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Ijtihad and Taqlid

By:
Syekh Ahmad Surkati
Document type:
Articles and Essays

Ijtihad and Taqlid

Syekh Ahmad Surkati

Commentary

Syekh Ahmad Surkati (Sudan-Java, 1872–1943) was an educator, intellectual, and businessman. Originally from a pious family in the Sudan, he received a traditional Muslim education in Egypt and then studied extensively in Medina and Mecca; later he received a diploma from an institution in Istanbul. He lived in Malaya and Sumatra before being summoned to teach at the Arab Benevolent Society's school in Jakarta at the age of thirty-four. Later he was a leader of the Union for Reformation and Guidance, generally known as al-Irsyad, which promoted modernist Muslim teachings in the schools that it founded. Surkati's writings on Islam are reflective of those of Muhammad ‘Abduh (chapter 3), and his work was highly regarded among the Muslim modernist community in Java of his day. Not being a sayyid (descendant of the Prophet), he was at odds with the sayyid-domi-nated Arab population that dominated the Arab community in Southeast Asia. Some of his writing concentrated on the equality found in Islam and the lack of religious justification for special status for those from the Prophet's Quraysh tribe, or for those descended from the Prophet. He was especially attacked by sayyids and Qurayshis, who regarded him as an upstart with poor breeding. Perhaps in defense, Surkati made far more use of Qur'anic verses in justifying his arguments than did other Southeast Asian modernists of the period. The work chosen here for translation centers on the essential difference between traditionalists and modernists in their examination of religious sources.1 Natalie Mobini-Kesheh, The Hadrami Awakening: Community and Identity in the Netherlands East Indies. 1900–1942 (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Southeast Asia Program Publications, 2000), pp. 71–90; Deliar Noer, The Modernist Muslim Movement in Indonesia, 1900–1942 (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1973), pp. 61–69; “Syekh Ahmad Soorkati,” Ensiklopedi Islam (The Encyclopedia of Islam) (Jakarta, Indonesia: Ichtiar Baru van Hoeve, 1993), volume 4, pp. 280–284.

Ijtihad means to expend effort and capacity in something which involves some difficulty. As a jurisprudential term it means to derive shari‘a laws from logical proofs and detailed general principles, that is, the ability to go into further detail or to choose one of two laws laid down in writing by following one of the procedures for choosing between laws recognized by the foundations of jurisprudence, such as: that its narrators are more numerous, although equal in characteristics of justice and respect; that the chain of authorities of the hadith [tradition of the Prophet] is stronger; that it is a saying which has the potential for specific action; that it is more detailed; that it is more intelligible; that it is in the Qurayshi dialect; that it came after the hijra [the exodus of Muslims from Mecca in 622 that marks the beginning of the Islamic era]; that it is universal; that it is derived from original law; that it is a plausible report; that it is consistent with another proof, or with the action of the people of Medina; that it is more secure in the area of rights; or better prevents the imposition of punishments; or lightens the burden of observing the precepts of religion and devotional observances, or is more apposite as a means; or better prevents harm; or better lifts restrictions; or it is more conducive to acceptance in the area of calling people to religion.

If all this is understood, then one knows that there can be no ijtihad when there is a clear text that is not contradicted by an equivalent one; nor where it is not known whether one of the laws falls under one of the principles of the shari‘a—in the first case because the law is definite and there is no ijtihad in definite matters, and in the second case because something is not lawful if it does not fall under one of the principles of the shari‘a.

Thus adhering to that which is established by God and His Prophet, and making appeal to the Book of God and the sunna of His Prophet, this is Islam. In His word the most high: “So hold fast to the revelation given to you. You are truly on a straight path.” [Sura 43, Verse 43] In His word the most high: “So, you and those who turned to God with you, should walk along the straight path, as you have been commanded, and do not transgress.” [Sura 11, Verse 112] In His word the most high: “Follow the revelation given to you by your Lord, and do not follow any other lord apart than Him.” [Sura 7, Verse 3] In His word the most high: “We have sent down to you the Book containing the truth, in whose light you should judge among the people as God has shown you.” [Sura 4, Verse 105] In His word the most high: “Hold firmly to what We have given you, and remember what is therein, that you make take heed.” [Sura 2, Verse 63] In His word the most high: “This is My straight path, so walk along, and do not follow other ways, lest you should turn away from the right one. All this has He commanded. You may perhaps take heed for yourselves.” [Sura 6, Verse 153] In His word the most high: “Accept what the Messenger gives you, and refrain from what he forbids.” [Sura 59, Verse 7]

