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.

Sherman A. Jackson, Legal Scaffolding and the Scope of Legal Injunctions in Post-Formative Theory: Muṭlaq and ʿĀmm in the Jurisprudence of Shihāb al-Dīn al-Qarāfī, Islamic Law and Society 3, no. 2 (1996): 165–92.

*Note: All page numbers used as citations refer to the above article.


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, which occurred around the latter half of the fifth/eleventh century, the methods of legal reasoning began to change even as the goals remained the same. Scholars disagree over whether ijtihād died out completely following the formalization of the schools of law. “Ijtihād may [still] occur . . . in a disguised form whereby a jurist places his insight and conclusions under the penumbra of some mujtahid-Imām or ancient authority” (p. 167, n.5). The major consensus now is that ijtihād continues in different forms. Whether ijtihād is still practiced or not, however, it is clear that another type of legal reasoning, taqlīd, became dominant after the founding period and remains so today. Taqlīd involves using previous legal scholarship to interpret scripture and give weight to one’s own legal opinions. Far from being a stifling regression from ijtihād, taqlīd builds upon “the successful execution of ijtihād during the formative period” and represents an important sign of progress in the evolution of Islamic law (p. 168).