The Lies of Maajid Nawaz. Lie #1: IJTIHAD

There is a curious discrepancy in the recent book Sam Harris wrote with Maajid Nawaz: Why do Maajid’s statements about IJTIHAD in Islam differ so widely from what our best academic scholars of Islam have to say about the subject?

In the following we will compare Maajid’s statements about the doctrine of Ijtihad in Islam against what authoritative academic sources on the subject have to say. We will see that what Maajid has to say about ijtihad is very different that what the best academic scholars say about it.

For some of the sources I will link to a PDF. For others we will look at a website or two like

On p. 76 of Islam and the Future of Tolerance: A Dialogue, Maajid Nawaz talks about the doctrine of ijtihad in Islam, saying :

“What is said in Arabic and Islamic terminology is: This is nothing but your ijtihad. This is nothing but your interpretation of the texts as a whole. There was a historical debate about whether or not the doors of ijtihad were closed. It concluded that they cannot be closed, because Sunni Muslims have no clergy.”

PAGE 76, quote highlighted at bottom of page:

So, Nawaz, a Sunni Muslim who says he is reformer, claims 2 things here:

  1. Ijtihad means “interpretation
  2. the doors of ijtihad are not closed, that they are open.

Are these claims true? Not according to major academic experts on Islam. They tell us that he’s wrong on both counts.

Our first source, the Encyclopaedia of Islam, New Edition – is the standard scholarly reference work on Islam, written by academic scholars of Islam, for academic scholars of Islam. For brevity, the Encylopaedia is generally referred to as the EI2.

On ijtihad, we find the following (note that work on the EI2, as the Encyclopaedia is called, begun in 1954, uses a now-outdated system of romanized spelling, so that the modern “IJTIHAD” is rendered as “IDJTIHAD”). I have highlighted the most important lines in bold:

IDJTIHAD (A.), literally “exerting oneself”, is the technical term in Islamic law, first, for the use of individual reasoning in general and later, in a restricted meaning, for the use of the method of reasoning by analogy (kiyas [q.v.]). The lawyer who is qualified to use it is called mudjtahid. Individual reasoning, both in its arbitrary and its systematically disciplined form, was freely used by the ancient schools of law, and it is often simply called ra`y [q.v.], “opinion, considered opinion”….

…During the first two and a half centuries of Islam (or until about the middle of the ninth century A.D.), there was never any question of denying to any scholar or specialist of the sacred Law the right to find his own solutions to legal problems. It was only after the formative period of Islamic law had come to an end that the question of who was qualified to exercise idjtihad was raised. From about the middle of the 3rd/9th century the idea began to gain ground that only the great scholars of the past, and not the epigones, had the right to idjtihad. By the beginning of the fourth century (about A. D. 900), the point had been reached when the scholars of all schools felt that all essential questions had been thoroughly discussed and finally settled, and a consensus gradually established itself to the effect that from that time onwards no one might be deemed to have the necessary qualifications for independent reasoning in law, and that all future activity would have to be confined to the explanation, application, and, at the most, interpretation of the doctrine as it had been laid down once and for all. This “closing of the door of idjtihad“, as it was called, amounted to the demand for taklid [q.v.], the unquestioning acceptance of the doctrines of established schools and authorities. A person bound to practise taklid is called mukallid. See further Section II.

Bibliography: J. Schacht, Origins, 6 n. 3, 99 f., 116, 127 f.; idem, Introduction, 37, 46, 53, 69 ff., and bibliography. (J. SCHACHT)


N.B. that this entry was written by the great Islamologist Joseph Schacht.

So, according to Schacht in his entry in EI2, the door of ijtihad is CLOSED, and the foremost meaning of the term is “individual reasoning“.

In an article and Douglas Murray’s Gatestone Institute website, Ottoman Empire historian Harold Rhode asks: “Can Muslims Re-open the Gates of Ijtihad?”

“The exercise of critical thinking and independent judgment – or Ijtihad –was an important way to address questions in the early centuries of Islam. After approximately 400 years, however, the leaders of the Sunni Muslim world closed the “Gates ofIjtihad;” Muslims were no longer allowed use itjihad to solve problems. If a seemingly new problem arose, they were supposed to find an analogy from earlier scholars and apply that ruling to the problem that arose. From the 10th century onwards, Sunni Muslim leaders began to see questioning as politically dangerous to their ability to rule. Regrettably, Sunni Muslim leaders reject the use of itjihad to this day.”

