Asalamu Alaikum Bethany,
Thank you very much for your question.
The word ijtihad is derived from the same root as jihad. It stands for individual intellectual effort to arrive at an answer to a question that has no direct answer in the original sources of Islam.
It is the opposite of taqlid (blind following).
There were some historical reasons why taqlid became the rule and ijtihad became the exception. But some scholars went to the extent of saying that the doors of ijtihad are closed.
This was mainly because they thought that all the possible questions that can be asked had already been answered and there was no scope for any more questions that demanded ijtihad.
They were patently wrong.
It was this mentality that was responsible for the stagnation of Muslim societies in most countries. If ever there were reasons to discourage ijtihad then, those reasons are not valid any more, especially in the light of the recent fast-paced developments in all areas of human life.
In the present context, prohibiting ijtihad undermines the dynamism of Islam and paralyzes its very spirit.
In short, ijtihad is a valid Islamic mechanism to make the society vibrant and progressive. It is quite relevant when we are not able to find a clear directive in the Quran and the Sunnah on a modern problem.
For instance, so-called test-tube babies, organ donation, and cloning are current issues in science on which one needs to know the Islamic ruling. In such matters, ijtihad is the only way. The justification for using ijtihad in such contexts can be found in the Hadith.
The Prophet (peace be upon him) sent one of his Companions, Mu`adh ibn Jabal (may Allah be pleased with him), to Yemen on a mission. Then the Prophet (peace be upon him) asked him:
“How will you judge the cases [that come to you]?” And he replied, “I will judge according to the Book of Allah.” “But if you do not get anything there, what will you do?” the Prophet (peace be upon him) asked. He said, “I will refer to the Sunnah of the Prophet (peace be upon him).” “But if you do not get it even there, what will you do?” the Prophet (peace be upon him) asked again. Then Mu`adh replied, “I will exercise my judgment.” Hearing this, the Prophet (peace be upon him) patted Mu`adh on the shoulder and said: “Praise be to Allah Who has guided the messenger of His Messenger to what pleases His Messenger.” (Reported by An-Nisa’i)
From the Arabic expression used by Mu`adh for “I will exercise my judgment” (ajtahidu rai) we get the word ijtihad.
We can see that the word ijtihad by itself does not actually mean renewal or reform. Even the word “Shari`ah” causes a lot of confusion in the minds of people.
Most people think of it as something hard-and-fast and inflexible. This is far from true because if this were true, how could there be the four classical canons of law in Islam in the first place?
In fact, there are four widely recognized sources from which the Shari`ah took shape: (1) the Quran; (2) the Sunnah of the Prophet (peace be upon him); (3) ijmaa` (consensus of opinions among those well versed in Islamic jurisprudence); and (4) qiyas foundation, and the latter two are methods of forming acceptable religious opinions (logical or analytical deduction).
A moment’s reflection would convince us that if properly used, the above sources should lead the Muslim scholars to arrive at solutions to most of the problems we humans face in our life.
But there could be cases where the above sources by themselves will not yield a clear and practical solution.
Moreover, Muslims all over the world are unanimous that Islam is for all places and for all time. This would be true only if we permit ijtihad.
So naturally, in the case of issues like so-called test-tube babies or cloning we need to apply ijtihad. As ijtihad itself was taught by the Prophet (peace be upon him), it is a provision in the Sunnah itself; and we must not lose sight of the Quran and the Sunnah when we apply ijtihad to modern issues.
In other words, ijtihad must never be an attempt to overreach the fundamentals laid down in the Quran and the Sunnah.
You are right when you say that there was a time when the Muslim people were more tolerant towards those who came forward with solutions to their contemporary problems. Nowadays, it seems that feelings run too high when issues of religion are discussed.
But at the same time, there is little ground for fear of retribution, even in these decadent times, especially because Islam and Muslims are openly attacked for little reason without their attackers fearing retribution.
So, we need not worry when our objective is just to uphold the word of Allah in the interest of Islam and Muslims. It may be true that there are people who cannot digest differing views or interpretations; but this need not deter the sincere seekers of truth.
We must have the iman (faith) and the courage of conviction to speak out what we believe to be true. May Allah bless us and guide us in our efforts in His way!
Thank you and please keep in touch.
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