“Literally, Ijtihad means exerting one’s self to the utmost degree to attain an object. In Islamic terminology, it refers to exerting one’s self to form an opinion in a given case or give a legal verdict or decision on an issue on which there is no specific guidance in the Qur’an and the Sunnah. It involves the interpretation of the source material and inference of rules from them.
Ijtihad is the instrument which has been given to the followers of Islam, along with the Qur’an and the Sunnah, that guarantees to offer a solution to any problem faced by them for all times to come. It preserves dynamism and relevance.
During the 4th century of Hijrah, some of the Ulama decreed that the door of Ijtihad had been closed as all the rules had been established and it was no more needed. No doubt, that was an opinion based on Ijtihad itself to prevent the misuse of freedom of thought in the wake of emerging, deviating sects in the Muslim Ummah. It served the purpose, to some extent, meant from this prohibition. But at the same time it also curbed original thinking, creative analysis and intellectual movement among the Muslims. Thus Ijtihad was applied to kill Ijtihad. If it was allowed, it was allowed within a limited circle of established schools of jurisprudence based on already inferred rules.
This state of affairs is now unacceptable to modern scholars, and there is an intellectual uprising against it. The reason for this is that within a century we have seen so many changes and developments in social, political, economic, military and scientific spheres that had never been experienced earlier. The problems associated with these developments demand satisfactory solutions which are not possible unless we remove the obstacles placed before Ijtihad, correct the methodology and follow the practice of the people of the first century of Islam.
To solve the issues arising in the modern period, the correct methodology is that we must turn first of all towards the Qur’an and Sunnah. If we can find any solution, that is enough. If no clear text is found applicable to the new situation, then the solution will be sought by applying sound reasoning and going through the similar incidents and precedents of the rules in the past. In this connection the objectives and spirit of the sharia will always be preserved. Thus one should not think that we recommend ignoring our heritage of jurisprudence. They should be examined to see whether there is any supporting evidence from the earlier scholars. This will add to our confidence and satisfaction.
The methodology of Ijtihad we suggest above was followed by earlier leaders of jurisprudence and that was prescribed by the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) himself. Once when the Prophet was deputing his companion Mu`adh to Yemen, he asked the latter, “What will you do if you have to decide a matter faced by you?” He replied, “I will decide it according to the Book of Allah.” The Prophet further asked, “If you do not find anything about it in the Book of Allah, then what?” He answered, “In that case I’ll decide according to the Sunnah of the Prophet of Allah.” At this the Prophet asked, “If you do not find anything in the Sunnah of the Prophet?” He said, “I’ll decide it with my own opinion (i.e. apply the reasoning power) and leave no stone unturned.” Hearing this, the Prophet applauded, “Praise be to Allah who guided the apostle of the Prophet the methodology which the Prophet himself likes.” (Reported by Al-Bukhari)
How far Ijtihad is desirable and commendable in Islam can be seen from the fact that according to a tradition of the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) a person applying Ijtihad will receive a reward even though his decision is wrong, while if it is right, he receives a double reward. Had the Ijtihad been something dangerous as the adherents of absolute imitation think or show by their action, the sharia would have warned against it and have never promised a reward on error.”