26 JanTaqlid: history and development

Posted under: General

This article was written last year in answer to a question about taqlid. 

First of all, I offer my felicitations to the Imam of our time on the birth anniversary of his father Imam Hasan Askari (as) and to all the believers.

I’ve been asked by various people regarding the issue of taqlid and in particular following one mujtahid and how to decide on the most learned. I decided that a blog post would be the easiest way to answer all of this, and you are free to leave your comments and questions below.

The original system of referring to non infallibles, in other words, someone other than the Imam (as) started as early as Imam Ali’s (as) time when he sent Malik al Ashtar to Egypt but became much more common in Imam Sadiq’s (as) time when the Muslim world spread further out. It was most intensified after the martyrdom of Imam Jawad (as) with both our 10th and 11th Imams being under housearrest and people unable to access them.

Now the argument that we use against our opponents: how is it possible that the Holy Prophet (saw) left this world and did not leave behind any source of guidance? – is taken to its logical conclusion of how can the Imam (as) go into major ghaybah and not leave any source of guidance. The answer is of course there is a source.

It is due to the blood and sweat of the ulama that the religion has reached us today and we should never forget that no matter how thankful we are it will not be enough. These are ones who used to go days with very little food in poor living conditions to preserve the true teachings of Ahlulbayt (as) so that we may be able to act upon them.

As the knowledge of reading and writing spread, and there was a need for a concise book of rulings pertaining to daily life that anyone could pick up, Sayyid Kadhim al-Yazdi, a Najaf trained mujtahid, in the early 20th century, rose to the challenge and authored Urwatul Wuthqa which was basically a predecessor to the current Islamic laws manuals that we have. In this important work, he argued that since knowing the laws of daily use was obligatory, a person either had to be capable of deriving these laws or follow somebody who was. Otherwise he would not be able to gain certainity that he was doing the right thing and thus his actions would be void.

Now the question of following one and the most learned out of all of them seems a fairly interesting yet obvious one. Islam, and in particular, the school of Ahlulbayt (as), insists on only having the best. Therefore taqlid is no exception. As far as possible, the best must be followed and this requires no more evidence than the fact that the Prophets and Imams are worthy of obedience because they were the best in their times.

Now obviously no person who isn’t an infallible can even come close to Prophets and Imams but we need to take the next best thing. The most knowledgable therefore is most likely to take us to the reality of what Allah expects from us compared to someone less so.

The real question then is: who decides and how? This is of course the crux of the issue. If a non mujtahid was able to decide on the most knowledgable then there would be no need for that person to follow as he would be knowledgable enough. This means it has to be someone else.

Sheikh Bashir Hussain al-Najafi, one of the four current maraji’ in Najaf, said in reply to a question that I asked him personally, that in his view the only people who can judge the most knowledgable are people who are maraji’ themselves. This of course could lead to circular reasoning but other scholars are not so stringent in their criteria stating that it is sufficient for a person who has attended the dars al-kharij (highest level of classes in the seminary) of various maraji’ to be able to make a judgement call on who the most learned is. Some of these individuals reside in the UK, but most of them, due to the fact that the continually attend the lessons of the maraji’, reside mainly in the cities of Najaf, Karbala, Qum and Mashhad.

Now if a person remains unconvinced by these arguments, they are entitled to follow more than one maraji’ if they so choose. However, there is an important caveat. If you are following more than one, and on a particular issue one says makrooh and the other says haraam, you will have to abstain; likewise if one says mustahab and the other says wajib, you will have to perform. In essence, you have to take the harder option because otherwise you will be following your own desires and not the order of Allah. Similarly, I cannot follow someone because I think their rulings are ‘liberal’ or ‘easy’ because again that is following my own desires, since of course Islam is about obeying Allah and going against my own desires.

Inshallah this clarifies some issues that have been out there and as I said previously, feel free to comment if something needs more clarity (or if you disagree entirely!)

All opportunity is from Allah and it his pleasure we seek.


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