Sharia regulations (aḥkām al-sharīʿa) are value-based directives revealed by God to govern and regulate all aspects of human life. Since adherence to them leads mankind to benefit and protects them from detriment, Muslims are vested with the responsibility to ensure that their conduct is in accordance with the dictates of Sharia. This raises the question; how do we know what the Sharia regulations are? According to traditional Twelver Shia Muslim jurists, knowledge of Sharia regulations can be deduced through the process of ijtihād by a person who is qualified in Islamic jurisprudence and legal theory, commonly known as a mujtahid or marjaʿ. Those unable to deduce regulations independently must imitate – or do taqlīd – of a person who performs ijtihād.
Ijtihād refers to the juristic process undertaken by a mujtahid whose task is to arrive at an understanding of Sharia regulations as intended by God. These regulations can only be deduced from evidence (dalīl) that is authoritative (ḥujja). By acting on authoritative evidence, amujtahid is excused from error (muʿadhdhiriyya) and protected from accountability (munajjiziyya) before God. Even if an inaccurate deduction is made, and the regulation does not correspond to that which is intended by God, the error is forgiven. On the other hand, if the erroneous deduction is based on evidence which is not authoritative, the mujtahid is held accountable. Thus, the legitimacy of ijtihād is based entirely on the utilisation of authoritative evidence (dalīl al-ḥujja) to deduce Sharia regulations.
WHAT IS AN AUTHORITATIVE EVIDENCE (DALῙL AL-ḤUJJA)?
An authoritative evidence, which can be used to deduce a Sharia regulation, is one which generates certainty (qaṭʿ) in itself. An evidence that does not generate certainty in itself, can still be utilised by a mujtahid provided that it is sanctioned by God (through other certainty bearing evidence). In light of this, Shia mujtahids generally uphold a fourfold categorisation of evidence from which they deduce Sharia regulations. These include the textual sources of the Quran and Sunna (traditions of the Prophet and the Imams), and the non-textual sources of consensus (ijmāʿ) and reason (ʿaql).
However, since non-textual sources can only be utilised in cases where they generate certainty, which rarely occurs, mujtahids will typically give preference to textual sources over non textual sources in their deduction of Sharia regulations. Despite this preference, mujtahids readily admit that their interpretation of the textual sources of the Quran and Sunna may be erroneous and therefore their deductions may contradict the regulations intended by God.
In order for them not to be held accountable for any error, traditional Twelver legists go to great lengths to prove the authoritativeness of the hermeneutical principle of apparent meaning (aṣālat al-ẓuhūr). In line with this principle, the most prudential method of interpretation is to act in accordance with the apparent meaning of textual sources. This effectively leads mujtahids to interpret the Quran and sunna in a literal manner when deducing Sharia regulations.
WHY IS THERE IS A NEED FOR CONTINUOUS IJTIHĀDAND WHAT ARE THE LIMITATIONS OF THE TRADITIONAL MODEL?
For the Twelver Shias, the door of ijtihād has never been closed. Shia jurisprudence has always recognised the importance of continuous ijtihād to provide appropriate regulations in response to emerging challenges faced by Muslim communities.
However, not all questions that arise can be responded to by the traditional method of ijtihād, as it is unable to consult a plethora of independent sources and exegetical hermeneutical principles. Due to the requirement of certainty, traditional ijtihād overly relies on the literal apparent reading of the textual sources of law without taking into account the context in which they were revealed.
In addition, it is also not possible for an individual mujtahid to fully understand and keep up with the subject matter of the various issues faced by present day Muslim societies due to the incessant developments in different fields and sciences. Accordingly, it is rather difficult –if not impossible- for an individual mujtahid to arrive at an accurate appreciation of the subject matter and thus deduce a Sharia regulation pertaining to it.
WHAT IS THE COLLECTIVE MODEL OF IJTIHĀD?
