Open Ijtihad

[The following presentation was made at the Los Angeles Latino Muslim Association’s annual meeting, April 16 2005.]

Open Ijtihad:
Technology and New Opportunities for Community Building and Activism

oi_ijtihackers.jpgI want to cover four major themes in this presentation. First, I want to say a couple of words about ijtihad, or independent reasoning in Islam. Then, I want to use the concept of open source software to help illustrate the differences between a closed and an open religious system. Third, I want to suggest a methodology for those of us committed to practicing ijtihad in an open system. And finally, I want to suggest ways to use new information and communication technologies to aid in this process. As an example of such applications of technology, I will give a brief introduction to blogs, or web journals.

Let’s begin by looking at the concept of ijtihad. This is a definition of ijtihad from the online encyclopedia Wikipedia. The description reads:

“Ijtihad is a technical term of the Islamic law that describes the process of making a legal decision by independent interpretation of the sources of the law, the Qur’an and the Sunna. The opposite of ijtihad is taqleed, imitation. The person who applies ijtihad, the mujtahid, must be a scholar of Islamic law. The word derives from the Arabic verbal root jahada “struggle”, the same root as that of jihad. The common etymology is worth noting, as both words touch on the concepts of struggle, effort, and meditation.”

This is just an excerpt from the wikipedia entry. We’ll return to ijtihad in a second, but I want to say a couple of words about Wikipedia. What is interesting about Wikipedia is that anyone can contribute and edit content. If we wanted to, we could go right now and change this definition of ijtihad. You might ask: What good is a collection of knowledge that can be so easily modified? Wouldn’t this ‘openness’ make for completely chaotic and useless knowledge? That’s the beauty of it. Wikipedia, which is free, already contains more knowledge than the Encyclopedia Britannica, which costs a lot of money. Certainly, some of that content may be garbage. But not all of it. And the point is that anyone so inclined can edit the garbage and replace it with quality content. Of course, one person’s quality content is another person’s idea of garbage, so people sometimes engage in edit wars, deleting each other’s content and replacing it with their own. But Wikipedia, which is based on a piece of software called a wiki, saves every change made to a page, which makes it extremely easy to go back to a previous version if, for example, someone replaced your entry with something completely different. Eventually, people reach an agreement on the basis of what qualifies as objective content; pages stabilize, reflecting agreement amongst the various contributors. If you think about it, it’s amazing that a computer program can help teach members of a very diverse community to articulate their positions, debate them, and achieve consensus.

Let’s get back to the definition of ijtihad. In order to make sense of the rest of my presentation, I have to establish what I believe about ijtihad. I think, traditionally, the argument of those who reject ijtihad goes something like this:

God is perfect. Religion, which comes from God, is perfect. Society must struggle to conform to the values established by religion, not the other way around. Therefore, religious innovation is bad because it attempts to change religion to fit human needs.

On the other hand, if I were to put it in my own words, the argument of those who affirm the need for ijtihad goes something like this:

God is perfect. Religion, which comes from God, is perfect. Society must struggle to conform to the values established by religion. But this struggle involves change, change from wherever we may happen to be spiritually at a given moment to a more advanced place. Change requires innovation. Thus, religion without innovation makes improvement of the soul impossible.

According to this latter interpretation, ijtihad is defined a bit more broadly, and every single one of us —not just the scholars— is encouraged to apply it. Ziauddin Sardar (2003) described the interplay between what is fixed in Islam and what Muslim need to create anew in their practice as follows:

“The cardinal framework [of Islam] is eternal. Truth remains unchanged; but the human condition does not. It is the principles of Islam that are eternal, but not their space-time operationalisation. The Beloved Prophet himself, as well as the Rightly Guided Caliphs, varied the application of the principles of Islam as the circumstances changed, but always within the parameters of Islam. They had fully understood the spirit of Islam.” (Permanence and Change in Islam, in Islam, Postmodernism and Other Futures: A Ziauddin Sardar Reader, p. 49)

