AwzlXG2CQAIdDt-.jpg-largeLet me clarify two issues before I explain the point of this post. The first issue that needs clarifying is: what is taqlid? The second one is: who are the Four Imams?

[1] As an Arabic word, taqlid stems from qallada, meaning: ‘To place a collar (qiladah) around the neck.’1 It is called this because the person who does taqlid, the muqallid, entrusts his affair to the one he is performing taqlid of. He is like someone being led by the collar, so to speak.

In its religious or legal sense, taqlid is: ‘Accepting the opinion of someone without a proof (qabulu qawli’l-ghayr min ghayri hujjah).’2

Usually, taqlid is taken to mean a layman accepting a religious ruling from a qualified jurist or scholar without being burdened with knowing the proof behind the ruling. In doing so, the layman agrees to be guided by the scholar out of trust and confidence he has in his scholarship.3

[2] A jurist who is qualified to examine and evaluate the evidences from the Qur’an or the Hadiths, so as to extract or infer legal rulings from them, is called a mujtahid. The process of a mujtahid ‘expending or exerting every possible effort so as to evaluate the evidences’ – to leave no stone unturned, as it were – is called ijtihad.4

Several mujtahid scholars have graced our history; some of whom had a school of law (madhhab) ascribed to them, while others didn’t. Of them, the madhhabs of only four mujtahids endured: they were the schools of Imams Abu Hanifah (d.150H/767CE), Malik (d.179H/795CE), Shafi‘i (d.204H/820CE), and Ahmad b. Hanbal (d.241H/855CE). Their schools along with their legal doctrines are known as the Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi‘i and Hanbali madhhabs, respectively.

The issue: There are certain statements reported from these above Four Imams which explicitly state that one should not make taqlid of them. That is, one must not follow their juristic opinions until one is aware of the proofs or legal reasoning behind their judgements and rulings. Some people have seen in such words a justification, not just for qualified jurists to evaluate proof-texts, but for the non-qualified, the ill-versed and the down right ignorant to dabble in the fine art of juristic reasoning too. The bottom line for such people is that they believe the Four Imams were emphatic in prohibiting taqlid to one and all: to scholar and layman alike.

Whether in mass-marketed books on “sahih” Islam, websites, or YouTube videos, this claim is hammered home again and again by such people. Hence let us examine this claim, by first citing a sample of the verdicts of the Four Imams concerning the issue of taqlid – may God bestow His mercy upon them all.

Imam Abu Hanifah stated: ‘It is unlawful for anyone to accept our opinion if he does not know from where we took it.’5

Imam Malik urged: ‘Indeed, I am but a human being. At times I am correct, at [other] times I err. So look into my sayings: whatever agrees with the Book  and the Sunnah, accept it; whatever contradicts them, ignore it.’6

Imam al-Shafi‘i asserted: ‘For everything I say and there is something authentic from the Prophet, peace be upon him, that opposes my view, then the hadith of the Prophet comes first. So do not make taqlid of me.’7

Imam Ahmad declared: ‘Do not make taqlid of me, nor of Malik, al-Shafi’i, al-Awza’i or al-Thawri. But take from where they took.’8

Analysing the above statements seems to make a few things pretty clear. Phrases such as, take from where they took (Abu Hanifah, Imam Ahmad) clearly suggests looking into the root sources directly – the root sources being the Qur’an and Hadith. Look into my saying (Imam Malik) is surely an instruction to evaluate the evidences. And then there is the phrase, do not make taqlid of me (al-Shafi‘i, Ahmad) – which pretty much puts a lid on things. Or does it?

There seems to be no shadow of doubt that they all forbade unconditional acceptance of their opinions without evaluating them first. But the very notion of scrutinising proofs, in the context of a legal argument or discourse (and obviously in the original Quranic Arabic language), clearly suggests another thing too: juristic qualification! To believe the Four Imams were addressing the illiterate; or those who could read and write, but had poor knowledge of Arabic grammar and language structures; or even if they were grammar proficient, they have no legal training whatsoever, would be the wildest stretch of the imagination (if it weren’t so ludicrous). The idea that the Four Imams were telling the unqualified, untrained masses (the bulk of whom couldn’t and still cannot understand Quranic Arabic) to evaluate proof-texts, beggars belief!

Cast in this light, it becomes crystal-clear just who the Four Imams were speaking to in their censure of taqlid. Their words were aimed squarely at their student, as well as anyone like them who were, in varying competent degrees, versed in legal reasoning and ijtihad. Indeed, this has always been the classical scholarly understanding of their words.

