Adapted from the book : "A Code of Practice for Muslims in the West" in accordance with the edicts of Ayatullah Sistani
1. Question: The jurists tell us that it is wajib to emulate the most learned (a'lam) mujtahid, and when we ask the religious scholars in our area, "Who is the a'lam?" we do not get a clear-cut answer so that we may follow his fatwa. When we ask them about their answer, they say that they are not ahlul khibra and they also say that: "we have asked ahlul khibra1 and have been informed that identifying the a'lam mujtahid requires the study of the books of the mujtahids and that obviously is a time consuming and difficult task; so go and ask the others."
If the problem of identifying the a'lam mujtahid is so difficult in religious circles, obviously the problem would be even more difficult in other countries like Europe and America. After a lot of difficulty when we convince the youths of these countries that it is necessary to abide by the shari'a laws, we reach to the question of who is the a'lam, and find ourselves lost for words. Is there a solution to this problem?
Answer: If there are some ahlul khibra who refuse to identify the a'lam for one reason or another, there are other ahlul khibra who readily identify him. It is possible to contact those ahlul khibra through the religious scholars and others who are reliable and have contacts with religious seminaries and with the scholars in other countries. So, although identifying the a'lam is not without difficulty, yet it is not a serious problem.
2. Question: How do we know who ahlul khibra are so that we may ask them about the a'lam mujtahid? How do we reach them since we are far away from religious seminaries? Is there a way that can simplify for us the process of determining whom we should follow in taqlid
Answer: The ahlul khibra are the mujtahids and those next in line in religious sciences, and they know quite well that one person in a limited group of mujtahids is the a'lam. And they have to consider the following three things to identify that a'lam:
a. First: His knowledge concerning the methods for providing the authenticity of the hadith, and that involves 'ilmu 'r-rijal (the science of narrators of hadith) and 'ilmu 'l-hadith (the science of hadith). On this subject, issues like familiarity with the books [of hadith] and the ahadith that have been tampered with; knowledge of causes for fabrication [of ahadith]; variance in the manuscripts and distinguishing the most correct one; and being aware of confusion which sometimes occurs between the text of a hadith and the explanation of the compilers, are of utmost importance.
b. Second: His ability to understand the meaning of the text by considering the general rules of speech, especially the style used by the Imams of Ahlul Bayt (a.s.) in describing the laws. The science of 'usûlu 'l-fiqh (Principles of Jurisprudence), Arabic grammar and literature, as well as familiarity with the views of the Sunni jurists who were contemporaries of the Imams play an important role in the understanding of the hadith texts.
c. Third: Soundness of his view in deriving the rules from the sources. And the method of getting acquainted with those in whom the status of a'lam is confined to having scholarly discussions with them or to referring to their books or to the transcripts of their lectures on Jurisprudence and the Principles of Jurisprudence.
If a person cannot know the ahlul khibra by himself, he can come to know them through the religious scholars and others whom he trusts. The geographical distance should not be a barrier to establishing communication with them in this era where many fast means of communication are easily available.
4. Question: Sometimes the heart feels at ease in regard to a particular mujtahid. Is this feeling sufficient to do his taqlid if the ahlul khibra have difference of opinion in determining the a'lam?
Answer: If the ahlul khibra have difference of opinion in determining the a'lam, one must follow the view of those who are more qualified and capable among the ahlul khibra. This is the norm in dealing with all cases where the experts have difference of opinion.
5. Question: If the ahlul khibra have difference of opinion in determining the a'lam mujtahid or just say that following any one from the given number of mujtahids is sufficient, can a person apply the fatwa of one mujtahid in one issue and another mujtahid in another until it becomes clear for him who is the a'lam?
Answer: This question has three parts:
a. First: That some ahlul khibra announce that "it is sufficient to follow one specific mujtahid or of a group of mujtahids." This has no religious value at all.
b. Second: That the ahlul khibra announce that two or more mujtahids are equal in knowledge and piety (in the sense of being careful in deriving the laws [from their sources]), then a lay person has the option of acting according to the views of any one of the mujtahids in all the issues.
However, as a matter of precaution (ihtiyat) in some issues, if possible, one could act in such a manner as to fulfill the requirements of both views; for example, in the case of praying concessionary qasr and full (tamam) prayers. [That is, praying the same prayer in qasr as well as in tamam forms.]
c. Third: That some ahlul khibra announce that mujtahid 'a' is the a'lam whereas others among the ahlul khibra announce that mujtahid 'b' is the a'lam. This can have two situations:
A. A person knows that one of the two mujtahids is the a'lam but he does not know which one specifically. This is a very unusual situation and it has been discussed in detail in Minhaju 's-Saliheen, question No. 9.
B. A person does not know which of the two is the a'lam in the sense that he thinks both are equal in knowledge. This refers back to the second of the three parts mentioned above, provided that the person is unable to identify the more Godfearing of the two mujtahids. If he is able to identify the more Godfearing of the two mujtahdis, he must follow the fatwa of that mujtahid.
6. Question: If a person does not know the view of his marja', in a certain problem, is it necessary for him to find out about it even if it involves expensive telephone calls? Or is it sufficient to act on the known view of any other mujtahid until he finds out the view of his own marja'? And in such a case what will be the verdict on the past acts [done according to the view of the other mujtahid] if it differs from the view of his own marja'?
Answer: It is necessary for him to find out the view of his a'lam marja' even through telephone contact as long as it does not cause him harm [physically or financially]. If it is not possible for him to find out the view [of his own marja'], it is permissible for him to refer in that particular case to the other mujtahids, taking into account the hierarchy of the al-a'lam and the next a'lam in line. The deeds performed according to the view of the second mujtahid would be valid even if the worshipper later on finds out that it was not in accordance with the view of his own marja'.
1. Translator's Note: See rule no. 26 for meaning of ahlul khibra.