The Question of Prophet Muhammad's Ijtihad (Judgement)


Thursday, March 11, 2010

The Question of Prophet Muhammad's Ijtihad (Judgement)

The life style of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) or the way he lived in accordance to God’s revelation, the Quran, can in general be called the sunnah. It might also be said that this sunnah of the Prophet, who was the last of the prophets and best example for all humanity, is both a practical application of the Quran in a particular historical setting and a universal and meta-historical interpretation of it. For his sunnah is rich enough to contain general principles and examples for human beings in all times and places, in spite of historical, geographical, human, cultural, economic and social differences. Therefore, since the early years of Islam to this day, Muslims in every corner of the world have seen the sirah (biography) and sunnah of Prophet Muhammad as a paradigm to apply in all matters that concern them and have tried to comply with his orders and suggestions without objection.

However, some very marginal views, which first emerged as early as shortly after his death, try to disregard the sunnah of the Prophet as an essential source of Islam by casting some doubts. In the classical period, some marginal groups, the zandaqa (heretics) and a group within the Rafidis (an extremist Shia group) presented these anti-sunnah views. Today, these views are voiced by some modernist intellectuals greatly influenced by Western mentality who live in the West, some Muslim countries, or in the Indian sub-continent first emerging as groups called Ahl al-Quran.  They then gained supporters in some other Muslim regions and took as their essential assumption that the Quran is enough for everything. The emergence and activities of such groups and intellectuals has led to the spread of these still marginal views in Islam.

One of the basic claims that these groups put forward in order to support these views is the following: Until now, the personality of Prophet Muhammad has not been analyzed and discussed adequately by Islamic scholars. The reason for this is Muslims have accepted him as the Messenger of Allah in every aspect seeing everything he did as a product of his being a prophet. For them, the Prophet could not do anything without the guidance of the divine revelation, so his every behavior and attitude had to be approved of by Angel Gabriel. In other words, Prophet Muhammad in every aspect had a prophetic personality with no room for a ‘human identity’.

Another idea that underlies the modernist approach to the prophetic sunnah is the claim that the sunnah was essentially historically bound. According to this view, Prophet Muhammad always considered the needs and conditions of his own time when making his decisions, ruling over a case, or presenting a solution to social problems. If we had lived in his time, his rulings and the sunnah would be binding on us too. However, we live under very different conditions; therefore they say following the sunnah of the Prophet is not (or should not be) obligatory for Muslims today.

On the other hand, taking an opposite stance to the above-mentioned view, some of the scholars of Islam today tend to take the sunnah almost in its entirety as solely the product of Quranic revelation. According to this view, which is also marginal, the sunnah of the Prophet should be considered at the same level as the Quran in terms of both its form and content.

It is important to note that one of the factors leading to the emergence of the first of these two extreme (and marginal) views was the fact that Prophet Muhammad made some decisions based solely on his own judgment (ijtihad), and some of these decisions were soon corrected through the later revealed verses of the Quran. To the modernist, this factor plays a very important role in this issue of being “historically bound”.

However, despite this fact, it is not warranted to argue that Muslims have ignored the human side of Prophet Muhammad seeing him purely as a messenger with no will, isolated his human features and acting only through directives Quranic revelation. The fact that Muslim scholars, particularly the scholars of the Usul al-Fiqh (the Methodology of Islamic Jurisprudence), have extensively discussed the question of the Prophet’s ijtihad (making a legal decision by independent interpretation) and within this framework, classified the decisions he made on the basis of his own judgment and then evaluated these decisions in terms of their binding effects or their juridical value.  All this clearly shows that Islamic scholars have not seen him as a prophet whose entire actions are determined strictly by divine revelation completely isolated human features, but rather, they have tended to believe Prophet Muhammad had some practices that were rooted solely in his human nature, and these practices and decisions can be a matter of discussion.

One of the principal aims of this essay on “The Question of Prophet Muhammad’s Ijtihad” is to discuss the issue of the “value” of the sunnah in terms of its universality and historicity and to analyze the authenticity of the claims that have been put forward by different groups about the way Muslims view the personality of the Prophet.

Briefly stated, we are of the opinion that Prophet Muhammad was a human being who acted in adherence to Allah’s revelation.

The human aspect of the Prophet becomes most apparent in his decisions and practices based on his own judgment. Prophet Muhammad himself often remarked that in matters not involved in the realm of purely religious convictions and about which there was no divine revelation he was like any other human being; therefore, he could (and did) make mistakes like everyone else among his companions.



Etymologically, “ijtihad” is a derivative of the word “jahad”, which means to endeavor, strive and exert. As a technical term, “ijtihad” is a judgment on a legal or theological question based with one’s every effort and energy on the text in the Quran or sunnah. Contrary to what many think, ijtihad is a painstaking work based initially on the Quran and hadith (sayings of the Prophet). It is considered one of the sources of Islamic Shari'ah (law).



Islamic scholars have mostly agreed that the Prophet might have made some decisions based solely on his own judgment in matters of technical, i.e. administrative, political and economic affairs or in matters that belonged entirely to worldly affairs. They disagree more on whether or not he had the authority over purely religious matters such as faith, prayers and rituals. According to the majority view, Prophet Muhammad did have the ijtihad authority in matters about which there was no divine revelation, regardless of which domain they belonged to.

