Posted by: Submitter | February 17, 2008

Following an Imam

Following an Imam in the Matters of Shari’ah


There are some people who say that taqlīd, following the madhhab of one imam is haram (prohibited) in the Shariah. They insist that only the Qur’an and Sunnah should be followed by a true Muslim, and it is tantamount to shirk that some human being is followed in the matters of Shari‘ah. They also claim that all the madhahib formed as Hanafi, Shafi’i, Maliki and Hanbali schools were created two hundred years after the Holy Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) and they are bid‘ah (an invention not warranted by the Qur’an and Sunnah). They also maintain that a Muslim should seek guidance directly from the Qur’an and Sunnah, and no intervention of any Imam is needed for the knowledge of Shari‘ah. Please explain how far this view is correct.


This view is based on certain misconceptions arising out superfluous treatment of the complex issues involved. The full clarification of these misconceptions requires a detailed article. However, I would try to explain the basic points as briefly as possible.

It is true that “obedience”, in its true sense, belongs to Allah Almighty alone. He is the only One Who deserves our obedience, and we are not supposed to obey any one other than Him. This is the logical requirement of the doctrine of “Tawhid” (belief in the Oneness of Allah). Even the obedience of the Holy Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) has been prescribed for us only because he is the Messenger of Allah who conveys to us the divine commandments. Otherwise he has no divine status deserving our obedience per se. We are ordered to obey and follow him only because Allah’s pleasure has been epitomized in his sayings and acts.

We are therefore, required to follow the Holy Quran, being the direct commandment of Allah, and the Sunnah of the Holy Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) being an indirect form of the divine commandments.

But the point is that the interpretation of the Quran and Sunnah is not an easy job. It requires an intensive and extensive study of both the sacred sources of Shari‘ah, which cannot be undertaken by every layman. If it is made obligatory on each and every Muslim to consult the Holy Quran and the Sunnah in each and every problem arising before him, it will burden him with a responsibility which is almost impossible for him to discharge, because the inference of the rules Shari‘ah from the Quran and sunnah requires a thorough knowledge of the Arabic language and all the relevant material which a layman is not supposed to have. The only solution of this problem is that a group of persons should equip itself with the required knowledge of Shari‘ah, and the others should ask them about the injunctions of Shari‘ah in their day-to-day affairs. This is exactly what the Holy Qur’an has ordained for the Muslims in the following words:

“So, a section from each group of them should go forth, so that they may acquire the knowledge perception in the matters of religion, and so that they may warn their people when they turn back to them that they may be watchful.”

This verse of the Holy Quran indicates in clear terms that a group of Muslims should devote itself for acquiring the knowledge of Shari‘ah, and all others should consult them in the matters of Shari‘ah.

Now, if a person asks an authentic ‘alim (knowledgeable person) about the Shari‘ah ruling in a specific matter, and acts upon his advice, can a reasonable person accuse him of committing shirk on the ground that he has followed the advice of a human being instead of Qur’an and Sunnah? Certainly not. The reason is obvious. He has not abandoned the obedience of Allah and His Messenger; rather, he wants nothing but to obey them. However, being ignorant of their commands, he has consulted an ‘alim in order to know what he is required by Allah to do. He has not taken that ‘alim as the subject of his obedience, but he has taken him as an interpreter of the divine commands. Nobody can blame him for committing shirk.

This is exactly what the term taqlid means. A person who has no ability to understand the Holy Qur’an and Sunnah consults a Muslim jurist, often termed as Imam, and acts according to his interpretation of Shari‘ah. He never deems him worthy of obedience per se, but he seeks his guidance for knowing the requirements of Shari‘ah, because he has no direct access to the Holy Qur’an and Sunnah or has no adequate knowledge for inferring the rules of Shari‘ah from them. This behavior is called taqlid of that jurist or imam. How can it be said that taqlid is tantamount to shirk?

The qualified Muslim jurists or imams have devoted their lives for the study of the Holy Qur’an and Sunnah and have collected the rules of Shari‘ah; according to their respective interpretation of Shari‘ah, in an almost codified form. This collection of the Shari‘ah rules according to the interpretation of a particular jurist is called the ‘madhhab’ of that jurist. Thus the madhhab of an imam is not something parallel to Shari‘ah, or something alien to it; in fact it is a particular interpretation of Shari‘ah and a collection of the major Shari‘ah rules inferred from the Holy Qur’an and sunnah by some authentic jurists and arranged subject wise for the convenience of the followers of the Shari‘ah. So, the one who follows a particular madhhab actually follows the Holy Qur’an and sunnah according to the interpretation of a particular authentic jurist whom he believes to be the most trustworthy and the most knowledgeable in the matters of Shari‘ah.

As for the difference of the madhahib, it emerged through the different possible interpretations of the rules mentioned in or inferred from the Holy Qur’an and sunnah.

In order to understand this point properly, it will be pertinent to note that the rules mentioned in the Holy Qur’an and Sunnah are of two different types. Some rules are mentioned in these Holy Sources in such a clear and unambiguous expressions that they admit only one interpretation, and no other interpretation is possible thereof, such as the obligation of Salah, Zakah, fasting and Hajj, the prohibition of pork, wine, etc. etc. With regard to this set of rules, no difference of opinion has ever taken place. All the schools of jurists are unanimous on their interpretation, hence there is no room for ijtihad or taqlid in these matters, and because every layman can easily understand them from the Holy Qur’an and Sunnah, no intervention of a jurist or imam is called for. But there are some rules of Shari‘ah derived from the Holy Qur’an and Sunnah where either of the following different situations may arise:

1. The expression used in the Holy Sources may admit more than one interpretation. For example, while mentioning the period of ‘iddah (waiting period) for the divorced women, the Holy Qur’an has used the following expression:

“And the divorced shall wait for three periods of Qur’.”

