EJTEHĀD in Shiʿism Ejtehād is an Arabic verbal noun having the literal sense of exerting effort. Both ejtehād and its derivatives, including the active participle mojtahed, are used in Islamic literature in several distinct senses. Although as a technical legal term it has been variously defined, according to what is perhaps the most illuminating definition common to Sunni and Shiʿite writers, ejtehād is the “expending of one’s utmost effort in the inquiry into legal questions admitting of only probable answers” (masāʾel ẓannīya; ʿAllāma Ḥellī, p. 51). The legitimacy of ejtehād as thus defined, its appropriate scope, and the correct evaluation of its results have long been the objects of extensive discussion among both Sunni and Shiʿite scholars.

The debate over the legitimacy of ejtehād has been particularly protracted among Twelver Shiʿites and goes back to the earliest Twelver Shiʿite legal theorists influenced by Muʿtazilite theology, i.e., the Oṣūlīs (Šahrestānī, I, pp. 165, 172), who were active during the Lesser Occultation (ḡayba ṣoḡrā) of the Twelfth Imam and shortly thereafter, a period which also saw intensive efforts in the collecting of Hadith on the part of the then numerically dominant traditionists (Aḵbārīya, q.v.) such as Abū Jaʿfar Moḥammad Kolaynī (d. 329/941) and Ebn Bābawayh (d. 381/991, qqv; Faḵr-al-Dīn Rāzī, IV, p. 384). Among legal theorists there were those such as Ebn Qeba Rāzī (d. before 319/931, q.v.), known for his appeal to reason in rejecting traditions from the Prophet and the Imams that were not transmitted widely enough to ensure more than their probable authenticity, the so-called aḵbār al-āḥād (sing. ḵabar al-wāḥed; Anṣārī, I, p. 69; Modarressi, 1993, pp. 127-30). The theorists of Ebn Qeba’s persuasion denied ejtehād any role in Twelver jurisprudence (Šarīf Mortażā, Rasāʾel I, p. 211). At the other extreme was Ebn Jonayd (d. 381/991), who, in urging the compatibility of ejtehād with Shiʿite teaching, went so far as to use analogical reasoning (qīās; Najāšī, I, pp. 307-10), reliance on which was condemned in numerous traditions from the Imams (e.g., Barqī, pp. 209-15; Ḥorr ʿĀmelī, XVIII, pp. 20-41), although the practice of qīās is already attributed to such early jurists as Yūnes b. ʿAbd-al-Raḥmān (d. 206/821) and Fażl b. Šāḏān (q.v.; d. 260/874; Šarīf Mortażā, Rasāʾel III, p. 311; Modarressi, An Introduction, pp. 28-31). The division of the Twelver Shiʿite legal theorists over the legitimacy of ejtehād mirrors a similar division among the Muʿtazilites (Ebn Qeba in Modarressi, Crisis and Consolidation, p. 197, tr. p. 238), the Twelvers who rejected ejtehād aligning themselves with such Baghdadi Muʿtazilites as Jaʿfar b. Mobaššer (d. 234/849) and Jaʿfar b. Ḥarb (d. 236/850; Ḵayyāṭ, p. 63, tr., p. 74 ; Šarīf Mortażā, Rasāʾel I, p. 27).

According to the Abu’l-Ḥasan Ašʿarī (d. 324/936, p. 53) the Imamis of his day were unanimous in their rejection of ejtehād, and this remained the dominant teaching among the Oṣūlīs in the following centuries. For them the superiority of Shiʿism lay precisely in that it could offer a legal system based on certainty as against the welter of conflicting rules issuing from the Sunni mojtaheds, in justification of which both Muʿtazilite and Ashʿarite theologians came to embrace the doctrine of “infallibilism” (taṣwīb), according to which there was no transcendent rule beyond the opinions of the qualified mojtaheds. In opposition to the alleged infallibility of ejtehād, the Shiʿite theorists insisted that there was only one correct answer for every possible legal question, the doctrine known as “fallibilism” (taḵṭeʾa; e.g., Karājekī [d. 449/1057], II, p. 218). In this way they claimed to preserve intact the infallible teachings of the Imams, a claim that would have been fatally compromised by the acceptance of aḵbār al-āḥād as sources of law (Ḵayyāṭ, p. 99, tr. p. 124 ).

