Date :Sunday, February 19th, 2017 | Time : 18:51 |ID: 42540 | Print

Shia Islam: The principal beliefs of Shīʿa / 11

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

Chapter 11: The principal beliefs of Shīʿa

A brief study of the history of religions and sects would reveal that all the sects of Islam were produced as the result of theological debates that took place in the first three centuries of Islam, and that there was no trace of these sects at the time of the Prophet.

  1. The Khawārij appeared as a political movement in the year 37/657, in the course of the Battle of Ṣiffīn when a group of people rejected the arbitration between Muʿāwiya and ʿAlī. However, they were among those people who pressed for negotiations in the first place. This political group, over the course of time developed into a religious sect and began to establish for itself a set of primary and secondary principles.
  2. The Murjiʾa were a group who believed that the profession of faith alone was sufficient to make one a Muslim, regardless of a person’s actions. This sect developed during first/seventh century, after ʿUthmān’s murder and ʿAlī’s accession to the Caliphate. (See Farhang-i ʿAqāʾid-i Islāmī, vol. 3).
  3. The Jahmiyya followed the ideas of Jahm b. Safwān, who was put to death in 128/746.
  4. The Muʿtazila were founded by Wāṣil b. ʿAtā, a pupil of Ḥasan al-Baṣrī. Wāṣil was born in 80/700, established Muʿtazila in 105/723 and died in 131/748.
  5. The Ashāʿira were founded by Abū al-Ḥasan al-Ashʿarī (260–324/874–936). For many years, he was an adherent of the Muʿtazila, but in 305/917, he abandoned them and became a follower of Aḥmad b. Ḥanbal. However, he made alterations into Ibn Ḥanbal’s school which resulted in a new set of doctrines and therefore a new school. His doctrines were later championed by Abū Bakr al-Bāqillānī, Ibn Fūrak and others and became popular amongst Sunnīs.

As well as the aforementioned sects, other schools were also produced through social and political upheavals in Islamic history. None of these schools originated in the time of the Prophet. It is only the Imāmiyya that has not developed out of later political or social movements; its basic principles are taken from the Qur’an, the Prophet’s Sunna, the teachings of the infallible Imams, and rational deductions. Moreover, Shīʿa theologians only derive their doctrines from the Qur’an and widely-transmitted (mutawātir) traditions; they never obtain these from solitary reports (akhbār āḥād).

There are two prominent tenets that distinguish the Shīʿa school:

  1. Loyalty (wilāya) to ʿAlī and his descendants.
  2. The supremacy of Divine Justice in both creation (takwīn) and legislation (tashrīʿ).

Before fully enumerating and explaining the tenets of Shīʿism, we shall study two documents, one coming from Imam al-Riḍā (a.s) and the other presented to Imam al-Hādī and confirmed by him.

Imam al-Riḍā’s letter to Maʾmūn

The Abbasid Caliph, Maʾmūn, wrote to Imam al-Riḍā asking him to explain the basic tenets of Islam to him. In response, the Imam wrote a short treatise. We will now highlight some sections of it:

‘Islam is to testify that there is no god but Allāh. He has no partner. He is the One, the Single, the Independent, the Self-Subsistent. Allāh is He who sees and hears all things. He is All-Powerful, Eternally Existent, Self-Sufficient, the All-Knowing whom ignorance cannot approach, the All-Powerful whom weakness cannot approach. He is the Independent, the All-Just who does no injustice. He is the Creator of all things. There is nothing like unto Him. He is the only end. He is the recipient of all prayers.

We testify that Muḥammad is God’s servant and prophet, whom He entrusted with His message and chose amongst all human beings. He is the foremost of the messengers sent by God and the Seal of the Prophets (khātam al-anbiyāʾ). There is no prophet after him and his religion will never be subject to change. All that the Prophet of Islam has brought is truth, manifest, and verified.

Besides having faith in the Prophet of Islam, we must believe that the previous prophets were all chosen by God and were His proofs for mankind.

We testify that the Qur’an is God’s true book, which no falsehood can approach; that it is sent by God, the All-Wise and All-Laudable.[1]

The Qur’an is the protector of the previous revealed books. The Qur’an from its first sūra until its last is veracious and consistent; we believe in its clear verses and in its allegorical ones, in its promise and threat, in the abrogating and the abrogated, in its tales and reports, and also we believe that no one can produce a sūra like it.

