Islamic Perspectives


The Meaning of Ijma'

By: Dr. Ahmad Shafaat


IJMA' means consensus, that is, acceptance of a matter by a specified group of people. In Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh) the matter on which ijma' is of interest is understood in one of the two following ways:

  1. Any matter related to Shari'ah(1)

  2. Any matter (of interest to Muslims)(2)

The group involved in the consensus is understood in the following ways, in which an exception is made for children and those who suffer from mental disorder:

  1. All Muslims of all times(3)

  2. All Muslims of a particular time(4)

(In the following definitions an age after the death of the Prophet is assumed.)

  1. All mujtahidin who are just, righteous and who avoid bid'a (innovation)(5)

  2. All mujtahidin who avoid innovation including those who may not be muttaqin (righteous and God-fearing)(6)

  3. Majority of all mujtahidin(7)

  4. All mu'minin(8)

  5. All companions of the Prophet(9)

  6. Mujtahidin of Makka and Madina (or Kufa and Basra)(10)

  7. Mujtahidin of Madina(11)

  8. The first four khulafa or the first two khulafa(12)

The last three opinions are not strictly speaking definitional, that is, ijma' is not defined as agreement, say, between the first two khulafa but rather that such an agreement realizes ijma'.


Types of ijma'

  • Explicit (ijma' 'azima or ijma' qawli). This type of ijma' takes place as follows: A question arises and people express their different views. Then there is discussion on these views and finally a common position is agreed upon.(13)

  • Silent (ijma' rukhsat or ijma' sakuti). If an opinion is expressed by some and their contemporaries, after learning about it, have made no comments either in favor or against, then we have what is known as silent ijma'.(14)

  • Unknown opposition ('adam al-ilm bi al-mukhalif). This situation occurs when a view generally held but it is not known whether or not there are experts who disagree with it.(15)

  • Absolute (ijma' qat'i). This is ijma' on a matter in which there never has been any sustained difference (ikhtilaf mustaqar) and which is established with tawatur (continuity), that is, we can show that all generations of Muslims or Muslim mujtahidin agreed on the matter.(16)


The authority of ijma'

The following opinions exist among jurists about the type of authority possessed by ijma':

  1. Ijma' provides a conclusive proof for a view.(17)

  2. Ijma' is only an argument for a view but not a conclusive proof.(18)

  3. Only ijma' of the companions (suhaba) provides conclusive proof.(19)

  4. Silent ijma' is not a conclusive proof.(20)

  5. Silent ijma' is not a conclusive proof except in case of the suhaba(21) or in case it remains in place for a period of time(22) or in case circumstances establish that silence meant approval.(23)

  6. Ijma' established by an absence of knowledge of opposition is not conclusive.(24)


Other issues connected with ijma'

Is it possible for ijma' to take place without basis (sanad) from the Qur'an, Hadith or Qiyas (analogy)? The following views exist among jurists:

  1. It is not possible for the Muslim Ummah or the jurists to agree on a position without sanad from the Qur'an, Hadith or qiyas.(25)

  2. It is not possible for ijma' to take place without sanad from the Qur'an or Hadith. (Qiyas cannot be a basis for ijma'.)(26)

  3. It is not possible for ijma' to have validity unless it is on the basis of qiyas.(27)

  4. It is possible for ijma' to take place without any sanad from the Qur'an, Hadith, or qiyas.(28)

In the books of fiqh there are many rulings for which no sanad is found anywhere. Those who believe that ijma' is possible with sanad explain this by saying that isnad for these rulings once existed but are now lost.

Another issue raised in connection with ijma' is as follows:

If in an age jurists held one or the other of two (ijma' ala qawlayn) or more views, it is permissible to hold a view different from these two or more views. For example, if a man leaves only a grandfather and a brother as his inheritors, then there are found only two opinions concerning their shares. First, the two will share inheritance equally. Second, all inheritance will go to the grandfather. Is it possible to have a third opinion?

According to al-Amdi the answer is negative for a majority of jurists and positive for some shi'a, some Hanafi jurists and some ahl al-zahir (people who reject qiyas).(29)

According to Sadr al-Shari'ah hanafi jurists agree that ijma' of suhaba on two or more views on a matter binds us to stay within those views but they disagree concerning the ages after the suhaba.(30)


Refusal to accept ijma'

If a ruling is reached by a form of ijma' considered conclusive by some scholars, then in the eyes of those scholars that ruling must be obeyed and the failure to do so after knowing about it is haram. But what if a person refuses to accept that ruling all together? Will he be committing kufr?

