This is a common phrase uttered by those who are against the madhhabs and the concept of taqlid in fiqh. On the surface such an approach seems very simple, straightforward and directly inspired from passionate faith & piety, which is why people who advocate for it find it difficult to let go of. However, despite its seemingly immediate and powerful appeal, it suffers from severe internal contradictions as well as a lack of scholarly support over Islamic History.
Texts and Interpretation
Firstly, texts cannot be understood except through the act of interpretation. Texts are not independent entities that speak for themselves but rather are compositions of language whose meaning depends on the understanding of whoever is interacting with them.
This is a common sense fact that has been basic knowledge not just in our scholarly traditions of fiqh and usul since the time of the sahabah & the salaf, but also in the study of the Arabic language. The subject of balaghah exists for this very reason, to explore and understand the text-interpretation dynamic in a logical and systematic manner. This is also a basic concept in more global understandings of linguistics and the philosophy and psychology of language as well.
One of the earliest examples demonstrating this is one of Ali (رضي الله عنه)’s methods in debating the claims of the Khawarij. They rebelled against him and considered him to have committed kufr because he had prescribed religious rulings based on his personal interpretation and ijtihad, and only Allah had the authority to rule. In a narration in the musnad of Imam Ahmed, he asked that a hefty mushaf be placed in front of him and he nudged it, commanding it to speak to the people in the gathering. The people responded that the Quran doesn’t speak rather discourse is based on what is understood from it. Ali (رضي الله عنه) then proceeded to mention more practical rulings from the Qur’an and the Sirah which demonstrated his point, that texts require interpreters to understand and apply them.
If we rely on interpretation to understand texts, then we are not ‘following’ Allah & His Messenger ﷺ, rather we are following the interpreter. If this interpreter is someone who we consider to be a teacher or a scholar, then we are following their interpretation. If we prefer to directly access the texts ourselves, then we are following our own interpretation. Either way, there is always an intermediary, or ‘middle-man’ in the process of understanding the Qur’an and Sunnah. Contrary to what people who prefer a direct-to-text approach assume, this does not mean that we are violating our theological and ontological commitment to follow & obey the Prophet ﷺ. We are simply taking the practical means to do it. This is also not to say that direct Qur’an/tafsir or Hadith study cannot be part of the Islamic curriculum, rather they still occupy a central importance as pedagogical tools to bring the everyday Muslim and the seeker knowledge ‘closer’ to the sacred texts. Those who try to do a direct Qur’an/tafsir or Hadith study without understanding the role of interpretation though, will make serious mistakes.
There is no way out of this phenomenon of interpretation. It is an epistemic, linguistic and psychological reality. Even if one follows the dhahir, or apparent meaning of a text, one still needs to contextualize that dhahir meaning within the context of common sense or the rest of the Qur’an and Sunnah & the Shariah. There is always going to be an element of interpretation that intermediates between the construction of words in a sacred text and what we understand from it.
Most everyday Muslims who adhere to or advocate for the anti-madhab, anti-taqlid and direct-to-text approach don’t understand this issue of interpretation except perhaps superficially, which is why they are often seen to have a more-than-reasonable, and often bordering-on-fanatical attachment to a minority of scholars they admire and follow or their own teachers. Even worse manifestations of this are their own teachers (or even some basement self-studied interpreters), who become unreasonably or fanatically attached to their own interpretations and consider them to be authoritative, deceiving themselves into thinking they are ‘following the Qur’an and Sunnah’ when in fact they are following their own interpretation. Many of these individuals don’t realize the burden they are placing on themselves when they detach their followers from the authority of wider Islamic tradition and place it in themselves.
One can imagine then the massive glut of interpretations that we would have to sift through given the amount of interlocutors of the sacred text that exist currently and have existed since the time of the Prophet (saw), both Muslims and at times even non-Muslims. Within these interpretations we would have those that were based on ignorance or lack of qualifications in being able to interpret the sacred texts, such as poor Arabic language skills or insufficient knowledge of the Sunnah. We would also have interpretations that would be considered unorthodox i.e. contrary to the core beliefs of Ahlus-Sunnah. One could imagine how important it would be to need a system to sort through these interpretations and to identify authoritative and stronger interpretations from lesser ones. This system would have to be constructed and regulated by experts themselves to ensure that our breadth of valid interpretations are rigorous and authentic. Enter the madhhabs.
