Islam does not visualize any conflict between the revealed and rational sources of knowledge.  In fact, they complement each other.  Scholars like al-Farabi, Ibn Sina (Avicenna), Ibn Rushd (Averroes), and Abdouh in the 20thcentury attempted to synthesis the two primary sources of knowledge.  In fact the Qur’an: the last and the most authentic revealed book, which has retained its original purity, is also a very rational book and it stresses its rationality over and over again.  For instance, when the Jews claimed that Ibrahim (Abraham) was a Jew and the Christians claimed him to be a Christian, Allah closed the argument by stating in the Qur’an that Ibrahim was a Prophet long before the birth of Judaism and Christianity and hence he was neither a Jew nor a Christian (Chapter 3 – Al-e Imran; verse 67).  Further, there are quite a few references in the Qur’an on themes relating to secular sciences such as earth sciences, medical sciences, and astronomical sciences etc., which stimulate the interest of the readers to research further into these fields of sciences.

As highlighted in the introductory chapter: Challenges to Islam, Islam at the time of its foundation was the most progressive of all the existing religions. It abolished many cruel and oppressive traditions, prohibited the practice of charging usurious interest, stressed on the equality of mankind, encouraged emancipation of slaves and introduced many other progressive measures.  Social, economic and cultural conditions have undergone a sea change since the revelation of the Qur’anic verses in the early seventh century.  The world has now transformed from primitive tribal culture to a highly civilized, sophisticated and technology oriented global culture.  This radical transformation in the economy and cultural morphology of the habitable world were not revealed in the Qur’an but the Prophet had clearly anticipated them, which are evident from the famous Hadith (Tradition) recorded in Tirmidhi and Abu Dawud.

The Prophet had appointed Ma’az bin Jabal, a Sahabi (Companion) of the Prophet, as the Governor and Chief Judge of Yemen, which had come under the political control of Madinah:

“The Prophet asked Ma’az bin Jabal, whom he had named as the Judge in the new environment of Yemen.

“Through what will you judge?”  Ma’az replied: “Through the book of God.”

“And if you find nothing in the book of God?”  Ma’az went on “I shall judge according to Sunnah (Tradition) of God’s Messenger.”

“And if you find nothing in the Messenger’s tradition (Sunnah)?”

“Ma’az answered confidently, “I shall not fail to make an effort (ijtahidu) to reach an opinion”.

This answer satisfied the Prophet, who concluded, “Praise be to God who has guided His Messengers to what satisfies God’s Messenger.” (Tariq Radadhan:p.199) – Hadith mentioned in Abu Dawud and al-Tirmidhi).

It is abundantly clear from this Tradition that the Prophet had visualized that in the process of development of human civilization, a time would come when Muslims would fail to get direct guidance from the verses of the Qur’an and his Sunnah.  He, therefore, greatly appreciated Ma’az bin Jabal’s reply that he would think independently (ijtihidu) to judge on matters where the Qur’an and Sunnah were not helpful keeping in mind the basic principles of compassion, justice, honesty, impartiality, equality etc as laid down in the Qur’an.  This was the origin of the concept of Ijtihad.  With the passage of time, it assumed a second meaning, which eventually emerged as the primary source of Ijtihad in Islam and was not the Ijtihad, which Ma’az bin Jabal had conceived and the Prophet had perceived.  It is indeed amazing that not one of the distinguished scholars, whose works we have referred to while writing this brief note, have quoted the aforesaid Hadith (Tradition), treating it as if it had never existed.  But it is crucially important to the understanding of the concept of Ijtihad and its significance.

The word ijtihad has the same root as jihad.  While jihad means making an effort in the right cause such as to prevent oppression, tyranny, cruelty, injustice and also control own evil desires.  Ijtihad implies effort within one’s own self to arrive at the right decision whenever faced with an issue for which clear guidance is not available from Qur’an and Sunnah.

The basic objectives of the Shar’iah laws are to promote compassion and mercy, maintain peace and dispense even handed justice without discrimination, fear or favour.  Ijtihad should be used as an instrument to promote these Islamic values.  Thus, Ijtihad is essential to ensure, peace, progress and prosperity of Muslims and for the survival of Islam itself in the contemporary world.

