Roots of Religion: Imamat

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With Allah’s (glorified be He) help, we now commence discussion on the fourth principle of Usule Deen viz. Imamat. Our main objective is that all the facts related to the topic Imamat should be comprehended by the readers, so that they are able to appreciate the importance and criticality of this subject in Islam. In order to give the readers a background on the subject, we commence our discussion by explaining the meaning of ‘Imam’ and ‘Khalifah’ in Arabic literature.

The dictionary meaning of ‘Imam’ means guide or leader (who is to be followed). It means that that person who is followed by the people in all actions and accepted by them as their leader and guide is the Imam. For example, an Imam-e-Jama’at is called the Imam because the Muslims pray behind him and follow him and act according to his actions and deeds while praying.

The Imam is the one who always precedes the people in those actions towards which he invites them (like acting on laws of Islamic jurisprudence, Allah’s worship, etc.). In all his commands, the Imam should precede the people in action and excel in it, before inviting others towards it. In addition to this, the Imam should be a guide and a leader in everything concerning the people, be it administration, politics, science, religion, whether it is on a personal level or a social level. This implies that the people should look towards the Imam (for guidance) in all their actions and virtues like religious obligations, worship, morals and worldly affairs and act in line with the behaviour and conduct of the Imam and follow him in all aspects.

‘Khalifa’ refers to that person who accomplishes or manages the responsibilities of the Prophet after him.
After learning the literal meaning of Imam and Khalifa, we shall now extend the discussion to the meaning of Imamat. We know that Allah, the Almighty, has sent forth laws and regulations for man’s guidance through one lakh twenty four thousand Prophets (a.s.) beginning from Hazrat Adam (a.s.) till the last Prophet – Hazrat Muhammad Mustafa (s.a.w.a.). Allah perfected religion through His last Prophet (s.a.w.a.) and announced this explicitly in the Quran (Surae-Ahzaab: 40). Quran is the last of the divine scriptures and no book will be revealed after it till the Day of Judgement. As Allah completed the series of prophethood by raising His last Prophet (s.a.w.a.), He also elected the leaders for teaching, propagating, protecting and safeguarding His ultimate religion – Islam. Allah also explicitly ordered the Holy Prophet (s.a.w.a.) to introduce these leaders to the people and made it amply clear to the Prophet (s.a.w.a.) that if he did not do so, it was as if he had not accomplished any of his duties as a prophet. The Holy Prophet (s.a.w.a.) introduced the teachers, who are twelve in number, as the leaders and successors, selected by Allah.

Amongst these leaders Hazrat Ali b. Abi Talib (a.s.) is the first successor, while Hazrat Hujjat b. Hasan al Askari (a.t.f.s.) is the last leader and is the Imam of the age.
According to the Shiite viewpoint ‘Imamat’ is one of the most important fundamentals of Islam and constitutes a guardianship and sovereignty bestowed by Allah upon the Imams. Like Nabuwwat, Imamat is also a divine position. The people do not possess the right of electing an Imam, i.e. the Imam is selected by Allah. The Imams are just like the Prophets in all matters, except divine revelation i.e. unlike the Prophets, revelations were not sent upon the Imams. All other conditions necessary for prophethood like knowledge, refraining from all sins and mistakes (knowingly or otherwise) are also essential and necessary for the Imams.

The Holy Prophet (s.a.w.a.) brought complete and comprehensive laws for mankind and he explained the same to the people. However, it was essential that the successor of the Holy Prophet (s.a.w.a.) is worthy, capable and knowledgeable so that he could derive laws from the comprehensive laws and inform the people about it. It was critical that this successor of the Prophet (s.a.w.a.) interpret the difficult Quranic verses, address the doubts (religious and worldly) of the people, keep an eye on religious differences among the people so as to prevent the people from deviation. For all these reasons it is necessary that the successors (Imams) possess divine knowledge and are infallible and are appointed by Allah, Glorified and Exalted, because humans are incapable of appointing such persons.

The scholars of the Ahle Sunnat do not share the Shia view on ‘Imamat’. According to them, all the social leaders, who have taken the reins of religious matters in their hands (by whatever means) are the successors of the Prophet (s.a.w.a.), and obedience of such leaders is obligatory upon the people. According to the Ahle Sunnat viewpoint it is not necessary for the leader of the Muslims to possess infallibility, divine knowledge and Quranic insight. His unawareness and ignorance in matters of Islamic laws and jurisprudence and his violation of Islamic laws will not be considered as an error.

We quote below the opinion of the famous Ahle Sunnat scholar. ‘Allamah Taftazaani’. This illustrious scholar while narrating the attributes of the Prophets (a.s.) and successor states,

‘Whosoever wishes to perform the duties of the Prophet (a.s.) should safeguard the lives, honour, prestige and wealth of the people.’ (Allamah Taftazaani makes no mention of the criteria of knowledge and infallibility. Therefore, it is not necessary that he should refrain from all sins and errors or that he should be the most superior person in the entire nation.) ‘The Imam’s ignorance and disobedience of Allah’s laws cannot become the cause of deposing or dethroning him.’

