe, refused to accept the closing of the Gates of Ijtihad. He continued to use Arabic translations of classical Greek sources, and preferred strictly rational methods to decide matters in contention. As in the Muslim world the Gates of Ijtihad had been closed, however, his rulings proved unacceptable.

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Muslim attempts to re-open the Gates of Ijtihad

Most of the governments of the Muslim world are despotic regimes run by autocrats who do not allow their citizens to question them. Questioning might lead to insurrection; governments might be overthrown. These leaders, therefore, make sure to appoint “official” religious leaders who will endorse the government line. Ijtihad might lead people to question regimes; a situation that cannot be tolerated. It is not surprising that calls for re-opening the Gates of Ijtihad fall on deaf ears, as the Saudis, Egyptians, Emiratis, and others all do their utmost to stamp out individual thought.

Because questioning religion — and much else — is not allowed, some young Muslims who grow up in Islamic lands find much of what was forced down their throats meaningless, then reject Islam. When some of them come to the West, often their first reaction is to stay as far away from Islam and Muslims as possible. Some, after they remain in the West for a while, stumble upon books about Islam in libraries; they start reading and realize that there is a lot of beauty and knowledge in Islam – just not when forced down their throats. They read, but find almost no one with whom they can share their newfound curiosity.

If and when they do find a kindred spirit, there is often a sort of dance – a tiptoeing around the real questions – mostly out of fear and suspicion. With time, when they realize that other people might have similar interests and feel safe enough to open up, they introduce each other to other men who think like them, but as if these are secret societies: there is a fear that if others, who may not agree, find out what they are discussing, both they and their families back home could suffer. They know well that organized Islam, even in the West, is controlled overwhelmingly by forces that strongly oppose ijtihad.

The internet has offered many the anonymity to pursue an interest in Islam. A surgeon from Malaysia now living in California who says he is happy with his life there, writes on the internet extensively about his fascination with Islam and ijtihad. (See his blog at http://www.bakrimusa.com) His daring has attracted others who write on his blog about Islam. He also boldly states that he could never have engaged in these types of discussions about Islam in his native Malaysia. Could the internet be a way out of this Muslim predicament?

There is also a remarkable group called the Ahl al-Quran[8] which originated in Egypt. The group’s adherents maintain that the only true source of Islamic law is the Quran, the only divine text of Islam. The hadiths and the legal exegesis which constitute Shari’a law, they argue, are just interpretations of the Quran. The interpretations were made by man, and occurred because of problems Muslims had after the Quran was revealed. The scholars addressed problems Muslims faced centuries ago. Muslims in the 21st century, they state, face different problems and should use the Quran – and only the Quran, just as the earliest Islamic scholars did – to find solutions to modern problems. They see no reason why Muslim scholars today cannot think creatively as the scholars of early Islam used to do.

As it is more comfortable to find Quranic material that can be used to address modern situations, and not then feel encumbered by the enormous weight of the hadiths and other legal and interpretive material from ancient religious scholars, an Egyptian organization, Ahl al-Quran, maintains that science and technology are Allah’s gifts to man, to be used to address contemporary problems.

After Egypt’s religious establishment ordered the Ahl al-Quran banned, arrested, or expelled, the group was forced to flee; it is now based in the United States. Why was it forced out? Its adherents, well versed in the Quran, rejected the imposed decision-making of Egypt’s al-Azhar religious establishment,[9] and stated that Islam strongly opposes dictatorship in both its political and religious forms. Instead, this group has been using the Quran to demonstrate that the original Muslim community was inclusive and that it encouraged discussion,[10] both of which today are absent in Egypt and throughout the Muslim world.

When Western officials ask Egyptian political and religious officials about the Ahl al-Quran, the Egyptians laugh and smear the group, labeling its members as crazy extremists with no following. Sadly, because of our ignorance of Islamic culture, or political pressures, we usually accept what the Egyptian government officials tell us without subjecting their remarks to “our own ijtihad,” thereby closing our eyes to a force which could help save the Muslim world from itself, and possibly even help prevent a clash between the Western and Muslim worlds.

Conclusion

Is there a chance that the Muslims could reopen the Gates of Ijtihad? For the foreseeable future, the answer seems to be a resounding no. The mislabeled “Arab Spring” has turned into an “Arab Winter” in which the forces who apparently want to recreate an imagined, glorious past society modeled after what they believe their prophet established. Add to that the huge amounts of money Wahhabi “allies” of the U.S. are spending throughout the Muslim world, to propagate their militant version of Islam, and things do not look promising.

Those who understand that without itjihad, they have no future, are being forced underground, and, if they are lucky, then emigrate. These emigrants who think critically rarely move into Islamic communities where critical thinking is discouraged.

The way things look now, only if the forces which want to bring back seventh century Islamic society were to suffer a massive defeat, could there be much hope. Only then, after the anti-ijtihad forces were defeated and no longer had access to unlimited financial resources with which to spread their anti-critical thinking, can things change.

Until then, the Gates of Ijtihad will almost assuredly remain tightly shut, and the forces which now control Islam will see to it that they remain so.

Regrettably, if this analysis is correct, the future does not look able to be transformed for the Muslim world or its adherents in the near future. Until Muslim countries and communities in the West allow their people to express themselves freely — without fear of reprisal — it is unlikely that the Muslim world will be able to reopen the Gates of Ijtihad and again become a center of science and creativity as it used to be in the early centuries of Islam.

Read more at Gatestone Institute

Harold Rhode received in Ph.D. in Ottoman History and later served as the Turkish Desk Officer at the US Department of Defense. He is now a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Gatestone Institute.

See also:

Dr. Tawfik Hamid: Islam Needs Modern Interpretation (radicalislam.org)