We believe that after the Prophet’s (s.a.w.a) death, the Proof of God (ḥujjat allāh) for the believers on earth, the one who is supposed to take control of and manage the Muslims’ affairs, and the speaking Qur’an is the brother, successor, legatee and ally of the Prophet, ʿAlī (a.s). ʿAlī was to the Prophet as Aaron was to Moses.

He is the Commander of the Faithful (amīr al-muʾminīn), the leader of the righteous, the guide for the upright, the greatest of the successors and the heir to the wisdom of the Prophets. After him, Ḥasan b. ʿAlī and Ḥusayn b. ʿAlī (a.s) are the leaders of the youths of Paradise; the next successors are as follows:

ʿAlī b. Ḥusayn Zayn al-ʿĀbidīn, Muḥammad b. ʿAlī al-Bāqir, Jaʿfar b. Muḥammad al-Sādiq, Mūsā b. Jaʿfar al-Kāẓim, ʿAlī b. Mūsā al-Riḍā, Muḥammad b. ʿAlī al-Jawād, ʿAlī b. Muḥammad al-Hādī, Ḥasan b. ʿAlī al-ʿAskarī, al-Ḥujjat b. al-Ḥasan al-Mahdī, the Awaited Qāʾim.

We testify that they are the Divine guides and successors, that world would never be empty of a guiding proof of God (ḥujjat), and that He has provided all people of all times with guiding proofs.

the Infallible Imams are the firm pillars raised by God, the leaders of guidance and the proof of God on earth until the Day of Judgment. Whoever defies them misleads himself and others, and has overlooked the truth and guidance.

They alone are the interpreters of Qur’an and the Prophet’s speech. Whoever dies without knowing them has died the death of ignorance.

Of the basic tenets of Islam are righteousness and the comprehension of religion, prayer (ṣalāt) and steadfastness in the path of religion, to honour trusts by returning them to their owners, whether they are virtuous or sinful, to prolong your prostrations in prayer, to fast, to abstain from sins and be vigilant, to patiently expect God’s relief (intiẓār al-faraj), to have a pleasant demeanour in bearing hardships, and displaying good conduct and nice manners with others.

In the same treatise, the Imam refers to a number of secondary principles of Islamic law, and also highlights the differences between the Imāmiyya and other schools. However, the discussion of these issues is beyond the scope of our present discussion. (ʿUyūn Akhbār al-Riḍā, 2/121–122)

ʿAbd al-ʿAẓīm al-Ḥasanī and his statement of beliefs for Imam al-Hādī

ʿAbd al-ʿAẓīm al-Ḥasanī, a descendant of Imam Ḥasan (a.s), was a companion of Imam al-Hādī (a.s) and the compiler of a book containing sermons of the Commander of the Faithful. Because of the threat of persecution by the Abbasid regime, he took refuge in the city of Rayy and maintained a low profile. He usually fasted during the days and spent his nights in worship. However, as time passed the Shīʿa of the city became acquainted with him and developed a relationship with him.

ʿAbd al-ʿAẓīm describes his meeting with Imam al-Hādī in the following manner:

‘When the Imam saw me, he said: “Welcome Abū al-Qāsim! You are indeed our friend and companion.” I was gladdened by the Imam’s kindness. Then I said: “I want to present my beliefs to you, if they are true and correct, you may confirm them so that I may maintain them and hasten to God’s meeting.”

Imam al-Hādī told me: ‘Relate them.’

I said: “I believe that there is only one Blessed and Supreme God. There is nothing like unto Him, and that His attributes are both beyond agnosticism (ibṭāl) and anthropomorphism (tashbīh).[2] God is neither body (jism) nor form (ṣūra) nor accident (ʿaraḍ) nor substance (jawhar); Rather He is the Creator of bodies, forms, accidents and substances. He is the Lord, Sovereign, Creator and Maker of all that is.

I testify that the Imams, Caliphs, and Possessors of Authority (walī al-amr) after ʿAlī are as follows: al-Ḥasan, al-Ḥusayn,ʿAlī b. al-Ḥusayn, Muḥammad b. ʿAlī, Jaʿfar b. Muḥammad, Mūsā b. Jaʿfar, ʿAlī b. Mūsā, Muḥammad b. ʿAlī, and you, Abū al-Ḥasan.”

