Monday, August 18, 2008

Shari'ah: A Muslim's Declaration of Independence - Part 9

The Issue of Ijtihad

Mu‘adh ibn Jabal was dispatched by the Prophet to govern Yemen. Before ibn Jabal left for Yemen, the Prophet asked him about the nature of the method through which ibn Jabal would govern. Ibn Jabal replied: ‘In accordance with God’s Book.’ Ibn Jabal was then asked by the Prophet that if the former could not find what he needed in God’s Book, how would ibn Jabal proceed. Ibn Jabal responded with: ‘Then, according to the sunna of God’s Prophet.’ The Prophet then asked what ibn Jabal would do if the latter could not find what he requires in the sunna of the Prophet. Ibn Jabal replied that he would exercise ijtihad.” The Messenger of God indicated that he was happy with the answers which ibn Jabal had given to each of the Prophet’s queries.

Some people have tried to construe the meaning of ijtihad as involving legal reasoning in some form. However, ijtihad – which comes from the same root as ‘jihad’ – refers to a process of personal striving or struggling to assert the truth of a matter.

The Qur’an says:

And strive hard in the way of Allah, such a striving as is due to Him;” [Qur’an, 22:78]

All of life requires one to exercise ijtihad. All of life requires one to strive for the truth.

Among other things, God has given each of us a capacity for seeking truth. To use such a capacity for anything other than striving for the truth is to strive in a manner which is less than what is due to God.

Reason might be one tool entailed by such an exercise. Nonetheless, there are other faculties and capabilities within the individual [e.g., heart, sirr, kafi, spirit] which also may be employed during the process of ijtihad.

Furthermore, whatever the nature of the faculties and methods which may be employed during the process of ijtihad, one is not necessarily seeking a legally enforceable solution to the question, issue, or problem at hand through such a process. This is especially so with respect to matters of shari‘ah -- which is an individual, spiritual task and not something which should be imposed collectively or through compulsion.

To govern is to oversee the regulation of public space so that that space is free of oppression, injustice, and tumult. Governance is not about the enforcement of shari‘ah, but, rather, governance is about the regulating of the ‘commons’, so to speak, so that individuals are free to pursue, or not, the issue of shari‘ah.

Presumably, if ibn Jabal was looking to the Qur’an, the sunna, and the exercise of ijtihad in order to find solutions to problems of governance, one should not necessarily assume that he was trying to discover various facets of shari‘ah which could be imposed on people. Rather, ibn Jabal may have been trying to discover those principles of justice, equitability, tolerance, truth, wisdom, and so on which will permit a community to exist in relative peace and harmony, free from oppression, so that the members of that community might individually tend to the responsibilities which revolve about and permeate the issue of free will in a manner which does not oppress others. As the Qur’an indicates:

“O ye who believe! Be upright for Allah, bearers of witness with justice, and let not hatred of a people incite or seduce you to not act equitably; act equitably, that is nearer to piety (taqwa) , and be careful with respect to Allah, surely Allah is aware of what you do.” [Qur’an, 5:8]

Ibn Jabal (may Allah be pleased with him) was seeking to be “upright for Allah”. He was seeking to be one of the “bearers of witness with justice”. He was seeking to “act equitably”. He was seeking to struggle toward a condition of taqwa. He was seeking to “be careful with respect to Allah”.

Notwithstanding the foregoing considerations, and without prejudice to either the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) or ibn Jabal (may Allah be pleased with him), there is a great deal of ambiguity in the interchange between the two as related in the foregoing Hadith. For example, one might ask: What does it mean to find what one needs in the Qur’an? Or, what is meant by the idea of finding what one seeks in the sunna of the Prophet? What is actually entailed by the process of exercising ijtihad?

There is no one answer which can be given to any of the foregoing questions. Much depends on the spiritual capabilities and condition of the individual doing the needing, seeking, and striving in relation to, respectively, the Qur’an, the sunna, and ijtihad. Much also depends on the nature of the problem which one is attempting to resolve or the kind of question one is trying to answer.

The truth of the matter is that many people read about the account involving the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) and ibn Jabal (may Allah be pleased with him), and such individuals tend to impose their own ideas onto the exchange. For example, because ibn Jabal was being sent off to Yeman to govern, there are those who suppose that the practice of ijtihad can only be performed by someone who has been given the authority to govern. Then, again, there are others who understand the interchange between the Prophet and ibn Jabal to mean that only someone who has been given the authority to make legal pronouncements is permitted to exercise ijtihad, and, then, such commentators often proceed to put forth a list of qualifications which such a person must have in order to be permitted to exercise ‘legitimate’ ijtihad.

There is an underlying logic inherent in the perspective of those who seek to restrict ijtihad to only certain kinds of individuals with certain kinds of qualifications. The nature of that logic goes somewhat along the following lines: The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) was sending ibn Jabal (may Allah be pleased with him) to govern the people of Yemen; the Prophet was only showing approval concerning the exercise of ijtihad in the case of someone whom he had authorized to fulfill a specific task of governance; therefore, the Prophet would only approve ijtihad in someone whom he had authorized to accept such a responsibility.

