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Is Ijtihad a Real Thing in Islam?

For the longest time in Islamic history, the issue of ijtihad in Shari’ah (Islamic jurisprudence) and principles of fiqh (usul al-Fiqh) spark heated debate in both positive and negative lights. Some sects contend that the only sources Muslims should ultimately rely on are the Holy Qur’an and Hadith of our beloved Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him.

Some other sects believe and besides the two aforementioned sources of indisputable authenticity, jurists are also allowed to rely on secondary sources which are not mentioned in the Qur’an and Sunnah. 

Traditional or classical jurists hold firmly that the intellectual faculty or reason is a blessing from Allah Almighty which should be exercised to its fullest potential. However, arriving at a novel rule should not rely solely on the intellectual faculty, but rather, it should be drawn from the primary sources of transcendental knowledge.

Now, before we dive into the interesting facts about Ijtihad and its importance in Islamic history, let’s look at what ijtihad truly means, the conditions of performing ijtihad, as well as Qur’anic verses and ahadith supporting the act of ijtihad. 

What Is Ijtihad?

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In the context of Usul Al-Fiqh, ijtihad or ijtihad ar-ya’y (personal opinion) is defined as an act of referring to independent reasoning or thorough exertion of an expert’s intellectual faculty to arrive at a solution to a legal question or issue not addressed in the primary sources of Islamic law (i.e Qur’an and Sunnah).

In other words, it is not an act of conjecture or assumption of arriving at a new rule, but rather a means of extreme effort and thorough exertion of an expert’s reasoning to find the best solution to a legal issue in Islamic ruling.

This method of arriving at a ruling should not and cannot be done by a layman or commoner. According to the Sunnis, to perform the act of ijtihad alone requires expertise in various religious disciplines such as theology, the revealed scriptures, usul al-fiqh, and more. These experts are also known as mutjahid. The qualifications of a mujtahid will be further explained in the following section of this article.

How Is Ijtihad Relevant in Usul Al-Fiqh?

As mentioned previously, all Muslims agree that we should rely on the Qur’an and Sunnah as our primary sources of Islamic Jurisprudence. However, the question arises when some matters are not addressed or are ambiguous in these two sources. What happens then? 

This is when the secondary sources of Shari’ah play a pivotal role to draw their own argumentation, but should abide by certain conditions, experts in Islamic jurisprudence, and methodologies.

The Secondary Sources of Shari’ah

1. Ijma’ 

Ijma’ means consensus, and it has the potential to change the status of a ruling based on probable evidence to absolute certainty. It is formed by qualified jurists representing various communities. This method leaves no room for a legal question to be opened for further discussion.

Some of the cases in Islamic history utilising the method of ijma’ include; the overall consensus by scholars on the five obligatory prayers, recitation of Adhan before prayers, and the prohibition of swine and other carcasses in Islam. 

2. Qiyas and ’Aql (Reason)

Qiyas is defined as analogical reasoning, which is only primarily used to arrive at a solution for an issue that is not explicitly addressed in the primary sources by analogy with a scripturally based rule. 

In a very prominent and popular instance of the utilisation of qiyas, the Holy Qur’an explicitly mentions the prohibition of drinking wine, which extends to all kinds of substances with properties of intoxication. This includes drug use and, to some extent, some scholars agree that smoking is also an intoxicant that harms physical health.

In this context, the original case as stated in the Qur’an (prohibition of drinking wine) is known as asl, along with its legal ruling of the original case called hukm al-asl. The extension, new or parallel to the original case (prohibition of drug use and smoking), is known as far. Lastly, the effective cause (intoxication) is known as ‘illah.

3. Ijtihad

Above all, ijtihad is a combination of processes of various principles along with other sets of methodologies like istihsan (juristic preference), istislah (consideration of public interest), and istishab (presumption of continuity). It is as such one of the most essential methodologies to arrive at a solution to an issue if it is not being addressed in any of the primary sources, as mentioned earlier. 

At the end of the day, what is the primary purpose of ijtihad? One of them is to discover the intention of Allah Almighty — the Ultimate Lawgiver — and to carefully arrive at new rulings for novel legal issues. 

