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Gatestone Institute: Can Muslims Reopen the Gates of Ijtihad?

The exercise of critical thinking and independent judgment – or Ijtihad --was an important way to address questions in the early centuries of Islam. After approximately 400 years, however, the leaders of the Sunni Muslim world closed the "Gates of Ijtihad;" Muslims were no longer allowed use itjihad to solve problems. If a seemingly new problem arose, they were supposed to find an analogy from earlier scholars and apply that ruling to the problem that arose. From the 10th century onwards, Sunni Muslim leaders began to see questioning as politically dangerous to their ability to rule. Regrettably, Sunni Muslim leaders reject the use of itjihad to this day.

As questioning could very likely upset the established order and bring down the autocracies and despotic regimes which rule most of the Muslim world, even Muslims who live in freer Muslim countries such as Turkey often hesitate to exercise ijtihad. How did the Muslim world succumb to this situation, and is there a way out?

Ijtihad in historical context

Ijtihad was important in early Islam: when questions arose - even while Muhammad was alive - for which there were no answers, Muhammad would call the Muslims together in their mosque. They would discuss the issues at hand, reason them through, and come to a consensus -- so came into being the Islamic concept of ijma' (consensus among the scholars).[1]

After Muhammad died, however, the Muslim community rapidly expanded; the community of scholars became too large, and ijma' no longer practical. What developed was a body of traditions – called hadiths – sayings and deeds attributed to their prophet Muhammad. When new questions arose, people would seek out individuals who had known Muhammad and ask them whether they had seen or heard Muhammad address the matter at hand.

Within 200 years, the number of hadiths was thought to be in the hundreds of thousands, but people had no way of knowing which were true and which were fabricated. The great Muslim scholar, al-Bukhari (810 -870 CE), who analyzed them, concluded that only a few thousand were reliable.[2]

Later, when still more questions arose, diverse schools of thought developed. The Quran, the hadiths, and those schools of thought were collected into Islamic law. This body of Islamic religious guidance is known as the Shari'a, or "The Path."

During the first four centuries of Islam, Muslim scholars seem to have exercised independent judgment freely, and debated rigorously new issues that arose. The Muslim world at that time seems to have been inclusive and flexible; it accepted differing views, differing conclusions and differing sorts of influences that arose as part of the cultures of its large empire.[3]

Muslim scholars studied Arabic translations of ancient Greek texts which they thought might help them understand the nature of mankind as well as other aspects of life. These texts, though clearly non-Islamic, nevertheless provided scholars with useful insights. There were also intellectual interchanges with Jewish scholars, particularly in the fields of science, medicine, language, and geography. There seems to have been, however, little discussion with Christians.[4]

With time, however, the situation became unwieldy. Certain groups (called ghulat) were accused of extremism – going too far -- and attempts were made to rein them in.[5] Questions arose as to the limits of divergent views, and whether "extremist elements" could still be considered Muslim. The many schools of Islamic thought were reduced to four; these became the basis of the Sunni Shari'a.

As Islamic rule started to become more autocratic, Islamic rulers began to see discord as potentially able to undermine their rule.

All four schools accepted the Quran as the divine word of God, and the hadiths as the source for legal decisions. But it soon became apparent that the larger the number of hadiths a school of thought accepted, the more restrictive and rigid this school became. The Hanafi school of law, for example -- the most liberal school of thought, founded by Abu Hanifa (699-767 CE) -- accepted over a few thousand hadiths. In contrast, the most restrictive of the four schools – founded by Ahmad ibn Hanbal (778-863 CE) -- accepted tens of thousands. It is not surprising, therefore, that in the 18th century Wahhabism -- probably one of the most restrictive forms of Islam -- developed out of the Hanbali School of law.

The Islamic authorities possibly still worried that despite four schools of thought, dissent would become unmanageable. Towards the end of the eleventh century, therefore, they officially closed the "Gates of Ijtihad." There may have been too many different answers to the same questions, leading to confusion. Possibly this, in turn, may have made it difficult for the authorities to maintain order as well as to justify their autocratic rule.

Muslim scholars also appear to have decided that as all questions had been addressed, there was no longer any need to exercise independent judgment. The result was that exercising independent judgment became no longer permissible.

During the twelfth century, nevertheless, there were still attempts to use rational and deductive reasoning. In Muslim Spain, for instance, Averroes (aka Ibn Rushd, 1126-1198 CE), one of the founders of secular reasoning in Europe, refused to accept the closing of the Gates of Ijtihad. He continued to use Arabic translations of classical Greek sources, and preferred strictly rational methods to decide matters in contention. As in the Muslim world the Gates of Ijtihad had been closed, however, his rulings proved unacceptable.

