The Truth About Taqlid – The Thinking Muslim

By Surkheel (Abu Aaliyah) Sharif

The initial era of Islam produced many great jurists and legalists: men who not only possessed exceptional acumen, but who led profoundly spiritual lives too. These jurists have been described as ‘grammarians of the Divine Word’: explaining it, systemizing it and deriving new rulings from it. Out of these many jurists, four became reknowned throughout the ummah. It was from them that four famous madhhabs, or schools of law, flowered and flourished: the Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi‘i and Hanbali schools of law.

In recent times, intense schisms have arisen over the issue of madhhabs and the layman’s relationship to qualified scholarship; the crux of which centres on four issues: (i) Can a layman take Islam directly from the Qur’an and the Sunnah? (ii) Can a layman make taqlid of a qualified scholar: in other words, accept a scholar’s verdict without knowing the proof? (iii) Is it necessary for a layman to strictly follow one of these madhhabs to the exclusion of the others? (iv) Since there were more than four great jurists, why are there just four madhhabs; why not more?

It is in the hope of shedding some light on these questions, and in an attempt to reduce this schisms, that this two-part paper was written. I hope it will be read with an open mind, and that its arguments and conclusions be viewed with an eye to justice. But enough as an introduction, let us turn promptly to the first part of the paper and to the topic of taqlid … definitions first.


Scholars and linguists agree that the term taqlid has its etymology, its origin, in the Arabic word, qallada; which means: “To place a collar (qiladah) around the neck.”1 The reason it is termed as such is that the one making taqlid – the muqallid – resigns his affair to the one he is performing taqlid of. Thus he is, so to speak, like someone being ‘led by the collar’.

As for its religious meaning, the scholars of usul al-fiqh: those who specialise in Islamic legal theory, define taqlid in various ways. One of the most widely accepted definitions is the one that Imam al-Ghazali articulated. He says that it is: “Accepting the view of someone without a proof.”2

The Committee of Senior Scholars of Saudi Arabia – then presided over by Shaykh Ibn Baz – said about its religious definition:

“The scholars of usul al-fiqh mention [various] definitions that serve to clarify the true meaning of taqlid and its essence. From them is the view that, “Taqlid is accepting the opinion of someone without knowing its proof.” Others were of the view that taqlid is: “Accepting the opinion of someone without a proof.” Abu Ma‘ali al-Juwayni preferred the definition that, “It is the following of someone, the following of whom is not predicated on a proof nor depends upon knowledge.” These definitions given by the scholars of usul are all similar in meaning, but they entail differences which originate in the skill of articulation. The point here, though, is to clarify the essence of taqlid by means of an approximation.”3

By convention, taqlid usually refers to a layman (‘ammi) accepting a religious ruling from a qualified scholar without questioning his textual proof or juristic reasoning. In doing so the layman resigns his affair to the scholar and agrees to be guided by him; out of confidence and trust in his scholarship.4 Shaykh Bakr Abu Zayd said: “It is required for a layman who does not have the ability to learn [law], to ask a scholar and to then act on the reply given. This is taqlid in the conventional sense, its reality being: Accepting the view of someone without knowing the proof.”5

Another term germane to the subject is ijtihad. Lexically, ijtihad means ‘exertion’. Religiously speaking, it refers to a jurist (faqih) expending every possible effort to examine the textual evidences, so as to arrive at a ruling of the Sacred Law.6 The point here is that ijtihad is not just one of scholarly exertion, but of exhaustion. Fathoming the intent of the Lawgiver, and inferring new rulings from the primary sources, is indeed an uphill task. This often involves the scholar having to struggle through long days and nights so as to reach a sound legal conclusion.

