The Role Of Reason in Ijtihad
Ayatullah Murtadha Mutahhari
In the previous discussion, “The Principle of Ijtihad in Islam”, two trends in Islamic thought were referred to. One of them related to the subject of the justifiability or unjustifiability of the use of qiyas and ijtihad bi al-ra’y, a practice that acquired prevalence among different schools of fiqh. The other was regarding the controversy about Divine justice and reason as the criterion of moral and legal judgements (al-husn wal-qubh al-‘aqliyyan) among the mutakallimun. These controversies actually revolved around the central issue of the role or the “rights” of reason.
Some schools of fiqh which supported qiyas, especially the Hanafi school, believed in the role of reason in ijtihad, which in their interpretation took the form of qiyas and ijtihad bi al-ra’y. But the other schools opposed to qiyas, especially the Zahiri school, did not approve of any role for reason, neither in the form of qiyas nor in any other form. Accordingly, the first group, while enumerating the sources of legislation, maintained that there were four: the Qur’an, the Sunnah, ijma’ (consensus) and ijtihad (qiyas). But the second group did not go beyond the Qur’an, the Sunnah and, at the most, ijma’. Among the mutakallimun, the Mu’tazilah believed in the independent role of reason, and also in Divine justice and the rational basis of moral and legal judgements. They believed that the system of creation is established on the foundations of justice, and that the present system is the best possible. They also explained away the problem of evil in the world and believed that in the next world too punishment and reward will be according to the unalterable criteria of justice. The knowledge of these criteria is also within the province of reason. It is not possible that God should will anything that is not according to these definite rational criteria.
With regard to legislation, also, they believed that the Divine commands have been set forth according to the criteria of justice and with due attention to a series of real benefits and harms (that lie in obedience or disobedience to the laws). According to the Mu’tazilite doctrine, there is a purpose and aim hidden in every Divine Act, whether it relates to creation or legislation.
But the Asha’irah did not believe in any of the above-mentioned doctrines. They did not acknowledge Divine justice or the rational basis of moral and legal judgements. They did not believe that the world is based on the principle of justice and that the present system of creation is the best possible. Neither, according to them, in the other world matters will be decided on the criteria of justice, nor the system of Divine laws has been patterned to ensure a series of benefits and to avoid harms. They did not believe in any aim and purpose for Divine Acts either. According to their doctrine, the belief in the principle of justice, the belief in a rational basis of moral and legal judgements, and the belief that Divine Acts are subject to aims and purposes, usefulness and harmfulness, contradict the principle of tawhid and the idea of absolute freedom of God as a free actor. No law or principle can be set forth as a criterion of His Will thus imposing limits upon Him. God’s Will is neither subordinate to any criteria nor is it subject to anv laws or principles; on the contrary all laws and principles are subject to and proceed from His Will. Judgements of reason cannot be relied upon to enable us to say definitely that such and such a thing is in accordance with justice or not. For instance, it cannot be said for certain that those people who obey God will be sent to heaven and those who sin to hell. His Will and Acts cannot be restricted by any of such rules. They interpret the following verse that says:
“He will not be questioned as to that which He doth, but they will be questioned.” (21:23)
To mean that it is not right to ask ‘why’ and ‘wherefore’ about His Acts. There is no criterion or standard applicable to Divine Acts so as to justify any question about God’s Action or forbearance. The Asha’irah have formally objected to the statement that ‘The Heavens stand on the foundations of justice’, and said that it is not so; they point out that matters like pain and disease, the creation of Satan, social injustice and inequality, class distinctions, domination of the corrupt over the virtuous in the world, and the like, are things which are observable through reason, and, if the order of the universe were based on justice, should not have existed. As for the religious laws and precepts, they have formally declared that they are not based on wisdom and prudence.
They say that the Shari’ah and its laws bring together disparities and separate similarities. Many matters, in spite of their being unlike, have the same judgement, and many other matters in spite of their being similar and parallel have different judgements applicable to them. They have mentioned various examples, to mention which is not possible here. Anyhow, according to the Ash’arite doctrine, the process of creation is not subject to the principle of justice; rather, justice is subordinated to creation. In the same way, the laws of the Shari’ah are also not subject to any real underlying benefits or harms; rather, benefit and harm, good and evil, are subservient to the provisions of the Shari’ah. That is, if we are to speak about justice and injustice, right and wrong, beneficial and harmful, what we should mean is that whatever God does is just, good and beneficial, not that God does what is just, good and beneficial.