While Shiʿites vigorously polemicized against the ejtehād, and particularly the qīās, of the Sunnis, among themselves the focal point of the debate on ejtehād was and long remained the status of the traditions, the unsoundness of qīās not being in doubt. Thus both Shaikh Mofīd (d. 413/1022; “al-Masāʾel al-sarawīya,” with al-Masāʾel al-jārūdīya, pp. 56-57) and his student Šarīf Mortażā (d. 436/1044; pp. 78, 83), condemned Ebn Jonayd as much for his reliance on aḵbār al-āḥād as on qīās, and Šarīf Mortażā was unsparing in his disdain for the uncritical Shiʿite collectors of traditions. Their student Abū Jaʿfar Ṭūsī (d. 460/1067), however, in Šarīf Mortażā’s lifetime and in direct response to the latter’s views, argued that the consensus (ejmāʿ) of the Shiʿites supported reliance on Shiʿite aḵbār al-āḥād, although not on aḵbār al-āḥād in general (ʿOddat al-oṣūl, pp. 51-58; cf. idem, Tebyān IX, pp. 343-44 on Koran 49:6). While thus admitting probability into the law, Ṭūsī nonetheless denied that he was recognizing the legitimacy of ejtehād, since for him ejtehād bore the sense of a loose form of legal reasoning on a level with qīās. The apparent inconsistencies introduced into the law by the recognition of aḵbār al-āḥād could, he argued, be so dealt with as to avoid infallibilism (ʿOddat al-oṣūl, pp. 291-92).

Despite Ṭūsī’s great influence on succeeding jurists, Twelver Shiʿite legal theorists continued to adhere to Šarīf Mortażā’s rejection of ejtehād in all forms, including reliance on aḵbār al-āḥād (Moḥaqqeq Ḥellī, Moʿtabar, p. 6; Fāżel Tūnī, d. 1071/1660, p. 158). This was the position, for example, of Ebn Barrāj (d. 481/1088), Fāżel Ṭabresī (d. 548/1153; IX, p. 169 on Koran 49:6), Ebn Zohra (d. 585/1189; pp. 475-77), and Ebn Edrīs (d. 598/1202; I, p. 47).

Rather abruptly, an acknowledgment of the inevitability of ejtehād appears with several writers. Rażī-al-Dīn b. Ṭāwūs (d. 664/1266; q.v.) insisted that the Shiʿite jurists, including Šarīf Mortażā, had been relying on aḵbār al-āḥād all along (Anṣārī, I, pp. 220-21; cf. Tostarī, VIII, p. 45), while the four fold classification of such traditions that became standard among Twelver jurists is attributed to his brother Jamāl-al-Dīn b. Ṭāwūs (d. 673/1274; q.v.; Ḥasan b. Zayn-al-Dīn, I, p. 13). The recognition of the validity of ejtehād already found in the writings of Moḥaqqeq Ḥellī (d. 676/1277; p. 118 )and Mayṯam Baḥrānī (d. 699/1300; p. 137) was more fully elaborated in the writings of ʿAllāma Ḥellī (d. 726/1325), who, nevertheless, continued in his polemical writings to present Twelver Shiʿite law as excluding ejtehād (Ebn Taymīya, I, p. 231; this inconsistency cannot be explained by the chronology of Ḥellī’s works as suggested by Amir Arjomand, pp. 304-05, n. 82; see Schmidtke, pp. 52-53, 66-67). ʿAllāma Ḥellī and his followers openly based their exposition of ejtehād on the current Sunni works of legal theory, especially the influential Moḵtaṣar al-montahā of the Malikite jurist Ebn Ḥājeb (d. 646/1248). Their legal theory recognized aḵbār al-āḥād, although on a different basis than Ṭūsī had, and acknowledged the ejtehād involved in the interpretation and harmonization of legal sources, while continuing to exclude qīās in most of its forms.