Imam Ibn Taymiyyah (d.728H/1328CE) said the following, in conclusion to one of his fatwas on the issue of taqlid:

‘As for the likes of Malik, al-Shafi‘i and Sufyan; or Ishaq b. Rahawayah or Abu ‘Ubayd, there is a clear stipulation in another place that he [Imam Ahmad] deemed it unlawful for a scholar capable of legal inference (istidlal) to make taqlid of the aforementioned. He said: “Do not make taqlid of me, nor Malik, al-Shafi‘i, or al-Thawri.” … He ordered the lay people to seek fatwas from Ishaq, Abu ‘Ubayd, Abu Thawr and Abu Mus‘ab. But he prohibited those of his students who were scholars – such as Abu Dawud, ‘Uthman ibn Sa‘id, Ibrahim al-Harbi, Abu Bakr al-Athram, Abu Zur‘ah, Abu Hatim al-Sijistani, Muslim and others – from making taqlid of any other scholar. He would say: ‘Stick to the basic principle by [following] the Book and the Sunnah.9

Conclusion: To some, all of this may sound like a mere piece of academia. But it isn’t. The consequence of misusing the sayings of the Four Imams, or of misunderstanding them, has been both tragic and terrible (and not without its irony too).

It is tragic because taqlid – following qualified scholarship without being required to know the proof – is something permitted to lay people by scholarly consensus (ijma‘). Imam al-Qurtubi (d.671H/1273CE) said: ‘There is no difference between the scholars that the lay people should perform taqlid of their scholars.’10 Shaykh Muhammad al-Amin al-Shinqiti (d.1393H/1972CE) wrote: ‘As for the permitted [type of] taqlid, which none from the Muslims contest, it is a layman making taqlid of a scholar qualified to issue fatwas about the various circumstances and issues one encounters. This type of taqlid was in vogue during the time of the Prophet, peace be upon him; no difference existed about its legality.’11 Forbidding taqlid to even the lay people not only opposes scholarly consensus, and therefore Sunni orthodoxy; but even more tragically, such a view has, historically, only been associated with the innovators (ahl al-bid‘ah). Which is why Ibn Qudamah (d.620H/1223CE) stated: ‘It is the view of some of the Qadarites that the lay people are required to investigate the proofs, even in the detailed religious rulings (furu‘). But this is futile by consensus of the Companions.’12 One more scholar worth citing is Ibn Abd al-Barr (d.463H/1071CE), who said: ‘The scholars do not differ that the lay people must make taqlid of their scholars, or that they are the ones meant by God’s words: So ask the people of knowledge if you do not know. [16:43]’13

It is terrible because of the religious anarchy such a misunderstanding has unleashed; especially in the last decade or so. That countless lay people now fiercely believe they are obligated to examine proofs, and that they cannot accept any scholarly statement on simple trust, has caused untold chaos to souls and society. Hostile arguments, false accusations of “blind following”, ignorant people weighing-up proofs and then trying to thrust their ill-conceived understanding down the throats of others, a new method (manhaj) of da‘wah that distances itself from other Muslims because of their perceived deviancy of taqlid, creating immense mistrust for classical scholarship only to replace it with a cultish following of a handful of contemporary shaykhs – these, and other ills, now abound; continuing to shatter our unity and fragment our communities.

As for the irony, the anti-taqlid posse is forever quick to label the average lay Muslims with the pejorative term, “blind-followers”. Yet those who take the sayings of the Four Imams well beyond their intended remit, and disseminate this misreading uncritically and without due examination – are they not the real blind-followers here?!

1. Al-Tufi, Sharh Mukhtasar al-Rawdah (Beirut: Mu’assasah al-Risalah, 1990), 3:650.

2. Al-Ghazali, al-Mustasfa min ‘Ilm al-Usul (Cairo: Maktabah al-Tijariyyah, 1937), 2:387.

3. Cf. Bakr Abu Zayd, al-Madkhal al-Mufassal (Riyadh: Dar al-Tawhid, 1991), 1:64.

4. As per al-Shanqiti, Nathr al-Wurud ‘ala Maraqi al-Su‘ud (Jeddah: Dar al-Manarah, 1994), 622.

5. Cited in Ibn al-Qayyim, I‘lam al-Muwaqqi‘in (Saudi Arabia: Dar Ibn al-Jawzi, 2002), 3:470.

6. Cited in Ibn ‘Abd al-Barr, Jami‘ Bayan al-‘Ilm (Saudi Arabia: Dar Ibn al-Jawzi, 1994), 775; no.1435.

7. Ibn Abi Hatim, Adab al-Shafi‘i, 93; cited in al-Albani, Sifat al-Salat al-Nabi (Riyadh: Maktabah al-Ma‘arif, 1996), 52.

