Use of reason and judgment (Ijtihād) in religion

Friday Khutba by Dr Zahid Aziz, for Lahore Ahmadiyya UK, 5 August 2022

“And among them are the illiterate; they do not know the Book except (from) hearsay, and they only conjecture.” — 2:78

وَ مِنۡہُمۡ اُمِّیُّوۡنَ لَا یَعۡلَمُوۡنَ الۡکِتٰبَ اِلَّاۤ اَمَانِیَّ وَ اِنۡ ہُمۡ اِلَّا یَظُنُّوۡنَ ﴿۷۸

“And when it is said to them, Follow what Allah has revealed, they say: But we follow that (path) upon which we found our fathers. What! Even though their fathers had no sense at all, nor did they follow the right way.” — 2:170

وَ اِذَا قِیۡلَ لَہُمُ اتَّبِعُوۡا مَاۤ اَنۡزَلَ اللّٰہُ قَالُوۡا بَلۡ نَتَّبِعُ مَاۤ اَلۡفَیۡنَا عَلَیۡہِ اٰبَآءَنَا ؕ اَوَ لَوۡ کَانَ اٰبَآؤُہُمۡ لَا یَعۡقِلُوۡنَ شَیۡئًا وَّ لَا یَہۡتَدُوۡنَ ﴿۱۷۰

“And when it is said to them, Come to what Allah has revealed and to the Messen­ger, they say: Sufficient for us is that on which we found our fathers. What! even though their fathers knew nothing and had no guidance!” — 5:104

وَ اِذَا قِیۡلَ لَہُمۡ تَعَالَوۡا اِلٰی مَاۤ اَنۡزَلَ اللّٰہُ وَ اِلَی الرَّسُوۡلِ قَالُوۡا حَسۡبُنَا مَا وَجَدۡنَا عَلَیۡہِ اٰبَآءَنَا ؕ اَوَ لَوۡ کَانَ اٰبَآؤُہُمۡ لَا یَعۡلَمُوۡنَ شَیۡئًا وَّ لَا یَہۡتَدُوۡنَ ﴿۱۰۴

I am really continuing in a general sense the topic of my previous series of khutbas, in which I have been dealing with the sources of guidance that we have in Islam and which we use as Muslims, and I covered the relation between the Holy Quran and Hadith. The verses I have just recited relate to the importance of using reason and sense in Islam in order to understand and act upon religion. They illustrate the behaviour of those people who stop using their own reason and sense, and continue in the ways and customs they inherited from their forefathers, and they just do what they are told without thinking. The first verse refers to the attitude of the followers of previous religions, mainly Jews and Christians, when Islam came into the world and the Holy Prophet started preaching his message. They had their revealed books of religion, but most of them were unable to read them. Their knowledge was largely based on hearsay, on the common talk of ordinary ignorant people around them, and on guessing and conjec­turing and not on any sound and solid source of proper information. The other two verses refer, in addition, to the idol-worshipping Arabs of the Holy Prophet’s time. They followed the beliefs and practices of their previous generations, and they considered that that was enough for them. They thought they needed nothing more than that, and no reform. They were not at all prepared to consider whether the ways which they had inherited from their forefathers made any sense or were based on any real knowledge or source of guidance.


It is a tragedy that the attitude and reaction of those people who rejected the message of Islam when the Holy Prophet appeared among them, which the Quran has condemned, those same attitudes and the same reaction were shown by the Muslims of later times, up to our present day. Unable or unwillingly to read the Quran, their knowledge of Islam is what their fellow-Muslims around them tell them. They follow the beliefs, ways and customs of their forefathers and are not willing to examine whether these stand to reason and whether these are supported by what Allah has revealed in the Quran and the guidance provided by the Holy Prophet.


In this respect, there is a great contrast and enormous difference between the later Muslims and the Muslims of the first few centuries of Islam. I have mentioned in my previous khutbas on this subject the books of Fiqh or Islamic law which were written by great Muslim Imams about a hundred years or so after the time of the Holy Prophet. This was before the major books of Hadith such as Bukhari had been produced. In their books they gave Muslims guidance on all kinds of practical matters in Islam, such as prayer, fasting, charity, hajj, trading, war, marriage, divorce, inheri­tance, etc. The first of these Imams was Abu Hanifah. The laws and judgments com­piled by him are known as the Hanafi Fiqh and it became very widespread in the Muslim world, particularly in the Indian subcontinent. To formulate his guidance and his opinions, he took as the basis the Holy Quran and some Hadith as were available in his time, and he applied his reasoning to come up with answers to all kinds of questions. If there was no direct answer to a question in the Quran, or in any authentic Hadith that he could find, he used his reason and power of thinking. He was no doubt a great scholar, intellectual and liberal thinker. But you must remember that he was writing in the circumstances that existed 1200 years ago, and also, being human, he could make a mistake in his conclusions.


