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Taqlīd

By:
Bernard G. Weiss
Source:
The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Modern Islamic World What is This? Provides global coverage of the Muslim experience from the end of the eighteenth century through the twentieth century

Taqlīd

Discussions of reform movements in modern Islam frequently depict these movements as aimed primarily at the eradication of a frame of mind called taqlīd in Arabic. Often this term is translated as “blind imitation,” meaning unquestioning and uncritical conformity to the patterns of behavior and doctrines inherited from past generations. Many writers on modern Islamic reform, as well as its proponents, juxtapose taqlīd and ijtihād as opposites. The latter term designates the development of doctrine and rules of behavior on the basis of interpretation of the sacred sources of Islam, the Qur'ān and the sunnah, whereas the former designates a conscious avoidance of such interpretation in favor of deference to inherited teachings and norms worked out by generations of religious scholars subsequent to the period of original revelation. The rationale for taqlīd is the belief that earlier scholars were unsurpassed in their knowledge of the sacred sources, and that they accomplished the interpretative work underlying inherited doctrine in a manner that exceeds the capacities of later generations.

In classical Islamic usage the term taqlīd has two different though related meanings. The proper meaning was generally considered to be the unjustified conformity of one person to the teaching (whether expressed verbally or implied in behavior) of another person. Whether conformity was justified or not depended on the position of the two parties within a two‐tiered hierarchy consisting of those qualified to engage in ijtihād and those not so qualified. Those in the first category were known as mujtahids and the second as ῾āmmīs, which may be translated here simply as non‐mujtahids. Conformity was unjustified if the two parties were peers, that is, if both parties were mujtahids or both were non‐mujtahids. Similarly, it was unjustified for a mujtahid to conform to the teaching of a non‐mujtahid. All these kinds of conformity constituted taqlīd. What remained outside the realm of taqlīd, thus constituting justified conformity, was the conformity of a non‐mujtahid to the teaching of a mujtahid.

Alongside this somewhat specialized meaning of taqlīd, there emerged in classical usage a broader meaning that included all four types of conformity mentioned above. This more inclusive usage made it possible to refer to justified conformity as taqlīd, and it is in fact this sort of conformity that very often is meant by the term. There thus exists a dichotomy of usage in classical Islamic texts involving a definitely pejorative sense of the term on the one hand and a nonpejorative sense on the other. The nonpejorative sense reigns among Twelver Shī῾īs, who divide Muslims into mujtahids and muqallids. Every mujtahid is presumed to have followers called muqallids and is often designated their marja῾ al‐taqlīd. Ambivalence in the usage of the term taqlīd is thus more a feature of Sunnī than of Shī῾ī discourse. [See Marja῾ al‐Taqlīd.]

Conformity of non‐mujtahids to the teaching of mujtahids is universally recognized by Muslim religious scholars as a sine qua non of Muslim society. It is unthinkable, given the divinely established economy of human interrelationships, that all Muslims should ever be mujtahids. The world needs its merchants, artisans, bankers, soldiers, administrators, farmers, and so on, and none of these can afford the time necessary to become qualified for ijtihād. In order to lead a full Muslim life, they must therefore conform to the teachings of those who are so qualified. It is generally anticipated that the non‐mujtahids will be many and mujtahids few. Among those willing to call this conformity taqlīd, it may thus be said that taqlīd is essential to the vitality of Muslim society.

Even religious scholars may deem themselves non‐mujtahids. The very existence of four different Sunnī schools of law presupposes that this is so. A Mālikī scholar, for example, is a non‐mujtahid to the extent that he adheres to the doctrine handed down in the Mālikī school, not subjecting this doctrine to critical review based on his own primary interpretation of the sacred sources. Sunnī thought made it possible to exercise ijtihād within the doctrinal confines of a particular school, but only regarding those matters that the traditional doctrine left unresolved, and not those it had definitely settled. One practiced taqlīd (in the nonpejorative sense) with respect to the fundamental doctrines of one's school and attempted ijtihād only with respect to matters tangential to that doctrine. Taqlīd thus supplies the raison d'être of the four Sunnī schools.

Reformist attacks on taqlīd in modern times have sometimes transformed the term into a broad designation for cultural and intellectual stagnation and unwillingness to experiment with new ideas. More often than not, however, it has been a perceived mindset of the religious intelligentsia of Islam that has been under attack—the taqlīd of the schools. Without denying that the masses must always have guidance from a spiritual and intellectual leadership, reformist thought has generally focused its criticism on the leadership itself, which it has seen as too locked into inherited doctrine. This reformist criticism has taken both fundamentalist and modernist directions. The unifying concern is to clear away centuries of doctrinal accretion and facilitate a return to a pristine Islam that will liberate Islamic society from the chains of tradition. Where this liberation permits a greater reconciliation with modernity as defined along the lines of Western rationalism and liberalism, the result is modernism; where it does not, the result is fundamentalism.

Reformist thought among Muslims has varied in the degree to which it has sought to reject traditional doctrine in its battle against taqlīd. The most radical approach—complete dissociation from the historic schools—has not prevailed, and the majority of reformists have acknowledged that there is much in the tradition that is worth preserving, provided the proper critical sifting takes place. Future dialogue among Muslim thinkers is thus likely to focus as much on issues relating to the selective appropriation of traditional teaching as on issues relating to the fresh interpretation of the sacred sources.

See also Ijtihād; Law, article on Legal Thought and Jurisprudence.

Bibliography

  • Coulson, Noel J. A History of Islamic Law. Edinburgh, 1964. See pages 182–201.
  • Hourani, Albert. Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age, 1798–1939. London, 1962. See pages 127–128, 150, and 235.
  • Rahman, Fazlur. Islam. London, 1966. See pages 196–201.
  • Weiss, Bernard G. The Search for God's Law: Islamic Jurisprudence in the Writings of Sayf al‐Dīn al‐Āmidī. Salt Lake City, 1992. See pages 717–718.
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