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Wael B. Hallaq, Sukidi
The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World What is This? Provides comprehensive scholarly coverage of the full geographical and historical extent of Islam


“Consensus” is a translation of the Arabic term ijmāʿ. The word existed already in pre-Islamic Arabic to signify the formal consensus of the tribal community on a particular issue based on the shared notion of the sunnah, the customary way of pre-Islamic ancestors. As Islam was revealed to the Arabs in the seventh century, the ancient sunnah came to be contested and replaced with the new form of the Prophetic sunnah, the customary way of the Prophet Muḥammad, as the authoritative source of law after the Qur'ān.

Development of the Concept.

In the early period, consensus arose among the companions of the Prophet who attested, preserved, and reinforced the prophetic sunnah on given questions of the law. For the Ẓāhirīs, there could be only one authoritative consensus—that of the Prophet 's companions (ijmā al-ṣaḥābah). Chief among the Ẓāhirīs was the jurist Muḥammad ʿAlī ibn Ḥazm (d. A.H. 456/1064 C.E.), who grouped consensus as belonging to the sole authority of the companions. A similarly exclusive opinion was held by the chief Medina jurist Mālik ibn Anas (d. A.H. 179/795 C.E.), who confined the authority of consensus solely to the scholars of Medina on several grounds. The first has to do with the distinctive status of Medina as the place of revelation, the city of the Prophet, and the ultimate destiny of his migration (hijrah). The second is concerned instead with the specific role of the Medinese who witnessed the divine revelation, encountered numerous examples of the prophetic sunnah, and then followed them with sincerity. Accordingly, for Mālik, the consensus of the Medinese, although local in character, was binding to Muslims, be they jurists or people in general.

A different idea of consensus is referred to as the Iraqi consensus. Its basic character was universal, that is, it had to do with the general consensus of the community at large (ijmāʿ al-ʿammah) as opposed to consensus limited to scholars (ijmāʿ al-ʿulamāʿ ). Muḥammad ibn Ḥasan al-Shaybānī (d. A.H. 189/804 C.E.) was the first Ḥanafī jurist to advocate the general consensus of the community on the basis of the Prophet 's ḥadīth: “Whatever the Muslims agree as good is good in the sight of God, and whatever they agree as evil is evil in the sight of God.” Shaybānī 's idea of consensus is inclusive and universal in character, common to all Muslims—that is, all Hejazis and Iraqis—by the absence of a dissenting opinion.

As an Islamic juristic concept (uṣūl al-fiqh), the idea of consensus is more developed and systemized in the works of Muḥammad ibn Idrīs al-Shāfiʿī (d. A.H. 204/820 C.E.), who was the first Muslim jurist to establish consensus systematically as the third of the four authoritative sources of law after the Qur'ān and sunnah, and before analogical reasoning (qiyās). Although he agreed initially on the consensus of the Muslim scholars (ijmāʿ ʿulamāʿ al-muslimīn) and of the qualified Muslim jurists (     fuqahāʿ al-muslimīn) in a certain locality, Shāfiʿī then reconsidered his opinion on the ground that this type of consensus only contains the force of a solitary tradition (khabar al-khāṣṣah), which cannot lead to conclusive knowledge. It is, then, far from authoritative. Shāfiʿī turned instead to the consensus of the community that is reached on the basis of the Qur'ān and the sunnah as transmitted by the majority of Muslims. Consensus is first given a rudimentary but authoritative foundation in the revealed texts. Only this type of consensus is thought to yield conclusive knowledge of the law requisite for establishing the authoritativeness of consensus (ḥujjīyyat al-ijmāʿ ). As the prominent Orientalist Joseph Schacht (1950) has observed, Shāfiʿī was indeed moving away from the consensus of the scholars to that of the Muslim community for one clear reason. It is impossible, argued Shāfiʿī, that the community shall agree on something that is contrary to both the injunctions of the Qur'ān and the words of the Prophet.