(Sharhe Maqaasid vol. 2)

So this is the opinion of a great scholar of the Ahle Sunnat as far as leadership of the nation after the Prophet (s.a.w.a.) is concerned. Now we must ask ourselves whether those personalities who have been introduced in the Holy Quran and traditions of the Holy Prophet (s.a.w.a.) are worthy of leadership or those persons elected by the nation? Is that person worthy of leadership who does not have the complete knowledge of religion, Quran and Islamic laws? Is that person capable of guiding others while he himself commits all types of sins, mistakes and errors? Will such a person be able to invite the people towards Allah and His religion? Will he be able to resolve the differences among the Muslims in the light of Islamic laws?

Consider a public bus full of passengers. If the bus driver is wise and sane, with an expertise in driving he will be able to steer the bus safely towards its destination. But if the driver is ignorant of the way or cannot drive very well or has poor eyesight, or is insane or is drunk, then it is unlikely that he will ever reach his destination, on the contrary he will put the lives of the passengers in great danger.

O travellers of the world! While travelling towards Allah, appoint that Imam as the driver of your actions who has been appointed by Allah, glorified and exalted, and has complete knowledge about religion and refrains from all types of sins, mistakes and errors.

After discussing the belief of Imamat from the Shia and Ahle Sunnat viewpoint, we will extend our discussion to the necessity of Imam. Before departing from the world the Holy Prophet, Hazrat Mohammad Musatafa (s.a.w.a.) had explained the fundamentals and the branches of religion. But shouldn’t there be someone to explain these principles and laws after the Prophet (s.a.w.a.)? Isn’t there a need for an infallible leader and a guide who with his vast knowledge and insight of the Holy Qur’an, can expound the principles narrated by the Prophet (s.a.w.a.). This is because as the world progresses, new situations and circumstances demand further exegesis of Islamic laws, which could not be achieved at the time of the Prophet (s.a.w.a.). Is it not a convention in human society to appoint a wise leader and a capable guide to resolve the differences amongst its members? When the Holy Prophet (s.a.w.a.) used to go out of the city even for a few days, he ensured that there was a guide among the people who would judge among the people in his absence.

When this was the condition while the Prophet had left the city for a few days, how is it possible that he does not appoint any guide when he (s.a.w.a.) leaves this world for good?! Is it possible that Allah by raising 1,24,000 Prophets (a.s.) perfected His religion, but did not send any teacher, protector or custodian for its teaching, learning and protection and for safeguarding it from the enemies, and did not assign anyone to write the Quranic exegesis and to narrate the laws? If Quran is sufficient for the Muslims then why did the Muslims split in so many sects after the demise of Holy Prophet (s.a.w.a.). The necessity of a leader and guide after the Prophet (s.a.w.a.) can be gauged from the differences among the Muslims in simple acts like ablution (wuzu), not to mention more important acts like namaz, hajj, etc.

Necessity of the Imam for protection of Islam against distortion

The existence of the Imam is essential to safeguard religion from distortion of prophetic traditions. After the demise of the Prophet (s.a.w.a.) a great calamity afflicted the Islamic society in the form of fabricated traditions. The hypocrites fabricated traditions and twisted historical events to suit their own selfish interests. Some Jews and Christians in the guise of Muslims, like Ka’b Al-Ahbaar and Wahhab b. Mabnah were in the forefront in distorting traditions. They incorporated incorrect concepts and beliefs in traditions due to their enmity towards Islam. And soon a time came when the hypocrites started fabricating traditions on an extensive scale out of hostility towards the household of the Prophet (s.a.w.a.). The fabricated traditions were attributed to the Holy Prophet (s.a.w.a.), which created a lot of confusion in the minds of simple Muslims. The hypocrites would ridicule Islamic laws in their sittings and assemblies. The Prophet (s.a.w.a.) had left the world, then who could challenge the authenticity of the fabricated traditions? What was the duty of the common Muslims in such a situation? In such tricky situations, Muslims feel the necessity of an Imam, who is like the Prophet (s.a.w.a.) in his knowledge and infallibility, so that the people can refer to the Imam and distinguish between the truth and falsehood. The people can refer to the Imam when they are struck with doubts in the case of fabricated traditions and the Imam with his knowledge can nullify the false and baseless concepts circulating in society and deliver Islam from the hands of hypocrites.