Following this line of thinking, the ultimate criteria for ijtihad are (in my opinion) the following two questions: First, Will it make you a better Muslim? and second, What are your grounds for arguing this? If you can answer the first question in the affirmative, and can articulate your reasoning in response to the second question, then no one but God has the power to judge you. If A says following a female imam and praying in a mixed congregation will make her a better Muslim, who will stand in her way? If B says praying in complete segregation will make him a better Muslim, then who will prevent him from practicing his religion as he sees fit? Now, the tricky part is when B forces A to do things his way, or vice versa, because he believes his way is the only true way to practice Islam. The Qur’an has very specific things to say about compulsion in religion and preventing people from worshipping.

At the same time, the Qur’an also instructs us to exhort or inspire others to do that which is right. How do you reconcile this with the teaching of to you your religion and to me mine? Some overzealous folks, as I have hinted, attempt such a reconciliation by equating exhorting with enforcing, downright bullying instead of inspiring. But short of enforcing, there is something else we can do to exhort and inspire, something which we have apparently long lost the skill to do: debating our positions. Ijtihad does not only involve independent reasoning, I would argue, but also collective debate.

To have productive debate, one needs a certain disposition and a certain type of environment. The disposition is the hard part. All the knowledge in the world without the disposition to consider change in oneself is worthless, so I will conveniently set aside the matter during this presentation. The environment, on the other hand, is a much more practical issue. Furthermore, having the right environment will hopefully begin to change people’s dispositions.

My argument is that technology, when properly applied, can help create those environments. Look at Wikipedia, an environment where knowledge can be articulated, debated, modified and adapted by the community. Of course, Wikipedia is not for everybody, metaphorically speaking. Many people want the certainty and authority of the Encyclopedia Britannica, not the fluidity and impermanence of Wikipedia, with the responsibilities it entails. My response is that, again metaphorically speaking, those people are not struggling hard enough.

In order to further explore the kind of environment I’m envisioning for productive debate and innovation, we need to take a look at the adjective I’m using to qualify ijtihad in the title of this presentation: open. I’m using this term as it is used in the open source software movement. Basically, it describes a way of producing software in which the source of the software, the actual lines of code that tell the computer what to do, are accessible or open to anyone. The opposite of this mode of production is one where the source of the program is closed, inaccessible to users.

Think of the Windows operating system. If you notice a bug in the program, or a feature you would like to change, you do not have the permission of Mr. Gates to change it. And God forbid you should then offer your modified version of Windows to your friends. You would then be breaking the law, and Mr. Gates would not be happy with you.

However, there exists a computer operating system that allows you to modify it and distribute it as you see fit, even for free. This operating system is called Linux. Linux is open source software. Windows is not.

You might assume given what I just said that Linux is probably not as good as Windows. Well, people have different opinions about that. Let’s just say here that Linux allows you to do pretty much all the things that other operating systems do, including common things like manipulating text documents, spreadsheets, graphics, or browsing the internet. Plus it’s free.

But what is relevant to this conversation is how Linux is produced. Eric Raymond, who has written a lot about the open source software movement, compares the different modes of production by using the analogies of a cathedral and a bazaar. He writes of the process of building Linux:

“No quiet, reverent cathedral-building here—rather, the Linux community seemed to resemble a great babbling bazaar of differing agendas and approaches (aptly symbolized by the Linux archive sites, who’d take submissions from anyone) out of which a coherent and stable system could seemingly emerge only by a succession of miracles. The fact that this bazaar style seemed to work, and work well, came as a distinct shock.”

I do not have enough time to go into the details of how and why this process works, fascinating as this is. However, I want to reiterate Eric Raymond’s point that open source software development works. The proof is the Linux system itself. Out of multiple contributions made by different people emerges something with unity and cohesiveness, something which in turn can be further modified and improved.

