Can Muslims Reopen the Gates of Ijtihad? (GateStone Institute) by Harold Rhode 06/15/12)
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Until Muslim countries and Muslim communities in the West allow their
people to express themselves freely -- without fear of reprisal -- it
is unlikely that the Muslim world will be able to think creatively
and again become a center of science and knowledge, as it used to be
in the early centuries of Islam.
The exercise of critical thinking and independent judgment or
Ijtihad --was an important way to address questions in the early
centuries of Islam. After approximately 400 years, however, the
leaders of the Sunni Muslim world closed the "Gates of Ijtihad;"
Muslims were no longer allowed use itjihad to solve problems. If a
seemingly new problem arose, they were supposed to find an analogy
from earlier scholars and apply that ruling to the problem that
arose. From the 10th century onwards, Sunni Muslim leaders began to
see questioning as politically dangerous to their ability to rule.
Regrettably, Sunni Muslim leaders reject the use of itjihad to this
As questioning could very likely upset the established order and
bring down the autocracies and despotic regimes which rule most of
the Muslim world, even Muslims who live in freer Muslim countries
such as Turkey often hesitate to exercise ijtihad. How did the Muslim
world succumb to this situation, and is there a way out?
Ijtihad in historical context
Ijtihad was important in early Islam: when questions arose - even
while Muhammad was alive - for which there were no answers, Muhammad
would call the Muslims together in their mosque. They would discuss
the issues at hand, reason them through, and come to a consensus --
so came into being the Islamic concept of ijma´ (consensus among the
After Muhammad died, however, the Muslim community rapidly expanded;
the community of scholars became too large, and ijma´ no longer
practical. What developed was a body of traditions called hadiths
sayings and deeds attributed to their prophet Muhammad. When new
questions arose, people would seek out individuals who had known
Muhammad and ask them whether they had seen or heard Muhammad address
the matter at hand.
Within 200 years, the number of hadiths was thought to be in the
hundreds of thousands, but people had no way of knowing which were
true and which were fabricated. The great Muslim scholar, al-Bukhari
(810 -870 CE), who analyzed them, concluded that only a few thousand
Later, when still more questions arose, diverse schools of thought
developed. The Quran, the hadiths, and those schools of thought were
collected into Islamic law. This body of Islamic religious guidance
is known as the Shari´a, or "The Path."
During the first four centuries of Islam, Muslim scholars seem to
have exercised independent judgment freely, and debated rigorously
new issues that arose. The Muslim world at that time seems to have
been inclusive and flexible; it accepted differing views, differing
conclusions and differing sorts of influences that arose as part of
the cultures of its large empire.
Muslim scholars studied Arabic translations of ancient Greek texts
which they thought might help them understand the nature of mankind
as well as other aspects of life. These texts, though clearly non-
Islamic, nevertheless provided scholars with useful insights. There
were also intellectual interchanges with Jewish scholars,
particularly in the fields of science, medicine, language, and
geography. There seems to have been, however, little discussion with
With time, however, the situation became unwieldy. Certain groups
(called ghulat) were accused of extremism going too far -- and
attempts were made to rein them in. Questions arose as to the
limits of divergent views, and whether "extremist elements" could
still be considered Muslim. The many schools of Islamic thought were
reduced to four; these became the basis of the Sunni Shari´a.
As Islamic rule started to become more autocratic, Islamic rulers
began to see discord as potentially able to undermine their rule.
All four schools accepted the Quran as the divine word of God, and
the hadiths as the source for legal decisions. But it soon became
apparent that the larger the number of hadiths a school of thought
accepted, the more restrictive and rigid this school became. The
Hanafi school of law, for example -- the most liberal school of
thought, founded by Abu Hanifa (699-767 CE) -- accepted over a few
thousand hadiths. In contrast, the most restrictive of the four
schools founded by Ahmad ibn Hanbal (778-863 CE) -- accepted tens
of thousands. It is not surprising, therefore, that in the 18th
century Wahhabism -- probably one of the most restrictive forms of
Islam -- developed out of the Hanbali School of law.
