The Economics of Religious Interpretation: The System of Taqlid

Ayman Reda


The role of religion cannot be sustained without some degree of scriptural exegesis or interpretation over time. In Islamic Shi’a tradition, the process of interpreting scripture in order to deduce Islamic law is called ijtihad. This process is performed by a select few of highly specialized jurists, called mujtahids. Every believer who is incapable of engaging in ijtihad, is required to choose among the group of available mujtahids, and follow the jurist’s interpretation and judgment in all matters of law. This ‘emulation of another in matters of law’ is called taqlid. In return, believers are obligated to pay a religious tax to the jurist, where the proceeds are primarily used for the development of religious institutions and the funding of social services. In a rational choice framework, we analyze the interpretation of religious scripture as a public good problem. The Shi‘a System of taqlid alleviates the public good problem by compensating the few who practice ijtihad on behalf of the unwilling majority. Taqlid also serves to preserve the religious identity and political independence of the Shi’a community. We also examine possible rent-seeking practices by mujtahids, and the impact of religious competition among mujtahids on the Shi’a community.

Key words: Rational choice; Public good; Religion; Exegesis


Rational choice; Public good; Religion; Exegesis



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