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Is the Period of Ijtihad Over or Not?

By:
Abdullah Bubi
Document type:
Articles and Essays

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Is the Period of Ijtihad Over or Not?

Abdullah Bubi

Commentary

Abdullah Bubi (Tatarstan, 1871–1922) was a famous teacher and reformist theologian who long opposed the czarist regime. After studying in Arabia, Cairo, and Beirut, he and his brother returned to their home village of Izh-Bobino and established a reform-style school. Despite the small size of the village, this school was renowned among Muslims throughout the Russian Empire as a leader in reformist education, offering a variety of subjects—even French—in addition to traditional Islamic studies. At the same time, Bubi participated along with other reformist scholars in congresses of Russian-empire Muslims, at which he supported demands for democratic rights and called for women's suffrage. In 1911, Russian police charged the Bubi brothers with subversive activities against the Russian government and closed their school. Their allegedly subversive, anti-Russian, and antigovernmental activities included close contact with the Ottoman pan-Turkist party and the propagation of pan-Islamist ideas, including a vision for ending the historical conflict between the Sunni and Shi‘i sects. Anti-modernist Islamic scholars cooperated with Russian prosecutors at the trial, painting Bubi as a dangerous dissident. In addition to his educational activities, Bubi wrote several works of religious scholarship. In the book excerpted here, Bubi argues that the period of ijtihad (rational religious interpretation) did not end in the early Islamic era, and that Muslims are not bound by the positions of the great scholars of the distant past. Rather, he writes, Muslims must reclaim this right and duty, which medieval obscurantists and despots have for centuries denied them.1 Ahmet Kanlîdere, Reform within Islam: The Tajdid and Jadid Movement among the Kazan Tatars (1809–1917) (Istanbul, Turkey: Eren Yayîncîlîk, 1997), pp. 142–143; Azade-Ayşe Rorlich, The Volga Tatars (Stanford, Calif.: Hoover Institution Press, 1986), pp. 75–76, 97–99.

Human thought has been advancing day by day, and even the most ignorant and foolish are dazzled to see the results of this progress. In such an era, it is foolish to say that “understanding the Qur'an is limited to those who lived in the past; now they are extinct, and no more of them will be born until the end of time.” It is also foolish to waste precious time responding to such claims. However, when do things ever go the way you want them? I wish that the truth had not been lost among illusions of all sorts. That way such delusions would not be written in the name of science, and therefore we would not feel it necessary to respond to such questions.

Who would have imagined that Islam—which based itself on reason and thinking, and in every sentence addresses reason and thinking—would be deprived of the freedom of ijtihad [rational religious interpretation] and would be left under the yoke of taqlid [imitation of great scholars]? I wish this were just imagination. That way such troubles would not beset Muslims. Children think highly of the mistakes their elders make, such us drinking alcohol. Likewise, because of their misunderstanding of the aims and conditions of Muslims in the past, [some of] our recent Muslims adopt and imitate whatever actions— even those that are destructive—that past Muslims performed. Unfortunately, the problem was not limited to this. The troublesome practice of taqlid spread so widely that it shook the very structure of Islam and caused Islam to deviate from its original path. Under the lash of oppression, the light of Islam was nearly extinguished. It is this taqlid that caused recent Islamic legal scholars to devote hundreds of pages to menstruation, a topic not even mentioned in the Qur'an, while failing to pay any attention to morality, which makes up a very large part of the Holy Book of the Muslims. I wish they had spent just one tenth of their time considering the moral values that the Qur'an orders, rather than indulging themselves in matters of religious law. If they had done that, perhaps Muslims would not be in their present state of ignorance and misery. If recent Muslims allowed reason to reach the truth, as early Muslims did, there would be no accusations of perdition and disbelief, and no words of hate. Only Satan rebelled against the compassion of God. Why do you accuse your brother of blasphemy and heresy just because he has a different opinion or has criticized the thought of a Muslim from the past. Why do you tell him, “You will not be able enter God's paradise?” Companions of the Prophet [Muhammad, 570–632] and the founders of the four Muslim orthodox schools also differed in opinion on many matters. However, they never accused each other of heresy and they did not regard each other as foes. Thus, it is said that there was less disagreement of opinion between [Abu ‘Abdullah Muhammad] Shafi‘i [767–820] and Abu Hanifa [circa 699–767] than between [the two leading followers of Abu Hanifa,] Abu Yusuf [Ya‘qub al-Kufi, died 798] and Muhammad [al-Shaybani, circa 750–805].