A scholar qualified to undertake ijtihad is called a mujtahid. Those judged to be qualified and capable of such an endevour do so only after prolonged theological, legal and grammatical training. In other words, only after having acquired thorough knowledge of:

  1. Arabic language, grammar, and its nuances, so as to be able to understand the primary texts directly.
  2. The Makkan and Medinan verses of the Qur’an, and the occasions for their revelation. In particular, he must have a complete grasp of all the legal verses (ayat al-ahkam) of the Qur’an.
  3. The Sunnah, and what is connected to the soundness or weakness of a hadith. More particularly, he must have a full command of the legal ordinances contained in the Sunnah.
  4. Instances of abrogation (naskh) in the Revelation, as well as those issues wherein jurists have reached a consensus.
  5. Islamic legal theory (uߥl al-fiqh), so that he is able to identify what texts are general, specific, absolute, qualified, abrogating and abrogated. He must also know the general juristic maxims (al-qawa’id al-fiqhiyyah) as well as their application, and know the objectives, or maqasid, of the Sacred Law.
  6. Possess a discerning intellect and be able to apply the procedures of analogical inference (qiyas). Moreover, he must also be an upright (‘adil) person whose judgement can be trusted by people.7

Needless to say, the ijtihad of a mujtahid must never contradict anything clear-cut in the sacred texts, and the entire process is surrounded by safeguards so as to avoid innovation.


To generalise about taqlid and allege that it is all ‘blind following’, makes it out to be entirely pejorative, obscuring the fact that scholars divide taqlid into two classes: lawful and unlawful. Shaykh al-Shanqiti discloses that “Research reveals that taqlid includes a type that is permitted and a type that is not.”8

The permissible taqlid is grounded in the texts of the Qur’an and Sunnah, and in the practice of the Companions. Shaykh Ibn Mu‘ammar sheds some light on the topic. He wrote:

“The permitted taqlid is following the [ruling of] scholars when there is an inability to understand the textual proof (dalil). The people to whom this applies are of two groups: Firstly, the laymen; those who are not versed in jurisprudence (fiqh), nor in the prophetic traditions (al-hadith), and neither can they evaluate the sayings of the scholars. Such people are required to perform taqlid; there being no contention about this. In fact, a number of scholars have even recorded a consensus to this effect.

“Secondly, someone who has some awareness of a madhhab; a school of law, and has studied a few of the text-books of the later scholars – like al-Iqna‘ or al-Muntaha in the Hanbali school; the Minhaj or its like in the Shafi’i school; Mukhtasar Khalil and its like in the Maliki school; or al-Kanz and its like in the Hanafi school – yet, despite this, is deficient in investigating proofs and evaluating the jurists’ views. Such a person is also required to perform taqlid, as he is not obliged to bear what he is unable to, for. Allah does not charge a soul with more than it can bear.9

“The textual stipulations from the scholars about the legality of taqlid for such people are numerous and well-known, and are rooted in the saying of Allah, Exalted is He: Ask the people of knowledge if you do not know.10 There is also the hadith of the Prophet, peace be upon him: “Why did they not ask if they did not know? Indeed, the cure for ignorance is to ask.”11 So the lay people have not – since the age of the Companions, the Successors, and those who followed them – ceased asking the scholars for verdicts about the rulings of the Sacred Law. Scholars in turn have eagerly responded to these queries without necessarily mentioning the proofs: nor did they forbid this to them in the least. So this is a point of consensus that the lay people performing taqlid of their mujtahid scholars is permissible, and that they are only required to ask someone whom they deem to be a scholar.”12


Earlier, taqlid was defined as a person accepting the ruling of a scholar while not knowing the proof for it. So how can a person who has ‘acquired some awareness of a madhhab, and who, it can reasonably be assumed, has encountered some proofs, still be a muqallid. Ibn Taymiyyah’s words help resolve this dilemma: “As for someone who knows the view of one scholar and his proof, but not the other scholar or his proof, is from the generality of the the muqallids. He is not of those scholars able to evaluate proofs and weigh them up.”13

This is a crucial point that many have failed to comprehend. The majority of jurists maintain that if a person knows a basic proof for any given issue, but is unaware of the complete proofs, he is still a muqallid (some calling him a muqallid muttabi’). This total knowledge entails: knowing the proof; knowing how rulings arise from it; and knowing how to resolve any textual conflicts. Thus the muqallid includes: (i) a layman who does not know the proof; and (ii) a semi-experienced jurist or student-jurist who may be familiar with some proofs, though in an incomplete manner.


