Opening The Floodgates Of Ijtihad

I first became familiar with the subject of ijtihad as an undergraduate history minor, where my professor (who appears to have been a moderate Muslim woman) taught a class on Islam and Russia and the Soviet Union. Being a person who is fond of critical thinking (which is the meaning of ijtihad in Arabic), I found the idea very appealing even if it came from an alien perspective to my own. That said, I found the conflict between “new” and “old” modes of thought to be something I could easily relate to in my own personal experience, where I have been thought of as a Progressive [1], a label that I do not consider a very flattering or positive one, but one which others relish and celebrate.

I was reminded of the debates over Ijtihad in 19th century Muslim society by the course I am taking on the formation of the modern Middle East, which looks at the 19th century as an age of complicated and hesitant reform in both Egypt and the Ottoman Empire, which found themselves falling behind the West and faced with a tension about how to reconcile modernization efforts with a traditionalist mindset that looked down on the West and viewed Islam as being the source of all worthwhile truth. For Muslims, an initial period of ijtihad quickly hardened in the Middle Ages into a rigid view that remains to our times in many of the ulema (that is, the Muslim clergy) that exert a powerful influence on Muslim societies and that may even represent the majority of Muslims in the world even today.

In many ways, the debate between ijtihad and traditionalism is a bit of a false dilemma. Although I am not particularly well aligned to the view of those who do not like any kind of change or progress, traditionalists do happen to have legitimate concerns when it comes to societal anarchy. There is certainly cause to be concerned about the boundaries of worthwhile criticism and its legitimate limits and proper place. Sadly, when cultures and institutions are the most deserving of criticism, their insecurity about their own place and viability tends to make criticism all that much harder to take. Just as it is with people, only those who are strong are generally able to accept and handle criticism. Those who would be the most benefited by a critical view are the least able to handle such appeals to reform as are made.

Nevertheless, criticism need not be done with hostile intent. Often it is those who have the deepest love that are the most critical, and not only because of a bad attitude, but because there is a lot of improvement that we all can make. And often those who criticize do not do so well, nor do people always acquire an accurate knowledge of affairs or what they are criticizing before they criticize. All of this sort of unfairness tends to make those who are unfairly criticized seek to defend themselves from all criticism, especially because some criticism, even substantial criticism is warranted. Yet it takes more than criticism to improve matters, but there must be a positive vision that preserves the best of what is, recovers the best of what has been lost, and seeks after the best that we have yet to achieve, along with steps that can be taken in order to reach that desired end.

Nor are Muslims the only people who have a strong traditional culture, more than a little insecurity about their past, and a certain bristly sensitivity to criticism. Far from it. There is a great deal of concern that accepting the legitimacy of any criticism will open the floodgates of ijtihad, with a widespread and total decline in respect and honor. Yet even where criticism is not given, contempt is often felt. How are we to improve our world and also improve our civility and graciousness while we inhabit it? We must not only improve the surface appearances, but all aspects all the way to the bone. This is far easier said than done, but it’s not an easy task we have set for ourselves to be refined and improved. A lot of criticism appears to come with the territory for all of us.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in Christianity, Church of God, History, Musings and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Opening The Floodgates Of Ijtihad

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