(V) The Importance of Universal Consensus (Ijma’) in Islam

(V)(i) The Authority of Ijma’ in Islam

The importance of universal Islamic consensus (ijma’) in Islamic legal theory (fiqh) stems from its status according to most of the Mathahib as a major and legally binding source of holy law (Shari’ah) after the Qur’an and the hadith. In other words, what Muslims agree upon as an Ummah by unanimous consensus (after the death of the Prophet—may peace and blessings be upon him), is religiously binding on all Muslims before God. This is because God says in the Holy Qur’an:

And whoso opposeth the messenger after the guidance (of God) hath been manifested unto him, and followeth other than the believers’ way, We appoint for him that unto which he himself hath turned, and expose him unto hell – a hapless journey’s end! (Al-Nisa’, 4:115)

Similarly, the Prophet—may peace and blessings be upon him—said:

God has protected you from three things: that your Prophet should not invoke a curse upon you and you should all perish, that those who follow what is false should not prevail over those who follow the truth, and that you should not all agree on an error.9

God will not allow my Ummah to agree upon an error.10

My Ummah will not agree upon an error.11

I asked God not to allow my Ummah to agree upon an error, and He granted me that.12

(V)(ii) The Nature of Ijma’ in Islam

What is universal consensus (ijma’) in Islam? It is generally considered—and God knows best—to be distinct from the more limited consultation (shur’a) in Islam13 (which anyway may or may not lead to a consensus), and certainly different from modern Western democracy. It does not mean the rule of the majority, or even of the vast majority of all people. For God says in the Holy Qur’an:

If thou obeyest most of those on earth they would mislead thee far from God’s way. They follow naught but an opinion, and they do but guess. (Al-An’am, 6:116)

And though thou try much, most men will not believe. (Yusuf, 12:103)

Thus universal consensus (ijma’) is not arrived at by a plebiscite where the majority but not everyone agrees. It is unanimous, or it is precisely not a universal consensus (ijma’) at all.

But of whom is the unanimous consensus in Islam? Obviously the agreement of every sane, adult Muslim in the world would include every possible unanimity. However, the Holy Qur’an mentions two kinds of people specifically whose opinions must be respected: ‘those who know’ (hence the learned, the ‘ulama) and those in authority. Of those in authority (ulu al-amr) God says in the Holy Qur’an:

You who believe: Obey God and obey the Messenger, and those of authority (ulu’l-amr) among you. (4:59)

Of ‘those who know’, God says in the Holy Qur’an:

Is he who payeth adoration in the watches of the night, prostrate and standing, bewaring of the Hereafter and hoping for the mercy of his Lord, (to be accounted equal with a disbeliever)? Say (unto them, O Muhammad): Are those who know equal with those who know not? But only men of understanding will pay heed. (Al-Zumar, 39:9)

And We sent not (as Our messengers) before thee other than men whom We inspired—Ask those of the remembrance if ye know not! (Al-Nahl, 16:43)

And in the following verse, God distinguishes both those ‘in authority’ and those ‘who can interpret’:

And if any tidings, whether of safety or fear, come unto them, they proclaim it about, whereas had they referred it to the Messenger and such of them as are in authority, those among them who can interpret it among them would have known it. And were it not for the bounty of God upon you and His Mercy, you would have surely followed Satan, save a few [of you]. (Al-Nisaʾ, 4:83)

Of course the Prophet—may peace and blessings be upon him—supremely combined both functions in his person. However, after the death of Imam Ali bin Abi Talib—may God honour his countenance—these two functions became split, in practice if not theory, for certainly the Umayyad rulers and those after them could not and did not pretend to be of ‘those who know’. Today we have an almost complete scission between what we now call the ‘executive authority’ on the one hand, and the ‘judiciary authority’ on the other. Clearly, however, when both the ‘those in authority’ and ‘those who know’ universally and unanimously agree on something, then that is an ijma’, even in our present day. And God knows best.

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