As for ijtihad in religion—that is, expending effort and contemplating the Book of God and the sunna of His Prophet (peace be upon him), and adapting the established laws to them—this is an obligation on every rational person who understands the Arabic language and has knowledge of the scope of the law.

In His word the most high: “Give glad tidings to my creatures. Those who listen to the Word, and then follow the best it contains, are the ones who have been guided by God, and are people of wisdom.” [Sura 39, Verses 17–18] “The best” means the most appropriate according to the situation, time, and place, and the strongest in its chain of transmission and as a proof, and the most logical. It is known that whosoever does not expend effort in contemplation and reflection is not able to distinguish between the good and the best. In His word the most high: “Hold fast to what We have given you, and remember what is therein, that you make take heed.” [Sura 2, Verse 63]

Whosoever does not expend effort in reflection will not adhere strongly to what is in the Book, as God commands him, and will not bear its contents in mind. In His word the most high: “We have sent down a Book to you which is blessed, so that people may apply their minds to its revelations, and people of wisdom may reflect.” [Sura 38, Verse 29] From this it is clear that God revealed the Book in order that we may reflect on its contents.

In His word the most high: “Do they not ponder on what the Qur'an says? Or have their hearts been sealed with locks?” [Sura 47, Verse 24] This is a stern reproach to whosoever turns away from the Qur'an and does not reflect on its contents. In His word the most high: “And hold on firmly together to the rope of God, and be not divided among yourselves.” [Sura 3, Verse 103] It is inconceivable that people would cling to it and hold fast to its laws if they do not know what it contains. God has commanded that we have recourse to His Book and to the sunna of His Prophet when there are differences and contention. In His word the most high: “In whatever matter you disagree, the ultimate judgment rests with God.” [Sura 42, Verse 10]

In His word the most high: “Should you disagree about something, refer it to God and the Messenger, if you believe in God and the Last Day. This is good for you and the best of settlements.” [Sura 4, Verse 59] It is not possible for us to have recourse to the Book of God and the sunna of His Prophet unless we are familiar with them both and contemplate what they contain. In His word the most high: “Say, ‘My way, and that of my followers, is to call you to God on evidence as clear as seeing with one's own eyes.’” [Sura 12, Verse 108] There is no doubt that whosoever does not know what the Prophet brought cannot invite people to God “on evidence as clear as the seeing with one's eyes,’” because seeing is the proof and evidence and there is no proof in the hand of the blind follower.

In His word the most high “We have surely sent apostles with clear signs, and sent with them the Book and the Balance [the scales of right and wrong], so that people may stand by justice.” [Sura 57, Verse 25] There is no doubt that those who do not have the Book and the Balance in their hand cannot stand by justice, and that if by chance someday they may stand by justice, it is without seeing with their own eyes.

In His word the most high: “And We have indeed made the Qur'an easy to understand. So is there any one who will be warned?” [Sura 54, Verse 17] That is, whosoever searches for its meanings will be assisted. In His word the most high: “And we have revealed to you the Book as an exposition of every thing.” [Sura 16, Verse 89] “Has the time not yet come when the hearts of believers should be moved by the thought of God and the truth that has been sent down, so that they should not be like those who received the Book before them but whose hearts were hardened after a lapse of time? [Sura 57, Verse 16] [. . .] How clear have We made Our signs for those who understand.” [Sura 6, Verse 98]