The influence of this new teaching in favor of ejtehād appears to have grown unchecked until the appearance of Moḥammad-Amīn Estarābādī’s (d. 1033/1623) al-Fawāʾed al-madanīya. Estarābādī had devoted years of study to Sunni legal theory, but came to see himself as called upon to revive the path of the Aḵbārīs. He argued that the received Shiʿite traditions, by virtue of their attendant circumstances (qarāʾen), provided moral certainty (ʿelm ʿādī), which completely obviated the need for ejtehād. Failure to recognize the incompatibility of Shiʿism as preserved in the traditions with probabilistic inferences had led some Shiʿites, most notably ʿAllama Ḥellī, to borrow the practice of ejtehād from the Sunnis. A position similar to that of the Akhbarism of Estarābādī was later vigorously defended by the Šayḵī Moḥammad-Karīm Khan Kermānī (d. 1288/1871). The classic defense of ejtehād against the aḵbārī challenge, Resālat al-ejtehād wa’l-aḵbār of Waḥīd Behbahānī (d. 1207/1792), stressed the general unavailability of certainty throughout the law in the wake of the ḡayba. There was no alternative but recourse to probability on the part of those qualified to deal in such matters, i.e. the mojtaheds.

Since the 19th century the mojtaheds have been divided into two groups on the basis of how they legitimize ejtehād, it being agreed that the legitimacy of resorting to probability requires proof in the face of the many Koranic verses and traditions insisting that action must rest on knowledge (cf. Kermānī, “Resālat al-ḥojja,” pp. 269-71). One group, following Behbahānī, see recourse to probability as necessitated by the general “closing off of the gate of knowledge"(ensedād bāb al-ʿelm), that is, of avenues to certainty earlier available. This closing off calls for reliance on probability at large (moṭlaq al-ẓann, ẓann-e moṭlaq) to keep the legal system from breaking down. According to one interpretation of this argument, reliance on probability is dictated by reason (ḥokūma); according to another interpretation (kašf), what reason dictates in this case coincides with the will of the Lawgiver. Rather far-reaching implications from the argument from closing off were drawn by Waḥīd Behbahānī’s student Abu’l-Qāsem Qomī (d. 1231/1816) in his Qawānīn al-oṣūl, including the potentially full standing of deceased mojtaheds as sources of guidance. Since his time most mojtaheds have favored the opposing view that certainty is available as to the specific sorts of probability that may be relied upon (ẓann-e ḵāṣṣ). This is the doctrine known as enfetāḥ, the openness of the avenues of knowledge and of those types of probability that are known to be valid (al-ʿelm wa’l-ʿelmī).The plausibility of enfetāḥ rests particularly on the validity of aḵbār al-āḥād, which its proponents (enfetāḥī) justify on the basis of Koranic verses and traditions and most confidently on the ground of the universal reliance of rational persons in their everyday affairs on information transmitted by similar reports (ṭarīqat al-ʿoqalāʾ), a practice which, it is argued, must have been known to and approved of by the Lawgiver (Anṣārī, I, pp. 230-01). The extensive corpus of aḵbār al-āḥād precludes the need to resort to probability at large across the legal system (Ḥāʾerī, II, p. 65). Even for the adherents of enfetāḥ in general, however, there may be certain delimited areas, such as the determination of the reliability of Hadith transmitters, where the absence of specific guidelines calls for the application of a small-scale argument from closing off (ensedād ṣāḡīr) in order to validate reliance on probability at large (Sabzavārī, II, p. 111; Ḵāqānī, p. 10). While both groups of mojtaheds recognize the importance of the ḡayba in expanding the scope for ejtehād, for proponents of ensedād (ensedādī) the ḡayba signals a radical break in Shiʿite legal history. On either doctrine, ensedād or enfetāḥ, qīās in almost all of its forms is regarded as outside the scope of legitimate ejtehād.

