In an earlier post (it can be read here), I discussed how the words of the Four Imams (Abu Hanifah, Malik, al-Shafi‘i and Ahmad bin Hanbal) concerning taqlid (incorrectly translated as “blind following”) continue to be misunderstood and misused by many groups and individuals today.
In this post, I wish to tie-up some loose ends on the subject of taqlid – “the following of qualified scholarship” – by addressing some common objections raised about the matter. It is advisable to read the previous posting on the subject, if it has not already been read, for it lays down certain cornerstones for us. Scholars state, man lam yutqin al-usul hurima’l-wusul – “Whoever lacks a firm grasp of the foundations, will be barred from arriving [at the goal].”
1. The objection most frequently heard against the permissibility of taqlid is: “We only follow the Qur’an and the Sunnah!” What is commonly implied by such a statement is: (i) that each Muslim has a duty to go directly to the root sources and derive their own fatwas and religious rulings, or (ii) that every Muslim must “weigh-up” the proofs and “select” the strongest scholarly view on the issue. Aside for highly seasoned jurists or fuqaha, permitting this to the religiously unqualified is nothing short of a wicked and woeful innovation. Explaining Ibn Hazm’s (d.456H/1064CE) words, ‘I follow the truth, make ijtihad, and do not limit myself to a [single] madhhab,’ Imam al-Dhahabi (d.748H/1348CE) wrote:
‘Yes! Whoever reaches the level of ijtihad, and a number of scholars testify to it, taqlid is not allowed to him. Much like how a novice jurist, or a layman who has memorised the Qur’an or most of it, is not permitted to attempt ijtihad at all. How could he make ijtihad? What could he possible say? On what can he base his opinion? How can he fly and he has yet to grow wings? The third type is a highly skilled, intelligent, discerning jurist who – having committed to memory a primer in fiqh, and on juristic maxims and legal theory; mastered grammar; memorised the Book of God and busied himself with its exegesis (tafsir); and possesses a sharp, analytical intellect – has now reached a rank of restricted ijtihad and is thus qualified to investigate the scholarly proofs. So whenever the truth becomes apparent to him in any given issue, or the proofs well established, and it has been acted upon by one of the great Imams like Abu Hanifah, for instance, or Malik, al-Thawri, al-Awza‘i, al-Shafi‘i, Abu ‘Ubayd, Ahmad or Ishaq, he should follow [what he sees as] the truth; without chasing concessions, but instead by being scrupulous. Taqlid is not allowed to him in the issue after the proofs have been established to him.’1
Now compare this with the da’wah that obligates (or at least, encourages) those who have nothing of the above depicted skill-set to “investigate” and weigh-up proofs! A mournful case of ducklings that can barely wade into water, convinced they can swan gracefully across the lake of legal rulings. Inna li’Llahi wa inna ilayhi raji‘un!
2. A second objection runs as follows: If taqlid is “accepting the ruling of a scholar, but without knowing the proof for it,” then when a layman learns a proof in an issue, he is no longer a muqallid (one who is doing taqlid). To this confusion, Shaykh al-Islam Ibn Taymiyyah (d.728H/1328CE) wrote:
‘As for someone who knows the opinion of one scholar; along with his proofs, but not that of the other scholar or his proof, he is still from the generality of the muqallids. He is certainly not of those scholars who can evaluate and weigh-up [proofs].’2
This is a highly important point that is very often misunderstood. The great majority of jurists maintain that if a person is aware of a basic proof (dalil) for any given matter, but is unaware of the complete proofs, he is still classed as a muqallid (some calling him a muqallid muttabi‘ – a muqallid nonetheless). This complete knowledge entails three aspects: knowing the relevant proof-texts; knowing how rulings actually arise from them; and knowing how to resolve textual conflicts (ta‘arud al-adillah). Hence the muqallid includes: (i) a layman who does not know any proofs; and (ii) a layman who knows some proofs, but in an incomplete manner, and (iii) a student of fiqh ‘who has gained some learning of a law school and has studied a few of the manuals of the later scholars … yet despite this, is deficient in examining the proofs and evaluating the views of the jurists. Such a person is also required to perform taqlid.’3
3. Another popular anti-taqlid objection bases itself upon the verse: When it is said to them: “Follow what God has sent down,” they retort: “We will follow what we found our forefathers following.” What! Even though their forefathers understood nothing, nor where they rightly-guided. [2:170] It is claimed that since God condemned blind-following of one’s forefathers, this is proof that taqlid of the scholars is also forbidden. Al-Qurtubi (d.671H/1273CE) rebutted this erroneous thinking centuries ago, saying:
‘One group have linked this verse to the condemnation of taqlid, since God censured the unbelievers for following their forefathers in their falsehood and emulate them in their disbelief and disobedience: which is true in terms of falsehood. But as for taqlid in the truth, then this is one of the foundational principles of the religion, and one of the safeguards that the unlearned Muslims who are unable to examine detailed issues can take shelter in.’4
Ibn Taymiyyah wrote: ‘One who [totally] turns away from following the Book and the Sunnah, and from obeying God and His Messenger – turning instead to his customs; or that of his forefathers or community – is from the people of ignorance; deserving to be under the threat of divine chastisement … As for one who is unable to ascertain the ruling of God or His Messenger, and so follows in the issue a scholar; knowing of no other view preferable than his one, he is to be praised and rewarded; not rebuked or punished.’5
In conclusion: The matter of taqlid and ijtihad is straightforward enough, a summary of which is given in this passage from Ibn Taymiyyah: ‘What the great majority of the ummah hold is that ijtihad is permitted, in general; and taqlid is permitted, in general. Ijtihad is not obligated on everyone while taqlid forbidden, nor is taqlid obligated on everyone and ijtihad forbidden. Rather, ijtihad is legislated for whoever possesses the qualification, while taqlid is legislated for those incapable of ijtihad.’6
A final point to press home. If the above type of taqlid is sanctioned by religion – not only that, but jurists have reached a consensus (ijma‘) on its lawfulness; how then can it then be spoken of in derogatory terms (i.e. taqlid is “blind-following”)? Rather, piety demands that this type of taqlid be spoken of in praiseworthy terms and be depicted for what it truly is: “Following qualified scholarship in the detailed rulings (furu‘) of the religion.” After all, following qualified fatwas and rulings, without being burdened with knowing the juristic reasoning behind them, is something one gets rewarded for by God. The muqallid is praised for taking recourse to taqlid, never censured! Indeed, abandoning such misrepresentations of taqlid, and the doors of religious anarchy this has flung open, is seriously long overdue.
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?!