Evolution of the concepts of Ijtihad:

Ma’az bin Jabal used Ijtihad as a tool only if he could not get any guidance from the Qur’an and Sunnah.  In the process of its evolution, two distinctly different concepts of Ijtihad have emerged in the Islamic Fiqh, which is followed by members of the Sunni sect among Muslims.

Concept One: 

According to this conception the activity of the Mujtahid involves deduction of the laws of the Shar’iah for emergent issues and new phenomena of life by employing general principles – and applying those to particular instances in external reality, thus obtaining ahkaam (Islamic Commandments) governing them.

According to this concept, Ijtihad is not counted as an independent source of law parallel to the Qur’an and the Sunnah, but merely as a means for deriving and determining the ahkaam from the sources.  Islamic scholars make an effort to verify if the Qur’anic verses and the Sunnah can justifiably be made compatible and applied to the contemporary situation.  This method of Ijtihad needs high level of expertise, and can be executed by Muslim scholars who have profound and comprehensive knowledge of the Qur’an and Sunnah.  This method of Ijtihad is limited in utility and restrictive in nature.

Second Concept: 

The second type of Ijtihad derives Shar’iah Ahkaam through personal judgement on an issue for which the Mujtahid does not find any express text in the Qur’an or the Sunnah.  This thought is expressed in the writings of Abd al Wahab al-Khallaf and most of the Sunni Fuqaha (religious scholars) also subscribe to this view.

Ijtihad, in this sense, is considered by most Sunni scholars as an independent source parallel to the Qur’an, the Sunnah, Ijma (consensus) and Aql (reasoning).  It is acknowledged as one of the bases for determining the Ahkaam – taking recourse to instruments like Qiyas (presumptions), Istihsan (discretion), Istihlal (legalization), etc. – derived from critical debate.  In Islamic Fiqh, Ijtihad has had the meaning of a free and independent effort of the Mujtahideen, undertaken for the purpose of advancement and expansion of the Islamic sciences.  This development was not possible except through freedom of scholarly research, free expression of different views, and clash between the views of the Mujtahideen, scholars and thinkers.

Thus, Ijtihad is an instrument used to keep Islam in harmony with the contemporary aspects of the socio-economic and political situations.  Its main function is therefore, to improve and to edify the conditions of the people.  In the words of Ibn al-Qayyim, “Every Ijtihad that leads to justice, mercy and benefit and eliminates injustice, cruelty and harm is indeed upholding the Shar’iah

It seems appropriate to clarify at this point that though Ijtihad helps Islam in modern times to retain its progressive character yet it is distinctly different from the term – ‘modernity’.

Modernity implies total break with the past and does not keep any link with its legacy.  It devalues natural elements and substitutes science for God.  It casts away the moral values around which societies have evolved.  Modernity develops valueless societies where the kingdom of God disappears, yielding dominance to the era of reason, and adopts science as its God and assumes that natural phenomena are created without a creator.  In contradistinction, Ijtihad is always subject to the values enshrined in the Qur’an.

Another point may also be noted here: the Qur’anic principles, laws and values cannot be violated while conducting any exercise in Ijtihad.  Moreover, certain Qur’anic decrees cannot be subjected to Ijtihad.  The basic tenets of Islam or the Five Pillars of Islam such as obligatory Salaat (prayers), saum (fasting in the month of Ramadhan), Zakaat (poor due), Hajj and Imaan (proclamation of faith in the Unity of Allah, the Creator and Sustainer of the Universe) are not negotiable.  Similarly, values prescribed in the Qur’an regarding honesty, human equality, justice, adultery etc cannot be subjected to the process of Ijtihad.  Acts forbidden in Islam cannot be scrutinized for change through the process of Ijtihad.  Instead, while carrying out an exercise in Ijtihad, scholars must be careful not to violate these Qur’anic norms.

Modernized western societies approve of couples living together without marriage, homosexuality is not considered a sin, and homosexual couples are being married even in some of the churches: these are most preposterous and atrocious acts.  Islam is uncompressing on these issues.  Islam treats sex outside the wedlock as adultery and firmly adheres to it.  Similarly, homosexuality is a sinful act and will always be treated as such.  The people of Lot were destroyed in the historic past for indulging in homosexuality.

