A Note on Ijmā‘

A Note on Ijmā‘


Editorial

Although Hallaq has shown convincingly that, contrary to the common perception of many Western scholars, the gates of ijtihād were never closed as such in the medieval Sunni schools,[1] the fact remains that the notion of closure remains entrenched amongst the Muslim 'ulamā as well as the general populace. This constitutes one of the greatest impediments to any scholar outside the folds of the traditionalist religious cliques to proffer new hermeneutics or methodology or even a single opinion in substantive law.[2] Whereas it is reasonable that an enterprise such as ijtihād be undertaken by one who possesses a reasonable degree of competence for it, there is no textual evidence to suggest that the ijtihādof a competent scholar (as Abū Hanīfah [81-150/700-767] or Mālik ibn Anas [94-179/716-795] or others) or even that of a whole school or of all the traditional schools is infallible.[3] In Sunni jurisprudence, the notion that the ijmā' of the community and its scholars in matters pertaining to interpretation and ijtihādhas epistemological certitude in religion, and thus, by implication, an authority equivalent to that of the Qur'ān and the sunnahis quite shaky.[4] When this notion of consensus first gained religious character in the second/eighth century,the proponents of the idea, with an essentially deontological epistemology, had to look to the Qur'ān and hadīthfor textual evidence that would accord ijmā'the epistemological value they claimed for it.[5] As it happened, few of the verses adduced were relevant,[6] nor was there any real consensus on the interpretation of these verses. For instance, Q.4:115, which, according to Hallaq, is one of the most relevant verses, is open to various interpretations.[7] The idea of consensus here is based on an interpretation of the words wa yatabi' ghayr sabīl al-mu'minīn(and those who follow ways other than those of the believers). Apart from the fact that these words have been interpreted in different ways by the earliest exegetes, it is plain to see from the context that the words were originally used to refer to those opponents of the Prophet who, as the context implies, were bent upon maligning him, and who, despite the manifest truth of the Prophet's religious authority, had chosen a course different from that of the Muslims.[8] Having found that the Qur'ānic basis for their thesis weak, the proponents of ijmā'then turned to the sunnahfor support, only to find that there was nothing sufficiently concurrent (mutawātir) to offer conclusive evidence there either.[9] The next obvious step was to investigate the hadīth, most of which were in the form of isolated narrations(akhbār ahād). These akhbār ahād, according to Sunni principles of jurisprudence (usūl al-fiqh), were themselves probable (zannī) in varying degrees.[10] Quite obviously, probability, regardless of its degree, could not form the epistemological foundation of certitude; therefore, the jurists came up with a novel concept around the fourth/tenth and fifth/centuries: that of concurrence of meaning(tawātur ma'nawī), which they adduced as conclusive evidence based on inductive corroboration.[11] 'Āmidī (d.631/1233) gives an interesting example to explain this concept: we might construe a man's glances at a woman as indicative of his love for her with only a slight degree of probability, but when there are other indicants, we might gain enough knowledge to say with a reasonable degree of certainty that the man is indeed in love with the woman.[12] In the same manner, we can gain certain and immediate knowledge on the basis of a sufficient number of traditions, even if each of them may individually be false.[13] There are, however, a number of problems with this kind of argumentation. Firstly, the basic problem in this epistemology is not the certainty with respect to what the words in certain narrations mean but whether the words themselves can be traced back to the Prophet (sws) with certitude.[14] Since the words of the narrations in question cannot themselves be traced back to the Prophet (sws) with absolute certainty in Sunni epistemology, it would be logically inconsistent to assert that certitude of meaning derived from something that itself does not have epistemological certitude can lend certitude to an entirely new concept, that is ijmā'. In other words, the meaning itself could only be traced back to the Prophet (sws) on the basis of tawātur if the meaning too had been reified by the Prophet (sws) himself in the form of words and had been passed on to the Muslim community by his immediate companions through their established tawāturof transmission.[15] Therefore, in terms of logical consistency, the question is whether the most important basis of Sunni ijtihādand interpretation, that is ijmā' – despite having immense force of tradition – is essentially based on circular argument: a very ingeniously constructed case of petitio principii.[16] Another argument is that tawātur itself actually depends on custom ('ādah) and that the companions of the Prophet (sws) would not have accepted so many ahādīthpertaining to ijmā'if agreement on the tawāturof these ahādīthhad not been there right from the beginning.[17] Where did this tawāturvanish in history then? That, the argument holds, is not pertinent to the reasoning as the question is merely a historical one.[18] There are three flaws in this argument. Firstly, even if the notion that the companions accepted the ahādīthwith which the later jurists justified ijmā'is taken as fact, it does not negate the possibility that the companions accepted them for what they were: akhbār ahād. It does not necessarily prove that they granted them the status of mutawātirahin religion. Secondly, there is no evidence to suggest that the companions were unanimous in their understanding of the meanings of these akhbārin the same sense as has been given to these narrations by the jurists. Even if it could be proved that the companions were unanimous in their understanding, it does not prove that the same meaning was afforded to these narratives by the Prophet himself. For that, the Prophet (sws) would have used "words", which then should have been transmitted by the tawāturof the companions. Thirdly, it is impossible to imagine that a mutāwatir source would just evaporate into thin air in the history of a continued tradition. Even if forced eradication of such a source had taken place (for example by some administrative decree), it would be inconceivable that an event of such import would itself not have been reported by tawātur.[19]