Since their disagreement represented freedom of thought and speech, it was beneficial for the umma [Muslim community]. However, the time came when Muslims set aside their original sources and began thoughtlessly to imitate the sayings of certain individuals from the past. Each party bound itself to a particular leader and stuck fanatically to this path, although God criticized Jews and Christians [for similar acts], saying, “They worship their rabbis and their monks as gods, apart from God.” [Qur'an, Sura 9, Verse 31] Each party became the foe of any other that differed in opinion. None of the parties desired to know the reasoning of the others. All of the parties insulted one another, and spoke ill of one another, and thought only about increasing the number of their followers. Selfishness increased along with quarrels and disputes. None of the parties sought to find the truth, but instead sought only to best each other and show that they alone were right. These disputes, rather than benefitting Muslim society, substantially weakened it. It was as though this saying of God was addressed to them: “The people of the Book did not differ until knowledge had been given to them.” [Sura 3, Verse 19]

Everywhere [in the Qur'an], God invited people to reason. Consequently, Islam bases itself upon independent thinking. Taqlid and Islam are mutually contradictory. If this principle of independent thinking had continued and gained strength, right would have been separated from wrong, and people would have avoided taqlid. However, things did not happen that way. The Qur'an criticized the people of the book [Jews and Christians] for altering their [holy] book and imitating the words of their religious elders unreservedly, mixing what is right and what is wrong. Likewise, our religious elders of later days blindly imitated the sayings of their elders. They say: “The statements of the founders of the madhhabs [the principle schools within Sunni Islam] must be obeyed. Their words must be given precedence over the decisive words of the Qur'an and hadiths [sayings of the Prophet].” On the other hand, when the words of their religious elders contradict the words of the founders of the four madhhabs, they follow the elders, saying: “In comparison with the words of the Qur'an and hadith, as well as with the words of the founders of the four madhabs, the words of these religious elders provide more illuminating information for us. Therefore, the seeming contradiction in their words results from a deficiency in our understanding.” Thus, the followers of each party obeyed the founders of the four madhhabs only in such matters that their own religious elders declared appropriate, and they chose the path of taqlid, though this has been declared wrong unanimously. In doing so, they made Islam narrow, even though the Qur'an said: “God does not wish to impose any hardship on you”; [Sura 5, Verse 6] “God wishes ease and not hardship for you.” [Sura 2, Verse 185] With the curtain of taqlid, they closed the wide paths of ijtihad and the solutions to many difficult matters which can be found in God's Book and His Prophet's practice. Since they do not use their minds, and they resist every reasoned argument out of ignorance, it is impossible to talk with them, too. Perhaps they should just be sent to a lunatic asylum. The troubles that Muslims have suffered because of them are much greater than the benefits they brought. They were useful only to oppressive rulers and sultans.

Oppressors always benefit from ignorance and try to fish in muddy waters. Above all, they fear knowledge and learning. Nothing causes knowledge to disappear so well as taqlid. In order to pacify people and oppress them, the first step is to abolish the idea of freedom and ijtihad. For this reason, oppressors welcome the fatwa [religious ruling] that says, “The time for ijtihad is over,” by either coopting or threatening the scholars of their time.

