On Ijtihaad in Beliefs

Posted on January 31, 2007. Filed under: 202 - Advanced Asma wa Sifaat |

43. Should he say, “you were ordered only to make use of ijtihad and to refer to that which is established by proof; you were forbidden to make use of the censured taqlid;” we would say in return: there are various answers to this objection. First, the freedom of the method of the Salaf from evils of any kind, and the soundness of its argument, has already been firmly established by decisive proof on the basis of the Quran, the Sunna, and the consensus (ijma’). There is therefore no need for discovering its soundness by some other proof. Secondly, this doctrine imposes an obligation upon the common people to make use of ijtihad in the minutiae of daily affairs and religious beliefs; and this is wrong for several reasons.
44. First, it entails accusing the Apostle of God of a fault of omission; for the Prophet did not order any one of his community to learn speculative theology, and to examine the rational proofs, that one might thereby know the soundness of his creed. On the contrary, he was contented with their pure and simple submission to God. He said: “I have been ordered to fight against men until they say: ’there is no god save God alone.’ Once they have said this, they preserve their lives and property from my exaction, except for that which has been decreed with regard to them; and the reckoning as to their sincerity is God’s affair.”[43] Do you suppose that the Prophet be wrong in accepting that from them and in being contented with their pure and simple submission to God, rather than that they should learn the science of speculative theology and examine the “accident,” (’aradh) the “substance,” (jawhar) and the “body;” (jism) and, on the other hand, that the speculative theologians be right with respect to the transgression of him who neither learned nor examined those things? If this be so, then let them claim for themselves a law and a system of worship other than that of Islam, and leave alone Muhammad’s religion.
45. Second: To impose ijtihad upon the common people is tantamount to imposing upon them that which is beyond their capacity. For were they to preoccupy themselves in some science, in the pursuit of which they were to exert themselves to the utmost, they would surely be detaching themselves from the means of livelihood, from the occupations of tilling and sowing the land. The world would lie in waste, people would perish, progeny would become extinct, holy war would become neglected, and countries would become ruined. But this cannot be. God has said, in effect: “God lays not upon any soul except its capacity.”[2:286]
46. Third: The consensus (ijma’) has been concluded to the effect that the common people are not to be required to make use of ijtihad in legal prescriptions incumbent upon them, but that they have a right, in dealing with their affairs, to follow the authority of the learned men. God has likewise ordered them to ask the learned men among them, for He said: “Ask the people of the Reminder, if you do not know.”[21:7]
47. Fourth: To profess the obligation of ijtihad upon all would entail a condemnation of the broad masses to error, by reason of their neglect of that which is incumbent upon them. The only thing in respect of which the use of taqild has been said to be unlawful for them is the manifest ordinance, which they know by virtue of its being manifest, without requiring special pains, thought, or examination; namely, the profession of the oneness of God (tawhid), the mission of Muhammad, the knowledge of the obligation of the five daily prayers, the fasting of Ramadan, and the rest of the pillars whose religious obligation is of common knowledge. These obligations, having become known by way of ijma’ require no study or examination. Therefore, with regard to these obligations, it is unlawful for them to make use of taqild. But as for the minutiae of religious beliefs and the detailed prescriptions of the practices of worship and of contracts of sale, no one but an ignoramus would profess the obligation of the broad masses to make use of taqlid with regard to these matters; its use is unfounded by virtue of what we have aid.
48. Now, if someone should become deceived by these doctrines of Ibn ’Aqil, and not be contented with following his Salaf, nor be satisfied with following his Imams, nor hold lawful the following of their authority in such matters as abstaining from the interpretation of the divine attributes which have been contested—what then is he to do? Does he have a way to the knowledge of what is sound in these matters through his own personal effort and his rational speculation? When will he at last come to a point at which he will be able to distinguish between a sound argument and a faulty one? Now, here you have Ibn ’Aqil who has asserted that throughout his lifetime, he exhausted his total capacity on speculative theology, along with all his intelligence and sagacity; he did not prosper, nor did he succeed in the right direction. On the contrary, his case finally ended in his committing heretical innovations leading astray, in abominable wrong-doing, and in his abandoning what is right, until he was made to retract his doctrines and to confess against himself admitting his heretical innovation and error. Now, you who are deceived by these doctrines of his, when will you attain to his level of knowledge? And suppose that you have attained it, what is it about his condition that has so excited your admiration that you take him as an example to follow?—We have already mentioned the teachings of the Imams with regard to the censure of speculative theology and its partisans; and we beg of God security from all evil.
49. Fifth: When we examine the evidence, we find that it positively prescribes the opposite of what is urged by Ibn ’Aqil; that is, to believe in the Quranic verses and the traditions treating of the divine attributes, with acknowledgment and unreserved approval, and to abstain from allegorical interpretation, from divesting God of His attributes, and from tashbih and tamthil-anthropomorphism, in accordance with the doctrine of the pious Salaf and the approved Imams. This will be clearly shown in nine ways.
50. First: The saying of God: “He it is who has sent down the Book to you. In it are clearly formulated verses (”’muhkamat”’) which are the essence of the Book; while others are obscure (”’mutashabihat”’). Those in whose hearts is an inclination to go astray, follow what is obscure, seeking trouble, and seeking the interpretation of these verses.” Thus He censured the follower of interpretation and coupled him in the censure with the seeker of trouble, making his seeking thereof an indication of inclination to go astray. This shows that his seeking is not lawful. Then He cut them off from what they had hoped for, and prevented them from attaining what they had sought, by His saying: “But no one knows the interpretation of these verses except God.” Then He continued: “And those well-grounded in knowledge say: ’We believe in it. All is from our Lord. No one takes warning but those of insight.’ “ Then they asked their Lord not to make them like the deviating followers of allegorical interpretation, by saying: “O, our Lord! do not incline our hearts to go astray, after having guided us.” [3:7-8][44]
51. Second: If the allegorical interpretation of the divine attributes were obligatory, the Prophet would have made it clear to his community; for it is unlawful to delay giving the clear declaration beyond its appointed time.[45] Furthermore, if the use of allegorical interpretation were incumbent upon us, it would also have been incumbent upon him; for, so far as the legal prescriptions are concerned, he is on the same level as we. Now, if it had been incumbent upon him, he would not have neglected it; and because of his great solicitude for his Community, he did not conceal from them anything which God had ordered him to do. Indeed, God has said: “O Apostle! Deliver what was sent to you from your Lord I If you do it not, then you have not delivered His message.”[5:67]

