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Imamate (Leadership) in Shi‘i Islam
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Imamate (Divinely Appointed Leadership) is a very high position, and it is only Allah who can decide who is qualified for it. And if the Prophet Muhammad (S) announced to the people that the Twelve Imams are the leaders, or that the Ahlul Bayt are the people that we must refer to, or in that Imam Ali is his successor, it was only because he was asked by Allah to do so. The Prophet did not intend to give special privilege to his family for the mere reason of being his family.
In the early years of Islam, once the Prophet (S) invited the leader of an Arab tribe to embrace Islam. And that was when the Prophet was gravely in need of support. There were only very few Muslims in the early years in Mecca. That person said, “We will believe in Islam, we will support you, but there is one condition: when you are going to die, you must ask the people to follow us; your successor must be one of us.” This was the condition. The Prophet refused, saying that it is up to Allah to choose who will succeed him. It was not the Prophet’s decision. It was Allah’s decision.

In the early years of Islam, once the Prophet (S) invited the leader of an Arab tribe to embrace Islam. And that was when the Prophet was gravely in need of support. There were only very few Muslims in the early years in Mecca. That person said, “We will believe in Islam, we will support you, but there is one condition: when you are going to die, you must ask the people to follow us; your successor must be one of us.” This was the condition. The Prophet refused, saying that it is up to Allah to choose who will succeed him. It was not the Prophet’s decision.

Appointment of an Imam is equivalent to appointment of a Prophet. We cannot select or elect our Prophet because we do not know who is qualified or who pleases Allah. The Qur’an says,

“God knows best where to place His apostleship”. 1

Similarly, Imam is also the one chosen by Allah (s.w.t.) and announced by the Prophet. This is why we say Imamate means ‘divinely appointed leadership.’ It is a sort of leadership which is divinely appointed. And it is interesting that Imam in the Qur’anic concept not only included legitimate successors of the Prophet, but also includes some of the Prophets who were qualified to lead. So Imamate was even there before Islam, although for specified Prophets, not for all of them.

And it is interesting that Imam in the Qur’anic concept not only included legitimate successors of the Prophet, but also includes some of the Prophets who were qualified to lead. So Imamate was even there before Islam, although for specified Prophets, not for all of them.

 For example, the Qur’an says about Prophet Abraham (as):

And when his Lord tested Abraham with certain words, and he fulfilled them, He said, “I am making you the Imam of mankind.’ Said he, ‘And from among my descendants?’ He said, ‘My pledge does not extend to the unjust.’ 2

Prophet Abraham was able to accomplish these tests and successfully pass them. Among the discussions of various scholars on this verse, two of them will be referred to. First, Imamate, or divinely appointed leadership, is a general concept according to the Qur’an. It is not only for the period after the Prophet Muhammad (S). Even some of the Prophets in the past were able to act as an Imam, they were chosen by Allah after fulfilling all the requirements. Not just to become a prophet means to become an Imam. Sometimes there were tens of Prophets living at the same time in the same region, but only one of them was able to act as an Imam.

Secondly, Allah (s.w.t.) told Prophet Abraham that no one can expect to be an Imam even if it is from his offspring if he is unjust. ‘Allamah Tabataba’i explains this in his Al-Mizan fi Tafsir al-Qur’an, where people are described as being one of four groups: a) those who constantly commit sins, b) those who are good and eventually become corrupt, c) those who have sinned and with repentance, embraced Islam afterwards, and d) those who have never committed any sins.
Prophet Abraham could not have asked God about the first two groups; he asked God about the last two groups, those who have sinned and then repented, and those who have never committed sins. As mentioned in the Qur’an, those who have been unjust to themselves and others and have committed sins cannot become the Imam. Thus, one group remains: those who have constantly been good. And this is the idea of infallibility, or being immaculate.

