Nowadays, it has become a common misconception amongst some Muslims that taqleed (adherence to a particular madhhab) is wrong in Shari'ah. They say the four schools of thought (Hanafi, Shafi'ee, Maliki, and Hanbali Madhaahib) are an innovation since they were formed around two hundred years after the passing away of Rasulullah (Sallallahu Alayhi Wa Sallam). They insist that a true Muslim should only follow the Holy Quran and Sunnah and that it is wrong to follow an Imam in the matters of Shari'ah. All of these beliefs are based on nothing but ignorance and a lack of knowledge. Taqleed is incumbent upon all Muslims so that the deen is followed in a proper manner.
Meaning and Basis of Taqleed
Firstly, it is important for one to understand the actual Shari'ee meaning of taqleed. Taqleed is whenever one accepts a statement of another without demanding proof or evidence with the belief that the statement is being made in accordance to fact and proof.
The basis of taqleed is the following verse of the Holy Quran:
فاسألوا أهل الذكر إن كنتم لا تعلمون
"And ask the people of knowledge if you do not know." (16:43, 21:7)
Taqleed also existed in the time of Rasulullah (Sallallahu Alayhi Wa Sallam) as is proved in a hadith:
عن الأسود بن يزيد قال أتانا معاذ بن جبل باليمن معلما وأميرا ، فسألناه عن رجل توفى وترك ابنته وأخته ، فأعطى الابنة النصف والأخت النصف.
"Aswad bin Yazid narrates: Muadh came to us in as a teacher and commander. We questioned him regarding a man who had died leaving (as his heirs) a daughter and sister. He decreed half the estate for the daughter and half for the sister." (Sahih Al-Bukhari, Vol. 8, P. 7, Dar Al-Fikr)
This occurred while Rasulullah (Sallallahu Alayhi Wa Sallam) was alive. The questioner in the hadith also did not demand any proof or basis for the ruling. He accepted the ruling, relying on the piety and knowledge of Muadh (Radiyallahu Anhu). This is taqleed. At the same time, Rasulullah (Sallallahu Alayhi Wa Sallam) did not criticize the people who followed Muadh (Radiyallahu Anhu) nor did any of the other companions. It was Rasulullah (Sallallahu Alayhi Wa Sallam) who sent Muadh (Radiyallahu Anhu) to and granted the people there permission to refer to him in all matters of deen. It is clear that taqleed is not a new concept and it cannot be refuted.
The Necessity of Taqleed
Before getting to the madhaahib of the four great Imams, it must be stated why taqleed is necessary and why it shouldn't be disregarded. It is known and established by observation that in this age of time most people want to follow the deen according to their own nafs (self-desires). Without taqleed, some people will consider themselves to be mujtahids and will embark upon the process of qiyas (analogical reasoning) without proper knowledge. Even if one does not resort to his own ijtihad but still disregards taqleed, he will then accept the verdict of any authority, especially in difficult masa'il. He will follow the views of different Imams at different times, thus leading to the opposition of the ijma' (consensus) and resorting to fulfill one's desires which is prohibited. This is why taqleed is a necessity.
The Restriction of Taqleed to the Four Madhaahib
There were many mujtahideen. However, taqleed is restricted to the four madhaahib. Obviously the four madhaahib did not exist during the time of Rasulullah (Sallallahu Alayhi Wa Sallam). It is like saying Sahih Al-Bukhari did not exist in that time either but the Hadith that are in the book did exist. The teachings of all four madhaahib are entirely based on Quran and Sunnah and none of them conflict with Quran and Hadith. The differences in certain rulings of the madhaahib are the ways and methods of the Sahaba (Radiyallahu Anhum) who acquired them from Rasulullah (Sallallahu Alayhi Wa Sallam). These authentic differences are a mercy of Allah Ta'ala as Rasulullah (Sallallahu Alayhi Wa Sallam) said:
"The differences of my Ummah are a mercy." (Al-Madkhal ila Sunan-Al-Kubra lil-Bayhaqi)
They are the only four madhaahib that have been arranged with usul (principles) and furu' (details) and all answers to questions are based on these principles. These qualities are found only in these four madhaahib, making it imperative to adopt one of them.
The Impermissibility of Talfeeq
Since taqleed is limited to only one of the four madhaahib, why do we have to adhere to one and why can't we choose some rulings from one Imam and some from another as was done in the time of the Sahaba (Radiyallahu Anhum) and Tabi'een?
It is because in those times the whole madhab was not confined to one person. Knowledge was prevalent amongst all of the Sahaba (Radiyallahu Anhum) and deen was not followed according to one's nafs. Later in time, sincerity and piety to their degree did not exist anymore. Many people used to go to a scholar for a verdict and if that verdict was not suitable for them then they went to another scholar, then another scholar, etc. until they found a ruling which suited their desires. This can lead one astray and away from the truth.
One famous example given is if one touches his wife in the state of wudu. A person who follows the Shafi'ee madhab will say to him that his wudu is broken (according to Imam Shafi'ee's view, if a person touches a woman his wudu is broken). The person who touched his wife then says that he does taqleed of the Hanafi madhab and can pray his salat with such a wudu (according to Imam Abu Hanifa's view, touching a woman does not break the wudu). Then this same person vomits a mouthful and a person who follows the Hanafi madhab says to him that his wudu is broken (according to Imam Abu Hanifa if one vomits a mouthful or more his wudu is broken). The person who vomited then says that he does taqleed of the Shafi'ee madhab (in this mas'alah) and according to Imam Shafi'ee vomiting does not break the wudu. So now if this person prays his salat with such a wudu, then his salat would not be valid according to the view of Imam Abu Hanifa and Imam Shafi'ee.
This entire concept is called talfeeq and is impermissible because it is following one's desires and it will likely lead one astray and away from the truth. This is why following one Imam only is necessary.
In conclusion, although the four madhaahib did not exist in the time of Rasulullah (Sallallahu Alayhi Wa Sallam), they are fully based on Quran and Sunnah with laid down principles and details. Therefore, it is incumbent upon us to do taqleed of one Imam only without talfeeq.
Adam-al-taqleed (abandoning taqleed) is a plot and desire of Shaytan. Once a person leaves the fold of taqleed he is led into deception and desire which Shaytan strives to get a person to follow so that they will fall astray from the deen. May Allah Ta'ala protect us all from abandoning taqleed. Ameen.
(Qawaaid Fi Uloom Al-Fiqh, Idara Al-Quran Wa Uloom)
(Fatawa Rahimiyya, Vol. 1, P. 110-140, Darul Isha'at)