What do scholars mean when they say that there is room for juristic reasoning (ijtihad
) in matters of creed?
Many people resist hearing the words "juristic reasoning" and "creed" mentioned in the same breath. This is because, historically, most of the divisive conflicts that have divided Muslim society relate to matters of belief. This has led to a general negativity regarding variant opinions in matters pertaining to Islamic beliefs. The source of this negativity is a desire to safeguard Islamic beliefs from corruption.
This means that before we can explore the question of how these two concepts should relate to each other, we must examine the historical roots behind the terms "juristic reasoning" and "creed", and how those terms were developed and defined.
During the Prophet's lifetime – and likewise during the era of the Companions and Successors – the term "creed" did not have the terminological denotation that it was later to develop. They regarded all of Islamic teachings as a single, comprehensive, body of teachings. They merely distinguished between those matters that were clear and certain on the one hand, and other matters that were open to various opinions. Matters that are established with certainty are not open for dispute. As for matters open for interpretation, these are matters, as the Prophet said, whereby if a qualified person: " exercises his judgment (ijtihad
) and gets it right, then he has a double reward, and if he exercises his judgment and gets it wrong, he gars a single reward."
In such matters, there is a reward for the sincere exercise of one's juristic reasoning, even if one arrives at the wrong conclusion.
Afterwards, conflicts and disagreements beset Muslim society, and as a result there emerged a sect which disrupted the simple approach to faith that had existed from the Prophet's time. This sect was the Mu`tazilah. They introduced the distinctive terminological meaning for "creed" which set it apart from other Islamic teachings related to worship and law. The Mu`tazilah stressed matters of creed to the neglect of other aspects of Islam's teachings. This was due to the Muatazilah's love for speculative scholasticism and abstract theorization.
The Ash`arite theologians inherited from the Mu`tazilah this division of Islam int"creed" and "law". In the beginning, the Ash`arites and Hanbalis were together in their opposition to the Mu`tazilah, and most of this opposition was in matters of creed. Then,when the Ash`arites and Hanbalis parted company, it was again in issues of creed.
Therefore, we have three historically prominent groups of Muslims who had serious disagreements with each other. The gravity of the conflict between them gave their issues of contention a hue of sacredness for their respective adherents. In other words, each faction regarded these issues as being beyond question.
Each faction behaved like this. If a Maturidi theologian – belonging to yet another theological school – ever dared to say that the Ash`arites had a valid point in a matter of creed in which the Maturidi school differed, that scholar would never be able to secure his daily bread thereafter as a Maturidi theologian!
This is how the idea evolved that juristic discretion has no room in matters of creed. We find, when we look for a practical and methodologically sound basis for making the distinction between matters open for discussion and matters that are unquestionable, we do not find them. Rather, we find that the forbidden topics are those which evolved from the factional disputes of the past.
We never see the Compaions, Successors, and the leading scholars from among the Pious Predecessors (Salaf
) criticizing someone who disagrees on an issue simply by stating that the issue at hand is one of "creed", so disagreement is not allowed. Rather, they would criticize someone for disputing a matter that was an unambiguous and essential Islamic teaching, regardless of whether that matter was one of "creed", one of "law" or one of "ethics". Conversely, we would see them extremely tolerating of scholarly disagreement in all sorts of questions, even those which are categorized as questions of "creed". One of these questions is whether the Prophet (peace be upon him), during his worldly life, saw Allah. Another is whether a deceased person suffers on account of those who wail over his grave. Yet another is the question of whether the Hellfire is eternal. In all cases, their intentions were to glorify Allah and adhere to a correct understanding of the sacred texts.
Ibn Taymiyah rejected the division of Islamic teachings into matters of "creed" and matters of "law", whereby all the matters that are counted as "creed" become canonical matters above dispute while those of "law" remain open for discussion. He said [Majmû` al-Fatâwâ (19/207)]:
The division of religious issues into matters of "creed" and matters of "law" is the idea of some innovators from among the scholastic theologians, the Mu`tailah, and the Jahmiyyah. The idea was then passed on to those who were investigating matters of legal jurisprudence without those jurists fully appreciating its meaning and its implications.
The distinction between "creed" and "law" is something that was introduced later into Islamic discourse. It is neither established by the Qur'an, nor by the Sunnah, nor by consensus. It was never invoked by the Pious Predecessors or by the early scholars. Moreover, reason dictates that the idea is patently false. Those who distinguish between what they regard as matters of creed and what they regard as matters of law have no clear standard to determine what goes into each category. The few criteria that they suggest are invalid.
Ibn Taymiyah writes elsewhere [Majmû` al-Fatâwâ
None of the Pious Predecessors and early scholars distinguish between matters of creed and matters of law. Indeed, dividing the religion into these two categories was something unknown to the Companions and Successors. None of them ever claimed that a scholar who expends his every effort seeking the truth about a question will be sinful for doing so, regardless of whether the question is a matter of creed or one of law. The Mu`tazilah first invoked this distinction and from them the idea was passed on to the discipline of Islamic jurisprudence.
The correct approach, which is free from inconsistency, is that Islam includes teachings which we can be absolutely sure of, as well as those which are open to interpretation. In both cases, we have matters of creed and matters of law. Certain tenets of faith are established by unequivocal textual evidence, as well as certain matters of law. For instance, the obligatory nature of the five daily prayers is a matter of law, but it is undoubtedly a pillar of Islam. These are the essential teachings – whether they be regarding tenets of faith or religious practice – and they are those which are known by necessity to be Islamic teachings.
Conversely, there are questions of creed, as well as questions of law, which do not have definitive evidence to resolve them. As a result, these questions are open to differences of interpretation. In such matters, scholars can exercise their best judgment.
And Allah knows best.