As explained earlier, Ijtihad in Islam implies creative and enlightened thinking to open new avenues of progress in Islam in order to improve the quality of life of Muslims within the value system prescribed in Islam.  While deriving rules and formulating principles under the parallel system outside the Qur’an and Sunnah,  the scholars take recourse to Qiyas (presumption), Istihsan (discretion), Istihlal (legalization) to arrive at a definitive conclusion which should not violate the fundamental principles and values as enshrined in the Qur’an.

As already explained, there are two different processes of Ijtihad in the Sunni Fiqh.  One that is directly derived from the Qur’anic sources and Sunnah, is the most painstaking process and needs a high level of expertise in the fields of Qur’an and Sunnah, and can be competently performed only by Islamic scholars of eminence.

However, the process of Ijtihad should not by any means be the exclusive domain of Islamic scholars.  In the other processes of Ijtihad where conclusions are derived based on presumptions and discretion on sources outside the Qur’an and Sunnah, an intelligent person who is well acquainted with Qur’anic values can freely participate in executing the procedure.  Even women can participate. Thus, people can come out with some exciting and original ideas to facilitate the progress and prosperity of Muslim societies.

It may be mentioned here that the Shi’a sect in Islam is very conservative and rigid in exercising Ijtihad.  First, they reject Ijtihad outside the sources of the Qur’an and Sunnah.  Further, they insist that only competent Islamic scholars with a high level of expertise in the fields of Qur’an and Sunnah should be allowed to participate in the process.  It is their faith that besides the twelve Imams who were divinely guided including Imam Mahdi, who is in a state of occult, the scholars who have passed out of the seminary called Hawza are alone competent to indulge in this exercise.  Women are not allowed to participate.  These restrictions considerably limit the field of Ijtihad when we are fully aware of the fact that in the contemporary world there are plenty of issues on which we can hardly get any meaningful guidance from the Qur’an and Sunnah because the circumstances and situations have substantially and radically changed. Such an approach leads to conservatism and radicalization.

Areas where Ijtihad is required: 

The areas where the process of Ijtihad cannot be applied such as the five obligatory rituals – Salaat, Zakaat, Saum, Hajj and the Articles of Faith, i.e., Imaan and Shahadah,  has already been indicated earlier.  Further, the Qur’anic text cannot be altered nor can the Islamic values and commandments of haram (forbidden) and halal (permitted) as prescribed in the Qur’an violated.  The remaining areas are open to Ijtihad and we should not hesitate to exercise those if the exigencies of the situation so demand.

It is worth noting that the Shar’iah laws were evolved and codified during the Abbasid period more than a thousand years ago.  The political, economic, social, cultural environment was totally different.  Changes in all walks of life are inevitable.  In the true spirit of Ijtihad, the Islamic Shar’iah should have also kept pace with the time as everything changes with time.  Unfortunately, this did not happen.  One of the reasons for it was the segregation of religious scholars from the main stream and their self-assumed monopoly on issuing fatwas (opinion on a specific doubt).  It soon came to be accepted as divine edict considered final and inviolable.  The people engaged in daily grind accepted these scholars, majority of whom were cut off from day to day activities, as the guides and philosopher in all religious matters.

With Islamic Khilafat degenerating to hereditary monarchy, the rulers found it expedient to woe pliant scholars to strengthen their hold on public.  The importance and influence of theses scholars overshadowed other scholars engaged in scientific work with no official patronage.  Over a period of time, the most dynamic religion lapsed into stagnation cut off from the changing realities due to spread of Islam beyond Arabian Peninsula and passage of time.  The process of Ijtihad too suffered from insufficient inputs and lost objectivity.  With emergence of different schools of thought (Masalik), competitiveness also crept in taking the shape of hypothetical questions being raised in inter-maslak debates held in public by respective scholars.  Ultimately, the doors of Ijtihad were declared closed to put an end to such debates.  Thus Islamic Shar’iah got frozen and became almost irrelevant in modern age in many important fields.

