A.) This view is based certain misconceptions arising out superfluous treatment of the complex issues involved. The full clarification of these misconceptions requires a detailed article. However, I would try to explain the basic points as briefly as possible.
1. It is true that "obedience", in its true sense, belongs to Allah Almighty alone. He is the only One who deserves our obedience, and we are not supposed to obey any one other than Him. This is the logical requirement of the doctrine of "Tawhid" (belief in the Oneness of Allah). Even the obedience of the Holy Prophet (S.A.W) has been prescribed for us only because he is the Messenger of Allah who conveys to us the divine commandments. Otherwise he has no divine status deserving our obedience per se. We are ordered to obey and follow him only because Allah's pleasure has been epitomised in his sayings and acts.
We are, therefore, required to follow the Holy Quran, being the direct commandment of Allah, and the Sunnah of the Holy Prophet (S.A.W.) being an indirect form of the divine commandments.
But the point is that the interpretation of the Quran and Sunnah is not an easy job. It requires an intensive and extensive study of both the sacred sources of Shariah, which cannot be undertaken by every layman. If it is made obligatory on each and every muslim to consult the Holy Quran and the Sunnah in each and every problem arising before him, it will burden him with a responsibility which is almost impossible for him to discharge, because the inference of the rules Shariah from the Quran and sunnah requires a thorough knowledge of the Arabic language and all the relevant material which a layman is not supposed to have. The only solution to this problem is that a group of persons should equip themselves with the required knowledge of Shariah, and the others should ask them about the injunctions of Shariah in their day-to-day affairs. This is exactly what the Holy Qur'an has ordained for the muslims in the following words:
"So, a section from each group of them should go forth, so that they may acquire the knowledge and perception in the matters of religion, and so that they may warn their people when they return to them that they may be watchful."
This verse of the Holy Quran indicates in clear terms that a group of muslims should devote itself for acquiring the knowledge of Shariah, and all others should consult them in the matters of Shariah.
Now, if a person asks an authentic 'alim (knowledgeable person) about the Shariah ruling in a specific matter, and acts upon his advice, can a reasonable person accuse him of committing shirk on the ground that he has followed the advice of a human being instead of Quran and sunnah? Certainly not. The reason is obvious. He has not abandoned the obedience of Allah and His Messenger; rather, he wants nothing but to obey them. However, being ignorant of their commands, he has consulted an 'alim in order to know what he is required by Allah to do. He has not taken that 'alim as the subject of his obedience, but he has taken him as an interpreter of the divine commandments. Nobody can blame him for committing shirk.
This is exactly what the term taqleed' means. A person who has no ability to understand the Holy Quran and Sunnah consults a muslim jurist, often termed as imam, and acts according to his interpretation of Shariah. He never deems him worthy of obedience per se, but he seeks his guidance for knowing the requirements of shariah, because he has no direct access to the Holy Quran and sunnah or does not have adequate knowledge for inferring the rules of Shariah. This behavior is called taqleed of that jurist or imam. How can it be said that taqleed is tantamount to shirk?
The qualified muslim jurists or imams have devoted their lives for the study of the Holy Quran and sunnah and have collected the rules of Shariah; according to their respective interpretation of shariah, in an almost codified form. This collection of the Shariah rules according to the interpretation of a particular jurist is called the 'madhhab' of that jurist. Thus the madhhab of an imam is not something paralell to shariah, or something alien to it; in fact it is a particular interpretation of Shariah and a collection of the major Shariah rules inferred from the Holy Quran and sunnah by some authentic jurists and arranged subject wise for the convenience of the followers of the Shariah. So, the one who follows a particular madhhab actually follows the Holy Quran and sunnah according to the interpretation of a particular authentic jurist whom he believes to be the most trustworthy and the most knowledgeable in matters of Shariah.
As for the difference of the madhahib it has emerged through the different possible interpretations of the rules mentioned in or inferred from the Holy Quran and sunnah.
In order to understand this point properly, it will be pertinent to note that the rules mentioned in the Holy Quran and sunnah are of two different types. Some rules are mentioned in these holy sources in such clear and unambiguous expressions that they permit only one interpretation, and no other interpretation is possible thereof, such as the obligation of Salah, Zakah, fasting and Hajj, the prohibition of pork, wine, etc. With regard to this set of rules, no difference of opinion has ever taken place. All the schools of jurists are unanimous on their interpretation, hence there is no room for ijtihad or taqleed in these matters, and because every layman can easily understand them from the Holy Quran and sunnah, no intervention of a jurist or imam is called for. But there are some rules of Shariah derived from the Holy Quran and Sunnah where either of the following different situations may arise:
1. The expression used in the Holy Sources may permit more than one interpretation. For example, while mentioning the period of 'iddah (waiting period) for the divorced women, the Holy Quran has used the following expression:
"And the divorced women shall wait for three periods of 'Qur' "
The word 'Qur' used in this verse has two meanings lexically. It covers both the period of menstruation and the period of purity (i.e. the tuhr). Both meanings are possible in the verse and each of them has different legal consequences. The question that requires juristic effort is which of the two meanings are intended here. While answering this question, the juristic opinions may naturally differ, and have actually differed. Imam Shafi'i interprets the word 'Qur' as the period of tuhr (purity) while Imam Abu Hanifah interprets it as 'the period of menstruation.' Both of them have a number of arguments in support of their respective views, and no one interpretation can be rejected outright. It is in this way that the differences among certain madhahib have emerged.