Then, the Imam said: “After me, my son, Imam Ḥasan would succeed me. Now you tell me, what would people do with him?” I responded: “My master, what do you mean!” the Imam said: “He cannot be seen and shall not be named until God’s command he comes and will spread justice in the world as it is presently filled with injustice and oppression.”

I told the Imam: “I believe in what you have related. Moreover, I believe that their friends are God’s friends and that their enemies are God’s enemies; to obey them is to obey God, and to oppose them to oppose God. In addition, I believe that the Prophet’s Night Ascent (miʿrāj), the questioning in the grave, Heaven and Hell are all true and that the Day of Judgment is sure to come, and that the God of Mercy and Compassion will muster all those laying in their graves.”

Finally, I said: “The obligations and duties after loyalty (wilāya) to ʿAlī are: prayer (ṣalāt), alms (zakāt), fasting (sawm), pilgrimage (ḥajj), struggle (jihād), and enjoining good and forbidding evil (al-amr bi al-maʿrūf wa al-nahī ʿan al-munkar).”’

ʿAbd al-ʿAẓīm Ḥasanī continues: ‘After listening to my statements, Imam al-Hādī told me: ‘O Abū al-Qāsim! What you related is truly God’s religion sent for the people. You must remain firm and steadfast on this religion, so that God, both in this world and in the hereafter, will steady your feet. (al-Tawḥīd, chapter 18, tradition 17)

Doctrinal works of later scholars

In a similar vein to the aforementioned documents, classical Shīʿī scholars have also composed short treatises on the fundamental doctrines of Shīʿism. We will detail some of these below:

Shaykh al-Ṣadūq’s Iʿtiqādāt

Shaykh al-Ṣadūq (d. 381/991) has written a treatise on the doctrines of the Imāmiyya, which has been published numerous times and made the subject of numerous commentaries and annotations by later scholars. In it, he writes:

‘Know that our belief concerning tawhid is that Allah, exalted is He, is one (wāḥid) and absolutely unique (aḥad). There is naught like unto Him; He is Prior (qadīm); He never was non-existent and never will be; He is the Hearing and the Seeing One; the Omniscient (ʿalīm), the Wise; the Living, the Everlasting, the Mighty (ʿazīz), the Holy (quddūs), the Knowing One (ʿālim), the Powerful, the Self-Sufficient (ghanī).

He cannot be described by His Essence (jawhar); His Body (jism); His Form (ṣūra), or by His Accidental Qualities (ʿaraḍ)… He transcends all the attributes of His creatures; He is beyond both the limitations of agnosticism and anthropomorphism.

He is a Thing (shayʾ), but not like other things. He is Unique (aḥad), Self-Subsisting (samad), He begets not, lest He may be inherited; nor is He begotten, lest He may be associated (with others). There is nothing like unto Him; He has no equal (nidd) or opponent (ḍidd), compeer (shibh) or consort (ṣāḥibah). Nothing can be compared with Him (mithl); He has no rival (naẓīr), no partner (sharīk). Human eyes cannot behold Him; while He discerns (the power of) eyes. The thoughts of men cannot compass Him; while He is aware of them. ‘Slumber overtakes Him not, nor sleep.’ (Q2:255).

He is the Gracious (laṭīf) and All-Aware (khabīr), the Creator (khāliq) of all things. There is no deity (ilāh) other than Him; to Him belongs creation (khalq) and command (amr). Blessed is Allāh, the Lord of the worlds. And he who believes in tashbīh is a polytheist (mushrik).

And he who attributes to the Shīʿa beliefs other than those that have been stated concerning Divine Unity (tawḥīd) is a liar. And every report (khabar) contrary to what I have stated concerning tawḥīd is a fabrication. Every tradition which does not accord with the Book of God is void, and if it is to be found in the books of our scholars, it is a forgery.’

In order to differentiate between the Attributes of Essence and Attributes of Action, Ṣadūq defines a standard and then says: ‘In the actions of the people, between determinism (jabr) and delegation (tafwīd), we have taken the middle path.’

Finally, he deals with the concepts of predestination, human nature and free will, which are among the most important issues in theology.

About the Qur’an, he says:

‘Our belief is that the Qur’an, which Allah revealed to His Prophet Muhammad, is (the same as) the one between the two covers (daffatayn). And it is that which is in the hands of the people, and is not greater in extent than that. The number of suras as generally accepted is one hundred and fourteen. And according to us, al-Ḍuḥā (Sūra 93) and al-Inshirāʾ (Sūra 94) together form one sūra; and al-Fil (Sūra 105) and Quraysh (Sūra 106) together form a single sūra. And he who asserts that we say that it is greater in extent than this is a liar. (Ṣadūq, Iʿtiqādāt al-Imāmiyya).