Even when scholars consider a form of ijma' conclusive and binding, they do not necessarily regard the rejection of a ruling reached by it as kufr. They are in general far more cautious in declaring refusal to reject the result of ijma' on a matter as kufr than in declaring a particular type of ijma' as conclusive and binding.

Almost all jurists agree that refusal to accept an ijma' other than an ijma of suhaba or an ijma established with continuity, tawatur, in all the previous generations of Muslims (ijma' qat'i), like the Qur'anic verses, is not kufr. In case of ijma' suhaba and ijma' qat'i two cases are distinguished:

  1. Ijma' on matters related to the fundamentals of din whose comprehension is needed by all Muslims, e.g. the belief in the oneness of God and in prophethood, the obligatory character of the five "pillars" of Islam, facing the Ka'bah while praying, the number of rak'at in each prayer, the times for hajj and fasting, prohibition of adultery, alcoholic drinks, stealing and usury.

  2. Ijma' on matters whose knowledge is expected only from "specialists" (khawas), e.g. marrying at the same time a woman and her paternal aunt or a murderer being cut off from inheritance.

There seems to be a general agreement that refusal to accept ijma' suhaba or ijma qat'i on matters of the first category is kufr but opinions differ as to whether a refusal to accept ijma' suhaba or ijma qat'i on matters of the second category is also kufr.(31)

Imam al-Harmayn (Diya al-Din 'Abd al-Malik al-Juwayni) says that refusing to accept a method of deriving rules of shari'ah is not kufr. Therefore, a person does not accept the principle of ijma' as a valid source of rules is not a kafir. Only a person who accepts the principle of ijma' and also recognizes that a certain ruling is based on ijma' and then refuses to accept it can be declared as committing kufr.(32)


Justifying the binding authority of ijma'

Is the principle that in some form ijma' provides conclusive argument and has binding authority taught in the Qur'an and Hadith?

There is no agreement among jurists as to which statements in the Qur'an and Hadith, if any, provide justification for the principle of ijma'. Generally the jurists see a justification for the principle in the Qur'anic verses: 2:143, 3:103, 3:110, 4:59 and 4:115. But Sadr al-Shari'ah (33) finds nothing in 2:143, 3:110, and 4:115. Instead he uses 3:105, 98:4, 9:122, 4:59, 91:7, 16:43, 9:115. Allama al-Taftazani (34) however, rejects all the arguments by Sadr al-Shari'ah.

There are also some ahadith that are used in support of the principle of ijma'. Al-Ghazali(35) says that of these ahadith the strongest support for the principle of ijma' is provided by: lan tajtami'u ummati 'ala al-dalala (My Ummah cannot get together on the wrong way). But Shah Wali Allah(36) says that this hadith "does not mean that ijma' is hujja (proof)."

The truth is that there is no argument supporting ijma' on the basis of the Qur'an and Hadith for which reputed jurists have not raised a whole series of objections. And we even have reputed jurists like Imam al-Harmayn al-Juwayni who "recognized that in the received teachings there is no proof that ijma' has binding authority (wajib al-ittiba') and the final resort is to "reason" and that "the arguments on the basis of reason are very weak."(37)

The difficulty of supporting ijma' on the basis of revelation is illustrated by a report about Imam Shafi'i. It is related by Muhammad Yahya ibn Shaykh Aman(38) that the Imam was asked about a proof for ijma' from the Qur'an. The Imam went into seclusion (ihtikaf) in his house for three days and each day read the whole Qur'an in search of a proof. Finally he came up with the verse 4:115. As we have already noted this verse is not enough for Sadr al-Shari'ah and Imam al-Harmayn.

Although it would be unacceptable to establish ijma' by the use of ijma' but it is interesting to note that ijma' is not proved even by ijma' itself. To see this let us distinguish between two definitions of ijma':

  1. As the majority view

  2. As the unanimous view

Now the majority of jurists do not agree that the majority view constitutes ijma' with binding authority.(39) Hence under the first definition ijma' is not proved by ijma'. Take now the second definition. We have seen above there is no view of ijma' on which jurists unanimously agree except possibly ijma' suhaba and ijma' qat'i. We cannot, however, demonstrate that the suhaba believed that their ijma' or ijma' qat'i has binding authority, while such a demonstration would obviously be necessary to prove ijma' on the basis of ijma'.


