Taqleed: A Letter Response from Imam al-Ghazali to Qadi Abu Bakr Ibn al-‘Arabi al-Maliki

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Epistle of Imam al-Ghazali to the faqih Abu Bakr Ibn al-‘Arabi al-Qurtubi concerning the obligation for the ‘alim (Scholar) who is not a mujtahid to follow the madhhab (School of thought) of his Imam under all circumstances

By Maulvi Muhammad Yusuf



Al-Ghazali explained the obligation of following an imam even if he “assumes “the proof of his Imam is “weak” succinctly in a letter to Abu Bakr Ibn al-‘Arabi (d. 543), the Maliki faqih and muhaddith, who asked him if it were permissible for one who had a degree of knowledge to make ijtihaad and go against his imam if he thought his position was weak and the position of another imam was strong.

That precious letter, which is only a couple of pages long, has been reported in its entirety in Miyar al-Mu’rab, an important work of Maliki fatwa compiled by Ahmad ibn Yahya al-Wansharisi (d. 914). He told him quite frankly in that letter that we have no business doing ijtihaad since we do have the qualifications; then since we do not have the qualifications, there can be nothing to prompt us to make ijtihaad but vain desire (hawa’). Here follows the text of the matter:

The Qadi Abu Bakr Ibn al-‘Arabi {d. 543, Fez] wrote to the Shaikh, Hujjatu ‘l-Islam, Abu Hamid al-Ghazali [d. 505] concerning [the case of] a person who was following [Imam] Malik and there is an issue (mas’alah) in which Malik holds it to be haram (prohibited); whereas, [Imam] al-Shafi’i says it is halal (lawful). May [that person follow whichever one of them he likes in this particular issue and in general may] one follow whichever imam he pleases in certain particular issues [of fiqh]?:

The Question of Qadi Abu Bakr Ibn al-‘Arabi:

What is the meaning of the ordinary people [1] following those imams rather than some of the Companions [of the Prophet (on whom be grace and glory from Allah)]? Is it permitted for a person who is following [Imam] al-Shafi’i to follow a Companion since the Companions are less likely to make any mistakes; that is confirmed by the saying of the Prophet (on whom be grace and glory from Allah): “Follow among those after me, Abu Bakr and ‘Umar. O Allah, cause the truth to be with ‘Umar.” [2]

Furthermore, is it necessary for the ordinary person [that is, the non-mujtahid] to conform to the opinions of the imams [the Arabic term here is muqalladun which literally means “those who are followed”] even if he has a something of an ability for ijtihaad? If so, what is the proof for that?

If we permitted the people to follow a teacher and a faqih in the matter of basic religious beliefs (usul al-din) without them [that is, the common people] knowing the proofs [for what they believe] [3], then what is the difference between them and those whose statement Allah reported [in His words], “We found our fathers following a certain religion [that is, idolatry] and we are following in their steps (43:22)”; reproaching them for blindly following their fathers. Elsewhere, in His Book, Allah reproached the unbelievers saying “[Do they disbelieve in Our Messenger and claim he is mad], and do they not look at the kingdom of the sky and the earth and what Allah has created [that they might reflect on the omnipotence of Allah and realize that what He says to them is true]”? (7:185) Then in the hadith [about the interrogation in the grave] [4] and the punishment in the grave, it is reported that the hypocrite says [when asked by the two angels Munkar and Nakir: “Who is your Lord? What is your religion? Who is your prophet?]: “I do not know really, I heard the people saying something, so I said it too”; whereas, the believer will reply: “My Lord is Allah, and my religion is Islam, [and my prophet is Muhammad].” [Does not this hadith indicate that blind following is not sufficient?]

