The Need For Reviving Ijtihad Today

By Maulana Wahiduddin Khan
(Translated by Yoginder Sikand)

Ijtihad is not a mere intellectual exercise. Rather, it is an extremely important and basic requirement for the followers of Islam. Through ijtihad Muslims have been able to re-establish their religious status in every age. Through ijithad they have also been able to engage in tatbiq (reconstructing and reapplying the principles of Islam in accordance with the Quran and Hadith) in the context of changing social contexts and conditions, thereby proving that Islam is a religion for all time and that it is as relevant for the future as it was in the past. In other words, ijtihad is a means to constantly
update Islamic thought and to thereby maintain its relevance.

What is Ijtihad?

Ijithad does not mean making decisions or coming to conclusions based
on free will. Rather, it denotes reflecting on the primary sources of
Islam—the Quran and the Sunnah of the Prophet—and through deduction
(istinbat) or analogy (qiyas) to suggest rules for new issues and
problems. In actual fact, ijtihad is also a form of taqlid. Ordinary
muqallids do taqlid of the learned jurisprudents (fuqaha), while a
mujtahid, one who engages in ijtihad, does taqlid of God and the
Prophet. Examining the Quran and Hadith directly, he deduces rules and
guidelines from these sources for issues not explicitly mentioned

By ijtihad is meant precisely that intellectual activity which is
termed istinbat in the Quran (al-Nisa: 83). In the language of the
fuqaha it is termed as qiyas. This is to say that ijtihad is to deduce
the rules as regards issues that are not explicitly mentioned in the
Quran and Hadith. The term istinbat comes from the root nabt, which
means ‘to draw out water from below the ground’. Thus, the term
istinbat al-fiqhiyya means that a faqih or Islamic jurisprudent has
closely studied the Quran and Hadith and has revealed its hidden
meaning. The noted Quranic commentator al-Qurtabi writes that istinbat
is the same as istikhraj or ‘deduction’ which is engaged in to derive
the shariah ruling with regard to a particular matter when neither the
divine sources of the faith (nass) nor the consensus of the ulema
(ijma) have explicitly pronounced on this issue.

This is the sort of work that the fuqaha of the second [Islamic]
century engaged in. Many new issues emerged during the Abbasid period,
for which answers were not directly or explicitly mentioned in the
Quran and the Sunnah. At this time, the fuqaha engaged in ijtihad to
come up with answers to these questions, deriving these through
deduction and analogy from the Quran and Sunnah. In this way, Muslims
were able to acquire guidance from the shariah in the new contexts
that they were faced with.

However, things began to change after the second or third [Islamic]
century, and, due to certain reasons, a wrong impression took root
that whatever deduction or ijtihad directly from the Quran and Sunnah
had to be made had already been fully completed by the earlier fuqaha,
and that, henceforth, there was no need for this process to be carried
further. It thus came to be believed that later generations of Muslims
had to simply study the books of these earlier fuqaha and from these
texts find shariah rules for new issues. In this way, the fuqaha of
the Abbasid period were granted the status of mujtahid-e mutlaq
(‘absolute mujtahid’) and those of later periods only that of
mujtahid-e muqayyad (‘limited mujtahid’). The ijtihad of the fuqaha of
the earlier period was based on the Quran and the Sunnah but for the
later fuqaha it was considered to be restricted within the framework
and boundaries set by the views and the writings of the former, within
which they were expected to engage in seeking to explicating shariah

Intellectual Dilemma

This is the starting point for the Muslims’ intellectual dilemma. This
misconception about ijtihad caused Muslim thought to stagnate. It
rendered ijtihad extremely narrow and confined, leading to Muslim
backwardness. Ijtihad is not something that can be chosen or rejected.
Rather, it is an indispensable and natural activity. Thus, to stop
ijtihad is to seek to stop the progress of nature, and those who seek
to do this cause the end of their own progress. The life of a river
lies in its flow. If the waters of a river are blocked, it will no
longer remain a river. Rather, it will turn into a stagnant pool.
Likewise, if a community tries to stop ijtihad it will completely
stagnate and will fail to progress in material, religious and
spiritual terms.