The foregoing kind of logic is nothing more than presumptions which are being read into the conversation in question. In point of fact, there is nothing in the interchange between the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) and ibn Jabal (may Allah be pleased with him) to which one can point that authoritatively and decisively demonstrates the necessity of concluding that only people who govern or only people who promulgate laws or only those with specific qualifications have the right to exercise ijtihad.

Above and beyond the foregoing sorts of difficulties, there are two other kinds of presumption inherent in the sort of logic which seeks to place limits on those who might exercise ijtihad. On the one hand, there is a presumption that those who exercise ijtihad today -- and, therefore, those who are referred to as mujtahids -- have been authorized by the Prophet to do so, and this is, at best, a very dubious presumption. On the other hand, there is another presumption present in the foregoing sort of logic which arrogates to itself the right to forcibly impose upon others the “fruits” from someone’s exercise of ijtihad which is, once again and at best, an extremely dubious presumption.

We are each governors of our own being. We each have been given the capacity to consult the Qur’an, the sunna, and, when appropriate, to exercise ijtihad as we strive to find our way to truth, justice, essential identity, and our primordial spiritual capacity.

In fact, one might argue that every engagement of the Qur’an and sunna is an exercise of ijtihad. Each individual strives and struggles to purify herself or himself in order that one may be led, God willing, to a spiritual condition which allows one to drink in what is necessary to have ears with which to hear and eyes with which to see the true nature of what God is disclosing to us through the Qur’an and the example of the Prophet.

Having said the foregoing, one should not suppose I believe there are no differences in the quality, depth, insight, wisdom, balance, or appropriateness as one moves from one exercise of ijtihad to the next exercise of ijtihad among different individuals. The Qur’an states:

“Are they equal – those who know and those who do not know? Only those of understanding are mindful.” [Qur’an, 39:9]

In this regard, there are some mujtahids who truly do know what they are talking about with respect to matters of shari‘ah, truth, and justice, just as there are all too many mujtahids who do not know what they are talking about when it comes to matters of shari‘ah, truth, and justice. Nevertheless, whether someone who engages in ijtihad knows what he or she is doing, or whether someone who engages in ijtihad does not know what she or he is doing, neither individual has the right nor authority to forcibly impose their understanding upon others when it comes to matters of shari‘ah.

If one wishes to think of shari‘ah as Divine Law, then, as previously indicated, one should understand the idea of law in such a context as being an expression of the way the universe spiritually operates rather than as being an expression of a legal system. No one has to impose the law of gravity on anyone since most of us become aware of the existence and nature of gravity through life experience, and, as a result, we begin to factor in our understanding of this law of nature with respect to our daily lives concerning what may be practical and what may be problematic when it comes to matters which are affected or influenced by the force of gravity.

When one runs afoul of the law of gravity, one is not being punished for a legal transgression. Rather, one is suffering the consequences of failing to exercise due diligence in one’s life with respect to the law of gravity.

Similarly, when one runs afoul of the principles inherent in shari‘ah, and, then, if things begin to become problematic in one’s life as a result of such transgressions, one is not being punished. Instead, as is the case in relation to the law of gravity, by failing to exercise due diligence with respect to shari‘ah, problematic ramifications may begin to become manifest in one’s life. This is just the way the universe is set up to operate unless God intervenes and interrupts the normal sequence of events.

The truth of the matter is – and as the Qur’an has indicated in a number of verses – difficulty, problems and trials come into the lives of everyone – whether they are believers or non-believers. Thus, the Qur’an notes:

“And we test you by evil and by good by way of trial.” [21:35]

Or, again:

“Do they not see that they are tried once or twice in every year, yet they do not turn nor do they take heed.” [9:126]

And, finally:

“And surely We shall test you with some fear and hunger and loss of wealth and lives and crops;” [Qur’an, 2:155]

Pursuing shari‘ah in a sincere fashion can assist one to cope with such problems, and when one turns away from that spiritual journey, one is actually placing oneself at a disadvantage when it comes to dealing with the rain which must fall into the life of everyone, and this is another natural law of the universe. Indeed, the following Quranic ayat alludes to those who properly understand this natural laws of the universe:

“But give glad tidings to the steadfast – who say when misfortune strikes them: Surely, to Allah we belong and to Allah is our returning.” [Qur’an, 2:156]

Furthermore, just as no one has to impose a penalty beyond what happens naturally when one transgresses the due limits of the force of gravity, so, too, with certain exceptions (to be noted shortly) no one has to impose a penalty beyond what happens naturally when one transgresses the due limits of shari‘ah. If one does not say one’s prayers, or if one does not fast during the month of Ramadan, or if one is financially and physically able to do so but does not go on Hajj, or if one fails to give zakat, or if one fails to act in accordance with the reality that God exists and that the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) was given a Book of Divine revelation, or if one does not seek to acquire the noble character traits [such as forgiveness, tolerance, patience, gratitude, humility, steadfastness, love, generosity, and the like] which are part of what is sought by pursuing shari‘ah, then, one will have to deal with the problematic ramifications of such negligence in one’s day-to-day life.

