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CONSENSUS. In the context of Islamic legal theory, the Arabic term ijma` denotes the agreement of a generation of mujtahids (those who are qualified to form opinions on religious matters) concerning a particular issue that has arisen since the death of the Prophet. Theoretically, this consensus obtains when such mujtahids explicitly state their agreement on a given matter, or when they act uniformly on it, or when such a matter receives their tacit approval. Practically, however, consensus is determined after the fact, when a later generation of scholars looks to the past and finds that a generation or generations of earlier mujtahids have universally agreed on a particular question.

As one of the four recognized sources of Sunni law, consensus functions both as a sanctioning instrument and as a material source of law. Once agreement has been reached on an issue, usually a question of law, that issue becomes epistemologically certain and thus insusceptible to further interpretation. In other words, it is removed, by virtue of the consensus, from the region of probability to that of certainty; and being certain, it can serve as a textual precedent-like the Qur’an and the sunnah-on the basis of which new cases may be solved. The epistemological value attached to consensus renders this instrument so powerful in the realm of doctrine and practice in the community that it can override established practice as well as clear statements of the Qur’an. For instance, if the community, represented by its mujtahids, reaches a consensus that runs counter to a Qur’anic text, the text is considered to have been superseded by this consensus. The source of such an evaluation is the tradition that states, “my community will never agree in an error.”

The notion that the community is infallible has its roots in an old Arabian social and secular concept according to which the common behavior of the tribal group represents an example worthy of being imitated; what the group (jama’ah) decides becomes the norm. During the eighth century, when the geographical schools of law came into being, this concept acquired mild religious connotations but remained largely undefined. It was not until Shafi’i, who insisted on grounding all legal deductions in the Qur’an and the sunnah of the Prophet, that consensus was first given a rudimentary but authoritative foundation in the revealed texts. Shafi`i’s concept of consensus, whose agent is theoretically the entirety of the Muslim community, was reversed by later jurists who insisted that mujtahids were the only persons qualified to form such an authoritative agreement. These jurists, however, still felt compelled to pursue Shafi`i’s quest to justify consensus on the basis of revelation, even though they largely ignored the arguments he had adduced. Eventually the evidentiary status of consensus (hujjiyat al-ijma’), which must rest on conclusive textual proofs, was found in such Qur’dnic verses as 4.115, 2.143 3-110, 9.16, and 31.15-which generally bid Muslims not to swerve from the path of the Prophet and his community-as well as in numerous Prophetic traditions. Although the latter were related by a single authority (ahad) and thus regarded as probable (zanni), they shared one common theme expressed in the dictum mentioned above that the community will never agree on an error. This multiple corroboration assigned these traditions to the tawatur ma’nawi type (recurrent traditions that share a single theme); as such they were thought to yield conclusive knowledge requisite for establishing the authoritativeness of consensus.

Another fundamental issue that Muslim jurists debated in some detail was whether consensus is considered settled before or after the demise of the mujtahids who reach it. Some argued that the mujtahids must all be dead for their consensus to become final, since if one or more of them changes his mind, consensus cannot be deemed to have been reached. Other jurists rejected this argument and maintained that the mujtahids are bound by consensus once it is reached, and therefore they would sin should they later depart from it.

In Twelver Shiism, by contrast, consensus in and by itself is neither an infallible sanctioning instrument nor a source of law. When the Twelver jurists reach an agreement on a question of law, the hidden imam is always assumed to partake in that agreement; in fact, it is the posited participation of the imam which alone guarantees the infallibility of consensus. The function of consensus in Twelver Shiism is thus to unveil the infallible opinion of the imam. If and when the imam appears to stipulate the law in person, consensus will be rendered superfluous. This limited function of consensus perhaps explains why it is not necessary, as it is in Sunnism, to obtain the agreement of all qualified jurists in order for consensus to be fully authoritative.

The traditional notion of consensus in Sunni Islam remained largely unquestioned until the twentieth century, when modern Muslim reformers brought forth a variety of changes to the old concepts. The Egyptian Salafi reformer Muhammad Rashid Rida (d. 1935) maintained that only the consensus of the Prophet’s companions is binding, and this only in matters of worship. The clear texts of the Qur’an and the sunnah that bear upon such matters and that have been subject to the companions’ consensus are authoritative, and a departure from the laws of worship instituted throughout the centuries would constitute a sin. But matters of public policy and social morality must be regulated in light of the modern needs faced by the community. Here even the consensus of the companions is not binding. Law governing these matters must be legislated by the qualified legal scholars who are the effective rulers of the community (ahl al-hall wa-al-`aqd) and act on its behalf and in its best interests. Their legislation is the result of a process of consultation (shura), and as such it represents the will and consensus of the community. For Rashid Rida, the old concept of consensus is largely irrelevant; it is replaced by a new and more restricted notion that derives its authority from some form of consultative and parliamentary process. [See Ahl al-Hall wa-al `Aqd.]

The ideas of consultation and parliamentarianism have become essential ingredients in nearly all attempts at reformulating a theory of consensus. The Pakistani scholar Kemal Faruki assigns to the community the exclusive right to determine its own affairs as it sees fit. Through an elective process, it vests its authority in learned and trustworthy persons who act on its behalf as a legislative body. This body, though it expresses the will of the community as a totality (and is therefore assured of protection against error), is bound at the same time by the authority of the revealed texts as they have been interpreted by the consensus of previous generations.

[See also Law, article on Legal Thought and jurisprudence; for mujtahids, see Ijtihad.]


Bernand, Marie. L’accord unanime de la communaute comme fondement des statuts legaux de i’Islam.Paris, 1970.

Bravmann, M. M. The Spiritual Background of Early Islam.Leiden, 1972.

Faruki, Kemal A. Ijma` and the Gate of Ijtihad.Karachi, 1954. Hallaq, Wael B. “On the Authoritativeness of Sunni Consensus.” International Journal ofMiddle EastStudies 18 (1986): 427-454. Mansour, Camille. L’autoriti dans la pensee musulmane.Paris, 1975. Sachedina, Abdulaziz. Islamic Messianism.New   York, 1981. Schacht, Joseph. The Origins of Muhammadan jurisprudence.OxfordandNew York, 1975.

Snouck Hurgronje, Christiaan. Selected Works. Edited by G. H. Bousquet and Joseph Schacht.Leiden, 1957.


Azhar Niaz Article's Source: http://islamicus.org/consensus/

  • writerPosted On: November 6, 2012
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