Today the illness of taqlid has became so widespread and firmly rooted that a person who calls for a return to the Qur'an and sunna [the practice of the Prophet] will be hated, ostracized, and attacked with curses. God—may He be exalted!—said, “Do you claim that Ibrahim [Abraham], Isma‘il [Ishmael], Ishaq [Isaac], Ya‘qub [Jacob], and their offspring were Jews or Christians?’” [Sura 2, Verse 140] None of the great prophets accepted the yoke of taqlid, they only obeyed the truth which comes from proof. Taqlid, following, and the repetition of everything heard or read as though one were copying from a book—all are bid‘a [later innovations]. The Prophet was sent precisely to end these distortions and to return to the original scriptures. Followers who follow without reason were criticized with these words: “When they face their punishment, those who were followed will disown their followers.” [Sura 2, Verse 166] God criticized those who talk without evidence or knowledge, calling them the followers of Satan: “Do not walk in the footsteps of Satan, your acknowledged enemy. He will ask you to indulge in evil, indecency, and to speak lies of God you cannot even conceive.” [Sura 2, Verses 168–169] It is a very strange thing that recent scholars turn away from the Qur'an and hadith and cling to a madhhab, even though a mountain of proof has been brought before them. Because of their ignorance, they think that they will protect the faith with taqlid. The protection of religion will not be achieved by taqlid, by turning away from the Qur'an and hadith, by intervening between God and humankind, or by causing people's hearts to lose the love of God. Therefore, God said: “When it is said to them, ‘Follow what God has revealed,’ they reply: ‘No, we will follow only what our fathers practiced.’” [Sura 2, Verse 170] In order to demonstrate the wickedness and wrongness of taqlid, God also said in the same verse: “Even though their fathers were senseless men lacking in guidance.” In saying this, God recognizes as beasts those who do not understand what is said to them and who do not ask for proof. If those who favor taqlid possessed understanding hearts, just this verse would be sufficient to demonstrate the wickedness of considering old customs as holy, and the wrongness of turning away from the Qur'an and hadith.

This verse tells us that all who favor the path of taqlid are in the wrong, because in seeking the truth they do not look for any proof from those they follow. Those who seek the truth would probably find it in the end. If they fail once, on their second attempt they would think it over and so have a better chance of finding the truth. For this reason, mindful people would not employ fake excuses and leave God's words and blindly follow a person, however brilliant. They would see clearly that people may make a mistake, no matter how good and mindful they are. Therefore, it is necessary to check the proof before following somebody, rather than just obeying. Do not look at who said a thing, but look at what is said. Thus, God said in the Qur'an: “Give glad tidings to My creatures. Those who listen to then follow the best it contains are the ones who have been guided by God, and are men of wisdom.” [Sura 39, Verses 17–18] For this reason, in his book Munqidh min aldalal (The Deliverer from Error), Imam [Abu Hamid Muhammad] al-Ghazzali [1058–1111] thanked God for releasing him from taqlid, so that he would draw beneficial ideas from each of the four madhhabs, while making sure that their sources are authentic (although those who favor taqlid called this “compilation”). That is, he was pleased that he rose from the level of taqlid to the level of scrutiny. As is well known, those who favor taqlid saw compilation as inappropriate or haram [religiously prohibited]. But is there any evidence that it is haram? If anyone claims that there is, he is welcome to prove it! They have no evidence. These people resemble those whom God described: “Among them are heathens who know nothing of the Book, but only what they wish to believe, and only lost in fantasies.” [Sura 2, Verse 78]

