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Taqlid: Blind Adherence or Rational Acceptance?

By Dr. Abdulaziz Sachedina
Professor, Department of Religious Studies
Halsey Hall
University of Virginia
Charlottesville, VA 22903
Tel. (434) 9246725
Fax. (434) 924-1467

In the age of reason the question of taqlid (literally,`blind adherence') becomes highly unpalatable. In the age known for its critical thinking in acceptance of any opinion, religious or otherwise, taqlid seems to negate the fundamental requirement of logical inquiry into every item of evidence to arrive at the truth. However, taqlid in the matters of religious practice, as understood in the Twelver Shi`ite school of thought, does not imply `blind adherence.' It signifies `adopting' the rulings of a jurist with trust in their correctness. More importantly, even in this limited sense the necessity of taqlid is the result of a rational conclusion based on the need for divine guidance, through the Qur'an and the Prophet Muhammad, in order to secure necessary confidence about the goodness of religious and moral duties demanded by the Shari`a. It is important to state that rejection of taqlid in the sense of `blind following' and endorsement of rational approach to religion is by no means limited to the so- called scientific age. Development of Islamic religious sciences like theology (kalam) and jurisprudence (fiqh) clearly values people who question the authority of the `ancestral' tradition. To be sure, the Qur'an praises those who `think' and `reflect' about the divine guidance, and endeavor to follow it in organizing their life on earth.


Taqlid in the Meaning of 'Uncritical Thinking'

Muslim scholars, both Sunni and Shi`i, during the classical period of Islam (9th-10th centuries C.E.) criticized those Muslims who upheld taqlid in the sense of `uncritical faith' in the matter of belief, thereby prohibiting rational inquiry and discussion in order to arrive at knowledge of truth. Shaykh Kulayni, in his al- Kafi, in the section on the "Excellence of Knowledge" shows that the Shi`ite Imams encouraged discursive inquiry into the matter of faith, and of practice based on it, by requiring the Shi`a to ask questions before accepting an opinion. In fact, he reports a tradition in which Imam Ja`far al-Sadiq criticized the Jews and the Christians for having followed their rabbis and monks unquestioningly even in the most erroneous of their distortion of the two monotheistic religions. 

Hence, taqlid in the matter of fundamental beliefs (usulud- din), was not only ruled out; it was also regarded as harmful to the healthy state of faith. Shaykh Mufid was even more explicit in the condemnation of taqlid in beliefs. He believed that although human reason needs guidance through revelation for arriving at rational understanding about religion, the believer's faith must rely on rational proof. Being fully aware that not all members of the Shi`ite community were capable of attaining their understanding of faith through rational discourse, he was not willing to condemn them all to infidelity, although he criticized them for being muqallidun (`uncritical followers') in the matters of belief.  

Taqlid in the Meaning of 'Following the Rulings of a Jurist'

The following passage of the Qur'an, according to the Shi`ite scholars, directed Muslims to the second form of taqlid, that is `following the rulings of those who have gained sound knowledge in religion':

Of every group of them, a party only should go forth [for jihad] so that [among those who are left behind there should be some] who should [undertake to] gain knowledge in religion, in order for them to warn their people when they consult them, so that they take heed to themselves. [9:122]

On the basis of the above passage a person `who undertakes to gain knowledge in religion' is made responsible for putting Muslims on their guard by warning them about their obligations, whether religious or moral. Accordingly, whether the Muslims commit themselves to follow his legal decisions or not, the Qur'an requires this knowledgeable person to issue legal decisions and to warn believers about fulfilling their obligations. When there is such a learned person in the community then it is obligatory to refer to him in matters related to the religious practice (furu`ud- din).

Consequently, in Islamic jurisprudence taqlid denotes a `commitment' to accept and act in accordance with the rulings of the Shari`a as deduced by a well-qualified, righteous jurist (mujtahid). It also suggests adopting his rulings with confidence in their correctness, without investigating the reason that led the jurist to make his decisions. In other words, it is important for believers to feel confident in their religious observances, and that confidence can be attained either through ijtihad (i.e. investigating all the proofs that led to a particular legal decision him-herself), ihtiyat (taking the safe, prudent line by adopting precautionary stance in those matters in which one is not sure), or taqlid (putting the responsibility for one's religious acts on a qualified jurist-scholar). However, the obligation to follow a mujtahid in one's religious practice does not mean to accept his opinions in other fields of religious knowledge, such as theology or mysticism, history or philosophy, as being free of any error; nor does it imply that such a scholar is to be regarded as infallible (ma`sum) at any point.   

Marja` al-Taqlid: The Highest Juridical Authority

The question of the marja` al-taqlid is actually the rational decision dictated by the necessity to consult those who are specialists in matters of the Shari`a. This rational necessity of taqlid has also led to the necessity of following the most learned (al-a`lam) among the scholars, who is the point of reference - al- marja`, for all the Shi`a. However, the question of "the most learned" in taqlid is inherently subjective for its universal acceptance by all the Shi`ite scholars. How can one determine who is the most learned when every scholar can claim to be the most learned? There is no doubt that those mujtahids who ruled it obligatory for believers to follow the decisions of the "most learned" jurist wanted to centralize the leadership of the jurist in the community and uniformalize religious practice of the faithful. By declaring one's taqlid of the most learned mujtahid, a believer establishes a direct link between his religious acts with the rulings of the marja`. This sense of linkage also generates a sense of loyalty to the marja`, which is formalized through a juridical prescription (fatwa) requiring the ordinary person to declare his intention to follow the most qualified member of the community through taqlid. Taqlid, then, is the rational acceptance of a mujtahid's knowledgeable position in the matters related to religious practice.