Amongst later scholars who have commented on this work, the annotations of Shaykh al-Mufīd (a student of Ṣadūq’s) are among the most prominent. In his commentary, Shaykh al-Mufīd expressed disagreement with his teacher on a number of issues, criticising him for relying on solitary reports.

Ṣadūq’s Āmālī

The above treatise was written by Shaykh al-Ṣadūq himself. However, this one is a transcription of his lecture by a group who attended it on Friday 12th Sha‘ban 368/979, and requested that he explain the basic principles of Shīʿism to them. He began by defining the principles of the Imāmiyya:

  1. ‘The principles of the Imāmiyya are: to acknowledge that there is no God but Him, to avoid approaching Him through anthropomorphism, and to exalt Him from whatever attribution and qualities which do not befit Him; to testify to the legitimacy and rightfulness of God’s prophets, messengers, proofs on the earth, the angles, and scriptures. Moreover, to believe that Muḥammad is the foremost of the Prophets, he is higher than all the angels and that he is the Seal of the Prophets and that there will be no prophet after him. (Ṣadūq, Amālī, 509 – Session 93)

Murtaḍā’s Jamāl al-ʿIlm wa al-ʿAmal

As we mentioned previously, in the centuries following the advent of Islam, Shīʿa scholars followed the example of God’s authorities and began to write short treatises on the principles and doctrines of the Imāmiyya. We have already described two such treatises by Ṣadūq, now we refer to one written by Sharīf al-Murtaḍā (d. 436/1045). In it, he says:

  1. ‘All the bodies which are originated and preceded by non-existence, must naturally have a creator, since every new phenomenon is in need of a creator, like every artifice or written word…’

This treatise of Sharīf Murtaḍā discusses the doctrines of the Imāmiyya in more detail than that of Ṣadūq’s. This treatise also proposes a theory regarding the inimitability of the Qur’an, known as ‘Ṣarfah’ (the idea that the Qur’an was inimitable because God intervened to prevent anyone from imitating it), which later scholars did not approve of.

Ṭarāblusī’s Bayān ʿan Jumal Iʿtiqād Ahl al-Īmān

This work was written by Abū al-Fatḥ Karājakī al-Ṭarāblusī (d. 449/1057) following the model of his teacher, Sharīf al-Murtaḍā. He begins his book saying:

‘O my brother! God may bestow on you His Grace, and may help you with His blessings. You entreated me to compose a concise treatise on the basic doctrines of the Imāmiyya so that it may act as guidance for others and that you yourself may commit it to your memory and also give it to the followers of the Imāmiyya. I shall expound the basic tenets of Shīʿism in brief, without dealing with their reasons and justifications.’

Abū al-Fatḥ begins with Divine Unity (tawḥīd), and then moves to prophethood (nubuwwah), both in the general and special sense, the Imamate and Caliphate, until he reaches the doctrine of the Twelfth Imam. Finally, he ends the treatise by discussing the issues of repentance (tawba) and the Resurrection and then discussing some doctrines of the Muʿtazila (Kanz al-Fuʾād, 240–252).

Ṭūsī’s al-ʿAqāʾid al-Jaʿfariyya

Shaykh al-Ṭūsī (d. 460/1067) followed the approach of his forebears and wrote a treatise on the doctrines of the Imāmiyya, in which he summarized the whole idea of the book into five topics. This treatise has been published in Qāḍī b. al-Barrāj’s Jawahir al-Fiqh and also in Ṭūsī’s other work, al-Rasāʾil Al-ʿĀshr.


The discussion of these treatises sheds light on three issues:

Firstly, the content of theses treatises indicates that the Imāmiyya drew all of its laws and principles from the Qur’an, Sunna, and the Infallible Imams (a.s). Therefore, all of its principles are clear.

Secondly, even though in the treatises there are certain topics about which there are disagreements, the positions expressed on most of the major topics like God, His attributes and acts, prophethood and Imamate enjoy unanimity among the scholars of the Imāmiyya.

Thirdly, a deeper look upon the contents of these treatises shows that although the Imāmiyya disagreed with other Islamic sects on issues such as the Imamate and Caliphate, in many other areas there was broad agreement amongst the Muslims. This unanimity is reason enough to either overlook the differences or to peacefully discuss them.

