While many secular advocates, right-wing parties and orthodox Islamic groups hold tight to the idea of a static, unresponsive and irrational Islamic law, the traditional framework of Islamic Legal Theory boasts otherwise. Here, the neglected principle of ijtihād is analysed.
The evolutionary vs. immutable nature of Islamic law has been a controversial topic for centuries abound. Can Islamic law develop in response to the ever changing demands of human life? Or have its dictates been determined once and for all, binding it to a complete, static and indisputable set of laws? Is Islamic law an ancient, outdated system that lives in an era far away from our so-called modern times or can it evolve in response to new challenges and circumstances? As Islam becomes an increasingly hot topic of discussion in the media, amongst universities, work places and the general public, such questions are crying out for attention. So, here is my abridged analysis of the notion that lies at the heart of this discussion: ijtihād.
But this assumption rests upon an excessively reductive and shallow perception of the nature of Islamic law. Islamic law can be divided into two spheres: the fixed and the flexible. Both spheres grow from the roots of Islam (Sharī’a) but differ in nature.
The fixed sphere constitutes the core of Islamic law and can be seen as encompassing those areas of law related to the rights of Allāh over the Muslim community. This includes acts of worship, prescribed penalties and all areas of law that are directly expressed in the Qur’ān and Sunnah, either explicitly or implicitly by way of strict analogy. Examples include daily prayers and the prohibition of interest. Signifying the absolute limits of the law, these rulings are fixed and unalterable; they cannot be revised or renewed at any period, regardless of the circumstances that pertain. This sphereconstitutes the basic laws of Islam and provides the boundaries within which the rest of the law is to be developed.