8. I‘lam al-Muwaqqi‘in, 3:469.

9. Majmu‘ Fatawa (Riyadh: Dar ‘Alam al-Kutub, 1991), 20:226.

10. Al-Jami‘ li Ahkam al-Qur’an (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 1997), 11:181.

11. Adwa’ al-Bayan (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 1996), 7:318.

12. Rawdat al-Nazir (Riyadh: Maktabah al-Rushd, 1993), 3:1019.

13. Jami‘ Bayan al-‘Ilm, 989.

25 thoughts on “The Four Imams: Did They Forbid the Layman from Taqlid?

  1. Excellent explanation, long overdue. JazakumAllahu khairan. Let us hope this message reaches and is accepted by those of us most in need of it. And we seek help from Allah, may He grant us tawfiq (His enabling Grace) and taysir (ease).

  2. The irony of our islamic upbringing (for may of us at least) is we laid the charge of taqlid (in the negative sense) on the doorstep of many yet were completely blind to the fact that we too were making taqlid, how strange!

    Even more strange is the fact that very few of us have an acceptable grasp of the arabic language even to the extent that we can read and understand the Quran properly so how can we see fit to delve into the proofs of the scholars. Yet we refuse to know our own limitations and resort to statements of the scholars out of context and with little or no understanding.

    Anyone with the slightest amount of sense will realise that when they read the biographies and stories of the past great scholars (may Allah be pleased with them all) that when they gave fatwa they very seldom gave their proofs, even when the question was asked by their students. Because it is not the responsibilty for the one who is asking to know the proofs and nor is it the responsibility of the scholar to give it. Our obligation as Allah clearly states in the Quran is to ask the people of knowledge if we do not know.

    Many people ask, where is the proof for such and such ruling. I would like to ask where is the proof for asking for the proof?

  3. As long as the Muslims are humble and respect their righteous
    scholars they shall remain steadfast and united. But once the ego stirs within
    the individual and his whims and desire take control, whereby his respect for these
    qualified scholars begins to weaken thus, causing him to believe himself as an equal
    with regards to their status of knowledge, scholastic ability, fatwa-issuing and forming his own personal madhhab 3, etc. then what could be more pleasurable to the enemies of Islam than this:, i.e. to create billions of ‘mini-madhhabs’!!!

  4. Its so true that we have made these 4 Madhabs more into some kind of sects or cults or mini madhabs. It’s sad as these Madhabs help layman like us to carry out our day to day life. Our, wudo, our salah, our haj, our omrah our….etc etc.

    All the 4 Imams said so much out of humbleness only if we knew that when they sat together they never fought or argued or put down the other. When inquired about their extent of knowledge, one of them said that the knowledge they had was just like a drop of water taken from a vast sea in the beak of a bird. (I have not quoted the exact words here)

    Difference of opinion should be taken as a ‘Blessing’. It teaches us tolerance, not to deny that our ‘Tolerance Level’ does go down, many a times to ‘0’.

    I seriously would recommend Muslims in general to read the History on these 4 Imams. Check out how they lived, struggled just to achieve knowledge to make life easy for us and to Please Allah(SWT). How firm were they when it came to the matter of their Deen. What we do is argue and label ourselves with one of them. Most of us fight over them but barely follow what they say. We need to know who they are…..unfortunately, most of us don’t.

    Br. Surkheel, this is an article most of needed. Hopefully it will lead us to bring unity and tolerance with eachother….InshaALlah.
    JazakAllahu khairun

    1. You are right, reading about their blessed lives would help yield a profounder insight into their body of works and instil greater tollerance in some madhhab followers (provided one doesn’t just read the biography of only the imam he/she follows).

  5. I asked several specialists about their ‘confidence’ level in their professions after quite a few years of experience. Unsurprisingly, none claimed ‘authority’ in their respective field. Ever wonder why? Because of the true realisation of one’s strengths and weaknesses. One studies and then gains experience in certain specialty and realises his/her shortcomings and shy away from most of the difficult questions and refer to the experts.

    But when it comes to the most sophisticated and delicate specialty that deals with human faith and aakhirah, we all feel audaciously confident and reckless to give fatwas to etc!

    Unfortunately some of us fall in the fourth and the worst category of people with regards to knowledge. That is, they don’t have knowledge and they don’t even know that they don’t have it!!!!

