Citation for Ijtihād

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Rabb, Intisar A. . "Ijtihād." In The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World. Oxford Islamic Studies Online. Dec 3, 2021. <>.


Rabb, Intisar A. . "Ijtihād." In The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World. Oxford Islamic Studies Online, (accessed Dec 3, 2021).


In general usage, the Arabic word ijtihād means utmost effort, physical or mental, expended in a particular activity. In its technical and legal connotations, it denotes the thorough exertion of a jurist's mental faculty in finding a solution to a legal question.

Classical Theory.

Over the course of Islamic history, understandings of and attitudes toward ijtihād have undergone several changes. During the first century after Islam's advent (seventh century CE), the term was closely associated with raʿy, learned personal opinion on the basis of expedient reasoning. Scholars of this early period contrasted the term ijtihād al-raʿy with ʿilm, or knowledge of the Qurʿān, normative prophetic practices, authoritative practices of the community, and reasoning on the basis of these. At that time, this type of ijtihād was legitimate activity because Islamic law was still in its early formative stages; it had not yet formalized into a systematic methodology of interpretation.

In the eighth century, ijtihād was gradually dissociated from raʿy, which increasingly fell under the category of objectionable methods. Muḥammad ibn Idrīs al-Shāfiʿī (d. 821), said to be the “founder” of the Shāfiʿī legal school (madhhab), was the first to make a clean break from raʿy and to adopt ijtihād as a methodology synonymous with qiyās, or analogical reasoning.

With the elaboration of legal theory (uṣūl al-fiqh) toward the beginning of the tenth century, the meaning and scope of ijtihād in the legal context solidified. Ijtihād came to signify the utmost intellectual effort of the mujtahid (one qualified to practice ijtihād) to investigate and weigh the sources in a methodologically sound and coherent manner to arrive at a legal determination. The province of ijtihād was confined to the gray areas of law, where human reasoning on the basis of the texts might uncover the law as intended by God. Where authentic and authoritative texts were considered unambiguous with regard to a certain matter, ijthād had no role to play. The duties to pray and to pay the alms-tax are two examples. Added to this set of clear rules for which ijtihād could play no role were cases that had become subject to scholarly consensus (ijmāʿ), which was thought to have assumed divine sanction and hence could yield certainty. See CONSENSUS. By contrast, legal rulings reached by a single mujtahid were considered to contain elements of uncertainty and therefore deemed only probable (ẓannī).

Islamic legal theory has stipulated the requirements a jurist must fulfill in order to qualify as a mujtahid. First and foremost, a jurist must possess a thorough knowledge of the four material sources of Islamic law: the Qurʿān, the authoritative body of ḥadīths (prophetic reports for Sunnīs; prophetic and imamic reports for Shīʿīs), the parts of the law that have become subject to consensus, and legal reasoning. The mujtahid must also gain a comprehensive knowledge of legal theory (uṣūl al-fiqh), which elaborates the interpretative principles of legal language (e.g., the imperative, ambiguous, metaphorical, general, and particular) and the methods of investigating the authenticity and transmission of texts, particularly h.adīths. Legal theory also deals with the theory of abrogation, which includes a discussion as to whether and what texts repeal others. No ijtihād is possible without a sophisticated capability for legal reasoning, or without knowledge of Qurʿānic and other concepts that the material sources of the law articulate in the Arabic language. Finally, some jurists deemed proficient knowledge of theology to be a requirement, because the legal bases for the normative authority of revelation and other sources draws from theological precepts. As for non-mujtahids the theory required them to follow the legal opinions of a mujtahid, which is a practice termed taqlīd.

Islamic Legal Pluralism.

The merely “probable” status of the legal rulings and the myriad jurists performing ijtihād with varying levels of competence resulted in the existence of multiple and varying juristic opinions (ikhtilāf). Jurists accounted for this diversity by examining the goals of ijtihād with respect to certain theological premises. Was ijtihād a means to discover the truth or a means of forming a well-reasoned opinion about an issue at hand? The latter view prevailed among Sunnīs, based on a saying, attributed to Prophet Muḥammad, that “every mujtahid is correct (kull mujtahid muṣīb).” Most jurists (known as mukhaṭṭiʿa) believed that every legal problem has a single right answer in the mind of God, and it was the aim of the mujtahid to discover it. But because God would not reveal His intent until the Day of Judgment, the exercise of ijtihād could yield a conclusion different from the one God had in mind. Nevertheless, the result of the ijtihād was valid if performed with rigor even if it diverged from actual divine intent. Other jurists (known as muṣawwiba) believed that there was no single right answer, on the notion that God would not require human beings to implement His will without giving them objective and conclusive means for discovering that will. On this view, once a mujtahid forms an opinion about the law based on the preponderance of the evidence, that conclusion in fact becomes God's law as to that person or legal school, provided, again, the ijtihād was performed with due diligence. Both views accommodated a diversity of opinions. Regardless of whether a mujtahid's verdict ultimately was deemed to be “true,” in practical terms, its validity depended much more on the soundness of the ijtihād process (methodology) than the substance of the matter (truth)—which, for some, was undiscoverable.