The Capacity to Reassess

A muqallid, being a blind follower of past juridical views, remains
stuck in his own groove, and is unable to reassess or re-think any
issues on his own. He walks on only one familiar path, even if this
leads him nowhere. In contrast, a person characterized by an ijtihadi
mindset constantly examines issues, past and present, and,
accordingly, charts his path. The taqlidi mind is stuck in the past,
while the ijtihadi mind is geared to the future.

A good illustration of this is provided in Indian history. When, from
the late eighteenth century onwards, India came under British control,
Muslim leaders had, by and large, only one aim in mind: to militarily
fight the British. Their minds were moulded by the old perceptions of
war and conflict and the notion of dar ul-harb (‘abode of war’), and
that is why they could only think of fighting the British and to
destroy them. It was this perception that led Tipu Sultan into battle
with British forces in 1799, the outcome of which was that he himself
was killed in the battlefield and his vast empire came to an abrupt
and violent end. It was the same vision that was behind the launching
of a violent uprising against the British by Muslim leaders in 1857.
Similar uprisings occurred even after that throughout the nineteenth
century. The outcome of these violent movements, too, was the same:
widespread loss and destruction that Muslims had to suffer. No benefit
accrued from these to Islam or to Muslims.

This was the case with those people who, in the matter concerning the
British, adopted a taqlidi approach. At the same time, history affords
us with an example of a Muslim leader who adopted an ijtihadi approach
on the same matter and in the same period. This person was the
renowned Egyptian Islamic scholar, Syed Muhammad Rashid Riza (d.1935).
He visited Lucknow in 1912 at the invitation of Maulana Shibli Numani
to attend a convention at the Dar ul-Ulum Nadwat ul-Ulema. After that,
he went to the Dar ul-Ulum at Deoband, which, at that time, was, in a
sense, the centre of an anti-British Muslim movement. A special
function was organized there for him, and in his address he said:

‘[One] aspect of the spread of Islam has to do with
non-Muslims. There are numerous different sorts of idol worshippers in
India, people who worship trees, the moon, the sun, the stars and even
those who worship bad things. If Muslims had a set of committed
missionaries they could tell these people about Islam, and we could
gain considerably more success than Christian missionaries. In
addition, every far-sighted Muslim must note that Muslims are much
less in number than non-Muslims in this country, which makes them a
vulnerable minority. The British Government, which is based on reason
and justice, has established a balance between non-Muslims and
Muslims. If, God forbid, this balance should ever be destroyed, the
Indian Muslims might even face the same fate as that of their
co-religionists in Spain. That is why there must be among us a group
whose task it should be to combat misconceptions about Islam that now
abound. This is really very essential. But this is not possible
without knowledge of modern philosophy. Hence, this group of Islamic
missionaries must be familiar with the issues and concerns of modern

This speech of Syed Muhammad Rashid Riza is an example of ijtihadi
insight. On closely examining the then prevailing conditions he well
understood that the balance in pre-Partition India between Muslims and
the non-Muslim majority was because of the existence of a third
party—the British. He also knew that when this third party withdrew,
the balance would be suddenly destroyed, after which the situation for
Muslims would be totally transformed, and that political independence
would create new problems for them, rather than ending their problems.

On the basis of this insight, Sayyed Rashid Riza advised Indian
Muslim leaders to be active in the field of dawah or inviting others
to the faith of Islam, rather that engaging in war and conflict.
Instead of making preparations for war, they should, he suggested,
make intellectual preparations so that they could effectively engage
in missionary work in accordance with the needs of the times. However,
the then Muslim leaders were so deeply drowned in anti-British hatred
that they could not even imagine that it would be possible for them to
engage in any sort of constructive work as long as the British
remained in India. And so, a great historical opportunity was lost,
and the only reason for this was the lack of ijtihadi insight.

