The History of the End of Ijtihad

The first three centuries after the Rightly Guided Caliphs—let us call that time the ‘Classical Period’ —was the period of greatest independent intellectual activity in which proper Islamic jurisprudence (Fiqh) was founded and systematized. In this period, the scholars of Islam rendered great service to the Ummah by preserving its authentic religion through developing Islamic knowledge, independent of the rulers. These great scholars also often served as representatives and defendants of the people against the rulers. Many of the great scholars, from Abu Hanifah to Ibn Hanbal were severely persecuted for standing firm against the rulers’ illegitimacy or religious deviation.

But this situation even in the Classical age was also far from ideal, even from the outset: The great scholars could, and did, resist improper pressures from the state, but the public and political aspects of their jurisprudence—unlike that of the Rightly Guided Caliphs— lacked the practical, comprehensive, and realistic outlook, which comes only by experiencing and administering the world first hand.

Ijtihad (the independent use of reason in search of God’s law) requires self-confidence and motivation—of course in addition to the obvious requirements of knowledge of religion and of tradition—which are marks of politically and ideologically secure and free societies.

It is not mere chance that for the last few centuries most scientific discoveries and inventions have come from the West. And it is not primarily the Western individuals in and of themselves, but the social, political and economic motivations that are responsible for creating the space for profound research, innovation, discovery and scholarship.

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Islam created that space for the early Muslims, and hence we saw a tremendous spirit of practical, administrative and legal Ijtihad among them. When political authoritarianism, social discrimination and economic injustice started to set in, soon the society could not provide the security or incentives necessary for Ijtihad.

Insecurity breeds conservatism. The political deviation from the Islamic model had already been a serious setback during the Umayyad and the Abbasid period, but the fourth century had even worse in store: The end of effective central rule of the Abbasids, the end of political unity of the Ummah and the rise to power of Shi‘a dynasties all over the Muslim world, together made the majority Muslim society ever more insecure in every way. [i]

Many centuries later, Ibn Khaldun points out how intellectual decline is connected with political and social instability: “Sciences proliferate when civilization increases”— because engagement in knowledge requires security from financial and other concerns.

It is widely accepted among the scholars of Islamic history that the fourth century AH brought with it a crystallization of Madhahib to form the four ‘schools of thought’ well-known today. Even Imam Ibn Hanbal (d. 241) resisted emphasis on following personalities, and said, “Do not follow (as in Taqlid: blind adherence) me, nor Malik, nor Al-Thawri, nor Al-Awza‘i, but take from where they took.” Nevertheless, over time, the political and social insecurity of the period led people to find identity and security in their Madhahib—and along came partisanship invested in these Madhahib and a decline of serious independent Ijtihad.

In many ways, the fourth – fifth centuries hijri were similar to our times today. They were filled with reasons for insecurity. There were military and intellectual attacks against Islam, and deviant groups deformed Islam to please the powerful or to support their partisan claims. Security in feeling that one’s Madhhab was the correct one, fear of being proven wrong, fear that any open-mindedness might be taken by the rival Madhahib as weakness or doubt, and the general environment of fitna stemming from unorthodox and deviant opinions, all these led people to build cocoons around themselves.

Even when one did consider the arguments of other Madhahib, it was to refute them and show the superiority of one’s own established Madhhab, not to sincerely seek the truth. The texts of the Quran and Hadith that the other Madhahib presented for the support of their positions had to be avoided by means of abrogation, interpretation or other such means.

Under these circumstances,

  • The ruler-ruled relationship had become far from evenly balanced or participative (despite the original teachings of Islam),
  • Slavery was common (and at times abused),
  • Social relationships such as those of husband-wife and parent-child tended to become more authoritarian,
  • Women’s role increasingly diminished in scholarship and society, and
  • Conformity rather than independence of thought and creativity came to be rewarded.

Similarly, in the spiritual and religious realm,

  • Absolute authority of the master over the disciple and the scholar over the followers was commended.
  • The original egalitarian and free spirit of the fiercely independent Arab society at the time of the Prophet, and the spirit of critical yet disciplined thinking that the Prophet had himself emphatically taught his Companions, had become weakened. (See Part 1.)

By and large, the righteous Muslim could no longer change the world for the better as the earliest generation had done; they had to be content with living Islam in whatever conditions were imposed on them.

It is during this period of compromise, insecurity and authoritarianism that the Madhahib became sources of identity for Muslims. They were no longer schools of thought, as during the early period of Ijtihad, but rigid factions, who competed with each other for the control of the masses, as well as for judgeships and other positions.

