We continue our reading into the words and insights left to us by Imam Shams al-Din al-Dhahabi – accomplished scholar, copious writer and committed traditionalist – as per his celebrated hagiography of Islam’s scholars, sages and other personalities, Siyar A‘lam al-Nubala:
When Great Minds Think Alike: After recording the words of Ishaq b. Rahuwayah: ‘If al-Thawri, al-Awza‘i and Malik agree upon any matter, it is sunnah,‘ Imam al-Dhahabi comments:
‘Rather the sunnah is what the Prophet, upon whom be peace, made so, or the Rightly-Guided Caliphs after him. As regards consensus (ijma‘), it is whatever the scholars of this ummah, both past and present, have unanimously concurred upon: [including] a consensus which is probable (zanni) or tacit (sukuti). Whosoever diverges from such a consensus, among the Successors (tabi‘un) or their followers – due to stances arrived at via independent legal judgement (ijtihad) – it is tolerated from him alone.
As for those who disagree with the three aforementioned senior scholars, then this is not considered to be opposing the consensus, nor the Sunnah. All that Ishaq intended was that if they concur upon any given matter, then it is most probably correct. Just as we say today that it is almost impossible to find the truth to be outside of whatever the Four Mujtahid Imams concurred upon. We say this whilst at the same time admitting that their agreement on an issue doesn’t constitute a consensus of the ummah: though we are wary of stating, in an issue on which they agree, that the truth is otherwise.’1
The Praiseworthy Trial: While describing the ordeal endured by Imam Malik in which he was severely beaten so much so that ‘his arm was wrenched out of its socket and an enormous wrong had been perpetrated against him. Yet, by God, Malik didn’t cease to be held in high esteem,’ al-Dhahabi wrote:
‘This is the result of a praiseworthy trial which only serves to raise a person’s rank and esteem in the sight of believers. Whatever the case, it is what our own hands earn; yet God pardons much. “Whoever God intends to show goodness to, He tries him through ordeals.”2 The Prophet, peace be upon him, further stated: “Everything decreed for the believer is good for him.”3 God, exalted is He, said: We shall try you until We know those of you who strive and those who are patient. [47:31] The following words were revealed by God about the battle of Uhud: When disaster befell you after you had inflicted losses twice as heavy, you exclaimed: “How did this happen?” Say: “It was from yourselves.” [3:165] God also said: Whatever misfortune befalls you, it is what your own hands have earned, and He pardons much. [42:30]
Thus a believer, when he is tried, shows patient, takes admonition, seeks forgiveness of God and does not busy himself in blaming the one who mistreated him. For God’s judgement is just. Instead, he should thank God that his faith remains intact, realising that worldly punishment is both lighter and better for him.’4
A Falcon Among Fledglings: Imam al-Shafi‘i remarked: ‘People are all dependents of Abu Hanifah in jurisprudence (fiqh).’ After citing these words, Imam al-Dhahabi says:
‘Leadership in fiqh, along with its minutiae, is undeniable for this Imam. It is a matter about which there is no doubt: Intellects cannot be sound at all / If daytime needs a proof. His life would require two separate volumes to depict – God be pleased with him and have mercy on him. He died as a martyr in the year 150H, at the age of seventy, after being poisoned. A huge dome has been built over him in Baghdad, and a magnificent tomb; though God knows best.’5
Let 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?
 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
 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?!