Necessity of Imam for Islam’s defense against other religions

After the Holy Prophet (s.a.w.a.) passed away, Islam, which had come for whole of mankind, faced a lot of opposition from other religions – mainly Jews and Christians and other sects that had deviated from Islam. When we study history we see several instances when the Prophet (s.a.w.a.) in his lifetime used to reply logically to the questions and objections of the people and guided them to the right path. After Holy Prophet’s (s.a.w.a.) demise, Islam spread to many countries and came under the close scrutiny of the followers of divine books (Ahle-Kitab) and other religions of the world. Famous and illustrious scholars of different cultures and societies began visiting Madina to inquire and investigate about the religion of Islam or to weaken the beliefs of the Muslims. They began posing difficult questions to the Muslim scholars. At the complex queries of the Jews and Christians the signs of helplessness were apparent on the faces of the so-called Islamic leaders. But when the same doubters and skeptics approached the great personality of Islam and the Imam of the age – Hazrat Ali b. Abi Talib (a.s.) they got the requisite replies for their queries. This attracted the Jews and Christian scholars towards Islam and they realised that Islam was far superior to their own religions. They admitted to the prophethood of the Holy Prophet (s.a.w.a.) and the leadership of Hazrat Ali (a.s.). History of Islam is witness to the numerous debates that took place at the time of Hazrat Ali (a.s.), Imam Baqir (a.s.), Imam Jafar Sadiq (a.s.) and Imam Raza (a.s.). However, other Imams (a.s.) were equally active in defending Islam whenever the opportunity arose.

We shall now discuss about the appointment of the Imam after the Prophet (s.a.w.a.) – whether it was a matter left to the Muslims or whether it is the sole right of Allah to assign a guide for the people?

There are several proofs that highlight the fact that the Holy Prophet (s.a.w.a.) deemed the appointment of the Imam as a divine matter and often announced to the Muslims that his successor would be nominated by Allah Himself and they (Muslims) would have to accept His decision. He (s.a.w.a.) made it very clear at the very outset that the choice of his successor was neither in his own hands nor in the hands of the people, but it was the sole prerogative of Allah, the Almighty. At this juncture, we would like to present proofs from the historical books of the Ahle Sunnah.
During the pilgrimage season when Arab tribes from various regions had arrived in Mecca for Hajj, the Holy Prophet (s.a.w.a.) narrated and clarified the Islamic laws and explained the aim of his proclamation (Be’that). When the Prophet (s.a.w.a.) met the chiefs of ‘Bani Aamir’, one amongst them, behaving as if he supported the Holy Prophet (s.a.w.a.), remarked, ‘Allah has given you success and made you victorious over our enemies, then is it for us to manage and guide the Muslims after you?’ The Prophet (s.a.w.a.) replied,

‘The affair of caliphate is only with Allah’. (It is up to Him and He may appoint whomsoever He wishes). When the man heard this reply, he was very disturbed.

(Ref.: Tarikh-e-Tabari, vol. 2, Tarikh-e-Ibn-e-Athir, vol. 2, Sirat-e-Halabi, vol. 2, Sirat-e-Ibn-e-Hisham, vol. 2)

An unprejudiced and fair-minded person on witnessing this incident can only conclude that guidance and leadership after the Holy Prophet (s.a.w.a.) is Allah’s responsibility and not that of the Islamic nation. Another important point here is that the Prophet (s.a.w.a.) took great pains to outline the lawful and the unlawful and did not miss out even the abominable (Makroohat) and the recommended (Mustahabbaat) and explained all laws necessary for man from his birth to his death. Then how is it possible that the Prophet (s.a.w.a.) is silent regarding the appointment of a guide and does not outline any system for the nation to select his successor so that they may be delivered from deviation after him?

The answer is clear. The Prophet (s.a.w.a.) did not outline any system because appointing a leader was Allah’s responsibility and not that of the people. In the absence of any clear-cut instruction for the appointment of a leader, the Muslims resorted to some very strange and bizarre rules for the nomination of the caliph. First of all they ignored the fact that the appointment of a leader was Allah’s privilege and they took this privilege for themselves. The first caliph was appointed with the consent of a few insignificant people at Saqifa-e-Bani Sa’ada, which is narrated in detail later. However, they did not appoint the second caliph in the same manner, in fact the Muslims did not participate at all in his selection. The second caliph was appointed on the order of the first caliph who took this decision without consulting anyone.

When the second caliph was fatally wounded and death became a certainty for him, he quickly organised a council (Shura) of six people and gave them the right to appoint a caliph while the other Muslims were deprived of this right. In fact the constitution of the Shura ensured that the selection process was heavily skewed in favour of Uthman b. Affaan.

All these incidents underscore the fact that in the matter of appointment of a leader after the Holy Prophet (s.a.w.a.), there is no consensus among the Ahle Sunnah and we witness several divergent means that were employed to select the first three successors. This has led to a lot of confusion among the Ahle Sunnah itself regarding the successorship of the Holy Prophet (s.a.w.a.).

