One of the criticisms leveled against Islam is that it is a religion frozen in time, one that has not embraced new paradigms of the modern world. In reality, Islam has always been a living, vibrant faith that adapts to new and changing circumstances.
Though some scholars have attempted to freeze the interpretation of Islam, most accept the view that Islamic Divine Law, or Sharia, is subject to ongoing re-evaluation according to the principles of juristic reasoning, known as ijtihād. The purpose of this ongoing process of ijtihād is to adapt Sharia to changing societal circumstances. Thus, most Islamic scholars say that “the door of ijtihād" remains open.
Ijtihād has a rich and controversial history that is worth examining in order to understand the issues surrounding it today. The concept of ijtihād emerged out of necessity in a highly eventful period when the Muslim community was expanding rapidly into new lands and cultures. With expansion, Islam’s ability to adapt to new environments was tested, and the community of believers saw the need to develop and formalize methods of adjusting Islamic regulations to various socio-cultural contexts. Brilliant scholars emerged to lead this effort. Each of these luminaries had a direct connection to the Prophet, his companions or their successors - a practice that guaranteed the authenticity of their understanding of this complex process of adaptation.
While the Koran and Hadith (traditions of the Prophet and his companions) were grounded in a fixed time, place and socio-cultural milieu of seventh-century Arabia, Islam’s message and the law that it brought was for every time and place. So, scholars sought to penetrate the principles behind the thousands of rulings made in the time of the Prophet and his successors in order to build a system of precedent-based law that would provide a solid foundation for jurists in the future.
These principles include the consensus of scholars, analogy to prior rulings, pursuit of the greater good, the idea that a lesser harm is preferable to a greater harm, and the importance of pre-existing customs and practices. These principles stipulate that law can depend on precedence, not unlike the way that contemporary American laws must conform to the precedent of existing law and court case history, or the way in which Jewish Kashrut law builds on the rulings of earlier scholars, which depend on analogy with situations addressed in the Torah or in the tradition of Moses ¡ and the Judaic prophets.
Over time, different scholars developed different schools of jurisprudence based on these principles, and after three centuries, there were more than 400 different schools with subtle variations of interpretation. Unfortunately, instead of benefiting from the diversity of opinions, adherents of one school sometimes became adversarial to other schools, insisting that their own interpretation and methodology was the only correct one. This resulted in debate, conflict and finally open bloodshed between adherents of different schools - something their founders never intended.
In order to stop this confusion, fourteenth-century Sunni Islamic scholars banned the creation of new schools. Then the number of “acceptable” schools was whittled down to the four with the largest followings, each named after their founding scholars: Maliki, now found primarily in Africa; Ħanafī, found in Central Asia, Turkey, the Balkans and the Indian sub-continent; Shāfi¿ī, followed in the Middle East and Southeast Asia; and Ħanbalī, followed mainly in the Arabian Peninsula.
With the establishment of the four schools, the process of ijtihād was restricted, in order to prevent the factionalist strife that ensued with a proliferation of methods of interpreting Islamic law, but it was not eliminated. Rather, as time passed these schools refined their founders¿ principles of deriving law and legal judgments. By the time they emerged as the four Sunni schools, each had established a complete methodology for legal questions in light of changing times, places, circumstances and social milieus.
An oft-cited example is that of Imām Shāfi¿ī who, when first formulating the basic rulings of his school in Baghdad, took a relaxed approach to social interaction between men and women in public places. However, after moving to Cairo, he called for stricter rules of separation between genders. When asked why, he cited the cultural differences that he observed between Egyptians and Iraqis that necessitated stricter regulations to prevent adultery.
A more recent example of this sort of reasoning is found in the legal ruling, issued by Sheikh ¿Alī Jumaa, the Grand Mufti of Egypt, which permits Muslims living in non-Muslim lands to buy, sell and serve alcoholic drinks. This ruling came as a shock to many, but was based on solid Islamic juristic reasoning. While it appears to directly contradict the Koran and Hadith, it was based on an earlier ruling by Imām Abū Ħanīfa, whose school is by far the largest in the world. Imām Abū Ħanīfa argued that in a place where Sharia is not observed, Muslims may circumvent the law in accordance with vital need. Thus, Sheikh Jumaa derived his ruling not from a newfound openness to alcohol in Islam, but from a principle enunciated early in Islam by Imām Abū Ħanīfa, founder of one of the four Sunni schools.
These examples demonstrate the living, vibrant nature of Islamic jurisprudence, as well as its ability to respond to new challenges and changing times. However, it must be stressed that this practice of juristic reasoning, or ijtihād, is strictly limited to those with the required legal and spiritual training and knowledge.
Jurisprudence requires not just knowledge and understanding of the sacred texts, but a deep comprehension of the circumstances around the issue being addressed and an intuitive spiritual wisdom that guides the jurist toward a decision that fulfils not just the letter of the law, but also the practical realities of a given time and place. The spiritual wisdom needed to derive well-rounded and valued rulings is not something that comes from excessive study or memorization. Rather, it is an inner light that comes from sincere devotion to Allah and a spiritual connection to the source of guidance. That light is developed and maintained by means of rigorous exercises under the guidance of masters of spiritual training and enlightenment.
The history of Islam shows that ijtihād and juristic reasoning, conducted by competent and spiritually enlightened scholars, have enabled the social, cultural and intellectual adaptation of Islam to innumerable contexts. This living, vibrant heritage, that is open to change and adaptation, will continue to sustain the faith through many centuries to come.
Published by Common Ground News Service (CGNews), April 12, 2005