We can classify examples of the Prophet’s ijtihads in terms of their essential characteristics as follows:

  • Those that pertain to worship and rituals
  • Those that concern judicial matters
  • Those that are related to matters of war
  • Those that pertain to worldly affairs

Worship (Rituals)

Prophet Muhammad sometimes made decisions based on his ijtihad on matters of prayers and worship. One of the best-known examples of this is the matter of the adhan (call to prayer and one of the most important signs of Islam). The Prophet made a decision  that this call should be made to specify the exact times of prayer preventing the damage to people’s worldly interests should they attend a prayer too early as well as avoiding the loss of the other worldly gains in being late to the prayer.

Judicial Matters

Prophet Muhammad himself stated that in matters that pertained to judgments he had made decisions based on his ijtihad taking into consideration the defenses of the two parties and the evidence presented to him for and against a given case. A hadith on this point particularly emphasizes his human side:

“I am only a human being. When a case is presented to me, I might rule in favor of the party who presents his case in a better way, wrongly leading me to think that he is right. In this case, if I gave someone something that in fact belongs to his brother rather than himself, he should not accept it. For the thing that I gave him is nothing but a piece of fire” (Al-Bukhari, “Mazalim” 16, “Ahkam” 29, 31; Muslim, “Aqdiya” 5, 6).

Emphasizing the human side of the Prophet, this hadith clearly indicates that Prophet Muhammad was no different any other human being in resolving problems judicially. This is because the Prophet could not access the knowledge in the realm of the unknown (ghaib) unless Allah wanted him to; therefore he had to make decisions based on the apparent and circumstantial evidence presented to him.

Matters of War

There are many examples of how Prophet Muhammad used to make a decision on the basis of his ijtihad after consulting with his companions and taking existing conditions into account on matters and strategies of war. An example of such ijtihad is the fact that the Prophet accepted the offer of the companion Sa’d ibn Mu’az to command the army in the Battle of Badr.

Worldly Affairs

It is also a historical fact that time to time Prophet Muhammad d his own opinions based on his own experience and judgment on some worldly affairs and that he even made a mistake in some of his ijtihads. The best example of this is the inoculation of date palms in Medina. According to a report when the Prophet went to Medina, he saw that in order to have a better harvest the residents fertilized the date palms by conjoining male and female pollens. He then said that in his opinion this would not work; upon hearing this, the residents of Medina gave up the practice. However, that year the produce turned out to be less than in earlier years. Then the Prophet said that although they should follow him strictly when he made a decision on matters of faith and religion, he was like any one of them when it came to worldly affairs, making decisions based on his own judgment, and added, “You know your worldly affairs better than I do, and I know your religious matters better than you do” (Muslim “Fadail” 139 – 141).

In summary, Prophet Muhammad was a prophet who acted first and foremost under the guidance of divine revelation. Despite this, it is also true that there are some verses in the Quran that emphasize his human features as well as  those indicating  he might make mistakes on some issues.  In addition, he made decisions based on his own judgment and was wrong (at least was not able to choose the better option) in some of these decisions.  As such, it is clear that not all of his sayings and practices were a product of divine revelation. Islamic scholars and jurists have discussed this matter extensively, particularly in books on the Methodology of Islamic jurisprudence. The majority of the ulema (religious scholars) have argued with sound evidence that Prophet Muhammad, like any other Muslim scholar, had the authority of ijtihad and occasionally he actually used it within the limits of his human capacity.

Moreover, as a prophet who was compelled by divine revelation, the Prophet was mostly right in his ijtihad based decisions. Although few, in such cases where he was mistaken, he was often warned by divine revelation and quickly corrected by Allah the Almighty. On the other hand, it is not possible to argue that all the mistakes the Prophet made regarding the purely worldly affairs were corrected by divine revelation, or that such corrections were even necessary. In other words, Allah might not have corrected those related to purely worldly affairs based on expertise and experience like medicine, agriculture and technology. However, this does not affect his status as the Messenger of Allah.


عن أبي هُرَيْرَةَ ـ رضى الله عنه قَالَ:
قَبَّلَ رَسُولُ اللَّهِ صلى الله عليه وسلم الْحَسَنَ بْنَ عَلِيٍّ وَعِنْدَهُ الأَقْرَعُ بْنُ حَابِسٍ التَّمِيمِيُّ جَالِسًا‏.‏ فَقَالَ الأَقْرَعُ إِنَّ لِي عَشَرَةً مِنَ الْوَلَدِ مَا قَبَّلْتُ مِنْهُمْ أَحَدًا‏.‏ فَنَظَرَ إِلَيْهِ رَسُولُ اللَّهِ صلى الله عليه وسلم ثُمَّ قَالَ ‏"‏ مَنْ لاَ يَرْحَمُ لاَ يُرْحَمُ ‏"‏‏
God's Messenger kissed Al-Hasan bin Ali (his grandchild) while Al-Aqra' bin Habis At-Tamim was sitting beside him. Al-Aqra said, "I have ten children and I have never kissed anyone of them", God's Messenger cast a look at him and said, "Whoever is not merciful to others will not be treated mercifully." (Bukhari, Good Manners and Form (Al-Adab), 18)

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