Many Shar’iah laws are based on the concept of Dar-ul-Islam (land governed by Muslims according to Islamic Shar’iah) and Dar-ul-Harb (non-Muslim land at war with Dar-ul-Islam, where Muslims cannot live in safety and security and practice religion freely).  This concept was valid in the initial stages faced with peculiar problems faced by Muslims who were stuck in Makkah – Dar-ul Harb at that time.  Many spouses did not convert and migrate. Wars were fought between Muslims and non-Muslims merely on account of faith resulting in the winning side taking possession of men and material found on the battlefield.  Those conditions do not prevail now.  Gradually Islamic state fragmented into many states fighting each other for land and not for faith, rendering concept of Dar-ul Islam and Dar-ul Harb meaningless.  Therefore, relevant Shar’iah laws should be thoroughly re-examined and revised to conform to the present political situation.  Unprecedented movement of population was seen with the onset of colonial rule.  Many Muslims have settled in non-Muslim countries all over the world.  They are living there as citizens or immigrants enjoying civil rights and freedom to practice their faith.  Most of them are also enjoying fairly good standard of living.  As residents of those countries, they have to follow the law of the land, which they are doing.  Such countries may be called Dar-ul Aman (non-Muslim lands where Muslims can live in peace and security with religious freedom) but not Dar-ul Harb  in the classical sense.  In such countries, Muslims have to exercise self-control and avoid indulging in acts that are forbidden in Islam but permitted under law of the land.  This implies that every Muslim should have a good knowledge of the Qur’an and Sunnah, which is not possible without proper integration of Qur’anic and secular education.

The status of Muslim women is another area of concern.  They form 50% of the population yet have no say in the affairs of the family or the state.  This was not the case during the period of the Prophet.  They were treated with equity, honour and dignity.  Women, like men, can acquire high levels of academic and technological qualifications and earn as much as men.  Notwithstanding man’s responsibility, they also contribute towards household expenses for better standard of living for family.  At present, Shar’iah laws are so interpreted that Muslim women find themselves under undue stress.  Pre-Islamic tribal customs still prevail in many ways.  Many Muslim countries, claiming to rule by Qur’an and Sunnah still deny voting rights to women.  They are not allowed even to drive in some countries.  It must be borne in mind that Islam does not forbid women from acquiring knowledge and taking up respectable jobs, or acting as entrepreneurs and actively participate in trade and commerce.  It may be recalled that Syeda Khadijah, the first wife of the Prophet, used to manage her business personally.  However, the tribal mindset, reinforced by skewed interpretation of certain verses of the Qur’an and Ahadith exhorting women to obey their husbands, ignoring many verses and Ahadith in favour of women, has gradually taken roots even in the minds of educated class.  This deplorable attitude towards women is playing havoc in the Muslim families and, in many cases, driving women to rebellious ways.   

Similarly, rules for Nikah (marriage) and Talaaq (divorce) ought to be clearly codified.  The ceremony of Nikah on telephone/internet should be banned by an act of legislation and only that system of Talaaq should be treated as religiously and legally valid which is prescribed in the Qur’an i.e., Talaaq Ahsan (to be pronounced once at a time leaving the doors of reconciliation open).  Moreover, if the woman finds that her relationship with her husband has become incompatible and unbearable, she should be granted full right to seek divorce (Khula’) from her husband without depending upon the discretion of her husband.  Under the existing system men have the over-riding right to divorce their wives at will which is unjust and totally against the spirit of Islam.  There are references the Ahadith (Traditions) that the Prophet agreed to Khula’ when a woman insisted that she just could not live with her husband.  He also conceded the right of a girl to refuse to marry a man proposed by her parents on valid grounds.  In other words, parents do not have the monopoly to fix the marriages of their adult daughters without their consent.  Presently Shar’iah laws regarding marriage and divorce are heavily weighted in favour of men, which is grossly unfair.  Under the guardianship rule, a father in Jeddah is presently preventing his 35-year-old daughter from marrying by rejecting all her marriage proposals.  This needs to be rectified because it is against the spirit of Islam.  Women should be given the right to marry a respectable man (Muslim) of their choice.