2. Sometimes there appears some sort of contradiction between two traditions of the Holy Prophet (S.A.W.) and a jurist has to reconcile them or prefer one of them over the other. In this case also, the viewpoints of the jurists may differ from each other.
For example, there are two sets of traditions found in the books of hadith attributing different behaviors to the Holy Prophet while going for ruku in prayer. The first set of ahadith mentions that he used to raise his hands before bowing down for ruku while the other traditions mention that he did not raise his hands except in the beginning of the Salah.
The muslim jurists, while accepting that both methods are correct, have expressed different views about the question which of the two methods is more advisable. This is another cause of difference between various madhahib.
3. There are many problems or issues which have not been mentioned in the Holy Quran and Sunnah in specific or express terms. The solution to such problems is sought either through analogy or through some expressions found in the Holy Sources which have an indirect bearing on the subject. Here again the jurists may have different approaches while they infer the required solution from the Holy Quran and Sunnah.
Such are the basic causes of difference between the madhahib. This difference is in no way a defect in Shariah; rather, it is a source of dynamism and flexibility.1
A muslim jurist who has all the necessary qualifications for ijtihad is supposed, in the aforesaid situation, to exert the best of his efforts to discover the actual intention of the Holy Quran and Sunnah. If he does this to the best of his ability and with all his sincerity, his obligation towards Allah is discharged, and nobody can blame him for violating the Shariah, even though his view seems to be weaker when compared to the other ones.
This is a natural and logical phenomenon certain to be found in every legal system. The enacted laws in every legal framework do not contain each and every minute detail of the possible situations. The expressions used in a statute are often open to more than one interpretation, and different courts of law, while applying such provisions to the practical situations, often disagree in the matter of their interpretation. One court explains the law in a particular way while the other court takes it in a quite different sense. Nobody ever blames any one of them for the violation of the law.
Not only this, if the former court is a High Court, all the lower courts and all the people living within the jurisdiction of that High Court are bound to follow the interpretation laid down by it even though their personal opinion does not conform to the approach of the superior court. In this case, if they follow the decision of the superior Court nobody can say that they are not following the law, or that they are holding the Court as the Sovereign authority instead of the real legislator, because, in fact, they are following the decision of the Court only as a trust-worthy interpreter of law, and not as a legislator.
Exactly in the same way, the madhab of a muslim jurist is nothing but a credible interpretation of the Shariah. Another competent jurist may disagree with this interpretation, but he can never accuse him of the violation of Shariah, nor can anyone blame the followers of that particular madhhab for following something other than Shariah, or for committing shirk by following the imam of that madhhab instead of obeying Allah and His Messenger, because, they are following the madhhab as a credible interpretation of Shariah, and not as a law-making authority.
The next question which may arise here is what a layman should do with regard to these different madhahib, and which one of them should be followed. Answer to this question is very simple. All of these madhahib being sincere and competent efforts to discover the true intention of Shariah, all of them are equally true, and a layman should follow the madhhab of any one of the recognized imams whom he believes to be more knowledgeable and more pious. Although the muslim jurists who have undertaken the exercise of ijtihad are many in number, yet the madhahib of the four jurists are more comprehensive well-arranged and well-preserved even today, and the muslim ummah as a whole has taken them as the most reliable interpretations of Shariah. These four madhahib are called Hanfi, Shafi'i, Maliki and Hanbali schools. All the rest of the madhahib are either not comprehensive in the sense that they do not contain all aspects of Shariah or they have not been preserved in a reliable form. That is why the majority of the muslim Ummah belongs to either of these four madhahib, and if a layman adopts any one of these schools in the matter of interpretation of the Shariah, his obligation of following the Shariah is discharged..
This is the true picture of the term 'taqleed' with reference to the recognized juristic madhahib. I hope this explanation will be able to satisfy your question and will be sufficient to establish that 'taqleed' has nothing to do with shirk. It is, in fact a simple and easy way to follow the Shariah.