What happened once the Gates of Ijtihad were closed: The Ottoman example

What followed the closing of the Gates of Ijtihad in the Muslim world were centuries of intellectual and political decline. At the same time, Europe, with its many states constantly at war with each other, was on the ascendancy. One of the major reasons Europe advanced appears to have been that its warring political entities needed to find new methods of defeating their adversaries. The Europeans were therefore drawn to study science and technology to enable them to produce weapons -- powerful naval vessels, for instance, that could be used in war both at home and overseas. The Muslims, on the other hand, who had fewer internal wars, had no incentive to invent new techniques to survive.

Yet all was not lost for the Muslims: European businessmen had weapons to sell and were perfectly willing to sell them to Muslims. Additionally, after many European wars, a continuous flow of refugees fleeing Europe brought their skills and knowledge to the Ottoman Empire. The Muslims were then able to take advantage of many of the technological and scientific developments in Europe. This was essentially how the Ottoman Empire (ca. 1389-1918) was able to hold its own land -- and even capture European land -- until the seventeenth century, when it began to lose battles and was forced to retreat from territories over which, for centuries, it had ruled.

Ottoman literature and chronicles are filled with descriptions of the Europeans who fled to the Empire, and the technologies they brought with them. The Ottomans, however, never seem to have asked why it was that the Europeans invented these technologies while the Muslims did not.

Why didn't the Ottomans invent these technologies? So long as the Ottoman Empire expanded, it did not need to invent them. Could the answer be -- even in retreat and today –- that, as of Gates of Ijtihad are still closed, Muslim culture does not allow the necessary creativity?

What happened once the Gates of Ijtihad were closed: The Muslim world today

From what one reads and hears in the media among other places, many Muslims quietly ask themselves this question, but are afraid to state it publicly for fear of being ostracized, arrested, or even killed by their co-religionists. Why, these Muslims ask, can Muslims who emigrate to the West – especially to the U.S. and Canada – invent and innovate in the fields of science and technology, but not in their native lands?

When one looks at which Muslims succeed in the West and which do not, it seems that Muslims who live outside Muslim communities in the West, or who have, at best, only marginal connections with these communities, are the most likely to succeed. By examining the lives of successful Muslims in the West, it seems clear that those who live in Muslim communities -- and whose social life revolves around these communities -- seem to suffer from the intellectual constraints just as their fellow Muslims do in their lands of origin.

According to one Palestinian Muslim who has chosen to live outside the Muslim community in the U.S., the answer is, "They don't allow us to think." ("They" refers to the leaders of the community back home and abroad.) Muslims, he states, are subjected to intellectual oppression at home: they are not allowed to question. When young Muslims do ask questions, their elders usually humiliate them – often publicly -- a sure-fire way to discourage intellectual development and curiosity. If Muslims repeat what is proscribed, they are praised; if they question, they are chastised.

The political despotism that characterizes their governments also seems to filter down to lower levels to suppress dissent, keeping every individual and group both intimidated and dependent. The same appears to apply to Muslim communities outside the Muslim world. On paper, young Muslims who live in the Western world have the freedoms that any other Western citizens enjoy. In practice, though, this is not what takes place.[6] Those who speak out, or who do not conform to Islamic rules as dictated by their communities and families, suffer greatly.[7]

During the twentieth century, there were countless attempts, by Muslim scholars and non-Muslims, to address this problem; but little seems to have come from them.

The Chinese peasants who went to work as laborers for the British in Singapore in the 19th century managed to produce the economic marvel that Singapore is today. Similarly, South Korea went from a semi-medieval kingdom 50 years ago to the tenth largest economy in the world. The Muslims of Aden in southern Arabia, however, lived under British rule, like the Singaporeans, yet they remain as underdeveloped as their neighbors who never lived under foreign domination. Singapore's Lee Kuan Yu, for example, once asked a well-known scholar of Islam, "Why is it that whatever we do to help our Muslims advance fails? We provide them with educational opportunities, give them financial incentives, and so on, but nothing works. They still remain at the bottom. Why?"

Ijtihad among the Shiites

Shiites have a different approach to the problem of questioning -- an approach which might help solve the Muslim dilemma of how to remain Muslim yet take part in the modern world. For Shiites, the Gates of Ijtihad have never been closed. Shiite religious figures also have the title mujtahid, or "one who engages in the exercise of independent judgment and critical thinking to try to solve contemporary problems."

There is a noticeable difference between how Shiites in Iran, for example, and those in Iraq or Lebanon approach exercising independent judgment. Most Iranian mullahs – (especially those involved with the government) even those who are known as mujtahids -- rarely use ijtihad. The Iraqi and Lebanese Shiites are more likely to engage in independent judgment than their counterparts in Iran. As the Shiites are the dominant group in Iran, they never needed to worry about what those around them might do to them; hence they had less incentive to innovate or think creatively. The Shiites under Sunni rule in the Arab world, however, always had to be concerned about what the Sunnis might do to them -- a situation that induced these Shiites to find ways to survive, and possibly be more open to exercising ijtihad.