The scholars of the people of the book changed the scriptures, and with their various interpretations they moved away from divine rules. They gave importance to their fancies and held these fancies above the Scriptures. They grew proud of their predecessors from the Golden Age and thought that this was sufficient for their happiness. Thus, their religion moved away from its bases and became corrupted and died. We read about these events now and smile at them in astonishment. However, we are not aware that we are following the same path they did. Also, we are not aware that we deserve the saying of the Prophet: “[Unfortunately,] you will obey your predecessors.” We never remember that these verses show the wrongfulness of taqlid, and that the Muslims of the early period of Islam agreed upon this matter. Again, we do not remember that at that time, the ignorant learned faith from the learned only after checking their reasoning, and if there was no proof they did not follow them blindly. Shari‘a [religious law] does not forbid those who have found their way through reasoning to obey; however, if the reasoning is unknown, how can we know who has used their mind? For that reason, after criticizing those who followed their ancestors without reasoning, God delivered the following example: “The unbelievers are like a person who shouts to one that cannot hear more than a call and a cry. They are deaf, dumb, and blind, they fail to understand.” [Qur'an, Sura 2, Verse 171] That is, those who follow blindly resemble sheep. Just as the sheep are led by the voice of the shepherd, and do not understand this voice, nor their fortune and misfortune, so those who accept a belief or religious law without deduction cannot understand their fortune or misfortune. This verse clearly shows that imitating without reasoning is the business of unbelievers; according to this verse, those who do not know their religion with proof but understand simply through passive submission, cannot be considered believers. The meaning of belief is not to tie people to a certain madhhab as an animal is tied to its halter, but to raise up their minds in science and learning. Only then can people understand what is good or bad and abstain from the wicked by knowing its undesirable consequences. Only then will it be possible to invite civilized nations to Islam. At the present time, if we say to civilized nations: “Here is our shari‘a. It is codified by the religious scholars of early Islam and nothing can be added to their interpretations. You will not understand such matters, because a long time has passed from the time of understanding the Qur'an! For that reason, you have to accept the words of the legal scholars, even though their words contradict the Qur'an and hadith. You should practice these [teachings] without considering whether they suit the conditions of the era! You must do exactly this. If you do otherwise, you will deviate from Islam.” If we assert all of this, will they have any love for Islam? Will they abandon their intellect and follow what some old legal scholars have said, therefore putting themselves in the position of an ignorant person? How can you convince these people with [religious scholars such as Shamsuddin] Quhistani [Hanafi scholar, died circa 1543] and Levleciyye [reference unclear]? They will not follow the words of the old legal scholars, except by using their minds. If we proceed while practicing our religion in such a manner of submission, how can we bring the civilized nations closer to us and to our religion? On the contrary, God forbid, we would cause our own learned people to sicken of Islam, and thereby we would cut the ground out from under our own feet.

In order to gather Muslims around Islam and to raise our national glory, we need to inquire into Islam and return it to its original condition, while permitting all to understand it with their own mind. When this is done, Muslims will not be stagnant and stuck to taqlid, nor will they be satisfied with vague fancies and sanctify the old ideas. Rather, they will understand the mysteries of the Qur'an and the benefits of the duties God presented, and the wisdom behind the ordering of such duties. God praised those thusly: “Those to whom We have sent down the Book, and who read it as it should be read, believe in it truly.” [Sura 2, Verse 121] Their belief will be stronger, and they will be happy in this world as well as in the next world. They will not slip into taqlid and mix their belief with pernicious innovations and customs for lack of understanding of their religion. God criticized those as follows: “Those who deny it will be losers.” [Sura 2, Verse 121] They will think with their own minds but will not contradict the freedom of thought by imposing their own ideas. They intend to return to the Qur'an and the sunna. However, they will base a forced interpretation of the Qur'an and hadith on the words of the founders of the four orthodox schools. Rather, they will accept the words of the founders if they are in accordance with these sources; otherwise they will reject them. They will also follow the principle of the companions of the Prophet, the generation that followed, and the founders of the four orthodox schools, saying, “Everyone is free in matters of ijtihad.” It is true that in our time madhhabs and controversies have increased. However, among the mujtahids [religious scholars] of the early period of Islam, there was no fanaticism and such controversies did not cause the Muslims to fight one another or to cut off friendly relations with one another. People who had a great enough ability to understand acted according to their own interpretation in controversial issues. They did not hate those who asked them to refer to the Qur'an and sunna, nor did they accuse others of heresy. They tried to understand each matter by expending as great intellectual effort as they could. They also tried to infer religious rules from the four basic sources of Islam: the Qur'an, sunna, consensus, and the method of analogy. They did not glorify old scholars while demeaning later ones. And they did not claim that later scholars could not reach the level of the older ones, no matter what effort they expend. Contrary to the claims that one has to have a deep knowledge of Qur'anic exegesis and hadith and related sciences in order to become a mujtahid, they knew that it would be sufficient to know the Arabic sciences of text and style as well as the aims of the shari‘a as [Ibrahim ibn Musa] Shatibi [Andalusian scholar, died 1388] wrote in his Muwafaqat [The Agreements]. For that reason, Shatibi claimed that it is all right for a mujtahid to follow a non-mujtahid in determining the authenticity of a hadith which is fundamental for making ijtihad. Abu Hanifa, who was unanimously accepted as a mujtahid, was only able to know a quite small number of hadith, because the place where he lived had a limited degree of hadith narration.

