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The Ambivalent Notion of Consensus of the Scholars (Ijma) in Islam

By Muhammad Yunus, New Age Islam


(Co-author (Jointly with AshfaqueUllah Syed), Essential Message of Islam, Amana Publications, USA, 2009)


22 October 2015




As Islam spread across to its neighbouring lands following the death of the Prophet, the local customs and laws were to be brought in line with the broad guidelines and paradigms of the Qur’an. This was necessary to govern these lands according to Islamic code as well as to have a uniform code across the expanded territory of Islam that included the vast landmass stretching from the Maghrib (northern African regions) right up to Afghanistan including Egypt, Syria, Palestine, Iraq and Iran in just about 20 years after the Prophet’s death. As these lands had their own laws and customs, which were deeply entrenched and institutionalized, the scholars and jurists of early Islam needed a Qur’anic mandate to appropriate the consensus (Ijma) of the community in Islamic jurisprudence. They subjected the Qur’anic verses 2:143 and 3:110 to scholastic scrutiny as below to claim the infallibility of the consensus of the community:

  • The opening statement in the verse 2:143, “Thus We have made you into a community, justly balanced” was cited to infer God’s special favour to Muslim community for all times. From this inference it was deducted that the judgement of Muslim community could, in the Prophet’s absence, serve as an authority, as good as that of the Prophet himself.

  • The opening stipulation in the verse 3:110, “You are indeed the best community brought forth for mankind: you enjoin the doing of good and forbid the evil,” was interpreted to imply that Muslim community could never agree on error, because, if that was so, the Qur’an could never have praised it in the above terms.

The above line of argument was supported by such popular traditions as:

  • “My community will not agree on an error. When you see a disagreement, you should follow the overwhelming majority.” 

  • “Follow the community (Jama’ah) of the Muslims and their leaders.” 

  • “Whatever Muslims consider good is good in the eyes of God, and whatever they consider evil is evil in His eyes.”

Many contemporary scholars, however, did not agree with this doctrine. They interpreted the Qur’anic verses differently, and quoted different sets of traditions to establish their views. They even out-rightly rejected this doctrine on the very basic premise that if people can fall into error individually, how is it possible that a community, which is composed of individuals, is immune to error. However, the orthodoxy stood for Ijma, and the denier of Ijma, once it was agreed upon, was declared heretic. Commenting on this situation, Ahmad Hasan states, on the strength of al-Ashari: 1

“The theologians often excommunicated their opponents with the result that the study of scholastic theology became a point of dispute. Numerous tracts were written in favour of, as well as in opposition to the study of this science.” 

1.1          Infallibility Of The Consensus Of Scholars (Ijma)

While the consensus of the community was upheld as an instrument of law for almost a century and a half of Islam, the role of the community was gradually relegated to its scholar. It was argued that since the views of the community were determined by the learned, the consensus of the community was no different from the consensus of the learned. The verses, 4:59, 7:181 were cited to support this contention.

  • The statement, “You, who believe, obey God and obey the Messenger and those among you in authority…” (4:59) was interpreted to imply the infallibility of the judgement of one in authority, on the premise that one, whose obedience is commanded, must be immune to error.

  • The pronouncement, “Of all the communities (Ummat) that We have created, there are (people) who guide others truthfully and uphold justice thereby” (7:181) was cited to reinforce the argument that God guided the one in authority to reach the right decision on all matters.

  • It is notable that the doctrine of infallibility of Ijma (Consensus) was opposed and even rejected by its opponents and even its proponents remained divided on its principles, and propounded their own views on the matter. Some of these views are tabled below to give an idea of the polemics generated by this doctrine [1]:

  • Only the Ijma of the Prophet’s companions is valid, and that of later generation is not worth consideration.

  • The Ijma of Muslims in every generation is valid.

  • Scholars of later generations can not violate the Ijma reached by the scholars of early centuries of Islam.

  • For Malik and his followers, the agreement of the scholars of Medina constituted the Ijma.

  • For another group of jurists, the agreement of the scholars of Kufa and Basra constituted the Ijma.

  • If the Muslims of a generation differ on a question, and the Muslims of the subsequent generation adopt any of these divergent opinions, their agreement would be valid.

  • If a single scholar who is qualified for Ijma opposes the agreement, then the Ijma is not valid.


The Flaw in the Doctrine of Infallibility of Consensus of the Scholars


Human knowledge remains in flux. What is held true today may be proved false tomorrow except in strictly scientific domains that represent the ultimate truths of God (the earth is round; the desert has little rainfall, water flows down the slope for example). However, in matters of human relations, jurisprudence, customs and habits, these are informed by the external environment and stimuli and change with the change in environment and stimuli. The same goes for the views of jurists and scholars of Islam on theological, social, political and legal issues. Hence, any suggestion to take the views and rulings of the present or past scholars as inviolate amounts to giving eternal validity to any ruling by any group of scholars issued under a specific circumstance or context. Thus for example a great many rulings issued at times of war are ipso facto nullified as peace is restored and any realignment in human relationship at personal, national or international level may abrogate the rulings or consensus reached at a different relationship scenario. Hence, as noted in a duly authenticated recent publication, “the classical theory of Ijma ‘was not recognized in full even during its formative period. Because of its purely theoretical nature and perhaps for want of some definite practicable machinery it could not be utilized to reform the Muslim society.”7 The fact remains; it is not an established principle of law and never was. [2].

Hence, the Muslims at any point in their history to this day are not bound to cling to the views and the consensus of the contemporary or past scholars.

There is also a growing tendency among Muslim writers to quote the “unanimous consensus of past scholars” without taking into account the historical context in which the consensus was reached. Thus a consensus reached declaring Caliphate as divinely ordained, when, say for example, Baghdad was under siege by Mongol hordes and the Islamic Caliphate on the verge of annihilation, cannot hold true in this era when a murderous horde of Kharijites under the banner of ISIS claims to have founded an Islamic Caliphate and the Qur’anic ideal of democratically elected welfare state is the order of the day.

In one word, the consensus or Ijma of scholars must be viewed in light of the historical context in which they were issued and cannot be regarded as inviolable for no ‘ijma’ can possibly have the endorsement of each and every scholar of the community, and “if a single scholar who is competent for Ijma opposes the agreement, then Ijma is not valid” [1] 

1. Ahmad Has an, Doctrine of Irma in Islam, New Delhi 1992, and p. 16

2. Muhammad Yunus and AshfaqueUllah Syed, Essential Message of Islam, Maryland USA 2009, Theological development in Islam, 1.5.

Muhammad Yunus, a Chemical Engineering graduate from Indian Institute of Technology, and a retired corporate executive has been engaged in an in-depth study of the Qur’an since early 90’s, focusing on its core message. He has co-authored the referred exegetic work, which received the approval of al-Azhar al-Sharif, Cairo in 2002, and following restructuring and refinement was endorsed and authenticated by Dr. Khaled Abou El Fadl of UCLA, and published by Amana Publications, Maryland, USA, 2009.