While a detailed exposition of the concept of ijma is neither the focus of this paper nor is it possible within its scope here, whether there is consensus about the Riba-Interest equation, which would necessarily imply that interest is prohibited in Islam, requires some basic understanding about ijma. Ordinary Muslims can easily misunderstand the pertinent issues and maybe easily misled, on one hand, and other pious authors (and even experts) can misrepresent such issues if the reality of the nature and the problems associated with the concept of ijma is not recognized and nailed right from the start. For a thorough exposition of the doctrine of ijma, the readers are encouraged to read another of my essay “The Doctrine of Ijma: Is There a Consensus?”.
It is commonly claimed and asserted that Islamic Shariah (or Islamic Fiqh, law, jurisprudence) is based on four foundation sources: the Qur’an, the Sunnah, Ijma (consensus) and Qiyas (analogical reasoning in keeping with the other three sources). There is no consensus about what is meant by Shariah and whether to use Shariah and Fiqh interchangeably. To appreciate the extent of the confusion about this, please see “Shariah, Law and Islam: Legalism vs. Value-Orientation”. The first two sources, the Qur’an and Sunnah (Hadith), are regarded as the primary sources and the other two, ijma and qiyas as secondary or derivative sources.
As far as ijma is concerned, one encounters the problem with the doctrine right at the start. There is no ijma (consensus) about the definition of ijma. Some define it as the consensus of the Companions of the Prophet. Others define it as the consensus of the scholars. Still, others define it as the consensus of the entire Muslim Ummah. While some consider consensus by active participation, others consider the silence of any dissenting voice acceptable. While some consider consensus to be binding upon the contemporary generation, while others hold that once an ijma has been achieved, it is inviolable and binding because the doctrine of ijma carries the notion of infallibility.
By the 3rd-4th century AH, several orthodox schools (madhahib) emerged, with each school having broad agreement within itself. However, the existence of multiple schools of jurisprudence (Fiqh) is not an evidence of, but lack of, consensus. How about consensus within a particular school? Readers should verify this matter with their due diligence. Going through Hedaya (translated by Charles Hamilton, Darul Ishaat, Karachi, 1989), one of the leading texts of Hanafi Fiqh, one can almost randomly pick a topic and see if even the three elders of Hanafi Fiqh (Imam Abu Hanifah, and his two disciples, Imam Abu Yusuf and Imam Muhammad) could agree on most of the issues covered in the book. For a detailed, itemized presentation from Hedaya, see Hedaya: How much agreement or disagreement?. The reality is that regardless of the definition selected – a consensus of the Companions, of the scholars, or of the entire Ummah – there aren’t really a whole lot of topics or issues on which there is ijma.
That’s not to suggest or assert that ijma has not played some vital role in the history of Islam or that it doesn’t have any validity or relevance at all. Rather, it is to help drive the point home that Muslims neither need nor should claim divine sanctity of a concept that simply doesn’t have such agreed upon sanctity. Furthermore, as explained in the essay on ijma, there is hardly anything, except a few broad and basic matters, on which there is ijma or consensus. Thus, Muslims need to be circumspect in accepting any claim about having ijma on something. Indeed, it is reported that Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal, founder of one of the four orthodox schools (madhab) made a cautionary assertion: “Whoever claims consensus is a liar.”4
That interest is riba is the prevailing, orthodox position. However, any claim about ijma (consensus) in general and about riba-Interest equivalence, in particular, should be treated with a great deal of circumspection. This is especially so because even the orthodox position has not been able to articulate any workable and agreed-upon definition of riba.
This may come as surprise to many, but as one of the prominent, contemporary Pakistani jurists/scholars of orthodox persuasion writes:
Despite the frantic activity in Islamic banking and finance, and despite the general agreement about the prohibition of riba, there is no agreement among the Muslims about the exact meaning of riba. The Supreme Court of Pakistan, for example, issued a questionnaire in 1992 in which the question on the top was: What is the meaning of riba?
One would have expected the Islamic Fiqh Academy of the OIC, or some other religious body, to have formulated a definition for the guidance of the Muslims in general and the guidance of the Muslim investors in particular. Though the rulings of the Academy is not binding on anyone and are mere suggestions, the definition could have been refined through debate and discussion, for the benefit of all, to suit modern transactions. A clear statement on the meaning of riba, in the form of definition, would be very helpful even for the banks, especially western banks. Unfortunately, no such definition has been framed. (emphasis added). [Nyazee, 2000, p. 2]
Nyazee further explains:
This may sound like an exaggeration, but it is not. There are many scholars today who maintain today that riba is not what we call interest in modern terminology. The majority of modern scholars, however, maintain that interest is riba and is prohibited. Even these scholars are not completely certain as to what transactions are covered by riba. This uncertainty has arisen due to the vagueness about riba and its rules. [ibid.]
Just as the voice of advocacy for Islamic banking and finance [IBF hereafter] is becoming overwhelming, there are also voices that have been in the past or are still unconvinced about or even challenging the relevance and general islamicity of these institutions and their operations. Despite the availability of fatwas (religious edicts) from the truly few Shariah experts, the literature on Islamic economics and finance so far has been unconvincing and also unsuccessful in removing doubts about the alleged equation between interest and Riba.5 On the other hand, those who have argued against this equation, the Non-Equivalence School [Ahmed, p. 28], have not been either heard enough or convincing enough in easily understandable terms so that the common Muslims can make up their own mind. Thus, this discourse needs to continue more vigorously.
In this essay, the focus is not on whether interest is riba, a topic that often gets bogged down in Islamic legalistic and scriptural sources. Rather, the focus is on whether there is an ijma (consensus) regarding the theriba-interest equation. Throughout history, there have been people who have taken positions at variance with the orthodoxy or the claimed orthodoxy.