Changing times: Ijtihad and other questions Muslims must revisit

Updated 01 Nov 2014

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There is a realisation in the West that Muslims here will have to answer the questions they face, as those living in the Islamic world cannot appreciate the intensity of this issue. — File photo by Reuters
There is a realisation in the West that Muslims here will have to answer the questions they face, as those living in the Islamic world cannot appreciate the intensity of this issue. — File photo by Reuters

Is suicide bombing justified? Can women lead prayers? Is there a feminist interpretation of Islam?

These are some of the questions Muslims living in the West often face. They attempt to answer these questions as best as they can. And in the process, they are often forced to reinterpret their faith, a process called 'ijtihad', although they are no 'mujtahids'.

The concept of ijtihad allows Muslims to interpret their beliefs according to the time and place they live in. This concept, however, has not been used for centuries.

'Ijtihad' is an Islamic legal term that means "independent reasoning", which is used for defining an issue in a way that does not contradict the teachings of the Holy Quran and the Sunnah.

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In Sunni Islam, ijtihad is recognised as a process of legal decision-making through personal effort. It is also accepted as one of the four main sources of law.

The person making such a decision is required to have a thorough knowledge of theology, revealed texts, legal principles and the Arabic language. Other qualifications include sincerity, goodness and intellect.

A person qualified to do so is recognised as a mujtahid, one who can make ijtihad.

Both words are derived from a three-letter Arabic root, J-H-D, i.e. struggle. Thus ijtihad is a process of “struggling with oneself” to interpret an issue through independent reasoning in the light of the revealed text and the instructions of the Sunnah.

In the early periods of Islam, Muslims saw ijtihad as an acceptable form of interpreting legal and social issues that an individual or a group faced.

Among the Sunnis, ijtihad was often interpreted as a scholar’s personal judgment of an Islamic law.

Among the Shias, ijtihad evolved into a practice of applying careful reasoning to uncover the knowledge of what Imams would have done in particular legal situations.

Besides sharing some requirements with the Sunnis, the Shias also required a mujtahid to receive further training at a 'hawza' or a religious centre.

Since Shias do have religious schools entitled to produce mujtahids, this tradition has continued unabated among them.

But among the Sunnis, there has been no undisputed mujtahid since the mid-tenth century. Yet, calls for a revitalisation of ijtihad have always been made, particularly in the 19th and 20th centuries, when the Islamic world confronted Western thoughts. This confrontation made many Muslim scholars realise the need to reinterpret religious laws to cope with modern concepts entering their thoughts.

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The scholarly debate over ijtihad has been going on for well over 200 years and has produced some prominent revivalist thinkers such as Jamaluddin Afghani, a 19th century Iranian scholar, Mohammed Abduh, his Egyptian friend and reformer, and Mohammed Iqbal, a poet philosopher from the Indian subcontinent. These scholars also included Hasan al-Banna, Syed Qutb and Maulana Maududi, founders of Islamist movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt and the Jamaat-i-Islami in the subcontinent.

Their works deal mainly with issues such as state and religion, individual and society, secularism and Islam. They had a major influence on Muslim thinkers, writers and political activists in the 20th century. Yet, they were generally accepted as scholars, not mujtahids.

But the need for a process to understand and interpret legal, social, economic and political issues of the modern world is felt at all levels.

This need is even greater in the West where Muslims live in a social setup very different from their own. Since 9/11, there has also been a steady increase in Islamophobia in the West.

This fear of Islam or Muslims, however, has not led to physical attacks on the lives and properties of the Muslims living in the West. But their beliefs and ideas are openly challenged in the media and are sometimes also questioned by their colleagues and neighbours.

The pressure is even greater in the social media where Muslims are often asked to explain:

Is using violence as a tool to defend a religious or political cause justified in Islam?

Were those who attacked America on Sept 11, 2001 right or wrong? Does Islam allow attacking civilians to avenge foreign occupation and political victimisation? Is suicide bombing allowed, particularly when Islam outlaws suicide?

What is the place of a woman in Islam? Can a woman lead prayers, be a priest or a mujtahid?

Can there be a feminist interpretation of Islamic religious texts? Can women interpret those texts?

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Muslims in the West, particularly women, are not waiting for answers to come from the Islamic world. There is a realisation here that they have to answer the questions they face, as those living in the Islamic world cannot appreciate the intensity of this issue.

So Muslims in the West have started answering these questions. Since Sept. 11, 2001, the West has seen a visible increase in the number of Muslim religious scholars, jurists, interpreters of the Holy Quran and the Hadith, social activists and educationists.

Attempts have also been made to present a feminist interpretation of Islam and its teachings. And some women have also challenged traditional interpreters, claiming that their interpretations show a clear male prejudice.

Muslim women led prayers, arranged rallies and held meetings to define their faith as they wanted to.

Not many among them qualify as jurists, interpreters of the Holy Quran or mujtahids but they are having an impact.

They are read and appreciated by the Muslims living in the West and their thoughts are also reaching the Islamic world.

It is still too early to say how successful they would be in reshaping the thoughts of Muslims, but they have started a debate.

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The Muslim community, both in the West and in the Islamic world, has started discussing the issues raised by these scholars and activists.

Some of these issues — such as the justification for suicide bombing — stir heated debates. While some say that suicide bombing is 'haram' (forbidden) in Islam, others argue that it is permissible as a means of national resistance.

"Killing non-combatants and civilians is haram in Islam, no matter what means you use for this purpose," says Hamza Yusuf, the Californian Muslim scholar and a popular speaker at Islamic conventions.

But ordinary Muslims do not always view this violence as a religious issue. They do no consult their religious texts for arguments against or for an act like suicide bombing when discussing it. Instead, they almost always describe it as a political issue linked to disputes like the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, Chechnya or Kashmir.

Yusuf also describes it as a "modern political phenomenon" and insists that it's imperative to resolve the Palestinian dispute in order to fight extremism and violence in Muslim societies.

"Palestine is the issue, and until this issue is resolved, there can be no peace," he argues.

Yusuf also calls upon the Jewish people in the United States to "rise against the suppression they witness with their eyes", urging them to "reject this gross injustice as we reject the killing of innocent children".

Attempts to make peace with the Jewish community are not confined to the Palestinian issue alone. After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Muslims across the world have been forced to reconsider their attitudes towards Jews.

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Muslim leaders often acknowledge that the dispute with the Israel is encouraging violent tendencies within their community. In public meetings and private conversations, some Muslim leaders now also speak of the positive contribution the Jewish people have made to international civilisation.

Speakers at various Islamic conventions in North America often urge Muslims to learn from the Jews how to co-exist with other faiths.

At one of these conventions, the organisers screened a documentary showing the discrimination the Jews had to face when they first migrated to America. Some speakers also spoke of the Holocaust and the concentration camps in Germany and advised Muslims to integrate themselves with the followers of the two older Abrahamic faiths, Judaism and Christianity.

"We must assert to the Abrahamic people that we are the last extension of the Abrahamic religion... There is no such thing as an Islamic tribe," said Yusuf.

"Knowledge, and not just religion, enables a nation to progress. And now the Jews are holding the torch of knowledge, we must learn from them," said another speaker.

Can these attempts lead to a lasting peace between Muslims and Jews? Only time will tell.