Reflections on "Ijtihad"

Hassan I. Mneimneh, IjthadReason, 7/29/2010

Jihad as a term and as practice has been effectively hijacked by anarchy and mayhem and has been too often reduced to vicious action without reason. From the same tradition, but along a different path, a symbolic response to the usurpation of the heritage is emerging in the assertion that ijtihad, reason committed to the collective good, is still in sound practice.

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Subject: Islam/West

More by: Hassan I. Mneimneh

Together with its sister Semitic languages, such as Hebrew and Aramaic, Arabic uses three-letter roots for much of its lexicon. The root k-t-b, for instance, is at the source of many words associated with writing: kataba is the verb "to write", kitab is "book", and maktaba is "library"; less self-evident derivations include the verbs iktataba and istaktaba, respectively to subscribe to and to enroll someone in a pledge or course; these actions are to be performed in writing, hence the association.

Similarly, the root j-h-d generates words associated with "effort" (juhd). Two such words have relevance that exceeds applied linguistics and etymological derivation: jihad and ijtihad. Both have had a contentious history, and both are indicators of the cultural direction of the societies where they are used.

At the strict semantic level, each root of jihad and ijtihad denotes "the exercise of effort" – in an indefinite direction in the case of the former, and inwards towards oneself in the case of the latter. The conventional meaning of either word, however, departed from the semantic origins considerably. Jihad and ijtihad acquired qualified "technical" definitions with religious and cultural connotations in the context of the science and practice of Islam.

The early doctors of Islamic nomenclature assigned jihad to the human endeavor of conforming to divine discipline standards, at the physical and spiritual levels. The most onerous aspect of this required effort was the expectation from the Muslim to join, as necessary, the legitimate Islamic state in defensive and/or offensive military action "in the Divine path" (fi sabili llah). As such, jihad was deemed a religious obligation – imposed (in the Sunni tradition) on the community as a whole, not on every individual Muslim. In practice, military jihad was governed by the evolving rules and regulations that Muslim dynasties and states developed over time. By the turn of the 20th century, military jihad was indistinguishable from conscription regimens in use in non-Muslim states.

In addition to its military definition, Muslim jurisprudence applied the term jihad to the comprehensive effort of reforming self and society, with the recognition that the highest form of jihad is that against the temptations and weaknesses of one's own soul. Despite the fact that such a definition is often recalled today to counter anti-Muslim rhetoric, it is a fact that historically the main intellectual constructs of Islam's jurisprudents competed little with the more common understanding of jihad as the duty to serve in the military of the legitimate (Muslim) government.

With the paradigm shift in political reality, in the aftermath of WWI, and the creation of a nation-state system in the Arab world, government legitimacy was no longer rooted in the Islamic character of the dynasty or the state. Accordingly, the Arabic language witnessed a transformation in the meaning of the word jihad, which lost its religious dimension, replacing it with a national hue: Jihad became the (praiseworthy) exercise of effort for the national cause. Evidence for this semantic shift came in the form of the use of the word jihad as a proper name by Muslims and non-Muslims alike. Also, when the Palestinian Islamist activist Fathi al-Shiqaqi decided to use the term jihad in the name of his newly created militant organization in the late 1970s, he had to qualify it to underline its religious origins; the organization was thus named the "Islamic Jihad in Palestine", a formulation that would have been redundant in other eras. Indeed, in the 1970s, a jihad could have been Islamic or otherwise.

The jihad in Afghanistan in the 1980s gradually reclaimed the word for the religious realm, albeit with a new meaning – one with more affinity to guerrilla warfare than to state-mandated religiously-sanctioned military conscription. A redefinition of the precepts jihad as an obligation was even attempted by militants, sometimes on the basis of selective scholarship from the past, often with disregard to established precedents and in response to the exigencies of Islamist rebellions. The jihad of the latter part of the 20th century and the beginnings of the 21st, has thus often become associated with the wanton killing of the innocent on the basis of pseudo-religious justifications.

Can the word jihad be claimed back away from the pejorative meaning with which violent militancy has imbued it? Attempts in such a direction are numerous; they seem however to draw almost exclusively on the classical scholastic definition of the term that expands its meaning beyond the military into the prescribed spiritual struggle. The wealth of meanings developed in the lived history of the Arabic-speaking region – jihad as patriotism beyond religion, as the judicious willingness to exert oneself and to sacrifice for the common good – has not been tapped.

Ijtihad, too, has experienced a number of semantic shifts.

