Our Place in Islamic Legal Tradition


Peace on you all,

I wanted to tell you a little bit about the traditional context in which I want us to launch our experiments in Islamic Democracy.

Traditionally, at least in orthodox Sunni Islam, it has been presumed that the proper authorities on Islamic legal interpretation are trained scholars accredited by some governing authority or institution. In Arabic, the process of religious interpretation is called ijtihad. Etymologically, the word derives from the same root of the word jihad, meaning struggle. Literally, ijtihad means to struggle with oneself to derive truth from the traditional sources of Islamic law, the Qu’ran (the literal word of God), and the sunna (recorded sayings of the Prophet Muhammad (p.b.u.h.)). One qualified to perform ijtihad is called a mujtahid. The very rare person indeed is traditionally considered a mujtahid.

The vast majority of followers of Islam are traditionally called muqallids, or those who should practice taqlid, meaning the practice of following an authority figure unquestionably. The muqallid is promised that so long as one blindly followed a qualified scholar, one can act immune from guilt or divine retribution. Under this concept, when one who is not a qualified scholar practices ijtihad to derive religious rules and principles for himself, he or she risks being in grave error. Worse, if one instructs others according to one’s own interpretations, he or she risks spreading mischief throughout the land.

Considering all of this, how dare I now suggest that “democracy” is a way to engage issues of Islamic law and interpretation? A democracy is where all of us, however we might deem ourselves ignorant of the vast tradition that has preceded us, will exercise some voice in how our religion and religious and ethical law should be understood. What will happen to us if we are so bold? I have to admit, part of me is absolutely frightened about taking every uncertain step in this journey.

The following podcast, addressing the Islamic scholars, speaks about my fears. I suspect many of them are shared concerns. But I hope you, the scholars, will at least consider my invitation to join us in our leap into the unknown. Together, I pray, we might learn how to allay each other’s fears.

Click here to listen to “The Scholars in an Islamic Democracy”


Tawfiq Ali

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