    Perhaps sayyiduna ‘Ali RA used to say that knowing that one doesn’t know is a sign that one has knowledge (of his/her limitations!).

    may Allaah give us all tawfeeque and wisdom.

  6. Amin.

    I think that hits the proverbial nail on the head.! Knowing our own levels (or lack of) can be quite a challenge to our ego driven existences.

    Jazakallahu khayran.

  7. submission was a word I forgot..I had to learn….and am sometimes the biggest offender of letting go of control of certain situations …..just accepting and trusting …sometimes so hard to perform…yet constantly acknowledging ones strengths and weakness’s..with the Quran being a reminder…..and realising it is always good to ask…and if no response…..just listening to the complete silence and understanding the overwhelming and enduring love…those words telling all….like a feather caressing one’s soul in the wind….that is what Islam taught me….xx

  8. Jazakallahukhayran. Bismillah. Have we not resembled the young man who scoffs at the wisdom/understanding of his elders, only much later in life to realise that they were right! Surely we can’t move forward until we return.

    1. This reminds me of the words ascribed to Mark Twain: ‘When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.’

  9. Masha Allah…EXCELLENT article and a nice read…It was balanced, succinct and most importantly, supported by references that show scholars (the likes of Ibn Abd-al-Bar, al-Qurtabi, Ibn Taymiyyah and others) of great renown and repute were of the same understanding. May Allah help us all to continue to grow and develop in our quest to gain His favor and pleasure.

    1. Jazakallahu khayran for your comments ya Shaykh. It’s a real pleasure to hear from you Abu Usamah. Amin to your du’a. I pray things are well with you.

  10. if one prefers to pick and choose an opinion based on their own opinion by studying compariative fiqhs of the 4 schools and their opinion is based on them for example not finding a single authentic narration then is that a valid position.

    what is driving salafi scholars to promote their methodology ? have they simply not looked into the issue enough can they not see flaws in their methodolgy?

    I dont mean to name groups or cause disunity we are all one ummah just wanted some clairty on this issue

  11. The idea of not following one specific madhhab, but “picking and choosing” religious rulings will be dealt with in an upcoming post, God-willing, where I intend to type up a few loose ends on the issue of taqlid and madhhabs. I hope you can wait until then for a response.

    1. Assalamu alaikum

      Jazakallahu khairan for the article. Have you managed to complete the article on ‘Picking and choosing’ as stated in the previous comment?

  12. What about a case where one scholar says something and another scholar says the opposite? Pick one at random and hope it is correct? You cannot say both are correct. The is only one law of Allah, just we are not always sure what it is. Therefore, where there is difference of opinion, one must be correct and the others mistaken.

    The lay person still has a brain. While he may not be qualified enough to analyze proofs, he can ask for the proofs from the scholars. Scholars must be prepared to present the proof they collected, and verify that they are authentic. The lay person has a brain and intellect, and once a scholar breaks down the explanation properly, they can understand. Everyone, even the lay person, is obligated to seek truth. In seeking truth, they must ask for proof and not blindly follow. If people don’t ask questions, how will they know if any scholar might be leading them astray?

    There may be cases where both differing opinions have equally valid proofs. Well, in that case, I would say pick the one from the person who has the best qualifications. If that doesn’t work out, then the person who has a better track record of giving good rulings based on authentic proof.

    1. Thank you for your questions and comments. If permitted, I’d like to take your questions (along with another set of similar queries sent to me a while back) and respond to them in blog form – in the near future inshallah.

    2. Salams. With respect (and I used to think like that before)… Perhaps a short answer could be: Otherwise you will be going round in circles all your life. Why desire to re-invent the wheel. Beware of Satanic deception, stick to the wisdom and learning of the Awliya. Or have they been misguided for the past 1400 years?

  13. Assalam o Alaikum,
    Can I publish this article with some notes and slight change of wording in my research journal ‘Australian Journal of Humanities and Islamic Studies Research’.

    I would be grateful if you can permit this as I believe it would be of massive benefit to readers of our website and journal.

    Kind Regards,
    Australian Islamic Library
    Australian Journal of Humanities and Islamic Studies Research

    1. Wa alaykum as-salam wa rahmatullah. Yes, you are free to publish the article in your journal, with the customary acknowledgement. But since you wish to change some of the wording, slightly, I’d be grateful if you could send it to me for approval befor actually publishing the article.

      Likewise, you are free to publish any other article from the blog that you feel is useful, with similar arrangement as above.

      May Allah bless your endeavours and cause it to be of benefit to the wider public. May He also grant you tawfiq and taysir.

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