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Taqlid - The Following of an Islamic authorityThe issue of following an expert in Islamic jurisprudence and the Shari’ah Law is a practical matter that is based on commonsense. However many assume that this matter is debatable and therefore the subject needs to be addressed and all the questions and doubts revolving around its validity, answered. In the following few paragraphs our aim is to clarify the practice, explain some of the misconceptions and answer questions regarding this rational and well-established institution.
Taqlid literally means imitation or emulation. However in view of the subject we are discussing it should not be interpreted as meaning blind following, but to follow the verdict of an expert in the Shari’ah Law in order to have access to the practical rulings (Furu ’ul-din) regarding a matter of contemporary life. It is of extreme importance to clarify the philosophy behind this institution, its historical roots and the requirement for it in our today’s world.
Islam is a thorough and an all-inclusive religion, which was revealed to the Prophet of Islam, Muhammad (saws), fourteen hundred years ago. The religion comprises of the basis of the faith, i.e. the Islamic ideology regarding the worldview, the Divine image and how one should perceive Him, Divine justice, the concept of prophethood, the spiritual and socio-political leadership (Imamah) and finally the Resurrection.
Every individual is obliged to seek knowledge and to conclude certainty and absolute faith regarding these subjects. No one is allowed to imitate or follow any individual –regardless of their profound knowledge- in these topics. The Qur’an has considered the blind imitation of others in matters of ideology as reprehensible and unacceptable. Imitation in grasping other fundamental concepts is also classified under the same category.
However, there remains an entire system of issues related to everyday life and the practical rulings concerning them, such as the rulings related to ritual purity, prayers, fasting and so on as well as rulings related to the social, economic and political spheres of society. All the laws regarding these subjects are explained within the Islamic Shari’ah Law and are regulated within the framework of Islamic moral values.
The details of the Islamic rulings are found in the Islamic sources especially the sacred texts i.e. the Holy Qur’an and the Sunnah, the ahadith of the Holy Prophet (saws) and the Infallibles (as) as well as through consensus and intellect. Despite the fact that Islam orders its followers to learn the religious teachings, guidance and precepts, it is obvious that to obtain all the religious rulings from the Qur’an and the Sunnah is not easy. Such a task is not possible for each and every individual but is rather accomplishable by a limited number of individuals. To reach the level whereby a person becomes a qualified expert (Ayatollah) able to deduce the Islamic rulings from the above-mentioned sources takes years of study and dedication.
The requirements of an individual in society are numerous and the common man would most likely not be able to enumerate them all let alone specialise in each and every one. However since man performs the majority of his tasks by means of thought and will power, he should have sufficient information when it comes to decision-making. A person would be unable to make a decision if he had insufficient information and no means of accessing the Islamic sources of legislation. Therefore a person must either be fully qualified themselves in being able to deduce the religious laws or they must ask someone who is fully qualified and who perform his duties according to the guidance of the Shari’ah Law. For instance, we instinctively consult a doctor for the treatment of our ailments, employ a civil engineer for the plan of a building, seek the help of a plumber to fix a drainage problem, hire a carpenter to make doors and windows or follow a tour guide when on holiday and visiting tourist attractions! In short we ask and seek help from an expert in any required field. It is natural to conclude that we constantly spend our lives seeking help and guidance from others –who are specialists in their field- even for insignificant matters.
Whoever says: "I do not follow another person in my life", either does not understand the meaning of his words or is affected by a delusion. Islam, which has based its religious laws on commonsense, adopts the principle that has been discussed above.
This religious order – to follow an expert - naturally takes the form that a group of Muslims, who are not able to acquire the Islamic teachings and precepts through reasoning, should therefore refer to those who have deduced the Islamic rulings through proof and expert reasoning.
However there are many questions about this institution that may face the critical mind. We will now attempt to answer those questions and clarify the matter further:
Question 1: Imitation is not an Islamically recommended requisite. The Qur’an has characterised those who follow others blindly as non-rational human beings therefore how could the Shi’ah Muslims adopt this institution?