Whoever believes in Imamate according to the Shi’ite perspective believes that an Imam is a leader who is appointed by Allah and that he is necessarily infallible. He is not just deemed pious or the most pious. He must be infallible. Our Sunni brothers believe the Imam to be a political leader and he does not need to be chosen by God or be the most pious, let alone infallible. They believe piety to be an unnecessary quality, let alone believing in the infallibility of the Imams. They believe that there may be people who are more pious than the Imam.
Interestingly, many Sunnis, especially Sufi Sunnis, believe that Imam Ali was the most qualified person, in both spirituality and knowledge, although they believe the first successor to the Prophet was Abu Bakr, and then ‘Umar, ‘Uthman and Ali. And they distinguish between being the most knowledgeable and pious with being a caliph. Many Sunni scholars, especially the Sufis and mystics, believe in wilayah or guardianship. They even believe in the wilayah of the Imams of the Ahlul Bayt, but at the same time, they believe in the successorship of the first, second and third caliphs.
For the Shi‘a, it is necessary for an Imam to be most pious and knowledgeable. If someone possesses these qualities, how can we accept the leadership of a less pious person? Of course, we human beings may make mistakes and follow the wrong person. But people are to know that Allah will never be mistaken in ordering us to follow the most qualified leader.

Thus, for the Shi‘a, Imamate is a special kind of leadership. It is not a mere leadership or a matter of government. To govern society and to discuss the legitimacy of a person to rule Islamic society after the Prophet is important, although it is not too important for us today. We discuss this issue because we want to understand what to do at present. We want to know from whom we should learn Islam.

Thus, for the Shi‘a, Imamate is a special kind of leadership. It is not a mere leadership or a matter of government. To govern society and to discuss the legitimacy of a person to rule Islamic society after the Prophet is important, although it is not too important for us today. We discuss this issue because we want to understand what to do at present. We want to know from whom we should learn Islam.

The Announcement of the Prophet 

So here, what does Imam mean? In addition to the requirements of being a) appointed by God, b) the most knowledgeable, c) the most pious, and d) infallible, what does Imam mean here? It means that these people’s leadership must be declared or announced by the Prophet Muhammad (S). We believe in the importance of nass, or explicit declaration by the Prophet. We believe that Imam must be appointed by God and declared by the Prophet, and indeed, these twelve are all declared by the Prophet.
Abu al-Hasan al-Ash‘ari, a prominent Sunni theologian who wrote about different sects and Islamic schools of thought called Maqalat al-Islamiyyin wa Ikhtilaf al-Musallin says that the Shi‘a were called Shi‘a only because they followed Ali and believed that he was more privileged than other companions of the Prophet. He was one of the early Sunni scholars who died in 330 A.H. Afterwards, Shahrestani, another Sunni scholar who died in 548 A.H., in his Al-Milal wa al-Nihal, deemed the Shi‘a as those who follow Ali and believed in his Imamate and caliphate according to the explicit instruction of the Prophet Muhammad (S).3

Thus, the Shi‘a are those who believe in Imamate in general and then they identify their Imam after the Prophet with Ali because of the explicit teachings and testament of the Prophet. They follow Ali as a result of the command of the Prophet, not because they have personal relationship with Ali, or for trivial reasons such as his race or colour. It was because the Prophet instructed them to do so.

Thus, the Shi‘a are those who believe in Imamate in general and then they identify their Imam after the Prophet with Ali because of the explicit teachings and testament of the Prophet. They follow Ali as a result of the command of the Prophet, not because they have personal relationship with Ali, or for trivial reasons such as his race or colour. It was because the Prophet instructed them to do so.


1 اللَّـهُ أَعْلَمُ حَيْثُ يَجْعَلُ رِسَالَتَهُ
(6:124)
2 وَإِذِ ابْتَلَىٰ إِبْرَاهِيمَ رَبُّهُ بِكَلِمَاتٍ فَأَتَمَّهُنَّ  قَالَ إِنِّي جَاعِلُكَ لِلنَّاسِ إِمَامًا قَالَ وَمِن ذُرِّيَّتِي  قَالَ لَا يَنَالُ عَهْدِي الظَّالِمِينَ
(2:124)
3 19. Al-Milal wa al-Nihal, Dar al-Ma‘arif, Beirut, vol. I, p. 169. 

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الإخْوانُ في اللّهِ تعالى تَدُومُ مَودّتُهُم، لِدَوامِ سَبَبِها.
Brothers [whose brotherhood is] for the sake of Allah, enjoy an enduring Amity, due to the firmness of its foundation