Without such a system, we would not be able to differentiate between Sunni, Mu’tazili or Shi’i interpretations, knowledgeable & well grounded interpretations or ignorant ones, honest and well-meaning interpretations or malicious etc. Beyond interpretations themselves, we would also not be able to differentiate between acceptable and unacceptable methods of interpreting. Anyone who has read and studied heterodox tafsir or even just glanced at non-Sunni or non-scholarly interpretations understands how convincing they can be to the uninitiated. In fact many of the questions fielded to religious leaders and scholars are of this very nature: trying to understand the heterodox or ignorant referencing of the Qur’an or Sunnah by a person that might seem to be correct but challenges the beliefs of the person asking the question.
Madhhabs i.e. schools of thought provide this system in fiqh. The simple definition of a madhhab that I prefer is ‘a way of interpreting the Qur’an and Sunnah’. The concept of madhhabs & taqlid allow us to regulate, systematize, codify and canonize the numerous interpretations of sacred text that exist and continue to proliferate. Madhhabs are named after their founders, but the rules of interpretations (usul) and conclusions (fiqh) of those founders from their rules are templates for a greater project of fiqh interpretation by the followers of their madhhabs. They allow for healthy social function in the study, teaching and implementation of fiqh that allows the average, everyday Muslim to more readily have access to authoritative and expert interpretations and avoid problematic unorthodox and amateur interpretations. They also allow for a system of internal peer-review where scholarly interpretation is subject to criticism and review from experts following the same template of interpretation.
Scholars understood the benefits of the madhhab system early on, which is why the vast majority of fuqaha throughout Islamic History followed one of these madhhabs, and eventually a set range of methods of interpretations and conclusions were canonized. This is not to say that the canon of interpretations did not develop further over time. For scholars, accepting taqlīd did 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 (e.g. matters of consensus) and the rest can adjust.
Someone who chooses to follow an anti-madhab, anti-taqlid and direct-to-text approach is not just misunderstanding the phenomenon of interpretation in the understanding of sacred text, but they are also in conflict with history & authorities of fiqh themsleves: the fuqaha. They have developed an understanding of how to approach the texts that is not just unprecedented, but could even be argued to be heterodox and against standard Sunni practice. Even more peculiar is the omission in understanding that this kind of thinking is very evidently modernist and reformist. If your understanding has elements of anti-traditionalism in it, is novel in some ways, and is seeking to reform how Muslims today think about Islam, then it shares characteristics with modernism and reformism. Modernism and reformism do not necessitate a more ‘liberal’ outcome. Modernist and reformist interpretations can be conservative too.
This trend of anti-traditionalism in recent history has read to the explosion of spurious and amateur interpretations that have wreaked chaos and in some instances violence across the Muslim world. Once sacred text was believed to be ‘accessible to all’ and interpretation disconnected from expertise and scholarship, anyone could interject with their own personal interpretation and present it as authoritative. Heterodox interpretations have always existed, but often they were restricted to learned and capable individuals. Today’s interpretations though are often made by unqualified pseudo-authorities, but are still believed to be authoritative because they are following ‘the Qur’an and Sunnah’, or in some cases just ‘the Qur’an’. Where once Muslims were educated according to tried-and-tested traditional systems of knowledge and learning, many are now confused which interpretations are authoriative and which they should follow.
As I have mentioned in my article on expertise, I do not consider those who have not studied and mastered a madhhab in fiqh to be authorities in Islamic knowledge. They are missing a fundamental source of scholarly interpretation that occupies a central role in understanding Islamic tradition and Islam as a whole.
Variations of Taqlid
Taqlīd thus has a communal/epistemic function, distinct from the technical definition in Usūl books, which is “following someone else without evidence when an individual is not able to do ijtihād“. Here one starts to understand the importance of madhhabs as communal & pedagogical constructs or structural representations of interpretation, rather than the epistemic juggernauts they are often caricatured to be by some of their adherents as well by those who favor a direct-to-text approach.
The finer details of taqlīd can also vary within madhhabs, 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. Hanafis may be quite polarized on taqlīd because their usūl can invite a lot of uncertainty and uncomfortable flexibility. There are also competing theories within the Hanafi school as to which usūl is authoritative. This may also be why Hanafis may to a higher degree than others emphasize their founding Imam in their interpretation. It may also be why Hanafi societies (like the Indian subcontinent for example), often have highly polemical debates on interpretation of the Qur’an and Sunnah.
In contrast, for a Shafii taqlīd in their madhhab has a different soul. The strict Ahlul-Hadith methodology of interpretation the Shafiis follow guarantees a greater sense of uniformity in conclusions. In addition, the founding Imam played less of a role as the school developed and figures like Imam al-Nawawi became central authorities themselves.
Taqlīd can also occur in matters of creed. This does not apply to core aspects of creed, which remain fixed in Sunni orthodoxy. In such instances, 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 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 for the non-specialist except to follow a particular interpretation.