52. Third; It has been established with certainty that the doctrine of the Salaf and the Imams who succeeded them, as regards these Quranic verses consists in acknowledgment, unimpaired transmission, agreement and unreserved approval, without allegorical interpretation and without divesting God of His attributes. We have already clearly proved that their doctrine is the true one and that they pursue the right direction; therefore, it is not lawful to oppose their course, nor to deviate from their path.
53. Fourth; Allegorical interpretation is tantamount to the passing of judgment upon God regarding matters which the interpreter does not know, and the interpretation of His intent by that which the interpreter does not know that He intended. Now, the most that the interpreter can claim is that a given expression admits a given meaning in the classical language. But it does not necessarily follow from the mere fact of the expression’s admissibility of this meaning, that this meaning is intended by it. For just as it may admit this meaning, it may also admit others. It may even admit still other meanings with which the interpreter is not acquainted. Besides, he does not possess an encompassing knowledge of the content of dialects. This is especially true of the speculative theologians; for they are strangers to the knowledge of the dialects and the useful sciences. And God has forbidden that He be spoken of in ignorance; for He has said; “Say: My Lord has only forbidden indecencies, both open and secret, as well as sin, trespassing against truth, the association with God of that for which He has not sent down any authority, and the saying against God of what you do not know.”[7:33]

