In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Ijtihad

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Debates Over the “Gate of Ijtihad” and the “Regime of Taqlid”
  • The Responsiveness of the Law in the Post-Formative Period
  • The Details of Doing Ijtihad
  • The Mujtahid, the Mufti, and Change
  • Institutions concerned with Ijtihad and Legal Change
  • Early Calls for Reviving Ijtihad
  • Modern Reform Efforts
  • Recent Developments
  • Applications
  • Ijtihad as a Species of the Reason-Revelation Debate
  • Bibliographies on Islamic Law

Islamic Studies Ijtihad
Junaid Quadri
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 June 2012
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 June 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195390155-0096


To medieval Muslim scholars, ijtihad had a very specific technical meaning relating to the activity of an appropriately qualified jurist (a mujtahid) in producing or justifying a legal judgement (hukm sharʿi). Historically, ijtihad was most commonly defined as “the jurist’s exerting himself to the utmost of his capacities to arrive at a considered opinion with respect to a legal judgment.” The 14th-century polymath al-Jurjāni, however, offers a second definition: the jurist’s “sparing of no effort in seeking out an appropriate justification for a legal judgment.” This polyvalence reflects a debate found in the sources about the precise function of the genre—usul al-fiqh, or legal theory—most closely associated with the term. Regardless of whether or not the ijtihadic process was (especially in the early period of Islam) the following of a well-defined procedure in pursuit of a ruling, sophisticated hermeneutic and logical constraints did nevertheless come to be precisely delineated in works of usul al-fiqh, and could not be altogether ignored. The results of the ijtihad of a jurist could result in legal opinions called fatwās, and the accumulated findings of a legal school (madhhab) would often be laid out systematically in compendia of rulings known as books of furuʾ al-fiqh, or simply fiqh (substantive law). In the modern period, the term has become much more ambiguous, often taken up as a general rallying call by Muslim modernists to indicate their entitlement to advance reformist positions at variance with the historical legal corpus. To Western scholars, the term has consistently functioned as a barometer of the flexibility, vitality, and responsiveness (or lack thereof) of Islamic law.

General Overviews

Ijtihad has been a key area of enquiry for scholars of Islamic law, interested as they have been in tracking its ability to adapt to novel circumstances. Hallaq 1995 offers a strong introduction to the history of the concept, while Brown 2004 and Weiss 1978 trace the judicial-interpretive ijtihadic process familiar to premodern Muslim scholars. While Calder 2003, too, provides us with a sophisticated (and advanced) summary of Islamic legal writing as understood by Muslim authors in the various subgenres that constitute the Sharia sciences, Gleave 2010 locates the importance of ijtihad and change within debates in secondary scholarship. Jumʿa 2004 is an in-depth study of some of the central questions and concerns dominating both classical and modern Sunni writings on ijtihad, while Jannati’s article, “Ijtihad: Its Meanings, Sources, Beginnings and the Practice of Raʾy” (Jannati 1987), is an analogous treatment of the Shiʿi tradition, with greater attention paid to its historical development. Turki 2002 is a treatment of the famous question of the “closing of the gate of ijtihad,” as well as some important related concerns, in a sweeping overview of the history of the concept.

  • Brown, Daniel. A New Introduction to Islam. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2004.

    Chapter 9 of this textbook is a very readable guide to the way Islamic legal thinking proceeds, using as a case study a 16th-century controversy over the legal status of coffee and coffeehouses. Includes helpful definitions of some basic Arabic legal terminology.

  • Calder, Norman. “Law.” In History of Islamic Philosophy. 2 vols. Edited by Seyyed Hossein Nasr and Oliver Leaman, 979–998. New York: Routledge, 2003.

    An important, if involved, entry seeking to portray Islamic law on its own terms, and juxtaposing this project to the particular interests of Western scholarship. Places particular emphasis on the notion of legal literature as an accumulated corpus constituting a historical tradition in the quest for the proper interpretation of scripture, and sets out the precise functions of different genres within legal writing.

  • Gleave, Robert. “Introduction.” In Islamic Jurisprudence in the Classical Era. By Norman Calder. Edited by Colin Imber. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511676574

    In his attempt to provide context to these posthumously published essays, Gleave locates Calder within the debates of secondary scholarship on Islamic law, thereby giving us a relatively thorough overview of the field. What emerges is the centrality of the question of the law’s capacity to change, and the mechanisms by which that change may be effected.

  • Hallaq, Wael. “Ijtihād.” In The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Modern Islamic World. Vol. 2. Edited by John L. Esposito, 78–81. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.

    A short, comprehensive introduction to the historical development of the term.

  • Jannati, Muhammad Ibrahim. “Ijtihad: Its Meanings, Sources, Beginnings and the Practice of Raʾy.” Al Tawhid Islamic Journal 5.2–3 (1987).

    A thorough discussion of ijtihād in the Shiʿi tradition—its historical development, major topics and debates, and manners of argumentation. This piece can be found in its entirety online, and in print in serialized form in Al Tawhid Islamic Journal 5.2–3 (1987), 6.1 (1989) and 7.3 (1990).

  • Jumʿa, ʿAli. Āliyyāt al-Ijtihād. Cairo: Dar al-Risala, 2004.

    Relying on classical Sunni scholarship, Jumʿa gives the reader an introduction to both the content and the style of premodern discussions on ijtihad, as well as a treatment of some key technical issues relevant to the present-day.

  • Turki, Abdel-Magid. “Aggiornamento juridique: continuité et créativité ou fiction de la fermeture de la porte de l’Ijtihad?” Studia Islamica 94 (2002): 5–65.

    DOI: 10.2307/1596211

    A wide-ranging overview of the central debate over the closing of the “gate of ijtihad.” Treats, along the way, a myriad of theoretical issues related to the concept of ijtihad and its development from the earliest period of Islam to the modern era.

  • Weiss, Bernard G. “Interpretation in Islamic Law: The Theory of Ijtihād.” The American Journal of Comparative Law 26.2 (1978): 199–212.

    DOI: 10.2307/839668

    A strong overview of the theoretical and philosophical concerns underpinning the interpretive process of ijtihad.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.