islam 21c.

co m m/islamic-law/158-co nsensus-a-ijtihad/

Consensus & Ijtihad
In a previous article I highlighted that the existence of a dif f erence of opinion is not itself an evidence f or a position that one holds. I also pointed out that not every dif f erence of opinion is well-f ounded and theref ore legitimate. T his subject matter is by its nature academic and I will explore more of its elementary points since it f orms a f ocal point of our discussion. Such f undamental notions and methods that connect us to the Shari’ah and def ine our convictions and practice must be read and presented according to the understanding of the overwhelming majority of scholars. Lexically, ijtihad means to exert maximum ef f ort to carry a heavy object. T his meaning is heavily represented in its technical def inition: to exert maximum ef f ort to arrive to a conclusion in a matter related to the Shari’ah. Competent scholars carry out ijtihad only in the absence of no clear conclusion, either due to the lack of very clear textual evidence or no def inite interpretation of a text.1 Concerning the latter, both the lexical aspect and interpretation of early scholars comprising the Companions and the immediate generations succeeding them, until the time of the four imams are the two prime f actors in evaluating whether the text is open to a dif f erent interpretation or not. If the early scholars unanimously agree on an interpretation, it is not permissible to go against this as it would contravene well-established texts f orbidding this, as well as common sense. For us to adopt a new interpretation would mean that all of the af orementioned scholars did not understand the religion and strayed f rom the truth. T his implication f urther suggests that major Islamic f undamentals pertaining to tawhid, prayer, f asting etc. may be altered or obliterated as we may ‘discover’ that the true interpretation is not what scholars throughout history unanimously used to believe and practice! Is it conceivable that Allah commands us in the Qur’an to ref er to them while He knows that all of them will jointly stray f rom the truth? Allah says in the Qur’an, ‘And whoever contradicts and opposes the Messenger af ter the right path has been shown clearly to him, and f ollows a path other than the believers’, We shall keep him in the path he has chosen, and burn him in Hell – what an evil destination.’2 T his verse clearly proves that going against the path of the believers is a condemned practice. T he Prophet, may Allah praise and send peace and blessings upon him, also said, ‘Allah saf eguarded this nation [ummah] f rom gathering together upon f alsehood.’3 We should also remind ourselves of the numerous evidences that command Muslims to side with the greater body of Muslims, not only physically but morally, ideologically and spiritually. T his serves as the philosophical meaning and background to legal consensus [ijma’]. Likewise, if the overwhelming majority of scholars agree on something then it is also very unlikely f or them to err. As such, many scholars in ef f ect equate the case of an overwhelming majority with a total consensus. Following consensus or an overwhelming majority is the surest saf eguard against distortion, innovation or novel interpretations that may lead one astray f rom the straight path of Allah. T he emphasis given by Allah to remain with the body of Muslims [jama’ah] is so great that some scholars regard this to be a f undamental tenet within Islam.

Consensus vs. textual evidence To avoid any misconception it is important to explain the relationship of scriptural text to consensus. T he ruling of any issue agreed by consensus or an overwhelming majority will without f ail be supported by textual evidence. T he absence of a corroborative text is not only impossible but has never occurred. It is true that conclusions may be derived through a complex process but this should not give the impression that such an agreement is not backed by textual proof . T heref ore, to rely on consensus or the overwhelming majority in ef f ect means to rely on textual proof as well as consensus as a stand-alone proof . Unlike consensus, a text may be subject to dif f erent interpretations so quoting textual evidence may not be suf f icient to convince or remove possible conf usion. Furthermore, one who challenges your opinion may counter your textual proof by another one or may even counter your interpretation of the text by his. Consensus or an overwhelming majority cannot be countered by a second consensus or another interpretation. T his explains the trend some jurists take by citing consensus bef ore textual evidence or pref erring consensus to scriptural text. Scholars and judges nevertheless of ten cite textual proof s in their verdicts and sermons to make sure the masses remain attached to the sacred text. Ijtihad is only possible when the dif f erence on an issue is more evident, in that the opinions are voiced and argued by a considerable number of scholars. T his means that scholars of later generations can research and pref er an existing opinion not invent a new one. Failure to adhere to this may lead to chaos and again implies that the truth was completely missing to the earlier generations. T his of course causes no dif f iculty f or a new matter that was not existent in the past; scholars will perf orm ijtihad and either agree on a ruling or dif f er leading to valid interpretations and positions. How to deal with matters of Ijtihad We of ten f ind ourselves perplexed when f aced with an issue which seems to be contentious. Although the issue may seem conf using to many, the approach to a solution is straightf orward; if one contracts an illness and is prescribed a course of medicine by a doctor that is deemed harmf ul by another doctor, would one remain insistent upon consuming that specif ic medicine and simply dismiss the matter as being one of disagreement or adopt what seems to be the easiest option? For sure, a person would exert his utmost in research and consultation bef ore deciding to take the medicine or not. {quotes}We deem health and f inancial issues to be of paramount importance, but unf ortunately this is not replicated in our religious af f airs, especially when they can be more perilous as anything that might af f ect an individual’s f aith and religion could constitute a measure towards Hell.{/quotes} It is stated in the Qur’an, ‘And they (i.e., the Jews) say, “T he Fire shall not touch us but f or a f ew numbered days.” Say (O Muhammad) to them, “Have you taken a covenant f rom Allah, f or Allah will not break His Covenant? Or is it that you say of Allah what you know not?”.’4 A simple study of this verse inf orms us that it is incorrect to assume that pursuing a ‘deceptively’ easy route in this lif e is acceptable by attempting to provide the excuse that Allah is the Of t-Forgiving. Such assumptions violate Islamic principles in that they attempt to disparage the notion of Allah testing mankind.

