Reopening Islamic Interpretation

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), March 12, 2006 | Go to article overview

Reopening Islamic Interpretation


Byline: Claude Salhani, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

The solution to the turmoil gripping Muslim society today may be found in reintroducing ijtihad. Reopening the gates of ijtihad will allow Muslims "to reinterpret Islam for the 21st century," states a comprehensive August 2004 special report produced by the United States Institute of Peace.

"The practice of ijtihad," stresses the report compiled with the participation of several respected Muslim scholars, "must be revived."

Ijtihad - or hermeneutics - refers to the institutionalized practice of interpreting Islamic law (sharia) to take into account changing historical circumstances and, therefore, different views.

Ijtihad is the independent or original interpretation of problems not covered by the Koran (Islam's holy book), the Hadith (traditions concerning the Prophet's life and utterances), and ijma' (scholarly consensus). In the early days of the Muslim community, every adequately qualified jurist had the right to exercise such original thinking.

Fearing too much change would weaken their political clout, religious scholars closed the gates of ijtihad to Sunni Muslims about 500 years ago. From then on, scholars and jurists were to rely only on the original meaning and earlier interpretations of the Koran and the Hadith. However, there now is a growing movement among scholars and intellectuals to revive the practice of ijtihad.

Today, Muslim society is experiencing turbulence. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the continued occupation of Palestinian lands, the frustrations caused by oppressive regimes and the absence of democracy have all conspired to give birth to a radical, politicized and violent form of Islam, whose adherents have turned to terror as a means of achieving their aims. They have politicized Islam.

Contrary to Samuel P. Huntington's belief that Islam and the West are headed for a clash of civilizations, other scholars argue the real clash is between two diverging ideas within Islam itself. The clash is between the politicized Islam of a radical element which has turned to violence as a means of expressing itself, and the mainstream majority that remains largely silent. In fact, the violent tactics of this fringe-force of highly-politicized Muslims have proven useful in directly intimidating the mainstream into relative silence.

"Political Islam has proven a formidable force even though Islamic movements or organizations often constitute a minority of the community," states John Esposito, a professor of religion at Washington's Georgetown University.

As in most conflicts, solutions can only come from within. Similarly, the cures for what ails some Muslim communities can only emerge from Islam itself.

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