Is Taqlid anti-intellectual?

by

Thijs Wester

Following authority figures without critical evaluation is something which happens
in many facets of life, though perhaps the most prolific is in religious doctrines.
Christian protestantism famously rebelled against this notion and advocated for
conducting the mass in the language of the people (rather than Latin). Eighteenth
century Islamic reformists also rebelled against blind following (which they called
Taqlid) and campaigned for self reading of scripture and critical evaluation. While
the notions of these reformists are often put in a positive light in modern and post-
modern discourse, I will argue in this essay that there are inherent dangers in
abandoning Taqlid both in a religious and scientific context and also that one needs
to be careful in not over-extending Taqlid thereby making it anti-intellectual.

In rejecting Taqlid, one typically makes an appeal to reason, resulting in a con-

trast between obedience and self-governance. Following authority figures without
question is unreasonable, while assessing the relevant information yourself is rea-
sonable. In a religious context, this contrast is put most beautifully by Galileo, who
wrote in his letter to Christina of Lorraine: “I do not feel obliged to believe that the
same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to
forgo their use.” 
(Galilei, 1957, 183). While there remain few in the current day
who would argue against Galileo on this point, there is a certain danger concerning
people less-educated than the great master.

When people (both in the modern day and throughout history) believe their

own reflections to be more important than the advice of a larger community of
experts carrying a centuries long legacy, the door is opened for dangerous
(mis)interpretations and justifications for abhorrent or damaging acts under the
guise of rationality. We see this pattern with modern-day conspiracy theories
wherein people, instead of following the word of authorities, decide for themselves
what is the truth and come to conclusions that vaccines are unsafe, that climate
change does not exist and that diet xyz can cure cancer. It is exactly because
believers in these theories hold themselves to be rational that criticism, counter-
evidence and reality are bypassed.

In the philosophical and religious context, we have ethical theories such as

consequentialism which, though rational, seems to lead to intuitively bad actions.
In his “incoherence of the philosophers”, Al-Ghazali is seen encouraging the
masses not to perform personal deliberation when it comes to ethics, and instead
to follow scripture exactly to avoid unethical behaviour.

Thus far, we have seen the unfortunate results that rational deliberation can

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IS TAQLID ANTI-INTELLECTUAL?

lead to. However, it is important to note that similar behaviour can also be
achieved exactly by unquestioning obedience. Eugenics, Slavery, Tobacco smoking,
Bloodletting and alike were all at one point, permitted and encouraged by scientific
and religious institutions. Indeed, even in the current day, there are examples of
harmful recommendations by established authoritative institutions such as the
FDA's recommendations of the substance Aspartame

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.

One thing which blind-following and self-declared-rationality have in common

is that they lead to dangerous and damaging behaviour. The behaviour can be clas-
sified as irrational behaviour on both sides. As such, I would wager that whether
Taqlid should be classified as dangerous depends on one's view of the average
rationality of humanity. If one believe most humans to be rational, then a blind-fol-
lowing is more dangerous than autonomy, if one on the other hand holds that,
when left to their own devices, most humans will commit atrocious acts, then per-
haps following a rational authority figure is less damaging.

In either one of these above-describes scenarios, it is important that rational

and intellectual reflection are not entirely abandoned. If we maintain Taqlid, then
the (religious) leaders still need their intellectuality and if people are left with
autonomy, they will need to reason their way through life. In any case, we should
be weary of those who try to extend Taqlid too-far. When we restrict the freedom
and intellect of scholars, revolutionaries and generally intelligent people, we open
ourselves up to irrational guidance resulting ultimately in unethical, dangerous and
damaging behaviour. A balance need therefore be struck between allowing people
their critical reflections (even on matters such as religion, since religious institu-
tions are not immune to corruption) while ensuring a safe-, universalized-ethic
which facilitates proper conduct.

Historically, this is largely the system one observes. For instance, those 

within

the Catholic Church are allowed their rationality in critiquing the doctrines and
shaping the teachings while those outside are reduced to followers. Similarly, the
high-ranking officials of the Islamic tradition were left to their own devices in
deliberating ethical and religious matters. Those outside the establishment were
supposed to listen and follow without question. The reformist movements I men-
tioned in the introduction rebel exactly against this established (rational) elite, but
not entirely against the notion of Taqlid itself. True, greater importance was placed
on self-reading of scripture, but in-essence, this was an attempt to 

broaden the

elite, rather than abolishing it. The easiest way to see this is by looking at the
autonomy recommended for children by these reformist movements. Children were
not left to their own rationality, to make and decide their own rules and to self-

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I should note that Aspartame is deemed safe and tested in the current day, though the testing

process has been scrutinized many times by the US Government Accountability Office (GAO, 1987).

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govern. Instead, they were left to the reason of their parents, who were trusted to
be reasonable enough to shape these fragile minds. The parents too were not left
entire to their own, as the structure of their religion, community and state supple-
mented their reason in areas where it was most critical not to fall short.

In conclusion, Taqlid is not by nature anti-intellectual, but it can grow to

silence descending opinions even if said opinions prove to be more rational than
the established ones. Striking a balance between who gets to exercise their intel-
lectuality and who gets to listen (and for which scenarios), has been, and still is, a
large part of religious reformist movements across the world.

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References

Galilei, Galileo. 1957. Discoveries and opinions of Galileo: including The starry

messenger (1610), Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina (1615), and excerpts
from Letters on sunspots (1613), The assayer (1623)
. Anchor.

GAO, Us Government Accountibilty Office. 1987. Food Additive Approval Process

Followed for Aspartame. HRD-87-46.

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