Islamic Law Seeking Knowledge

Towards Understanding Ijtihad and Taqleed: A Brief Introduction

The Ijtihad Series: Part 1

“In the Arabic dictionary, the root  (ج ح د: j-h-d ) is defined as “the exertion of effort on a matter that requires it.” In all of its different applications, the term denotes the expenditure of mental and intellectual effort. A mujtahid, therefore, is a scholar who researches and studies all of the sources, information, statistics, and available material about a subject until he/she is satisfied that he/she has done everything to learn about the subject in question. After expending all of that effort, it may reasonably be assumed that his/her opinion is reliable (Issues in Contemporary Islamic Thought, 2005). “…the Mujtahid is he who derives rulings from the detailed evidences [the Qur’an and Sunnah] (The Relation of Philosophy to Usul al-Fiqh, 1996).

A muqallid by definition is the entire opposite of a mujtahid. By definition, the muqallid is that person who instead of treading the scholarly path of exhaustive research in search of evidence and truth entrusts another with the responsibility of research and understanding. Therefore, he follows the research of others, trusting the judgment of the researcher without knowing the evidence, the basis for the conclusion reached by the scholar. Imam Shaukani (radi Allahu ‘anhu – may Allah be pleased with him) is of the position that the muqallid is he who places a neck brace on the neck of the mujtahid, holding him responsible for the outcome of his research (Taqleed wa Ahkamuhu, 1996). Imam Shaukani (ra) wrote vehemently against taqleed as did his protégé, Allamah Sadiq Hasan al-Khan (ra). What some fail to mention, however, is that Imam Shaukani (ra) in his work Adab al-Arab Muntaha laid down a multistage curriculum that outlined various levels of knowledge and nowhere does he advocate intellectual anarchy or tolerant ignorance. Ijtihad demands learning, and further, a certain rank of learning.

Because in the case of the muqallid there is an absence of knowledge and understanding, the term carries a negative connotation to the degree that taqleed has come to mean one who slavishly follows another, and as some would add, follows blindly. Shaikh al-Albani (ra) was of the opinion that taqleed is prohibited because the essence of taqleed is ignorance. On the other hand, he held that ijtihad was not for an individual but itiba. Itiba is following someone while knowing the basis for the position one is following; this can be termed enlightened following (Ijtihad wa’l Ifta, N.D). A point to be made here is that itiba does not entail understanding the scholarly logic and process employed in reaching a conclusion. Rather, itiba usually entails knowing what ayat of the Qur’an and or hadith is the basis for the ruling that one is following. What is absent, generally speaking, in the case of itiba is that he who follows this principle does not necessarily understand the justification and scholarly process that are invested in coming to a conclusion.

Many have subscribed to the position of Shaikh Nasr ad-Deen al-Albani (ra) on taqleed. The position is widespread in popular understanding, but what is lacking is the understanding that Shaikh al-Albani (ra) did not promote the idea that ijtihad is an individual obligation–rather, itiba is an individual obligation in his school of thought. Consequently, education is obligatory on every Muslim; every Muslim is obligated to come to a mature understanding of Islam. The fundamental crisis that we suffer in the discourse on ijtihad and taqleed is that little mention is made of the need for educational and scholarly rigor. These terms are employed without understanding how they fit into scholarly discourse.

Al-Ghazzali (ra) defined ijtihad as “the expending, on the part of a mujtahid, of all what he is capable of in order to seek knowledge of the Shariah’s injunctions.” In a further clarification of this definition, he then wrote: “Complete ijtihad happens when the mujtahid expends all of his energies in seeking, to a point where he/she is satisfied that no more can be done.”  This definition refers to ijtihad in the field of law, and indicates that the effort expended must be exhaustive and emanate from those who are qualified. If an unqualified person undertakes these same efforts, one cannot say that ijtihad has been performed (Issues in Contemporary Islamic Thought, 2005).” Ijtihad here is restricted to derivation of legal norms from the sacred sources of Islam, so it meaning is fixed on the legal (fiqh). “Among the (difficult issues) is that the investigative study of the Qur’an and the Sunnah for the purpose of recognizing the Shar’iah rulings is at various degrees (Hujjat-Ullah al Baligha, 2003). Put differently, there are different levels of ijtihad, a matter to be discussed and treated in a separate section, insha’Allah.

