The blessed person of Muhammad (sws) is the sole source of religion. From him, this religion has been given to the ummah through the consensus of his Companions (rta) and through their perpetual practice and perpetual recitation in two forms:the Qur'anandthe Sunnah. Religion is now derived from these two sources. After these two, if anything of secondary nature can become a source of religion, it is ijtihad. Through ijtihad, besides many other things, we also try to understand directives which are not directly mentioned in the Qur'an and Sunnah but by their nature are applications of directives which are left to the discretion of the opinion and understanding of people. Qiyas (analogy or deduction) is a form of ijtihad. The Qur'an has used the word istinbat for it. Its product is called fiqh (jurisprudence). Its corpus began with the ijtihads of the Prophet (sws) himself. A substantial part of the anthologies of akhbar-i ahad is constituted by them. After him, the companions and their followers continued this tradition. However, during the period of our jurists, a fourth source was added to the sources of Islam: the consensus of the Muslims (ijma'). After their time till now, it is generally accepted that consensus of the Muslims is also a source of the Islamic shari'ah.
This addition to the sources of Islam is indeed a religious innovation. It has no basis in the Qur'an and Sunnah. If a person tries to evaluate its influence, he will come to the conclusion that it has undermined the eternal nature of the Islamic shari'ah and it has become difficult to prove its relevance to modern times. A great scholar and preacher of the sub-continent, Mawlana Wahid al-Din Khan (b. 1925 AD), writes:
Our jurists have generally regarded the consensus of the Muslims to be an independent source of the shari'ah. However, this surely is a baseless view. Only a definite text (nass qat'i) can be an independent source of the shari'ah. Regarding something to be an independent source of the shari'ah in the absence of a definite text is an unfounded premise. Indeed, the consensus of the Muslims has an importance; but that importance merely lies in the fact that in a particular instance it could be the practical solution to a problem that has arisen. This solution most certainly is temporary in nature and is not an eternal source of the shari'ah.
If a person wants to study the arguments on the basis of which our jurists prove the validity of consensus of the Muslims, he should consult Imam Shawkani's Irshad al-fuhul. It will become evident to him how baseless and unrelated they are. However, arguments drawn from one verse of the Qur'an and one Hadith narrative can raise doubts in the minds of some people. I will try to evaluate both of these here.
The Qur'an says:
وَ مَنۡ یُّشَاقِقِ الرَّسُوۡلَ مِنۡۢ بَعۡدِ مَا تَبَیَّنَ لَہُ الۡہُدٰی وَ یَتَّبِعۡ غَیۡرَ سَبِیۡلِ الۡمُؤۡمِنِیۡنَ نُوَلِّہٖ مَا تَوَلّٰی وَ نُصۡلِہٖ جَہَنَّمَ ؕ وَ سَآءَتۡ مَصِیۡرًا(4: 115)
And those who oppose the Prophet even after the path of guidance is fully evident to them, and leaving the path of those who sincerely professed faith [in you] follow some other path, We will put them on the path on which they themselves went and cast them into Hell. It is a very evil abode. (4:115)
The jurists deduce their view from the above verse by saying that if the way of someone other than those of the believers is adopted, then this verse mentions the punishment of Hell for such an attitude. It is evident from this that following the way of the believers is mandatory on every person; hence, if Muslims are united on an opinion or a view, then no one should differ with it; it is incumbent on every believer to follow this consensus.
An evaluation of the context of this verse will show how baseless this line of argumentation is. In the previous verses, the conspiracies and connivances of the hypocrites are exposed. Regarding these hypocrites this verse says that those who want to form a separate group to oppose the Prophet (sws) and in this way want to adopt the path of disbelief and hypocrisy instead of the path of belief, shall be cast into Hell. The verse warns those Muslims who would defend these hypocrites. They are told that the people they are supporting will be led to Hell because of their opposition and hostility to the Prophet (sws). The reason for this is that this is not the way of the believers, and those who adopt the path of disbelief and hypocrisy even after the true path is evident to them can only abide in Hell. This disbelief and hypocrisy are referred to by the words غَیۡرَ سَبِیۡلِ الۡمُؤۡمِنِیۡنَ of the verse cited. In it the word "believers" refer to the Companions of the Prophet (sws) who, after acquiring the truth, never breached their trust with the Prophet (sws) and never opposed and evaded him. On the contrary, they followed him with full sincerity and submitted wholeheartedly to whatever directive they were given by him. It is this attitude of faith and faithfulness, submission and obedience, docility and compliance which is called سَبِیۡلِ الۡمُؤۡمِنِیۡنَ in this verse. All attitudes other than this are called غَیۡرَ سَبِیۡلِ الۡمُؤۡمِنِیۡنَ and Hell is promised for such attitudes. This certainly does not mean that one cannot differ from the interpretations, opinions and ijtihads nor does it mean that if in the light of the Qur'an and Sunnah a person criticizes a view on which there is consensus, then he would become worthy of Hell. The fact is that this issue is not even touched upon by this verse. What is merely said in this verse is that after guidance has become fully evident if someone opposes the guide sent by God and is audacious enough to set up his own faction in opposition to him, then this is nothing but disbelief with which belief can have no meaning. The Almighty puts such people on the path they have chosen for themselves. Consequently, the Qur'an says that a person who chooses such a path should only wait for Hell.
Similar is the case of Hadith: the Prophet (sws) is reported to have said: إِنَّ اللَّهَ لَا يَجْمَعُ أُمَّتِي أو قال أُمَّةَ مُحَمَّدٍ علي ضَلَالَةٍ (indeed, God will never unite my ummahor the ummahof Muhammad on some error).It may be noted that it is not a sound Hadith and for this very reason has not been able to find any place in the primary books of Hadith like al-Jami' al-sahih of al-Bukhari and al-Jami' al-sahih of Muslim and the Mu'atta' of Malik. However, even if it is supposed that the Prophet (sws) has in fact given these glad tidings to his ummah, can these words really mean that the ummah can never make a mistake? The fact of the matter is that there is a world of difference between a mistake and straying into error and whatever is said in the Hadith relates to straying into error and not committing a mistake. It is impossible that the whole ummah be united in straying into some error. The reason for this is that the difference between guidance and error has been made evident to a conclusive degree. Thus it is logically impossible that all the scholars, mujtahids and those at the helm of state affairs unite on a polytheistic belief while fully comprehending it to be polytheistic or reject the messengerhood of Muhammad (sws) or deny the accountability of the Hereafter or deviate from directives such as the prayer, the fast, the hajj, the zakah and animal sacrifice. Such things are in the category of self-evident facts for this ummah. There can evolve a consensus on evasion from them. However, there can be a mistake in understanding things which need deliberation or require ijtihad and it is also possible that all people of this ummah are unanimous in this mistake. There is nothing in reason or revelation which precludes this possibility. Thus even if this narrative's ascription to the Prophet (sws) is regarded to be correct, it is evident from its words that his glad tidings relate to consensus on straying into error and it can be said with certainty that Muslims cannot unanimously stray. The narrative does not relate in any way to a mistake in understanding a directive or in doing an ijtihad.
(Translated by Dr Shehzad Saleem)
. Wahid al-Din Khan, Masadir-i shari'ah Al-Risalah 7 (2011): 5.
. Muhammad ibn 'Ali ibn Muhammad al-Shawkani, Irshad al-fuhul ila tahqiq-i 'ilm al-usul, 1st ed. (Beirut: Dar al-fikr, 1992), 131-144. (Translator)
. Tirmidhi, Sunan, vol. 4, 466, (no. 2167).