Red, White and Black

Ijtihad and Islam
8 November, 2005, 12:44 pm
Filed under: Islam

Irshad Manji wrote a rather nice piece for the LA Times. She looks at the reasons owing to which the concept of Ijithad no longer exists in the Muslim world. Why of all a sudden, it is considered blasphemous to even think contrary to the prevalent beliefs?She dates the decline of Ijtihad to the decline of the Muslim Empires of Spain and the Middle East and the emergence of dissident groups all over the Muslim Empire. That is very true, for once these groups began emerge they had to acquire some sort of legitimacy for their rule and what better way to do it than to become guardians and custodians of the Great Religion? Anyone who dared to contradict them was contradicting the word of God and that was a big no no. Thus free-thinking and constant reinterpretation of religion, all but vanished.

Manji points three main characteristics of the Muslim intelligentsia since the 12th century:

For hundreds of years since, three equations have informed mainstream Islamic practice. First, unity equals uniformity. In order to be strong, members of the worldwide Muslim ummah, or nation, must think alike.

Second, debate equals division. Diversity of interpretation is no longer a tribute to God’s majesty. It is a hammer blow to the unity that Muslims must exhibit to those intent on dividing us.

Third, division equals heresy. Soon after the gates of ijtihad closed, innovation came to be defined as a crime by dint of being fitna — that which divides.

And then she hits the crux of the problem when she says that:

The good news is that the gates of ijtihad were shut not for spiritual or theological reasons but for entirely political ones. This means there is no blasphemy in seeking to resuscitate Islam’s tradition of independent thinking.

Yet, even today the Muslim world is still hesitant to open the gates of Ijtihad again. And again it is mere politics that acts as the hindering block. Also equally importantly, it has also become a question of survival for the crop of half-cooked Mullahs that litter the streets of the Muslim world. The Muslims of today have ended up placing the Mullahs on this high pedestal- to whom they take every single query related to their religious domain. They would rather take the word of the Mullah instead of investigating the issue on their own. And of course, if the common men were able to get together and work out these issues in the rational light of the principles of Islam- then where would the Mullahs and the Maulvis go? No wonder they declare, ijtihad a blasphemous act.

To break the back of this pseudo-clergy, the masses need to be informed that it is okay to rationally interpret religious edicts, that it does not amount to fitna and it is not against the principles of their religion.

Irshad Manji’s article can be found here.


2 Comments so far
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Informative read.
‘Ijtihad’, as you put it, would facilitate a currentness and a viability not only to Islam, but to any religion that aspires to be of use in a fast changing world.
However, when something is up for individual interpretation, there is always the possibility of losing the original essence which dissipates amid the pull and push of personally charged dialectic.

Comment by Id it is

I know there is this chance – but this is exactly the fear that holds you back. Its the same argument that is presented by the traditionalists when one proposes to try and rationallly understand the Quran. They say that you will lose the original meaning, that you will end up doing the unforgivable. IMHO its about remaining true to the spirit and if the Quran itself tells you to think and ponder over it, then why shouldnt we?

Comment by Ayesha

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