Who are the people who make this happen, who contribute to Linux and other open source software projects? Generally they are referred to as hackers. Although the stereotype of a hacker is someone who breaks into computer networks with evil intent, the kind of hackers involved in open source software are computer engineers who contribute their time and skills to creating programs that others can use freely (freely in this context means both having the ability to modify it, and being able to acquire it for little or no cost).

Why do hackers contribute their valuable time without the expectation of monetary compensation? In a couple of words, because they like what they do. They are passionate about it. Eric Raymond articulates the code of ethics that motivates hackers as follows:

“The belief that information-sharing is a powerful positive good, and that it is an ethical duty of hackers to share their expertise by writing open-source and facilitating access to information and to computing resources wherever possible.”

oi_software.jpgLet’s examine the differences between closed and open software development more closely. In closed software, such as Windows, only authorized programmers have access to the source code. This is the cathedral model. The programming is done in one language only. Between the programmers and the users there is a wall, and information flows only one way. Users are expected to consume the final product, not modify the source code or adapt it. Innovation is controlled by programmers, so any innovation coming from the users is rejected, on the grounds that it would corrupt the source code.

In open software, such as Linux, the source code is available to anyone. This is the bazaar model. Hackers contribute to the overall system. One hacker, for example, might write a routine to print a document. Another hacker might come along and write a better routine, which then replaces the older one. Yet another hacker might have a different type of printer, so he or she would be able to write a routine to allow Linux to print using that device. Innovation is not only encouraged, it is how Linux improves and remains useful. Certainly, some users will opt to merely run the software as it exists, but everyone is allowed to get access to the code. Hackers might use different programming languages, as long as they ensure that their contributions work with the system as a whole.

What happens when we transpose this model to religion?

oi_religion.jpgIn a closed religious system, an authorized class of interpreters controls access to God’s word, claiming exclusive knowledge of how it should be read and applied. This interpretation is done exclusively in the authorized language. The class of interpreters serves as a wall between the believers and God’s word, and information flows only one way. Believers are supposed to accept the authorized interpretation, not modify, adapt, or even question it. Innovation happens, but it is controlled by the class of interpreters and it is certainly not called innovation. Any innovation coming from common believers is rejected on the grounds that it would be a corruption of God’s word.

In an open religious system, God’s word is accessible to everyone, and everyone has the freedom to interpret it in their native language. Believers interpret the word of God according to their realities. No interpretation is believed to be applicable to all contexts. Within a specific context, interpretations that make more sense tend to displace interpretations that make less sense. But interpretation is more than coming up with new ideas; those ideas have to be debated and validated by the community, according to their collective understanding of the principles and values of the religion. Certainly, not everyone engages in interpretation, but the freedom exists to do so. Interpretation is innovation, and it is what allows people to improve their religious practice, and what keeps a religious message meaningful and universal.

Of course, I am making broad generalizations. For one thing, I am not even talking specifically about Islam but about religion in general, because I believe all religions can be practiced as open or closed systems. My personal belief is that religion is meant to be open. It is the practitioners who make their approach to religion more or less open, more or less accepting of ijtihad or innovation.

So far, I have gone out on a limb and established a similitude between open source software and open source religion. Next, I would like to transpose some of the factors that motivate open source hackers to the kind of believer who practices open source religion.

oi_ijtihackers.jpgMeet the ijtihackers. The ijtihackers are a new generation of Muslim believers. Just as open source hackers are committed to the openness of software development, ijtihackers are committed to the openness of religious practice. Ijtihackers are not necessarily software engineers, but they are aware of the affordances of new information and communication technologies and take advantage of them.

With some modifications to the original hacker ethic, we can express the ijtihacker ethic as follows:

The belief that independent reasoning, information sharing and civil debate are powerful positive goods for the umma, and that it is an ethical duty of ijtihackers to promote openness in the practice of Islam by facilitating access to information, resources, and technologies.

