Questioning the Basis of Ijma`

We have been told time and again by religious people that it is binding on all Muslims to follow ijma‘ (the consensus of opinion of religious scholars on a certain issue). On the contrary we (i.e. me and the school of thought I am representing) believe that ijma‘ has no role to play in determining the acceptability of an opinion on religious matters.

Our position on the issue is that what the majority of scholars say about the authenticity of ijma‘ has no religious basis whatsoever. Our religion is based on the teachings of the Qur’an and sunnah which have both been transmitted to us through undisputable sources. There has never been an ijma‘, not even on a single matter of religious understanding, except on the fact that Qur’an and sunnah have been transmitted authentically.

How can one prove that all Muslim scholars of the ummah agreed on a certain matter when we don’t even have a reliable research that tells us the correct number of scholars the Muslim ummah has produced? Who is going to define what a scholar is? Even if we were able to define a scholar who would tell whether they were five thousand in all, ten thousand, one million, or what?

Has the process of their production stopped or is still going on? If scholars of the present times don’t count, when then did the genuine Islamic scholarship end? Who would decide that the process has stopped or is still continuing? Even if by some miracle a remarkable research answering all these questions convincingly is done, how would one go about proving that all those thousands or millions of scholars agreed on a certain issue? Has anyone the ability to go back through the time tunnel to meet each one of them to know their opinion? We normally learn about the views of people of the past through what they have written themselves or through what others write about their views. However, most of them may never have written anything on the issue nor anyone else may have written about their views.

What if there is a tiny minority of scholars that disagrees? Going by the existing trend of narrow-minded religious people, if there is a minority opinion, it should be rejected because it goes against ijma‘. The question is, if there is a minority opinion on a certain issue, how could there be an ijma‘ claimed on it? And if the entire population of scholars agrees on an issue, and nobody can disagree on it, what then is the utility of this concept of ijma‘?

The fact of the matter is that ijma‘ is an unnecessary term that has been coined by some Muslims. It serves no purpose except that it confuses people or helps some conservative Muslims in condemning certain religious views as heretical simply because they find them different from what they have been trained to accept. When some religious people don’t find convincing reasons to satisfy their followers that the religious view competing with theirs is incorrect, they use the tool of ijma‘ to influence the ordinary people to convince them that the other view is incorrect and misleading. The end result of this exercise is that instead of concentrating on the issue from the point of view of the arguments of Qur’an and sunnah, people are emotionally blackmailed into accepting a religious view on the basis of ijma‘. This tendency is misleading and condemnable.

Muslims, whether they are scholars or non-scholars, are expected to follow the truth under all circumstances. The truth about the religion of Islam is contained in the Qur’an and sunnah. Anyone who looks for religious understanding from outside these two sources is being unfair in his pursuit of truth and is biased towards the opinion of scholars he likes. This tendency is clearly against the Qur’anic expectation from believers which says this: “O you who have attained faith! Be ever steadfast in upholding justice, bearing witness to the truth for the sake of God, even though it goes against your own selves or your parents or kinsfolk.” (4:135) How can we be fair in forming a religious opinion if we are not even listening to the religious points of view other than those we think belong to our religious group? May Allah Almighty enable us to see the truth as truth and give us the ability to follow it and may He enable us to see the untruth as untruth and give us the ability to stay away from it. Amen.

14 thoughts on “Questioning the Basis of Ijma`

  1. Umair

    They say that the Prophet (pbuh) said something to the effect that the Ummah as a whole can never agree on something that is against Islam. How can we reply to that? I mean, they try to trace the concept of ijma to that saying.

  2. Najam Mahmud

    Allah has made religion very easy to understand and in the Quran there is clear advice given to people to make effort and understand what is being said to them. We need to adopt a simple rule in our lives and that is to follow what is in the Quran and the Sunnah. Apart from these two sources, we don’t need to search more for these sources provide the complete religion.

    Rather then waste time in debates and prove that a particular sect or view is more valid just because of the number of people who subscribe to it, we should simply focus on improving our understanding of Islam and then implementing the changes in our lives that will bring us closer to our creator.