This is just one example of how, because of the lack of ijtihad and
continued adherence to taqlid, Muslims have had to undergo much
unnecessary suffering and damage, causing them to stagnate.

The Development of Fiqh in the Period of Muslim Political Dominance

Our [Sunni] corpus of fiqh was compiled mainly in the Abbasid
period, which was a time when Muslims were the most powerful political
force in the world. Naturally, therefore, this fiqh was influenced by
the mentality of this age of Muslim political domination. Because of
this, it turned into a sort of what can be called jurisprudence of

I once happened to listen to a speech by a famous Islamic scholar. The
title of his lecture was ‘Islam in the Modern Age’. At the end of the
lecture, a man from the audience asked the scholar what he felt was
the guidance that the shariah provided in relation to a country like
India. The scholar stood silent for a while, and then answered that it
was very difficult to respond to this question. The reason, he said,
was that the Islamic shariah presented a model based on Muslim
political dominance but had no such model based on a position of
modesty [or lack of Muslim political domination].

For a long time the question kept turning in my mind as to why
this scholar had not found a model based on a position of modesty for
Muslims. Finally, I discovered that this scholar, like many other
contemporary Muslim leaders, erroneously viewed the corpus of medieval
fiqh as synonymous with the Islamic shariah. This fiqh was developed
at the time when Muslims were a dominant political power, and so,
whether consciously or otherwise, it had turned into a fiqh of the
political dominant. It thus represented the condition of Muslim
political power and domination. This is why when, in the modern
period, Muslims lost political power they felt that the shariah was
unable to provide them with proper guidance. And, because of this,
they assumed that their main task should be to again acquire political
power, for which they felt the need to unleash wars against others.

It is true that the corpus of fiqh which was developed in the period
of Muslim political domination did not provide appropriate guidance
for Muslims living in a position of modesty, or lack of political
domination, but, undoubtedly, the Quran does provide this sort of
guidance. After all, the Quran provides guidance for all conditions
and contexts, including where Muslims are not a politically dominant
community. God knew that Muslims shall not always enjoy the same
position forever, but, instead, would be faced with different
situations, including being politically dominant as well as being
bereft of political power. Even the Prophet Muhammad faced both these
situations. In the period of his prophethood in Makkah, the Muslims
were in a position of modesty, lacking political domination, while the
period in Madinah was one of political power. Both periods of the
Prophet’s life provide Muslims with appropriate models to emulate.
Neither of these two models is superior or inferior to the other. God
judges all actions according to their intentions, not according to
external conditions including political or non-political conditions.

The Case of the Vilification of the Prophet

To understand this issue, consider the case of the issue of the
vilification of the Prophet. The fuqaha are almost entirely unanimous
in claiming that the punishment for vilification of the Prophet, even
if it is only through indirect indication, is death. Only very few
fuqaha have opined otherwise. And even today, Muslim scholars quote
this opinion of the fuqaha in their writings. Now, the question arises
that if the shariah indeed lays down death for vilifying the Prophet,
then why is it that this was not the punishment ordered for this crime
in the early Islamic period?

Early Islamic history provides numerous instances of people who
vilified the Prophet but yet were not killed for this. A striking
example in this regard is that of Abdullah bin Abi Ibn Sulul of
Madinah, who used to openly vilify the Prophet. Yet, and despite the
insistence of his followers, the Prophet did not order that he should
be killed. Instead, he died a natural death.

What was the reason for not ordering that he be killed? Allamah Ibn
Taimiyyah says that this was because the Prophet felt that if this man
had been ordered to be slain people would have got repelled by Islam,
because Islam was then in a ‘weak’ (zaif) position.