This proceduralist bent to ijtihād entailed certain benefits. The main one was the accommodation of diverse legal opinions, forming and justifying a pluralistic legal system. Jurists espoused conviction in the correctness of their opinions; but because the opinion of every diligent mujtahid was valid, they could not claim exclusive access to the truth. For this reason, mujtahids generally concluded their opinions (fatwās) with the statement, “and God knows best.” For this same reason, many jurists distinguished between sharīʿa, as divine law that reflects perfect justice, and fiqh, which was the imperfect juristic attempt to understand God's law. The legal system avoided the threat of legal chaos from an unregulated multitude of equally valid legal opinions through the doctrine of taqlīd, whereby non-mujtahids were required to follow the reasoned opinion of a mujtahid who in turn represented a valid opinion of one of the legal schools. When a judge was appointed, he typically exercised ijtihād on the basis of the methodological rules of his legal school, sometimes making allowances for petitioners from other legal schools. This convention, together with a shared idea of the settled legal rules within each legal school, could provide notice and predictability of the law's requirements—two essential elements for the rule of law.

An implicit consequence of the proceduralist bent was to bind mujtahids to the exercise of due diligence, at least in theory. Not every opinion was entitled to equal weight; only those of mujtahids who had exercised the utmost effort. And even then, certain views prevailed over others according to the extent to which a jurist or group of jurists’ views were convincing. Thus, even within legal schools, ijtihād yielded an internal diversity of opinions. The more convincing (or perhaps expedient) opinions enjoyed a position of primacy as a school's dominant ruling (mashhūr), while the minority opinions remained valid even if marginal or inoperative.

After the eleventh century, Sunnī legal literature developed rankings of jurists according to their ability to practice ijtihād. One predominant classification credited the founders of the legal schools with the distinction of being absolute mujtahids (mujtahid muṭlaq) who were capable of laying down a methodology of the law and of deriving from it the positive doctrines that were to dominate their respective schools. Accordingly, each legal school represented a different methodology for ijtihād. Next came the mujtahids who operated within each school (mujtahid muntasim or mujtahid fī al-madhhab), who followed the methodology of the school's founder but proffered new solutions for novel legal cases. The lowest rank belonged to the muqallid, the jurist-imitator who merely followed the rulings arrived at by the mujtāhids without understanding the processes by which these rulings were derived. Between the ranks of mujtāhids and muqallids there were distinguished other levels of jurists who combined ijtihād with taqlīd.

The proceduralist bent and the system of taqlīd also had certain drawbacks. By the beginning of the tenth century, the Sunnī legal schools had reached a level of development such that leading Sunnī jurists agreed that all the main questions of positive law had been addressed. The detailed elaboration of the judicial system by this time that helped create legal stability also brought a progressive restriction on the scope of ijtihād. The settling of the major areas of Islamic law gave rise to the perception, prevalent among many modern Western scholars and Sunnī lay Muslims, that jurists had come to a consensus that the so-called “gate of ijtihād” was closed at the beginning of the tenth century. As a result, ijtihād had come to be thought of as the opposite of taqlīd, rather than the two working in tandem as before. In the fourteenth century, Muslim historian and sociologist Ibn Khaldūn (d. 1406) commented on what he viewed as jurists’ conservative and non-modern view of the world along with a general decline of Muslim scholarship. And by the seventeenth century, discourse in ijtihād as a binary opposite of taqlīd gained added significance, pushing scholars like Shāh Walī Allāh al-Dihlawī (d. 1762) to advocate the renewal of ijtihād through working to revive Islam's intellectual heritage. However, any perception of an absence of or bar to ijtihād has been shown by recent scholarship to be without foundation. There exists no evidence of such a closure or even the possibility of such a closure given the diffuse nature of juristic authority. There certainly was no consensus to that effect. To the contrary, evidence shows that the practice of ijtihād continued throughout the centuries, as expressed through fatwās, commentaries, and glosses on settled legal texts.

Shīʿī Law.

