[A version of this was originally posted as a Facebook note.]
ijtihad, (Arabic: “effort”) in Islamic law, the independent or original interpretation of problems not precisely covered by the Quran, Ḥadith (traditions concerning the Prophet’s life and utterances), and ijma (scholarly consensus).
Sometimes, very occasionally, just asking questions is a legitimate intellectual exercise among consenting adults instead of an annoying exercise in bad faith. One of the classic food-for-thought type questions involves time-travelling to change some historical event.
One of the few things that didn’t change after my defection from Islam is my answer to that hypothetical question. Disregarding any sort of unforeseen negative circumstances that I could cause by doing so, I would stop the closing of the doors of Ijtihad in Sunni Islam.
I first learned of this choice bit of Islamic history from the Islamic conference that helped me to lose my faith. At some point, it was decided that interpretation was off the table and only qiyas (analogical reasoning) was canonically allowed.
This has proven to be a problem. Try analogizing your way, using writings and thinking from the 3rd century or earlier, to an answer on such typical modern ethical questions such as whether stem cells are okay to use for research. It’s difficult, you will rely on ambiguities, and you will come to a conclusion that doesn’t necessarily follow what you’ve cited because there will be a dearth of directly-related evidence. In short, you’re rather stuck.
The difficulties and absurdities of qiyas are both well and hilariously demonstrated by the description of Facebook group by and for Muslims: Poking is Haraam (forbidden).
The longheld debate regarding the legitmacy [sic] of facebook poking has come to a head as scholars from all jurisprudential schools have clearly and unequivocally echoed their sentiments that poking is indeed haram.
Largely using “qiyas” (analogical) reasoning, while poking in the real world is clearly haram because of non-mahram contact, poking in the virtual world, scholars have concluded, carries equal if not greater violation of the law.
Because its means are far less sketchy, scholars have avoided labeling facebook messaging in the same category. However, scholars of the 7 mathahib have almost entirely placed ‘facebook messaging’ without prior in-person contact in the “makruh” (inadvisable) category.
A minority school of thought adds that, by extension, Pokemon is also haram.
Because Sunni Muslims are not a monolithic entity, many of them interpret anyway without claiming to be engaging in ijtihad. Interpreting despite an age-old ban on interpretation carries a great deal of social risk if you don’t manage to end up agreeing with the perceived Islamic consensus.
The word bidah mean innovation. While there is supposedly a good kind of bidah within Islam, I have personally never heard the term used in a positive way. Instead, I’ve seen in used to shut down questions as well as to criticize other Muslims’ practice of Islam in a way that triggers defensiveness. Another word used to shut down intracommunity conflict or disagreements among Muslims is fitnah. Fitnah implies civil war or community strife and is a wholly negative term. Ijtihad that leads to differences from the perceived Islamic consensus will lead to accusations of engaging in bidah, spreading fitna, or, worst of all, committing apostasy and rendering yourself a murtad.
That doesn’t stop Muslim reformers from explicitly call for ijtihad — in favor of women’s rights, for example. As someone who, pragmatically speaking, favors reform for religion, I wholeheartedly support such efforts. Not that my opinion counts for much among Muslims, mind you, since I’m actually a murtada.