In al-Mustasfa, al-Ghazali likens Islamic legal theory, and the competence to extract legal rulings, to a tree cultivated by a man. He explains that the fruits of the tree represent the legal rulings – which are the purpose for planting the tree in the first place. Its trunk and branches are the textual material that allows the tree to bear fruit and sustain them. But in order for the tree to be cultivated, human agency must play its part. The method used in cultivating the tree is a metaphor for the juristic methods and principles employed by the cultivator: the cultivator who brings the tree to fruition being, in this metaphor, is the mujtahid.14

In Islam’s juristic vocabulary, anyone who is not a mujtahid is, by default, a muqallid – a follower or imitator of a mujtahid. In turn, the muqallid is sub-divided into one who is a non-mujtahid jurist (faqih), a student-jurist (mutafaqqih), and finally a layman (‘ammi).


Taqlid is only allowed in those issues which do not constitute the fundamentals (usul) of Islam: that is to say, issues that are widely-known and whose proofs are qat‘i: definite, clear-cut and univocal. It is in the furu‘, the details of the Sacred Law, wherein the proofs are – zanni: open to more than one legitimate reading, that taqlid is allowed. Al-Khatib al-Baghdadi sketches these contours for us:

“As far as the Islamic injunctions are concerned, they are of two categories. The first are those known by necessity to be part of the Prophet’s religion, peace be upon him, such as the five daily prayers, the wealth-tax (zakat), pilgrimage; and also [knowing] the prohibition of adultery and intoxicants, etc. In such matters taqlid is not lawful, since these are issues every person is required to know about. The second are those rulings arrived at via juristic inferrence, like the details of the devotional acts (‘ibadat) or social transactions (mu‘amalat). It is in these matters that taqlid is permitted.”15

Ibn Badran portrays the issue in these words: “Taqlid is forbidden in [matters like] knowing Allah, Exalted is He; Divine Unity (tawhid); and Prophethood, according to Imam A˙mad and his colleagues – which is the truth. It is also forbidden in [knowing the obligatory nature of] the Five Pillars of Islam and those other issues that are decisive and well-known. In fact a consensus is recorded to this effect. As for taqlid in the details of the Sacred Law (furu‘) it is allowed for other than the mujtahid by consensus.”16


Follow what is sent down to you from your Lord, says the Qur’an, and follow not protecting friends other than Him.17 Elsewhere the Qur’an informs: And when it is said to them: “Follow what Allah has sent down,” they say: “We shall follow that wherein we found our forefathers.”18

The idea of “following” the Revelation, or ittiba‘, is a cardinal theme of the Qur’an. As alluded to previously, textual proofs are of two broad categories: Firstly, those proofs that are clear-cut and univocal; open to a single legitimate reading. Secondly, those that are more speculative in nature, their intent harder to fathom and unravel; or they are such that they seem to be in conflict with other similar proof-texts on the topic. The first category demands of a believer ittiba‘ – straightforward “following”. The second requires a mujtahid to infer a legal ruling or resolve the textual conflict, and for all non-mujtahids to submit to the mujtahid’s authority vis-a-via taqlid. Shaykh Bakr explains: “Any ruling whose textual proof from in Book, the Sunnah, or scholarly consensus (ijma‘) is clearcut and free from textual conflict (salim min al-mu’arid) – then taqlid is not permitted, nor is ijtihad. Instead ittiba‘ is what is incumbent. The reality of ittiba‘ is: accepting what is confirmed by a proof from the Book, the Sunnah, or a scholarly consensus – provided it is free from textual conflicts.19


One hadith states: “My ummah will not unite upon misguidance.”20 This is among the various proof-texts used by scholars to assert the binding nature of ijma’; scholarly consensus. Ijma’ is defined as “The unanimous agreement of the mujtahid scholars in any era after the demise of the Prophet, peace be upon him, on any issue.”21 This ijma’ constitutes the third source of authority after the Qur’an and Sunnah.


One area in which an ijmå‘ has been recorded is in the legality of a layman accepting the fatwa of a scholar without being obliged to know the proof. In other words, in the lawfulness of taqlid.

