A Case for Ijtehad*
By Dr. Basheer A. Khan
Garden Grove , CA
The principles of Religion (Deen) are few, unambiguous, discreet and unalterable; and Allah commands that we do not deviate from them, or add anything to them (Ch 43 V13, Ch10 V105, Ch 6 V 153). On the other hand, Shariah which is the code of practice of the principles of religion, is elaborate and subject to changes with the need of the community at a given time, and Allah says about it that He has made a law and a way for every people (Ch 5 V 48). While the major religious denominations share some of the common beliefs, what distinguish them from each other are the practices in its name.
Muslims are unique in this that their whole life from morning till night and from birth till death is theo-centric and revolves round their religion. It has to remain so not to differentiate them from others, but to nurture their faith and to develop them into perfect individuals through these practices which discipline the individual for the greater good of family, society and mankind, in accordance with the divine law. If these religious practices are not made easy to suit with the constraint of changing time, then Muslims will not only lose their identity by abandoning these practices, but also deprive themselves from the opportunity of evolving into perfect human beings. It is therefore necessary that Muslim scholars take stock of the pulse of the community on various issues facing them at this time with regard to their religious obligations, and make all possible and permissible recommendation to make their religious lives easy, and to save Muslims from the stigma of some wrong practices that have crept into it in the name of religion.
On the basis of the unfounded fear of diluting and changing the religion, some of the traditionalists are shy to accept any change in the prevalent practices even at the risk of alienating Muslims from their religion. They insist on adherence to the existing practices even though they are based upon the interpretation and understanding of the scholars of early age (Aslaaf) in accordance with the conditions of their time. In doing so they forget the fact that in spite of all their knowledge and all their sincerity Aslaf did not have the foresight to see the situation of our time and give us a Shariah that is apt for it. Imam Abu Haneefa RA, one of the few early scholars to expound the Shariah, made it clear to his followers that this was his understanding of religion and those who differed may practice what they think is more appropriate. The result was that his student, Imam Abu Yusuf RA, made several changes to his teachers’ Sharaa.
Hereditary Monarchy which took over the Islamic world at an early part of its existence forced some practices in the name of religion to consolidate their rule, and others to discredit the religion and make it ineffective in challenging their pursuit of power and pleasures. The turbulence in the early part of Islamic history did not give Muslim scholars time and resources to focus on the issues of Shariah for fear of opening up a Pandora’s Box at a time when Muslims were affronted with other problems. In spite of all this, sincere and knowledgeable Muslim scholars have made tremendous sacrifices to protect the religion and keep it in its pristine form as best as they could. But the work of revisiting Shariah and revitalizing it to meet the challenges of modern time and to restore its dynamism and equilibrium is craving for attention.
It is heartening to see that the Fiqh Council of North America has given some practical directions to Muslims in relation to mortgages of their dwellings, and in observance of Ramadan and Ei’dain on predetermined dates by basing the lunar calendar on astronomical calculations. Because of lack of unanimity between traditionalist and reformists scholars on need of such reforms, common Muslim who is being incited to take charge of his religion is poised to hijack the religion and destroy its image beyond recognition by his senseless interpretations of it. With their depth of faith and their commitment to religion, the traditional Muslim scholars may not have a problem in observing the Shariah as it is, but as inheritors of prophetic legacy they should not forget the saying of Prophet SA: Make religion easy and not difficult, give the people glad tidings and do not turn them away.
Shariah is a product of the evolutionary process. That is why Prophet SA resented his companions from asking unnecessary questions, and so did Qur’an (Ch.5 V 101), lest Muslims are bound by the pronouncements made in response to these questions and it becomes a burden on them like it became a burden on people before (Ch 5 V 102). Prophet SA admonished his companion when he asked him if Hajj was obligatory upon Muslims every year. This was because Prophet SA wanted to leave this matter to the convenience of the people rather than making it a dictate of Shariah. Prophet SA appreciated Ma’az RA when he said: If he does not find a solution to the problems of people of Yemen , where he was deputed as governor, in Qur’an and Sunnah, then he will strive hard to find a solution of his own. All this shows that Allah and His Messenger SA had given a lot of liberty to Muslims in living their religion in accordance with the need of time and place and scholars were entrusted with the responsibility of guiding them in it. It is to the credit of the Muslim Ummah and the Muslim scholars who used this liberty with great responsibility that Islam is in its authentic form for fourteen hundred years after the death of Prophet Muhammad SA.
By closing the door of Ijtehad (diligence in interpreting religion in accordance with the need of time) we have made Islam lose its vitality in the fond hope of maintaining its originality, in fact we are making it slip into antiquity. A religion which came to guide mankind for eternity can’t serve its function if Shariah loses its evolutionary nature.
Rigidity is no substitute to rationality in matters of deen, which is a way of living our lives, was demonstrated by this anecdote in the life of Prophet SA when he SA went to Medina . The agricultural community of Medina posed him this question if their practice of rubbing the date flowers with each other on date palm in the hope of increasing the yield was against the principle of Tawakkul (Belief that whatever happens, happens with the will of Allah), Prophet SA replied in the affirmative. When the date yield in the following year fell short, he amended his ruling and said: Anthoom A’alamoo bi umoori doonyakum. You know your worldly affairs better than me. It was this humility, this adaptability and this use of common sense that made Prophet SA the leader of the most successful revolution in human history brought in a span of only 23 years. By shunning this adaptability in favor of rigidity under the unfounded fear of losing originality, we are making the dynamic religion that came to guide mankind for eternity, obsolete.
It is time now that we reform some of the aspects of Shariah which are crying out for reform and restore the dynamism, utility and equilibrium of Islam in facing the modern day challenges. This is the job of Muslim scholars and scholars alone. If they don’t take initiative on this then the Satanical forces are out to use the ignorant and misguided Muslim to defame and destroy Islam. If we don’t clean our house then others are waiting to demolish it under the pretext of cleaning it.
InshaAllah, I will try to draw the attention of Muslim scholars on some of the issues that need their attention in my articles in the coming weeks and months.
(* Diligence in interpreting religion in accordance with the need of time)