Is it permitted for an ‘alim [he means her the ‘alim who is a mujtahid] to follow another ‘alim who is like him, or of a higher degree than him [keep in mind that there are degrees of ijtihaad] in some question [without knowing his proof] even though he is able to verify the truth by himself by making ijtihaad in the same way that it is permissible for him to follow another ‘alim concerning the direction of the Ka’ba (the qiblah), and concerning whether or not some available water is pure and suitable for purification [for the performance of ablution, or the washing of impurity from one’s body or clothing or place of prayer] although he was able to verify that himself? Please explain all these matters to us in detail. May Allah reward you.

The Answer of Abu Hamid al-Ghazali:

It is not permitted for an ‘alim  who is a muqallid [that is, he is not a mujtahid of whatever degree] to chose what is the best position [on an issue] according to his own opinion, nor that which he feels is most appropriate; rather, he must follow the opinion of his imam whose madhhab he believes to be more correct than that of others.[7] Then, he must follow that imam in every single issue of fiqh; thus it is not permissible for a Maliki [for example] to change and follow the madhhab of al-Shafi’i [on a particular issue]; however, if he feels that Shafi’s madhhab is more sound, then it is incumbent on him to follow him in every issue. However, if that is not the case [that is, he does not feel that the madhhab of al-Shafi’i, [for example,] is more sound, there is no call to oppose his own imam [and follow al-Shafi’i] except vain desire (al-hawa’).

Also, it is not permitted for the mujtahid to oppose the opinion that is the result of his ijtihaad, just as it is not permitted for the follower (muqallid) to oppose [the mujtahid] whom he is following; there is no difference [between the two; that is, between the mujtahid and the muqallid in this matter since each is bound to follow a mujtahid] except that the muqallid seeks the best [mujtahid] imam, while the mujtahid seeks the best of the two [or more] opinions.

Every Muslim has to follow what he feels is right in all matters of worship; now the muqallid achieves this by considering to be correct what his imam says because he has already come to the conclusion that the madhhab of his imam is sound. His deciding that the madhhab of his imam is sound is similar to a person’s finding a good doctor in a strange land, for he would accomplish that by hearing what the people say, or by observing to whom most of the people are going, or by hearing from one or two trusted sources [that a certain person is a good doctor] with the result that he is satisfied in his heart about the correctness of their opinion; thus, a person might here from his parents about the greatness of Malik, or of al-Shafi’i, so that he believes that and his heart is satisfied with that.[8] Then, after arriving at such a conviction, it is not permitted for him to oppose it [by doubting the correctness of the opinion of his imam in a particular issue since that involves undoing a reasonable conviction for the sake of a whim]; if he were to claim that I feel that the one whom I follow is mistaken in this particular issue, his claim is to be rejected since that is not the prerogative [that is, that is not the business] of a muqallid (one who follows) [since he is not a mujtahid he has no qualification, nor any means to verify that his imam is mistaken on that particular issue].[9]

A person’s undertaking ijtihaad in certain particular issues of fiqh [if he is not a mujtahid] is a mistake; for he thereby presumes that he knows what the imam whom he follows does not know in those issues in which he undertakes to make ijtihaad himself, and that is stupid [because a non-mujtahid is not equal to a mujtahid, nor is the non-mujtahid competent to judge when the mujtahid whom he normally follows in other matters might be wrong].

