Taqlidi versus Ijtihadi Approaches in Islamic Studies
By Maulana Wahiduddin Khan (Translated by Yoginder Sikand)
Human minds can be categorised into two types: taqlidi (stagnant and imitative of past precedent) and ijtihadi (dynamic and creative). The former denotes closed mindedness; the latter is its opposite, open mindedness. The taqlidi mind attains a certain level and then stagnates, while the ijtihadi mind keeps travelling ahead, stopping only at death.
The difference between the taqlidi and the ijtihadi mindsets can be illustrated with the help of an example. Shakespeare was a famous English writer, and so was George Bernard Shaw, who was born some two hundred and fifty years after the former’s death. Shaw’s contribution to English literature was less than that of Shakespeare, and he himself admitted this when he said, ‘I am smaller in stature than Shakespeare, but I stand upon his shoulders’. This is an example of an ijtihadi way of thinking, and a society characterised by such persons constantly progresses in terms of thought and intellect. Each new generation in such a society builds on the contributions of its predecessors, adds to it and then transmits its legacy to the generations that come after it.
But contemporary Muslim societies present a completely different picture. In modern times, their intellectual development has almost come to a halt. This is because they have developed a taqlidi, as opposed to ijtihadi, way of thinking, and consider ijtihad to be almost a sin. Many Muslims mistakenly believe that in terms of religious perspectives, the ulema of the past have accomplished all that there was to, and that today our task is simply to study the books that they wrote and strictly follow them.
This approach is a major hurdle in the path of our intellectual progress. In this regard, Muslims can adopt one of two positions: to recognise, like Shaw did with regard to Shakespeare, that their stature might be less than that of the ulema of the past, but that, despite this, they are standing on the latter’s shoulders; or to believe that because their stature is less than that of the ulema of the past, they must remain forever at the latter’s feet.
The first of these two approaches represents an ijtihadi way of thinking, one conducive to constant intellectual development. In a society characterised by such an approach, each new generation fully respecst those that went before it and, building, on the contributions of its predecessors, makes even more progress. In contrast, the second approach represents a taqlidi way of thinking, which keeps Muslim thought stagnant, preventing it from moving in the direction of constantly progressing stages of knowledge and understanding that Islam stands for. It also causes Muslims to fall behind other communities in the intellectual field, killing their intellectual faculties.
Let me elaborate on this point with the help of some Hadith reports.
Respect for Humanity
Several narrators of Hadith have recorded that once, in Madinah, when a procession carrying a dead body for burial passed by the Prophet, he stood up on seeing it out of respect. His companions who were with him did the same. When it was pointed out to him that the deceased was a Jew, the Prophet simply remarked that the man was a human being.
This incident is included in his collection of Hadith by Imam Bukhari, who made an immense contribution to Hadith studies by collecting over 7000 reports that he considered authentic from several hundred thousand reports that had been attributed to the Prophet. He mentioned this hadith in the chapter on burial in his Sahih Bukhari. Now, if we were to adopt a taqlidi approach and consider this hadith simply as something related to burial, and not something more than just that, we will not be able to learn anything new from this hadith. We would simply parrot what the earlier commentators on Hadith have said about it, without being able to derive anything new from it. And while we respect the intellectual contributions of the earlier exegetes of Hadith, we cannot accept all that they have written as gospel truth. Many ulema of the past have commented on this hadith report, offering various theories for the Prophet’s action, with some claiming that this practice [of standing up when the corpse of a non-Muslim passed by] was later abrogated, or that the Prophet did so because he did not want the corpse of a Jew to be at a level higher than that of his head, and so on. Now, all these explanations are based on personal speculation and lack adequate proof. This hadith narrative very clearly indicates that the Prophet stood up out of respect for the dead man [and not because of any of the reasons that these Hadith commentators had suggested]. In other words, this hadith is not simply about burial, as those with a taqlidi mindset would imagine. Rather, it is a fine example of respect for humankind, irrespective of religion, as those with an ijtihadi mindset might be able to discover. It could be offered as a counter to those who claim that while Islam preaches respect for fellow Muslims, it does not do so with regard to people of other faiths. This hadith, if approached in an ijtihadi way, can be presented as evidence of the Islamic principle that all human beings are worthy of respect, no matter what their religion or community.