Only when such ramifications spill over into the lives of others and, as a result, an individual’s negligence of shari‘ah leads to that individual pursuing courses of action that abuse, exploit, injure, or oppress others does the community have a right to step in and seek to restore harmony, peace, justice, and balance within the community. Such intercession is directed toward protecting the right of people in a community to be able to have the opportunity to make choices concerning shari‘ah – either toward it or away from it -- which are free from interference by others. These corrective efforts of the community are not directed at forcing some given transgressing individual to follow shari‘ah but, rather, is directed toward honoring the rights of individuals to have the opportunity to be free of oppression from others.

After such corrective measures are taken – and these measures need not be punitive and could involve attempts to mediate and reconcile individuals as a means of restoring balance and harmony in the community – if the individual who originally had introduced oppression into the lives of other people wishes to continue to choose to live life in opposition to the principles of shari‘ah, then, the person should be free to do so as long as such a life does not transgress further against the rights of others to be free of any tendencies toward oppression that may arise out of such choices. However, just as someone who does not wish to follow shari‘ah has no right to oppress others in the community, then the following is also true: those who wish to follow shari‘ah have no right to oppress others in the community in terms of the way the former wish to pursue shari‘ah.

Oppression is not about whether someone has transgressed this or that legal injunction. Oppression occurs when someone interferes with, or seeks to undermine and diminish, the sort of right with respect to which there is virtually universal consensus [and irrespective of whether someone believes in God or does not believe in God] – the right to be free to choose the course of one’s life. The responsibility which accompanies this right is a duty of care to others in the community – a responsibility which stipulates that however one exercises one’s basic right to choose, such choices cannot spill over and adversely affect the right of others to make similar free choices in their own lives.

Legal laws do not have to be transgressed in order to know that oppression exists in a family, community, or nation. All one needs to look at is whether there are imbalances and inequities among individuals in their respective abilities to effectively exercise the most basic of rights among human beings – that of free choice.

Freedom to choose is one of the most basic natural laws of the universe. When that natural principle is transgressed against, the result is oppression, irrespective of whether, or not, any legal rules have been broken.

In fact, in all too many societies, the legal laws which exist are intended to oppress people while simultaneously sanctioning the right of certain favored individuals under the law to oppress others with impunity. Indeed, in many Muslim nations and communities where certain laws are enforced which are referred to as shari‘ah -- but, in truth, are not shari‘ah – the legal structure of those communities and nations is set up in such a way so as to give government and religious authorities the right to impose what is called shari‘ah on people and thereby oppress them and, in the process, transgress against the freedom to choose which God has given to all human beings -- whether they believe, or they do not believe, in Divinity.

Just as air, water, and food are intended for all to use irrespective of whether, or not, they are believers in God, so, too, the right to choose is a basic entitlement of all human beings. In fact, at the very heart of shari‘ah is the right to freely choose among alternatives, and when legal injunctions which are referred to as shari‘ah are imposed on people, the very essence of shari‘ah is violated.

Those who are, by the Grace of God, good at exercising ijtihad – that is, those who are spiritually insightful, truly knowledgeable [as opposed to just being filled with information], as well as wise mujtahids [i.e., practitioners of ijtihad] perform an important service for those who are seeking counsel concerning the pursuit of shari‘ah. Nonetheless, that service is limited to offering counsel and nothing more, and, furthermore, no one has the right to take such counsel and use it to justify attempts to compel other human beings to live in accord with that counsel. To do so totally misses, if not distorts, the meaning and purpose of both being a mujtahid as well as pursuing shari‘ah.

The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) is reported to have said: “When the qadi judges and does ijtihad and hits the mark, he has ten rewards; and when he does ijtihad and errs, he has one or two rewards.”

The Prophet is indicating in the foregoing that the exercising of an intention to seek truth and justice is rewarded in and of itself, even if it turns out that one who is exercising such an intention pursues a path which does not give expression to either truth or justice. Moreover, the foregoing also seems to indicate fairly clearly that ijtihad is the process of struggling for the truth of a matter, while being correct or in error concerning the results of that process is quite another matter altogether.

However, one should not assume that the Prophet was indicating in the previous Hadith that making errors concerning the exercise of ijtihad is okay and without consequences or that one has the right to impose such erroneous judgments on others. This latter point is especially relevant with respect to those individuals who have not been authorized by either God or the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) to exercise ijtihad on behalf of a community – as opposed to exercising ijtihad in conjunction with respect to oneself … something which we all have been given the capacity and responsibility to do.

To make judgments as a mujtahid is not a matter of imposing shari‘ah on others. Rather, to make judgments as a mujtahid is to strive toward assisting members of a community to identify those tools of truth and principles of justice which might be useful resources to apply, like salve on a wound, to help alleviate the pain and difficulties which have ensued from some manner of disturbance in the peaceful fabric of a community so that harmony and balance may be restored through a peaceful reconciliation of differences and conflicts.


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