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Shia Islam: Succession to the Prophet / 12

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Shafaqna – Shīʿa Islam: History and Doctrines / Ayatullāh Jaʿfar Subḥānī

Chapter 12: Succession to the Prophet

With the exclusion of the ʿAjārida sect of the Khawārij and Ḥatim al-ʿĀsamm of the Muʿtazila, all Muslims agree that after the Prophet there must be a leader manage the affairs of the Umma. They call this process ‘appointing a leader’ (naṣb al-Imam). The Imāmiyya hold that this must be done by God and His Messenger, while those who disagree with the Imāmiyya believe that the leader must be appointed by the selection of the Helpers and Emmigrants.

The common doctrine expressed by Shīʿa theologians that ‘God must choose a leader after the Prophet’s death’ has caused consternation among scholars of other schools, who consider this idea audacious as it appears to them as though these theologians are imposing their dictates upon God. However, the opponents understanding of this doctrine is far from what Shīʿa theologians actually mean, which is that, based on God’s positive attributes, namely that He is the All-Wise, Who does nothing in vain, and the All-Just, who to no one does wrong, it can be rationally concluded that God would appoint a leader for the Muslims. The ultimate goal of man’s creation is his moving toward perfection; this goal is only attainable through the divine-appointment of a qualified and worthy person who, similar to the Prophet, is endowed with divine knowledge.

We can illustrate this point through an example. Everyone knows the sum of the degree of all angles of a triangle must be equal to 180 degrees; the word ‘must’ does not connote any obligation upon the external world because the external world is not under the control of human being such that it must act and operate according to his will. Therefore, this statement merely represents the discovery of a mathematical law. By the same token, whenever the Imāmiyya say: ‘God must…’ they mean that based on God’s attributes of perfection – His Wisdom and Justice – the appointment of a leader by God is a necessary truth.

In accordance to what has been discussed, we consider the opinions of both schools:

The nature of the Imamate in Two Schools

The position of an Imam in the eyes of Sunnī Muslims is roughly equivalent to that of a prime minister or president in modern governments; he has a number of duties including providing security, fulfilling the fundamental needs of his people, waging war etc. Therefore, the election of such a person, since the leader is not supposed to be appointed by God, is not a problem. Today in Islamic nations leaders are appointed in this way.

In this way, Sunnism reduces the position of the Imam to a secular post. As a result, what matters most is efficiency, power, and courage, while ignorance about Islamic laws and principles, and even at times disobeying them, is not considered a determining factor.

On the other hand, according to the Imāmiyya, the institution of the Imamate is a continuation of the functions of the Prophet, although the age of prophecy and the Prophetic mission have come to an end. So the Imam should fill any vacuum left by the Prophet and also should fulfill both the material and spiritual needs of the nation. He must interpret the Qur’an, provide answers and explanations for new issues, and illustrate the primary and secondary principles of religion; his conduct and speech must be the yardstick of truth and the destroyer of falsehood, just as the Prophet’s own conduct and speech once were.

Yet this question arises: Is mankind capable of knowing and identifying such a person to elect him as the Imam independently of God? Certainly, the answer is no. The identification of such a person is only possible through Divine help and inspiration.

The Qur’an speaks of an exalted person who became Moses’ teacher. He, who has received Divine education, is described by God: ‘they found one of Our servants whom We had granted a mercy from Ourselves, and taught him a knowledge from Our own.’ (Q18:65)

This person was not a prophet but he was nevertheless exalted and elevated. The Imams, who are twelve individuals, without being God’s messengers and the receivers of revelation are all exalted and Divinely-educated individuals who, after the death of the Prophet, are able to continue fulfilling his functions and filling any vacuum left by the Prophet’s absence.

Does the Imam need to be just?

Occasionally, in Sunnī’s theological books we read: ‘the Imam who is appointed by the selection of the people cannot be removed for being corrupt or a wrongdoer, for financial corruption, torturing and killing the innocents, abolishing people’s rights, or violating the Divine Laws. No one is allowed to revolt against him; he is only to be advised and admonished. Moreover, people can only disobey him when he commands to sin.’

Sunnī scholars took this view of the Imam as a rule. A rule which emphasizes that, since the Imam is nothing more than a secular president or prime minister, he must always be obeyed and followed – he is not to be removed.