The plight of the widows is even worse.  The restrictions placed on the widows during the period of her Iddat, after the death of her husband, sound unreasonable.  She is not allowed to work and in some cases, even to stir out of the house.  They are literally imprisoned or kept under house arrest.  According to the Qur’an, Iddat is prescribed as a waiting period for a woman to check if she was pregnant or not. (Chapter 2 – Al-Baqarah; Verse 234)  After this period, if she is not pregnant, she can remarry.  Thus, the period of Iddat is a period of restriction on remarriage.  In the Indian sub-continent, widowed women is literally imprisoned within the four walls of their houses.  Under these circumstances, how can she feed her children and meet their educational expenses if she is the only breadwinner after the death of her husband?  The restrictive rules on women immediately after the death of her husband need to be thoroughly reviewed.  However, it should be understood that nobody is challenging the period of Iddat, which is ordained in the Qur’an with a specific objective.  Much is talked about the Islamic system of economic support to the divorced and widowed women.  However, in practical terms these women are left to fend themselves.  A perusal of Saudi newspaper Arab News will reveal the prevailing situation in the most important Islamic state said to be ruled strictly by Qur’an and Sunnah.

In view of this, it is time to re-examine the Shar’iah laws framed more than one thousand years ago by the four Imams –  Imam Abu Hanifa, Imam Shafa’ee, Imam Ahmed bin Hanbal, Imam Malik that is followed by the Sunni Muslims who form the overwhelming majority of Muslims in the world.  The sacredness attached to them is uncalled for and unjustified.

Economics is the other important area where the exercise of Ijtihad has to be used objectively.  Scholars of Shar’ia who framed the laws had no notion of the modern system currency, banking and international trade that emerged in 18th century and has become the standard practice all over the world.  Muslims are struggling to evolve a parallel system with some cosmetic changes to address the concerns of the conservative lobby.  The banking services and requirements of investments for setting up large industries and enterprises have become so vast and complex that the old simplistic rules do not suffice.  Even while being part of the existing system, Muslims can avoid those practices that are not in consonance with the spirit of Islamic principles. Blind opposition to everything that has not originated in Western lands is not a rational approach.  Interestingly, even the most conservative Muslims have no hesitation in benefitting from many facilities invented and introduced by industrialized nations.

Another area that needs to be addressed urgently is the excessive exploitation by technologically advanced countries such as USA, United Kingdom, France, Germany etc., of the resources of the developing countries such as Nigeria, Ghana, Zambia etc.  These developing countries continue to remain poor partly because of the corruption in their own countries and partly because they do not get the right price for their valuable products.  Further, the developed countries who exploit the resources of the developing countries refuse to invest in their socio-economic development under the Millennium development programme.  This has led to an excessive inequality in the distribution of wealth between the developed and the developing countries.  Barring a few exceptions, Muslim countries are politically, socially and economically amongst the most backward countries in the world.  Most of these countries are ruled either by dictators or by monarchs who are interested in concentrating political power and wealth in their own hands rather than transferring power to democratically elected governments.  Consequently, there is acute deficit of democracy and there is no freedom of speech.  The ruling authorities in all these countries, whether dictators or monarchs, have exclusive control and concentration of the wealth of their country.  They along with their coterie of political and military leaders, with whom they share power and wealth, are more interested in accumulating wealth and filling their coffers than in investing in educational, social and economic development for the benefit of their people.  Official religious authorities routinely brand any voice of dissent as rebellious and hence haram under Shar’iah.  Even in a democracy like Pakistan, the real power is in the hands of feudal lords who control the army and the bureaucracy.  Above all, even most of the members of Parliament belong to the feudal aristocracy.  Some of the feudal lords in Pakistan do not allow educational institutions to be established in their fiefdom because they fear losing the cheap labour force with the advancement of education.

On account of acute differences in income between the rich and poor and with hardly any investment in socio-economic development, the unemployment problem has magnified, particularly because fifty percent of the population is within the working age group of 20 and 55 years.  The youth in the working age groups are restless.  They are clamouring for jobs and the jobs are just not there.  The people are thus rising in revolt of late, which has caused the fall of governments in Tunisia and Egypt.  Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian dictator, had deeply entrenched himself in office yet he was forced to quit by dissatisfied youth who demand more say in the functioning of their government.  If the Arab governments want to avert the catastrophe they must immediately correct their course by introducing political and economic reforms.  They should transfer power to the people and end the monopoly of the rich over the wealth of the nation.  It must be equitably distributed.  The poor have as much claim over the resources of the nation as the rich.  Economic reforms leading to equitable distribution of income must be speedily introduced.

