Islamic Law Lexicon :: Ijtihād: the direct interpretation of scripture

This entry provides a definition and analysis of the term ijtihād, drawing on works by SHARIAsource Senior Scholar Sherman A. Jackson, King Faisal Chair in Islamic Thought and Culture and Professor of Religion and American Studies and Ethnicity at the University of Southern California.


When Islamic law was in its infancy, scholars relied solely on a method of legal reasoning called ijtihād. Many people define ijtihād as “the exhaustion of one’s (mental) capacity in the attempt to gain probable knowledge about anything concerning the divine law to the extent that the individual feels that he is incapable of exerting any further effort” (p. 167, n.5). A more useful way to think of ijtihād is as a form of legal reasoning which involved “the direct interpretation of scripture” (p. 173). Throughout the history of Islamic law, one of each scholar’s primary goals has been “to establish himself as an authority (i.e., one who possesses the ability to enlist compliance on the belief that it is right to follow him)” (p. 169). During the early period of Islamic law, therefore, part of ijtihād for each scholar was “the clear and open advocacy of views as having resulted from such a process” (p. 173). This attempt by scholars to get others to adopt their conclusions helped ijtihād fulfill its purpose: “to provide authoritative legal interpretations” (p. 169).

Following the establishment and mutual recognition of the four Sunni schools of law . . .

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