From jihad to ijtihad

From jihad to ijtihad

By Asghar Ali Engineer


‘JIHAD’, with its imbued wrong meaning, became a notorious word in the West after 9/11. Terror now has an overwhelming presence in parts of the Muslim world, including Pakistan , Afghanistan and Iraq . Violence there seems at times to be out of control as it is Muslims themselves who are targeted by terrorists.


The ulema have repeatedly condemned suicide bombing and terrorism as un-Islamic. Several consultations and conferences of ulema from different parts of the Islamic world have been held to make it clear that violence has no place in Islam. Last month prominent ulema from several Islamic countries from Senegal to Indonesia gathered at Mardin, Turkey and unanimously rejected the medieval fatwa known as the Mardin fatwa issued by Ibn Taymiyyah, saying it has no place in the contemporary globalised world which respects faith and civil rights.


The Mardin fatwa was quoted by Osama bin Laden to justify his terrorist attacks. Followed by this, on April 12, the highest religious Saudi body denounced terrorism. This body issued a fatwa denouncing all acts of terrorism and even criminalised its financing. Those who finance such acts are also part of the crime, it said. Thus terrorists cannot find any justification in Islam for their acts. Their very support base has been knocked off.However, one can hardly expect much impact of such fatwas on terrorists, though they would certainly help wean away those Muslims from terrorists who justify such attacks on the basis of their religion. This is not a small achievement.

Our attention must now shift from ‘jihad’ to ‘ijtihad’, which means to strive intellectually to comprehend problems facing the Islamic world and find their solutions in keeping with the basic principles and values enshrined in the Quran. Ijtihad has been called by many scholars, including Allama Iqbal, the dynamic spirit of Islam and Islamic law.


Ijtihad was very much a living process in early Islam; its gates were shut, many scholars maintain, around the time of the sack of Baghdad in 1258 by Mongol hordes. Ironically, it was half a century after that when Ibn Taymiyyah, defining his own Hanbali school of law, issued his fatwa on jihad. Thus the gates of ijtihad were closed and those of aggressive jihad flung open.


Now that jihad in its new incarnation as terrorism is being denounced by all prominent ulema of the Islamic world it is time the practice of ijtihad was opened and a fresh approach developed to solve the many legal and social problems affecting Muslim societies today. Blind imitation and stagnation have become the bane of Islamic law. While changes are taking place in the world around us, we continue to imitate the pre-1258 jurists in the religio-legal field.


We are unable to think afresh and derive inspiration from the Quran. We keep on quoting only certain imams and medieval authorities who have become more sacrosanct for us than the Holy Quran. I propose a few basic steps in developing a fresh approach and throwing open the gates of ijtihad.


Firstly, at least a few ulema and Muslim intellectuals (and there are many who have been trained in the traditional Islamic literature of tafsir, hadith and jurisprudence and who feel the need for change) must show courage and come forward to develop a fresh approach, defying powerful vested interests manning the religious establishment as it were.


Secondly, we must transcend all existing schools of Islamic law and develop a unified law applicable to all Muslims. This will also give greater meaning to the otherwise hollow slogan of Islamic unity. It does not mean that we reject all provisions of existing schools of law but that we select from all these that which is best in them and in keeping with the Quranic principles and values.


Thirdly, a new ijma (consensus) should be developed on issues that are peculiar to our age and time. If the ulema could do it in the first three centuries of Islam, why not us today? The past ulema’s ijma was limited to their own school; today in a globalised world a much wider consensus across all Islamic schools of thought will have to be developed. Modern means of information and communication technology have made it much easier.


In medieval Islamic jurisprudence they used qiyas (analogical reasoning) and ijma, and both are intellectual instruments to solve legal problems. Why can’t we develop new analogies on a global scale today? What passes on as divine in the Sharia law is nothing but local, culturally embedded elements and practices, particularly of the Arab and Persian cultures, as they existed centuries ago.


We must transcend all such elements and, like the Quran itself, develop a more universal outlook whilst formulating Sharia laws for our own time. While the sources of Sharia cannot change, Sharia laws must change based on the enshrined principles of ijtihad and ijma for them to be responsive to the needs of Muslims today.


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