The projects that ijtihackers can undertake are only limited by our imagination. More than set an agenda, I want to frame a methodology and discuss how we can use technology to apply it. To do this, I will borrow from the work of Phil Agre.

According to Agre, the most pressing challenge that any type of activist faces in our times is how to make one’s voice heard in a society of millions. Agre discounts traditional theories of democratic participation as just that, theories, and proposes a pragmatic and practical approach he calls issue entrepreneurship. He writes:

“[I]t is central to the political process that individual citizens, in their public personae, are able to associate themselves with issues. Citizens, whether politicians or activists, make their political careers in entrepreneurial fashion by identifying issues that are coming to prominence, researching and analyzing them, staking out public positions on them, and building social networks of other citizens who have associated themselves with related issues, especially those whose positions are ideologically compatible. Not only is this kind of issue entrepreneurship central to the making of public policy, but it is also central to the “politics”, in the broad sense, of nearly every institutional field…”

In other words, the most practical way to change the world is to take up a cause one feels passionate about, research it, articulate one’s position, join others interested in the same issue, form solidarities with other groups that share similar ideologies, put pressure on the government and on society to recognize the issue, and set the agenda for what needs to be done. Obviously, this is not as easy as it sounds. It requires a lot of hard work and struggle. It is a veritable jihad.

While technology cannot relieve us from any of the actual hard work, it can make our actions more effective. With new information and communication technologies at their disposal, ijtihackers can extend their reach across the dimensions of space, institution and affinity, forming new and more powerful forms of solidarity. Let’s consider each one of these dimensions individually.

oi_issue.jpgWhile previously most of our solidarities where formed locally, new technologies allow us to extend our reach to form global solidarities. Thus, we can form social networks interested in the same issue across local and global settings. For example, a person interested in women’s issues in Islam can form connections not only within her local community, but can get online and join others interested in the same issue all over the world.

Likewise, while previously we were limited to form alliances within the institutions that we belonged to, now thanks to technology it is much easier to form solidarities across other institutions interested in the same issues. For example, let’s say the person interested in women’s issues in Islam works at a hospital. Thanks to technology, it is much easier now for this person to connect to people in other hospitals, or in other institutions such as schools or businesses; in other words, people interested in similar issues but spread across different institutional settings.

Finally, technology allows us to broaden our connections with people we share affinities with. This means that if the person in our example is a Latina interested in women’s issues in Islam, new technologies make it much easier to form alliances with other non-Latino and/or non-Muslim people also interested in women’s issues; in other words, people interested in parallel issues with a somewhat similar ideology.

Imagine the power of forming such strong alliances across these different dimensions. It brings to mind a quote by Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

In the time I have left, I want to briefly introduce you to a tool you could start using right now to begin doing all of this, and become an official ijtihacker. That tool is the web log, or blog.

Blogs are the fastest growing application on the Web. They are free or very cheap, and extremely easy to use. They basically function as journals. A user makes an entry, or post, and the software takes care of formatting it, displaying it, and archiving it. There are already thousands of Muslims who blog. Go to any search engine and type the words muslim and blog, and you’ll get plenty of results. I couldn’t find any Latino Muslim blogs, so clearly there is a space to be filled here.

Let me take you through the parts of a blog, and in the process explain why they are a prime tool for ijtihackers to embark on issue entrepreneurship.

The main part of a blog is of course the post. Posts are organized chronologically, with the newest one generally at the top of the blog. Think of it as a journal entry. Blogs have a reputation for containing mostly self-centered personal diatribes. But there are also bloggers who balance their personal voice with authentic research and analysis. Ijtihackers can use their blogs to articulate their positions and publish their research; in other words, to engage in ijtihad.