Juma Shaban listed down the requirements of a mujtahid to arrive at a ruling by the implementation of ijtihad:

  • Well-versed and knowledgeable of the Qur’an and Sunnah related to ahkam (hukm).
  • Well-versed with the knowledge of abrogation and the abrogated.
  • Good knowledge of the Arabic language, ijma’, and other principles of Islamic Jurisprudence (usul al-fiqh).
  • Well-versed in the objectives of Shari’ah (maqasid al-Shari’ah). 
  • Capable of distinguishing between strong and weak evidence.

What Do the Qur’an and Hadith Say About Ijtihad?


In this section, we will uncover certain Qur’anic verses as well as ahadith to support the notion of using our ‘aql, one of the biggest blessings Allah Almighty has endowed us with.

Using reason within Qur’an:

1. “Indeed, the worst living creatures in the sight of Allāh are the deaf and dumb who do not use reason.” [Qur’an 8:22]

2. “And it is not for a soul to believe except by permission of Allah, and He will place defilement upon those who will not use reason.” [Qur’an 10:100]

3. “And We have certainly left of it a sign as clear evidence for a people who use reason.” [Qur’an 29:35]

Here are some ahadith on the use of ijtihad and how important these events are in the history of Islamic jurisprudence.

Using reason within Hadith:

1. “Were it not that it would be too difficult for my Ummah, I would have commanded them to use the Siwak at (the time of) every Salah.” [Sahih Bukhari and Muslim]

2. “A man said: ‘O Messenger of Allah! My father has died, and he did not perform Hajj; shall I perform Hajj on his behalf?’ He said: ‘Don’t you think that if your father owed a debt you would pay it off?’ The man said: ‘Yes.’ He said: ‘The debt owed to Allah is more deserving (of being paid off).'” [Sunan al-Nasa’ie]

3. “The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, sent Mu’adh to Yemen and he said, ‘How will you judge?’ Mu’adh said, ‘I will judge according to the Book of Allah.’ The Prophet said, ‘What if it is not in the Book of Allah?’ Mu’adh said, ‘Then, with the Sunnah of the messenger of Allah.’ The Prophet said, ‘What if it is not in the Sunnah of the Messenger of Allah?’ Mu’adh said, ‘Then, I will strive to form an opinion.’ The Prophet said, ‘All praise is due to Allah, who has made suitable the messenger of the Messenger of Allah.'” [Sunan al-Tirmidhi]

4. “On the day of Al-Ahzab (i.e. Clans) the Prophet said, ‘None of you Muslims should offer the Asr prayer but at Banu Quraiza’s place.’ The Asr prayer became due for some of them on the way. Some of those said, ‘We will not offer it till we reach it, the place of Banu Quraiza,’ while some others said, ‘No, we will pray at this spot, for the Prophet did not mean that for us.’ Later on, it was mentioned to the Prophet and he did not berate any of the two groups.” [Sahih al-Bukhari]

Based on the first hadith, Imam al-Nawawi and Imam Ibnu Hajar al-’Asqalani found that the narration is sound evidence for the permissibility of our beloved Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, to provide his personal reasoning in matters not stated by Allah Almighty.

In the second hadith, Imam Syeikh Wahbah al-Zuhaily expounded that the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, provided his own ijtihad to answer the man’s legal question without waiting for the revelation first.

Last but certainly not least is the famous hadith on the use of ijtihad during the times of the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, that shows us that when it comes to ijtihad, sometimes even the most contrasting options can both be valid.

Is Ijtihad Valid in Islamic Jurisprudence?

In conclusion, we can all agree that the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, was allowed to provide his ijtihad to legal issues related to both worldly and religious matters as stated from the examples above.

The majority of scholars believe that ijtihad is in fact a valid method or principle in Islamic jurisprudence to solve issues that are not addressed in the Qur’an and Hadith. With the passage of the blooming trajectory of Islamic sciences in recent eras, the methodology is now deemed more comprehensive and is carefully curated to ensure that jurists arrive at a flawless solution or answer to a new legal issue in Islamic ruling.