There are two directions that definitions for “ijtihad” can take. The first of these directions is that the definition remains in the linguistic realm and the second direction is that the definition is terminological. In the first case, the definition is general. Consequently, the term ijtihad is not confined to producing fiqh in a legal sense, but rather, the linguistic definition is capable of carrying a sense which refers to a civilizational project that transcends the meanings confined to the term as understood in the literature of fiqh and its principles (Usul al-Fiqh). (More on this to come, inshAllah.) We should understand, however, that fiqh and its principles (Usul al-Fiqh) have maintained a tight hold on the term ijtihad, thereby restricting its senses. This distinction is relevant when attempting to understand what (احياء تجديد و) revival and resuscitation denote as categories of thought and concepts in Islamic scholarly inheritance and discourses.

Dr. Abdullah Bin Bayyah makes clear to us that ijtihad has customarily been given a restricted meaning confined to the specific effort put forth on the part of the Muslim jurisprudent.  He states, “[i]t is necessary that an exertion of one’s ability is exhausted in the case of the mujtahid, but in the case of the muqallid the exertion of his ability to the point of exhaustion is not deemed ijtihad in the specific meaning of the term (The Craft of Fatwa, 2007).” According to Dr. Taha Jabir, “Ijtihad meant that teachings, ideas and judgments should not be taken at face value, nor adhered to blindly, but ought to be scrutinized and understood within a proper perspective. Ijithad began to develop as a science in its own right, offering a new methodology based on the observation of the objective of the objective world (Jabir, 1993).”

“The Ulema are in agreement that ijtihad is permissible after the passing of the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ (peace be upon him)…(Ijtihad and the Consideration of Harm and Benefit, 1984).” “There is no doubt that the role of ijtihad is to regulate and guide man’s actions to accomplish his role as vicegerent of Allah on earth, as Allah intended (Fiqh of Minorities, 2003). “The pivotal issue here, then, is the nature, value, quality and purpose of man’s actions. This is the fundamental objective of legislation, now and in the past, divine or man-made. All divine doctrines were aimed at guiding man’s actions to fulfill the purpose of his being which is to serve Allah in the widest possible sense of the word. Islam made ijtihad an intellectual state of mind that inspires man to think systematically and according to specific rational methods, and not simply a dogmatic activity constrained within the mere formulations of rules and fatwas (Fiqh of Minorities, 2003).”

“One of the most important issues which has faced, and continues to face, Muslim minds today, and which will undoubtedly continue to pose a real challenge to the Ummah in the future, is that of ijtihad. Considering that the accepted juridical sources of Islam [Qur’an and Sunnah] are valid for all times and places, ijtihad may be described as a creative but disciplined intellectual effort to derive legal rulings from those sources while taking into consideration the variables imposed by the fluctuating circumstances of Muslim society.

Islam “…encouraged the use of the intellect in the study and application of these two sources [Qur’an and Sunnah] as human behavior was to be judged and regulated along the new Islamic legislation. As part of this process, and in order to achieve the required transformation in the human intellect and remove any impediment or restriction which would hamper its development, not only did the Prophet ﷺ encourage his Companions to exercise ijtihad, but would also tolerate from them naïve interpretations while wisely and patiently improving their ability in this regard (Ijtihad, 1993).”  “The ijtihad made by the Companions was always in response to situations which actually occurred to them. Later, when they met the Prophet ﷺ, they would explain what had happened and tell him what they had decided. Sometimes, he approved of their ijtihad, and such decisions of theirs (having the approval of the Prophet ﷺ) became part of the Sunnah. If he did not approve of their ijtihad, his explanation of the correct procedure would become Sunnah (Source Methodology, 2003). In this light, we see that ijtihad was practiced in the time of the Prophet ﷺ; in fact, he taught the Companions the proper methods and contours for ijtihad.