Although they might seem monological, blogs are actually great at promoting dialogue. You will notice that after each post, blogs have a space in which readers can comment and engage in debate. A community of bloggers is highly self-corrective: if someone posts something that is inaccurate, usually other people will call them on it. In the context of ijtihad, this means that there is a mechanism for accountability in the process of interpretation. Of course, comments are not the only way to engage in a debate. Bloggers often choose to respond to other posts in their own blogs. There are even a number of tools that notify bloggers when someone has addressed them in their posts. So for example, if you mention my name or link to one of my posts in your blog, I will know about it almost immediately.

The other way in which blogs are dialogical is that they form part of communities. These communities are usually represented in something called a Blogroll, usually displayed on a sidebar. Recall Agre’s point about forming alliances. A blogroll displays those alliances. It is a list of your local and global friends, and your connections to people across institutions and affinities. To list someone in your blogroll means that you read and recommend their blog. When two people reciprocally list their blogs, it means that there is a strong connection between them.

And how do people read blogs? Visiting the web page to see if there is new content is one way, but doing that daily for dozens or even hundreds of blogs can be time consuming. Fortunately, there is a way to subscribe to a blog. The presence of an orange button or a link that reads XML or RSS indicates that the blog automatically generates a feed that you can subscribe to using something called an RSS aggregator. Think of an RSS aggregator as your personal newspaper that goes out and collects all the news from your favorite feeds, including the blogs you read. Thus, instead of visiting all those web pages every day to see if there is new content, you can have those items aggregated in one place, and you can be notified when new content for each feed is available.

Blogs are an example of how one tool can be used by ijtihackers. There are many other tools. I intended to put together a reference list, but ran out of time. Besides, one characteristic of ijtihackers is that they are extremely resourceful, so I invite you to get online and start learning about these tools. Visit other blogs and see how they are being used. Eventually, I hope you start blogging yourself, and add me to your blogroll. My blog address is

If we think back to the so-called ‘golden age’ of Islam, we would recognize many characteristics of the kind of ‘open’ system I have summarized here: research, independent reasoning, debate, the forming of networks across spaces and institutions, and even across different religious and cultural affinities. Innovation was encouraged then. Ijtihad was seen as a necessity. But with innovation and ijtihad came responsibility. Let’s embrace that responsibility again, and let’s do our part in ensuring that all of humanity works together towards a more peaceful, just and enlightened existence.

Thank you.

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  1. Asalam-alaikum,

    I recently started an (Afro-) Latino Muslim blog called Planet Grenada. It is an interesting process.. trying to find content… thinking about what links to make, how to present it in cyberspace, what kinds of communities are possible in virtual reality, etc. Its still very new. It will be a while before we will really think through most of the implications which technology will have on culture, Muslim or otherwise.

  2. i d e a n t: Open Ijtihad

    i d e a n t: Open Ijtihad

    [The following presentation was made at the Los Angeles Latino Muslim Association’s annual meeting, April 16 2005.]

    Open Ijtihad:
    Technology and New Opportunities for Community Building and Activism


    I …

  3. You show interest in fluidity, I thought you might be interested in some of the articles on my blog. I initially looked at transfer of knowledge, which directed me to the creation of knowledge and in turn to creation itself.
    Over the millennia it appears that human awareness is itself fluid, like the earth, the multiverse and indeed religous practices. Rituals rules and regulation, particularly when dictated from the interpreters of creative wisdom
    appear to restrict creativity rather than encourage the process of creation, not that it needs restriction or encouragement. All free thinkers struggle against those ideologies that attempt to restrain the essence of our virtual and physical existence.


  4. Salaam Alaykum,

    Highly fascinating, an interesting piece of information, which I for sure will read some time again, as now @work it’s not the right place 😉

    However, the concept of Ijtihad has for long fascinated me, as I think something should change in the perception of Muslims. Islam is created by God and thus perfect, it are humans and their concepts who bring their own bad sides in this religion.

  5. Assalaamu ‘alaikum…

    very interesting…it makes a different way to view Islam. we call it as a contextual approach..

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