The centralization of the marja`iyya was a historical process that began in 18th century. The concept of marja`-taqlid and its relationship to the Shi`a community initiated by some prominent jurists during the Qajar period was completed when the believers, regardless of where and under what kind of government they lived, were organized as an independent religious community acknowledging the centrality of Islamic religious practice in their life. The religious independence of the community, through mujtahid-muqallid relationship, consolidated the position of the mujtahid within the community, whose members depend upon the mujtahid not only for religious prescriptions but for total guidance in realizing an ideal Islamic community in the absence of the Twelfth Imam. In fact, the mujtahid who occupies the position of marja`iyya (authoritative reference) has become the conscience of the Shi`ite community, and for the Shi`a masses the marja` al-taqlid, although neither infallible and nor directly appointed in that position by the Twelfth Imam, is popularly regarded as the Imam's deputy (na'ib). This popular estimation of the marja` as the deputy of the Imam has led to marja's mystification and blind acceptance, even when any person endowed with minimum reasoning in the age of democratization of knowledge and authority is able to discern the practical irrelevance of the institution.  

Marja` al-Taqlid Today

As the community faces the impending 21st century the traditional role of taqlid and the marja`al-taqlid in the ever changing modern age is going through a crisis of adjustment to the realities of the time. The institution has run its course in history and has reached a point when it can be clearly observed that it has lost relevancy for the community's day to day life. There is very little interest in the marja` to solve the pressing problems of the community. The only organic connection with the believers appears to be the khums. There is hardly any interest to gear the direction of the community to a better understanding of Islam. Modern life is complex. Most of the marja` live in a limited and narrow social-cultural environment to grasp the critical need to understand the problems of modernity, and provide adequate guidance for maintaining faith. Moreover, they function through the ad hoc appointment of their wakils, sometimes their close family members, who surrogate the marja's authority as well as influence to enrich themselves and to arrogate the position of power-brokers between the marja` and the community leaders. In the absence of any accountability about the way the trust of the Twelfth Imam (i.e. the religious donations like khums and zakat) is managed, the integrity of the marja`iyya has come under severe scrutiny. Unlike the Vatican in Catholicism, marja'iyya has operated up until now in the shadow of the personal integrity of the marja` al-taqlid. With the delegated leadership of the close family members of the marja` and some of his powerful wakils the institution is faced with crisis, which, if unresolved, could mean the demise of the centralized, taqlid-oriented marja`iyya.

Such a time in the history of the Shi`a community was already predicted by some insightful scholars. Thus, the late Ayatollah Taleqani and Professor Murtaza Mutahhari in their well-known recommendations for the reform of the marja`iyya some three decades ago (published in Marja`iyyat va Ruhaniyyat) had shown the inadequacies of the institution in contemporary times. One of the issues taken up by Professor Mutahhari was about the necessity of a collective leadership to meet the diverse problems created by the technicalization and modernization of the life in general. The complexity of religious and moral concerns arising out of the secular modern living, whether in the Muslim or non-Muslim social environment, required individual mujtahids to function as a collective body in order to lead the community through the crisis of adjustment. Moreover, it necessitated this collective leadership to undertake specialization in various branches of Islamic jurisprudence connected with human relationships to offer realistic and authentic guidance in matters related to the modern social, economic and political institutions. In the words of the Ayatollah Khomeini, the marja` al-taqlid today needs to go beyond the traditional jurisprudence (fiqh-i sunnati) to provide relevant and applicable religious guidance to modern men and women. Moreover, the marja`iyya needs to go beyond the khums collection to concentrate its energy on developing practical relationship with the community as it struggles to live in modern times.

As a consequence, taqlid and marja` today face a fundamental question: How relevant is the institution to the everyday existence of the community? The 1980s saw an unprecedented event in the political history of Twelver Shi`ism. This was the establishment of the jurist's governance (wilayat al-faqih) in a modern nation- state of Iran. The role of Ayatollah Khomeini as both the founder of the Islamic republic and the marja` al-taqlid has put enormous pressure on other prominent mujtahids to search for ways in which they can reach out the Shi`a community beyond their traditionally recognized function of managing the religious donations of khums, and providing the limited guidance in matters strictly religious. The multifarious problems faced by the Shi`ite communities around the globe, especially in the West, have forced the marja` al-taqlid to carry out further research in the Islamic sources to respond promptly to the widening gap between the religious and secular existence under the impact of modernity. The future of the twin institutions of taqlid and marja` al-taqlid which have held the community together in the past will depend on the ability of this leadership in Shi`ism to make Islam relevant and applicable for modernly educated men and women.


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