On the other hand, if this hadith is approached in a taqlidi fashion and is interpreted in the same way as those traditionalist commentators we have referred to have done, this Islamic principle will be completely occluded.
Consideration for Context
According to a report also contained in the Sahih Bukhari, the Prophet told his wife Hazrat Ayesha that when the Qureish rebuilt the Kaaba they did not do so on its original foundation as set by the Prophet Abraham, but, rather, had changed it. Hearing this, Hazrat Ayesha asked the Prophet why he could not restructure the Kaaba on its original foundation. To this the Prophet replied that the Qureish had only recently renounced infidelity for Islam, and it was possible that if he were to do so, it might cause them to agitate. He added that had there been no danger of this happening he would certainly have done what Hazrat Ayesha had suggested.
Imam Bukhari has included this hadith in his chapter on Haj. Now, if we were to consider the hadith simply in this way, reflecting a taqlidi approach, all that we would gain from it would be some information about the glories of Mecca. If, on the other hand, we adopt an ijtihadi approach to view this hadith we can gain a new understanding of what can be called the wisdom of practical living. To leave the Kaaba on the foundations laid by the Qureish, instead of reconstructing it on the foundation laid by the Prophet Abraham, might appear to have been incorrect. But, despite this, the Prophet chose not to reconstruct it in the latter way because in the given circumstances this would have posed additional problems.
From this practice of the Prophet we can derive the principle that in life when sometimes faced with certain challenges, for the moment we should look not at what is right and what is wrong, but, instead, at what is possible and what is not.
Abiding by this principle is a key to succeeding in this world. In today’s world, many of the failures of Muslims have been because they have not abided by this principle. They did not look at problems or challenges from the point of view of what is possible and what is not, but, rather, considered them only from the perspective of what is right and what is not. Accordingly, they rushed into action hoping to attain what they thought was ideal, although, in the given circumstances, achieving this was not actually possible. Many of the sacrifices that Muslims in modern times have made but that have not borne any fruits have been a result of abandoning this principle that this hadith refers to. In turn, the major cause of this attitude is the taqlidi mind-set.
Gradualism in Establishing Islamic Commandments
According to another hadith report in the Sahih Bukhari, Hazrat Ayesha once mentioned that many of the earliest chapters of the Quran to be revealed dealt with the subject of heaven and hell and that only after people’s faith in Islam had become strong were verses dealing with issues that are permissible (halal) and forbidden (haram) sent down. She added that had the commandments forbidding the consumption of alcohol and adultery been revealed in the beginning, instead of later, people would have refused to obey them.
Imam Bukhari has included this hadith in his chapter on the compilation of the Quran. Now if we were to view this hadith simply from the point of view of it being related to the compilation of the Quran, in accordance with a taqlidi perspective, we would not be able to derive any other knowledge from it. On the other hand, by engaging in ijtihad and reflecting on the wider implications of this hadith, going beyond its relation to the question of the compilation of the Quran, we can discover that this hadith suggests a very important Islamic principle葉hat with regard to the enforcement or establishment of the rules of the shariah a certain wisdom is required. It must be a gradual process, as it was in early Islamic times. Accordingly, at first peoples’ faith was made firm so that they would be receptive to obeying Divine commands, and only after that were various laws introduced.
If the approach of present-day Islamic leaders is examined from this way of understanding this particular hadith, it appears that they have failed to appreciate the underlying broader implications of this hadith as regards the process of establishing Islamic laws in society. In many Muslim countries today, numerous movements and groups are clamouring for the enforcement of the shariah, but despite their many sacrifices this has not happened, in the true sense of the term, anywhere. This is because the faith of the Muslims has weakened, and their intellectual and emotional commitment has declined, and this means that many of them are no longer willing to accept shariah laws. Despite their fervent attempts to enforce shariah laws, these Muslim leaders lacked the necessary ijtihadi approach and insight. They rushed into the political realm armed with their taqlidi baggage, and thus failed to achieve their objectives. They sought to impose shariah laws on society without first seeking to prepare society to willingly accept them, in contrast to what this hadith suggests is the right way.
