Q: What is the status of Taqleed (following one of the four Imaams of fiqh) in Deen? e.g. Fardh, Waajib, Sunnah or Mustahab?
A: Following one of the four Imaams of fiqh viz. (Imaam Abu Hanifah, Imaam Maalik, Imaam Shafi’ee and Imaam Ahmad [Rahimahumullah]) is waajib–li-ghairihi  (compulsory) in Deen. The reason for it receiving the status of wujoob is that without taqleed of the four Imaams, one will not be able to correctly practice upon the entire Deen. Especially in this time and age where we see science and technology at its peak, new inventions and developments have become a norm in current times. In short, the world has evolved to such limits which were never witnessed previously throughout the annals of human history. The progress and advancements of the world in the present era poses a host of challenges before the Ulama’. Thus, we find the masses constantly referring their Deeni matters and problems to the Ulama’ seeking Islamic rulings and guidance due to the unfolding of new events and developments.
Subsequently, in the face of these challenges we find the Ulama’ completely reliant and dependent upon the works of the four Imaams. They refer to the books of these Imaams who were blessed with such foresight and illuminated knowledge that despite living approximately thirteen hundred years ago, yet they were able to produce accurate solutions for situations surfacing centuries later. These answers and solutions they presented were directly sourced out from the Qur’an and the Ahaadith of Rasulullah (Sallallahu Alayhi Wasallam).
We mentioned that Taqleed of the four Imaams is waajib-li-ghairihi. An elucidation of this statement is that though we do not find any explicit injunction neither in the Qur’an nor in the Hadith commanding in specific to make Taqleed of the four Imaams, however the Qur’an instructs us with two injunctions:
1. To follow those who are capable enough to guide us to Allah:
2. To refrain from following our desires and temptations against the command of Allah:
Do not follow your desires for that will cause you to go astray (Surah Sawd 38:26)
Keeping the above in mind, we conclude that since it is not possible to find any person in this age and time possessing the capabilities of the four Imaams, it will indefinitely be waajib to follow any one of the four Imaams. Furthermore, apart from the four Imaams we cannot find any Aalim (even Imaam Bukhaari and others) from the Salaf (Ulama’ of the past) whose Mazhab has been entirely recorded like that of the four Imaams.
Hence, if a person wishes to follow any other Mazhab other than that of the four Imaams, it is highly possible that he will incorrectly practise upon the verdict of that specific Imaam due to the necessary details or conditions of his Mazhab not being entirely recorded.
Secondly there is a principle in Shari’ah: مقدمة الواجب واجب i.e. the means which enables one to practise upon an injunction of Shari’ah also receives the status of that injunction. Hence, if an injunction is waajib, the path leading to it will also be regarded as waajib. By the same token if an injunction is fardh, the means enabling one to complete that fardh will also be considered as fardh.
Furthermore, if there is only one possible way or method of fulfilling an injunction of Deen, to a greater extent will that method be waajib, since there is no alternative in fulfilling that injunction.
Let us illustrate this principle through an example. Consider the injunction of Hajj. The obligatory action is that of Hajj. However, Nabi (Sallallahu Alayhi Wasallam) commanded that Hajj is waajib only on that person who possess الزاد و الراحلة (a conveyance and provisions). This command of Rasulullah (Sallallahu Alayhi Wasallam) is applicable to those who live in Makkah Mukarramah and the surrounding areas, for whom travelling upon camel back with a little provisions is possible. As for those who live thousands of miles away from the Holy Lands and require transport by sea or air, Hajj will be waajib subject to them affording a plane ticket or a ship ticket with accommodation. In which Hadith do we find this mentioned? If these people living abroad posses a camel and little provisions as in the case of those residing in Makkah Mukarramah, will we say that Hajj is waajib upon them as well? Obviously not! So we understand from this example that on account of the Hajj being dependant on acquiring a plane ticket, the obligation of Hajj is subject to one being able to afford it. In the absence of this, all the Ulama’ agree that Hajj is not obligatory.
Despite the obligatory action being one and the same for both people but, due to the means of both differing, the cause for its compulsion will differ. It will be impossible for one living abroad to fulfil the injunction of Hajj by depending merely on a camel and meagre provisions.
Similar is the case of taqleed in this age and time. Since this is the only practical solution in order for one to practise on the entire Deen, one will have no choice, but to follow one of these four illustrious Imaams.