If one compares different modes of exercising judgment: in the West, Judeo-Christian thinking is based on divinely-revealed law, but with a heavy dose of critical --

mostly Aristotelian -- deductive thinking, closer to the Shiite approach. The Western tradition also sees modern science and technology as gifts from God, developed by man -- and encourages their use.

When, for example, a medical question recently arose over whether to abort large numbers of fetuses (over three) to protect the life of the mother to enable the others more successfully to be brought to term, senior Shiite religious authorities responded that although they had not really studied the problem, these were questions to consider. The Sunnis, however, said that embryos turned into fetuses because of the will of Allah, so abortion would be unacceptable -- even if the mother and all the fetuses were to die, there was nothing to be done. Only one Sunni agreed with the Shiite approach – a Sufi mystic who refused to accept that the Gates of Ijtihad were ever closed – but his is not the prevailing approach in the Sunni world.

Even though both Sunni and Shiite religious leaders approach ijtihad differently, neither encourages their followers to think creatively. Although in theory Shiite religious leaders can exercise independent judgment, in practice only a few do so -- and rarely, at that. The rest of the Shiite community is encouraged instead, in a process known as taqlid, to choose a religious leader to follow, then "imitate" him. Although these leaders are allowed to question, the masses are not encouraged to think, but to follow. So on a fundamental level, neither Shiites nor Sunnis really approaches ijtihad all that differently.

Even if, on the surface, the Shiites appear to offer a solution to the problem of independent thinking, it is hard to imagine, given the present political climate, how the Sunnis, who constitute about 85% of the 1.3 billion Muslims of the world, would be prepared to borrow anything from their Shiite enemies.

Muslim attempts to re-open the Gates of Ijtihad

Most of the governments of the Muslim world are despotic regimes run by autocrats who do not allow their citizens to question them. Questioning might lead to insurrection; governments might be overthrown. These leaders, therefore, make sure to appoint "official" religious leaders who will endorse the government line. Ijtihad might lead people to question regimes; a situation that cannot be tolerated. It is not surprising that calls for re-opening the Gates of Ijtihad fall on deaf ears, as the Saudis, Egyptians, Emiratis, and others all do their utmost to stamp out individual thought.

Because questioning religion -- and much else -- is not allowed, some young Muslims who grow up in Islamic lands find much of what was forced down their throats meaningless, then reject Islam. When some of them come to the West, often their first reaction is to stay as far away from Islam and Muslims as possible. Some, after they remain in the West for a while, stumble upon books about Islam in libraries; they start reading and realize that there is a lot of beauty and knowledge in Islam – just not when forced down their throats. They read, but find almost no one with whom they can share their newfound curiosity.

If and when they do find a kindred spirit, there is often a sort of dance – a tiptoeing around the real questions – mostly out of fear and suspicion. With time, when they realize that other people might have similar interests and feel safe enough to open up, they introduce each other to other men who think like them, but as if these are secret societies: there is a fear that if others, who may not agree, find out what they are discussing, both they and their families back home could suffer. They know well that organized Islam, even in the West, is controlled overwhelmingly by forces that strongly oppose ijtihad.

The internet has offered many the anonymity to pursue an interest in Islam. A surgeon from Malaysia now living in California who says he is happy with his life there, writes on the internet extensively about his fascination with Islam and ijtihad. (See his blog at His daring has attracted others who write on his blog about Islam. He also boldly states that he could never have engaged in these types of discussions about Islam in his native Malaysia. Could the internet be a way out of this Muslim predicament?

There is also a remarkable group called the Ahl al-Quran[8] which originated in Egypt. The group's adherents maintain that the only true source of Islamic law is the Quran, the only divine text of Islam. The hadiths and the legal exegesis which constitute Shari'a law, they argue, are just interpretations of the Quran. The interpretations were made by man, and occurred because of problems Muslims had after the Quran was revealed. The scholars addressed problems Muslims faced centuries ago. Muslims in the 21st century, they state, face different problems and should use the Quran – and only the Quran, just as the earliest Islamic scholars did – to find solutions to modern problems. They see no reason why Muslim scholars today cannot think creatively as the scholars of early Islam used to do.

As it is more comfortable to find Quranic material that can be used to address modern situations, and not then feel encumbered by the enormous weight of the hadiths and other legal and interpretive material from ancient religious scholars, an Egyptian organization, Ahl al-Quran, maintains that science and technology are Allah's gifts to man, to be used to address contemporary problems.