Shāfiʿī 's theory of consensus contributed to the development of consensus as a sanctioning instrument and as a material source of Sunnī law. Once agreement has been reached on a particular issue, for instance, the issue turns out to be epistemologically certain and thus is not susceptible to further interpretation. It is removed, by virtue of the consensus, from the region of probability to that of certainty, and, being certain, it can serve as a textual precedent, just like the Qur'ān and the sunnah, on the basis of which new cases may be solved. The epistemological value attached to consensus renders this instrument so powerful in the realm of doctrine and practice in the community that it can override established practice as well as clear statements of the Qur'ān. For instance, if the community, represented by its mujtahids (those who are qualified to form opinions on religious matters), reaches a consensus that runs counter to a Qur'ānic text, the text is considered to have been superseded by this consensus. The source of such an evaluation is the Prophetic belief that God would shield the community from error. This is precisely reflected in the Prophetic saying: “My community shall never agree upon an error.” Consensus functions as a theological and juristic justification for the infallibility of the community.

Shāfiʿī 's theory of consensus, whose agent is theoretically the majority of the Muslim community, was reversed by later jurists who insisted that mujtahids were the only persons qualified to form such an authoritative agreement. These jurists, however, still felt compelled to pursue Shāfiʿī 's quest to justify consensus on the basis of revealed texts, even though they largely ignored the arguments he had adduced. Eventually the authoritativeness of consensus was found in such Qur'ānic verses as 4:115, 2:143, 3:110, 9:16, and 31:15—which generally bid Muslims not to swerve from the path of the Prophet and his community—as well as in numerous Prophetic traditions. Although the latter were related by a single authority (āḥād) and thus regarded as probable (ẓannī), they shared one common theme, expressed in the dictum mentioned previously, that the community shall never agree upon an error.

In Twelver Shiism, by contrast, consensus in and of itself is neither an infallible sanctioning instrument nor a source of law. When the Twelver jurists reach an agreement on a question of law, the hidden imam is always assumed to partake in that agreement; in fact, it is the posited participation of the imam that alone guarantees the infallibility of consensus. The function of consensus in Twelver Shiism is thus to unveil the infallible opinion of the imam. If and when the imam appears to stipulate the law in person, consensus will be rendered superfluous. This limited function of consensus perhaps explains why it is not necessary, as it is in Sunnism, to obtain the agreement of all qualified jurists in order for consensus to be fully authoritative.

Modern Ideas of Consensus.

The classical theory of consensus in Sunnī Islam remained largely unquestioned until the twentieth century, when modern Muslim reformers brought forth a variety of changes to the classical concepts. Chief among them was the Egyptian reformer Muḥammad ʿAbduh (d. 1905 C.E.), who counted the notion of authority and rational judgment in the discourse of consensus. Authority was used by ʿAbduh to signify the consensus of “those in authority among you” (ūlī al-amr minkum, Qur'ān 4:59) who act on behalf of and in the best interests of the community in a particular generation. This type of consensus is authoritative as long as it is based on rational judgment in addition to the Qur'ān and the sunnah. Once agreement has been reached upon an issue, the whole community is obliged to obey fully the consensus of “those in authority” on the basis of public interest (maṣlaḥah) rather than the infallibility of consensus.

ʿAbduh 's chief disciple Muḥammad Rashīd Riḍā (d. 1935 C.E.) went so far as to relate the decisive role of consensus to modern needs. At first, Riḍā confined the binding authority of consensus only to the Prophet 's companions in matters of worship. The clear texts of the Qur'ān and the sunnah that bear upon such matters and that have been subject to the consensus of the companions are authoritative, and a departure from the laws of worship instituted throughout the centuries would constitute a sin. But matters of public policy and social morality must be regulated in light of the needs of the community in the modern world. Here even the consensus of the companions is not binding. Law governing these matters must be legislated by the qualified legal scholars who are the effective rulers of the community (ahl al-ḥall wa-al-ʿaqd) and act on its behalf and in its best interests. Their legislation is the result of a process of consultation (shūrā), and as such it represents the will and consensus of the community. For Riḍā, the classical theory of consensus is largely irrelevant; it is replaced by a new and more restricted notion that derives its authority from some form of consultative and parliamentary process.

The ideas of consultation and parliamentarianism have become essential ingredients in nearly all attempts at reformulating a theory of consensus. The Pakistani scholar Kemal Faruki assigns to the community the exclusive right to determine its own affairs as it sees fit. Through an elective process, it vests its authority in learned and trustworthy persons who act on its behalf as a legislative body. This body, though it expresses the will of the community as a totality and is thus assured of protection against error, is bound at the same time by the authority of the revealed texts as they have been interpreted by the consensus of previous generations.



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