To put the issue of divine appointment beyond any doubt let us refer to the past prophets (a.s.) and their method of appointing a leader for their nations. We will examine the Quranic verses that deal with this issue and scrutinise the historical aspect in some detail, which will help us conclude that appointment of a successor in the previous nations was Allah’s responsibility and the people had no role to play in it. The past prophets (a.s.) did not allow the people to advance their opinion matter and even the people understood this very well.

The previous prophets (a.s.) used to entrust their responsibilities and plans to an appropriate person in their lifetime so as to sow the seed of training at an early stage so the tree of guidance always kept evolving. While it is true that these successors were prophets and messengers but they were also chiefs, guides and leaders. This leadership continued in the lineage of the prophets as an inheritance and the virtuous children of the prophets (a.s.) acquired leadership as an inheritance by Allah’s command.

Surely Allah chose Adam and Nuh and the descendants of Ibrahim and the descendants of Imran above the nations. (Aale Imran: 32)

On scrutinising the history of the past prophets (a.s.) in the matter of successorship, it is apparent that this appointment was in the form of an inheritance, or to put it more accurately it was in the form of a ‘will’ and was from Allah’s side, while the declaration was done by the prophets themselves.

The above discussion leads us to the conclusion that in the past also, the leadership of the nation was of a divine nature and the community did not play any role in it. Therefore, the leaders of Allah’s religion (Islam) should also be appointed by Allah Himself and not by the common Muslims. That is why one who claims that he is the leader of the Muslims while he is not appointed by Allah and the Prophet (s.a.w.a.) or the previous Imam has not informed about it, does not deserve this position, even if he has been elected by the people.

Allah Himself has appointed the successors (Imams) of the Holy Prophet (s.a.w.a.) in the Holy Quran. In these lessons we have tried to take benefit from the books of the Ahle Sunnat, so that the concept of Imamat is not deemed as a fabricated belief of the Shias. Moreover, after referring to these books the concept becomes very clear and the Muslims can accept it without any bias and prejudice. As there are too many verses in the Holy Quran dealing with Imamat, we have quoted only two verses over here, which should be sufficient. Allah declares:

Only Allah is your Vali and His Apostle and those who believe, those who keep up prayers and pay the poor-rate while they bow.
(Maidah:55)

The Shia and Ahle Sunnah mufassireen (exegesists) both agree that the above verse was revealed for Hazrat Ali b. Abi Talib (a.s.). The affirmation of both the Shia and Ahle Sunnah scholars puts this issue beyond doubt. There is a narration related to the above verse wherein Abuzar-e-Ghaffari states, ‘One day we were praying Namaz-e-Zohr with the Holy Prophet (s.a.w.a.) when a beggar sought some alms from the people, but nobody offered to help him. The beggar raised both his hands towards the sky and complained, ‘O Allah be a witness that I have come to Masjidun Nabawi but nobody has given me anything.’ At that time, Hazrat Ali (a.s.) was in the state of ruku (bowing), he pointed his finger, bearing a ring, towards the beggar. The beggar removed the ring from his finger and went away. The Holy Prophet (s.a.w.a.) on witnessing this incident lifted his head towards the sky and beseeched Allah: ‘O Allah, I am your Messenger, expand for me my breast and make my task easy for me and appoint Ali (a.s.) as my Vazir and strengthen my back through him’. Abuzar continues, ‘The Holy Prophet (s.a.w.a.) had not even completed his supplication when the above-mentioned verse of Sura-e- Maidah was revealed.

Dear readers! We have seen how evident is Allah’s appointment of Hazrat Ali (a.s.) in the Holy Quran. The narration of Abuzar-e-Ghaffari (r.a.) also highlights this. This narration is by no means fabricated by the Shias, for if it were so, the Ahle Sunnat would not have reported it in their exegesis and books of traditions. One who wants to study further in this regard can refer to the renowned Ahle Sunnat books outlined below. Lack of adequate space has compelled us to restrict the references to only a few books.
1) Tafsirul Kabir – Mafatihul Ghaib vol. 3 by Fakhre Razi
2) Tafsirul Kashshaaf vol. 1 by Jaarallah Zamakshari
3) Tafsirul Durrul Manthoor vol. 2 by Jalaaluddeen Suyuti
4) Yanabiul Mawaddah by Sulaiman Qunduzi Hanafi
5) Manaqib by Faqih Shaafei b. Magazali

The Ahle Sunnat references mentioned above will make it apparent to the readers that the appointment of the Prophet’s (s.a.w.a.) successor is a divinely ordained affair and the Muslims have no say in this matter. Moreover, Allah explicitly nominated Hazrat Ali b. Abi Talib (a.s.) as the Prophet’s (s.a.w.a.) successor, thereby refuting all other claimants to this position.

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