54. Fifth: Allegorical interpretation is a novelty in religion. Now a novelty is any doctrine in religion with regard to which the Companions had died without ceasing to keep their silence. Novelty in religion is the heretical innovation against which our Prophet had cautioned us, and of which he informed us that it is the most evil of things. He has said: “The most evil of things are the innovated ones.”[46] He has also said: “Keep to my course of conduct, and the course of conduct of the rightly guided Caliphs after me: hold fast thereto. Beware of innovated things; for every innovation is a heretical innovation, and every heretical innovation is an error.”[47] Now, the allegorical interpreter has deserted the Sunna of the Apostle of God and that of the rightly guided Caliphs; he is an inventor of heretical novelties, gone astray by virtue of the tradition mentioned.
55. Sixth: Allegorical interpretation is meddlesomeness, foolishness, immoderation, words held forth in ignorance, and exposure of oneself to danger regarding that which is not called for by necessity. For we have no need to know the meaning which God intended by His attributes; no course of action is intended by them, nor is there any obligation attached to them except to believe in them, and it is possible to believe in them without the knowledge of their intended sense. For indeed faith, with ignorance, is sound. God has enjoined belief in His angels, His scriptures, His prophets and that which He has revealed to them, though we might not know of this except the designation. God has said: “Say: We believe in God, in what has been sent down to us, and in what has been sent down to Abraham”[2:136]—to the end of the verse. We have been prohibited from innovating, from immoderation and from meddlesomeness. God said to His Prophet: “Say: I ask you not for any reward for it, nor am I of those who take things upon themselves.”[38:86]

56. Seventh: If allegorical interpretation were obligatory, it would either be incumbent upon all individuals, or upon him to whom its proof has become established. If it be incumbent upon everyone and adhere to all people notwithstanding their lack of knowledge of its proof it would entail the constraint to speak in ignorance, and to permit oneself the audacity to speak falsely and conjecturally about the attributes of God, His Book and His verses. But this, it is generally agreed, is forbidden. Now since it is not incumbent upon him who does not know it, how then can they enjoin the generality of men, including those who do not know it, to make use of it, and reprove them for neglecting it? If they were possessed of the fear of God, they would dispense them from the use of allegorical interpretation, and order them to abstain from meddling with what they do not know.
57. Eighth: Allegorical interpretation is the use of private opinion in treating of the Book of God and the Sunna of His Apostle. He who treats of the Book of God according to his private opinion commits an offence, even though he may be right. Abu Bakr al-Siddiq, when asked about “al-abb,”[48] said: “What heaven would protect me and what earth would carry me if I were to say about the Book of God that which I do not know?”[49]
58. Ninth: The allegorical interpreter combines the ascription to God of an attribute which He did not ascribe or adjoin to Himself, with the negation of an attribute which God did adjoin to Himself. When the allegorical interpreter says, “the intended sense of ’rising over’ (istawa) is ’to gain mastery over,’ ” he is ascribing to God the attribute of ’gaining mastery over’ (istawla). But God did not ascribe this attribute to Himself. He is also negating the attribute of ’rising over’ (istawa), notwithstanding its reiteration by God in the Quran in seven places.[50] Now, was not God capable of saying istawla until the meddlesome allegorical interpreter came along affecting cleverness and defying God and His Apostle?— Supremely exalted is He above that which the wrongdoers say of Him!