  3. Muhammad Ousama Ghazali

    Assalaamu Alaikum! Dear Dr. Khalid Zaheer Sb. and my co-readers,

    Whenever we say “We, being Muslims” it means that we are proclaiming our connection towards some central point of unity which is main source of our knowledge about the religion, Deen. However, most of the time we are also pushed to declare some other source of our centralization regarding the practices and faiths we follow. Isn’t it way to get into sects when we try to connect ourselves with secondary sources? Why can’t we just be Muslims and claim our association with Deen-e-Islam having only a SINGLE source of knowledge i.e. Muhammad (peace be upon him) who gave us both Quran and Sunnah to follow.

    In my personal opinion, a lifetime would be expensed if we start to understand the Quran and Sunnah today, so why waste time in fighting each other on issues that have no concern with our faith and practices.

    Allah Almighty wants us to lead our lives with ease and He does not want us to make the simple practices and faith difficult to understand for others. Everyone will be held responsible for his/her own actions and will have no choice to associate his/her actions with anyone else who lead him to do so.

    I pray to Allah Almighty to bestow upon us all His blessings and
    “Guide us to the Straight Way, The Way of those on whom You have bestowed Your Grace, not (the way) of those who earned Your Anger (such as the Jews), nor of those who went astray (such as the Christians).” [Al-Fatihah - Ayat 6-7]

  4. Adnan

    First, I really don’t know what really the basis is for Ijma and I would like to hear the other side as well. I usually find it much easier to reject with greater confidence a doubtful view after listening to the arguments that support it i.e. after seeing how they are weak and faulty, if they are.

    But after reading this article, I have two observations to make. First, people who believe in Ijma probably also don’t believe in Ijtehad or at least shouldn’t do so, provided that the definition of Ijma “(the consensus of opinion of religious scholars on a certain issue)” is an accurate one. Take for example the case of Ijtehad of Zakat on animals similar to cow by Muslims who moved to the subcontinent. They were amongst the first of Muslims to arrive at this conclusion as majority at that time probably had not encountered other animals similar to cow. Hence, there was no majority consensus on this at that time. For any Ijtehad, there has to be a first person or a group of people who come to a certain conclusion, and if they happen to believe in Ijma they would probably reject their views on the premises that the majority of scholars had no consensus on that.

    Second, people believing in Ijma don’t believe in the use of mind in understanding the religion, but rather in blindly following the masses. If you are just required to watch and follow the masses, there is no need at all for you to think and ponder on religious issues.

  5. Muhammad

    Well Mr. Zaheer, you are following Mr. Maududi or are just as similar. He presented his ideas and you are doing so too.

    Please don’t make your own religion.

  6. Gulmeena Khan

    Ok, so we’ll read the Quran and follow the sunnah to the best of our abilities. But what about the little things not mentioned in there? For example, all the little incidents about social issues and etiquette. You see we must draw a line between what some call Arabization and others call Islamic etiquette. These things that we have been hearing since childhood are rather difficult to out rightly dismiss, and naturally we’ll look up to the scholars for reinforcement on a subject. Dr Zaheer, you say that consensus of opinion is invalid, and that a person must follow his/her common sense or what ‘clicks’ for that matter. But isn’t this quite a paradox? Because on subjects that are completely compatible with the Quran and sunnah. Doesn’t common sense tell us to follow an opinion that most believe in.

    [Dr. Khalid's response to this comment.]

  7. Abdul Ghani Tak

    I accept that there’s concept of “Ijma” i.e concesus by scholars in Qur’an and Sunnah. How do we decide some issues in a society at a given time? I understand it’s not the exclusive perogative of self proclaimed clerics as they want to believe. What’s best alternative?

  8. Dr Sajid Soofi

    Dr Sahib, I really appreciate your efforts for understanding of real Islam. Muslims can not survive without these efforts. May Allah bless you for this tremendous work.

  9. Rizwan Ali

    A lot of people say a lot of things about Islam, even the great scholars that have not yet come to one single platform, when I look at it it makes me feel very sorry that what we have done with this religion of ours. Once someone ask Rasool Pak (SEWW) I want to be the greatest alim, the answer was, ‘acquire taqwa’. Instead of acquiring taqwa, what people are doing; you can judge by yourself. Without taqwa one can not get the true and right path.