The Islamic authorities possibly still worried that despite four
schools of thought, dissent would become unmanageable. Towards the
end of the eleventh century, therefore, they officially closed
the "Gates of Ijtihad." There may have been too many different
answers to the same questions, leading to confusion. Possibly this,
in turn, may have made it difficult for the authorities to maintain
order as well as to justify their autocratic rule.
Muslim scholars also appear to have decided that as all questions had
been addressed, there was no longer any need to exercise independent
judgment. The result was that exercising independent judgment became
no longer permissible.
During the twelfth century, nevertheless, there were still attempts
to use rational and deductive reasoning. In Muslim Spain, for
instance, Averroes (aka Ibn Rushd, 1126-1198 CE), one of the founders
of secular reasoning in Europe, refused to accept the closing of the
Gates of Ijtihad. He continued to use Arabic translations of
classical Greek sources, and preferred strictly rational methods to
decide matters in contention. As in the Muslim world the Gates of
Ijtihad had been closed, however, his rulings proved unacceptable.
What happened once the Gates of Ijtihad were closed: The Ottoman
What followed the closing of the Gates of Ijtihad in the Muslim world
were centuries of intellectual and political decline. At the same
time, Europe, with its many states constantly at war with each other,
was on the ascendancy. One of the major reasons Europe advanced
appears to have been that its warring political entities needed to
find new methods of defeating their adversaries. The Europeans were
therefore drawn to study science and technology to enable them to
produce weapons -- powerful naval vessels, for instance, that could
be used in war both at home and overseas. The Muslims, on the other
hand, who had fewer internal wars, had no incentive to invent new
techniques to survive.
Yet all was not lost for the Muslims: European businessmen had
weapons to sell and were perfectly willing to sell them to Muslims.
Additionally, after many European wars, a continuous flow of refugees
fleeing Europe brought their skills and knowledge to the Ottoman
Empire. The Muslims were then able to take advantage of many of the
technological and scientific developments in Europe. This was
essentially how the Ottoman Empire (ca. 1389-1918) was able to hold
its own land -- and even capture European land -- until the
seventeenth century, when it began to lose battles and was forced to
retreat from territories over which, for centuries, it had ruled.
Ottoman literature and chronicles are filled with descriptions of the
Europeans who fled to the Empire, and the technologies they brought
with them. The Ottomans, however, never seem to have asked why it was
that the Europeans invented these technologies while the Muslims did
Why didn´t the Ottomans invent these technologies? So long as the
Ottoman Empire expanded, it did not need to invent them. Could the
answer be -- even in retreat and today - that, as of Gates of
Ijtihad are still closed, Muslim culture does not allow the necessary
What happened once the Gates of Ijtihad were closed: The Muslim world
From what one reads and hears in the media among other places, many
Muslims quietly ask themselves this question, but are afraid to state
it publicly for fear of being ostracized, arrested, or even killed by
their co-religionists. Why, these Muslims ask, can Muslims who
emigrate to the West especially to the U.S. and Canada invent and
innovate in the fields of science and technology, but not in their
When one looks at which Muslims succeed in the West and which do not,
it seems that Muslims who live outside Muslim communities in the
West, or who have, at best, only marginal connections with these
communities, are the most likely to succeed. By examining the lives
of successful Muslims in the West, it seems clear that those who live
in Muslim communities -- and whose social life revolves around these
communities -- seem to suffer from the intellectual constraints just
as their fellow Muslims do in their lands of origin.
According to one Palestinian Muslim who has chosen to live outside
the Muslim community in the U.S., the answer is, "They don´t allow us
to think." ("They" refers to the leaders of the community back home
and abroad.) Muslims, he states, are subjected to intellectual
oppression at home: they are not allowed to question. When young
Muslims do ask questions, their elders usually humiliate them often
publicly -- a sure-fire way to discourage intellectual development
and curiosity. If Muslims repeat what is proscribed, they are
praised; if they question, they are chastised.