The intellectual history of Islam, notably in its early phases, was the history of dialectic interaction and reconciliation between reason and revelation. The Islamic authoritative texts, Qur'an and Hadith, provide extensive examples through which the divine Shari'ah (the "Way", Divine Law) can be gleamed. Nowhere, however, do they present a systematic capitulation of Shari'ah. Instead, it is left up to the believers to develop "understandings" of it, on the dual bases of the texts and their own reasoning faculties. For most of its history, Muslim culture would frown on the characterization of the frameworks of legal solutions it has developed as constituting Shari'ah per se – Divine Law being at best asymptotically approximated – preferring instead the use of the expression fiqh al-Shari'ah, the understanding of Divine Law. Sadly, this caution has virtually vanished in today's usage, with actions often constituting blatant human rights abuse being heralded as Shari'ah itself.

Schools of fiqh were multiple, and differed considerably within and amongst themselves. The craft of jurisprudence benefited from a collection of tools. Four gained universal acceptance: rules-governed exegesis of the revealed text, evaluation of precedents attributed to the Prophet on the basis of the chain of transmission, reasoning by analogy, and scholarly consensus. Others, such as the judicious determination of the public good and the continuation of an established practice, were subject of debate. Two broad currents intersected within many of the fiqh schools: ahl al-ra'i – advocates of unbound opinions, free thinkers for some, unruly dilettantes for others, who saw in these extra tools valid ways to achieve the aims of the remote Shari'ah; and ahl al-hadith – advocates of formulations restricted by and confined to the verifiable texts, disciplined empiricists for some, and reductionists for others, who rejected any tool or derivation without an unequivocal precedent in the corpus.

Ijtihad was the term applied to a method that sought to reconcile pure reason and accepted wisdom. It was understood as the application of intellectual prowess towards the development of formulations and solutions thoroughly informed by the text, but also benefiting from the other divine endowment, the human mind. Ijtihad was "trustworthy reason", one that rejects the notion that tension between reason and revelation is tantamount to conflict; instead, a mujtahid (one who practices ijtihad) is a scholar jurisprudent who believes in their essential harmony. Ijtihad was thus freedom and responsibility in reason, directed at the collective good.

The general rule, derived from a tradition attributed to the Prophet, became since enshrined in Arab culture (Muslim and non-Muslim alike): Whoever practices ijtihad and reaches the collective good will be rewarded twice; whoever practices ijtihad and misses the collective good will be rewarded once (man ijtahada wa-asab fa-la-hu ajran, man ijtahada wa-akhta' fa-la-hu ajrun). The praiseworthy nature of ijtihad as applied reason has remained associated with it.

Ijtihad had divergent fates across the two main Muslim denominations. In the Sunni realm, some doctors of jurisprudence, including the influential 12th century scholar al-Ghazali, seeking to centralize the legal decision-making process, opined that, five centuries after the death of the Prophet, all bona fide reasoned formulations consistent with the religious precepts ought to have been made: The "doors of ijtihad are thus to be considered closed". Evidently, these scholars had neither the religious authority nor the enforcement power to apply their edict – which in actual practice was ignored. Its enunciation does correspond nonetheless to the entry of the Muslim world into a new phase, as a result of socio-economic, military, and political developments unrelated to jurisprudence, a phase in which the wealth and prosperity, as well as the dynamism and creativity, of the previous era receded. While its practice continued, albeit in a more muted way, the term ijtihad became less encountered in Sunni scholarship.

In the Shi'i domain, ijtihad was institutionalized as a primary faculty to be developed by aspiring clerics. Indeed, a fully accomplished Shi'i cleric is a mujtahid, a scholar who by training is equipped to formulate trustworthy opinions, and as such may be emulated by the general public.

In the secular century, extending in the Arab Middle East from the late 19th to the late 20th centuries, ijtihad too largely lost its religious implications. It evolved into the exercise of any intellectual effort, from the mundane reference to studiousness (tilmidh mujtahid is thus a studious pupil), to the characterization of the creative innovation of leadership. Ijtihad, in Arabic usage today, is reason engaged in a positive effort towards the common good; it is not reason for reason's sake. It is reason constructive, not reason iconoclastic. It is reason evolutionary, not reason revolutionary.

Jihad as a term and as practice has been effectively hijacked by anarchy and mayhem and has been too often reduced to vicious action without reason. From the same tradition, but along a different path, a symbolic response to the usurpation of the heritage is emerging in the assertion that ijtihad, reason committed to the collective good, is still in sound practice.

Even al-Ghazali, the doctor of jurisprudence who "closed" the gate of ijtihad, does not fare well in circles dominated by Islamist radicalism. He, together with most of the scholars and intellectuals of the Islamic tradition, has been dismissed or disparaged as lacking conformity with the constructed edifice that radical Islamism strives to pass off as "original" Islam. Ijtihad is not a welcome activity in the land of Jihad. It may, however, be indeed one way to challenge the totalitarian regimentation in the name of religion sought by Islamist radicalism.

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