The process of ejtehād is generally understood to arrive at ostensible rules of law (aḥkām ẓāherīya) which may or may not coincide with the actual rules (aḥkām wāqeʿīya) imposed by God, unascertainable in the great majority of cases, but known to the Hidden Imam. The Imams, like the Prophet, are above the need to resort to the fallible practice of ejtehād (ʿAllāma Ḥellī, p. 51; Sabzavārī, II, p. 120-21). The existence for all possible questions of law of a complete body of actual rules preserves the doctrine of fallibilism consistently espoused by Twelver Shiʿites, while at the same time due recognition is given to the practical validity of the ostensible rules resulting from ejtehād. Different accounts have been put forward of what value there can be in adhering to an ostensible rule that does not coincide with the actual rule and thus must fail to achieve the purpose intended by the Lawgiver.

Ejtehād is a communal obligation (farż kefāya), requiring not that every individual Shiʿite personally resolve his or her legal questions, but that enough Shiʿites undertake the task of qualifying themselves in legal matters to provide guidance for the rest of the community. All Shiʿites are thus divided into mojtaheds, those who have so qualified themselves, and those who require guidance, the moqalleds. The latter are expected to invest (taqlīd) a mojtahed with competence as their authority (marjaʿ) on all legal questions except those so clearly and universally resolved as not to require expert guidance. All actions within the scope of taqlīd in which a moqalled acts without the guidance of a mojtahed are potentially invalid (bāṭel). In principle, however, both mojtaheds and moqalleds may exercise precaution (eḥtīāṭ) by acting in such a way as to be certain of discharging their obligations on all creditable views, but these views are themselves the products of ejtehād, and in any case a moqalled will need the guidance of a mojtahed to practice precaution properly.

In ascertaining the ostensible rule governing a given situation, each mojtahed imposes an obligation to follow that rule upon himself in the first instance and secondarily on those who choose to follow him. The legitimacy of making ejtehād the basis for taqlīd, as well as for the holding of judicial office (Sobḥānī, pp. 143-61; cf. Moḥsenī, al-Qażāʾ wa’l šahāda, pp. 23-25), depends on the identification of the mojtahed with the jurist (faqīh, ʿālem) to whom the Imams urged their followers to turn in their absence, a laudatory use of the term ejtehād being apparently unattested in the corpus of Shiʿite traditions. It was the unabashed assertion of the mediating function of the mojtahed’s assessment of probability that provoked the attacks on ejtehād by theAḵbārīs andŠayḵīs, for whom the role of the jurist referred to by the Imams is primarily that of a transmitter of traditions.

The qualifications for ejtehād include as a minimum familiarity with Arabic, the legal contents of the Koran and traditions, and legal method as expounded in works of legal theory (oṣūl al-feqh), as well as possession of an innate divinely bestowed aptitude for legal reasoning (qowwa qodsīya). In order to serve as a guide for others, a mojtahed must be a loyal adherent of Twelver Shiʿism, of moral integrity, and, it is generally held, although not without question, an adult male of legitimate birth. There has been considerable controversy as to whether a moqalled may follow a mojtahedmotajazzeʾ, an incomplete or partial mojtahed, that is one whose expertise does not extend to all areas of law, as distinguished from a mojtahedmoṭlaq, a complete or absolute mojtahed. Controversy also extends to the circumstances under which a moqalled may follow a deceased mojtahed. Many recognize the validity under certain circumstances of a moqalled’s continuing (baqāʾ; estemrār) to follow a deceased mojtahed whom he had already followed prior to his death, but preferably with the approval of a living mojtahed.