The distinction needs to be made and clarified that the Shi’ah do not encourage imitation in the ideological aspects of Islam, as it has been clearly rejected in their teachings. However they accept it in the practical rulings of the Shari’ah Law, which are inaccessible to the layman.
In addition no one should follow a qualified Mujtahid blindly, rather wisely and combined with sufficient knowledge and wisdom, as Islam encourages its followers to learn from others and to be knowledgeable.
The Qur’an rejects the first kind of imitation but does not make any negative referrals to the second kind. In the narrations there are many examples of the Imams (as) encouraging people to practice it and to follow assiduously the guidance of their qualified companions.
Question 2: This institution cannot be approved by reason or through the intellect. The Holy Imams have not approved it in any narration and therefore it should be rejected.
According to the abovementioned analysis, it is evident that the intellect does approve of such a solution. The decision to follow a specialist in different fields of life is a widely accepted practice that is founded upon common sense. There is a tradition narrated from Imam Al-Mahdi (as) who said that the Shi’ah Muslims should follow the pious and righteous jurisprudents. This narration is narrated in the book ‘Wasa’il As-Shi’ah’ by the Late Shaikh Al-Hur Al-‘Ameli. (See Wasa’il, vol. 27, pp.140, Chapter 11 of the chapters related to the qualities of a judge, Hadeeth 9)
Question 3: The Sunni Muslims follow an imam from one of their four jurisprudential schools, namely Abu Hanifah, As-Shafi’ie, Ibn Hanbal or Malik. The Shi’ah believe in the need to follow a living Imam and so a contemporary Shi’ah should follow Imam Al-Mahdi (as), as he is the only living Imam of our present time.
This is another misleading proposal. The Shi’ah believe that Al-Mahdi (as) is in Occultation, and that no one has access to or communication with him (as). How is it then possible to receive direct guidance from him? Imam Al-Mahdi (as) declared before the Major Occultation, that anyone who claims to see him during this time (major occultation) is a slanderous liar, so therefore no one can claim to have constant contact with him.
Question 4: Religion and religious knowledge are widespread and such information is easily accessible to everyone. Therefore one has no need for the guidance of an expert so long as the individual can read Arabic and understand the legal statements without difficulty.
This is another simplistic argument that equates the specialised knowledge attained by a Mujtahid or Ayatullah with commonsensical knowledge. Ijtihad is not an easily obtainable skill like driving a car or working in a shop, a qualified Mujtahid must undergo at least 8 years of full-time study regarding the various sciences in order to reach this level. It is impossible for each and every Muslim individual to become a qualified Mujtahid. In addition to the length of study needed, the language of these texts is complicated and written in an old fashioned style. With the evolution of words and their meanings it is extremely difficult to deduce the correct intention of a said text. Such a task requires an individual who is qualified and conversant with the knowledge required to be able to grasp the accurate meanings of the legal texts.
Question 5: The best way to achieve certainty and to be sure about a matter when it is not possible for a person to deduce the ruling from the sacred texts, is to seek precaution and be precautious (Muhtat). This means that if one hesitates over the permissibility of an act, one should then avoid it through exercising precaution.
This is a utopian solution and it is not a feasible alternative. It is impossible due to two reasons: First: When a person is faced with two choices and it is impossible to avoid both, such as when the case is either prohibited or obligatory. In this case and similar cases one cannot follow the principle of precaution. Second: If the principle of precaution were adhered to literally, life would be absolutely unbearable and impossible.
Question 6: The Shi’ah scholars are not infallible like the Shi’ah Imams. Why then should one follow them blindly and why can we not criticise them?
The fact that they are fallible should not overrule the fact that they are followed as specialists and experts in their field. No one claims that they are beyond criticism and everyone has the right to criticise them. They are human beings and should be followed having reached the decision to do so wisely.
