Usually, books on Islamic law mention four sources of the Shariah: the Qur’an, the Sunnah (practice) of the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him), ijma’ (Scholarly Consensus) and ijtihad (Independent Juristic Reasoning). However, ijma’ takes place as a result of the ijtihad of the Companions or, later on, other jurists. So, in fact, there are only three sources of the Shariah. These terms are briefly explained below:
The Qur’an is Allah’s speech sent down to the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) through the Archangel Jibril (Gabriel). It is inimitable, unique and protected from corruption by Allah. The Qur’an is a Book of Guidance. Its purpose is to provide guidance for human beings so that they can fulfil their role of vicegerency and stewardship on earth in order to live a life of moral excellence here and attain salvation in the Hereafter. Thus, the Qur’an covers a vast number of subjects: moral, social, economic, political and legal, as well as matters relating to creed and metaphysics.
While the Qur’an gives basic principles regarding how life on earth is to be lived, the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) demonstrated through his practice how these principles were to be implemented. He was the model that the believers are required to follow. During his prophetic ministry, he reformed men, changed society, organised a community and established a state inspired by the guidance provided in the Qur’an. In this way, the Sunnah is the second source of the Shariah. The authority of the Sunnah is based on the explicit statements recorded in the Qur’an to this effect.The Sunnah is preserved by the ummah’s continuous consensus from the time of the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) about his practical example. It is also recorded in the books of Hadith, which are collections of the Prophet’s sayings, actions and tacit approval.
Ijtihad/ Ijma’ (Independent Juristic Reasoning)
This is an Islamic legal term which refers to the use of reason and judgement to determine Shariah rulings. This comes into operation when both the Qur’an and the Sunnah are silent on a particular issue. This can only be undertaken by thoroughly competent scholars. They can arrive at their opinion (ra’y) by using analogy (qiyas), juristic preference or equity or public good. Ijtihad provides a mechanism to derive guidance with regard to new issues and problems faced by the community.
The consensus or agreement reached on a specific issue through independent juristic reasoning during the time of the first four Rightly-guided Caliphs and the Prophet’s Companions is called Ijma’ Al-Sahabah (the consensus of the Prophetic Companions).
This is accepted as binding. Later scholarly consensus by qualified Muslim jurists may be followed, but it can be changed subsequently by other scholarly consensuses. Today, it is possible that jurists living in a particular country arrive at a consensus on a particular issue. But this consensus will be acceptable elsewhere, or globally, only when an assembly of world renowned jurists and scholars endorse it.
Ijma’ provides a good mechanism for maintaining the unity of the community in the face of changing situations. Thus, ijtihad is a vital tool which ensures the Shariah’s dynamism and enables the ummah (the faith-community of Islam) to face new challenges as and when they arise.
Excerpt is from A Critique of the Theory of Abrogation