Individual moqalleds are enjoined to attach themselves to the most learned (aʿlam) mojtahed of their day as determined by their own assessment if they are competent or by reputation. Where the available guides are equally qualified, the moqalled is free to choose (taḵyīr). Following several mojtaheds (tabʿīż) where they are the most learned in different areas may be appropriate. Shifting allegiance (ʿodūl) from one mojtahed to another is not countenanced unless the first mojtahed is no longer the most learned or in some other way is no longer fit. Mojtaheds, on the other hand, are not permitted to practice taqlīd unless on a matter beyond their competence. It has been suggested that an ensedādīmojtahed, because he relies on probability at large, does not qualify as an ʿālem in the strict sense, and hence cannot validly serve as a guide for others, but this view has not gained support (Šīrāzī, V, p. 323).

The full recognition accorded ejtehād in modern Twelver jurisprudence is evident in the constitutional documents of Persia. Article 2 of the Supplement to the Constitution of 1907 (see CONSTITUTIONAL REVOLUTION III) established a committee of not fewer than five mojtaheds to determine the Islamic validity of legislation, while Article 71 restricted judicial office in Islamic law cases to qualified mojtaheds. Article 2, section 6a, of the 1979 Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran (q.v.) affirms that continuous ejtehād (ejtehād-e mostamerr) is one of the means of securing human dignity and freedom along with progress in science and technology and opposition to tyranny. Ejtehād is also integral to the doctrine of welāyat-e faqīh implemented by Article 5, according to which a faqīh is to be entrusted with governance and the leadership of the nation (welāyat-e amr wa emāmat-e ommat). In recent years intense academic interest has focused on the institutionalization of ejtehād among Twelver Shiʿites since the middle of the 19th century, resulting in an unprecedented number mojtaheds, the emergence of strata within the ranks of the mojtaheds, and particularly on the involvement of leading mojtaheds in political affairs, culminating in the Revolution of 1978-79 (Calmard, “Āyatullāh”; idem, “Mujtahid”).

The label mojtahed is now widely applied by Twelver Shiʿites to eminent Shiʿite jurists of the past, whether traditionists like Kolaynī or those like Shaikh Mofīd who wrote in condemnation of ejtehād. Earlier critiques of ejtehād are routinely understood to refer to objectionable Sunni practices such as qīās (e.g., Shaikh Mofīd, Awāʾel al-maqālāt, pp. 115-17, n. 1), although, not entirely consistently, it is also common for the stagnation of ejtehād among Sunnis to be unfavorably contrasted with its vitality among Shiʿites (e.g., Reżā Ṣadr, p. 9). Leading Safavid Aḵbārīs are also recognized as having attained the rank of mojtahed despite their professed hostility to ejtehād (Frank, p. 188, tr., p. 180; Samāhījī, p. 34, tr., p. 49; cf. Yūsof Baḥrānī [d. 1186/1773], Ḥadāʾeq I, p. 25, quoting Neʿmat-Allāh Jazāʾerī [d. 1112/1700] to the effect that tracing fatwās to their Hadith sources is the true ejtehād). Aḵbārī writers for their part also treat Shaikh Mofīd and his followers as mojtaheds since, on the one hand, they construe their reliance on rational arguments as an appeal to forms of probable inference (Estarābādī, p. 176) and, on the other hand, use the rejection of aḵbār al-āḥād as a criterion for determining allegiance to ejtehād (cf. Baḥrānī, Loʾloʾat al-baḥrayn, p. 279). Thus Abū Jaʿfar Ṭūsī, having given Shiʿite aḵbār al-āḥād a privileged status, was accounted as really an Aḵbārī by Estarābādī (p. 135).

