Ask the Experts


“If after the occultation of your Qa’im there were not to remain a person from amongst the scholars who: invite towards him (the Imam); guide others to him; defend his religion by the proofs of God; rescue the downtrodden servants of God from the snares of Satan and his hoards and the traps of the enemies (of the Ahlul Bayt), then there would not remain a single person (on Earth) except that he would have left the religion of God. However, these scholars take it upon themselves to be the protectors of the hearts of our downtrodden Shi’a just as the captain of a boat takes control of the lives and safety of those on his ship. Thus, these (scholars – the ‘Ulama) are the best people in the sight of God, the Noble and Great.” [Biharul Anwar, vol. 2, pg. 6, sec. 8, no. 12]

When was the last time your car broke down? What did you do when you needed a loaf of bread for dinner? When your wisdom teeth were coming out, who did you turn to? Most likely, you did not take your car to your local Muslim butcher for repair; nor did you go to the pharmacy for dinner rolls; nor did you ask your lawyer to remove your teeth. In these and thousands of other daily life experiences, we refer to professionals in a particular field to help us. Even when we fall sick, we may go to our local medi-clinic for a “quick-fix”, however the doctor may simply give us something to carry us over until we are able to refer to a specialist in the field to accurately diagnose our symptoms.

Being a religion of ‘nature’, Islam has put a similar practice in place such that once, a man came to one of the Imams and as if to mock him, jokingly said, ‘You claim the Qur’an contains everything – so tell me where does the Qur’an show you how to bake bread!’ The Imam sat silently for a brief moment and then replied, ‘Read the verse of the Qur’an which states, “So then ask those who know if you do not.”‘ (Suratul Nahl, v. 43) The Imam was alluding to the point that you need to “ask the experts” when it comes to ANYTHING and EVERYTHING in life!

During the time of the Prophet Muhammad, he was the sole authority in all issues (religious, political, societal, etc…) and all questions about daily life were forwarded to him or one whom he placed in authority – those who had been trained in his ‘school’ of religious understanding. During this era, according to scholars such as the late Ayatullah Shaheed Murtaza Mutahhari and contemporary thinkers like Ayatullah al-Uzma Shaykh Nasir Makarim Shirazi and Ayatullah Shaykh Ja’far Subhani, ‘Ijithaad’ was practiced in the open by companions of the Prophet – with his full support and blessings! With his passing away, the chain of his legitimate successors – the 12 Imams – started. The first of the explicitly appointed leaders was the Commander of the Faithful, Ali ibn Abi Talib and the last rightful successor of the Prophet being the 12th Imam, al-Hujjat ibn al-Hasan al-Askari.

The Imamate of the 12th Imam was quite different than that of the previous 11 Imams since he was, by the wisdom of God required to go into two separate and distinct occultations. His minor occultation lasted for a little over 70 years, during which time he was represented by four specific representatives whose duties were to forward questions on various day to day issues from the Shi’a to their Imam, collect the various funds (khums, zakat, etc..) and distribute them as the Imam saw fit, as well as other important duties.

After the death of the fourth representative in the year 328 AH, the doors of specific representation were closed. However, the guidance did not stop and according to the directive issued to the Shi’a in the traditions we were to follow those Fuqaha (scholars) who: “…guard their soul, protect their religion, follow the commandments of their Master…” and thus, this responsibility has been placed on the shoulders of our scholars whom we refer to as the Mara’ja Taqleed (lit. sources of emulation).

Through this article, we aim to bring to light some of the questions that people have about the basis, scope, jurisdiction and necessity of the Mara’ja Taqleed in today’s day and age. Indeed much more can be said and there are countless book written on this topic however we leave the detailed discussions for another occasion.

Question 1: What is the history of Taqleed? Is this a new phenomenon, or did Taqleed exist in the time of the Infallibles as well? Is there any Qur’anic evidence to support the ‘knowledgeable person guiding the unaware person’?

Answer 1: First off, many verses guide us to ask those who have more knowledge if we do not know – for example, It is not right that the true believers in Islam all go forth (to fight a defensive battle) – rather, why does not a group from amongst them go forth to become specialists in religious learning and after completing their studies, return back to their own community and warn them (so that they will have fear of God)?” (al-Qur’an, 9:122)

Obviously, we can all not become experts in the field of Islamic studies – we need artists, doctors, lawyers, engineers and specialists in all other fields of life and it is through this verse that we understand that a group of people must go forth to gain a deep understanding of the religion and upon returning from studies and upon the others returning home (from their own vocations or in the case of this verse, the scared defence of Islam), that they learn the religion from those who have gained knowledge on the religion.