After Egypt's religious establishment ordered the Ahl al-Quran banned, arrested, or expelled, the group was forced to flee; it is now based in the United States. Why was it forced out? Its adherents, well versed in the Quran, rejected the imposed decision-making of Egypt's al-Azhar religious establishment,[9] and stated that Islam strongly opposes dictatorship in both its political and religious forms. Instead, this group has been using the Quran to demonstrate that the original Muslim community was inclusive and that it encouraged discussion,[10] both of which today are absent in Egypt and throughout the Muslim world.

When Western officials ask Egyptian political and religious officials about the Ahl al-Quran, the Egyptians laugh and smear the group, labeling its members as crazy extremists with no following. Sadly, because of our ignorance of Islamic culture, or political pressures, we usually accept what the Egyptian government officials tell us without subjecting their remarks to "our own ijtihad," thereby closing our eyes to a force which could help save the Muslim world from itself, and possibly even help prevent a clash between the Western and Muslim worlds.


Is there a chance that the Muslims could reopen the Gates of Ijtihad? For the foreseeable future, the answer seems to be a resounding no. The mislabeled "Arab Spring" has turned into an "Arab Winter" in which the forces who apparently want to recreate an imagined, glorious past society modeled after what they believe their prophet established. Add to that the huge amounts of money Wahhabi "allies" of the U.S. are spending throughout the Muslim world, to propagate their militant version of Islam, and things do not look promising.

Those who understand that without itjihad, they have no future, are being forced underground, and, if they are lucky, then emigrate. These emigrants who think critically rarely move into Islamic communities where critical thinking is discouraged.

The way things look now, only if the forces which want to bring back seventh century Islamic society were to suffer a massive defeat, could there be much hope. Only then, after the anti-ijtihad forces were defeated and no longer had access to unlimited financial resources with which to spread their anti-critical thinking, can things change.

Until then, the Gates of Ijtihad will almost assuredly remain tightly shut, and the forces which now control Islam will see to it that they remain so.

Regrettably, if this analysis is correct, the future does not look able to be transformed for the Muslim world or its adherents in the near future. Until Muslim countries and communities in the West allow their people to express themselves freely -- without fear of reprisal -- it is unlikely that the Muslim world will be able to reopen the Gates of Ijtihad and again become a center of science and creativity as it used to be in the early centuries of Islam.


[1] According to early Islamic doctrine, so Muslims as a community could not go wrong, decisions were made by discussing problems which faced the community. But as the community grew in size, it became unwieldy to call the community together in one meeting. [2] The Sunnis (about 85% of the Muslim world) accept al-Bukhari; but the Shiites have their own collections of hadiths. [3] For example, when the Muslims reached India about 100 years after Muhammad's death, they came across a culture not mentioned in the Quran. While Islam is fiercely monotheistic, Hinduism has many gods and idols, anathema to Islam. The Quran demands that polytheists be enslaved, then offered the choice of conversion to Islam or death. During the early Muslim conquests of India, Hindus were massacred or enslaved, but there were simply too many Hindus for the Muslims to be able to comply with what was required by the Quran. The Muslims therefore devised the following solution: The Quran lists three groups of people who had received a revelation from God prior to Islam, and were therefore allowed to live under Islamic rule: the Jews, the Christians, and the Sabi'ah. No one knew who the Sabi'ah were, so the Muslims seem to have decided that that this term referred to other large groups such as the Hindus and Zoroastrian Persians. This decision evidently enabled the Muslims to allow Hindus live as Hindus under Muslim rule. [4] The Jews, who did not have a state of their own, seem not to have constituted a threat to the Muslims. Moreover, unlike Christianity and Islam, Judaism is not a triumphalist religion – one whose adherents believe they have the final revelation from God to mankind, and therefore the obligation to bring that religion to the rest of humanity. Christianity and Islam, on the other hand, were rivals. [5] For example, a certain ruler of Egypt, the Fatimid (Isma'ili Shiite) ruler al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah, (985- ca. 1021) declared himself God. The Druze still regard him as divine. [6] When, for instance, the Canadian Muslim woman, Irshad Manji, as a teenager, questioned her imam about his sermons, she was chastised by the imam, and ostracized by her family and community. She said she clearly respected Islam and considered herself an observant Muslim, but that her thoughts on re-opening the Gates of Ijtihad as a way of saving Islam fell on deaf ears. [7] This shows why surveys done in the Muslim world, especially in the more totalitarian countries, on topics involving politics or questioning authority, are meaningless: the consequences of telling anyone that you think differently from the prevailing trend could be devastating. Western academics and officials might do well to keep that in mind when they speak with locals about their thoughts. [8] Probably best translated as "Quranics": those who believe only in the Quran. [9] …which almost everyone in Egypt sees as a tool of the Egypt government. It repeats whatever the government tells it to say. [10] See footnote 1 on ijma' – the concept of consensus in Islam.

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