In this regard, we should raise the question as to why there is this
difference between the fiqh of the early Islamic period and that which
developed in the Abbasid age. To further explore this issue, consider
the fatwa delivered by Ayatollah Khoemini of Iran in February 1989,
opining that because Salman Rushdie had vilified the Prophet in his
book ‘Satanic Verses’, it was obligatory on the part of Muslims to
kill him. When this fatwa was issued I was one of the very few Muslims
who did not agree with it. Muslims organized massive demonstrations in
many countries in support of the fatwa, but, despite this, Salman
Rushdie could not be killed. And, furthermore, the fatwa and the
massive Muslim support for it gave Islam a bad name the world over,
creating the wrong image of Islam as a barbaric religion.

In today’s world, many people consider freedom of opinion to
be human beings’ most important right, and, for some people, it is in
fact a substitute for religion. That is why many people saw the fatwa
as an assault on their religion or freedom, and so came out in full
support of Rushdie. The global media also passionately defended him
and spread the news throughout the world. And so it came to be that
the apprehension because of which the Prophet restrained from ordering
the death of Abdullah bin Abi came true—and a thousand times more
intensely—as a result of the fatwa against Rushdie.

Carefully examine these two opposite positions. The Prophet’s action
indicates that in matters concerning vilification of the Prophet, no
matter how severe it may be, the practical consequences of ordering
the death of the criminal must be considered. If the followers of
Islam do not have the sort of control on the situation to prevent the
negative consequences of slaying the criminal they should not inflict
this punishment on him. Rather, they should leave the matter to God.
But the opinion of the fuqaha is the opposite—that any and every
person who vilifies the Prophet must be immediately killed.

In this context, the question must be asked as to why in this matter
Muslims did not take guidance from the example of the Prophet, but,
instead, adhered to the contrary opinion of the fuqaha, and, in doing
so, demanded the death penalty for Rushdie. The answer to this
question is that Muslims today continue to be wedded to the notion of
taqlid. They now believe that the doors of ijtihad directly from the
Quran and Sunnah have been shut, and that they can only engage in very
limited ijtihad—ijithad-e muqayyad. In other words, they have been
wrongly led to believe that Muslims can no longer derive answers to
issues directly from the Quran and Sunnah. They now believe that all
they can do is to study the fatwas of the past fuqaha and blindly
imitate them. And that is why they adopted that particular stance in
the Rushdie affair.

As I mentioned above, the present-day corpus of fiqh was compiled in a
period when Muslims enjoyed political dominance. At that time, Muslims
were in a position to effectively put down any signs of revolt. But
today the conditions have changed. No longer do Muslims have the same
sort of political control. Moreover, they are also faced with a number
of unfavourable conditions. For instance, the belief that freedom of
expression has no limits, that it is the be all and the end all of
everything, and the emergence of mass media forever on the look-out
for what it considers as ‘hot news’. It was because of these new
conditions that despite the massive Muslim agitation, it was not
possible to kill Rushdie. And, furthermore, as I mentioned earlier,
the Muslim response led to Islam getting a bad name throughout the
world, and many non-Muslims were led to believe that Islam is a
barbaric religion that stirs up fanaticism among its followers. This
was the result of seeking to follow and impose a fiqh prescription
devised in the age of Muslim political conditions in today’s very
different and changed context.

If with regard to the Rushdie case Muslims had adopted the method of
ijtihad-e mutlaq or absolute ijtihad and, accordingly, had sought
guidance directly from the Quran and Sunnah, instead of engaging in
taqlid of the past fuqaha, they would have realized that the right
solution to the controversy was not to issue a fatwa calling for
Rushdie’s death, but, rather, to abstain from any violent reaction
and, instead, to engage in peaceful dawah work to explain the truth to
the people about Islam and the Prophet. But because they remain stuck
in the morass of the fiqh which had been developed in the period of
Muslim political dominance, they could only consider the solution that
was developed by the fuqaha of that period—death penalty for
vilification of the Prophet. And that, in turn, led to Islam wrongly
getting a bad name the world over.

·      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,

·      For more writings in English by Maulana Wahiduddin Khan, see See also

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