Fiqh, The Legal Status of Following a Madhab / Monday, August 18th, 2008

That the real call of Islam is to obey Allah alone, no Muslim will deny. So much so that it is wajib to obey the Prophet (SAWS) only because he demonstrated the injunctions of Allah with his words and deeds. We have to obey Allah and His Messenger (SAWS) in the things they told us are lawful and forbidden. If anyone obeys someone else instead and regards him as worthy of obedience then he is outside the folds of Islam, hence, it is imperative for every Muslim to observe the commands in the Quran and sunnah.

However, there are commands in them which every literate person can understand without a semblance of doubt. For instance, the Qur’an says:

“And backbite not one another” (49:12)

Every person who knows a little Arabic will get the message, particularly because there is no ambiguity or a contrary evidence in Shari’ah. Or, take this saying of the Prophet:

“No Arab enjoys an excellence over a non-Arab.”

These words are crystal clear. No student of Arabic will fail to understand them.

In contrast, there are some commands in the Qur’an and the Ahadith that present some difficulty, or seem to differ from another portion of the Qur’an or Ahadith. Let us explain by examples of each.

The Qur’an says:

“And the divorced women shall wait, keeping themselves apart, for three quru’.” (2:228)

This verse specifies the waiting period of a divorced woman as three quru’ which is used in Arabic for both menstruation and purity (between two menstruations). In the first sense, the verse would call upon the woman to wait for three monthly periods, while the second meaning would require her to wait till three periods of purity pass over. So, how should she act?

The Prophet has said:

“He who does not abandon mukhabarah should take notice from Allah and His Messenger of war.” (Abu Dawood #3399 Kitab al-Bayi’)

There are many kinds of mukhabarah (which is sharing of crop between cultivator and landlord), but the Hadith does not specify which kind. Does it mean every kind of mukhabarah or some kind?

The Prophet has said:

“If anyone follows an imam then the imam’s recitation is his recitation.” (Muwatta Imam Muhammad)

The former implies that one who follows the imam in salah should observe silence when the imam recites but the latter is emphatic that if he does not recite surah al-Fatihah then his salah is invalid.

The question arises which of the two Ahadith should be observed. If the first is followed, the second would seen to address the imam and one who offers his salah by himself (out of the congregation), and the follower behind the imam is expected. If we go by the second then it would imply that the first refers to recitation of the surah other than surah al-Fatihah and surah al-Fatihah is excepted.

Many such difficulties present themselves in deriving the commands from the Qur’an and Ahadith. The way out is either to rely on our own judgment and interpret them or find out what our worthy predecessors had done. So, we must conduct ourselves according to the conclusions of the scholars of Qur’an and Hadith of the first generation.

If we are really fair then we should realize that the first option is fraught with danger while the second is safe. I am not being humble when I say that in every respect, we are behind the ulama of the early generation, be it knowledge or understanding, wisdom or memory, religion or honesty, and righteousness or piety. Besides, they were very close to the atmosphere in which the Qur’an was revealed and that made it very easy for them to understand the Qur’an and sunnah. In contrast, we are so far away from that atmosphere that it is very difficult for us to picture the background, environment, social living and style of conversation then prevailing, for it is very necessary to know all these things in order to understand someone’s intention.

Accordingly, if we reject our own understanding and choose to follow the interpretation of the complex commands of Qur’an and sunnah of one of the scholars among our worthy predecessors it will be said that we have made his taqleed.

This is the reality of taqleed. If I have been able to convey my mind then it should be obvious to you that taqleed of an imam or a mujtahid is made only when there is a difficulty in understanding a command of the Qur’an or sunnah whatever the nature of our difficulty:

  • The text may be open to more than one meaning,
  • It is very brief,
  • There are contradictory evidences.