59. Since the door of allegorical interpretation has become closed by virtue of all of these ways, though any one of them is sufficiently capable of closing it, there remains but the clear path, the true saying, and the pursuance of God’s path, the regularity of which is indicated by the traditions; the path which was pursued by the pure Companions and the excellent Imams, trodden by the pious and pursued by the God-fearing; the adherence to which was enjoined by the counselling, truthful Imams. That is, to believe in the Quranic expressions and verses, and in the traditions; according to the sense which God intended for them; to be silent with regard to what we do not know of their meaning; to abstain from examining that part of their interpretation which God did not obligate us to examine, nor made its science known to us; to follow the path of those entrenched in knowledge whom God commended in His perspicuous Book, when they said: “We believe in it. All is from our Lord.”[3:7] This is the safe path which holds no danger for its pursuer, nor solicitude, nor fear, nor evil. He who pursues it will be secure; but he who abandons it will become corrupt and have cause to regret. It is the path of the believers indicated by the Sunna, and which was pursued by the Umma’s pious ones. “But he who separates himself from the Apostle after the Guidance has become manifested to him, and follows any other way than that of the believers, We shall charge him with what he will have charged himself and cause him to face Jahannam, and what a detestable outcome”[4:115]
60. The censurer of this discourse must either censure belief in the Quranic expressions or he must censure that act of abstaining from their interpreting them, or both. Now if he censures belief in the Quranic expressions, these expressions were spoken by the Lord of the Worlds and by His truthful and faithful Apostle, and therefore the censurer would be denying God, the Incomparably Great. He who censures belief in them both must either believe in them both or deny them. If he believes in them, how can he censure that to which he conforms? And if he denies them, he secedes from the Islamic religion (islam) and declares himself quit of the faith (iman). God has said: “None reject Our signs but the unbelievers.”[29:47]
61. Now, if he censures the abstention from interpretation, he is wrong; for we know of no interpretation for these expressions; and he who has no knowledge of a thing is obliged to keep silent about it; to speak about it is forbidden to him. God has said: “Do not follow that of which you have no knowledge.”[17:36] And He said, in mentioning the forbidden things: “. . . and the saying against God of what you do not know.”[7:33] Now, since we do what God has made incumbent upon us, and avoid what He has forbidden, there is no reason to blame us for it. The blame is only on him who opposes this conduct and censures it.
62. And again, the censurer of this discourse condemns the Apostle of God; for the latter believed in God and in His words, but he did not interpret anything thereof, nor did he clarify their intended sense. He who condemns the Apostle of God does not believe in Him. And he who condemns the Apostle of God is indeed the transgressor, the grievous sinner, the disgraceful and blameworthy one.
63. Furthermore, the censurer of this discourse condemns those entrenched in knowledge whom God has commended, and the matter in respect of which God praised them, namely, unreserved approval and faith. Moreover, he is ridiculing all of the Salaf. Now there is no doubt as to the transgression of him who blames all of these people; nor is there any doubt as to his heretical innovation and error.
64. Since we, ourselves, are included in the ranks of those whom God has commended, and whose deeds and words He has pronounced to be right, no harm can follow us from the censure of one afflicted with diabolical possession, a heretical innovator abandoned of God. And since we pursue our Lord’s path, the path which He has seen fit for us, we shall not heed the unwillingness of him who pursues the path of Satan the accursed, the path which brings him to the midst of Hell.
If my censure comes to you from one of low character,
It is testimony in evidence of my excellent qualities!

65. At any rate, we have no doctrine for which we might be blamed. If we be blamed for the Quranic expressions in which we believe, no one is being blamed but Him who said them, nor are the censurers disacknowledging anyone except Him who gave utterance to them. It is He who will punish them for their unbelief and heresy. If we be blamed for our silence, silence, at least, is not a doctrine, nor can any doctrine be ascribed to one who keeps silent. If they say, “you believe in what they contain of tamthil-anthropomorphism,” they but lie against us and accuse us of that of which God already knows us to be guiltless. Besides, they have no way of looking into our minds. Only the tongue can express what is in the mind; and our tongues are ever declaring the rejection of tashbih, tamthi and tajsim-anthropomorphism. They therefore have no right to set themselves up as our judges by accusing us of that which has not arisen or proceeded from us. The grievous sin falls upon the author of the lie exclusive of its victim, in the same manner as the legal punishment for calumny falls upon the calumniator, not upon the calumniated. It suffices us as praise and justification that out opponents do not find any fault in us for which they could blame us and be confirmed, while we admit it. They only censure us with their lying. If they were capable of finding fault, there would have been no need for them to resort to lying.


[43] Al-Bukhari, Muslim, al-Tirmidhi (the tradition being his wording), al-Nasa’i, Abu Dawud, Ahmad, al-Hakim and al-Bayhaqi.

[44]  The scholars have differed over the interpretation of the verse with respect to muhkam and mutashabih in the Quran. One of the main reasons for that is the two different ways of reciting the verse:

“But no one knows the interpretation of these verses except God<full-stop> And those well-grounded in knowledge say: ‘We believe in it. All is from our Lord.’ ” – implying that the knowledge of the mutashabihat is known to God alone. This is the position of many of the scholars such as ‘A’isha, Ubay b. Ka’b, Abu ‘Ubayda, Qatada, ‘Umar b. ‘Abd al-‘Aziz, Tha’lab, and others.

