In order to follow the ruling of Allah, the first step a Muslim must undertake is to become knowledgeable of that ruling. There are two ways by which this can be achieved. First, a Muslim can do one’s best to derive the ruling directly from the text of the Qur’an and the authentic Sunnah using the proper tools and methodology. This process is called ijtihad. Second, one can arrive at the ruling by following the direction of a scholar who made ijtihad. This process is called taqleed, which denotes imitation, or the unquestioning adoption of another’s opinion. Since no Muslim can receive revelation after the Prophet sallallahu alayhe wassalam, it is not possible for Muslims to obtain a ruling through any other means. In particular, a ruling cannot be obtained through dreams, inspiration or visions, by claiming Allah’s enlightenment of one’s heart, or by pure reasoning reason.

The fact that the overwhelming majority of Muslims are unable to know of the rulings of Allah by their own means is one of the main reasons behind the development of the known fiqh Schools. This led to the frequent abuse and misuse of the concepts of ijtihad and taqleed throughout history. Muslims living in the west today are no exception. In America, for example, some claim chat ijtihad on women issues has to be carried out only by women. The concept of ijtihad, however, has nothing to do with gender, ethnicity or age.

This article discusses the concept of taqleed, particularly with regard to the way it affects the growing Muslim population in the West, where no prevailing Madhhab or fiqh school exist and where the means for learning Islam are limited. Under these circumstances, the problem of seeking and applying a fatwa (legal decision) becomes more urgent, and this raises the question of taqleed, or the following learned scholars.

Laying the Foundation

It is necessary to introduce at the outset some fiqh terms that are not only worthwhile for all Muslims to know, but also essential for exploring the concepts of ijtihad and taqleed. Most of these forms require long discussions for a meaningful development, and their introduction here will be limited to providing a background against which taqleed can be clearly explained.

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Al-Hukum Asshariee or the legal ruling, is the address of the Legislator, Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala relating to our actions. That, of course, includes everything a Muslim does in his or her life. Ruling is what classifies our actions into obligated, recommended, permitted, disliked, or prohibited. Thus, without a proper understanding of Ruling, one cannot live properly as a Muslim.

Common Muslim (al-aammee), one who does not have enough knowledge of religion to be able to understand or discuss the answer or the fatwa given to him by a mujtahid regarding whatever matter he was inquiring about.

Mujtahid, a knowledgeable person who possesses the tools of ijtihad and has mastered its process. There is a difference of opinion among scholars as to whether or not a mujtahid can specialize in a particular area of the religion (such as salah or zakah); the majority of scholars say it is possible.

Fatwa (plural, fatawa), a legal opinion, which is the telling of the ruling of Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala regarding a current matter. “Current” here indicates the immediate nature of the question or matter at hand and the present need to know the ruling for it. Therefore, if a ruling is being sought for something that is going to happen, in the future or has happened in the past, the answer given does not constitute a fatwa and is considered to be a mere exchange of knowledge regarding the matter. Thus, the need for a fatwa arises when one is doing something but does not know the right way of doing it, in general or in part. This point is very important to remember because at times one may hear someone talking about what one can or cannot do regarding some fiqh matter, and one might think of him as carelessly giving a fatwa. But such is not the case, for the answer is considered to be a fatwa only if one is being asked about a thing that is happening now. Issuing a fatwa is not for every one and only knowledgeable people are supposed to do so.

Ijtihad, which is the first of the only two ways of arriving at and understanding the ruling of Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala regarding any matter, situation, or act of worship. The word ijtihad in Arabic means exerting one’s utmost effort and energy to achieve something, either abstract or concrete. As a legal term, the word ijtihad means: An exhaustive effort, by a qualified person (called a mujtahid), applied to the text of the Qur’an and Sunnah to arrive at a ruling, using a specific methodology.

A simple reading and/or interpretation of the text without a mastery of subjects such as Arabic, tafseer, hadeeth, and usul al-fiqh, is not sufficient for obtaining a proper ijtihad. The process, therefore, is available only to those who are capable, by means of their abilities, not through any specific right. This last statement is especially significant in differentiating the Ahl al-Sunnah understanding of ijtihad from that of others.

Accordingly, the rulings of Ahl al-Sunnah on ijtihad is that it is a collective obligation and not an individual one. In other words, it is a must for the ummah to have enough mujtahids (qualified scholars) who are able to perform ijtihad whenever needed. The same obligation applies to smaller groups or communities, such as the Muslim communities in America, which should be able to consult such scholars whenever the need arises.