Imam al-Qurtubi says: “No difference exists among the scholars that the laymen are to perform taqlid of their scholars.22

Ibn Qudamah explicitly states: “As far as taqlid in the details of the Sacred Law (furu‘) is concerned, it is allowed by consensus.”23

In earlier times, Ibn ‘Abd al-Barr, the great Spanish jurist and hadith master, explained: “The laymen must practice taqlid of their scholars in those situations which require it, since they are not able to understand proofs … Scholars concur that the laymen must practice taqlid of their scholars, who are the ones intended in the words of Allah, Majestic is He: Ask the people of knowledge if you do not know. They agree that a blindman must accept the judgement of one whom he considers trustworthy, so as to determine the direction of prayer, if it is difficult to do so himself. In a similar vain, someone unable to acquire knowledge of the intent of what he has been ordered to submit to is likewise required to accept the verdict of a scholar.”24

In more recent times, Imam al-Shanqiti wrote: “The prescribed taqlid, which none of the Muslims contest, is the layman’s performing taqlid of a scholar qualified to issue legal responsa on various matters. This type of taqlid was in vogue during the time of the Prophet, peace be upon him, and there was no contention about it. The layman asked whosoever he wished from the Companions of the Prophet, may Allah be pleased with them, about the ruling for a given case. Whenever a fatwa was given, he simply complied with it.”25


A consequence of contravening an established consensus is that it violates orthodoxy. Such is the case with prohibiting taqlid in the details of the Sacred Law, for doing so has historically been the shibboleth of certain innovators. Scholars have, therefore, not ceased warning the ummah against this infraction. Imam al-Shanqiti, among other jurists: classical and contemporary, asserted this historical truth: “None have opposed the lawfulness of the layman practicing taqlid, except some of the Qadarites.”26

Let us be clear about the innovation, or bid‘ah, here. Some hold to the notion that, yes, a layman is required to follow scholars, but in doing so he must ask for a proof (dalil) for the ruling he is given. It is this that is the actual bid‘ah which scholars have consistently cautioned against. Al-Khatib al-Baghdadi asserts:

“It has been said by some of the Mu‘tazilites: “It is unlawful for a layman to act on the opinion of a scholar until he knows the reason behind the ruling. So whenever he asks a scholar, he must ask such that he knows how the ruling came about. When he comprehends this, he should then act upon it.” This, however, is utterly wrong! For there is no way for a layman to have true comprehension, except by studying for many years, participating in scholarly discussions, and developing a thorough grasp of qiyas, or analogical inference.”27

Imam Ibn Qudamah puts this errant notion in its correct place and perspective: “It is the stance of a faction of Qadarites that the laymen are required to investigate proofs, even in furu‘ issues. This, however, is futile by consensus of the Companions.”28


One notion that has become ubiquitous in our time is that scholars associated with the salafi school or methodology – like Ibn Baz, al-‘Uthaymin and al-Albani; and the likes of Ibn Taymiyyah and Ibn al-Qayyim – are seen as being ‘anti-taqlid’ and of forbidding it totally. This – even it is held by many an admirer and detractor alike – is a gross error.

Ibn Baz stipulates in one legal responsum, or fatwa: “For anyone incapable in the matter, making taqlid of a person known for their learning, virtue and firmness upon the creed is allowed by necessity. This was clarified by the learned scholar, Ibn al-Qayyim, may Allah have mercy upon him, in his book, I‘lam al-Muwaqqi‘in.”29

Shaykh al-Albani penned a slim monograph on this topic which includes the following section, entitled: “Taqlid is permitted to someone incapable of arriving at the proof for themselves.”30

Shaykh al-‘Uthaymin wrote: “Taqlid is legislated in two places: Firstly, if the muqallid is a layman who is unable to uncover the ruling by himself. In this case taqlid is incumbent on him, as per Allah’s words: So ask the people of knowledge if you do not know. He is to perform taqlid of one whom [he deems] is learned and pious. If two scholars are of equal rank in his view, he chooses any of them. Secondly, if the mujtahid is faced with a new situation which requires an immediate response, but he is unable to investigate the matter. In such a case, he is allowed to perform taqlid [of another mujtahid].31