One of the pillars of Islam is the system of ZakaatSalaat and Zakaat have been mentioned together as the two most important pillars of Islam.  Anyone who showed slightest disinclination was considered outside the fold of Islam.  It is a well-known fact that many tribes and individuals refused to pay Zakaat after the passing away of the Prophet.  But his companions had no doubt about the mandate of Zakaat, so when the first Khalifah of Islam, Abu Bakr, declared Jihad to recover it from those who refused to pay it, even against the advice of some of his colleagues who feared force may drive such people away from Islam.  Unfortunately, with the fall of Abbasid Khilafat in the 13th century, the system of central collection and control of Zakaat fell apart, even as the congregational Salaat survived.  Surprisingly, neither the government authorities nor the Islamic scholars have made any effort to revive it.  It is estimated that Muslims still pay billions of dollars worth of Zakaat, year after year, with hardly any impact on eradication of poverty, disease and ignorance.  It is simply cornered by Islamic scholars for funding their madrasas.  Efforts for proper use this amount are nullified by the self-serving fatwas of these scholars.  Even the amounts collected by sale of thousands of skins of animals sacrificed annually at the time of Hajj are taboo for modern education.

With suggested integration of religious and secular education, there should be no objection from any quarter for use of these funds for running educational institutions for not only imparting modern education but also the spreading the message of Islam on a much greater scale than at present.

In order to speed up economic reforms, re-examine the Muslim views on economic policies of the socialist and former communist countries such as the Soviet Union is urgently called for.  We rejected them outright without analyzing the pros and cons of their economic policies because they were initiated by an atheistic government.  This was blatantly wrong.  Although the Hilful–Fudul covenant, a league formed in Makkah that took an oath to intervene for those who were subjected to oppression and injustice in any deal of which the Prophet was its youngest member, was initiated by the polytheists and the Prophet participated in it enthusiastically because it was essentially a sound policy to protect the weak and the meek against the oppression of the strong and mighty.  It is, therefore, appropriate that the monopoly of the rich ruling elite over the wealth of the nation and their exploitation of the poor who constitute an overwhelming majority ought to be terminated because it is contrary to the principles of Islam.  The resources of the country belong to its people and all should benefit equally.  The adoption of the communist economic policy, which recommends nationalization of basic economic resources and the state’s control over their production and distribution so that the benefit to the people is maximized, is a sound idea.  In order to implement such a policy, political control must be transferred to the people through a democratic process in the true spirit of Islamic system of Shoora.  Hence, political reforms are equally important for introducing radical economic reforms.  This is an appropriate area for the application of Ijtihad.  It needs to be rigorously applied in order to spread the economic benefits to the maximum number of people and protect them from the exploitation of the rich and the powerful.


Political reform is another area, which calls for Ijtihad in the Islamic world.  Presently political power is concentrated in the hands of the privileged few who prevent the economic benefits to reach the people.  In order to maximize the benefits of economic reforms democracy must be introduced in all those Muslim countries, which are currently ruled by monarchs, dictators and military Junta.  Political power must be transferred to the people to ensure the effectiveness of economic reform.  This will be possible only if democratic governments, elected by the people replace the present dictatorial and monarchial regimes. Dictatorship should be abolished and monarchs should function as constitutional heads.  Turkey, Malaysia and Indonesia are good examples where democratically elected governments have been able to implement socio-economic reforms which have benefited the maximum number of people.

Finally, the Islamic realm, which is a land of darkness in the field of knowledge with extremely low percentage of educated population, should be transformed into a strong knowledge based society.  Barring a few exceptions there is no tradition of research in sciences and social sciences particularly in the Arab countries.  The Muslim societies in the Islamic realm cannot apply the process of Ijtihad and pursue and implement effectively the benefits of political and economic reforms without advanced level of knowledge.

Ijtihad is a process, as pointed out earlier, to maintain the progressive character of Islam.  In the words of Muqtader Khan, it is used as an instrument “to articulate a more compassionate, more modern and perhaps even a more liberal understanding” of Islam.  He further adds that “the challenge for Muslims today is to latch on to the currents of democracy, modernity and globalization without losing the connection to divine revelation and traditional culture.  This cannot be accomplished without an adequate knowledge of both the modern sciences and social sciences and of the Qur’an and Sunnah. (Muqtader Khan: Two Theories of Ijtihad – Internet).