The evidence for such a requirement appears in many Qur’anic verses and sayings of the Prophet sallallahu alayhe wassalam. The following ayah, for example, has evidence of a requirement for both ijtihad and taqleed,

“And it is not proper for the believers to go out to fight all together. Of every group (or troop) of them, a party only should go forth, that they (who are left behind) may get instruction in (Islamic) religion, and that they may warn their people when they return to them, so that they may beware (of evil).” [Surah al-Tawbah, 9,122]

Clearly, this ayah shows that only a portion of the community is supposed to devote its full time and effort to learning the religion to become mujtahids, and the rest would follow them. The following also provide evidence for the validity of ijtihad:

“…as adjudged by two just men among you…” [Surah al-Ma’dah, 5:95]


“And (remember) David and Solomon, when they gave judgment in the case of the field in which the sheep of certain people had pastured at night; and We were witness to their judgment.” [Surah al-Anbiyah, 21:78]

The Prophet sallallahu alayhe wassalam said that,

“If a judge makes an ijtihad and comes up with the right verdict he is rewarded (by Allah) twice, and if he comes up with the wrong one, he is rewarded only once.” (Bukhari and Muslim)

Allah’s Messenger said to Mu’adh, who give the right answers after being asked about what he was going to do regarding his manner or calling on the people of Yemen, and judging among them,

Alhamdulillah that He guided the envoy of Allah’s Messenger to what pleases Allah.” (Abu Dawood)

Many other verses of the Qur’an and sayings of the Prophet sallallahu alayhe wassallam clearly indicate ijtihad to be not only a valid part of Islam but its actual default nature.

In summary, if one is not capable of performing ijtihad and needs to know the ruling of Allah regarding something he is doing now, he should ask a knowledgeable person. Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala says,

“Ask the people of dhikr (recollection or remembrance; in this context, knowledge) if you do not know.” [Surah al-Nahl, 16:43]

When one receives a ruling, one should follow it. The answer to one’s question (i.e., the fatwa), should clearly be the result of an ijtihad process. One’s acceptance of the answer; and acting upon it, is what is known as taqleed.

Taqleed: Where do we Place our Trust?

The root of the word taqleed in Arabic expresses the notions of awarding, appointing, entrusting or giving authority: hence, the following of another’s opinion or imitation. But as a fiqh term, taqleed denotes the acceptance of another’s opinion without knowing the justification or evidence behind it. This lake of knowledge could result from an inability to understand the evidence, or perhaps simply be because of not caring about it. Also, “another” could actually be anybody, knowledgeable or not, and “opinion” refers to their ijtihad, actual or claimed. However, if there is a clear and direct ayah, hadeeth, or consensus (ijmaa) regarding some matter, then everyone is obliged to accept it, and act according to it. In such cases, there is no need for ijtihad or taqleed.

This is the most general definition of taqleed and it should be pointed out here that not all types of taqleed are permitted in Islam. Some scholars have gone to the extent of considering all forms of taqleed to be haram (prohibited). As stated above, ijtihad is the basic and default nature of Islam when it comes to arriving at and living according to the ruling of Allah. Taqleed is the exception but is permitted. There are, however, some very important details that need to cleared up. Let us begin by showing that taqleed is permissible in general.

Evidence for the legality and permissibility of taqleed is rooted in the Qur’an, Sunnah, and consensus of the Companions radiallahu ta’laa anhum. Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala said,

“Ask the people of Dhikr if you do not know.”

He says it twice in the Quran, once in Surah al-Anbiya (21:7) and then in Surah al-Nahl (16:43). In a hadecth reported by Abu Dawood, Ahmad, and ibn Majah, the Prophet sallallahu alayhe wassalam said,

“They should ask if they don’t know,”

He said this in response to people who had delivered a verdict on an issue without proper knowledge.

Thus, it is clear that the Prophet salllallahu alayhe wassalam is permitting the asking for a ruling if we do not know it.

Based on the definition above, taqleed can take any of the following forms:

  1. Taqleed of a common Muslim to another common Muslim. This is prohibited by consensus.
  2. Taqleed of one mujtahid in a matter to another in the same manner. This is also not permissible by consensus.
  3. Taqleed of a mujtahid to a common Muslim. This may be a rare occurrence, but some sects may allow it. This form of taqleed of course is the worst of all and is prohibited by qiyass (analogy).
  4. Taqleed of a mujtahid in a certain matter to another mujtahid in the same matter on the grounds of not having enough time to perform ijtihad. Al-Hamidi concluded that there was permission for such taqleed in his book al-Ahkaam, vol. 4, p. 204.
  5. Taqleed of a common Muslim to a mujtahid, without worrying about the evidence tor whatever ruling he is inquiring about.

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