Ijtihad and Renewal

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Said Shabbar
  • Herndon, VA: 
    International Institute of Islamic Thought
    , January
     156 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Readers who followed the most recent presidential election in the United States are likely to recognize some of the central themes in Said Shabbar’s Ijtihad and Renewal: a great civilization diminished by stagnation, fear of losing cultural identity, and disagreement over the best reform practices. In Ijtihad and Renewal, Shabbar argues that in order to be great again, the Muslim community must bring back the practice of ijtihad (6). He defines ijtihadas “the effort made by a morally accountable individual to adhere to Islamic teachings and to build up and prosper the earth” (3). From a practical standpoint, ijtihad is the process of inquiry into solutions for social problems in keeping with Islam’s core principles. Because Ijtihad and Renewal promises a path to greatness for the Muslim community, it will likely attract many readers, but because of some of the editorial choices made by the author and the text’s publisher, the International Institute of Islamic Thought (IIIT), many readers will not be able to connect with Shabbar’s work.

Ijtihad and Renewal has a longer history than its 2017 copyright suggests. Ijtihad and Renewal is actually the third version of Shabbar’s الإجتهاد والتجديد في الفكر الإسلامي المعاصر (or Al-Ijtihad wa al-Tajdid fi al-Fikr al-Islami al-Mu’asir) published by IIIT. According to the history detailed on the IIIT website, the Institute published the original Al-Ijtihad wa al-Tajdid fi al-Fikr al-Islami al-Mu’asir in 2007 and an abridged version in 2016. Ijtihad and Renewal is the first version of Al-Ijtihad wa al-Tajdid fi al-Fikr al-Islami al-Mu’asir published in English; the earlier versions were both published in Arabic. Adding to this, Ijtihad and Renewal is a translation of the abridged version of Al-Ijtihad wa al-Tajdid fi al-Fikr al-Islami al-Mu’asir, not the full text of the 2007 original. This translation and publication history is significant not so much because the abridged version lacks some of the content of the original, but because it does not provide any endnotes. In the foreword to Ijtihad and Renewal, the IIIT explains that endnotes are left out of its abridged texts to “facilitate rapid absorption of the content” (viii). Although footnotes, endnotes, and parenthetical citations can act as reading “speed bumps,” they also provide readers with the information necessary to investigate an author’s claims. Readers cannot critically engage with a text unless they can scrutinize the argument presented in that text. In what comes across as an afterthought, the IIIT suggests that motivated readers should consult the notes in the original texts (viii). Although readers of the IIIT’s Arabic language publications may be satisfied with access to endnotes through the original texts, readers of its translated texts will not be. Al-Ijtihad wa al-Tajdid fi al-Fikr al-Islami al-Mu’asir is only available in Arabic, so its endnotes will be incomprehensible to Ijtihad and Renewal’s English-only audience. If the IIIT’s aim in publishing abridged titles is truly “to help readers...to further develop their critical faculties,” it ought to make translated endnotes available, at least on its website (viii). 

Failure to consider the book’s likely audience is a recurring problem in Ijtihad and Renewal. In his effort to show how approaches to Islamic law have changed over time, Said Shabbar explores an impressive body of research including medieval and contemporary representatives of all five Sunni madhabs (although no Shi’i jurists—more on this later) from across the Middle East and North Africa. The diversity of these scholars is undoubtedly one of Ijtihad and Renewal’s strengths, but because Shabbar only erratically provides identifying information for these scholars, his readers cannot be expected to appreciate this diversity. Indeed, because Ijtihad and Renewal’s readers have chosen the abridged, translated version of Al-Ijtihad wa al-Tajdid fi al-Fikr, Shabbar should assume that they are newcomers to the study of Islamic law who will not recognize scholars by name only. 

Shabbar cites nearly one hundred different scholars throughout Ijtihad and Renewal. Out of these one hundred scholars, however, not a single one is Shi’i. Although it is an author’s prerogative to limit the scope of their work, Shabbar’s omission of Shi’i scholarship does not make sense given his intended audience. He proposes ijtihad as the solution to a problem: a stagnation affecting the entire Muslim community, not just Sunni Muslims (6). Furthermore, Shabbar’s decision to exclude Shi’i scholars does not mesh with his obvious effort to include scholars from a variety of time periods, places, and madhabs. Hoping to make sense of this omission, I revisited the foreword to Ijtihad and Renewal. In the foreword, the IIIT notes that readers are not likely to agree with all “the issues raised” in Ijtihad and Renewal, but does not mention that issues related to Shi’a Islam will not be raised at all (viii). Nor does the Institute mention a religious or ideological affiliation that might explain this omission. Any mention of such an affiliation (either the author’s or the IIIT’s) is missing from both Ijtihad and Renewal and the IIIT’s website, even though the IIIT describes itself as “concerned with general issues of Islamic thought and education” and “independent of ... ideological bias” (“About IIIT”). Absent such considerations—without an explanation of the author’s reasoning, clear citations, or any notes regarding an ideological bent—Shabbar’s failure to include Shi’i approaches to ijtihad is just that: a failure.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Martha McCluskey is an Independent Scholar.

Date of Review: 
June 16, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Said Shabbar has served as professor at Cadi Ayyad University, faculty of arts and humanities, Beni-Mellal, Morocco, and also served there as head of the Third Development and Research Unit dealing with Islamic Thought and Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue, and as head of The Center for Knowledge and Civilization Studies and the Terminology Research Group. He has also been visiting professor at a number of Moroccan and other Arab universities. A member of numerous academic and cultural societies, he has contributed to many seminars and conferences, both national and international, and published articles in both Moroccan and international academic journals and periodicals.



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