As for those who engage in taqlid, following a particular person blindly in all matters of religion, in such a manner that they prefer what that person says over what is fixed in the Book and the sunna, on the pretext that that person knows more than others, or that he is acquainted with the proofs of religion, despite the fact that they themselves are rational and free to choose and able to comprehend evidence, this is prohibited by reason and by law, according to the text of the Book and the sunna, and according to the ways of the Companions of the Prophet and the succeeding generation and the renowned imams [founders of the major legal schools in Sunni Islam]. God has told us that such individuals are more lost than cattle. For cattle are not given this capacity, while God has given the capacity to humans, but they do not use it. They refuse to be anything but cattle. In His word the most high in the Sura of the Wall Between Heaven and Hell: “Many of the jinns [spirit beings] and human beings have We destined for Hell, who possess hearts but do not feel, have eyes but do not see, have ears but do not hear—like cattle, even worse than them, for they are unconcerned.” [Sura 7, Verse 179]

Indeed God, the most glorious, has censured those who in past times engaged in taqlid of their forefathers and leaders in their religion, and who turned away from the divine proofs, and who relied on the baseless ideas that they inherited from their forefathers and ancestors. God relates to us their rebuke so that we will learn a lesson from their mistakes. In disgust and condemnation, in His word the most high in the Sura of the Cow: “When it is said to them: ‘Follow what God has revealed,’ they say: ‘No, we shall follow only the ways of our fathers’—even though their fathers had no wisdom or guidance!” [Sura 2, Verse 170] In His word the most high in the Sura of The Feast: “When you say to them: ‘Come to what God has revealed, and the Prophet,’ they say: ‘Sufficient to us is the faith that our fathers had followed,’ even though their fathers had no knowledge or guidance.” [Sura 5, Verse 104] In His word the most high in the Sura of Luqman: “When you ask them to follow what God has revealed, they say: ‘No. We shall follow what we found our ancestors following,” Even though the devil were calling them to the torment of Hell!” [Sura 31, Verse 21] In His word the most high in the Sura of the Allied Troops: “And they will say: ‘O our Lord, we obeyed our leaders and elders, but they only led us astray. O our Lord, give them a double punishment, and put a grievous curse upon them.” [Sura 33, Verse 67–68] In His word the most high in the Sura of the Ornaments of Gold: “Thus, whenever We sent an admonisher to a people before you, the decadent among them said: ‘We found our fathers following this way, and we are walking in their footsteps.” [Sura 43, Verse 23] “He said: ‘Even if I bring you better guidance than the one you found your fathers following?’” [Sura 43, Verse 24]

Whosoever opposes a verse of the Qur'an or the confirmed sunna of the Messenger of God (peace be upon him) is following the design of those who God rebukes in the Qur'an, and is deserving of the proper punishment, because all judgments and punishments and rewards and recompense are indeed in accordance with attributes and not with the essence of individuals. In His word the most high: “It is not dependent on your wishes, nor the wishes of the people of the Book, [but] whosoever does ill will be punished for it, and will find no protector or friend apart from God.” [Sura 4, Verse 123] In His word the most high: “Are the unbelievers among you any better than they? Or is there immunity for you in the Scriptures?” [Sura 54, Verse 43] In His word the most high: “Or have you a Book in which you read that you can surely have whatever you choose?” [Sura 68, Verses 37–38] “This is the law of God that has prevailed among His creatures. [Sura 40, Verse 85] [ . . . ] You will not find any change in the law of God.” [Sura 48, Verse 23]

[. . .] It is understood from all this that the blind taqlid that is taking place today is not permissible, except for the simple person who is possessed of no understanding or knowledge, and no inclination and no reason. Ijtihad in understanding the Book and the sunna is obligatory upon every person who possesses understanding, and whose circumstances afford the opportunity, in every time and place, to the best of one's ability. In the sense that we see it used today, taqlid is contrary to reason and humanity, contrary to the Book and the sunna, contrary to the consensus of the Companions of the Prophet, and contrary to the instructions of the imams whom those practicing taqlid claim to be imitating. Its perpetrators who have the capacity to understand the Book of God and the sunna of His Messenger are sinners who fabricate a lie against God, who speak against God that which they do not know. In His word the most high: “Do not utter the lies your tongues make up: ‘This is lawful, and this is forbidden,’ in order to impute lies to God. For they who impute lies to God will not find fulfilment.” [Sura 16, Verse 116] In His word the most high: “Tell them: ‘My Lord has forbidden repugnant acts, whether open or disguised, sin and unjust oppression, associating others with God with which He has sent down no authority, and saying things of God of which you have no knowledge.’” [Sura 7, Verse 33] God said to His Prophet: “Do not follow that of which you have no knowledge. Verily the ear, the eye, the heart, each will be questioned [on Judgment Day].” [Sura 17, Verse 36]