The collective model of ijtihād upholds the Shia theological understanding that Sharia regulations are value based and lead mankind towards benefit and perfection. It also maintains the rational necessity of keeping the door of ijtihād open, whereby accurate answers are continually sought in response to new questions raised by Muslim communities.
According to the collective model of ijtihād the conclusions deduced by a body of mujtahids in consultation with subject matter experts provide a more accurate understanding of Sharia regulations than the endeavours of an individual mujtahid. Due to the complexities and vast scope of questions that arise, involvement of subject matter experts is integral for explaining the particularities of a given topic to the body of mujtahids. With a proper appreciation of the subject matter, mujtahids are able to deliberate and deduce Sharia regulations. The justification for the collective model of ijtihād can be rooted in the statement of Imam Mohammad al-Baqir (a.s), “Indeed the life of knowledge is sustained through constant discussion and critique.”
In addition, to the inclusion of subject matter experts, the collective model of ijtihād is also able to consult a plethora of independent sources and exegetical hermeneutical principles. Human evolution and progress in different fields means that there is access to a wide range of knowledge. Within the collective model of ijtihād, mujtahids take recourse to any, and all, evidence that can potentially give knowledge of the Sharia, including the contextual reading of textual sources.
As opposed to the traditional method of ijtihād, which emphasises the juristic utility of evidences that generate certainty in the deduction of Sharia regulations, the collective model is more concerned with deducing regulations with greater accuracy. The insistence on using certainty generating evidence does not ensure that the regulation deduced is free from error, rather it offers protection to a mujtahid from liability in front of God should he make an erroneous deduction. However, the collective model of ijtihād holds that arriving at an accurate appreciation of Sharia regulation is of greater importance than ensuring protection from liability and therefore, it does not have a stringent requirement of only accepting evidence that generates certainty.
WHO ARE THE MEMBERS OF ICCI?
The ICCI brings together a core team of mujtahids who possess the ability to conduct ijtihād by traditional standards. The team of mujtahids utilise different analytical perspectives in the process of deducing Sharia regulations. In addition, the ICCI includes expert members in varying different fields of knowledge including social sciences, medicine, business and commerce. The involvement of expert members allows the group of mujtahids to gain further insight into challenges faced by Muslims, enabling them to arrive a more accurate appreciation of the regulation.
HOW DOES THE ICCI FUNCTION?
After deliberating on a selected issue, the ICCI endeavours to arrive at a consensus to what Sharia regulations pertain to it. If a consensus is successfully achieved by the body of mujtahids, it is published on the ICCI website with in-depth rationale and justification.
Issues for which a consensus is not successfully achieved lead to the production of a minority and majority opinion that are published on the ICCI website with full rationale.
Scholars may choose to publish their research papers on their respective web-pages to demonstrate how they arrived at a specific conclusion on a given issue.
CAN OPINIONS OF THE ICCI BE IMITATED?
Imitation, or taqlīd, technically refers to ‘placing the yoke of responsibility on the neck of another, provided that the other offers to bear the yoke of responsibility.’ Every Muslim is responsible for ensuring that his/her conduct in is accordance with the Sharia. Reason dictates that anyone who lacks the ability to independently deduce Sharia regulations imitate a qualified person, or a collective body of people, who have the competency to conduct ijtihād. As a result, the competent collective body is burdened with the responsibility of accurately arriving at the knowledge of Sharia regulations and its individual members take full accountability in case of an erroneous judgement.
Therefore, as with the traditional system of taqlīd the onus of responsibility is voluntarily taken by the collective body. However, in contrast to the traditional understanding, it requires individuals to acquaint themselves with the rationale and justifications provided by the collective body of mujtahids on any of its given opinions. The reason for this is because, as explained above, taqlīd is a rational necessity, and thus if a person was to rationally or intuitively disagree with the rationale behind the opinion of a competent person or a competent collective body, then they are at the liberty of consulting another opinion. This acquaintance with the underlying justifications allows individuals to remove their incompetency and move to a greater level of understanding of Sharia regulations, which may effectively assist them in the attainment of benefit and perfection.