“But no one knows the interpretation of these verses except God and those well-grounded in knowledge<full-stop> They say: ‘We believe in it. All is from our Lord.’ ” – implying that the knowledge of the mutashabihat is known to God as well as those well-grounded in knowledge. This is the position of Mujahid, the student of Ibn ‘Abbas, al-Dhahhak, the Mu’tazila and Abu al-Hasan al-Ash’ari, al-Nawawi, Ibn al-Hajib, al-Aamidi and others.

Thereafter, the scholars also differ as to what exactly the terms muhkam and mutashabih refer to, into five or more opinions. Ibn Qudama’s opinion, as found in his Rawdat al-Nadhir, is that the term ‘mutashabihat’ refers to the divine names and attributes mentioned in the Quran in particular, since we are ordered to accept them as they are without attempting to interpret them. The point to note, however, is that none of opinions with respect to the term ‘mutashabihat’ dictate the negation of the primary meanings of the texts pertaining to the divine names and attributes. In fact, Imam Ahmad b. Hanbal deemed the term ‘mutashabihat’ in reference to those verses that have a correct and an in correct interpretation and thus titled his famous work: ‘A Rebuttal of the Jahmite Heretics with respect to their doubts over the mutashabih of the Quran, and their interpretation thereof contrary to the correct interpretation.’ Nor should it be understood that Ibn Qudama refused to acknowledge any primary meaning of the texts, for he states in this very treatise in paragraph number 75: ‘nay rather their very recitation is their interpretation’, affirming that the texts have an interpretation which is what is obvious and apparent. The fact that Ibn Qudama affirmed the literal meanings of the texts is self-evident from his various theological writings. For instance, Ibn Qudama writes in his theological primer Lum’at al-I’tiqad: ‘‘These texts and the like, the chain of which has been authenticated, and the narrators of which are upright, we believe in them, and do not reject them nor deny them, nor do we give them a interpretation which opposes their literal meanings.”

[45]  The author here refers to the legal maxim: ta’khir al-bayan ‘an waqt al-haja la yajuz – it is unlawful to delay giving the clear declaration beyond its appointed time. The maxim means that it is impossible for the Prophet to delay giving clear injunctions over an issue beyond its appointed time. Hence, if allegorical interpretation was necessary, the Prophet would have declared as such, to us, without any delay. (See Mawsu’a al-Qaw’id al-Fiqhiyya by al-Burno Abu al-Harith al-Ghazzi 3/148, Maktabat al-Tawba 1997)

[46]  Sahih. Collected by Ibn Majah, Ibn Abi ‘Aasim in his Sunna and al-Lalika’i in Sharh Usul I’tiqad Ahl al-Sunnah.

[47]  Sahih. Refer to fn. 25

[48]  Referring to the Quranic verses: “Then We broke open the earth, splitting it with sprouts, and caused to grow within it grain… And fruit and grass [abb]” [‘Abasa 26-31]

[49]  Dha’if due to disconnection in chain. See Tafsir Ibn Kathir for 80th Sura.

[50]  The seven places are: i) al-A’raf 54: “Indeed, your Lord is Allah who created the heavens and the earth in six days and then rose over the Throne”; ii) Yunus 3: “Indeed, your Lord is Allah who created the heavens and the earth in six days and then rose over the Throne”; iii) al-Ra’d 2: “It is Allah who erected the heavens without pillars that you [can] see; then He rose over the Throne”; iv) Taha 5: “The Most Merciful rose over the Throne”; v) al-Furqan 59: “He who created the heavens and the earth and what is between them in six days, and then rose over the Throne”; iv) al-Sajda 4: : “It is Allah who created the heavens and the earth and what is between them in six days, and then rose over the Throne”; iiv) al-Hadid 4: “It is He who created the heavens and the earth and what is between them in six days, and then rose over the Throne”.

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