Those who perform taqlid say: In the religion of God we do not use our ears, our eyes, or our hearts, nor do we pursue knowledge. Rather, we pursue the opinion of so-and-so and so-and-so. In His word the most high: “We have given examples of every kind for people, in this Qur'an, so that they may contemplate. every kind of Parable in order that they may receive admonition. A clear discourse which expounds all things without any crookedness, so that they may take heed for themselves.” [Sura 39, Verses 27–28]

Those who perform taqlid say: The Qur'an is not comprehensible and our minds are not adequate to understand it. So they made it inaccessible in vaults and contented themselves with repetition of its sounds, without the reflection that God commanded. In this they follow the habits of those who preceded them. The example uttered by God in the Sura of the Congregation is applicable to them. In His word the most high: “The likeness of those who were charged with [the law of] the Torah, which they did not observe, is that of a donkey who carries a load of books [oblivious of what they contain].” [Sura 62, Verse 5]

God says to His servants: “So be not like those who became disunited and differed among themselves after clear proofs had come to them. For them is great suffering.” [Sura 3, Verse 105] In His word the most high: “As for those who have created schisms in their order, and formed different sects, you have no concern with them.” [Sura 6, Verse 159] In His word the most high: “And hold on firmly together to the rope of God, and be not divided among yourselves.” [Sura 3, Verse 103] Those who perform taqlid say: Our divisions are a blessing. They say, we adhere to the words of so-and-so and so-and-so, irrespective of the Book of God, and we refer whatever causes contention among us to the words of whomever we have chosen to be our imam, irrespective of God and His Messenger, and whatever we have differences about, we seek judgment on it from so-and-so and so-and-so. Thus they are divided and scattered. Each party is delighted with what it has, and every group claims the superiority of what it has, without reason or proof or guidance or the luminous Book.

God revealed His Book to creation and He said in it: “Verily there are signs in this for people of understanding.” [Sura 20, Verse 128] Those who perform taqlid say: We are not among those emdued with understanding. In His word the most high: “So take heed, O people with eyes!” [Sura 59, Verse 2] So they say: We are not among those with eyes to see. In His word the most high: “There are surely signs in these things for those who understand.” [Sura 13, Verse 4] So they say, we are not among those who understand.

Indeed those who perform taqlid are not content to bear the shame of apathy and ignorance. They do not merely confess that they are not seekers of knowledge, or endowed with understanding and reason. They even seek shade under the shadow of apathy and laziness and happily endure the shame of resisting the Book of God and the sunna of His Messenger, peace be upon him. They put the Book of God behind their backs. On top of all this, they denounce the people of virtue and knowledge and reason, who hold fast to the Book and the sunna, and they accuse them of bid‘a [innovation] and deviation. How strange that the blind denounce the seeing, the deaf denounce the hearing, the stupid protest against the intelligent, the wise, and the able, and the lost resent the rightly guided ones! By God, this is terrible news and an unjust verdict.

[. . .] Those who perform taqlid are generally divided into three groups.

First: those who have the capacity and opportunity to understand the proofs of God and His laws, but do not use their mind to understand the Book of God and the sunna of His Messenger. They do not reflect on them, nor do they want to listen to them. God refers to such people in the Sura of the Wall Between Heaven and Hell. In His word the most high: “Many of the jinns and human beings have We destined for Hell, who possess hearts but do not feel, have eyes but do not see, have ears but do not hear— like cattle, even worse than them, for they are unconcerned.” [Sura 7, Verse 179]

Second: those who do not have the capacity to understand arguments by themselves, or who lack the opportunity to undertake the obligation of contemplation and reflection on the Book and the sunna and to memorize what they say. Such people are commanded by the Lawgiver to ask the people of knowledge about the laws brought by God and His Messenger, in accordance with their need. In His word the most high: “If you do not know, then ask the keepers of the oracles of God.” [Sura 16, Verse 43] In the words of the Prophet, peace be upon him: “Verily, the cure for incapacity is to ask.” But he should not ask the knowledgeable person for his opinion. Rather, he should ask him about the laws he has memorized from God and His Messenger, and ask for his help in understanding whatever is difficult for him to understand.