According to Ašʿarī, the Zaydis were divided over the legitimacy of ejtehād (p. 74). Other sources attribute the rejection of ejtehād to the followers of Abu’l-Jārūd Zīād b. al-Monḏer (d. after 150/767), the Jārūdīya or Sorḥūbīya, the other Zaydi sects recognizing its validity (Feraq al-šīʿa, pp. 48-50; Saʿd Qomī, pp. 72-3). Zaydi authors assert that ejtehād in the form of qīās was practiced and approved of by such leading members of the ahl al-bayt as ʿAlī b. Abī Ṭāleb (q.v.) and his great grandson Zayd (d. 122/740; Ebn Ḥābes quoted in Zayd b. ʿAlī p. cxxxvi-vii; Ḥosayn b. Qāsem, II, p. 470, n. 1). The Zaydis’ endorsement of ejtehād was condemned by Twelver polemicists from the period before the general acceptance of ejtehād among Twelvers (Ebn Qeba, “Naqż,” pp. 175, 195, 197, 200, tr., 208, 236, 238, 242). More recently Twelver writers have attributed the practice of qīās by the Zaydis to borrowing from the Hanafites (Ṭabāṭabāʾī, d. 1242/1826, unpaginated). Sunni polemicists, however, such as Ebn Taymīya (d. 728/1328; II, p. 89) and Shah ʿAbd-al-ʿAzīz Dehlavī (d. 1239/1824; p. 28) have cited the Zaydis’ use of qīās as an argument against the claim of Twelvers to represent the authentic teaching of the ahl-al-bayt.

Full discussions of the scope and evaluation of ejtehād are to be found in writings from both the Caspian and Yemeni Zaydi Imamates. Although some Zaydi jurists claimed consensus for the requirement that an imam be a mojtahed, there were later Zaydis, among them the Yemeni imam Yaḥyā b. Ḥamza (d. 745/1344; Ebn Mortażā, V, pp. 379-80) who were prepared to recognize the validity of the imamate of a moqalled (Ṣanʿānī, IV, p. 2483, n. 1; Ebn Meftāḥ, IV, pp. 520-21). So, too, there is disagreement among the Zaydis as to whether ejtehād is a prerequisite for judicial office (idem, pp. 310-11).

Under Muʿtazilite influence, the doctrine of the infallibility of ejtehād gained a significant following among Zaydis (Ebn al-Moẓaffar, I, p. 18; in favor of fallibilism, see ʿAbd-Allāh Moḥammad Manṣūr [b. 1315/1898], p. 98) and was invoked by the Caspian imam Abū ʿAbd-Allāh Mahdī (d. 360/970) in quieting the unrest among his subjects, who were divided between Daylamite supporters of the teachings of Qāsem b. Ebrāhīm (d. 246/860) and Gīlānī followers of Nāṣer Oṭrūš (d. 304/917; Madelung, pp. 114-5; for a different harmonizing solution to such inner divisions, see Ebn al-Wazīr, pp. 130-31).

Šahrestānī (d. 548/1153; I, p. 162) already reports that most of the Zaydis of his day were practicing taqlīd, rather than engaging in ejtehād and for at least the past five centuries noteworthy jurists have arisen among the Yemeni Zaydis to call for the reinvigoration of ejtehād after a period of perceived stagnation. The most famous of those who have made such an appeal is the Yemeni chief justice Moḥammad b. ʿAlī Šawkānī (d. 1250/1834), whose writings, influential in Yemen itself, have become popular among Sunnis outside of Yemen. Šawkānī was prepared to recognize the validity of the imamate of a moqalled, but insisted that the appointment of a moqalled as judge amounted to granting a license to render judgment according to a false god (ṭāgūt; Koran 4:60; Šawkānī, al-Sayl al-jarrār IV, 274-75, 507-08)

Among the Ismaʿilis there has been no embracing of ejtehād such as has taken place among the Twelvers and Zaydis. The structure of authority in both the Nezārīand Ṭayyebī communities has evidently remained such as to render unnecessary the elaboration of a doctrine of ejtehād. The classical Ismaʿili statement on legal theory, Ketāb eḵtelāf oṣūl al-maḏāheb of the Fatimid chief justice Noʿmān b. Moḥammad (d. 363/974) gained the personal approbation of three consecutive Fatimid imams, al-Moʿezz (d. 365/975), al-ʿAzīz (d. 386/996), and al-Ḥākem (d. 411/1021). It contains a vigorous attack on ejtehād along with other elements of the Sunni legal theory of the day.


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(Aron Zysow)

Originally Published: December 15, 1998

Last Updated: December 9, 2011

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