After writing my Salaam 'alaikum essay and posting it on Street Prophets, I've had a number of questions asked of me in the past few days. I've felt that a number of these responses should also be reposted back here, on my blogs. This first reposting is with regard to the some questions concerning ijtihad (the original questions are in italics):
"I have been advised that there is a significant tradition in Islam of "Ijtihad" or the individual Muslim's responsibility and authority to interpret the Qur'an."
Ijtihad is a much broader concept than just trying to interpret the Qur'an. As I mentioned in a previous comment, Islam is considered by Muslims as a way of life. We try to apply Islamic principles in all aspects of our lives. For us, the means are just as important - and perhaps even more important - than the ends. And so you have a major world religion that's created an enormous corpus of law that's known as Shari'ah.
Ijtihad itself is "the process of making a legal decision by independent interpretation of the legal sources, the Qur'an and the Sunnah." But even here, ijtihad is not the first resort. The basis for Islamic law, called fiqh (pronounced "fee-kay"), is first the Qur'an, then the Sunnah (which includes the various collections of ahadith, or sayings of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh)), then qiyas or analogies, and finally ijma or consensus of the scholars. If there is no guidance to answer a question based upon the Qur'an or Sunnah, or through qiyas, only then is ijtihad supposed to be used. But even there, a consensus (or better yet, a unanimous opinion) is sought because Muslims recognize that there are differences of opinion. In such cases, it is better to avoid the extremes and follow the middle path. (Sort of like how figure skating and diving used to be judged: toss out the high and low scores and average or total the remainder.)
In which case, the question becomes, who should be a mujtahid (one who applies ijtahid)? The traditional answer is a scholar of Islamic law, or alim. Liberal Muslims (which I am not) argue that any Muslim should be able to perform ijtahid, but I strongly disagree with this. Muhammad ibn Idris al-Shafi'i (d. 819), who founded the Shafi'i school of thought, recognized the problem of individual laymen trying to perform ijtihad, who would come up with haphazard opinions. IMO, this is exactly the problem the liberal Muslims are recreating in that perhaps 99.99999% of Muslims worldwide are not qualified to be a scholar who can perform ijtahid.
I bring all this up because I'm trying to say that it is not an "individual Muslim's responsibility and authority to interpret the Qur'an." This is the irony that irritates me with the so-called non-Muslim "Insta-Experts" on Islam. It takes a Muslim years and years of education and training to get to a point where he or she can competently perform ijtihad, whereas these people have little or no education or training and yet they think they're qualified to express an opinion. To analogize, this is like deciding who to see when you have a medical problem: do you visit a qualified doctor or do you go to the person who has little or no education or training? (This analogy is applicable to both the non-Muslim "Insta-Experts" and the liberal Muslims.) What makes it worse from an Islamic perspective is that providing wrong advice compounds the problem (sin) onto the person who provided the faulty information. For example, if you asked me, say, if it were all right for you to have pre-marital sex from an Islamic perspective and I said, "yeah, sure, go ahead," and you did, not only would you accrue the sin of zina (sexual activity outside of marriage), but so would I because I gave you the wrong advice. So, once more, it's better to seek information from the qualified source.
"As you noted, different schools of Islamic thought would seem to offer more ot less authoritative jurisprudence (if that is the right word) on matters of Islamic law and teaching. How do individual Muslims approach this possible tension between individual interpretation and scholarly tradition at the practical human level, i.e. do non-scholarly or non-academic Muslims have rules of thumb on such matters, at the real, practical level?"
The basic, orthodox interpretations of the Qur'an, Sunnah, and life in general as a Muslim are well known and long established; after all, we've had 1400 years to work out most of the "bugs." Media for education are numerous. Most of the primary information is taught in classrooms or through various media (books, magazines, videotapes, the Internet, and so on). When answers to specific questions are needed, Muslims can go to numerous sources. Many people will ask questions of their imams or ustaz (religious teacher). In some countries with significant Muslim populations, there may be some sort of authority that can provide guidance. For example, here in Singapore, we can ask questions to MUIS, the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore. And there are numerous sources of information on the Internet who answer specific questions. Of course, with any of these sources (especially the last), it's to our benefit to seek out other opinions (similar to seeking a second opinion from a doctor). Even my ustaz, who is an imam at one of the most important masjids here in Singapore, has told us to go ask other people if we felt uncomfortable in any way with what he tells us.
The problem for many North American Muslims, IMO, is that they don't have a lot of the educational institutions that other, more developed Muslim communities have. They have the books and magazines and the Internet to rely upon - and these are a great help - but I think they lack in terms of the qualified imams and ustazs and educational facilities for both children and adults. Still, despite this very fragmentary approach to educating individual Muslims in their deen (religion), the nice thing from my perspective is that, after praying in Allah (swt) knows how many masjids in five countries and on three continents, and having met Muslims from perhaps two dozen different countries to date, I have found there to be a strong unity of beliefs, interpretations and practices of Islam worldwide.