Third: those who are simple and barely able to understand speech, and who cannot comprehend arguments. Such people have no alternative but to undertake absolute taqlid, because God does not expect from anyone more than they are capable of. But they are obliged at least to ask the knowledgeable person who they imitate whether the ruling he gives is based on his own opinion, in which case other opinions exist as well, or whether it is from God and His Messenger. They should not be fanatical toward a particular imam or religious official, because of the possibility that they may meet one later who is more knowledgeable or more correct than the one they met first. If they are fanatical toward a certain individual and prefer him above others without reason, or give preference to his opinion over the opinion of someone who is higher than him, then they are just following their own desire. Those who perform taqlid are not obliged to follow one school, as confirmed by Ibn Burhan [probably Burhanuddin Marghinani, died circa 1197], [Muhyi al-Din] al-Nawawi [1233–1277], Ahmad ibn Hanbal [780– 855], and others, except that they should not switch from the sayings of the first religious authority they follow unless there is sound reason to do so.

[. . .] It is said that the prerequisites for a consummate mujtahid [religious scholar] are that he be knowledgeable about all that relates to the laws from the texts of the Book and the sunna. This refers to approximately 500 clear and manifest verses from the Book, according to [Abu Hamid Muhammad] al-Ghazzali [1058–1111] and [Muhyi al-Din] Ibn ‘Arabi [1165–1240], and others, and similarly with hadith. In the opinion of Imam Ahmad [ibn Hanbal, 780– 855], it relates to 1200 hadith. In fact it is even more than that, as al-Nawawi and others have said. It is not obligatory to memorize them or to keep them in one's mind, but rather what is intended is the ability to refer to them, and awareness of what is in the books. He should also be familiar with matters of consensus, so that he does not breach it. What is intended is the consensus of all the Companions or all the mujtahids who meet the prerequisites in the age, not just the four well-known ones [that is, the founders of the four major Sunni legal schools].

In addition he should know the Arabic tongue and its principles of grammar, syntax, inflection, and rhetoric sufficiently well to interpret what is said in the Book and the sunna, if necessary in consultation with others. It is not an obligation to memorize, but rather the ability to consult and understand is sufficient. He should also be knowledgeable in the roots of jurisprudence and the verses of the Book and the sunna that abrogate others, and those that are abrogated. It is generally said that these [abrogated sources] are five verses from the Book and ten hadith from the sunna, but it is also said that the hadith number 25 and the verses are more than that. Furthermore, he should be knowledgeable of the circumstances of those who related the hadith and their terminology. The mujtahid does not need to perform ijtihad in all matters, but only those in which it is necessary, and only those matters in which he is able to perform ijtihad, for this is the truth.

Nobody says that a single imam is thoroughly familiar with everything that the Lawgiver has brought. Nor is there anyone who is able to master the sunna of the Messenger of God, peace be upon him. This is said by [Abu ‘Abdullah Muhammad] Shafi‘i [767–820], and it is the opinion of the majority as related by al-Safi al-Hindi [‘Ala’ al-Din al-Hindi al-Baqi al-Shafi‘i, died 1315]. It is the favored opinion, as Ibn Daqiq al-‘Aid [1228–1302] recalled. Al-Ghazzali agreed on this, and so did [Abu’l Qadir] al-Rafa’i [al-Qazwini, died 1226] and others.