As for the much misunderstood (and maligned) Ibn Taymiyyah, his take on taqlid is crystal clear: “The majority position of the ummah is that, in general, both ijtihåd and taqlid are lawful. Ijtihad is neither mandatory on everyone while taqlid forbidden to them, nor is taqlid mandatory upon one and all and ijtihad forbidden them. Rather, ijtihad is obliged on those who have the required qualifications, whereas taqlid is obligated whenever there is an inability to perform ijtihad.”32


“Knowledge,” it is said “is of three spans: whoever enters the first span becomes arrogant; whoever enters the second becomes humble; whoever enters the third realises just how little he really knows.”33 A similar sentiment of how a small amount of learning can delude people into thinking they are more expert than they really are, finds resonance in Alexander Pope, a famous English poet, who wrote:

A little learning is a dangerous thing:
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring.
There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,
And drinking largely sobers us again.


To those who make it mandatory for a layman to know the textual proofs for the rulings he learns, Shaykh al-Albani offers these cautionary remarks:

“So you see a layman who has no [juristic] understanding, yet when he asks a scholar for a ruling on an issue, even if the answer is a prohibition, he quickly adds: ‘What is the proof?’ But sometimes it is not possible for a scholar to provide proofs, especially if it is arrived at by way of juristic derivation – not being stipulated in the Qur’an or Sunnah such that it may be quoted. In such a case the questioner should not try to delve into the issue by asking, ‘What is the proof?’ Instead, he should examine his own state: Is he of those who understands proofs or not? Does he know the concept of general (‘ammi) and specific (khass); unqualified (mutlaq) and qualified (muqayyad); abrogating (nasikh) and abrogated (mansukh)? No, he understands nothing of this at all. Hence will his asking, ‘What is the proof?’, ‘What is the basis?’ be of any use to him? … So it is not always the case that a question will have a proof which will be understood by every Muslim, be he a layman or a student of knowledge. Thus Allah says: So ask the people of knowledge if you do not know.

“From the immoderate behaviour that I have alluded to, and because of which the most ignorant of people refuse the proofs, is that many of those who ascribe to following the Book and Sunnah give the false impression that whenever a scholar is asked about an issue, he must include as part of his reply: ‘Allah said …’, or ‘The Prophet said …’ This, however, is not a condition, and this is one of the benefits of being attached to the path of the Pious Predecessors, may Allah be pleased with them all. Indeed their legal responsa are a living testimony to what I have just said.34 Mentioning the proof becomes obligatory when the situation demands it. But it is not required of a scholar, whenever a question is asked of him, to reply: ‘The Prophet, peace be upon him, said such and such’ – especially if the question is a complicated juristic issue concerning which there is a difference of opinion over.”35

In light of what has preceded, how can it be right to raise the banner of ‘anti-taqlid’ and to make the seeking of proofs incumbent on each and every soul – even if they be an unlearned layman. In fact, to those who do insist on this, it should be asked: “What is the actual proof to obligate asking for the proof?”


Scholars and laymen alike are allowed to make taqlid of the hadith specialists (ahlal hadith, muhaddithun) in knowing the soundness or otherwise of a hadith. Again, this is something about which no difference exists. Ibn Mu‘ammar says:

“As to the question of whether [one is obliged] to examine the soundness of a hadith’s transmission, or can one suffice with taqlid of the hadith experts in their grading a report to be authentic (sahih) or sound (hasan)? The response is: Their verdict suffices. In Sharh Mukhtasar al-Tahrir it states: “A condition for a mujtahid is that he must know the soundness and weakness of a hadith – chain and text – even if this is arrived at by way of taqlid of what is stated in the authoritative hadith anthologies of the specialists, such as Malik; A˙mad; al-Bukhari; Muslim; Abu Dawud; Tirmidhi; al-Daraqutni; al-Hakim; and their like. Since they are specialists in this [discipline], it is perfectly legitimate to accept their evaluations.”36

In al-Muswaddah, a famous book on Hanbali legal theory, it says of the layman that, “:It is permitted for him to