Change in Field of Activity
According to another hadith report contained in the Sahih Bukhari, the Prophet is said to have remarked that he had been instructed to proceed to another town, Madinah, which people referred to as Yathrib. Imam Bukhari has included this hadith in his chapter on the glories of Madinah. Now, those with a taqlidi approach will view this hadith as providing information simply about the glories of Madinah, and indeed this is what most exegetes of Hadith in the past have done. Some have even seen this hadith as indicating that to refer to Madinah as Yathrib is disapproved of (makruh). However, the Quran itself refers to Madinah as Yathrib, and so this explanation of this hadith is incorrect. But, if one goes beyond the blind imitation of the past exegetes and ponders on this hadith from an ijtihadi perspective, one learns that it speaks about a very important Islamic principle葉hat of changing one’s field or arena of action. This hadith indicates that when conditions became extremely severe and harsh for Muslims in Mecca, Allah commanded the Prophet to shift from there to another town, Yathrib, where he and his followers would find a more conducive atmosphere, so much so that it would become a centre of Islam and people would start referring to it as the ‘City of the Prophet’ or Madinat al-Rasul or the ‘City of Islam’ or Madinat al-Islam.
Now, this principle of shifting one’s arena of activity if conditions so demand, which this hadith refers to, is important for success in various matters. It indicates that if in a certain place conditions are inappropriate one should shift to another place, or that if conflict would prove useless, one should seek to achieve one’s objectives through peaceful dialogue. Unfortunately, today’s Muslim leaders, burdened by their taqlidi mentality, have not been able to appreciate and act on this wisdom, because of which they have themselves faced considerable damage and loss. For instance, in several countries today, violent movements are engaged in conflict in the name of Islam, which have resulted in Muslims having to suffer massive loss of life and property. Because of their taqlidi approach, the leaders of these movements have been unable to appreciate the underlying message of this hadith of the Prophet. They would have been able understand the import of this hadith if they had an ijithadi approach. In that case, and in accordance with the principle enunciated by this hadith, they would have abandoned the path of conflict and adopted peaceful means instead. Then, in accordance with the law of nature, they would have succeeded.
From these above-mentioned examples I have sought to clarify the distinction between the taqlidi and ijtihadi approaches. The former stops at the initial stage and refuses to move ahead. In contrast, the latter proceeds through all the stages, seeking to reach the end. The first step is the end in itself for those who abide by taqlid, but for those inspired by and committed to ijtihad, it is a means, a path to the higher stages.
Stages of Studying the Hadith
The early scholars of Hadith made an immense contribution by collecting and compiling a vast number of hadith reports. This could be described as the first stage in the study of Hadith. In what could be called the second stage, the next generation of Hadith scholars prepared indices of Hadith in order to make the subject easier to understand. In the third stage of the development of the study of Hadith, the Companions of the Prophet and the two generations that succeeded them edited and compiled the commentaries on Hadith, thus preparing the necessary background material for a proper understanding of Hadith.
The fourth stage in the study of Hadith entails studying hadith reports in their particular temporal context in order to appreciate their broader meaning and implications. I have sought to do this with regard to selected hadith reports that I have dealt with above. The fifth stage in the study of Hadith could be to prepare an extensive encyclopaedia of all genuine hadith reports so as to enable people to properly understand them in a style with which they are familiar. Of course, these stages in the study of Hadith that I have suggested are not categorical or final. Rather, these are offered simply for purposes of indicating the differences between a taqlidi and an ijtihadi way of understanding, and to point out the benefits of the latter.
ｷ This is a translation of a portion of a chapter titled Taqlid Aur Ijtihad in Maulana Wahiduddin Khan’s book Din-o-Shariat: Din-e Islam Ka Ek Fikri Muta’ala [Goodword Books, New Delhi, 2003, pp.204-214].