The word ‘Qur” used in this verse has two meanings logically. It stands both for the period of menstruation and the period of cleanliness i.e. the tuhr. Both meanings are possible in the verse and each of them has different legal consequences. The question that requires juristic efforts is as to which of the two meanings are intended here. While answering this question the juristic opinions may naturally differ, and have actually differed. Imam Shafi‘i interprets the word ‘Qur” as the period of tuhr while Imam Abu Hanifah interprets it as ‘the period of menstruation.’ Both of them have a number of arguments in support of their respective views, and no one can be rejected outright. It is in this way that the difference among certain madhahib has emerged.

2. Sometimes there appears some sort of contradiction between two traditions of the Holy Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) and a jurist has to reconcile between them or prefer one of them over the other. In this case also, the viewpoints of the jurists may differ from each other.

For example, there are two sets of traditions found in the books of hadith attributing different behaviors to the Holy Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) while going for ruku in prayer. The first set of hadiths mentions that he used to raise his hands before bowing down for ruku’ while the other traditions mention that he did not raise his hands except in the beginning of the Salah.

The Muslim jurists, while accepting that both ways are correct, have expressed different views about the question which of the two ways is more advisable. This is another cause of difference between various madhahib.

3. There are many problems or issues which have not been mentioned in the Holy Qur’an and Sunnah in specific or express terms. The solution of such problems is sought either through analogy or through some expressions found in the Holy Sources which have an indirect bearing on the subject. Here again the jurists may have different approaches while they infer the required solution from the Holy Qur’an and Sunnah.

Such are the basic causes of difference between the madhahib. This difference is in no way a defect in Shari‘ah; rather, it is a source of dynamism and flexibility and a vast field of academic research within the framework of the principles of Shari‘ah settled by the Holy Qur’an and Sunnah for all times to come.

A Muslim jurist who has all the necessary qualifications for ijtihad is supposed, in the aforesaid situation, to exert the best of his efforts to find out the actual intention of the Holy Qur’an and Sunnah. If he does this to the best of his ability and with all his sincerity, his obligation towards Allah is discharged and nobody can blame him for violating the Shari‘ah, even though his view seems to be weaker when compared to the other ones.

This is a natural and logical phenomenon certain to be found in every legal system. The enacted laws in every legal framework do not contain each and every minute detail of the possible situations. The expressions used in a statute are often open to more than one interpretation, and different courts of law, while applying such provisions to the practical situations, often disagree in the matter of their interpretation. One court explains the law in a particular way while the other court takes it in a quite different sense. Nobody ever blames any one of them for the violation of the law. Since every court of law intends to apply the statute law to the best of its ability its duty towards the law-maker is discharged. Another court of law can differ from the conclusions drawn by the former one, but the judges of the former court can never be accused of violating the law.

Not only this, if the former court is a High Court, all the lower courts and all the people living within the jurisdiction of that High Court are bound jurisdiction of that High Court are bound to follow the interpretation laid down by it even though their personal opinion does not conform to the approach of the superior court. In this case, if they follow the decision of the superior Court nobody can say that they are not following the law, or that they are holding the Court as the Sovereign authority instead of the real legislator, because, in fact, they are following the decision of the Court only as a trustworthy interpreter of the law, and not as a legislator.

Exactly in the same way, the madhhab of a Muslim jurist is nothing but a credible interpretation of the Shari‘ah. Another competent jurist may disagree with this interpretation, but he can never accuse him of the violation of Shari‘ah, nor can anyone blame the followers of that particular madhhab for following something other than Shari‘ah, or for committing shirk by following the imam of that madhhab instead of obeying Allah and His Messenger, because, they are following the madhhab as a credible interpretation of Shari‘ah, and not as a law-making authority.

The next question which may arise here is what a layman should do with regard to these different madhahib, and which one of them should be followed. Answer to this question is very simple. All of these madhahib being sincere, competent efforts to find out the true intention of Shari‘ah. All of them are equally true, and a layman should follow the madhhab of any one of the recognized imams whom he believes to be more knowledgeable and more pious. Although the Muslim jurists who have undertaken the exercise of ijtihad are many in number, yet the madhahib of the four jurists are more comprehensive, well-arranged and well-preserved even today, and the Muslim Ummah as a whole has taken them as the most reliable interpretations of Shari‘ah. These four madhahib are called Hanafi, Shafi’i, Maliki and Hanbali schools. All the rest of madhahib are either not comprehensive in the sense that they do not contain all aspects of Shari‘ah or they have not been preserved in a reliable form. That is why the majority of the Muslim Ummah belongs to either of these four madhahib, and if a layman adopts any one of these schools in the matter of interpretation of the Shari‘ah, his obligation of following the Shari‘ah stands fulfilled.

This is the true picture of the term ‘taqlid’ with reference to the recognized juristic madhahib. I hope this explanation will be able to satisfy your question and will be sufficient to establish that ‘taqlid’ has nothing to do with shirk. It is, in fact a simple and easy way to follow the Shari‘ah.


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