In Shīʿī law, discussions about “closing the gate of ijtihād” never arose, because Shīʿīs generally deem ijtihād to be an ongoing process (with the exception of Zaydī Shīʿīs). It is noteworthy that Shīʿīs, like Sunnīs, accept the Qurʿān as the primary material source of law, but rely on a different set of ḥadīths. While Sunnīs believe in consensus as the infallible source of truth after the age of the Prophet, Shīʿīs take the pronouncements of the twelve Imāms as a continuing source of truth. This source, expressed in the definite statements of the Imāms, is held to increase the level of certainty in the law and as a consequence safeguard the integrity of the results of human intellection. Accordingly, Shīʿī law acknowledges human reasoning and intellect (ʿaql) as one of the legal sources that perfectly supplement the revealed text. Shīʿī jurists did not use the term ijtihād until the twelfth century, because of its associations in Sunnī law with personal opinion (raʿy) and loose analogical reasoning (qiyās). Yet they employed ijtihād in the sense of a rational mode of legal reasoning from the eighth century onward. This became the primary method of approaching the law beginning in the late sixteenth century and culminating in the eighteenth century, with marked developments in what has become the dominant jurisprudential approach (that of the uṣūlīyah). See USūLīYAH and AKHBāRīYAH. One of the more recent transformations of this ideal on the political scene came with the Iranian revolution of 1978/1979. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini envisioned an expansive role for ijtihād in his vision of the “guardianship of the jurist (vilāyat-e faqīh).” See IRANIAN REVOLUTION. In dissent, prominent religious intellectual Abdolkarim Soroush attempted to desacralize ijtihād and to limit its scope. For him, religion is nothing more than the evolving human understanding of revelation articulated through contingent exercises of ijtihād. Like science, the understanding and accuracy of religious knowledge expands and contracts with advances in reflection and experience. Not everything falls within the province of ijtihād or expertise of the mujtahids. Good governance, he argues, is a case in point.

Modern Reform Movements.

Ijtihād took a dramatic turn beginning in the eighteenth century as a reaction to the decline in Muslim learning and political ascendancy on the world scene. Perhaps the most notable reaction came from those who called for the abandonment of taqlīd and a new form of ijtihād that would facilitate a return to Islam's pristine golden period of seventh-century Arabia. Activist Muḥammad ibn ʿAbd al-Wahhāb (d. 1787) (founder of the Wahhābī movement) advocated resort to the Qurʿān and select ḥadīths (as embodiments of the sunnah) as a means of recovering the teachings of Islam's first generations (the Salaf) from what he saw as the corrupting innovations of juristic glosses on revealed texts. A similar take on ijtihād was adopted by Salafīs (as those advocating this approach came to be called) in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries such as Muḥammad ibn ʿAlī al-Shawkānī (d. 1832)—of Zaydī Shīʿī background, Muḥammad ʿAbduh (d. 1905), and Rashīd Riḍā (d. 1935)—both of Sunnī background. They too dismissed the body of juristic precedents in favor of a more accessible approach to the Qurʿān and sunnah in order to articulate a vision of Islam that could both withstand and accommodate modernity while preserving Muslim identity, particularly in the face of Western European colonialism. The Salafī orientation is evident in “Islamist” movements, which sought a greater role for Islam in public life. These movements were exemplified by the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and its South Asian counterpart Jamāʿat-i Islāmī as elaborated by Sayyid Quṭb (d. 1966) and Abū al-Aʿlā al-Mawdūdī (d. 1979), respectively. Wahhābī-Salafī ideas gained considerable influence in the Sunnī world during the second half of the twentieth century with the financial backing of oil-rich Saudi Arabia in disseminating their ideas. Contemporary commentators have described the Wahhābī-Salafī mode of thinking alternately as tracing its roots back to prominent fourteenth-century jurist Ibn Taymīyah (d. 1328) and as a break with the past; many and have traced the ideas of Osama bin Laden and others to a radicalized form of ahistorical Salafī thought.

The Contemporary World.

These debates continue all around the world, with respected scholars adding nuance to the meaning of ijtihād from African and Asian nations to European and North American ones—ʿAlī Jumuʿa in Egypt, Ayatollah ʿAlī al-Sīstānī in Iraq, Nurcholish Majid in Indonesia, Zafar Ishaq Ansari in Pakistan, and M. Hashim Kamali in Malaysia to name a very few.

