(Translated from Maqāmāt by Shehzad Saleem)
The term ijtihād has originated from a Hadīth. In the opinion of the authorities, this Hadīth is broken (munqati'). However, it is one of its sentences which has become a source of this all important term of Islamic jurisprudence. It is reported that when the Prophet (sws) sent forth Mu'ādh to Yemen as its governor, he asked him: "How will you decide matters?" He replied: "I will revert to the Book of God." The Prophet (sws) then asked: "If you do not find anything in the Book of God?" Mu'ādh replied: "I will look into the Sunnah of the Messenger of God." The Prophet (sws) next asked: "If you do not even find it there?" At this, Mu'ādh responded by saying: أجتهد برأي و لا آلو جهداً" (I will form an opinion after expending full effort and will not leave any stone unturned."
It is the words أجتهد برأي of this Hadīth that are the source of this term. Scholars of usūl have always used it in the limits ascertained by this Hadīth. In other words, ijtihād shall be done only in those matters in which the Qur'ān and Sunnah are silent. It has no bearing on matters which are explicitly stated in the Qur'ān and Sunnah. The reason for this is that the injunctions of Qur'ān and Sunnah need deliberation and do not warrant ijtihād. Scholars can repeatedly revert to them, determine their purport and can also differ from previous authorities in their interpretation but they cannot alter or annul any directive of the Qur'ān and Sunnah through their ijtihād.
Thus the ambit of ijtihād is matters in which the Qur'ān and Sunnah are silent. If the ascription of this dialogue to Mu'ādh and the Prophet (sws) is correct, then it is this very fact which the Prophet (sws) has explained. Thus the questions asked were: "If it is not found in the Qur'ān?" and "If it is not found in the Sunnah?" If one is able to find anything in the Qur'ān, no Muslim can deviate from it. It is the requisite of his faith to submit to it without any hesitation. The very word "Islam" means to be obedient to God and the Prophet (sws). Some of the illustrious thinkers of current times have wrongly interpreted certain steps taken by the Rightly Guided Caliphs. The fact of the matter is that none of these caliphs could even have imagined to dare alter or annul a directive of God. What people regard as annulment or alteration is actually the implications and insinuations of the directive which the rightly guided caliphs explained with their practice. So instead of deriving annulment or alteration from such a directive, people should develop the ability to reflect on the Qur'ān and Sunnah and to understand their linguistic styles.
However, within the circle in which the Qur'ān and Sunnah are silent, ijtihād is as essential as air and water are to the human body. The door to ijtihād can never be closed and in fact never was. In spite of the insistence of some people that this door had been closed after the fourth century, scholars, jurists and experts of various disciplines have continued to grace this world who did ijtihād in every period of time and are doing so even today. God has blessed man with knowledge and intellect. He has bestowed these favours on him so that he can decide his affairs under their guidance. These affairs are both indefinite and multifarious. Man has not been created blind and deaf so that he requires divine guidance in every matter. The Almighty has revealed His sharī'ah only in those affairs in which man's knowledge and intellect need guidance. For this reason, the directives of the sharī'ah are very limited. Thus ijtihād is essential. In it lies the secret to development. Life cannot continue without it. One of the significant reasons of the decadence of the Muslims is that in their national capacity they have become devoid of the ability of research in physical sciences and ijtihād in social sciences.
Here, it must remain in consideration that there are no conditions for ijtihād. People should do ijtihād. If one individual makes a mistake in it, the critique of another will correct it. It is through this process that man progresses and highly competent mujatahids are born. There is no doubt in the fact that if the principle of taqlīd is accepted, then all those conditions which are stated for ijtihād will become necessary. The reason for this is that in such a case the real thing would not be ijtihād itself but the personality of the mujatahid who is being regarded as the source of taqlīd. However, if like the Companions of the Prophet (sws) and their followers, the common masses and the scholars also base their decisions on reasoning, then it will not be the mujtahid but the ijtihād itself which will be evaluated in congruence with the standards put forth by knowledge and reason. In this situation, even if a non-Muslim – not to speak of a Muslim – presents a sensible solution to a problem, it cannot be objected to and should be accepted as a "lost treasure of a believer".
Consequently, it is a reality that in current times many ijtihāds pertaining to political, economic and administrative issues as well as those pertaining to the principles of civics and citizenship have in fact been done by non-Muslims and Muslims have generally accepted them. A clear example of this is democracy, democratic values and the regulations of the institutions which have been founded under them. The principle of democracy was given by the Qur'ān but the Muslims could not make any system for it. This system was made by non-Muslims. In spite of this, it can be observed that religious scholars and most religious parties not only accept this system they have also been playing the role of the vanguard of every movement which has been launched for its preservation and promotion. This is the correct attitude in matters in which the Qur'ān and Sunnah are silent, and people should adhere to this attitude.