About the author

Yusuf Rios (Abul Hussein)

Yusuf Rios (Abul Hussein)

Yusuf Rios was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. While becoming a Catholic priest, Yusuf discovered the path to Islam. He studied Islamic sciences for a period of seven years, studying with scholars in Cleveland, Ohio before receiving a work-study contract with the Islamic American University. At the Islamic American University, he read Arabic and a limited number of Islamic sciences intensively for one year. He then traveled to Cairo, Egypt where he resided for five years. There, he attended a number of intensive courses at Arabic learning centers. After these courses, he joined various scholarly circles, reading Islamic sciences with a host of scholars of diverse expertise and orientations. Yusuf takes particular pride in having studied intimately with a number of scholars from al-Azhar University. Likewise, he has great love and attachment to Egypt and especially al-Azhar Mosque where he studied for the major portion of his residence in Egypt. Yusuf has a Bachelors in Western Philosophy and Sociology and is working on a Masters in Education. He serves as an instructor in Islamic Sciences with Islamic American University and in local mosques in Dearborn, Michigan and Cleveland, Ohio. His four main research areas in Islamic sciences are in the areas of Usul al-Fiqh, Maqasid ash Shar’ia, Hadith Sciences, and Fiqh.

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  • Jzk for this article Ustadh. I think there’s a typo it should read Muqallid not muqallad, the latter is synonymous to mujtahid.

  • JazakAllahu khairan for the article, I thought the three letter root of jihad was (ج ه د) and don’t you mean muqallid? thanks

  • Imam Shawkani Rahmatullah-i-alayhi not radi allah anhu as imam Sahib was not among the Sahabah( RA).
    The write-up is good. However,it is worthwile to ask whether Ijtihad does cover the matters of strategic imprtance for Muslims also. As during the Prophets (SAW) time, the strategic matters of dealing with other nations, minorities,kingdoms vide Sulh-e-Hadhaibiyah, Mithaq-e-Madinah etc.etc…

    • Dear Dr. Shafiq,

      There is nothing wrong with saying May God be pleased with him about Imam ash-Shawkani or you and I. This is according to 9:100 where Allah states that He is pleased with the companions and those who follow them to the best of their ability. Yes it is a customary thing that we say “May God be pleased with them” for the companions and “May God have Mercy on them” for those who came after. That being said it is not a matter of enjoining the right and forbidding the wrong as it would be for someone not to say “May the Peace and Blessings of God be upon him” for the Prophet (pbuh). This is because this is not a custom rooted in Quranic teachings like radhi Allahu anhu rather it is a command of Allah and His messenger.

  • This is like a cool breeze in a often smelly and stagnated atmosphere found with such discourses. This is too beautiful. Please write more on these issues. This is like lighting a whole room where formerly everyone was just holding candles!

  • “while taking into consideration the variables imposed by the fluctuating circumstances of Muslim society.”

    Thank you for the article. Do you have any suggestions on material focusing on this aspect?

  • This is a very important concept to understand, thank you for defining it. Taqlid is often easier than ijtihad but less rewarding and not as significant. Even in general principles of leadership one can imitate a great leader (taqlid) but to actually become a great leader a person must learn and adapt into a great leader (ijtihad). These are things we try to teach to our future leaders at our Young Leaders Summits

  • Imam shawkani went against most of the scholars by making a new category called itiba (reasoned following),however it should be noted that even if the laymen knew the ayaat and hadith behind the ruling,she/he still could not possibly know the sciences behind extracting rulings from them.

    Thus if a person leaves a ruling of a mujtahid and follows hadith/qur’an only based on his ijtihad, then he is more blind than the muqaleed.

    However if a person agrees more with one mujtahid’s usool and madhab’s ruling over the other,then he can follow that opinion if he is not following his desires. But a person cannot create his own usool,only a mujtahid mutlaq can do that.

  • Subhanallah,this article make my understand clearly now…I hope we all muslim and other new muslim like me should read this

  • As,

    Sh. Salik (ha) and I discussed the term used by some of the Maliks, Zauruq (ra) in-particular, al-Iqtida (see Sidi Zarouq’s explanation of Abi Zaid’s epistle). I found it enlightening because it falls between the two: taqlid and itba. Iqtida, as explained to me by Sh. Salik (ha), indicates that a person does not have the prerequisite knowledge to engage the evidences, but is not simply following a scholar without any sense of soundness. “Iqtida (emulation)” the Sh. explained, marries one’s ignorance with his observations of a scholars, his/her character and reputation. Thus, it is not absolute ignorance or trying to swim alone with the proofs, but trust and respect.

    Thank you for this article.


  • An excellent and well articulated article. Ijtihad is an extremely important component, that Muslims in general and not only the scholars, need to inculcate in their efforts to understand Islam. The Islamic education curriculum must embody the gift of ijtihad.

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