As for the question about the propriety of following [Imam] al-Shafi’i in an issue in which al-Shafi’i differed with a Companion, we are bound to believe that al-Shafi’i only did that because he knew a proof stronger than the opinion of that Companion [a hadith of the Prophet (on whom be grace and glory from Allah), for example, or the saying of another Companion more in keeping with general principles of the shari’ah], for unless we believe that, it means we are implying that al-Shafi’i did not recognize the rank of the Companions and that is impossible. This is the reason [that is, the imams opportunity to be able to know all the proofs and to see the strongest proofs] is the grounds for preferring the madhhab [that is, the school of thought, or the position] of later scholars [that is from generations of the later Followers and the Followers of the Followers] over their predecessors [from among the Companions and the early Followers] in full recognition of the superiority of the earlier generations over the later ones. The earlier generation [that is, the Companions and the early Followers] heard hadith individually [that is, they heard themselves from the Prophet (on whom be grace and glory from Allah), or from a limited number of Companions] and then they dispersed in the lands; their fatwas and their decisions differed from place to place [according to the knowledge that was available to them wherever they were]; indeed, it happened that hadith would reach them with the result that they changed their opinions in matters they had already given fatwas on and made decisions. In this early period they were not free to collect all the hadith together because they were busy in jihad and in establishing the religion; however, by the time of the Followers of the Followers, Islam had become established and the people were able to devote their energies to collecting the hadith from distant lands by undertaking long journeys. The scholars in this later period gave their decisions after surveying the sources of the law in their entirety. They did not differ with the fatwas of their predecessors except for the sake of a stronger proof. That is why we do not have a madhhab called Bakri [after Abu Bakr], or ‘Umari [after ‘Umar].

As for that taqlid which has been condemned, it is that which involves going against the proofs [in other words, it is anti-rational]. The unbelievers worshipped idols that neither comprehended nor heard, and thereby they denied the manifest proofs [that their worship was in vain]. It is opposing the dictates of reason that is condemnable.[10]

Then as long as the muqallid achieved the truth by following someone in either the area of fundamental beliefs (al-usul), or in the rules of law (al-furu’), that is satisfactory; learning the rational basis of those beliefs [or those rules] is not obligatory on every individual [rather it is an obligation on the collective body of the ummah (the nation of Islam); that is it is fard kifayah].[11]

[Finally], it is not permitted for an ‘alim [who is a mujtahid] to follow another ‘alim [who is also a mujtahid] neither in the matter of fatwa, nor in the matter of the qiblah [that is, the direction of the Ka’bah][12]; and [in the case of the qiblah] if the time for prayer is short [and one feared that by the time one finished making ijtihaad (for example, by taking bearings from the stars)], there is a difference of opinion among the authorities, and [in the opinion of al-Ghazali], there is nothing wrong with the ‘alim [who is a mujtahid] making taqlid of the ‘alim [who is a mujtahid] in the matter of the qiblah, if the time for prayer were short.

[1] He means the people who are not mujtahids as is learned from the usage of the experts in the science of the principles of fiqh and from what Abu Bakr Ibn al-‘Arabi says in other places in this letter.

[2] The first half of this hadith was reported by al-Suyuti in his al-Jami’ al-Saghir; he ascribed it to Ahmad, al-Tirmidhi, and Ibn Majah and initialed it as rigorously authentic (sahih); he indicated that the Companion who reported it was Hudhaifah. Al-Munawi mentioned in his commentary that while al-Tirmidhi had graded the hadith as authentic (hasan) and while some muhaddithun found fault with the chain of narration of the hadith on the grounds of discontinuity, yet Ibn Hajr pointed out that there are corroborating hadith from other companions (shawahid) which strengthen this riwayah and authenticate it. In fact al-Suyuti mentioned after this hadith another one with similar meaning from Abd Allah ibn Mas’ud. The second half of the hadith is actually another hadith of the Prophet (on whom be grace and glory from Allah).

[3] This is the sound position of the orthodox community. It provides that if one believes that Allah is one, and that there are angels and there is a judgment and that Heaven and Hell are real simply because somebody told you so that is sufficient. However, it is most difficult to find a person who does not have some rational grounds for what he believes. Even if you were to ask the Muslim street cleaner, why he insists on the unique transcendence of Allah, he could tell you in his own awkward way. And if you asked how he knows that Hell is real, he would say because it is mentioned in the Qur’an and the Qur’an is the Book of Allah. He could give you a simple rational basis for his belief that the Qur’an is the Book of Allah.

[4] Ibn al-‘Arabi is referring to a famous hadith reported by al-Bukhari and Muslim and Abu Dawud (in the chapter Bab al-Mas’alah fi ‘l-Qabr wa ‘Adhabi ‘l-Qabr, nos. 4751, 4752);and others with different wording.

