Jihad and ijtihad

It is the renaissance of ijtihad regarding the doctrine of jihad, which produces keen impact within unstable Muslim-majority regions. Lack of historical context of the doctrine of jihad has produced a (modern) desiccated body of jurisprudence

Jihad and ijtihad

Expert divers would never consider a head first trajectory into the shallows of a body of water. But Islamic neo-jurists dive into shallow geopolitical waters every single day. The injury is not just to their personal reputation. The murkiness and lack of intellectual depth surrounding their proclamations impede critical thought.

The steady drumbeat of Pakistan’s ruin at the hands of an ill-advised American policy in Afghanistan during the Reagan administration is a zombie-like call to the senseless. Such is the nature of the political percussion, which blames every current terror hiccup in Pakistan on the evils of 20th century American interference. Worldview is embraced and emotional purchase made. Error is birthed in degrees of movement away from the truth. Incremental mental movements, which birth deception, create an ignoble class of human being: the damned who view themselves as wise sages. Peering out from an impregnable mindset, the world finally makes perfect sense and they find solace in their heartfelt truth. When nothing is left to be understood, there remains nothing requiring new levels of thought. Such is the plight of those who leap from a late 20th century stage to the year 2011 and proclaim current problems date back to a solitary historical event. There is a greater reality. It is one that requires literary and jurisprudential depth.

Question: did the US policy to counter Soviet occupation of Afghanistan have play in streaming players into a modern day land of ribaat [the Islamic concept of guarding the frontiers of Muslim lands with the intention of defending it against the enemies]? Yes. Did the unexpected success create a story of mythical proportions, which was then carried home when the Soviets got their behinds kicked? Yes. But are there other questions to consider? Of course!

Let me rummage a bit in my own literary backpack and make you think about something new today. Mulla’s Principles of Mahomedan Law, Eighteenth Edition by M Hidayatullah (former chief justice of India) and Arshad Hidayatullah is being pulled out of the legal pouch. A bit of his thoughts will intermingle with my own as the discussion continues.

The Quran contains approximately 6,000 ayaat (verses). No more than two hundred deal with legal principles. Approximately 120 ayaat concern issues of state and the remaining eighty cover law related to personal status. Of common knowledge and stated in many books is the understanding that the Makki revelations were singularly free of legal matters but it was the Medani revelations that brought about the configuration of a nascent Islamic state.

Things become quite a bit more complex when considering the role of Sunnah, which means ‘trodden path’. I have read thousands of ahadith and am cognizant of the binding nature of Quran and Sunnah for application of law. Beyond taproot and trunk lie the branches of ijma (consensus), ijtihad (legal deduction by one’s own exertion), and for the Sunni, qiyaas or laws based on analogy. One such famous ruling was issued by scholars of the Ottoman Sultanate in the 17th century when tobacco and cigarettes made an appearance. Smoking was considered disliked (makrooh) for the same reason that Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) had forbidden those who had eaten garlic from attending mosque prayers. Bad breath is bad breath.

The early great scholars arose among the ranks and made their distinct mark on history. Primary jurisprudential schools were established. By the ninth century, there was consensus (ijma) that ijtihad was the sole domain and privilege of the great scholars. It was also determined that as Muslim migration spread further across the globe and into other cultures, that the only means of preserving ijtihad was by blocking any further critical thinking regarding al-furqan (the criteria). By the 10th century it was believed that all principles were settled and the result was what is known as bab-al-ijtihad, and the closure of ‘the gate of ijtihad’. A respect for the towering genius of the jurisconsults of antiquity slammed the door shut against future discussion of new principles of ijtihad. A long period of silence accompanied the tramping of Muslim feet across the globe.

Fast forward into the late 20th century and consider the marvel of communication technology. Ancient Islamic texts are being transliterated into many languages. The warehouses of Islamic knowledge are producing a monumental rolling stock of information. It is digitalised and only a click away for the viewer. Due to this ijtihad has become a populist right for 21st century Muslims. What was prior the domain and treasure of academia is now available for those lacking academic career tracks. Along with this excitement and sense of awe come many squabbles and turf wars. These issues will eventually sort themselves out. But it is the renaissance of ijtihad regarding the doctrine of jihad, which produces keen impact within unstable Muslim-majority regions.

Lack of historical context of the doctrine of jihad has produced a (modern) desiccated body of jurisprudence. Legal jujitsu abounds and hardly a day goes by when I am not confronted with these issues during my online research. The impact of ijtihad as now enjoyed by the masses is what propels the suicide bomber forward in Pakistan today.

Consider the average homegrown suicide bomber. Under the guidance of a man he considers a regular walking and talking expert on usool al-fiqh (fundamentals of the law), he also suspects this man is a strategic genius. Only a genius knows how to pack fertiliser into the back of a truck. When asked to be a single-mission combatant, he feels honoured. The video camera rolls. Holding a green and gold Quran in one hand and a weapon in the other, he claims that there is no God but Allah. Slapping his mentor on the back, the latest brainwashed pawn happily waves goodbye as he careens down the road with his payload and detonator in hand. Unfortunately, the hand on the detonating device today is there because of faulty ijtihad. What is Pakistan prepared to do?

Blame bab-al-ijtihad. Or blame whatever nefarious world power that comes to mind. But please remember one small thing: Life is always simple — for the simple-minded.


The writer is a freelance columnist. She can be reached at tammyswof@msn.com