By M.A. (4th Year Alimah Student, DarusSalam Seminary)
Islām’s fundamental tenets are established by explicit textual evidence from both the Qurʾān and the Prophet’s Sunnah. The scholars are unanimous on these matters, which are not subject to interpretation. Regarding matters that are subject to interpretation, the Islāmic tradition recognizes that there is scope for valid differences of opinion.
The scholars, having dedicated their lives to studying the sacred texts, are well acquainted with the parameters of such differences. However, these differences, if presented to an average Muslim, may at times be a source of confusion. Regarding one who is unaware of what constitutes a valid opinion, he may adopt fallacious and incoherent beliefs. This carries a potential to result in the inveiglement of the unwitting.
The essential methodology for following Islām is evident from the very meaning of the word “Islām.” Islām necessitates submitting to Allāh and striving to do that which He commanded mankind to do. This entails adhering to the guidance that Allāh sent, which is found in Islām’s two primary sources: the Qurʾān and the Prophet’s Sunnah.
Those who follow the faith based on the Prophet’s teachings and the agreed upon understandings are referred to as “Ahl al-Sunnah wa al-Jamāʿah.” The Prophet Muḥammad said:
“My nation shall never agree on misguidance.”
Therefore, an authoritative discourse on Islām encompasses reliance on the Qurʾān and the Ḥadīth. And there is continuity in the established understandings that are cited from the relied-upon authorities in the various Islāmic sciences, such as fiqh, tafsīr, ḥadīth, and ʿaqīdah. Following the legacy through their precedent is imperative for those who follow the tradition. The early authorities possessed the ability to interact with the scriptural evidence with integrity and accuracy. And not everyone possesses this. Abū Isḥāq al-Shāṭibī discussed this. He said:
“Ijtihād is of two types: (1) The first is legitimate ijtihad. It is performed by one versed in its requisites. (2) The second is when one who is not proficient in its requirements tries. This is invalid ijtihad. It is nothing more than conjecture and one’s personal whims.”
Islām is a guidance for us. What is definitively established in the Qurʾān and the Sunnah is not subject to interpretation. In Islāmic legal theory, matters that are definitively established are “qaṭʿī.” Ijtihād, which is the scholarly effort to interpret, only applies to matters that are subject to interpretation. And probabilistically established matters are “ẓannī.” Wahbah al-Zuḥaylī said:
“Ijtihād is not permitted in matters that are agreed upon and established through definitive evidence. Ijtihād is only permitted in matters for which there is a probabilistic text or in matters for which there is neither text nor consensus.”
Islām’s fundamentals are known and established. Islām has fundamental aspects that are unequivocal and cannot be questioned, for instance, one’s certainty and faith in God, the Prophet Muḥammad being the Final Messenger, the articles of faith, and the five pillars. Ijtihād does not apply to such issues. And this is further confirmed by the Ḥanafī jurist, Ibn Nujaym, who said:
“A ruling based on ijtihād is determined by the most probable interpretation, and there is a margin of error that is possible. Therefore, ijtihād does not apply to matters that are qaṭʿī or to that which requires certainty.”
Thus, disagreement between the scholars occurs only in matters that are open to interpretation, and such matters are not founded on definitive proofs. When the scholars review the evidence, they seek the strongest interpretation that they can.
To conclude, the quest to learn and understand is a spiritual endeavor in Islām. Allāh values learning so much that He favored Ādam over the Angels with the gift of knowledge. Furthermore, when the Revelation began to come to the Prophet, the first words were the command: “Read!” Learning, contemplation, analysis, and research are all worshipful duties that one strives for. These endeavors help the believer appreciate the reality of his finite wisdom. Through this effort, one realizes that human reasoning is limited while the Almighty’s infinite perfection is not.
Islām is an academic faith. The more one studies it, the better one will be able to understand it. To excel in one’s traversing towards Allāh, he must intellectually, morally, and spiritually engage with the Revelation. Additionally, many realities that Allāh created serve as a spiritual test for Muslims, including the existence of differences.
There are certain matters in any field of knowledge that are exclusive to the scholars’ expertise. Still, Islām’s fundamental message is comprehendible to every person, in all times and places. The ultimate purpose of practicing Islām is to gain proximity to Allāh and to strive one’s utmost to achieve virtue by worshiping Him.
 Maʿālim al-Tanzīl, 2:87.
 Sunan Ibn Mājah, 36:25.
 Shāṭibī, Muwāfaqāt, 5:131.
 Zuḥaylī, Taghayyur al-Ijtihād, 17.
 Ibn Nujaym, Fatḥ al-Ghaffār.
 Q, 2:31.
 Q, 96:1.