Taqlīd often gets a superficial treatment from Muslim figures who are lacking in their knowledge of either epistemology or usūl-ul-fiqh and fiqh. To properly understand taqlīd, there are numerous factors to take into consideration.
For many taqlīd is known by the technical definition given in usūl books as: following someone else without evidence when an individual is not able to do ijtihād. Although this is true, this barely explains anything about taqlīd, it’s reality, function and it’s importance or lack thereof.
Taqlīd is not an Islamic phenomenon, it is a human phenomenon. Non-specialists by default must rely on specialists for knowledge they do not have access to. Even just in the realm of interpersonal communication, you know more about your life than someone else, which is why if I want to help you with any problem you have, I have to ask you questions. You are the expert of your own experiences, feelings and thoughts.
The notion that taqlīd is somehow ‘unIslamic’ is incomprehensible and ridiculous. You cannot just bypass scholarship and access the Qur’an and Sunnah directly. You will need to rely on taqlīd no matter what. Even if you learn from a hadīth book, you will either learn from the interpretation of your teacher or from the commentary of the hadīth you are reading. Books of fiqh are essential for accessing our rich interpretive history. Since you cannot bypass a human reality, you might as well enrich yourself with the fruit of that human reality instead.
Here we also see that accepting taqlīd does not necessitate conformation to a static and frozen tradition which does not change with time and place. Rather there is a core that remains immovable (i.e. matters of consensus) and the rest can adjust. All that taqlīd does is inform us that the process of adjustment requires our dependence on epistemic authority, i.e. we must rely on the scholars, whether experts in the past or present, to understand Islam, as no one starts off as an expert. The nature of that dependence of course, can differ depending on our understanding of how fiqh works or should work.
Taqlīd thus by extension has a communal/epistemic function, apart from the technical definition in Usūl books. This is something I started to glimpse in Shafii treatises on taqlīd but could not properly convey until I started reading some Western research papers on the issue (See papers by Dr. Mohammed Fadel and Dr. Sherman Jackson on Taqlīd as an example). It’s also here that one starts to understand the importance of ‘madhhabs’ as communal & pedagogical constructs or structural representations of scholarly activity, rather than the epistemic juggernauts they are often caricatured to be by traditionalists or anti-traditionalists. Madhhabs were not adopted just because they were seen as the most ‘authentic’ expressions of fiqh, but because they also provided a way by which the average Muslim, student and budding expert could anchor their understanding of Islam in scholarly thought.
Understandings of taqlīd can also vary withing these communal constructs, resulting in different effects on society and culture. For example, a conversation with a Hanafi on taqlīd can be very different than a conversation with for example, a Shafii on the same subject. The structure of the Hanafi school is quite different from the Shafii one. You may have noticed that Hanafis are usually quite polarized on taqlīd and it’s often a hot discussion in their circles because their usūl can invite a lot of uncertainty and flexibility. There are also competing theories within the Hanafi school as to which usūl is authoritative. This may also be why Hanafis more strongly emphasize their founding Imams in their Fiqh. It may also be why Hanafi societies (like the Indian subcontinent for example), can have polarizing and highly polemical debates on the interpretation of Fiqh. One can also argue that if we want our fiqh to be more adjustable and fluid across time and place, there will be core fundamentals that we need to buckle down on, and perhaps we need to take issues of consensus more seriously as well.
In contrast, for a Shafii taqlīd of their school can mean a very different thing from a Hanafi. For example it’s much easier – as in there is less red tape – for Shafiis to do cross-madhhab taqlīd and taqlīd outside of the schools as well. This is because for Shafiis the founding Imam played less of a role as the school developed over history. The usūl as a whole is less flexible and more systematized than the Hanafi one, creating more tolerance for different deductions and inductions and a greater emphasis on shared usūl, as a core of certainty is always present. As a result, for Shafiis the process of Fatwa or research in fiqh can possibly become like a systematic process of elimination based on maslahah, and the final result can be possible attempts at ijtihad.
Lastly, taqlīd can also occur in matters of creed. This is excepting core aspects of creed, which remain fixed in Sunni Islam. Here scholars of kalām and usūl unanimously declared that taqlīd is not permissible. Rather every human being and every Muslim must arrive at the truth through introspection, whether via the fitrah or the process of reason. This is the process that all human beings are tasked with in this life, and they are either rewarded or punished for their acceptance or rejection of the truth once they discover it. As for subsidiary/secondary issues in which Sunni scholars differed over, then taqlīd is tolerated, as this is a specialist aspect of creed, in which there is no option except to make taqlīd as it requires plenty of reading, learning and research.
Taqlīd is not mysterious. It is easily understood once one looks at it through the lens of epistemology. Unfortunately I still see the term being irresponsibly tossed around as if it is a backwards or unIslamic that has set the ummah back or rendered us incapable of adjustment to the present or the future. The conversation should more be centered around ‘who should we be making taqlīd of’ or ‘how should we make taqlīd’, which is a very different conversation and more about how we define expertise or how fiqh and our tradition works or is to be interpreted.