The following is an attempt to clarify the issue of ijtihad and taqlid. It addresses the issues of defining ijtihad, mujtahid, their classes, the issue of taqlid, its origin, and several other issues.
First of all the issue of ijtihad is not a new one. It is a well known saying of the Prophet when he sent Muadh ibn Jabal to Yemen to teach people Islam that he asked Muadh how he would judge between the people. Muadh gave the three avenues from which he would judge as "The Book of Allah, The Sunnah of Rasoolullah, and finally his own ijtihad". The Prophet approved of this statement. So ijtihad is not something new and in fact is essential to this deen.
The definition of ijtihad by the scholars of islam is "exerting your utmost effort until you feel you can add nothing more to extract a ruling from the sources of Islamic Shariah".
Ijtihad was performed regularly by the Sahabah who were masters of Arabic language and knew Islam directly from the source i.e. they heard and memorized the Quran directly from the Prophet and heard and saw directly his Sunnah. They also knew the circumstances for the revelation of the different verses and could easily check the authenticity of a Hadith because they either heard it directly or from a chain of only one person who they knew and could see if he was trustworthy or not. I only talked about the Sahabah in this way to illustrate our different situation from the situation of the Sahabah. We have a severe defficiency in the Arabic language and have to rely on chains of transmitters for the Hadith. We also must learn the circumstances for the revelation of different verses by studying the different historical accounts. All of this study necessitates that there will be some people who will be more knowledgeable and more qualified in these matters than others. This was even the case during the time of the Sahabah some of whom followed others in their ijtihad. Some of the modern scholars have said that taqleed(imitation) is a big evil and should be eliminated , meaning that everyone should do their own ijtihad. Such a approach is not practical, unachievable, and unnecessary. Others have claimed that everyone is qualified to perform ijtihad and that we should all start right now by performing ijtihad. This is a false approach which is nothing but a attempt to put reason and personal opinion over the text(Quran and Sunnah). This approach is only brought up to confuse Muslims and to water down this deen. IT should be obvious that only after careful study and exerting the utmost effort studying the sources can anyone perform ijtihad. It is not something flippant, or trivial, to be done at the top of the head or at the spur of the moment.
The categories of Mujtahid
Mujtahid Mutlaq- The meaning of this is someone who performs ijtihad from the Usul(Foundation of Fiqh i.e. Study of the Sources of Islamic Law). The well known names of such Mujtahideen are Imam Abu Hanifah, Imam As-Shafii, Imam Ahmed bin Humbul, Imam Malik . There are other imams who also fall into this category and this list is not restrictive. These four imams are well-known because they perfomed ijtihad on the a large number of issues. Each one has a distinct Usul from which emanated his rulings. Imam ibn Hazm has a distinctive madhab in that he rejected the Qiyas(Analogy) almost totally.
Mujtahid of a Madhab - Each of these four imams had well-known students who were mujtahid of their own right yet restricted themselves to the madhabs which they studied under.
Mujtahid of a Certain Subject - Under these imams are mujtahids who are specialists in certain issues such as Jihad or marriage. They are known to be qualified in these issues but not in other issues.
The road to becoming a mujtahid is open to every Muslim male or female. It is not something which is easy or a short road. A person does not reach this level and attain sainthood , he merely reaches a level of knowledge from which he can interpret the text and come up with his own rulings. This ruling is not something sacred but should be debated to test its validity and strength. OF course all rulings should be from Islamic sources (Quran, Sunnah, Qiyas, Ijmah) and should not come from kufr sources or merely from ones own desires.
It is essential to note a few things. Even though one is not a mujtahid this does not mean that he should take everything from a mujtahid without questioning. This means mujtahids living or dead. Just because you were taught a madhab does not mean that you should blindly follow it. It is necessary that you look at each action you do and search for the daleel(evidence) for it. It is also imperative that when someone tells you a Islamic ruling on a issue you should ask for the daleel. This is your right and your duty. It is one of the biggest failings of this ummah that we blindly follow our imams without questioning and understanding their rulings. The result of this is that whenever someone want to take us for a ride it is very easy for them. They will merely have a long beard and some knowledge and we will follow them blindly. NO! Such a thing should never happen! If We love this deen we should not let others hijack it! Always ask for the evidence, and if it sounds weak check with others about the issue.
The other problem which I was trying to address with this post was the question of fiqh and how it arose. The primary way was that the Imam had a USul and when he needed to find the rule on a certain issue he would use the framework of the Usul and derive his ruling. Many people today they have a ruling already in their mind and they want to change the Usul to fit it. In fact they have made such statements. This is nothing but a attempt to fit this deen with their own desires and may Allah show them the guidance and cause them to give up such a path. The names for such ideas are numerous such as "American Islam" , "Minority Fiqh", "American Fiqh", "French Islam", "Modernism", among others. IT is common to all these ideas that outside influences attempt to hijack ISlam for their own interests. Muslims should beware of such attempts and know that no Mujtahid advocated such a approach and were careful to not follow this approach. They knew the penalty for creating their own laws and feared Allah and struggled in His path.