Ijtihad is generally translated as ‘independent critical reasoning.’ It means to strive with one’s total ability and make efforts to reach a goal which in this case is to endeavour to deduce the divine laws of Shari’ah from the reliable sources. Ijtihad is a technical term employed in Islamic jurisprudence (Fiqh) and refers to the use of independent judgement to arrive at legal rulings in matters that are not explicitly addressed in the Quran and Sunnah. A scholar who engages in Ijtihad is known as a Mujtahid.
In early period, Ijtihad, along with terms such as al-Ray, Qiyas, and Zann referred to sound and balanced personal reasoning. By the third century Hijrah, however, Prophetic traditions replaced these terms as the primary indicators of the law after the Quran. The term Qiyas remained operative but was severely curtailed by jurists of all schools. All jurists and theologians, including those who, in all other matters, held opposing views, however, universally embraced Ijtihad. This was perhaps due to Ijtihad’s authority residing on a prophetic tradition, but more likely it was because the actual definition of the term varied from jurist to jurist. It is often contrasted with Taqlid (imitation, tradition), which refers to acceptance of rulings reached in the past by ‘Ulema belonging to a particular legal school or tradition, such as one of the four chief Sunni legal schools. The two tendencies, Ijtihad and Taqlid, have sometimes worked together and sometimes in opposite directions. Both have played significant roles in the development of the Islamic legal tradition. Taqlid helped to preserve the Muslim community’s memory of the sacred past, while Ijtihad helped them to adapt to changes, and new issues arising in the present.
Many Muslim thinkers regard Ijtihad as the key to the implementation of God’s will in any given time or place. Especially in post-colonial period, Islamic thinkers used Ijtihad as shorthand for intellectual and social reform, and as a break from Taqlid or blind imitation of past legal rulings. The poet-philosopher, Allama Muhammad Iqbal, for instance, saw Ijtihad as the catalyst for Islam’s intellectual resurgence, whereas Muhammad ‘Abduh, considered it a break from traditional scholarship. Ijtihad served to validate the reformist’s efforts to subordinate the sacred texts to the exigencies of a modern context.
Muslim intellectuals of the 20th century and of contemporary era show enthusiasm for the concept of Ijtihad. They used it to describe ‘creativity’—against the rigidity’ or Taqlid. In the context of modern world, Altaf Gauhar describes the advocacy of Ijtihad in his book, ‘The Challenge of Islam.’ “The Muslim scholars should try utmost to initiate universal Ijtihad at all levels,” writes Guahar in his book, “The faith is fresh; it is the Muslim mind which is befogged. The principles of Islam are dynamic; it is our approach which has become static. Let there be fundamental rethinking to open avenues of exploration, innovation and creativity.” For Taha Jabir al ‘Alwani, “The reality, the essence, the rules, the conditions, the premises, the means, and the scope of Ijtihad have remained a source of debate engaging some of the Islamic world’s greatest theologians, scholars of al-‘usul, and fuqaha,” from the very beginning. Due to which, it was concluded in 4th century Hijrah that the “gates of Ijtihad have been closed”. Moreover, for Prof Khurshid Ahmad, “God has revealed only broad principles and has endowed man with the freedom to apply them in every age in the way suited to the spirit and conditions of that age. It is through Ijtihad that people of every age try to implement and apply divine guidance to the problems of their times.”
Regarding Ijtihad as the “principle of movement in the structure of Islam,” Allama Iqbal in specifically political terms, had already noted the relationships between Ijma, democratization and Ijtihad. In his ‘Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam’, Iqbal writes: “The transfer of the power of Ijtihad from individual representatives of schools to a Muslim legislative assembly which, in view of the growth of opposing sects, is the only form Ijma can take place in modern times will secure contributions to legal discussion from laymen who happen to possess a keen insight into affairs. In this way alone can we stir into activity the dormant spirit of life in our legal system outlook, and give it an evolutionary outlook.”
Many Muslim thinkers today support the idea of using Ijtihad to adapt the Shariah to modern life, even if it means turning away from rulings preserved in the traditional legal schools. Some independent-minded reformers or “progressive thinkers” argue that it should be the right for any educated Muslim “to use Ijtihad to bypass legal tradition and construct an Islam suited to individual values and spiritual outlook.”
Because of the danger of misuse, Ijtihad has always been a crucial, central, and “controversial concept” and the need of the hour is to interpret Ijtihad in such a way that it can be used to justify the results—for it has a great significance and relevance in the present prevailing conditions in the Muslim world.