David Glenn in the Chronicle of Higher Education:
…a few prominent liberal scholars are aggressively promoting a concept that they believe can nurture democracy and allow an authentic Islam to thrive in the modern world. Islam can regenerate itself, these scholars say, if it returns to the principle of ijtihad.
The Arabic term — which literally means “strenuous effort” — has historically referred to the practice of systematically interpreting Islamic religious texts in order to resolve difficult points of law. (In an oft-cited example, early Muslim jurists strove to interpret an ambiguously phrased Koranic verse about how long a divorced woman must wait before remarrying.) In the early centuries of Islam, ijtihad was confined to an elite set of scholars and jurists (mujtahidin) with rigorous training in the religion’s texts and laws. Beginning around the 12th century, most Muslim communities restricted the practice even further: Some juridical schools declared outright that “the gates of ijtihad have been closed,” while other regions limited the practice of ijtihad to questions of the family and everyday life.
Today’s proponents of ijtihad take a far more expansive view. “There will be no Islamic democracy unless jurists permit the democratization of interpretation,” wrote M.A. Muqtedar Khan, a professor of political science at Adrian College, in a 2003 essay. In Mr. Khan’s view, political elites in the Muslim world have for centuries restricted the development of democracy and political accountability by hiding behind religious principles that they proclaim to be fixed in stone. Mr. Khan argues, in effect, for an end run around the entire traditional apparatus of Muslim jurisprudence. Believers should instead, he suggests, look directly to the Koran and to the practices of Muhammad and his companions, and use their own efforts at interpretation to build ethical communities.