It should not be deemed that such view on the status and nature of the Imam only belongs to Abū Bakr Bāqillānī, who discussed it in his Tamhīd, but that the majority of the books written by Sunnī scholars hold the same view. Some of these books are listed below:

  1. Maqālāt al-Islāmiyyūn by Abū al-Ḥasan al-Ashʿarī (d. 324/936)
  2. Al-ʿAqāʾid al-Ṭaḥāwiyyah by Abū Jaʿfar al-Ṭaḥāwī (d. 321/933)
  3. Uṣūl al-Dīn by Muḥammad b. ʿAbd al-Karim Bazdūdī (d. 493/1099)
  4. ʿAqāʾid al-Naṣafī by Amr b. Muḥammad al-Nasafī (d. 573/1142)
  5. Sharḥ ʿAqāʾid al-Naṣṣafī by Saʿd al-Dīn al-Taftāzānī (d. 791/1390)

In all of the above books, the Imam’s indifference towards Islamic laws and principles is not considered a valid reason for his removal. Again, this is because the Sunnī concept of the Imam only treats him responsible for the material welfare of his subjects. Meanwhile, the Imāmiyya define the role and the reality of the Imamate in a very different way. Theey regard the Imam as the one who is able to fulfil the roles of the Prophet (s.a.w.a) in his absence, except for those of receiving prophetic revelation. According to the Imāmiyya, the Imam is supposed to continue fulfilling all the duties and functions of the Prophet. Moreover, they stress that the Imam must be infallible in order to protect the religion of Islm from distortions. Therefore the Imam, as described by the Imāmiyya, would never violate the laws or act against justice.

An Imam must be infallible

Among all Islamic schools of thought, the only school which believes in the infallibility of the Imam are the Imāmiyya. Shaykh al-Mufīd remarks: ‘Our Imams, like the Prophets, are infallible (maʿṣūm) and are protected from sin and error. Neither lapses nor negligence can affect them. In spite of this, they are still free to choose between good and evil and are not compelled to good.’ (Taṣḥīḥ al-Iʿtiqād, 61 ).

The clearest proof for the infallibility of the Imams lies in the concept of the Imamate itself. The successorship of the Imams to the Prophet is not limited to secular responsibilities regarding the material world; they are the Prophet’s successors in all of his duties and obligations, such as: the explaning the Divine Law, interpreting the Qur’an, addressing new issues, responding to the intellectual challenges of opponents, etc. The fulfillment of all these duties is possible only if the Imam is divinely guided.

The reality of the Imam’s infallibility is that he is endowed with qualities that enable him to comitting forbidden acts, slipping into error, and totally comply with his obligations. At the same time, he retains the freedom to sin should he choose to do so. In other words, the Imam reaches such a high level of virtue and wisdom that not only does he not commit any sins, he no longer desires to sin.

Infallibility (ʿiṣma) is not something invented by the Imāmiyya, but which is clearly illustrated by numerous verses of the Qur’an and traditions from the Prophet. We will discuss some of these now:

The Verse of Purification (Ayat al-Taṭhīr)

The Qur’an describes the Prophet’s Household (ahl al-bayt) as free from all kinds of impurity, including polytheism (shirk), hypocrisy (nifāq) and sinfulness (fisq). It says: Indeed Allah desires to repel all impurity from you, O People of the Household, and purify you with a thorough purification.’ (Q33:33)

In reported in numerous traditions that what it is meant by ‘People of the Household’ (ahl al-bayt) has been clearly defined. On one occasion the Prophet drew his cloak over ʿAlī, Fāṭima and their two sons, al-Ḥasan and al-Ḥusayn, and said: ‘O God! These are the People of my Household.’ (al-Durr al-Manthūr, 5/198–199; Ibn Athīr, Jāmiʿ al-Uṣūl, 10/103 )

Imam ʿAlī is the touchstone of Truth

The Prophet said: ‘ʿAlī is with the truth and the truth is with ʿAlī.’ (Tārīkh al-Baghdād, 14/321; Majmaʿ al-Zawāʾid, 7/236) and anyone who is described in such a way must certainly be infallible (ma‘sum).

The Tradition of Two Weighty Things (Ḥadīth al-Thaqalayn)

In a widely-reported tradition, the Prophet’s Household has been equated with the Qur’an. This means that just as the Qur’an is infallible, so too are they. The tradition reads: ‘I am leaving two weighty things (thaqalayn) amongst you: the Book of God and my Household, which, if you hold on to, you will never go astray’ (Aḥmad, Musnad, 2/114).

Obedience to ‘those vested with authority’ (ūlū al-amr)

The Qur’an bids people to obey God, His Prophet, and ‘those vested with authority among you’. Therefore, if unconditional obedience is due to ‘those vested with authority’ in the same manner as God and His Prophet, they must also have been presumed to be infallible. If this were not the case, the Qur’an would have mentioned the proper conditions of such obedience: ‘O you who have faith! Obey Allah and obey the Messenger and those vested with authority among you.’ (Q4:59)

In other words, the Islamic nation must obey God, the Prophet and those vested with authority. The infallibility of the first two is beyond question. As regards the third, however, God also orders us to obey them unquestioningly and does not make any stipulations, for instance, to obey them as long as they do not command you to commit sins. Consequently, upon God’s clear command to obey those vested with authority (ūlū al-amr), we understand that they are all infallible and protected from sinning or erring.

Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī was aware of this fact. He remarked: ‘Due to the fact that we are ordered to obey those vested with authority, they must be infallible and free from any wrong doing and sins.’ But then, he adds: ‘However, since we do not find such persons in society, the right person can be designated through the consensus of Muslims in each society.’

However, al-Fakhr al-Rāzī would have never interpreted the ‘those vested with authorited’ as being invested with it by the general consensus of the Muslims had he paid attention to the Qur’an and the Prophet’s tradition more closely. Since ʿAlī and the Prophet’s Household are as infallible as to the text of Qur’an, they are granted divine authority. It would be very strange to deem ‘those vested with authority’ as those chosen by the general consensus of the Muslim nation. Had that been thecase, the ruler and the ruled would be the same: the ummah on the one hand, becomes the ruler, and the ruled, on the other.

Imamate does not belong to the unjust

In Q2:124, God says: ‘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.”’

This verse raises two issues worthy of discussion: First, the distinction between Imamate and prophethood; and second, the fact that this Imamate does not extend to the unjust.

Regarding the first point: A careful analysis of the Qur’an reveals that God chose Abraham as a prophet, during which time he faced numerous trials and ordeals – for example, he was thrown headlong into a bonfire as a punishment for breaking the idols of his home city, he left his wife and child in the barren desert of Mecca and he obeyed God’s command to sacrifice his son. After all of this, God tells him: ‘I am making you the Imam of mankind.’

We know that these were the tests Abraham faced because elsewhere in the Qur’an, God says: ‘This was indeed a manifest test’ (Q37:106). This verse was revealed when Abraham had been ordered to sacrifice his son for God. Consequently, in the above-mentioned verse, the word ‘Imam’ cannot be taken as connoting prophethood, since at that time Abraham was already a prophet when he was ordered to sacrifice his son, and before being a prophet, he did not have any children. It was when Ishmael grew to maturity that Abraham’s test came. He passed this test and God then told him: ‘I am making you the Imam of mankind.’ This shows that Imamate in the Qur’an cannot be identical with prophethood.

Moreover, the concept of the Imamate has been explained in the following verses; it is the leadership of the society for the sake of implementing the Divine Law:

‘Or do they envy the people for what Allah has given them out of His grace? We have certainly given the progeny of Abraham the Book and wisdom, and We have given them a great sovereignty.’ (Q4:54)

Accordingly, God has given two things to Abraham’s progeny: First, ‘the Book’ (kitāb) and ‘Wisdom’ (ḥikma), which are signs of prophethood (nubuwaa), and its heart is the locus of the divine revelation and heavenly wisdom. Second, ‘great sovereignty’ (mulk ʿaẓīm) which connotes political power and the management of the society in order to make the implementation of the Divine Laws possible.We can see examples of Abraham’s progeny being granted this sovereignty in the Qur’an:

Joseph became the ruler of Egypt: ‘My Lord! You have granted me a share in the kingdom, and taught me the interpretation of dreams…’ (Q12:101)

About David, God says: ‘…and Allah gave him the kingdom and wisdom, and taught him whatever He liked.’ (Q2:251) And: ‘We made his kingdom firm and gave him wisdom and conclusive speech.’ (Q38:20)

Solomon asked God for a kingdom such as none after him would have: ‘…and grant me a kingdom that does not befit anyone except me. Indeed You are the All-munificent.’ (Q38:35)

These verses show that in Q2:124 Abraham had asked God to give his progeny the same as He had granted him. God accepts this request for his descendants who are not unjust, granting Joseph, David and Solomon amongst his descendents, sovereignty and leadership of the people. All three were both prophets and leaders. God gave prophethood to the Prophets but political authority amongst the Israelites belonged to Saul, as the Qur’an says:

‘Their prophet said to them, ‘Allah has appointed Saul as king for you.’ They said, ‘How can he have kingship over us, when we have a greater right to kingship than him, as he has not been given ample wealth?’ He said, ‘Indeed Allah has chosen him over you, and enhanced him vastly in knowledge and physique, and Allah gives His kingdom to whomever He wishes, and Allah is all-bounteous, all-knowing.’’ (Q2:247)

As for the second issue raised by Q2:124, who are the unjust (ẓālimīn) that God excludes from Imamate in this verse?

