Where does the obligation of a regular person (like me, who is literate and knows how to find knowledge from different sources), end? For example, is he supposed to just follow an Imam (out of the four)? Or is he supposed to just follow a scholar of his certain Madhab? Or should he do his best to find the Truth (from all the sources that he thinks are good sources)? What will Allah expect from him on the Day of Judgment? What should be enough for him to do in this world regarding finding the Truth?
Individuals can, broadly, be divided into three categories with respect to their intellectual abilities, level of understanding and opportunities of learning.
The first category is of those who have gained a thorough knowledge and understanding of the original sources of Islam as well as its peripheral disciplines. It requires a lifetime to develop a masterly command over the language of the Quran and a scholarly appreciation of its message. These scholars (Mujtahids) establish certain principles for interpreting the textual content and their understanding hinges on certain philosophical and intellectual bases.
The second category, to which your question is related, is of individuals who are educated and can use their intellect to a fair degree. Although not scholars, they are capable of ascertaining the merits and weaknesses of arguments presented by scholars in favor of their respective opinions. Any such individual should try his/her best to delve into the reasoning behind the arguments of the scholars of Islam. With the passage of time, an overall confidence would be developed about the approach of a particular scholar towards understanding Islam. While such confidence is not wrong, it becomes inimical when prejudice creeps in and no alternative opinions are considered worthy of being given even an outside chance. Thus all possible and good sources of finding the truth should be exhausted. A sincerity of heart and mind and an openness to readily accept the truth from whichever source and in whatever form is, in my opinion, what is expected from an individual, and it is hoped the Almighty, with His all-encompassing mercy shall accept his/her efforts on the day of reckoning.
The third category is of those who, because of the very nature of their test, could not have the opportunity to educate themselves and are not even intellectually capable to be able to discern the arguments presented by the scholars of Islam in support of their respective opinions. For these people, there is no other recourse but to accept the opinions of the scholar(s) in whom they repose enough confidence both in terms of their knowledge and piety. Even then, if something as clear as the sun is shown to them as proof of a more sound opinion, they should not hesitate to accept it.
January 5, 2003