In terms of ahadith, ponder upon the following (lengthy) tradition:

It has been narrated from Ahmad b. Ali b. Abi Talib al-Tabarsi in his book, al-Ihtijaj, from Abu Muhammad al-Askari (peace be upon him) in regards to the words of God, The Grand, “So then woe be to those people who write The Book with their own hand and then say to other that this is from God.” The Imam (peace be upon him) said, “This verse was in regards to a group of people from amongst the Jews.”

A man said to Imam as-Sadiq (peace be upon him), “If this verse is about a group of people from amongst the Jews who did not know The Book (revealed from God) except through hearing it from their ‘Ulama (scholars), how is it possible that they are castigated for following them and for accepting (the statements of) their ‘Ulama? In addition, are not then the common folk from amongst the Jews similar to the common people from amongst us (the Muslims) who follow (perform taqlid) of their scholars?”

The Imam (peace be upon him) replied, “Between the common people from amongst us (the Muslims) and the common people of the Jews, there is a stark difference in one respect and also one similar trait in another respect. As for the similar trait that is shared, indeed God has also castigated our common people (the Muslims) who blindly follow their scholars just as He castigated the Jews. And as for the difference between the two, the common people amongst the Jews knew that their scholars were prone to openly speak untruths, used to consume what was forbidden for them, used to take bribes and also used to alter the practical rulings of the faith and their hearts were sent a warning that anyone from amongst them who would perform these acts would be known as an open sinner (fasiq) and that it was not permitted for him (the scholar from amongst the Jews) to speak the truths about God and it was also not permissible for them (such scholars) to act as intermediaries between the creations and God and thus because of this, they were castigated. Similarly are the lay (from amongst the Muslims) – if they recognize open and blatant transgressions being performed by their ‘Ulama (scholars), strong forms of discrimination and prejudice and an attraction to the material word then whoever follows such people (does their taqlid) will be similar to the Jews whom God had castigated as they used to follow the transgressions of their scholars!

As for the Fuqaha who protect their own soul, who safeguard their religion, who go against the desires and passions of their lower desires and who are obedient to the command of their Master, then it is permissible for the common people to follow them in religious issues (perform Taqlid) and this state is not found except in some of the Fuqaha of the Shi’a – not all of them.

So then surely those who committed some sins and vulgar acts in a similar way that have been committed by scholars of the general stream (the scholars of the Ahlus Sunnah) – do not accept anything from them that they relate from us nor show them any respect. The mixed messages (ahadith) that been related claiming to be from us (Ahlul Bayt) have increased, therefore the immoral people take from us and change it completely because of their ignorance and they put things differently because of their lack of knowledge. Others deliberate to lie about us.”

This hadith makes it clear “taqleed” as we know it today was an issue which the Imams were asked about and they spoke about it and gave guidance to their followers on the qualities of who could be considered as a Mar’ja.

As for having a ‘Mar’ja’ during the period of the Imams, there are countless examples given in the book, ‘Ijtihad during the Era of the Infallibles’ written by Muhammad Ridha Jawahiri which we do not go into here.

Question 2: Who or what is a Mujtahid and a Mar’ja Taqleed and what qualifications are required for each one?

Answer 1: A Mujtahid can be defined as “One who has reached to a profound depth within his over-all awareness of Islam and its foundation such that he is now permitted to conduct research from the four primary sources (Qur’an, Sunnah, consensus [of the past scholars] and intellect) to derive the sacred laws of Islam known as the Shari’ah (daily actions of the faith) which we refer to as our Fiqh.”

The teachings of Islam have laid down strict conditions in terms of whom we are to take our legal rulings from – however it must be clearly noted that none of these are based on any personal bias or preference as being a ‘Mar’ja’ is not a “right” given to us by God, rather, it is a “privileged” and thus, the following traits must be present: male; Shi’ah Ithna-Asheri; adult, sane; of legitimate birth; living and just (‘adil). [Each of these traits can be discussed in length as to their exact and precise definition and “why” they are there, however this article is not the place for such a discussion.]