Two genuine Islamic concerns

Whatever the definition and authority of ijma' may be, there is no denying the fact that the principle of ijma' addresses two genuine and very important Islamic concerns:

  1. The need of the Muslims to know what the Islamic teachings on various matters are.

  2. The need to form an Islamic society capable of taking unified action when such action is required.

Now basic Islamic teachings can be known easily from the Qur'an and Hadith, especially if a person is endowed with iman. The Qur'an says:

"We have made the Qur'an easy to understand and remember, so is there any to pay heed." (54:17)

However, in some details uncertainty can arise due to the following factors:

  1. Like most statements, no matter how clear, the verses of the Qur'an and ahadith of the Prophet can be often understood in more than one way.

  2. It may not be possible to uniquely determine which Qur'anic verses and prophetic ahadith are applicable to a given question and in which order.

  3. It may not be certain whether some applicable ahadith are authentic or not.

  4. The Qur'an and Hadith may not contain answers to questions faced a long period after the revelation and so people come up with their own different answers by qiyas (analogy) or by other less than completely objective approaches.

Now, as far as individuals are concerned, they can still lead righteous lives despite different possible answers to some questions of detail, as indeed Muslims have done throughout history. The Qur'an guarantees that everyone who has ikhlas (sincerity, honesty) and strives in the way of God (which includes controlling one's desires, obeying the clear commandments and practicing dhikr and fikr, that is, remembrance of God and thinking and reflecting) will be protected from the devil, that is, going astray and will be shown the path of God:

"And (the devil) said: By Your honor (O Lord) I will lead them all astray except such among Your servants as are sincere." (38:83)

"And those who exert effort in Our way we show them Our paths and God is surely with the good." (29:69)

So, individuals will be able to find the way of God despite differences in matters of detail. However, often a need is felt by Muslims for collective, united, action and in such cases differences in views can be crippling. This is why the establishment of Islamic states in Muslim countries has been found very difficult. In fact, it can be said without hesitation that after the time of four rightly guided khulafa Islam has largely existed as a way of life of individuals and not of societies. Yet it is clearly an intention of Islam to shape both individuals and societies according to its principles.

One of the purposes of ijma' is to limit differences and to prevent them from disintegrating the Muslim society. This role of ijma' is comparable to the role of the Pope in Catholicism. But ijma' has not been as effective in ensuring cohesion of the society and in providing answers to new questions. This is because ijma' is itself subject to differences of views, as we have seen above. Furthermore, it is often extremely difficult to know whether or not ijma' on a matter has taken place, so much so that Imam Ahmad bin Hambal reportedly used to say that anyone claiming ijma' (after the age of suhaba) is a liar.(40) In other words, we do not know exactly what ijma' is or what it is saying. In contrast, those who believe in papacy can know both who the Pope is and what he is saying.

This, of course, does not mean that Muslims should adopt something like the institution of papacy. The idea of a priestly hierarchy having an exclusive right to define religious doctrines and rules and given obedience as infallible is totally against the grain of Islam and is apparently condemned as shirk in the Qur'an:

"And (Jews and Christians) take their ahbar (priests) and ruhban (monks, saints) as lords besides God" (9:31)

Indeed, history shows that an institution like that of papacy can, along with cohesion and continuity in the life of a group, cause untold repression and plunge a society in the uttermost depths of darkness.

So, how can we achieve maximum enlightenment and freedom of thought and conscience along with cohesion and continuity? By following four well-known Islamic principles:

  1. Khilafa, institution of an Islamic government

  2. Shura, government by consultation

  3. Sawad al-a'zam, rule by majority

  4. Amr bi al-ma'ruf wa nahi 'an al-mukar, enjoining right and forbidding wrong.

These four principles require the following mode for the functioning of a suhaba on "decisions". These always concerned legal rulings, state policies, strategies for war, etc. In the interpretation of Qur'an and Hadith we can encounter purely theological questions (e.g. whether the ascension of Jesus was physical or spiritual). On such questions ijma' of suhaba has been seldom demonstrated, if at all.

Whatever has been said above about ijma' suhaba also applies to ijma' qat'i.

No other type of ijma' by itself constitutes a conclusive historical argument that a certain position is Islamic. Most ijma'at do carry weight but how much weight will depend on direct evidence from Qur'an and Hadith and other relevant considerations.


