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IJTIHĀD . The Arabic word ijtihād, which in ordinary usage means "strenuous endeavor," has become in the Muslim scholarly tradition a technical term for the endeavor of an individual scholar to derive a rule of divine law (sharīʿah ) directly from the recognized sources of that law without any reliance upon the views of other scholars. Since these sources consist preeminently of texts, namely the Qurʾān, the adīth (narratives recording the divinely sanctioned custom of the Prophet), and dicta expressing the consensus of Muslim scholars, ijtihād is a fundamentally text-related activity embracing two principal tasks: the authentication of texts and the interpretation of texts. These entail not only deliberation upon actual texts but also the working out of appropriate methodological principles. In carrying on ijtihād, a scholar, while not relying for final answers upon other scholars, does interact with scholars holding contrary opinions in a setting of a highly formalized process of disputation. The rules of law that the great scholars of the past have arrived at through ijtihād are recorded in the literature of fiqh, whereas the methodological principles of ijtihād are set forth in the literature of uūl al-fiqh.

The Tasks of IjtihĀd

The text-critical tasks entailed in ijtihād relate mainly to adīth and, to some extent, to historical material used to determine the existence of a consensus in an earlier generation. The Qurʾān itself is considered by Muslim scholars to be of incontestable authenticity and therefore not in need of attestation through formal text-critical procedures. The focus of attention in all Muslim text criticism is upon the "chain of transmitters" (isnād), rather than upon the contents of the texts themselves. The examination of these chains itself entails a complex methodology, which is explored at length in the uūl al-fiqh literature. Considered as a purely individual scholarly activity, this transmission-criticism claims to be able to establish, at the very most, the probable authenticity of a text, although the degree of probability mayas in the case of "sound" (saī ) adīth be very high. Once the degree of probability of a text's authenticity has been determined, the scholar faces yet another task before he may proceed to interpret the text: He must determine whether or not, during the course of the Prophet's lifetime, the text was abrogated by some other text, for only if it was not may he endeavor to derive a rule from it.

The process of deriving rules from the texts entails two distinct activities: (1) the determination of rules that lie within the meaning of the text, and (2) the determination of any additional rules that may be deemed analogous to these rules. The first of these activities constitutes a derivation of rules from the texts in the sense that it brings to light rules that are not immediately obvious from any particular text taken in isolation. One seldom encounters in the texts legally precise statements of rules, that is to say, statements having a form such as "x is obligatory upon all Muslims without exception" (x representing an unambiguous reference to a human act considered as a class or category). Such statements, which are necessary to the development of law in Islam, must therefore be extrapolated from the texts by scholars. In carrying on this task, scholars must deal with a host of problems relating to the language of the texts. A good example of these problems is the imperative form of the verb, which appears frequently in the sorts of texts that Muslim legal scholars tend to focus upon. One may not assume from the presence of an imperative in a text such as aqīmū al-alāt ("Perform the prayer," sūrah 2:43 and elsewhere) that an obligation is intended, for imperatives are used not only to impose obligations but also to invite, exhort, warn, permit, and so on. If, therefore, an obligation is intended, this can be known, according to the majority of Muslim scholars, only from the context. This context need not consist of the larger passage immediately surrounding the text in question, since any text within the corpus of recognized texts may shed light on any other text. This being the case, each text must be interpreted in the light of the entire corpus of texts, since virtually no text is free of some degree of ambiguity, vagueness, or generality. As the corpus of texts is vast and the greater part of itnamely, the adīth is subject, in greater or lesser degree, to text-critical problems, the work of Muslim legal scholars is perceived by the scholars themselves to be extremely demanding, and one can thus readily appreciate why they chose to call it ijtihād.

The use of analogical reasoning (qiyā s) to deduce further rules from rules established through exegesis of the texts has been a matter of considerable controversy among Muslims. The main living adversaries of this method are the Twelver Shīʿī scholars. Among Sunnīs of all four surviving schools of law, the method is universally accepted, although an earlier school, namely that of Dāʾūd al-āhirī (d. 884), rejected it, and there is some evidence of its having been rejected by some scholars within earlier "traditionist" circles out of which the anbalī school arose. In any case, ijtihād is clearly not to be identified solely with qiyā s, as some Western writers have been wont to do, since ijtihād has been as vigorously undertaken by opponents of analogical reasoning as by its partisans. In place of analogical reasoning, some Twelver Shīʿī scholars have espoused certain more strictly rational operations as valid methods of legal inquiry, which they have subsumed under the heading of ʿaql ("reason").