The political despotism that characterizes their governments also
seems to filter down to lower levels to suppress dissent, keeping
every individual and group both intimidated and dependent. The same
appears to apply to Muslim communities outside the Muslim world. On
paper, young Muslims who live in the Western world have the freedoms
that any other Western citizens enjoy. In practice, though, this is
not what takes place. Those who speak out, or who do not conform
to Islamic rules as dictated by their communities and families,
During the twentieth century, there were countless attempts, by
Muslim scholars and non-Muslims, to address this problem; but little
seems to have come from them.
The Chinese peasants who went to work as laborers for the British in
Singapore in the 19th century managed to produce the economic marvel
that Singapore is today. Similarly, South Korea went from a semi-
medieval kingdom 50 years ago to the tenth largest economy in the
world. The Muslims of Aden in southern Arabia, however, lived under
British rule, like the Singaporeans, yet they remain as
underdeveloped as their neighbors who never lived under foreign
domination. Singapore´s Lee Kuan Yu, for example, once asked a well-
known scholar of Islam, "Why is it that whatever we do to help our
Muslims advance fails? We provide them with educational
opportunities, give them financial incentives, and so on, but nothing
works. They still remain at the bottom. Why?"
Ijtihad among the Shiites
Shiites have a different approach to the problem of questioning -- an
approach which might help solve the Muslim dilemma of how to remain
Muslim yet take part in the modern world. For Shiites, the Gates of
Ijtihad have never been closed. Shiite religious figures also have
the title mujtahid, or "one who engages in the exercise of
independent judgment and critical thinking to try to solve
There is a noticeable difference between how Shiites in Iran, for
example, and those in Iraq or Lebanon approach exercising independent
judgment. Most Iranian mullahs (especially those involved with the
government) even those who are known as mujtahids -- rarely use
ijtihad. The Iraqi and Lebanese Shiites are more likely to engage in
independent judgment than their counterparts in Iran. As the Shiites
are the dominant group in Iran, they never needed to worry about what
those around them might do to them; hence they had less incentive to
innovate or think creatively. The Shiites under Sunni rule in the
Arab world, however, always had to be concerned about what the Sunnis
might do to them -- a situation that induced these Shiites to find
ways to survive, and possibly be more open to exercising ijtihad.
If one compares different modes of exercising judgment: in the West,
Judeo-Christian thinking is based on divinely-revealed law, but with
a heavy dose of critical --
mostly Aristotelian -- deductive thinking, closer to the Shiite
approach. The Western tradition also sees modern science and
technology as gifts from God, developed by man -- and encourages
When, for example, a medical question recently arose over whether to
abort large numbers of fetuses (over three) to protect the life of
the mother to enable the others more successfully to be brought to
term, senior Shiite religious authorities responded that although
they had not really studied the problem, these were questions to
consider. The Sunnis, however, said that embryos turned into fetuses
because of the will of Allah, so abortion would be unacceptable --
even if the mother and all the fetuses were to die, there was nothing
to be done. Only one Sunni agreed with the Shiite approach a Sufi
mystic who refused to accept that the Gates of Ijtihad were ever
closed but his is not the prevailing approach in the Sunni world.
Even though both Sunni and Shiite religious leaders approach ijtihad
differently, neither encourages their followers to think creatively.
Although in theory Shiite religious leaders can exercise independent
judgment, in practice only a few do so -- and rarely, at that. The
rest of the Shiite community is encouraged instead, in a process
known as taqlid, to choose a religious leader to follow,
then "imitate" him. Although these leaders are allowed to question,
the masses are not encouraged to think, but to follow. So on a
fundamental level, neither Shiites nor Sunnis really approaches
ijtihad all that differently.
Even if, on the surface, the Shiites appear to offer a solution to
the problem of independent thinking, it is hard to imagine, given the
present political climate, how the Sunnis, who constitute about 85%
of the 1.3 billion Muslims of the world, would be prepared to borrow
anything from their Shiite enemies.