In the past, there were many other mujtahideen who were the contemporaries of these A’immah, like Muhammad bin Sireen, Hasan Basri, Sufyaan Thauri etc. who were blessed with the highest levels of intelligence and understanding enabling them to deduce injunctions directly from the Qur’an and Hadith. People would refer to them as well in their Deeni matters, thereby absolving themselves of the need of enquiring from the learned. However, with the passage of time the emergence of people possessing the calibre of knowledge of these illustrious Imaams ceased, thus leaving the Muslims with no choice but to refer to the works of their predecessors. Subsequently, when we search the works produced by these great Imaams, we find that besides the four famous Imaams, very little remains of the works of other Imaams in relation to fiqh. Furthermore, the principles and governing rules that these four Imaams had laid out are such that they cover all situations that arise, whereas, the other Imaams had not compiled such principles. In addition to this, the students of these four Imaams flourished and thereby imparted the teachings and lessons of their Ustaads to the various quarters of the Muslim world. This allowed the fiqh and mazaahib of these four Imaams to become common and widespread amongst the learned and common folk. Accordingly, these four mazaahib and schools of fiqh became the subject matter of study and research and great scholars adopted these mazaahib as their school of fiqh since the deductions of these fuqahaa covered all aspects of life.
When practising one of these four mazaahib is the only way making it possible for us to practise on Deen entirely, following one of the four Mazaahib will thus become compulsory not because following these A’immah is an explicit injunction in Deen, but because there is no other route one can adopt whereby he will be able to practise upon the entire Deen without omitting anything. This is the meaning of waajib-li-ghairihi. (Since following the entire Deen is dependant upon taqleed, it is afforded the status of waajib-li-ghairihi).
When we examine the lives of these four Imaams, the glaring feature that we notice is that they strictly adhered to the mubaarak Sunnah of Rasulullah (Sallallahu Alayhi Wasallam) in every facet of their lives. They could be aptly described with the following words: “They were entirely a personification of the Sunnah of Rasulullah (Sallallahu Alayhi Wasallam) in every walk of life.” If per chance one has to come across any situation where their Mazaahib apparently contradicts certain Ahaadith, he will certainly find sufficient substantiation through other Ahaadith, coupled with accurate reconciliations between the Ahaadith not seemingly practised. Their approach to the Qur’an and Hadith in deducing masaa’il was one strictly governed by principles of Deen. It was certainly not an approach of personal opinion or an approach of ‘pick and choose’, as is witnessed in this day and age. Hence, one can safely reach the conclusion that these four A’immah (whose Mazaahib stood the test of time for approximately thirteen centuries) are worthy of emulation in guiding us to Allah Ta’ala and His Rasul (Sallallahu Alayhi Wasallam).
Thirdly, the sole purpose for Allah Ta’ala creating us and sending us to the world is that we worship Him. Everything else besides His worship (e.g. eating, drinking, transacting, building homes, etc.) is secondary. Since man cannot exist in this world without certain basic requirements (e.g. air, water, food, etc.) Allah Ta’ala has made these requirements easily available to man so that no obstacle remains in the path of him worshipping his creator.
Similarly, we find that in accordance to the urgency of a need, provisions are made. Consider the most vital requirement of human life i.e. air. Man is in need of air every moment of his life. Hence Allah Ta’ala has made this available everywhere. All that one is required to do is to breath. Similar is the case of food, water, etc. We should understand that, when Allah Ta’ala undertook the responsibility to provide for the material needs of man, can we ever imagine Allah Ta’ala not making adequate provisions for the Deeni needs of man? All these worldly arrangements and provisions we see around us are only facilitated in order that man could serve his creator, Allah Ta’ala in ease and comfort. So the object is not food and drink, instead it is the worship of Allah Ta’ala (practising upon Deen). Accordingly, in order to make the purpose of man’s creation possible, Allah Ta’ala allowed great luminaries to be produced in the form of the A’immah-e-mujtahideen. Hence, we notice that for approximately thirteen centuries the Ummah has held on to the mazaahib of these four great A’immah thereby fulfilling the purpose of their creation.
Furthermore, consider if one hundred people in this time and age begin extracting laws from the Qur’an and Hadith, each one presenting to the public his personal viewpoint of a verse with each person reaching different conclusions, will we regard this as a service to Deen or a disservice? Will Allah Ta’ala entrust us to our limited understanding and logic? If one prefers to adopt this method in matters of Deen we can well imagine the detrimental outcome and grave consequences it will create in the Ummat, let alone the confusion and perplexity it will produce in the mind and heart. Thus, the safest and most cautious path to adopt would be to follow one of the four great Imaams of fiqh whose lessons and teachings have been thoroughly scrutinised and researched. In fact, it would not be incorrect to declare that in order for a Muslim to be able to practise Deen entirely it would be waajib for him to align himself to one of the four mazaahib.
May Allah bless each one of us with the true understanding of Deen and the ability to follow in the footsteps of our pious predecessors.
 That which is compulsory on account of it being the only medium to fulfilling the Islamic injunction of Deen, though it is not directly established in any of the textual proofs of Deen viz. the Qur’an and Hadith.