No taqleed of an imam or mujtahid is done when the text is clear and comprehensive and not liable to contradiction or doubt. The well-known Hanafi scholar, Allamah Abdul Ghani Nablusi (RA) has written;

“Thus, the affairs on which there is an agreement and are known as essentials of religion, do not call for taqleed of any one of the four imams, like the obligation of salah, fasting, zakah, hajj, and others of similar nature, and the prohibition of illegal sex, wine, slaying, theft and usurption and so on. However, affairs that are debatable call for taqleed.” (Kulasatat Tahqeeq fi Hukm ut-Taqleed wat-Talfeeq p4)

Allama Khateeb Baghdad (RA) has written;

“There are two kinds of legal commands:

(i) Those that are known to be essential part of religion, like the five times saiah, zakah, fasting during Rarnadhan, Hajj, unlawful nature of adultery, consumption of wine, and such other things. Since everyone has knowledge of these things, so taqleed is not proper in this kind.

(ii) Those that cannot be known without concentration and deduction, like the branch issues of worship, mutual dealings and marriage. In this kind, taqleed is proper because Allah has said:

So, ask the people (having knowledge) of the Message, if you do not know. (16:43)

Besides, if we disallow Taqleed in these branch issues of religion then it would require everyone to pursue the sciences of religoin. If that is made necessary for the people then all the necessities of life will be ruined. Fields and cattle will be ignored. So, such a command cannot be given.” (Al-Taqih Wal-Mutafaqah, Khateeb Baghdadi v2 p67-68)

Mawlana Ashraf Ali Thanwi (RA) has written,

“Issues are of three kinds:

  1. Those in which the text is debatable.
  2. Those that allow for different interpretations,
  3. Those whose meaning is clear and understandable.

Thus in the first kind, the mujtahid has to make Ijtihad, while others will have to make taqleed of him. The second kind, too, calls for Ijtihad and taqleed. The third kind allows neither Ijtihad nor taqleed.” (Al-Iqtisad fit-Taqleed wal-Ijtihad, p34)

The conclusion drawn from the foregoing discussion is that taqleed of an imam or mujtahid does not in any way imply that he is being followed on the understanding that it is wajib (obligatory) to follow him, or on the understanding that he is the law-giver and everything he says must be obeyed. Rather, one follows nothing but the Qur’an and sunnah, and to understand them the exegesis of the imam or mujtahid is relied upon. This is exactly why in the absolute commands of the Qur’an and sunnah, taqleed of an imam or a mujtahid is unnecessary, the purpose of obeying Allah and His Messenger is served easily without taqleed.

The fact that one whose taqleed is made is not regarded more than an exponent whom it is not wajib to follow is implied in the sense of the word taqleed. Hence, Allamah Ibn al-Humam and Allamah Ibn Nujaym oi Li- have defined taqleed:

“Taqleed is to act according to the word of one whose word is not source of Shari’ah (a proof in Islamic law), without demanding evidence from him.” (Taysirat – Tahreer, Ameer Badshah Bukhari, v4 p246, Egypt; Fath al-Ghaffar Sharah al-Manar, Ibn Nujaym v2 p37)

The source of Islamic law are only the Qur’an and sunnah (and through them by concensus and analogical deduction). One follows the word of the imam on the understanding that he has complete insight in the sciences of the Qur’an and sunnah and, so, the conclusion he had derived from them is worth relying upon.

There is nothing in this conduct that can be called sinful or polytheistic. Of course, if anyone believes an imam to be the source of law and one whom it is wajib to follow then his conduct is polytheistic. To regard someone as an exponent of law and to rely on his understanding and insight, rather than on one’s own, is unavoidable in these times of dearth of knowledge.

We may see it in the example of the laws in a country proclaimed and compiled in book form. Howsoever well educated the masses might be, they have to seek legal advice to interpret the laws. In such cases, no one will suggest that the legal expert is bestowed authority to legislate and the seekers regard him as the authority in the land instead of the laws of the land.

It is exactly the same with the Qur’an and Sunnah, to resort to the mujtahid imams to explain them, is taqleed. The muqallid (one who makes taqleed) cannot be accused of following the mujiahid instead of the Qur’an and sunnah.

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