Pre-Requisites for Ijtihad – From Molla Fenari’s “Usul”

The use of independent reasoning, known as ijtihād, has always played a prominent role in the derivation of Islamic law. While it is often portrayed today as a practice that groups such as Muslim modernists and Salafis seek to “bring back”, ijtihād has continuously been employed as part of the Islamic intellectual tradition, with jurists throughout the centuries commenting on when and how it is to be used.

In this excerpt from Molla Şemseddin Fenari’s (d. 1431) Fuṣūl al-Badāʼiʻ fī Uṣūl al-Sharāʼi, the early Ottoman jurist lays out the prerequisites one must attain before being qualified to exercise ijtihād in Islamic law. He includes this section near the end of his work, after having already explained how the Qurʾān, Sunnah, consensus, and analogical reasoning operate in Islamic legal theory.


The conditions for one to practice ijtihād are that they master the following three sciences:

  1. That one know the verses of the Qurʾān that are related to knowledge of rulings linguistically, meaning both individually and how they fit together. [For this] one needs the linguistic sciences of morphology, syntax, semantics, and communication, either naturally [through being raised in the language] or through training. One also needs [knowledge of rulings] technically, meaning the utmost understanding of rulings and their divisions, being able to differentiate between specific and general, ambiguity and clarity, abrogating and abrogated, et cetera. The general rule is that one should be capable of deriving from it [the Qurʾān] what is incumbent for one to do.
  2. Knowledge of the Sunnah that is related to it [legal rulings]. Meaning both what was uttered and what was legislated as we have mentioned [earlier] as well as chain of transmission, meaning the path by which reports have come to us through parallel chains and other means. And one must be able to verify the knowledge of the narrators in accordance with criticism and praise [of them], verify reports, know the types of reports, et cetera. In our time, the path to this knowledge is through sufficient review of the imams that are relied upon, due to the difficult reality of narrating in this day.
  3. Knowledge of qiyās (analogical reasoning), including its bases, conditions, and the types that have been accepted as well as those that have been rejected. And one must know the issues that have already been agreed upon (by the jurists) so that they would not violate that consensus. One does not need to know kalām (dialectical theology) since one can be a Muslim as a follower [as opposed to devising rational proofs for theology on their own]. Although it is better for one to know an apportioned amount that pertains to Allah, His necessary existence, His pre-eternality, His life, His power, His speech, that it is rationally possible for a person to be held responsible by Allah, the sending of the prophets, and their miracles and laws, even if one does not go the path of knowing all of the detailed proofs as opposed to the general proofs for these. One also does not need to know fiqh (positive law) as that is the fruit of ijtihād, although in our day pursuit of it is the path through which one acquires the ability to do ijtihād.