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Answer To Modernism: The Errors Regarding the Consensus of Legal Opinion (Ijma) & their Answers, By Maulana Ashraf Ali Thanvi

The Errors Regarding the Consensus of Legal Opinion (Ijma) & their Answers

Translated By: Professor Muhammad Hasan Askari & Karrar Husain
Compiled By: Mufti Umar Anwar Badakhshani

Intimation (6) Regarding ijma’, or the Consensus of Legal Opinion, as one of the sources of the Shariah

A mistake about consensus of opinion (Ijma) and its correction

We are now left with Ijma, or the consensus of opinion on the part of the learned jurists of Islam, and Qiyas, or inference by analogy.

The usual error with regard to consensus is that it is not given a status higher than that of personal opinion, and hence it is not considered to be a valid ground for establishing an injunction as obligatory.

For one, this principle is derived from “sound report”, and in this matter, one has to depend on “report” (namely, the Holy Qur’an and the Hadith). So, when we turn to the authority of “report”, we find the following regulation:- If the Ulema of a particular age come to agree upon a particular issue, their opinion is binding, whether it pertains to beliefs or to actions, and, in the presence of such a consensus, to follow one’s personal opinion is to be misguided. This “report” and the argument derived from it have been discussed in detail in the books on the basic principles of the Shariah.

Just as, when a book of the law is accepted as authoritative, all its articles are equally obligatory; in the way, as the Holy Qur’an and the Hadith enjoy the position of final authority, all the laws laid down in them must be treated as obligatory. And one of these laws is that consensus is a definitive argument. So, this law too must be obligatory, and a denial of this law must amount to an opposition of the divine and the prophetic code itself. This is evident enough.

The rational argument for the authority of consensus of opinion (Ijma)

Had this principle not been based on the sound report, even then the law of our natural reason would have compelled us to admit that in our affairs we prefer the opinion of the majority to individual opinion, and consider the latter to have no weight as against the former. How can consensus which, being the agreement of all opinions, carries still more weight than the majority opinion, be placed on the same level as individual opinion, or be superseded by it?

If we agree against the consensus of opinion (Ijma)?

Here a new objection may be raised to this effect– no doubt, the individual opinion would not be able to hold its ground against consensus, but if we (of this age) come to agree upon something which is totally opposed to the consensus of the old masters, then our opinion can rightfully challenge the consensus. The reply to this objection is that the agreement of every man is not valid in every sphere; the only agreement which can be valid in a particular sphere is that of its experts. So, if we honestly compare ourselves with the early masters in the matter of religious rectitude, we shall find a great decline in our own case, as to knowledge and practice both.

Our standing in relation to them will turn out to be exactly the same as that of amateurs in relation to experts. Thus, our agreement as against theirs would have the same worth as the agreement of amateurs as against that of experts–that is to say, it would be as ineffective. Of course, if there is something about which nothing has been reported from the early masters, in that case, the agreement of the Ulema of our own day too will be trustworthy.

Apart from all these arguments, there is behind this distinction a secret law of nature as God has ordained it. The habitual way of Allah is that selfless and sincere work always receives divine help. While work motivated by personal desire does not. This fact being granted, we must try to understand that if we possess, with regard to a certain matter, the consensus of the early masters—and it has already been established that such consensus enjoys final authority–there is no religious need for us to exercise our personal judgment in face of it. If one still indulges in it unnecessarily, the action cannot but be motivated by personal desire, and hence it cannot receive divine help. On the other hand, if we do not possess such a consensus with regard to a certain matter, then a religious need for the exercise of personal judgment does arise. To do something in order to fulfill a religious need is a sign of selflessness, and selfless work always receives divine help. Hence, such an argument would be trustworthy for having been aided by Allah Himself.

Let us make a necessary clarification at this stage. When we say that if we possess the consensus of the early masters with regard to a certain matter, the agreement of later Ulema cannot be trustworthy as against it, what we have in mind is only that kind of consensus which has been arrived at by the early masters on the basis of their own opinion. Let us add that even such an opinion must have had the sanction of the Holy Qur’an or the Hadith behind it, through no explicit and conclusive statement that might be present in them.

On the other hand, if the consensus rests on the explicit connotation of a certain statement in the Holy Qur’an or the Hadith, then any kind of opposition to this consensus would amount to opposition to this explicit statement in the Holy Qur’an and the Hadith themselves.

Some objections about the consensus of opinion and their answers

One might now ask: supposing that there exists an explicit statement in the Holy Qur’an or the Hadith which contradicts a certain consensus based on another explicit statement, would it be permissible to go against the consensus which is in conformity with the latter? We would reply that even then it is not permissible. And we shall explain why. One explicit statement in the Holy Qur’an or the Hadith has as much value and validity as another. Bur one of them has acquired’ an additional force through conformity with the consensus. Now, to act upon a weak argument when a stronger one is also available is to go against reason as well as Tradition.

We would even add that an argument based on Tradition has already established that it is impossible for a matter which has been decided by consensus to be erroneous. So, if a statement in the Holy Qur’an or the Hadith supporting a consensus is not evident to us, and, on the other hand, a statement is there to contradict it, even then this consensus would be given precedence on the assumption that those who had arrived at this consensus must have had before them some such statement which has not been cited by them. We say so on the following grounds. It is an error to oppose a statement in the Holy Qur’an or in the Hadith, and it is impossible for consensus to be erroneous. Hence it is impossible for this consensus to be opposed to such a statement. Therefore, the consensus must inevitably be in conformity with a statement. And the statement to which it on forms must be given precedence over another statement because the former has been further strengthened by the consensus.

Consequently, even in this case, what has been given precedence over a statement in the Hadith is only another statement, in the Hadith. And the relevant consensus is the sign and indication of the existence of the latter. In the Arabic terminology, it is called Al-Dali-al-inni.

For example, the consensus has forbidden the combining of two consecutive ritual prayers unless one is traveling or has a valid excuse. The Hadith which contradicts it can be found in Tirmidhi. In the same way, the consensus has forbidden the call for prayers (Adhan) at the time of the false down, but a Hadith in Tirmidhiapparently contradicts it.

Posted in Contemporary studies, Ijtihad & Taqlid, Jurisprudence, Various Islamic studies

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