Since God's creation is progressing day by day, therefore the latest religion, Islam, is the most perfect religion of all the religions. Similarly, it is quite possible and in accordance with God's sunna that in our time there might be scholars of the same degree as, or better than, the scholars of the past. For this reason, the Prophet forbade people to substitute others for God and His Prophet, saying: “Any innovations other than our way belong to those who invented them and are rejected,” while the founders of the four orthodox schools forbade others to imitate them.

Abu Hanifa [founder of the Hanafi madhhab] and his companions said, “It is inappropriate to obey a fatwa without knowing its underlying basis.” Again, Abu Hanifa said, “If my word contradicts the Qur'an and sunna, you should abandon it!” Thus he made his meaning clear beyond any doubt or hesitance. Malik ibn Anas [710–796, founder of the Maliki madhhab] said, “Since I am a human being, I am fallible. For this reason, you should think about my opinion! If it is in accordance with the Qur'an and sunna, you may follow it. If not, you should set it aside!” Again, Malik ibn Anas once said, while pointing out the grave of the Prophet: “Only the owner of this tomb is not to be rejected. All others might be rejected. In addition, Imam Shafi‘i [founder of the Shafi‘i madhhab] said, “It is not appropriate to obey any person but the Messenger,” while Imam Ahmad [ibn Hanbal, 780–855, founder of the Hanbali madhhab] said: “Follow nobody in your religion! Follow only our Prophet and things narrated by his companions!” Elsewhere, Imam Ahmad clearly explained: “Do not follow me, or Shafi‘i, Malik, [Abu ‘Amr ‘Abd al-Rahman] Awza’i [died 774], or [Sufyan al-]Thawri [716–778], but make use of the sources from which they derive their teaching!”

As is evident, all of the founders of the four orthodox schools of Islam agreed upon the wrongness of imitation. They engaged in ijtihad and expressed their opinions, but they did not impose upon anybody else by asserting that their opinions had to be accepted. Everyone was free to accept or not accept. Abu Hanifa said, “This is my opinion. If anyone brings a better explanation, I will accept that one.” In the same way, when Imam Malik was asked to compel the agents of Harun al-Rashid [caliph, circa 763–809] to act according to the principles put forth in his work al-Muwatta’ [The Well-Trodden Path], he declined, saying: “The Prophet's companions spread all over different countries, and there are hadiths in every nation that other nations have not heard of.” Imam Shafi‘i used to forbid his students to follow his words in the presence of hadith, saying, “If the Prophet's words become evident to a person, it is not correct to leave aside the sunna in favor of anybody's word.” In the same way, Imam Ahmad rejected the writing down and codifying of the religious rulings he gave. They knew that they might have fallen into error in some of their judgments and stated this clearly. They never introduced their rulings by saying, “Here, this judgment is the judgment of God and His prophet.” If Abu Hanifa's judgment had been accepted without question, nobody —not Shafi‘i, Imam Muhammad, Imam Abu Yusuf, or anybody else—would have gone against him. If, as later scholars supposed, respect for a teacher meant to follow all of his words or to act without thinking, even though this word might contradict the sacred sources, Imam Muhammad and Imam Abu Yusuf would have been the first to follow their teachers.

