Over the centuries, as Usulism evolved so did the definition of Taqleed and its practical implications. Had this definition been based on hadith it would not have evolved over time. It has been defined and manipulated by clerics in a constant effort to assert juridical authority over the masses in the absence of the Imam (ajtf).

After the major occultation of our Imam (ajtf), the Usuli scholars started to produce treatises on Usul al-Fiqh. In the earliest works there was no connection between Taqleed and Ijtihad since Ijtihad was condemned by the Imams and therefore not practiced by the Shia scholars. Taqleed at that time was used in conjunction with seeking legal rulings solely based on hadith. See for example, the Usul al-Fiqh treatises such as those of al-Sharif al-Murtada (d. 436/1044), Shaykh Tusi al-Taifaa (d. 460/1067), where the subject of Taqleed is found under the heading ‘sifat al-mustafti’ — attribute of him who [must] seek legal opinions (fatwa). By the time of al-Muhaqiq al-Hilli (d. 676/1277), author of the Ma’arij-al-Usul, the emphasis is no longer on seeking of legal opinions (iftaa’ and istiftaa’) but rather on following the results of the newly introduced “Ijtihad” redefined as legal reasoning using “aql” (to differentiate it from the condemned Sunni version based on “qiyas”). Taqleed now became the corollary (a natural end result) of Ijtihad.

Subsequently, the authority to perform Ijtihad was limited to those few scholars who were deemed to be experts in the discipline of complex legal reasoning (i.e. simply a good knowledge of hadith was no longer sufficient) and this gave rise to the “mujtahids” – literally those who perform ijtihad. In the process, it also created an illegal two fold division of society – the mujtahids and the muqallids (those who are bound).

The history of Taqleed thus appears to represent, in its general sweep, an ever-increasing assertion and rigidity of juridical authority (clerical power).

Taqleed a blind following

Taqleed (in its current definition) is a contract between the mujtahid and the muqallid. An important aspect of this contract is that the muqallid must NOT demand proof from the mujtahid on how he has arrived at a particular ruling. The excuse provided by the mujtahid is that the muqallid lacks the training (and time) to review and comprehend his “complex research” since it is not just simply based on hadith. The Usulis argue that this is not a blind following because the muqallid has selected the mujtahid by first researching his reputation and thereafter has placed his full trust and reliance on him. This argument only proves that the selection is not blind. Although in reality it too is blind because majority of the muqallids have no personal relationship and direct one-on-one knowledge of the mujtahid they follow.

Evolution of Taqleed

You can see the evolution of Taqleed in the statements of the Usuli scholars over the last few centuries. In the beginning, blind following was considered disgusting:

عرف الشيخ الطوسي التقليد في كتابه الاقتصاد فقال : (التقليد إن أريد به قبول قول الغير من غير حجة – وهو حقيقة التقليد – فذلك قبيح في العقول) الاقتصاد – الشيخ الطوسي – ص 10
Shaikh Tusi defined taqleed in his book al Iqtisad, so he said: “If I intend by taqleed to accept the other’s word without proof, and that is the reality of taqleed, then that is disgusting for the intellects.” (Page 10)

ذكر المحقق الحلي التقليد في معراج الاصول فقال : (التقليد : قبول قول الغير من غير حجة ، فيكون جزما في غير موضعه ، وهو قبيح عقلا) معارج الأصول – المحقق الحلي – ص 199
Muhaqqiq Hill mentioned in Mi’raj al Usool: “Taqleed: Acceptance of the other’s word without proof, so making it binding wrongly, and it is disgusting intellectually.” (Page 199)

Later it was acceptable to follow blindly:

عرف الشريف المرتضى التقليد قائلا : ( قبول قول الغير من غير حجة أو شبهة ) رسائل المرتضى – ج 2 – ص 265
Sharif al Murtada defined taqleed by saying: “Acceptance of the other’s word without proof or skepticism.” (Rasail al Murtada, Volume 2, Page 265)

ذكر المحقق الكركي التقليد قائلاً : ( قبول قول الغير من غير حجة ولا دليل يسمى تقليدا) رسائل الكركي – ج 1
هامش ص 59
Muhaqqiq al Karki mentioned taqleed saying: “Acceptance of the other’s word without argument and proof is termed taqleed.” (Rasail al Karki, Volume 1, Footnote on page 59)

قال العلامة الحلي في تعريفه : ( التقليد : قبول قول الغير من غير حجة ، ويسمى تقليدا ) الرسالة السعدية – العلامة الحلي – هامش ص 9
Allama Hilli said in its description: “Taqleed: Acceptance of the other’s word without proof is termed taqleed.” (Al Risala al Sa’diyah, footnote on page number 9)

Sunni definition of Taqleed

The Sunni definition of Taqleed also concurs with the above. And why should it not concur when the Shias have borrowed it from them? In the Hanafi Usul books, Taqleed is defined in the following words:

Acting on the opinion of a mufti (the one who issues fatwa) without knowing his evidence or demanding proof.
Sunni definition

See also for example:

Taqleed: uncritical and unqualified acceptance of a traditional orthodoxy or of an authoritarian code of a particular religious teacher. – Merriam Webster definition of taqleed

Taqleed, in Islamic law, the unquestioning acceptance of the legal decisions of another without knowing the basis of those decisions. – Encyclopedia Britannica

Conclusion

Taqleed was introduced in a subtle fashion as a means to access knowledge (legal statements) based directly on hadith. However, with the advent of Ijtihad (which no longer is based simply on Quran and hadith), it effectively transformed into a “blind” following of a mujtahid who employs rational reasoning to extract or derive law and who no longer is obligated to provide proof (i.e. hadith) to his followers.