In consideration of the enormity of the text-critical, interpretive, and deductive tasks just described, the Sunnī scholarly tradition acknowledges that certainty about rules of divine law is rarely possible and that the formulations of rules that emerge out of ijtihād represent the opinions (ann ) of scholars, not hard knowledge (ʿilm ). That this is so is especially evident in the face of differences of opinion that arise among scholars. On the other hand, the exegetical tentativeness of the rules constructed by scholars is deemed among Sunnīs to be no barrier to the validity and binding character of these rules. If the ijtihād of a scholar is truly representative of his very best efforts, then the opinions emerging from it are binding upon the scholar himself and upon all less qualified persons (muqallid s, lit., "imitators") who choose to follow his teaching.

The practice of following the opinion of a scholar in preference to engaging in ijtihād on one's own is called, in Arabic, taqlīd ("imitation"). Through the taqlīd of the majority of Muslims, the ijtihād of scholars, whose number must necessarily be relatively small, is able to acquire authority within society at large and thus to engender law as a social force. The Shīʿī tradition recognizes both ijtihād and taqlīd but allows less scope for variation of opinion, emphasizing its preference for knowledge over opinion.


Since the law of God comprehends, in principle, the whole of life, it must be continually expounded as novel life situations present themselves. Consequently, the exercise of ijtihād is not a right but a responsibility, one that rests in every age upon the community as a whole. As with all communal responsibilities, it is discharged by the few (that is, the appropriately qualified scholars) on behalf of the many and could in principle be discharged by a single scholar. Those who engage in ijtihād bear the title of mujtahid, which, though in form a participle, becomes thus denotative of a status. While the claim to this status is theoretically a matter of individual conscience, any such claim becomes effective only after it has been validated by a substantial number of scholars. The validity of such a claim is considered to be contingent upon the satisfaction of certain requirements, which are discussed at length in the uūl al-fiqh literature. These fall into two general categories: (1) mastery of the belief system of Islam and of its rational basis and (2) mastery of the rules of legal interpretation, text criticism, and (among Sunnīs) analogical deduction.

Eventually Muslim scholarship drew distinctions between different ranks within the general status of mujtahid, the highest being that of the "unrestricted mujtahid" (mujtahid mulaq ), whose holders are free to engage in ijtihād within any field of law and to disregard the established doctrine of any school. Mujtahid s in the various subordinate ranks, on the other hand, were bound to the general doctrine of a particular school and permitted to explore only those questions that had not been fully resolved within that school or were restricted to certain fields of law. The rigor of the scholarly qualifications varied from rank to rank.

Muslim jurisprudents debated the issue of whether it was possible for the Muslim community to exist in any age without the presence of at least one mujtahid (a situation commonly referred to in later Muslim literature as "the closing of the door of ijtihād"), but a consensus seems never to have been reached on this matter. The general presumption of Muslim scholarship down to the modern age seems, in any case, to have been that ijtihād is, at least in its restricted forms, an ongoing process, even if it be on occasion temporarily interrupted. The requirements for the rank of mujtahid mulaq, however, were regarded as so demanding as to render the claim to this high rank extremely rare. Muslim jurisprudence has generally shown great deference for the great mujtahid s of the early centuries of Islam, especially the founders of the schools of law. In Shīʿī Islam, this deference is intensified by the fact that the founders of Shīʿī law were none other than the infallible imams.

In the modern age, the concept of ijtihād has sometimes been applied, in an entirely unprecedented manner, to reformist legislation introduced by, or at least subject to the ratification of, elected parliamentary bodies. It has also been adopted by a variety of reform-minded Muslim thinkers, both "modernist" and "fundamentalist," as a rationale for programs calling for fundamental social change or intellectual reorientation.

See Also

Qiyās; Uūl al-Fiqh.


While virtually every general work on Islam or Islamic lawfor example, Joseph Schacht's An Introduction to Islamic Law (Oxford, 1964)deals to some extent with the subject of ijtihād, there is as yet no major scholarly monograph in a Western language on the scholarly activities that constitute ijtihād. For a cursory discussion, see my "Interpretation in Islamic Law: The Theory of Ijtihad," American Journal of Comparative Law 26 (1978): 199212, and Abdur Rahim's The Principles of Muhammadan Jurisprudence according to the Hanafi, Maliki, Shafii and anbalī Schools (1911; reprint, Westport, Conn., 1981), pp. 69115, 137192.

Bernard G. Weiss (1987)

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