Ijtihad (Independent Reasoning in Islamic Law)

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Ijtihad (اجتهاد‎, ’iğtihād) is a technical term of Islamic law and jurisprudence that describes the process of making a legal decision by independent interpretation of Islamic (the Qur'an and the Hadith), particular as relates to legal matters. The opposite of ijtihad is taqlid, which is Arabic for "imitation". Ijtihad is only used on matters of Islamic law for which no there are no unambiguous texts found in scripture.


Before and after the 13th century

During the formative and classical periods of Islamic law, ijtihad was something that competent scholars of Islam (and, in the earliest years, Muhammad's companions) regularly undertook, as Islamic legal theory and the major schools of Islamic law (Madh'habs) were still developing. Consequently, with little no precedence on legal matters, scholars would create this precedence by issuing new rulings, and ijtihad was a relatively common phenomenon. The inflow of new and challenging ideas, particularly those of the ancient greek philosophers, kept things from altogether settling into stone for at least a couple centuries.

By the 13th century, however, it is said that the "gates of Ijtihad" were closed. This was, of course, not a concrete development, but rather the general feeling that, since legal theory and judgements (ahkam) regarding all (at the time) plausible legal scenarios had been charted by the four madhabs, there was no substantially new work needing to be done. Moreover, in a manner of golden-age thinking (the centuries prior to the 13th century are often referred to as "the golden age of Islamic law"), subsequent Islamic scholars began to develop a special reverence for the prolific scholars of these earlier centuries, and started to feel as though their contemporaries lacked the competence and broad authority required to issue new judgements that disagreed with their predecessors.

the 13th century did not result in an absolute cessation of new ideas in the field of Islamic law, but marked a peak whereafter begun a decline. Further confirming and perpetuating this decline in ijtihad was the fact that the likes of al-Ghazali and Ibn Taymiyya had, by this point, written several influential works condemning and "dismantling" the ideas of the Greek philosophers. Coupled with and confirming the "closing of the gates of ijtihad", this decline of Islamic philosophy ensured that future generations would be marked with an increasing rigidity and obsession with past legal precedence.

Modern period


Starting with Ibn Abd al-Wahhab in the 19th century, helped begin what is today known as salafism. This movement essentially advanced the idea that conformity with the formal jurisprudential methodology of the classical schools of Islamic law stifled an adherence to the words and plain meaning of the Qur'an and sunnah.

More important than the specific branch of Salafi thinking that Ibn Abd al-Wahhab's ideas would evolve into was the general notion that new, original interpretations of Islam core scriptures was possible, and that the classical schools of law had not only outgrown their initial usefulness, but had begun to undermine Muslims' loyalty to Islam's scriptures through their alleged idolization of scholars of Islamic law.

This departure from tradition would enable a wide array of new developments in Islamic though, ranging from the most literalist and fundamentalist to the most modernist and universalist readings of Islamic scripture, as the interpretive theories of of the classical madhabs begun to lose their monopoly on authority.

Islamic Modernism

See Also

  • Shariah - A hub page that leads to other articles related to Shari'ah