[5] يبدو لي أن هنا تحريف في العبارة وأن كلمة غير زيادة وإلا العبارة غير مناسبة لما سبق من الكلام, وكذلك فيما يأتي بعد قليل.

[6] أحمد بن يحيى الونشريسي, المعيار المعرب, 11/163-165, دار الغرب الإسلامي, بيروت, 1401هـ-1981م.

[7] Imam al-Ghazali’s statement here is based on the view that it is incumbent on us to follow the greatest, and it is not acceptable to follow the merely great; this mas’alah is referred to as taqlid al-mafdul in the presence of al-afdal; many ulama permit it. Taking the viewpoint that it is not permitted, al-Nasafi says that we should believe that our imam is right although it is possible that he is wrong [that is, on a given issue]; whereas, the imam who opposes him is wrong although it is possible that he is right. That is because we must recognize that our imam is not infallible. This matter was discussed by Ibn ‘Abidin in the introduction to his Radd al-Muhtar.

[8] Note that this is note blind following as the pseudo-Salafis pretend; rather, it is a conviction based on strong evidence; moreover, it differs in every way from the anti-rational following (taqlid) of people like the Christians and pagans, since there taqlid is against the evidence.

[9] There appears to be something wrong in the wording of the Arabic as it appears in the published text of al-Miyar al-Mu’rab, and I suspect the copyist, or typist may have made a mistake in transcription, so I have rephrased the passage slightly in order to render something more fitting with the context. The literal meaning of the passage is: “And were he to say I feel that the opinion of the one whom I followed in this particular issue is not sound in other issues, that is not the prerogative of a muqallid.”

[10] Following blindly the Christian leaders, for example, in their claim that God is three in one, and one in three, or that Jesus is the some of God, is condemnable because that is anti-rational; what they profess requires that the eternal ceased to be eternal and acquired an originated attributed; in other words they profess that God ceased to be God; and that is rationally impossible. On the other hand, our following the Prophet (on whom be grace and glory from Allah) in those matters which we are beyond our experience like the Resurrection and the Judgment is not anti-rational, because those things are not rationally impossible, the One who created the first time, can create the second, and if He can create, certainly He can judge. Rather, are following him is wisdom because Allah demonstrated his truthfulness by many types of miracles which no creature could possible perform. In the same way, our trusting in the mujtahid without understanding in many cases his proof, or even sometimes when we think that he has contradicted the proof is wisdom because we know that we are not qualified to deuce the whole corpus of the law by ourselves; whereas, the nation of Islam (al-ummah) testified that each one of the four mujtahid imams was qualified to deduce it. Thus, we are sure that the proof is with the mujtahid whether or not we know what that was, or think we know, or know that we do not know.

[11] Although taqlid is acceptable in matters of belief as it is in matters of law, it is rare that one follows another in this area without some rational proofs as I mentioned above. Furthermore, while knowing the rational proofs is not a requirement, it is highly recommended that every Muslim should acquire some rational basis for what he believes because if one does not have such a basis, his beliefs cannot be strong and they are liable to be undone by the occurrence doubt. By rational basis, we do not mean what the ulama who are specialists in the field; that is, the mutakallimun, refer to; rather, the simple, every day logic of the common Muslims, such logic as Ibrahim (on whom be peace) demonstrated when he saw the star rising and asked himself, it that could be his Lord, then when it saw it set, he realized that it could not be his Lord because his Lord could not be one who sets. Similarly, the famous verse of the Bedouin women who declared: “Tracks indicate that somebody passed by, and camel dung indicates that there is a camel about; so how should the dark night and the sky raised on high not indicate One omniscient, expertly informed”?

[12] Ijtihaad in the matter of the qiblah will only be an issue if one were in the wilderness, or at sea, or in the air and there were not any mosque there, nor any local person to ask.

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