Muslim attempts to re-open the Gates of Ijtihad
Most of the governments of the Muslim world are despotic regimes run
by autocrats who do not allow their citizens to question them.
Questioning might lead to insurrection; governments might be
overthrown. These leaders, therefore, make sure to appoint "official"
religious leaders who will endorse the government line. Ijtihad might
lead people to question regimes; a situation that cannot be
tolerated. It is not surprising that calls for re-opening the Gates
of Ijtihad fall on deaf ears, as the Saudis, Egyptians, Emiratis, and
others all do their utmost to stamp out individual thought.
Because questioning religion -- and much else -- is not allowed, some
young Muslims who grow up in Islamic lands find much of what was
forced down their throats meaningless, then reject Islam. When some
of them come to the West, often their first reaction is to stay as
far away from Islam and Muslims as possible. Some, after they remain
in the West for a while, stumble upon books about Islam in libraries;
they start reading and realize that there is a lot of beauty and
knowledge in Islam just not when forced down their throats. They
read, but find almost no one with whom they can share their newfound
If and when they do find a kindred spirit, there is often a sort of
dance a tiptoeing around the real questions mostly out of fear
and suspicion. With time, when they realize that other people might
have similar interests and feel safe enough to open up, they
introduce each other to other men who think like them, but as if
these are secret societies: there is a fear that if others, who may
not agree, find out what they are discussing, both they and their
families back home could suffer. They know well that organized Islam,
even in the West, is controlled overwhelmingly by forces that
strongly oppose ijtihad.
The internet has offered many the anonymity to pursue an interest in
Islam. A surgeon from Malaysia now living in California who says he
is happy with his life there, writes on the internet extensively
about his fascination with Islam and ijtihad. (See his blog at
http://www.bakrimusa.com) His daring has attracted others who write
on his blog about Islam. He also boldly states that he could never
have engaged in these types of discussions about Islam in his native
Malaysia. Could the internet be a way out of this Muslim predicament?
There is also a remarkable group called the Ahl al-Quran which
originated in Egypt. The group´s adherents maintain that the only
true source of Islamic law is the Quran, the only divine text of
Islam. The hadiths and the legal exegesis which constitute Shari´a
law, they argue, are just interpretations of the Quran. The
interpretations were made by man, and occurred because of problems
Muslims had after the Quran was revealed. The scholars addressed
problems Muslims faced centuries ago. Muslims in the 21st century,
they state, face different problems and should use the Quran and
only the Quran, just as the earliest Islamic scholars did to find
solutions to modern problems. They see no reason why Muslim scholars
today cannot think creatively as the scholars of early Islam used to
As it is more comfortable to find Quranic material that can be used
to address modern situations, and not then feel encumbered by the
enormous weight of the hadiths and other legal and interpretive
material from ancient religious scholars, an Egyptian organization,
Ahl al-Quran, maintains that science and technology are Allah´s gifts
to man, to be used to address contemporary problems.
After Egypt´s religious establishment ordered the Ahl al-Quran
banned, arrested, or expelled, the group was forced to flee; it is
now based in the United States. Why was it forced out? Its adherents,
well versed in the Quran, rejected the imposed decision-making of
Egypt´s al-Azhar religious establishment, and stated that Islam
strongly opposes dictatorship in both its political and religious
forms. Instead, this group has been using the Quran to demonstrate
that the original Muslim community was inclusive and that it
encouraged discussion, both of which today are absent in Egypt
and throughout the Muslim world.
When Western officials ask Egyptian political and religious officials
about the Ahl al-Quran, the Egyptians laugh and smear the group,
labeling its members as crazy extremists with no following. Sadly,
because of our ignorance of Islamic culture, or political pressures,
we usually accept what the Egyptian government officials tell us
without subjecting their remarks to "our own ijtihad," thereby
closing our eyes to a force which could help save the Muslim world
from itself, and possibly even help prevent a clash between the
Western and Muslim worlds.
Is there a chance that the Muslims could reopen the Gates of Ijtihad?