The Book takes precedence over the sunna when there is contradiction, due to its greater constancy and the certainty of its correctness, and sunna with continuous succession takes precedence over that which is related by only one person. There are degrees in this which can be known from the books on hadith. Similarly, the consensus of the Companions takes precedence over those following them, because the latter are not based on the text. Then follows the consensus of the mujtahids of a given era, but only those who have indicated their reasoning. Then follows analogy in accordance with the reason on which a judgment is based, and then there is basic freedom. If the ijtihads of a mujtahid at different times contradict each other, or the ijtihads of two mujtahids on the same matter contradict each other, then truly the truth is with one of them, as Malik [ibn Anas, 710–796] and [Abu ‘Abdullah Muhammad] al-Shafi‘i [767–820], and Abu Hanifa [circa 699–767] say. The mujtahid is rewarded in any case, as confirmed in this hadith of the Prophet, peace be upon him: “If a judge performs ijtihad and he is correct, then he is due two rewards; and if he performs ijtihad and he is wrong, then he is due one reward.”

The foregoing demonstrates that the taqlid which is criticized by God and His Messenger and the imams, and which we criticize following them, is not criticized for deriving law based on reasoning from trustworthy authorities, nor for having a good opinion of the well-known ‘ulama’ [religious scholars] with regard to what they quote to us from God and His Messenger, nor for following their guiding principle in the derivation of law, nor for respecting their consensus. Rather, the taqlid which is censured involves depending on a saying that one has no evidence for, or to refer to the saying of a particular imam in all religious rulings, in such manner that one rejects anything contrary to it and accepts anything in agreement with it, solely on the pretext that that imam is more knowledgeable than others, or that he memorized a shari‘a reason for every ruling, even though it is not evident and one does not remember it oneself. There is no doubt that this pretext is baseless. It is not right for people to judge the learning of a knowledgeable person or his memorization of reasons for every ruling that he has made, unless they know the proofs put forward by others. This requires people to be more knowledgeable than them all, so that they are able to judge between them. There is no doubt that confirming one piece of reasoning is simpler and easier than giving preference to one imam over others. Indeed, every person who takes a confidant other than God, and declares permissible whatever he permits, and declares unlawful whatever he declares unlawful, without considering a shari‘a reason, has taken a master as a deity other than God. The reasoning for this is His word the most high: “They consider their priests and their monks to be gods apart from God.” [Sura 9, Verse 31]

According to the interpretation of the Messenger, peace be upon him, as related by ‘Adi Ibn Hatim [companion of the Prophet, died circa 687]: “The Messenger of God, may God's blessing and peace be upon him, when he concluded this verse, said: ‘They consider their priests and their monks to be gods apart from God.’ I said, ‘O Messenger of God, we have not taken priests.’ And the Messenger said, ‘Do they not permit to you what has been forbidden, and you permit it, and they forbid you from that which has been permitted, and you forbid it?’ I said, ‘Yes.’ He said, ‘So this is worshiping them.’”

This applies to those who perform taqlid, who understand reason but put forward the saying of the person they imitate, on the pretext that he knows more about the situation or is more knowledgeable or understands better the reasons in this matter.

[. . .] It is not our purpose, in opening the door of ijtihad, to confirm that it is permissible to breach the consensus put forward by the imams, nor to invalidate what they said. The purpose is to confirm that it is obligatory to take from their words that which is confirmed by reason, and not that which has weak reasoning, and to confirm the prohibition on fanaticism and on the claim that truth or the predominance of reason is limited to only one of the schools of law. It is to urge people to adhere to the Book of God and the sunna of His Messenger, and to refer their disagreements to them both and to nothing else, as God instructs them.

Bibliography references:

Syekh Ahmad Surkati, Al-Masa’il al-thalath (The Three Questions) (Cairo, Egypt: Dar al-‘Ulum li’l-Tiba‘a, 1977), pp. 19–36. First published in 1925. Translation from Arabic by Natalie Mobini-Kesheh. Introduction by Howard M. Federspiel.

Notes:

1. Natalie Mobini-Kesheh, The Hadrami Awakening: Community and Identity in the Netherlands East Indies. 1900–1942 (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Southeast Asia Program Publications, 2000), pp. 71–90; Deliar Noer, The Modernist Muslim Movement in Indonesia, 1900–1942 (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1973), pp. 61–69; “Syekh Ahmad Soorkati,” Ensiklopedi Islam (The Encyclopedia of Islam) (Jakarta, Indonesia: Ichtiar Baru van Hoeve, 1993), volume 4, pp. 280–284.

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