From the previous point, it became clear that when God granted Abraham the Imamate, Abraham asked Him to confer this upon his progeny (Abraham asks Him: ‘And from among my descendants?’), but God responds that this Imamate belongs only to those descendants who are not unjust (God replies: ‘My pledge does not extend to the unjust’).

The reason why God excludes wrongdoers is obvious when we consider the nature of an Imam; an Imam is someone to whom obedience is due, who is always upon the straight path, who never exceeds the bounds of moderation and protects people’s lives and properties and looks after the needs of society. By definition this excludes someone who breaks God’s covenant and violates the Divine Law, who cannot be trusted to fulfil his moral duties and responsibilities as such a person is inclined towards betrayal and tyranny. Hence a person who oppresses and sins is not qualified for the position of Imamate, even if he later repents and gives up such behaviour. Accordingly, the Imam must remain sinless and be free from error, injustice and wrongdoing throughout his life. Otherwise, he would fall within the category of the unjust and, accordingly, be excluded from God’s pledge in Q2:124.

Answering a question

Abū Bakr Aḥmad b. ʿAlī al-Rāzī, known as al-Jaṣṣāṣ (d. 370/981), was a prominent Ḥanafī theologian. In his Aḥkām al-Qurʾān, which is concerned with the Qur’an’s legal verses, interprets Q2:124 in the following manner:

‘“The unjust” who are excluded from the Imamate are those who persist in wrongdoing, rather than those who were previously wrongdoers but who have repented for their past actions. The point is that whenever a predicate is applied to a subject, the proposition remains true so long as the subject’s identity is unchanged, otherwise the predication is no longer valid. For instance, the proposition ‘wine is forbidden’ means that the intoxicant called wine is forbidden but when that wine turns into vinegar it is no longer forbidden. Consequently, the proposition ‘My pledge does not extend to the unjust’ (Q2:124) is similar to ‘and do not incline toward the wrongdoers’ (Q11:113). So as long as they wrong themselves or sin against God, you should not incline towards them. However, the moment they quit wrongdoing they are no longer wrongdoers and it is no longer forbidden to incline towards them. (Tafsīr Ayāt al-Aḥkām 1/72 )

Al-Jaṣṣāṣ makes some strong points, but he is not correct in all of his assertions here. There are two kinds of propositions; sometimes the proposition is valid so long as long as its subject exists in the external world. This means that when the subject transforms into something else, the proposition becomes invalid. So far, we agree. However, there are propositions which, if they can be applied to their subjects at any time, they remain valid for the subject so long as it exists. Take, for example, the following verses:

‘As for the thief, man or woman, cut off their hands…’ (Q5:38)

‘As for the fornicatress and the fornicator, strike each of them a hundred lashes…’ (Q24:2)

Clearly, a man and woman are only momentarily in the act of theft or fornication, but they are a ‘thief’ or a ‘fornicator’ indefinitely. As a result, if the crime of theft or fornication is proven, they must be punished whether they repent or not. Moreover, if they escape justice for a time, whenever they are caught, they shall be prosecuted, even if by the time they are apprehended they have become the most righteous person on earth!

There are traditions indicating someone who has been punished for a crime, even once, is not qualified for the Imamate or leadership over people, even if he repents for what he did. Now we must determine whether the unjust person who is excluded from the Imamate falls into the first or second category of predication. Does the predication only apply so long as the person is ‘unjust’ right now, or does it continue to apply indefinitely on the basis of a single instance?

In this regard, we can posit four possible scenarios for ‘the unjust’ person amongst Abraham’s descendants in Q2:124:

  1. They are unjust for their entire life
  2. They were righteous before becoming the Imam but became unjust afterwards
  3. They were unjust before becoming the Imam but became virtuous afterwards
  4. They are virtuous and upon the straight path for their entire life

When we consider these possibilities, the question arises: Which of the aforementioned groups did Abraham have in mind when he asked God to grant his progeny the same thing He had granted him? Surely, the first and second groups cannot be what he had in mind, since Abraham would not ask God to bestow the rank of Imam on a person who is either a transgressor for his whole life or will become after attaining the Imamate! Therefore, he must have meant one of the last two groups. However, the Qur’an emphasises the last group and invalidates the third. Both the Imamate and prophethood in Prophet (s.a.w.a) are such high positions that there should be no fault in the Imam’s life and personal conduct, so that all people can freely turn towards him and follow his guidance.


The Imam after the Prophet is the perfect follower of his example, and would fill any vacuum resulting from the Prophet’s death. Certainly, such a person must be endowed with Divine knowledge and infallibility.




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