Apart from these major flaws in the foundational argument of the certitude granted to ijmā', there are many other inconsistencies in the whole Sunni construct as well as argumentation.[20] Much the same approach is reflected in the argumentation related to tawāturand hadīth. Whereas tawātur in Sunni epistemology leads to absolute certitude (as in the case of certain readings of the Qur'ān in Sunni concepts,[21] which tawāturis therefore termed as tawātur lafzī), the same could never be said of the words reported in akhbār ahād.[22] Yet, the akhbār ahādare used at times to derive legal directives extraneous to the Qur'ān itself.[23] To resolve this contradiction, the concept of ijmā'in interpretation and ijtihādwas proffered, which, as we already shown, is essentially based on what it seeks to prove. Even though al-Asadabādī's argument resolves the circularity to the extent of the argumentation,[24] the issue of historical fallacy and other logical inconsistencies still remain in the whole construct.[25] Therefore, though the construct did serve useful administrative function, the infallibility afforded to it by its proponents had shaky foundations.

The reason for this discussion is, that in stark contradiction to Sunni theory (which does not allow ijtihādin usūlor matters already resolved by the ijmā'of Sunni schools), scholars, reformers, and revivalists as Fazlur Rahman, Ghāmidī and Mawdūdī -- to name only a few – have defied tradition in terms of new ijtihādboth in usūland in matters of substantive law already resolved through ijmā'. The reason is quite simple: ijmā',as a form of human reasoning, never had the infallibility that the founding fathers of this concept gave it. Many anomalies have been created by laws and interpretations based on ijmā'.[26] Similarly, many required changes are impeded by it.[27] Reformers in every age have shown great ingenuity and skill in finding their way out of the labyrinth created by these problems by still holding on to the concept of the authoritativeness of ijmā'.[28] In other instances, the solutions were downright subterfuges – intentional or unintentional.[29] Mawdūdī himself found a way out by accepting only a certain kind of ijmā'as absolutely authoritative, which ijmā', by definition, is one that in most cases of interpretation and ijtihādcan rarely be established historically.[30] In many other cases, he relies on the principle of necessity (as we have seen in Chapter 2) to overcome the obstacles to the realization of his weltanschauung placed in his way by traditional interpretation. Ghāmidī, on the other hand, goes to the extent of denying outright the infallibility of ijmā' on any interpretation or any ijtihād, evenif arrived at by thecompanions of the Prophet (sws).[31] To him, the only infallible source of religion is the Prophet (sws), who disseminated it in the form of the Qur'ān and the sunnah.[32] It is only theijmā' or tawāturof the companions in the transmission of these sources that Ghāmidī considers as having an established (yaqīnī) basis in religion.[33] In other words, since the Qur'ān and the sunnahwere transmitted through tawātur, Ghāmidī accepts them as the assured "content" of religion that requires human interpretation.[34] As far as interpretation of this content and ijtihādon its basis are concerned, they do not have the infallibility to be precluded from the scope of investigation, critique, or repudiation.[35] This is a major epistemological break from the tradition, and its implications are manifold as well as deep. Simply put, it means that, in Ghāmidī's opinion, there is nothing in the sharī'ahto prohibit any competent scholar from giving opinions on matters and principles in interpretation or ijtihādalready resolved earlier through the mechanism of 'ijmā'.




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