Imam Malik was once urged by ‘Abd Allah al-‘Umari – who was given to much worldly detachment (zuhd) – that he ought to devote far more time to spiritual seclusion and to other personal acts of piety. Imam Malik wrote a letter of courtesy to him, offering this piece of wisdom:
‘Allah, exalted is He, apportions people’s actions as He apportions their sustenance. So sometimes He grants a spiritual opening to a person in terms of [optional] prayers, but not [optional] fasting. Or He grants an opening in giving charity, but not in fasting. To another, He may grants them an opening for jihad. As for spreading sacred knowledge, that is from the best of deeds, and I am pleased with what Allah has opened to me. Nor do I imagine that what I am engaged in is any less than what you are engaged in; and I hope that both of us are upon goodness and righteousness.’1
Its adab and humility aside, the core lesson from the letter is: When Allah opens a door to being consistent in doing a certain righteous deed, and makes that your main focus, then cling to it and do not give it up for anything else. We should, undoubtedly, have a share of other good deeds too; without them necessarily being our main preoccupation or focus.
Something similar is suggested in a report concerning Ibn Mas‘ud, when he was asked as to why he did not fast optional fasts more frequently. His reply:
In Islam, is there any significance to the period of forty days? Why do certain people insist on going into spiritual retreats for this length of time? Some allude to the verse: And when We appointed for Moses forty nights [Qur’an 2:51], saying that it points to the importance and justification of a forty day spiritual retreat. What, then, is the reality of this claim; and what is the ruling (hukm) of such retreats of solitude and seclusion in Islam?
Undeniably, this forty day retreat of seclusion (khalwah, ‘uzlah) prepared Moses, peace be upon him, for the august meeting with his Lord and the lordly gift he was about to receive.1 Moreover, the Bible has it that Jesus, peace be upon him, also retreated into the wilderness, fasting for forty day. It was after this that his ministry began.
As for in Islam, a forty day retreat (khalwah) seems to have no specific mention in our Sacred Law. Besides his retreats to the cave of Hira before prophethood, there is no hadith to show that the Prophet ﷺ ever entered into this type of retreat after he was commissioned as a prophet; nor did he legislate it for others. Ibn Taymiyyah insists that forty day retreats are not part of the Prophet’s Sacred Law ﷺ, but rather the Law of Moses – which is now abrogated by the Muhammadan shari‘ah.2
There is a hadith which says: ‘Whoever dedicates to God forty days, the wellspring of wisdom shall manifest itself from his heart to his tongue.’3 This hadith, however, is weak (da‘if); though not fabricated.4 Something resembling this was echoed by Imam Malik who said: ‘It has reached me that none renounces the world and is God-fearing, except that he shall speak wisdom.’5
The famous pietist, Sahl al-Tustari, also has similar words: ‘Whoever renounces the world for forty days with sincere devotion, miracles shall emanate from him. If they do not, there is an absence of truthfulness in his renunciation.’6
All in all, then, nothing sound and concrete seems to be legislated in the Sunnah with regards to retreating from the world specifically for forty days. Certain words have been recorded from some of the early pietists based on their experience (tajribah) in this matter, and rooted in the generally accepted wisdom that habits can be forged in forty days. Imam al-Munawi has said that, ‘The wisdom in specifying forty days is that this is the time needed to persist in changing or forming basic habits; as is known by experience.’7
As for seeking seclusion so as to worship Allah through personal acts of devotion – in other words, taking some spiritual ‘time-out’ – Ibn Taymiyyah remarks: ‘It is vital for a person to set aside some time for themselves so as to engage in earnest supplication, remembrance, prayer, contemplation, introspection, setting the heart right and other spiritual practices that require solitude and seclusion.’8 For it is in a state of solitude that the heart’s gaze can best be diverted away from creation and be focused solely on the Creator. Ibn ‘Ata’illah offered us this piece of spiritual wisdom: ‘Nothing benefits the heart more than a spiritual retreat wherein it enters the domains of meditation.’9
If someone specifies forty days (or, for that matter, any length of time) for a personal retreat, or to try and nurture spiritual habits – then provided the specific period is not believed to be an established Sunnah, and provided that one’s other religious duties or worldly responsibilities are not neglected – this would be in keeping with the overall spirit of the faith and the received wisdoms of some of our predecessors. Of course, intending to engage in any lengthy period of seclusion and solitude must be done so under the guidance of those learned in shari’ah; the sacred law, and versed in tariqah; the method or path of inward purification. Indeed, going it alone in such a prolonged spiritual practice can be fraught with great danger to mind, body and soul.
And Allah knows best.