[emphases added]

This is rather curious isn’t it? Historian of the Ottoman empire (PhD Columbia, Islamic History) says that the gates/doors of ijtihad are CLOSED, and that Muslim reformers need to re-open them, and he says that the term means “exercise of critical thinking and independent judgment“.

Why does Maajid say the opposite, that the doors/gates of ijtihad remain open, and that the term means “interpretation”, when academics tells is that it means “exercise of critical thinking and independent judgement”, and “individual reasoning in general”?

Looking to the entry on ijtihad in the academic Encylopedia of Islam and the Muslim World (a different reference work from EI2), we find the following:

“In early Islam ijtihad, along with terms such as al-ray, qiyas, and zann referred to sound and balanced personal reasoning.More importantly, they spoke of the closing of the doors of ijtihad. The Crusades, the rise of regional dynasties subsequent to the collapse of the Abbasid empire, and the Mongol invasions were seen as threats to Islamic intellectualism in general. Coupled with this, attacks by rationalists and philosophers on Muslim orthodox thinking convinced jurists that any further ijtihadposed a great danger to orthodoxy itself. The doors of ijtihad were thus closed in the fourth Islamic century, and a long period of taqlid followed. Recent scholarship has challenged this view based on evidence that mujtahids existed well into the sixteenth century, and that several prominent premodern scholars denied the closure of the doors of ijtihad. [emphases added]

While the entry does mention that “Recent scholarship has challenged this view”,this language indicates that the status of ijtihad as being closed is an orthodoxy that needs to be challenged.

So, according to the Encyclopedia of Islam and the Muslim World, ijhtihad refers to “sound and balanced personal reasoning”, and the doors of *ijtihad are CLOSED.

Consulting Majid Khadduri, a major academic scholar of Islam and author of “War and Peace in the Law of Islam”, we find that he says the same as our other three sources. On page 36 he says

these schools varied from the relatively liberal Hanafite and Mu’tazilite jurists-permitting large measures of independent reasoning(ijtihad)….

….In the fourth century of the Islamic era only four schools were recognized as orthodox, namely the Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi’i and Hanbali schools. Their law-books became the standard text-books and any attempt to depart from them was denounced as innovation (bid’a). As a result ijtihad was gradually abandoned in favor of taqlid (literall “imitation) or submission to the canons of the four schools, and the door of ijtihad was closed.

Lets check with another source. Bernard Lewis, widely regarded as one of the greatest modern academic scholars of Islam, writes in his book “The Muslim Discovery of Europe” that:

“…in the traditional formulation, “the gate of ijtihad was closedand henceforth no further exercise of independent judgementwas required or permitted. All answers were already there, and all that was needed was to follow and obey. One is tempted to seek a parallel in the development of Muslim science, where the exercise of independent judgement in the early days produced a rich flowering of scientific activity and discovery but where, too, the gate of ijtihad was subsequently closed and long period followed during which Muslim science consisted almost entirely of compilation and repetition.”


Let’s summarize our findings:

author meaning of ijtihad status of gates/doors ofijtihad
The Encyclopaedia of Islam, New Edition(EI2) individual reasoning CLOSED
Ottoman historian Harold Rhode “the exercise of critical thinking and independent judgment” CLOSED
The Encyclopedia of Islam and the Muslim World “sound and balanced personal reasoning” CLOSED
academic scholar of Islam Majid Khadduri “independent reasoning” CLOSED
academic scholar of Islam Bernard Lewis “independent judgement” CLOSED
Maajid Nawaz “interpretation” OPEN

Which of these sources stands out to you? Does something strike you as a bit amiss?

It seems that Maajid Nawaz has his details about Islamic doctrine wrong. And this is in a book published by Harvard University Press. Something needs to be cleared up.

I believe that Maajid Nawaz is lying – practicing taqiyya – about the doctrine of ijtihad in Islam.

I am willing to retract this charge, but I would like to hear a convincing explanation of why what he says is so different from what our best academic scholars have to say.

What does Sam Harris have to say? Perhaps Sam can be reached on twitter @SamHarrisOrg ? Why this strange error?

What does Maajid Nawaz have to say? @MaajidNawaz ? What say you?


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