This approach by Imam Abu Hanifah goes back even to the time of the Holy Prophet himself. Once he appointed one of his eminent Companions, Mu‘adh ibn Jabal as governor of the area of Yaman, in the south of Arabia. It is reported:

When the Messenger of Allah decided to send Mu‘adh to Yaman [as Governor], he asked him how he would decide cases. Mu‘adh replied: ‘By the Book of Allah’. He [the Holy Prophet] asked: ‘But if you do not find [any direction] in it’. He replied: ‘Then by the practice (Sun­nah) of the Messenger of Allah’. ‘But if you do not find [any direction] in the Sunnah’, asked the Messenger of Allah. Mu‘adh replied: ‘Then I will exercise my judgment and spare no effort in doing so’. The Messenger of Allah patted him on his chest [with approval] and said: ‘Praise be to Allah Who has granted the messenger of His Messenger what pleases the Messenger of Allah’.” (Abu Dawud, hadith 3592)


The Holy Prophet was happy to see that the man he was sending as governor knew the right principles of how to make laws and how to judge cases. If, on some question, he could not find any direct answer in the Quran, nor in the practice of the Holy Prophet, he would use his own reason and judgment. This exercise of your own judgment is known as ijtihād. The word ijtihād is from the same root as the word jihād. It has the same root letters: j-h-d. It means exerting your mind to the utmost to come up with an answer. This shows that if you make an effort by using your head and brain to find the answer to a question, that striving which you undertake is also a form of jihad.


Notice also here that the Holy Prophet calls this Companions as “the messenger (rasul) of the Messenger (rasul) of Allah”. There are other examples in Hadith as well where a person has been called a rasul of someone because he was a messenger of that person. When the Founder of the Ahmadiyya Movement was falsely accused of claiming to be a prophet by using the word rasul for himself, he replied: “Have you not read those Sayings of the Holy Prophet in which occur the words: rasulu rasul-illah [‘messenger of the Messenger of God’]? The Arabs to this day call even the message-bearer of a man as a rasul” (book: Siraj Munir). He explained that anyone sent by Allah, whether as a prophet as in case of the Holy Prophet and prophets before him, or as a saint or mujaddid of the Muslim Ummah, can be called rasul.


It is also reported that when Hazrat Abu Bakr was khalifa, he used to do the same as what is stated about Mu‘adh above.

He used to consult the Book of Allah; if he found anything in it by which he could decide, he did so; if he did not find it in the Book, and he knew of a practice or saying of the Messenger of Allah, he decided according to it; and if he was unable to find anything there, he used to question the Muslims if they knew of any decision of the Prophet in a matter of that kind, and a company of people thus gathered round him, every one of whom stated what he knew from the Prophet; … but if he was unable to find any­thing in the prac­tice of the Prophet, he gathered the heads of the people, and the best of them, and consulted them, and if they agreed upon one opinion [by a majority] he decided accordingly.” (Tārīkh al-Khulafā’, by Imam Suyuti).


Hazrat Umar, when he was khalifa, used to use his judgment very frequently, but he always took care to consult the most learned of the Companions. He made many new laws, subject only to the condition that they were neither contrary to the Holy Quran nor to the practice of the Holy Prophet.


It was a hundred years after this that Imam Abu Hanifah compiled his Islamic law according to the needs of his time. As you know, Muslims had spread far and wide in the world by this time and they were encountering new situations. When applying his reasoning and judgment, one principle he followed was that his judgments should be just and equitable. Another principle was that the judgment should be in the public good and for public convenience. So if he found that there were two equally valid judgments in the same matter, both acceptable to the Quran and the practice of the Holy Prophet, he would accept the one which was more in line with justice, or more in the public good, or more convenient for people to follow. He had two disciples who carried forward his work on the same lines. After Imam Abu Hanifah, three other famous Imams arose one after another in the same sort of period of time: Imam Mālik, Imam Shāfi‘i and Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal. They produced their own books of Islamic law, and these are followed in certain parts of the Muslim world. A difference of approach between the first Imam, i.e. Abu Hanifah, and the last of these, Imam Ibn Hanbal, is that the first Imam made the most use of reason, applying his own reason­ing directly to the Quran, but the last Imam made the least use of his own reasoning and preferred to rely on all kinds of Hadith reports, even weak reports. So already we can see a decline in applying your own reason and, instead of that, just taking any Hadith report literally.


After these four Imams had done their work, it gradually came to be believed that after their time no Muslim is entitled to undertake ijtihad. It is said that, after their time, Muslims can only be their followers. If they find differing judgments of the Imams on the same issue, they can choose one of them, but they cannot apply their own ijtihad or reasoning to come up with a different solution to the problem.


Maulana Muhammad Ali writes:

Ijtihād was a great blessing to the Muslim people; it was the only way through which the needs of succeeding generations and the requirements of different races merging into Islam could be met. Neither the Holy Prophet, nor any of his Com­panions, nor any of the great jurists [i.e., the Imams mentioned above] ever said that Muslims were forbid­den to apply their own judgment to new circumstances and the ever-changing needs of a growing community after a certain time.”


He says further that after a time “the impression gained ground gra­dually that no one could exercise his judgment independently of the Imams” and therefore “the intellect of Islam suffered a heavy loss, the increasing demand of knowledge was brought to a standstill, and stagna­tion and ignorance took its place”.


He also adds:

“The imp­ression prevailing in the Muslim world at present that no one has the right, even in the light of the new circumstances which a thousand years of the world’s progress have brought about, to differ with the four Imams, is entirely a mistaken one. … Under the present circumstances, when conditions have quite changed and the world has been moving on for a thousand years, while Muslims have more or less stagnated, it is the duty of Muslim states and Mus­lim peoples to apply their own judgment to the changed conditions, and find out the ways and means for their temporal salvation.” (See The Religion of Islam, ch. ‘Ijtihad or Exercise of Judgement’.)


So may Allah enable us to apply our sense and reason to understand Islam and to come up with solutions to modern-day problems that we face. — Ameen.