There was a time when the scholars could disagree and be brothers: It is reported that once Imam Shafi‘i debated with an opponent, and by the end of the debate, each became convinced by the other’s former opinion. But soon after, a time dawned when leaving one’s Madhhab for another became almost an act of defection and conversion. In a religion that allowed the marriage of Muslims with Christians and Jews, there were debates as to whether one from the Hanafi Madhhab could marry someone from the Shafi‘i Madhhab.

In the Ummah of the Prophet—who came to join the hearts of the believers and make them brothers [Surat Al-Anfal, 8:63] [ii] and who discouraged even studying the Quran together if it led to discord—the verdict was that the Hanafis and Shafi‘is could not lead each other in salah.

Until the last century, there used to be four separate prayer areas for each Madhhab in the sanctuary of Makkah and in other Masjids around the world: The place where Muslims from all over the world gather once a year to display unity was a spectacular display of disunity!  [iii]

Reform and Revivalism in Islam: Resistance to Parochialism

By no means did all the scholars give in to partisanship and narrow-mindedness. Islam is the protected message of Allah, and as the famous hadith predicts, Allah will send at the turn of every century someone who will revive the Din. There continued to be scholars in history who transcended the Madhhab boundaries, made independent Ijtihad, rejected Taqlid, and made great contributions to Islamic law and thought. The difference was now that such scholars were relatively few, and often were ostracized at first by the keepers of the status quo.

Scholars in this age were of three different types:

  • Muqallids, those who refused to follow and support anything but their own Madhhab. It is this type of scholar that was powerful within the Madhahib and hence tried to marginalize dissent, and was questioned by more original scholars [iv]
  • Mujtahid muqayyad or limited Mujtahids, those who mastered the interpretive principles (usul) of a certain Madhhab but gave independent judgment within the confines of these principles; and
  • Mujtahid mutlaq or absolute Mujtahid, those who mastered the usul of all the Madhahib, and were able to give independent judgments by comparing and contrasting all these four Madhahib and any other worthy opinions. (Tarikh al-Fiqh al-Islami)

There is a spectacular history of this third category of scholars who transcended Madhhab parochialism while respecting all the Madhahib, and tread the path of independent thinking and Ijtihad even against all odds. This list is too extensive to be given here, so only a few names from later centuries are given, and the readers are encouraged to read their inspirational biographies and works: Al-Mawardi (d. 450 AH), Ibn Hazm (256 AH), Ibn Rushd (474 AH), Ibn Abd Al-Barr (d.463 AH), Al-Ghazali (d. 505 AH), Imam Al-Haramayn (d. 478 AH), ‘Izzuddin ibn ‘Abd Al-Salam (d. 660), Al-Nawawi (676 AH), Ibn Taymiyyah (d. 728 AH), Shatibi (d. 790 AH), Shawkani (d. 1250 AH), San‘ani (d. 1182 AH), and many more. [v]

…to be continued, insha’Allah, in Part 4


[i]  We see many examples of scholars of great learning overtaken by the spirit of partisanship that marred their times. For example, Ibn Abi Al-‘Izz Al-Hanafi says in his treatise AlIttiba‘: I thank God who “made me naturally disposed to partisanship (taassub) for the Mujtahid (he means Imam Abu Hanifah) who was among the first three generations whose virtue and justness the Prophet himself witnessed.”

It is not uncommon for the people of this age that

  • If one were a Hanafi, to defend his partisanship and even to forge hadith in praise of Imam Abu Hanifah;
  • If one were a Shafi‘i, he would defend his partisanship by using the hadiths that make Imamah (political leadership) specific to the Quraysh, the tribe to which Imam Shafi‘i belonged;
  • If one were a Maliki, arguments were given using the hadith that describe the superiority of the scholars of Madinah, and so on.
  • Similarly, after the death of Imam Ibn Hanbal, his followers too followed others in consolidating a Madhhab, and made the life of others who disagreed with them impossible in Baghdad at a certain time—to the point that they prevented the people from even funeral prayers of the great Imam of tafsir and history, Al-Tabari, because he had not considered Ibn Hanbal to be a Faqih.


[iii]   Mostly when we see condemnation of Taqlid (blind following) by the scholars, it is this category of scholars that are being criticized, not poor commoners who have no other choice. Imam Ibn Al-Qayyim censured Taqlid by such people using the verse: “And follow not that of which you have no knowledge …” [Surat Al-Al-Isra’, 17:36], and he said, “Taqlid is not knowledge, by agreement of the scholars.”

In his I‘lam al-Muwaqqi‘in, Ibn Al-Qayyim  presents eighty arguments for the refutation of Taqlid and responds to the objections by those who support it.