This kind of thinking is not without similarity to the trend that existed among the ancient Greek thinkers and the Sophists two thousand and five hundred years ago about reality and the worth of human thought and ideas. They raised the question whether reality is something which exists and our minds and their ideas, in order to be valid, should correspond to reality, or whether it is not so and reality is subject to our minds. For instance, during philosophical and scientific contemplation, we may make a statement about something and say that such and such is the case. Now does our statement correspond to some reality independent of our minds, which would be true if it corresponded with that reality? Or whether, on the contrary, truth and reality are subservient to our minds, and whatever we perceive is the truth? And since it is possible that different individuals should perceive something in diverse ways, truth is relative to each one of them, being different from what it is for others? Therefore, truth and reality are relative?
What a group of Muslim mutakallimun have said about religion in relation to truth, goodness, justice and benefit was said before them by the Greek Sophists about the mind in relation to reality and truth. The arguments presented by the Sophists for proving their claim resemble those advanced by this group of mutakallimun. Due to this similarity it would be right to give them the name of ‘Islamic sophists’.
This group of mutakallimun believed that they had discovered various contradictions, equal treatment of disparities, and unequal treatment of similarities in Islamic laws. They maintained that, on account of these contradictions, it is not possible for any real benefits and harms to be the criteria of religious laws. Therefore, it is the religious laws that are the criteria of good and bad, benefit and harm.
The Sophists had also made an excuse of the contradictions and errors of reason and perception, to hold that due to these contradictions it is not possible for a reality which is transcendental to the mind, and which the mind should follow, to exist. Reality, on the other hand, is a function of the mind. The answer given by philosophers to Greek and non-Greek sophists is also similar to the one given by the ‘Adlites (those who believed in Divine justice, ‘adl) to that group of mutakallimun, but here we shall abstain from going into further details.
The doctrine of taswib (lit. ratification) held by this group of mutakallimun is totally similar to the theory of relativism. According to the theory of relativity of truth, whatever one perceives is truth in relation to him though in relation to others it may be error, not truth. Also according to the theory of taswib, whatever one mujtahid may deduce is correct as far as he himself is concerned, although it may not be so for others.
On the Crossroads
There are many problems which are theoretically of profound significance, but practically are not so important. There are also many problems which are not so important regarding their theoretical value but from the practical point of view they are of extraordinary significance. For instance, in theology we have the problem of Divine Attributes, which is of great importance so far as theory is concerned but is of little practical utility. For example, the study of and inquiry into the question whether the Attributes of God are identical with His Essence or not can be an important subject for theoretical study, but from the practical point of view it is of little consequence which one of the two doctrines you choose; it does not influence the life and behaviour of a Muslim society. But the problem of jabr or tafwid (predestination or freedom) is important from the theoretical point of view as much as it is valuable for its practical aspect. Because the belief in the doctrines of determinism and fatalism and the negation of every kind of human freedom ruin the spirit of action and kill every kind of dynamism.
The problem of Divine justice and belief in rational criteria of moral and legal judgements occupies the most important position in Islamic thought due to its great influence on the intellectual and scientific history and behaviour of Muslims. It is a fact that those who discussed and studied this issue soon arrived at the crossroads, where they had either to accept religious laws as based on a reality discoverable by reason, to try as far as possible to discover that rational basis, to acknowledge a purpose and meaning of religion, to try to discover those purposes and objectives, and to recognize reason as an “inner proof and an “internal prophet” and to accept the definite judgements of reason as enjoying the approval of the Divine Lawgiver; or to consider the aim and purpose of the Shari’ah as entailing mere obligation and acts of absolute servility devoid of any objective, and close all the doors on research and intellectual inquiry.
How much it matters whether we conceive religion in terms of external forms and shapes, viewing any change in external forms and appearances as a change of essence and content, and, imagining some kind of inherent correspondence between those forms and the very spirit of religion, recognize that soul in every form and shape! And what a great difference it makes whether we consider the universal laws of Islam, which cover a wide range of social and ethical problems and concern all modes of human life, as based upon a series of realities relating to spiritual health and well-being and innate human rights, or if we deny the existence of those realities and believe, for instance, that vices like jealousy, falsehood, and suspiciousness are bad because they have been forbidden by the Lawgiver, and virtues like truthfulness, honesty, and benevolence are good as they have been commanded by Him, as if there is no difference between them in reality. Similarly, human rights also are to be acknowledged as such on account of their being set forth by the Islamic lawgiver, or else had they been determined in some other fashion that would have been equally right. Justice and oppression are also defined in the light of these commandments, and if something else had been enjoined, justice and injustice would have been defined in quite a different way.