The solution to the turmoil gripping Muslim society today may be found in reintroducing ijtihad. Reopening the gates of ijtihad will allow Muslims “to reinterpret Islam for the 21st century,” states a comprehensive August 2004 special report produced by the United States Institute of Peace.
“The practice of ijtihad,” stresses the report compiled with the participation of several respected Muslim scholars, “must be revived.”
Ijtihad — or hermeneutics — refers to the institutionalized practice of interpreting Islamic law (sharia) to take into account changing historical circumstances and, therefore, different views.
Ijtihad is the independent or original interpretation of problems not covered by the Koran (Islam’s holy book), the Hadith (traditions concerning the Prophet’s life and utterances), and ijma’ (scholarly consensus). In the early days of the Muslim community, every adequately qualified jurist had the right to exercise such original thinking.
Fearing too much change would weaken their political clout, religious scholars closed the gates of ijtihad to Sunni Muslims about 500 years ago. From then on, scholars and jurists were to rely only on the original meaning and earlier interpretations of the Koran and the Hadith. However, there now is a growing movement among scholars and intellectuals to revive the practice of ijtihad.
Today, Muslim society is experiencing turbulence. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the continued occupation of Palestinian lands, the frustrations caused by oppressive regimes and the absence of democracy have all conspired to give birth to a radical, politicized and violent form of Islam, whose adherents have turned to terror as a means of achieving their aims. They have politicized Islam.
Contrary to Samuel P. Huntington’s belief that Islam and the West are headed for a clash of civilizations, other scholars argue the real clash is between two diverging ideas within Islam itself. The clash is between the politicized Islam of a radical element which has turned to violence as a means of expressing itself, and the mainstream majority that remains largely silent. In fact, the violent tactics of this fringe-force of highly-politicized Muslims have proven useful in directly intimidating the mainstream into relative silence.
“Political Islam has proven a formidable force even though Islamic movements or organizations often constitute a minority of the community,” states John Esposito, a professor of religion at Washington’s Georgetown University.
As in most conflicts, solutions can only come from within. Similarly, the cures for what ails some Muslim communities can only emerge from Islam itself. Resolutions cannot be imposed from the West. Before that can occur, two things must happen.
First, the Muslim mainstream must play a greater role in its community; and second, it must be given an authoritative tool enabling it to enact positive changes. That tool is ijtihad.
The re-introduction of ijtihad enjoys the support of a growing number of scholars, intellectuals and Islamic institutions, both in the West and in the Arab world. Even the Saudi Arabian Minister of the Wakf, or Religious Affairs, Sheikh Saleh Abdel Aziz al-Sheikh, and Ali Bardakoglu, president of the Diyanet, or the highest religious authority in Turkey, support this. Both Messrs. al-Sheikh and Bardakoglu divulged in interviews that they favor reinstating ijtihad.
“The general strategy is to expand the base of moderates,” said the Saudi minister. He warned, however, that “so long as there were bad things” happening in Iraq and Palestine, it would prolong negative events in the rest of the world.
The roadblocks to ijtihad are numerous and tough. A preliminary study shows the Muslim world remains divided over who should have the authority to implement ijtihad and how much should be allowed to change. There is no religious hierarchy in Sunnism, the branch of Islam that dominates the Muslim world, as there is in Shi’ism.
Still, the belief is that with time, effort and education, ijtihad will eventually be re-introduced, allowing important changes to be made.
Historically, reform of Islamic law has often been confused with criticism of Islam itself. Conservative Muslims have, at various times, labeled those who have tried to introduce reforms as nonbelievers. Fatwas, or religious edicts, have been issued against potential reformers, at times condemning them to death. This hurdle is real and requires Muslims to see the difference between critiquing Islam in order to tear it down, and reforming Islamic law to build up Muslims and their societies.
If ijtihad’s doors remain closed and political Islam continues to rise, this will lead to a greater schism between the average Muslim and the radical as well as between Islam and the West. This would expand the existing conflict, turning it into the infamous “clash of civilizations” and would have severe repercussions for Muslims everywhere, especially those living in the West.
Claude Salhani is international editor for United Press International. This article is part of a series of views on “The Role of Ijtihad in Western-Muslim Relations,” published in partnership with the Common Ground News Service-Partners in Humanity (CGNews-PiH) and UPI.