1. As per: al-Alusi, Ruh al-Ma‘ani (Beirut: Dar Ihya al-Turath al-‘Arabi, n.d.), 1:257; Ibn ‘Ashur, al-Tahrir wa’l-Tanwir (Tunis: Dar al-Tunisiyyah, 1984), 1:497.
2. See: Ibn Taymiyyah, Majmu‘ Fatawa (Riyadh: Dar ‘Alam al-Kutub, 1991), 10:393-95.
3. Abu Nu‘aym, Hilyat al-Awliya, 5:189; Ibn Abi Shaybah, al-Musannaf, 13:231; Hannad, al-Zuhd, no.678.
4. Al-Qari says that Ibn al-Jawzi cites it in his anthology of fabricated reports, Kitab al-Mawdu‘at, but believes it to be an error in judgement. For the chain is merely weak, not fabricated. Cf. al-Israr al-Marfu‘ah (Beirut: al-Maktab al-Islami, 1986), 315; no.454. Its chain being weak is also the grading given it by al-Sakhawi, al-Maqasid al-Hasanah (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 2003), no.1052. Al-Albani declared it weak in Silsilat al-Ahadith al-Sahihah (Riyadh: Maktabah al-Ma’arif, 1992), no.38.
5. As was recorded in al-Dhahabi, Siyar A’lam al-Nubala (Beirut: Mu’assasah al-Risalah, 1998), 8:109.
6. Recorded in al-Qushayri, al-Risalah al-Qushayriyyah (no info., n.d.), 190. Also refer to its English translation by A. Kynsh, al-Qushayri’s Epistle on Sufism (Reading: Garnet Publishing, 2007), 367.
7. Fayd al-Qadir (Beirut: Dar al-Ma‘rifah, n.d.), 6:44.
8. Majmu‘ Fatawa, 10:426.
9. Al-Hikam al-‘Ata’iyyah (Cairo: Dar al-Salam, 2006), no.12.
Imam Muslim records the following hadith in his esteemed Sahih, no.2880: Sufyan b. ‘Uyaynah narrates from al-Zuhri; from ‘Urwah; from Zaynab b. Umm Salamah; from Habibah; from Umm Habibah; from Zaynab b. Jahsh that the Prophet, peace be upon him, woke-up from his sleep and exclaimed: ‘La ilaha illa’Llah! Woe be to the Arabs for an evil that is fast approaching. Today, a gap has been made in the wall [that restrains] Gog and Magog like such;’ Sufyan formed a circle with his thumb and index finger [to demonstrate]. Zaynab asked: O Messenger of God, shall we be destroyed even though there are righteous people among us? He said: ‘Yes, if evil becomes widespread (na‘am idha kathura’l-khabath).’
Imam al-Nawawi wrote in his commentary to this hadith: ‘This chain (isnad) contains four female Companions (sahabiyyat) – two of the Messenger of God’s wives, and two of his step-daughters – narrating one from another. No other hadith is known to have four female Companions relating one from another, besides this one.’1
Al-Khatib al-Baghdadi relates a rare and unusual chain, consisting of nine forefathers reporting one from another. He says that Abu’l-Faraj ‘Abd al-Wahhab b. ‘Abd al-‘Aziz b. al-Harith b. Asad b. al-Layth b. Sulayman b. al-Aswad b. Sufyan b. Zayd b. Ukaynah b. ‘Abd Allah al-Tamimi narrated to us from memory that I heard my father say; that I heard my father say; that I heard my father say; that I heard my father say; that I heard my father say; that I heard my father saying; that I heard my father say; that I heard my father say; that I heard ‘Ali b Abi Talib saying: ‘Knowledge calls for action; so either the call is responded to, or knowledge departs.’2
As part of his commentary to the following verse: Think not of those who are slain in the path of God as dead. No, they are alive with their Lord, well-provided for, [3:169] Ibn Kathir wrote:
‘We have narrated from Imam Ahmad’s Musnad a hadith that contains glad tidings for every believer in that his soul shall roam freely in Paradise and shall eat of its fruits. It shall see what it contains of joy and delight and witness the great honour that God has prepared for it. It is reported with an illustrious and splendid authentic chain (bi isnad sahih ‘aziz ‘azim), containing three of the Four Imams whose law-schools are followed, that Imam Ahmad, may God have mercy upon him, narrates from Muhammad b. Idris al-Shafi‘i, may God’s mercy be upon him; from Malik b. Anas al-Asbahi, may God have mercy on him; from al-Zuhri; from ‘Abd al-Rahman b. Ka‘b b. Malik; from his father, may God be pleased with him, who related that God’s Messenger, peace be upon him, said: “The believer’s soul is a bird clinging to the trees of Paradise till God returns it to his body on the day of his resurrection.”‘3
1. Sharh Sahih Muslim (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 1995), 18:3.
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?!