With the growth of Islam in the West, several new visions of ijtihād have also emerged—most of which share the distinction of a marked emphasis on substance over and above the traditional juristic focus on procedure. Warith Deen Mohammed, leader of the largest group of indigenous American Muslims, provides one of the earliest examples of an emphasis on substantive ethical and moral values. In 1975, he inherited leadership of the Nation of Islam from his father Elijah Muhammad, who presented himself as a prophet of the son of God and preached Black supremacy and a do-for-self philosophy. See NATION OF ISLAM. Mohammed rejected his father's theology, replacing it with a mainstream Islamic one and an approach to Islamic tradition that emphasizes the equality of the human soul, the capacity of each person to think pragmatically about improving the human condition, and the imperative to work toward that goal with a spirit of God-consciousness. At the same time that he encouraged followers to pursue traditional Islamic studies, he urged them not do so without attention to Islam's ethical imperatives. He has been criticized for an underemphasis on process. Another example is Khaled Abou El Fadl, who criticized traditionalist mujtahids for often disregarding sharīʿah's overriding moral values, and Salafīs for ignoring the intellectual efforts of early Muslim jurists and their jurisprudential precedents. Their views are not controlling, he argues, but they have probative value for Muslims examining similar questions in the modern day. Scripture defines certain moral principles, such as justice, dignity, and beauty, and designates them as an integral part of the law. Through ijtihād, reason and intuition can reveal the contours of such Qurʿānic values, and if specific legal injunctions lead to results that are contrary to Islamic moral values, then, “depending on the circumstances, they should be re-interpreted, suspended, or negated.” (Before Abou El Fadl came Fazlur Rahman [d. 1988], one of the first to make inroads of this kind in America. Tariq Ramadan has taken a similar view in the European context.) Abou el Fadl has been criticized for inverting the traditional majority Sunnī view of the relationship between law and morality, wherein particular legal injunctions reflect moral values and for falsely presenting particular understandings of Qur’ānic moral values as universals.

A third example is a group of self-designated “neo-traditionalists,” such as Sherman Jackson, who has proposed the development of a new uṣūl al-fiqh that will offer ijtihād methodologies that can better accommodate modern understandings. With concern for ethics and equity, Jackson has argued that an overly moralistic orientation to ijtihād permits false universals to proliferate and encourages exclusivist moral determinations that are insufficiently constrained by legal methodology. That orientation also restricts Islam's legal pluralism, which is rooted in accommodating differences that legitimately may lead to divergent legal rules appropriate to different times and places. He has been criticized for an overemphasis on process.

Finally, the tragedy of September 11 elicited yet more advocates for renewed ijtihād in attempts to prove that Islam condemns wanton violence and oppression. In the past few years alone, dozens of books have been published about the imperative for a value-driven Islamic outlook. For example, in a volume called Progressive Muslims (2003), a group of Muslims advocated the urgent need for a reinterpretation of Islam in light of Qurʿānic and humanist values that would champion the causes of social justice, pluralism, and gender parity. They draw on modern fields of inquiry, such as feminist studies and literary criticism, while insisting on the importance of trying to articulate their vision in Islamic terms. An example is Amina Wadud, who traces her struggles in pursuit of “gender justice” in Inside Gender Jihad (2006), a semi-autobiographical account. Like the Salafīs and other reformers in the modern Islamic world, progressives have been criticized for failing to offer a coherent interpretive methodology for achieving their ideals.

The perennial debate among Muslim jurists is over the place of and proper balance between methodological process and moral values in the exercise of ijtihād. In spite of these continuing debates over its meaning, ijtihād remains the focal point of Islamic reform movements and for understanding Islam in the modern day.

See also FIQH and SHARīʿAH.


  • Abou, El Fadl, Khaled. And God Knows the Soldiers: The Authoritative and the Authoritarian in Islamic Discourses, p. 148 and generally. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America/Rowman and Littlefield, 2001.
  • Esposito, J., and John Voll. Makers of Contemporary Islam. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.
  • Jackson, Sherman. “Islam(s) East and West: Pluralism between No-Frills and Designer Fundamentalism.” In September 11 in History: A Watershed Moment?Edited by Mary L. Dudziak, pp. 112–135.Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2003.
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  • Modarressi, Hossein. An Introduction to Shīʿī Law. London: Ithaca Press, 1984.
  • Mayer, A. E.“The Sharīʿa: A Methodology or a Body of Substantive Rules.” In Islamic Law and Jurisprudence: Studies in Honor of Farhat Ziadeh. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1990.
  • Shāfiʿī, Muḥammad ibn Idrīs. Al-Risāla. Edited by Aḥmad Shākir. Cairo, 1982. English Translation by Majid Khadduri, al-Imaām Muḥammad ibn Idrīs al-Shāfi ʿīsal-Risāla fī Uṣūl al-Fiqh. 2d ed. Cambridge, 1987.

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