Question 7: Imitation in the field of religious practical rulings is an invented institution, which did not exist two hundred years ago. The late Sayyed Yazdi wrote ‘Al-‘Arwat ul-Wouthqah’ as the first work for his followers to emulate in the early years of the last century and this took place under the English occupants’ supervision. Thus one is left with the choice to believe that either the old generations of Shi’ah Muslims were correct and that this invented institution reflects that the Shi’ah of the contemporary time are astray, or that they are right and their ancestors were all wrong. We must insist that the Shi’ah from the old generations are righteous and therefore conclude that this institution is not Islamic and should therefore be rejected.
A person who makes such a statement obviously knows little about the history of Shi’ism. This institution has no connection to the English occupants’ intervention, or their interferences in the affairs of Muslim countries. It was established and based on a statement by the Twelfth Imam, Imam Al-Mahdi (as), when he asked the Shi’ah to follow the most pious and righteous jurisprudents. Historical records confirm that bibliographically Shaikh Tousi, who lived briefly after the Minor Occultation, wrote his first book ‘Risalah’ for his followers to emulate. His famous book ‘Al-Nihayyah’ was dedicated for this purpose and it is still known amongst bibliographic specialists that this book does not contain any argument for his jurisprudential opinions
Question 8: This institution is adopted from the Sunni practice of ‘Al-Qiyyas’ analogy, and as the Shi’ah Imams condemned this, it should be disapproved of. In many Shi’ah narrations the Imams have also condemned ‘Ijtihad’, therefore the Shi’ah should not accept it if it reflects a deviation from the pure teachings of the Shi’ah Imams.
This doubt is based on misleading premises which necessitates answering each point separately:
‘Taqlid’ is not derived from the Sunni principle of ‘Qiyyas’, as this is one of the sources of the Ijtihadi process according to the Sunni school of Jurisprudence.
The Shi’ah narrations are related to the incorrect and misleading approach of the Sunni jurisprudents at that time. They had adopted the principles of ‘Qiyyas’ and were interpreting the narrations in a way that was detached from the real aim and intentions of the Shari’ah Law.
Question 9: The Shari’ah Law was established fourteen hundred years ago. During this time modern science and Western civilisation have contributed greatly towards resolving many unclear and complicated issues. Muslim scholars on the other hand appear old fashioned and out of date with their opinions and conclusions. They have not advanced and embraced modern science and therefore without the enlightening of their minds and purification of their hearts from the love of power, one cannot follow their verdicts diligently.
This doubt is compound and is based on many misleading premises. These premises are that:
Western civilisation and modern science have reached the level of perfection that can replace Divine revelation and religious knowledge!
This is an incorrect statement and an inaccurate claim. Scientists and Westerners themselves have not claimed to achieve perfection. This is evident when one takes into consideration the huge social problems and moral dilemmas people are faced with in society. This fact alone confirms that this claim is completely refutable.
Islam does not relate to the contemporary world as it was revealed fourteen hundred years ago.
This is a claim that is based in a naïve argument, which lacks any form of reasonable argumentation or rational reasoning. If one does not accept the religion and its ability to resolve contemporary problems, then one does not need to discuss the need for the Qur’an among other sacred texts. Human beings have followed their own ways and choices in life but they have failed to find real happiness or save themselves from a miserable life and moral anxiety. Why then should one not implement the all-inclusive religion, which has not yet been implemented or put into practice since the Prophet’s (saws) demise? One should at least be prepared to try everything once and to afford it a chance. However it cannot be denied that modern technology and the achievements of modern science can be combined and should be used in a way that will benefit humanity in the future.
Muslim scholars possess a great amount of power and their knowledge and information is out of date.
This statement is based on an incorrect claim. There are many scholars who have studied and equipped themselves with modern knowledge based on the natural sciences and modern technology alongside their own specialist fields. Regarding the claim that the scholars are obsessed with power and in some way corrupt, it does not need any further discussion, as it is detached from reality and lacks any credible proof.