Purpose and Reliance on Scholars

August 10, 2006

Many people, Muslim and non-Muslim, have often asked me, “Why are there so many rules in Islam?” Of course, my answer is, “There aren’t.” But what would satisfy the soul of someone seeking such mysteries is to know the philosophy or purpose behind the shari’ah. According to the ‘aqidah (formula of beliefs) of some schools of al-Islam, every injunction, recommendation, and prohibition in the shari’ah has a purpose behind it and is based upon either benefit or harm.

Accordingly, when something new is brought before a mujtahid, smoking for example, its benefit or harm plays a large role in determining whether it is obligatory (wajib), recommended (mustahhab), permissible (mubah), disliked (makruh), or forbidden (haram).

To continue with the example of smoking, many scholars of the past labeled it makruh (disliked) because of its offensive odor, but left open a clause that, if it was discovered to be harmful to the body, it would then become haram. In modern times, advancements in science have revealed that smoking is harmful (and in many cases deadly) for the body, for people exposed to second-hand smoke, and to the environment. As a result, some modern scholars, such as Ayatullah al-‘Udhma Nasir Makarem Shirazi, have labeled it haram, and in his case, have actually initiated youth programs and public service campaigns to encourage people to stop smoking.

When it comes to other issues, such as the prohibition of alcohol, the recommendation to wash your hands before you eat, the recommendation for marriage, and the plethora of various laws and ethics that al-Islam lays out for humanity, it is to our benefit to study their purposes. It increases one’s iman (faith) and enables us to explore and appreciate the love that Allah has for His servants.

None of our worship is of any benefit to Allah. We do not, in any way, increase His power, wealth, or health by serving Him. On the contrary, what He has revealed, which is sound and complete, is entirely for our benefit, both in this life and in the hereafter.

Nevertheless, seeking out the understanding of shari’ah does not remove responsibility from a Muslim and allow him to follow his own desires because he perceives some benefit to doing so. We must still arrive at rulings through the correct sources of legislation and formulate just and correct verdicts through reasoning (‘aql). If one is knowledgeable of these sources and capable of deducing rulings through reasoning, such a person might be qualified as a mujtahid (jurist). Because most of us do not even come close to the level of ijtihad necessary, we must rely on the juristic decisions of someone more knowledgeable and wise. The practice of this reliance is referred to as Taqlid.

Some “reformists” have mistakenly referred to this practice as “blind imitation” or even, insultingly, as “aping.” Yet, if they were suffering from a medical ailment, they would seek out medical advice and treatment from a medical professional. They would not rely on their own desires for a cure or consider mere conjecture to be medicine.

Similarly, if someone is interested in learning a particular field of studies, he should seek out that knowledge from qualified institutions that employ reputable teachers capable of relating the inner dimensions of a subject to him. If I was interested in physics, I would not seek knowledge of it from a nutritionist. It would be illogical, and in some cases, it could be harmful to me.

When a Muslim needs juristic advice or treatment for a disease of the soul, he must turn to the experts, those whose hearts are purified and whose knowledge is sufficient to address all or some of a person’s concerns. Taqlid is particularly applied in the field of jurisprudence (fiqh, but other areas, such as ‘irfan (gnosis), require experts who are aware of the inner mysteries and dimensions of their specialty.



  1. Bismillah


    Very beautiful and insightful post. Masha’Allah, it was very good. May Allah reward you for sharing such knowledge with us all. Love ya

  2. “Some “reformists” have mistakenly referred to this practice as “blind imitation” or even, insultingly, as “aping.” Yet, if they were suffering from a medical ailment, they would seek out medical advice and treatment from a medical professional. They would not rely on their own desires for a cure or consider mere conjecture to be medicine.”

    Interesting…. but so do so many of the conservatives, too, just using different vocabulary…

    As for the Doctor reference, I’ve never really found that to be such a hot analogy due to doctors also being just as likely to make a poor diagnosis as a marja. Hence, I still think there’s something to be said about one’s intuition and own aql as well. I think there’s got to be a balance of our own judgement inserted into the picture as well, don’t you think? Curious to hear your response…

  3. On the first issue, reformists is not to be read as “liberals.” There are many reform movements on both extremes, from wahhabis to progressives. Traditional Islam is based upon one of the traditional schools of thought (whether sunni or shi’a).

    I do agree with your understanding of doctors, and that’s why I was careful to use the word “advice” when referring to jurists as oppose to “dictation.” It is important that we apply our own understanding to both revelation and to knowledge presented to us by learned people. Actually, someone who does taqlid properly does not just blindly follow. They research, study, and come to conclusions based on scholarly views. The wise among them, do not even limit themselves to just one scholar, but are able to discern truth by studying many rulings and views on issues.

    I was once told that you really have to know yourself even to go to a doctor. Know your body and how to explain what is really wrong with you. If you tell the doctor the wrong thing, they’re more likely to give the wrong diagnosis (not saying they’re not to blame, because they don’t take the time to get to know you). The same is true with religion. “He who knows himself, knows his Lord.”

  4. makes sense. Over the years, I’ve pretty much come to the … uh state of being… where it’s more consultation than following. Partly for some other reasons that aren’t directly applicable to your post per se (lest I sound bitter about taqlid, lol), but also because I had to get back to the basics of the whole no clergy in Islam sort of thing.

    Traditional Islam…. well and 12er shi’ism specifically, I don’t think it’s quite as concrete or rooted specific scholars as in some other schools of thought. There’s been so many movements and developments over time in light of fique, the concept of taqlid, jurisprudence, and theory of government, that even though it’d be easy to say that 12er ithna asheri usuli 20th century whatnot really is the “same thing” as how 12er shi;ism was viewed, say, centuries ago… (u know what I mean, vern?)


  5. Salaams,

    Great post brother. Keep it up.

    “It is important that we apply our own understanding to both revelation and to knowledge presented to us by learned people.”

    Can you give us an example? What if we do not agree with the learned people after our understanding?

    wa salaam,

  6. Sis. Leila, you kinda lost me somewhere in your second paragraph. I don’t really understand what you mean. Sorry.

    Bro. Abbas, there are many reasons why we might disagree with scholars, and it is important to analyze each one:

    1. Our nafs. We simply have desires that go against what the scholars have prescribed. In this case, of course, one should follow the scholar.
    2. Our understanding. We might not understand the reasons behind the scholar’s ruling. In this case, we should study and try to find out the reasons for such a ruling.
    3. Time-space considerations. A certain ruling might not apply to you. This is particularly important when one is dealing with a mujtahid who lives in a completely different environment that you.
    4. The mujtahid is simply wrong. This is rare, and for one to be able to prove it, you’d have to undergo quite a bit of research and consultation with other mujtahids. In that case, you could follow the ruling of another mujtahid, or, if it’s so obvious (i.e. it’s a complete contradiction of the Qur’an), then Allah’s book always comes first.
    5. Following the ruling might be too difficult. Now, in some cases, this can be a sin, but in others, there might be legitimate hardship that would prevent one from following a ruling. Often times, asking the mujtahid to consider your specific case will resolve such an issue.

    There is a certain science to following scholars, and I think many people get turned off by it when they’ve been taught to follow the scholars blindly, without trying to find out the reasoning behind various rulings. Being followers does not excuse us from being seekers of knowledge.

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