Once a man or woman has traversed through the rigorous regiment of studies enabling him/her to delve into the Qur’an and Sunnah of the fourteen infallibles, they then begin their quest in formulating the code of law which they themselves and the lay are to follow. They continue in this journey for many years until they reach to a level of competency such that amongst their peers, they are recognized as an ‘authority’ in the extraction of the laws of Islam from the sources and, through the push of those around them, are heralded into the limelight as being a ‘Mar’ja Taqleed’ – a point of reference for the formulation of the laws of Islam according to their understanding of the world around them and the general and specific guidelines found within the Islamic texts.

Where as anyone (man or woman) can reach to the level of Ijtihaad – thus, becoming a Mujtahid (or Mujtahida in the case of a woman), the status of a Mar’ja Taqleed is something reserved for men [according to the overall consensus of the past and contemporary scholars]. In actuality, gender need not be an issue of contention as the laws are of the Divine and when it comes to the designing of these laws, a Mujtahid elevates himself such that he does not see man or woman, white or black, Arab or non-Arab – all he sees are servants of God, and all he recognizes is the need to help them fulfill their responsibilities by formulating the laws of Islam. We should not think that since the Mara’ja are men that they formulate laws to make Islam a misogynistic faith – as tomorrow, the same argument could be applied to why all Prophets, Messengers and Imams were men!

Coming to one of the ‘contentious issues’ – one of the requirements is that we follow what is commonly translated as the “most knowledgeable”. If we accept this interpretation, we have problems as who is in a position to say who is the “most knowledgeable” as if that individual can distinguish the “most knowledgeable” then it stands to reason that he himself is the most knowledgeable – and thus, we are thrown into a paradox! Thus, it is best if we state that one of the main conditions of choosing a Mar’ja is to see “who has the best ability to delve into the sources of the faith and has an understanding of the society in general to understand the prevailing situations of the world” to extract and derive laws for the benefit of the servants of Alalh.

Thus in other words, what we are asking the experts to explain to us is who, in their opinion: 1. Has the greatest grip on the Qur’an and its interpretations; 2. And a powerful understanding of all of the traditions of the Infallibles; 3. A comprehensive knowledge of the opinions of the early scholars; and 4. The intellectual aptitude to be able to look at the Quran and Sunnah and the world in general and with these four sources at his disposal, guide the servants to their responsibility.

Indeed even in this area, there are ‘differences of opinion’ and for this reason, some state that you can follow ‘any’ of the 15+ Mara’ja Taqleed present today while others narrow the choice down to one or two who have the greatest ability and combine all of the above mentioned traits in the most complete way possible.

Question 2: There is only one Qur’an and all of the scholars refer to the same corpus of hadith, so then why the difference of opinion? Does this mean that “my” Mar’ja is right while “his” Mar’ja is wrong?

Answer 2: Indeed not! What we must understand is that when we follow the rulings of the Mar’ja, we are following the orders of the Imam, Prophet and ultimately God. Now what God expects from us is ‘submission’ – and as long as the person whom we are following has been ‘permitted’ to guide us to ‘submission’ we will not be held liable for our actions. In other words, even if the Mar’ja was incorrect in his judgement and understanding, we will not be punished for an action we performed SO LONG AS we have based our actions on his understanding. In essence, the Marj’a “has the right to be wrong”.

The ‘difference of opinion’ comes about due to the fact that each scholar understands the Qur’anic injunctions and traditions in his/her own way; however we should also note that the ‘differences’ amongst the Mara’ja is VERY SMALL and these ‘differences of opinion’ should not become an issue amongst the believers such that they hurl insults or accusations against the followers of one Mar’ja over the other!

Question 3: Life in Qum or Najaf is greatly different than what I go through in Toronto, New York, London or any other major metropolis. How can I be sure that a man living “so far away” knows what I am going through or my own personal struggles and is able to correctly diagnose the problem to offer me a remedy?

Answer 3:We are correct that many of the experiences that we go through in “the West” are alien to those living in “the East” however that does not mean that the scholars whom we follow are ‘out-of-touch’ with reality or are not able to guide us. First off, we need to realize that even our own doctor, accountant or mechanic never have ‘first hand’ knowledge of what we require from them until we explain our situation to them. They then base their response or remedy to us from what we tell them. If we neglect to tell our mechanic of a certain noise in the engine, he will not be able to correctly repair our car – or if he does repair it, there are bound to be further issues as he did not go to the root cause – and it is not his job to do so – you give him the symptom and he does his best to correct the problem. The same goes with our religious scholars – if we meet our Mar’ja or write him an e-mail requesting guidance but are not specific or intentionally seek to hide the facts, he will only be able to offer us a verdict on what to do based on what he knows from US – it is not his job to know the specifics – he gives a general ruling based on what he is told of one’s situation.