For the foreseeable future, the answer seems to be a resounding no.
The mislabeled "Arab Spring" has turned into an "Arab Winter" in
which the forces who apparently want to recreate an imagined,
glorious past society modeled after what they believe their prophet
established. Add to that the huge amounts of money Wahhabi "allies"
of the U.S. are spending throughout the Muslim world, to propagate
their militant version of Islam, and things do not look promising.
Those who understand that without itjihad, they have no future, are
being forced underground, and, if they are lucky, then emigrate.
These emigrants who think critically rarely move into Islamic
communities where critical thinking is discouraged.
The way things look now, only if the forces which want to bring back
seventh century Islamic society were to suffer a massive defeat,
could there be much hope. Only then, after the anti-ijtihad forces
were defeated and no longer had access to unlimited financial
resources with which to spread their anti-critical thinking, can
Until then, the Gates of Ijtihad will almost assuredly remain tightly
shut, and the forces which now control Islam will see to it that they
Regrettably, if this analysis is correct, the future does not look
able to be transformed for the Muslim world or its adherents in the
near future. Until Muslim countries and communities in the West allow
their people to express themselves freely -- without fear of
reprisal -- it is unlikely that the Muslim world will be able to
reopen the Gates of Ijtihad and again become a center of science and
creativity as it used to be in the early centuries of Islam.
 According to early Islamic doctrine, so Muslims as a community
could not go wrong, decisions were made by discussing problems which
faced the community. But as the community grew in size, it became
unwieldy to call the community together in one meeting.
 The Sunnis (about 85% of the Muslim world) accept al-Bukhari; but
the Shiites have their own collections of hadiths.
 For example, when the Muslims reached India about 100 years after
Muhammad´s death, they came across a culture not mentioned in the
Quran. While Islam is fiercely monotheistic, Hinduism has many gods
and idols, anathema to Islam. The Quran demands that polytheists be
enslaved, then offered the choice of conversion to Islam or death.
During the early Muslim conquests of India, Hindus were massacred or
enslaved, but there were simply too many Hindus for the Muslims to be
able to comply with what was required by the Quran. The Muslims
therefore devised the following solution: The Quran lists three
groups of people who had received a revelation from God prior to
Islam, and were therefore allowed to live under Islamic rule: the
Jews, the Christians, and the Sabi´ah. No one knew who the Sabi´ah
were, so the Muslims seem to have decided that that this term
referred to other large groups such as the Hindus and Zoroastrian
Persians. This decision evidently enabled the Muslims to allow Hindus
live as Hindus under Muslim rule.
 The Jews, who did not have a state of their own, seem not to have
constituted a threat to the Muslims. Moreover, unlike Christianity
and Islam, Judaism is not a triumphalist religion one whose
adherents believe they have the final revelation from God to mankind,
and therefore the obligation to bring that religion to the rest of
humanity. Christianity and Islam, on the other hand, were rivals.
 For example, a certain ruler of Egypt, the Fatimid (Isma´ili
Shiite) ruler al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah, (985- ca. 1021) declared himself
God. The Druze still regard him as divine.
 When, for instance, the Canadian Muslim woman, Irshad Manji, as a
teenager, questioned her imam about his sermons, she was chastised by
the imam, and ostracized by her family and community. She said she
clearly respected Islam and considered herself an observant Muslim,
but that her thoughts on re-opening the Gates of Ijtihad as a way of
saving Islam fell on deaf ears.
 This shows why surveys done in the Muslim world, especially in
the more totalitarian countries, on topics involving politics or
questioning authority, are meaningless: the consequences of telling
anyone that you think differently from the prevailing trend could be
devastating. Western academics and officials might do well to keep
that in mind when they speak with locals about their thoughts.
 Probably best translated as "Quranics": those who believe only in
which almost everyone in Egypt sees as a tool of the Egypt
government. It repeats whatever the government tells it to say.
 See footnote 1 on ijma´ the concept of consensus in Islam.
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