You imitators! You go too far in respecting your teachers, saying, “He is good and could not be mistaken.” Thus you follow even the most ignorant and foolish person and fail to remember that nobody except the prophets is free from making mistakes. Your case resembles that of people who try to find their way by looking at the stars in the sky, even though Mecca is directly in front of them. Although religious proofs are clearly visible to you, you turn away and follow the words of a legal scholar! You have seen with your own eyes the words of the legal scholars, whose scholarly books you believe in count reason fundamental for science. You deny that reason is fundamental in the matter of understanding religious proofs! Therefore, you yourself fail to follow these books and these [supposedly] infallible men. You yourself say that it is necessary to follow these leaders, but you go against their consensus, that it is not proper to follow anybody! You yourself claim that it is not proper to step outside of the four orthodox schools, but again you keep saying that up to the the end of the fifth century [A.H., or twelfth century A.D., that is, several centuries after the founding of the orthdox schools], ijtihad continued! It is quite obvious that even at the end of the fifth century there were many scholars practicing ijtihad.

[. . .] A mufti [religious leader] has to be a legal scholar. Without a doubt, he must also be a mujtahid. Even the Shafi‘i school contended that even judges should be mujtahids. The Hanafi school contended that it is appropriate to appoint a person other than a mujtahid as a judge only on condition that he be under a mufti capable of ijtihad. Hidaya [Guidance, by Burhanuddin Marghinani, died circa 1197] laid down the condition that a judge should be capable of making ijtihad. [Binaya fi] sharh al-Hidaya [Structure of Explanation of “Guidance”, by Badr al-Din ‘Ayni 1361–1451], Mukhtasar al-Wiqaya [Abridged “Defenses”, by ‘Ubaydallah Mahbubi, died circa 1346], and Multaqa al-abhur [Confluence of the Seas, by Ibrahim Halabi, died circa 1549] accepted ijtihad only as a preferred condition, while Fath al-qadir [The Powerful Victory, by Muhammad Ibn al-Humam, circa 1388–1459] stated clearly that “it is not proper to follow a person incapable of ijtihad, according to the schools of Shafi‘i, Malik, Ahmad, as well as our scholar, Muhammad [al- Shaybani, a founder of the Hanafi school, circa 750– 805].” And finally, Majma‘ al-anhur [Confluence of Streams, by ‘Abd al-Rahman Shaykhzada, died circa 1667] quoted Fath [al-qadir]: “According to the methodology of legal scholarship, a mufti should be capable of engaging in ijtihad.” That means that, although there is controversy about appointing a person incapable of ijtihad as judge, it is unacceptable to appoint a person who is incapable of ijtihad as mufti. This shows that appointing muftis and judges never became extinct. Therefore, the time for ijtihad must never have become extinct.

Bibliography references:

Abdullah Bubi, Zaman-i Ijtihad Munqariz mi, Dägil mi? (Is the Period of Ijtihad Over or Not?) (Kazan, Tatarstan, Russia: Millät Kütübkhanäsi, 1909), pp. 2–13. Translation from Tatar and introduction by Ahmet Kanlîdere.

Notes:

1. Ahmet Kanlîdere, Reform within Islam: The Tajdid and Jadid Movement among the Kazan Tatars (1809–1917) (Istanbul, Turkey: Eren Yayîncîlîk, 1997), pp. 142–143; Azade-Ayşe Rorlich, The Volga Tatars (Stanford, Calif.: Hoover Institution Press, 1986), pp. 75–76, 97–99.

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