We also need to give these individuals more credit than we do – yes, they live in far-off lands, however they are not cut off from civilization. They still watch the news, read newspapers, surf the InterNet and in addition, have representatives and experts in various fields who are (hopefully) providing data to them on various issues.

Question 4: Today, through globalization and the like, we see ‘councils’ setup to address various issues by bringing together the greatest minds who are well versed in the issues at hand – whether they be economic, social, medical, political, etc… With such a push to ‘work together’ to solve the problems of the modern era, why don’t our Mara’ja establish a ‘Council of Mara’ja’ in which each one would specialize in a specific field and then we could refer to that one specialist in fulfilling our responsibilities to our Creator?

Answer 4: This was a topic of discussion brought up by many scholars in the past, most notably the late Ayatullah Shaheed Murtaza Mutahhari and the late Mullah Asghar M.M. Jaffer – who went into great detail in a series of lectures on Marjaiyyah and Taqlid and quoted from various high-ranking scholars. I would suggest that you listen to the three lecture series in English delivered by the late Mullah Asghar M.M. Jaffer which can be found on-line at in the Audio/Video section.

Question 5: OK, so I accept the fact that I need to enact Taqleed when it comes to religious rulings and that I need to choose the most qualified and knowledgeable Mar’ja from the numerous who are out there today, is there any historical benefit or advantage in this institution? Why not just ‘do what I want to do’ and hope for the best?

Answer 5: Another sphere of influence and authority which the Mar’ja takes on his shoulders is contained within the political realm. As was seen in Iran in 1979 with the Islamic Revolution, the downfall of the Ba’thist regime of Iraq in 2003 and also in 2005 with the invasion of Lebanon. In regards to Iraq, many people (including top-ranking officials in the US Government) thought that they would be able to walk into Iraq and enact their plans as they saw fit – however they did not take one person into the equation – Ayatullah al-Uzma al-Hajj as-Sayyid Ali al-Husayni as-Seestani. Perhaps they assumed that the religious authority would not involve himself in the political realm based upon their understanding of Shi’i Islam.

The Christian Science Monitor, in their analysis of the situation in Iraq in early 2004 wrote, “When US administrator Paul Bremer was pushing for an Iraqi constitution written by US appointees in the summer of 2003, Sistani issued a religious ruling, or fatwa, saying that only an elected body could write the constitution. The US backed down. In November 2003, when Mr. Bremer was seeking to choose an interim government through appointments and indirect voting, Sistani ruled that only direct elections would do.”

The nation’s newspaper, USA Today is quoted as writing, “But as the Bush administration and its Iraqi allies struggle to plot a smooth transition to Iraqi rule, the Iranian-born cleric’s political role is growing and forcing the White House to alter its plans …” Later on in the same article we read, “A Shiite ayatollah cannot be non-political”, says Amatzia Baram, an Iraq expert at the U.S. Institute of Peace in Washington. “The marja (source of emulation, as senior ayatollahs are known) is your guide in every aspect of your life. When the situation is not amenable to be political, they will not be political, but when circumstances change, they will immediately change.”

Thus, from these two examples we see that the greatness, freedom and strength of pure Islam is only maintained by having and strictly following each and every word of the Mar’ja Taqleed. The Mar’ja is not there only to teach us how to physical purify ourselves after using the washroom or how to slaughter an animal to make it permissible for consumption or indeed the method of praying, fasting, performing the Hajj, etc… These are important aspects of life, but they are there to, in essence, ‘fill in’ during the occultation of the 12th Imam – the sole authority.

In closing, the institution of Marja’iyyah is one which we should take more time to study about and understand so that we can see how it is benefited us over the past centuries since the occultation of the 12th Imam. It is through a review of history and the role that the scholars have played that we will begin to appreciate the blessings bestowed upon us by the Prophet and his Ahlul Bayt, peace be upon all of them, in remaining united and being able to always have answers to questions of day to day life.

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