What is Taqlid?

SHAFAQNA – Taqlid literally means “to follow (someone)”, “to imitate”. In Islamic legal terminology it means to follow a mujtahid in religious laws and commandment as he has derived them. A mujtahid is a person who is an expert of Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh); he is also called a faqih. In order to see where and why the practice of taqlid gained acceptance in the Shi’i world, it is necessary first to explain it in some detail.

Man’s nature dictates that he can only function properly within a society, and a society depends for its existence on laws and regulations. Islam teaches that Allah has sent a series of messengers and prophets with divine laws for man’s guidance from the very beginning of his existence.

The final Messenger and Prophet was Muhammad bin `Abdullah (may the peace and blessings of Allah be upon him and his Household) who brought the last and most perfect of God’s religious messages, Islam, which is to serve as a guide for mankind till the end of time.

Allah is the Creator of man and the universe, and so only He can, or has the right, to make laws for us. The prophets and messengers are merely the teachers and proclaimers of Allah’s laws and regulations; they cannot make laws themselves.

The teachings of Shi’ah Islam say that the Imam is the successor of the Prophet and acts as the preserver and interpreter of Islam and its divine law, the shari’ah. In the earliest period of Islamic history, the Prophet guided the Muslim community (ummah) in every step it made, and was there to solve all its difficulties. From the time of the first Imam, `Ali, until the death of the eleventh, the Imam Hasan al-`Askari, peace be upon them, the Shi’ah received guidance directly from the Imams.

Then, during the period of the Lesser Occultation (al-ghaybatu ‘s-sughra) of the Twelfth Imam, he himself successively appointed four representatives1 who acted as the link between the Imam and his Shi’ahs. However, when the present Imam, peace be upon him, went into his Greater Occultation (al-ghaybatu ‘l-kubra) in 329/941 in obedience to Allah’s command, the Shi’ah were obliged to observe taqlid in their religious affairs.

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