[iv]  The great Shafi‘i jurist and judge, Imam Abu Al-Hasan Al-Mawardi (d. 450 AH), the most famous classical scholar in matters of politics and ruling, tells us that even by the early fifth century, the majority of the scholars considered independent ijtihad an obligation of the judge, and discouraged exclusive imitation of one Madhhab:

[A] judge has the right to use personal opinion in his rulings, and does not have to follow the precedent of members of his own school (Madhhab) in problems or judgments… unless he is led to accept them by his own effort.” (Al-Ahkam Al-Sultaniyyah)

For more on these luminaries, see: A. A. Nadwi, “Saviors of the Islamic Spirit”; S. Rizwan Ali, “Izz Al-Din al-Sulami: His Life and Words”; U. Sulayman al-Ashqar, “Tarikh Al-fiqh Al-Islami”; T. J. Al-Alwani, “The Ethics of Disagreement in Islam”; and other works listed in this section.

[v]  This point, that the capable scholars today can and must approach the resources of all the Madhahib with an open mind, and use the arguments from the Quran and Sunnah in order to give preference to one interpretation over another, is relatively undisputed today in practice—even by those scholars who vehemently support Taqlid.

One example is Dr. Ajeel Al-Nashmi, a learned scholar, who uses arguments and standard books from all the four Madhahib to make the points in his book. In it, he compares arguments, and inevitably rejects opinions of some Imams and prefers others, all based on arguments from the Quran, Sunnah and logic. Now unless this comparison is only pretense and a cover for supporting his own Madhhab (which it is not), he must sometimes prefer opinions not supported by his own Madhhab.

My point is that even among scholars who are adamant about Taqlid, one finds recognition of the fact that we must embrace all the Madhahib (though scholars are often biased towards one in which they have been mostly educated).

What I am arguing in this article is simply that we should be more forthcoming and aggressive in embracing all the Madhahib, unbiased towards any of them, except as a matter of inevitable personal preferences, without making any one of them a matter of our identity in addition to our Islam, whether as scholars or followers.

Dr Ovamir Anjum

Uwaymir Anjum is the Imam Khattab Chair of Islamic Studies at the Department of Philosophy, University of Toledo. He is also professor of Islamic Intellectual History at Qatar University. He studies the connections between theology, ethics, politics, and law in classical and medieval Islam, with a subfocus on its comparisons with western thought. Related fields of study include Islamic philosophy and Sufism. His dissertation, published in 2012 by Cambridge University Press, is entitled Politics, Law, and Community in Islamic Thought: The Taymiyyan Moment. His translation of Ibn al-Qayyim's Madârij Al-Sâlikîn is forthcoming.

1 Comment


    April 13, 2017 - 1:47 am

    Taking into account the contemporary situation within the Muslim world, this article is simply counterproductive. Today the Muslim world’s biggest challenge is to overcome the Sunni-Shia divide. Anyone discussing the topic of schools of law outside of this paradigm today, is missing the point and is further fragmenting Muslims by pointing out the divisions within the Sunni Muslims themselves. We do not need to point at differences, the corporate media is doing it 24/7. Unfortunately, the article subtly peddles the Sunni-Shia sectarianism by saying “The end of effective central rule of the Abbasids, the end of political unity of the Ummah and the rise to power of Shi‘a dynasties all over the Muslim world, together made the majority Muslim society ever more insecure in every way.”

    It would be useful to quote Dr. Jonathan Brown’s book Muhammad’s Legacy on ahadith, where he discusses the interconnection between Sunni-Shi‘i hadith science. He writes that a staunch Shi‘i scholar, Ibn Uqba (died 332ah/944ce), who was one of the most important Shi‘i hadith collectors and scholars, “was praised by the most prominent Sunni critics of his day, like al-Daraqutni and Ibn ‘Adi, and later scholar al-Subki (died 771ah/1370ce) called him

    …one of the hadith masters of the Shariah; this, even though he was such a staunch Shiite that he occasionally disparaged Abu Bakr and Umar… Not only did Sunnis appreciate Ibn Uqba’s command of hadith transmissions, they also valued his opinions on evaluating transmitter criticism. In fact, the earliest evaluation of al-Bukhari’s and Muslim’s famous Sahihayn comes from Ibn Uqba (p. 142).

    The above fact should make Muslims realize that Sunnis and Shi‘is had strongly adhered to the principle to agree to disagree in a very respectful manner. Today can Muslims imagine a scholar of any of the main schools of Islamic thought being openly critical of the fundamentals of other schools, and at the same time be highly regarded and praised by the scholars of those schools? Almost impossible to imagine, thanks mainly to external cultivation of sectarianism.

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