Tuesday, September 29, 2009

ijtihad and qiyas

My previous post was an attempt at what the Islamic tradition called ijtihad. This word translates roughly as "rational argument", and it has long been an essential aspect of Koranic interpretation. This underscores the fact that Muslims have long recognized that applying the principles of the Koran to daily life requires skill and thought. Those who think the meaning of the Koran is obvious rarely agree with each other as to what this "obvious" meaning is. Wahabbi Clerics in Saudi Arabia think it is obvious that the Koran forbids women from driving, even though cars didn't exist when the Koran was revealed. Shiite Clerics in Iran think it is obvious that women are permitted to drive, as long they keep their faces covered when they do it. The fact that they disagree seems to me to indicate that there is nothing obvious about applying a single text to thousands of years of diverse human experience.

This fact has nothing to do with the question of whether the Koran is the revealed word of God. Even if God did speak directly to Muhammad, there is still a serious intellectual challenge involved in figuring out how to apply what he said to individual life situations. Words get their meanings from the context in which they are said, and for the Koran that context no longer exists. To simply superimpose our own context on words said a thousand years earlier runs the risk of giving the words a completely new, and wrong, interpretation. That is what people do when they read the Koran without any knowledge of Islamic history, or without consulting scholars who are familiar with the nuances of the original Arabic.

The Hadith were preserved partly because Islamic scholars were aware of this problem. Some modern Islamic reformers want to throw out the Hadith, because only the Koran is the word of God. I agree with part of their intention, because many of the more extreme prohibitions advocated by fundamentalists are derived only from the Hadith. I think however that tremendous insight and benefits can come from reading the Hadith, and other aspects of Islamic history, as long as we remember this passage from the Koran.

Do you see that which God has provided for you? You make some of it Unlawful (Haram) and some of it Lawful (Halal). Did God allow you to do this? Or do you tell lies about God? 
QURAN, 10:59

What this implies to many of us is that only the Koran should be used as a source for taboos and prohibitions, because only the Koran is the word of God. Most of the prohibitions imposed by fundamentalists (including my least favorite, the prohibition against music) have no basis in the Koran and are derived solely from the Hadith. We can however, reject these Hadith-inspired taboos, and still value the Hadith as a way of enabling us to more fully understand exactly what the Koran was saying.

However, once we have understood the Koran in its historical context, there is still the problem of how to apply its teachings to the present time. That requires careful reasoning (ijtihad) and careful use of analogies (qiyas). There are no exact parallels between what was happening in 6th century Arabia and what is happening now, so we have to using our wisdom to decide which parallels are legitimate analogies and which are false analogies. Do all rules about camels apply to cars? Do rules about swords apply to guns and atomic bombs? Obviously some rules do, and some don't, but the Koran cannot tell us which is which. We must puzzle it out using the wisdom that Allah gave us, come to the best answer we can, and be humble and open-minded when discussing our interpretations with those who disagree with us.


  1. dont know much at all about this subject but basically here is what i have learnt about how mainstream Islam view this subject:

    ijtihad can only be performed by those who are qualified for it and such a qualification is one of the utmost level of schoalrships; some of the pre-requisite sceinces that a mujtahid [schoalr qualified for ijtihad] needs to have mastery in are the Arabic language and it's ancillary sciences, the corpus of hadith litterature and it's clasification status' as well as intimate knowledge of hadith narrators, etc, etc

    The laymen [in this context meaning, a non-Mujtahid] ahs no choice but to follow a mujtahid in matters whcih need expert interpretation for he dont posess tools for ijtihad himself, however ijtihad is only aplicable to matters that are disagreed upon and not matters that are clear and agreed upon

    here is a link that gives more details of some of the things I have mentioned above:


  2. I recognize that I do not have the qualifications to make any more than suggestions. The fact that I am not a Muslim myself, and therefore not willing to live by the interpretations I am suggesting, makes my comments even less credible. However, here is what I have to say, for whatever it is worth.

    If you are going to take this principle of the majority interpretation is the correct one, you'll need to consider that throughout most of Islamic history the sufis were the majority. They were responsible for converting most of Africa, Indonesia and India. the rise of the Salafi interpretations of Islam is relatively recent phenomenon (18th and 19th Century). If the Salafi commentators took your principle seriously they would never have been able to put their ideas forth when they were in the minority. I think you also need to consider that the reason the Salafi interpretations are now starting to appear mainstream is that they are funded by large amounts of Saudi Oil Money. Money can make a voice seem louder even when it is not the majority.

    I do appreciate your willingness to discuss these topics in a patient and gentle manner. I see these qualities in Muhammad when I read his life story, and can also see how they influence many Muslims today. American political discourse is sadly lacking in this quality now, and I hope those of us who value this quality can nourish it in our discourse with each other

  3. Hi Teed ;]

    This my friend i have to inform you is another one of them misconceptions amongst some non-muslims and the the reality of the 'sufi's' vs wahhabi's [Salafi's]' scenario is as follows:

    Wahhabi's [Salafi's] are infact in the minority, who have deviated somewhat from the traditional Islam; the latter is what i refer to as the 'mainstream' for indeed they are; the latter consists of the four schools of thought in legal schools and Maturidi and Ashari in Creedal schools

    Sufism, as explained earlier has allways been part and parcell of traditional Islam and is in complete sync with it; it is only the 'speudo sufi's' [fakes who try to con people under the guise of 'sufism'] that are condemned as being innovators, but not true sufism that is inherent in Islam; 'Salafi's' denounce any form of sufism alltogether

    hope this helps