1. Sadr al-Shari'ah 'Ubayd Allah, Tanqih wa Sharh al-Tawdih (Egypt, 1957), II, 211.

2. 'Abd al-Wahhab Taj al-Din ibn al-Subki, Jam' al-Jawani' (Cairo: Mustafa al Babi al-Halbi), second edition, II, 176.

3. Abu 'Abd al-Rahman al-Shafi'i according to Muhammad al-Shawkani, Irshad al-Fahul ila Tahqiq al-Haqq min 'Ilm al-Usul (Cairo: Mustafa al-Babi al-Halbi, 1356H/1937), first edition, 83.

4. Qadi Abu Bakr Baqalani according to: 'Abd al-'Aziz al-Bukhari, Kashf al-Israr Sharh Bazdwi (Egypt), iii, 237-239.

5. Ibid.

6. Ibid, III, 238.

7. al-Tabari and Abu Bakr Razi according to: Sayf al-Din al-Amdi, Ahkam al-Ahkam (Egypt: Muhammad Ali Sabih, 1347H), I, i20.

8. This view is held by Khawarij who consider themselves as mu'minin. See Jamal al-Din al-Asmawi, Nihaya al-Sawal fi Sharh Minhaj (Egypt: al-Maktaba al-Mahmudiyya al-Tijara, 1340H), II, 233-234.

9. Da' ud Zahiri according to: al-Amdi, op. cit. I, 117., op. cit., I, 125 and Muhammad Yahya ibn Shaykh Aman, Nuzha al-Mushtaq (Egypt: Matba' Hijazi, 1370H/195), 598.

11. al-Amdi, op. cit., I, 124.

12. al-Amdi, op. cit., I, 127.

13. Shah Wali Allah, Qura al-'aynayn fi Tafsil al-Shaykhayn (Dheli: Mujtaba'i, 1310H) 251-255. Also see: Muhammad Abu Zahra, Imam Ahmad bin Hambal, 267-268.

14. al-Shawkani, op. cit., 84.

15. Abu Zahra, op. cit., 267-268.

16. 'Abn al-'Ala, Fawatih al-Rahmuwat, (Bulaq, 1325H), II, 143.

17. al-Shawkani, op. cit., 78.

18. al-Amdi, op. cit., 79. Shi'a also hold the same view. For them ijma' has no authority unless it is supported by qawl ma'sum (word of an infallible imam) which is authoritative anyway (al-Bukhari, op. cit., III, 252).

19. Some hanafi jurists and Imam Bazdwi according to: al-Amdi, op. cit., 79.

20. Da'ud Zahiri, Abu Bakr Baqlani according to: al-Bukhari, op. cit., 84.

21. al-Shawkani. op. cit., 84.

22. al-Bukhari, op. cit., III, 228.

23. Abu Hamid Muhammad al-Ghazali,al-Mustasfa min 'Ilm al-Usul (Bulaq, 1325H), I,191

24. Shams al-Din ibn al-Qayyim al-Jawziyya, 'Ilam al-Mu'qi'in 'an Rabb al-'Alamin (Dheli), I, 32-33; II, 235.

25. al-Amdi, op. cit., I, 135. Shah Wali Allah says in Hujjat Allah al-Baligha (Egypt: 1352H), I, 121 that an ijma' without sanad will become a cause of tahrif (corruption) in religion as in the case of Jews and Christians.

26. al-Shawkani, op. cit., 79-80.

27. & 28. Ibid

29. Op. cit., I, 137.

30. Op. cit., II, 42.

31. al-Amdi, op. cit., I, 144; and Sa'd al-Din Mas'ud al-Taftazani, al-Talwih 'ala al-Tawdih (Egypt: Muhammad Ali al-Sahih, 1957), II, 47.

32. See Muhammad Amin al-Husayni, al-Taysir al-Tahrir (Egypt: Mustafa al-Babi al-Halbi, 1351H), III, 258.

33. Op. cit., II, 48-51.

34. Op. cit., II, 50.

35. Op. cit., I, 175.

36. al-Insaf fi Bayan Sabab al-Ikhtilaf (Dheli: Mujtabai, 1935), I, 118-119.

37. See Qadi Taqi al-Din and 'Abd al-Wahhab, al-Ibhaj fi Sharh al-Minhaj (Egypt: al-Maktaba al-Mahmudiyya al-Tijariyya, 1340H), II, 239-240.

38. Op. cit., 576.

39. al-Amdi, op. cit., I, 120.

40. Ibn al-Qayyin al-Jawziyya, op. cit., 32-33.