  10. Usman

    Khalid Sahib, A lot of the things you say make sense. At the same time you have posted your opinions as facts. Appears a bit wishy washy as far as I am concerned. Please support your arguements with evidence. Otherwise I am all for leading our lives in an altruistic manner, as good human beings and muslims; which is the thrust of your argument.

  11. Traeh

    Dr. Zaheer:
    In your helpful post, you said

    “Our religion is based on the teachings of the Qur’an and sunnah which have both been transmitted to us through undisputable sources.”

    By “sources” here I guess you mean Muhammad and the generations of Muslims that followed him. I don’t know any other sources “through” which the Qur’an has been “transmitted.” Perhaps you include also the angel Gabriel.

    If you were indicating Muhammad and the later transmitters of the Qur’an, then in what sense do you mean those sources are “undisputable”? You might mean that no one who has full knowledge of the facts and a sound mind would dispute those sources. Do you mean something else? Because clearly countless people around the world dispute all these things, so in the strictest sense of the word, they are disputable.

    But if you meant that no one who knew all the facts would dispute the infallibility of the sources of transmission, then I would ask how you could know that, unless you yourself knew all the facts and were thus in a position to know what is indisputable to one in such a position? I’m sure you do not claim to know all the facts. Therefore I must assume you do not intend to claim that someone who knows all the facts would not want to dispute the sources of which you speak. The world contains an infinity in a grain of sand, as the saying goes. At any moment there are an infinity of facts within facts, all in some mode of transformation. No mortal man can know them all. And even God, according to some conceptions of God, is neither omniscient nor omnipotent. I’m thinking of the process philosophers whose leader was Alfred North Whitehead, the great mathematician. Charles Hartshorne was an American process philosopher who held that taking human freedom seriously meant accepting that God is not omnipotent. If men are really free, then their actions are not determined by God. God would in that case not be omnipotent. Nor, for Hartshorne, is God omniscient, because if human beings really do possess free will, God cannot know or determine in advance what human beings will do. If God knew in advance, then the human decision-making process would be an illusion. Human beings would not really be “deciding” between possible courses of action. Rather some entirely pre-determined process would be unfolding in their minds, and they would have merely the illusion that life at every moment is a crossroads that can lead to a different outcome than one had been aiming at previously.

    But I don’t wish to push these discussions of theology and freedom. I merely mention them since many people assume without question that God must be omnipotent. Why do they assume that? Because that is how most people think of God. But many people thinking something doesn’t by any means make it true.

    There is no need to answer the above questions of course. I am just thinking outloud and might think differently tomorrow.

    Thanks for your thoughtful blog.

    [Dr. Khalid’s response to this comment.]

  12. Zaeem

    Asalamu alaikum wa rahmatuAllaah wa barakatuh

    Well, very useful material that was provided by brother Khalid Zaheer. The Qur’anic verses give the dalail in favor of what you have mentioned. However, there is a verse in Qur’an:

    O you who believe! Obey Allaah and obey the Messenger (Muhammad), and those of you (Muslims) who are in authority. (And) if you differ in anything amongst yourselves, refer it to Allaah and His Messenger (peace be upon him), if you believe in Allaah and in the Last Day. That is better and more suitable for final determination. (Al-Qur’an 4:59)

    Some of the brothers actually think this verse when says ‘who are in authority’ so it means those of imaams or the ‘ijmah’ of those Imaams. Now would you like to explain this, with some Qur’anic and ahadeeth references for the readers and for my own knowledge that in your opinion what does the ‘authority’ includes?

    At comment no 6:

    Well Brother, what you just mentioned was nothing but a statement. And for every statement we need dalil. You can agree or disagree with anyone. However, in each case one must have some dalail based on Qur’an and Sunnah. So if you think someone is making his own deen, then talk with daleel, In’sha Allaah i am sure your voice would be heard then.

    Wa billaahi tawfiq.

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