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 Taymiyyah 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

Wahhabism, Salafism, and Islamism

Starting with Ibn Abd al-Wahhab in the 18th 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.

What was unique to Salafis beyond just their rejection of inherited tradition, was the belief that the way to reform Islam was to go back to its earliest source and focus intensely on the literal meanings of the revelation and writings that comprised it.

Islamic Modernism

Starting near the middle of the 19th century, reform-oriented Islamic scholars like Sayyid Ahmad Khan, Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, and Muhammad Abduh began to promote the idea that there was something about classical Islamic law that needed reforming in order to accommodate a newly globalized and modernizing world. These thinkers, rather than fighting the surge of modernity, sought to take Islamic law along for the ride by tweaking it to make both more flexible and more focused on its basic universal values than on now-ancient interpretive methods. In this critical mood towards the classical schools of Islamic law, the modernists were similar to the Salafis.

The Modernists differed from the Salafis, however, in the direction they wanted to move in. Agreeing that rigid conformity to classical legal theory was a problem, the modernists decided the right thing to do was not to prefer literal readings, but instead to further abstract Islamic scripture and focus on the general "goals of the Shariah" (Maqasid al-Shariah). There being some precedence for this in the classical schools of law, many modernists decided that rather then throwing out the madh'habs altogether, one could emphasize and focus on the existing legal principles that favored high-level goal-oriented thinking and flexibility (such as Istislah, Istihsan, and Maslaha) while under emphasizing the legal principles that required a more rigid and uncompromising loyalty to the exact words of scripture.

This modernist movement grew into several new branches in the 20th and 21st centuries, and today even consists of a feminist Islam[1][2][3], a liberation-theology Islam[4], and a Marxist Islam[5] - though these are still on the fringe of the more central modernist movement[6][7] that focuses more exclusively on what it sees as specific problems in the Islamic legal heritage rather than new-fangled (and usually western-philosophy-inspired) solutions.

Today, while mainstream, traditionalist scholars of Islam have for the most part rejected the total vision of the likes of Abduh, et. al., many prominent traditionalist scholars and institutions (including al-Azhar) have decided to embrace the modernists as an indication that some basic sort of change or "reopening of the doors of ijtihad" must take place if Islam is to survive into modernity and beyond. That is to say, while the modernists themselves have failed to attain widespread purchase, they have acted as an effective (if still underwhelming) catalyst and thorn in the side of traditionalists forcing, perhaps unwillingly, the simple acknowledgement that something is amiss.


A Mujtahid (مجتهد‎, ’muğtahid) is a Muslim jurist who is sufficiently qualified in fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence) in order to interpret the Sharia (as found in the Qur'an and Hadith) such that they can generate Islamic law. The practice of a mujtahid is called ijtihad. Alternative conceptions of the nature of divine authority between the Sunni and Shi'ism sects of Islam means that the qualifications and activity (ijtihad) of mujtahids are imagined differently.

Qualifications of a mujtahid

Sunni qualifications

The qualifications for a Sunni mujtahid were set out most famously in the 11th century by Abul Husayn al-Basri in al Mu’tamad fi Usul al-Fiqh. These were accepted by later Sunni scholars, including al-Ghazali, although al-Ghazali believed that all positive innovation had ended, as there was nobody qualified to be a Mujtahid. Such qualifications require proficiency in Shari'ah and its interpretation. This became a common perspective following the 13th and 14th centuries and resulted in what many described as the "closing of the doors of ijtihad", in favor of simply referencing the authority of highly esteemed scholars from the earlier centuries that came to be known as "the golden age of Islamic law".

The basic logic justifying the practice of ijtihad (that is, an independently produced interpretation of Islam and Islamic law in particular) is explained by some Sunni authorities as being founded in the permissibility of having an opinion based on personal reasoning, or ra'y (that is, anything beyond the explicit statements of the Islamic scriptures). While in the earliest years of Islamic history the companions of Muhammad and some of the first and even some of the second subsequent generations were deemed sufficiently qualified authorities on scripture capable of independently interpreting his message prior to the advent of formal juristic methodology and the madh'habs, the development of formalized fiqh, the development of a gigantic and growing body of hadith literature (most, Islamic scholars accept, of dubious origin), the development of the new (and largely invented) fields of Arabic grammar and logic, and the emergence of a semi-hierarchicalized clerical class all meant that decreasingly few individuals could be considered competent interpreters of Islam in general and of the unendingly complicated body of Islamic law in particular. In future centuries, the growing legacies of each of the four Sunni Madh'habs would make matters even more complicated, as potential mujtahids would have to not only be familiar with the vast array of scriptures and related subjects themselves. but also of their development over time.

Eventually, scholars began delineating specific and increasingly astronomical criteria for those who would seek to present independent and novel interpretations of Islamic law. This meant not only that fewer and fewer scholars (and eventually, one might argue, none at all) were empowered to pursue a creative engagement with Islamic scriptures, but also that the overwhelming majority of trained Islamic scholars would be restricted to practicing taqlid, or the "blind" repetition and emulation of esteemed jurists who, in most cases, had been dead for centuries. Eventually, some would argue that the only true mujtahids had been the founders of the four schools of Sunni law alone (all dead within two centuries of Muhammad's death).[8]

Shi'a qualifications

The terms of ijtihad and mujtahid in the Shi'ite tradition refer to the practice of extrapolating the rulings of Muhammad and the subsequent Shi'ite imams into times beyond the "occultation" (alleged disappearance) of the last imam. In the late eighteenth century and with the rise of the Shi'ite court system, these two terms would come to be associated with the science of formal jurisprudence, or (Shi'ite) fiqh, as outlined by Shaykh Murtada Ansari.

As with the Sunni experience, most scholars would come to be qualified only as muqallidun (that is, practitioners of taqlid, or copying the views other more qualified scholars) and only a minority would be able to engage in ijtihad as mujtahids - however, the divide would not be nearly as drastic, and where in the Sunni tradition it could conceivably be said that at one point there were no mujtahids whatsoever (with some Sunnis arguing this is still the case today and indeed the perennial condition of the ummah henceforth), there would always be and continue to be a fair number of acknowledged mujtahids in the Shi'ite world.


  1. Ayesha Hidayatullah, The Feminist Edges of the Qur'an, Oxford University Press, 2014
  2. Amina Wadud, Inside the Gender Jihad, Oneworld, 2006
  3. Fatima Mernissi, The Veil and the Male Elite, 1991
  4. Hamid Dabbashi, Islamic Liberation Theology, Routledge, 2008
  5. https://themaydan.com/2020/05/a-place-for-marxism-in-traditionalist-fiqh-engaging-the-indonesian-thinker-muhammad-al-fayyadl/
  6. Tariq Ramadan, Radical Reform, Oxford University Press, 2008
  7. Fazlur Rahman, Islam, University of Chicago Press, 1979
  8. Indira Falk Gesnik (June 2003). ""Chaos on the Earth": Subjective Truths versus Communal Unity in Islamic Law and the Rise of Militant Islam". The American Historical Review. Oxford University Press. 108 (3): 710–733. doi:10.1086/529594. JSTOR 10.1086/529594.