T he correct approach to adhere to when dealing with an issue of ijtihad is to realise there are two matters at hand: the f irst is the issue itself and the second concerns those who dif f er about the issue. T here is a set methodology f or interacting with both. T he f irst matter discerns how we resolve issues pertaining to ijtihad. Here, we apply the verse, ‘O you who believe! Obey Allah and obey the Messenger, and those in authority amongst you. And if you dif f er in anything amongst yourselves, ref er it to Allah and His Messenger, if you believe in Allah and in the Last Day. T hat is better and more suitable f or a f inal determination.’5 Allah orders us to ref er to Him and His Messenger instead of opting f or the easiest option of f ollowing our desires. In f act, Allah strongly condemns those who f ollow their desires in many verses such as, ‘Have you seen him who has taken as his deity his own desire? Would you then be a disposer of his af f airs or a watcher over him?’6 Scholars mention that the f requent alignment of one’s actions with one’s desires could well be an indication of intentionally f ollowing desire, quite the opposite to the required submission of one’s will to Allah’s, may He be exalted! T he second matter inf orms us how to interact with those who hold a dif f erent view that is also valid within the realm of ijtihad. Actions and opinions and their practitioners are respected and tolerated so long as the dispute is convincing and a result of valid ijtihad. Opinions are only to be acted upon with the intention to f ollow the truth. T hus, when an issue is conf irmed to be under the realm of ijtihad it does not permit an individual to opt f or an opinion in accordance to one’s whims and desires; this behaviour would lie outside the immense span of Islamic tolerance and would be censured. Mention of guidelines f or dealing with such behaviour is beyond the scope of this discourse. A question f requently posed is, why did Allah allow such disputes to occur? Our Lord declared this lif e to be a test f or mankind; we read in the Qur’an, ‘If your Lord had so willed, He could have made mankind one people: but they will not cease to dispute.’7 Legal disputes of f er at minimal three types of tests: the f irst is to assess whether we will exert all our ef f orts in unearthing the truth and upholding it, regardless of controversy or pressure, Allah says in the Qur’an, ‘And surely, We shall try you till We test those who strive hard (f or Allah’s cause) and the patient ones, and We shall test your f acts (i.e., the one who is a liar and the one who is truthf ul).’8 T he second ref lects a reality of this lif e, it underlines the f act that every human being errs, even if he is a scholar. T his test is crucial to assess whether we will f ollow scholars who are in error or seek the pleasure of Allah through the abandonment of our desires. T he third test gauges whether we continue to remain steadf ast and adhere to Islam in its entirety despite the presence and continuation of disputes. So, issues subject to legal reasoning [ijtihad] are identif iable by a number of f actors: the dispute typically embodies strong arguments f or and against; the number of scholars holding the dif f erent views is considerable throughout Islamic history; they are normally highly distinguished scholars representing by f ar the f our major legal schools of thought; and are of ten based on compelling textual evidences. In the f orthcoming article I will return to addressing essential concerns in relation to music bef ore addressing matters of culture, Britishness and identity, by the will of Allah ta’ala.

1. One of the main rules in the f undamentals of jurisprudence is the maxim: ijtihad is not valid in the presence of clear textual evidence [nass]. 2. Al-Nisa’ 4:114 3. An authentic hadith, reported by a number of scholars; ref er to Al-Tirmidhi, Ibn Majah & Ibn Abi ‘Asim. 4. Al-Baqarah 2:80 5. Al-Nisa’ 4:59 6. Al-Furqan 25:43 7. Hud 11:118 8. Muhammad 47:3

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