The claim that knowledgeable people must observe Taqlid

Q: I read a book which has been written in Arabic in which the author says that the attitude of the Imams of the four Madh-habs (Schools of Jurisprudence) in Islam Abu Hanifah , Ahmad , Malik , (Part No. 5; Page No. 63)  and Al-Shafi`y and others is the same as that of Paul in Christianity, as they distract people from truth and direct them according to their personal dispositions despite the availability of evidence reported by the Prophet (peace be upon him). The author opines that the four Imams have come with their opinions in spite of the prophetic narrations. What is the reply to this? The author also says that whoever imitates and follows them is Kafir (disbeliever) for going after them and abandoning what the Prophet (peace be upon him) has said.

A: All Praise is due to Allah Alone and peace and blessings be upon His Messenger, his family, and Companions! To proceed: First: The Imams of the Four Madh-habs: Abu Hanifah, Malik, Al-Shafi`y and Ahmad ibn Hanbal are the best amongst people of knowledge, they are the followers of the Prophet (peace be upon him) as well as being amongst the people of Ijtihad (juristic effort to infer expert legal rulings) and deduction of rulings of Shari`ah (Islamic Law) from their detailed proofs. What this author says regarding that they (the Imams) distract people from truth and direct them according to their individual inclinations is a villainous lie, and whoever follows and imitates them is not Kafir, as it is permissible for those who do not know the rulings to follow any of the Four Madh-habs. Besides, we have issued a Fatwa (legal opinion issued by a qualified Muslim scholar) regarding the four Madh-habs stating: There were a lot of jurists who practiced Ijtihad, especially in the three generations which the Messenger (peace be upon him) attested to be the best ones. The most famous among which were four: Abu Hanifah Al-Nu`man ibn Thabit in Iraq, Abu `Abdullah Malik ibn Anas Al-Asbahy in Al-Madinah Al-Munawwarah, Abu `Abdullah Muhammad ibn Idris Al-Shafi`y Al-Qurashy, the scholar of Quraysh and the source of its pride and Abu `Abdullah Ahmad ibn Hanbal Al-Shaybany, the chief of the people of Hadiths and their exemplar and the Jurist of the people of Iraq in his time.There are many reasons for their fame, among which are the wide spread of their Madh-habs in the country where they have been raised or traveled to like Abu Hanifah and Ahmad (May (Part No. 5; Page No. 64) Allah be merciful with them) in Iraq, Malik in Al-Madinah and Al-Shafi`y in Makkah and Egypt. Another reason for their fame is the effort of their sedulous students, and others who adopted their Madh-habs and established over their basic principles and their Ijtihad in Da`wah (calling to Islam) in their countries or where they traveled like Muhammad ibn Al-Hasan and Abu Yusuf in Iraq, as well as Ibn Al-Qasim and Ash-hab in Egypt and Sahnun in Morocco and Al-Rabi` ibn Sulayman in Egypt. In addition to the students of Imam Ahmad in the Levant (the region covering Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Palestine) and Iraq. Among the reasons also are that governments used to follow one of these Imam's Madh-hab, employed its scholars in several posts such as adjudication. Governments also established schools for them, provided them with endowments and other (sources of provision). Nevertheless, none of them ever called people to follow their madh-hab, nor were they fanatic in following it, or even obliged anyone else to act in accordance with it or with any other madh-hab. However, they used to call people to follow the Qur'an and Sunnah, explaining religious texts, clarifying the basic rulings of Islam and deducing the subsidiary issues according to the general guidelines, and issuing Fatwas (legal opinions issued by a qualified Muslim scholar) regarding what people asked about, without forcing any of their students or anyone else to follow their opinions. Rather, they criticized those who did that and said that such forcing should be cast aside if they went beyond the limits of Sahih (authentic) Hadith. One of them even said: “If the Hadith is Sahih then this is my Madh-hab."It is not obligatory for anyone to follow a particular Madh-hab; rather we should strive to learn the truth if possible seeking the help of Allah then to rely on the legacy of knowledge that the earlier Muslim scholars left behind for those who came after them to make it easier for us to understand and apply the religious texts. Whoever cannot deduce rulings from the texts for some reason should ask trustworthy scholars about whatever rulings of Shari`ah they need. Allah (Exalted be He) says: So ask the people of the Scripture, if you do not know. (Part No. 5; Page No. 65) Moreover, they should ask trustworthy scholars who are well-known for their piety and righteousness.May Allah grant us success. May peace and blessings be upon our Prophet Muhammad, his family, and Companions.