Comparing the Imāmiyya to the Muʿtazila

The two most well-known theological sects within Sunnism are the Muʿtazila and Ashāʿira. However, traditionalists (alh al-ḥādīth) and the Ashāʿira do not consider the Muʿtazila within the fold of Sunnism. However, insofar as the Muʿtazila do not believe in the divine selection of the Imam, we regard this school as nominally Sunnī.

The Muʿtazila as a theological school was established in 105/723 by Wāṣil b. ʿAtā. He had previously been a follower of the school of Ḥasan al-Baṣrī, but he broke away and began attracting followers of his own. Wāṣil’s followers, due to their remarkable efforts against foreign heretical doctrines, began to attract attention. During the reign of the Abbasid Caliph, Mutawakkil (d. 240/861), the Muʿtazila lost its favoured position. The last prominent and distinguished figure of this school was Shaykh Maḥmūd Zamaskharī (d. 538/1144) whose Tafsīr al-Kashshāf revived interest in their doctrines.

After the death of its main figures, the teachings of the Muʿtazila were preserved in the Zaydī school of Shīʿism. The Zaydiyya of Yemen and other regions adopted the principles of this school, aside from its rejection of ʿAlī’s successorship to the Prophet. As well as the Zaydiyya, the Māturīdiyya in the East adopted many Muʿtazilite doctrines. The Māturīdiyya were intellectually closer to the rationalists than the traditionalists. However, from another angle, the Māturīdiyya and the Ashāʿira both belonged to Sunnīsm while being opposed to the traditionalist theologians.

Some of the doctrines of Muʿtazila, especially the impossibility of visibly seeing God in the Hereafter, have survived in the Ibāḍiyya sect. (For more on them, see the 3rd vol. of this series) Having briefly outlined the key differences between the Imāmiyya and Muʿtazila, we shall leave its full discussion for the future.


Islamic scholars unanimously believe that shafāʿa (intercession) is an authentic teaching of Islam, and that a sinner will be spared punishment due to the successful intercession of an intercessor. From this respect, intercession is only for those who have committed major sins; the Imāmiyya and Ashāʿira agree on this point. However, the Muʿtazila school holds that intercession is also available for the righteous, in the sense of elevating them to higher statuses in the Hereafter.

Punishment of a major sinner

According to the Imāmiyya and Ashāʿira, a person whose faith and belief in God is theoretically sound but commits a major sin out of his own desire is still a believer, but also a sinner (fāsiq). From the point of view of the Khawārij, he has become an unbeliever, while according to the Muʿtazila, he is neither a disbeliever nor a believer, but in an intermediate position.

Heaven and Hell

The Imāmiyya and Ashāʿira believe that Heaven and Hell have been created and exist now and that God is aware of their condition. However, the Muʿtazila believe that they are not yet created.

Enjoining good and forbidding evil

The majority of the Imāmiyya and all the Ashāʿira believe that enjoining good and forbidding evil is a religious rather than a rational obligation; if no proof in justification of this principle has been explicitly provided, that is only because it is not necessary to do so. This is because some of the Imāmiyya and a great number of the Muʿtazila believe that enjoining good and forbidding evil is a rational duty, and it is our faculty of reason which urges us to it.

How good deeds are invalidated by bad ones

The Imāmiyya and Ashāʿira believe that whatever a person does has its own value independent of other actions; therefore evil deeds cannot invalidate good ones and render them worthless. In other words, good deeds are only eliminated if the committed sin is polytheism (shirk) or disbelief (kufr). In this case, all the previous good deeds to turn to nothing. However, for the Muʿtazila the sphere of invalidation (iḥbāṭ) is wider. They believe that a person who has spent his or her whole life worshipping and obeying God, by virtue of a single lie could become like one who has not worshipped God at all, even for one moment.

The relationship between religion and reason

The Imāmiyya consider reason to be a tool to infer and extract secondary principles,without exaggerating its role or position. The Muʿtazila, on the other hand, use reason to reinterpret those external acts of the Sharīʿa and Sunna which do not conform to their own principles, such as the notion of intercession, which they interpret as a means to elevation in the Hereafter.


The Imāmiyya and Ashāʿira hold that God’s acceptance of repentance is a form of divine grace, as if it were not for God’s kindness, there could be no forgiveness of sins. On the other hand, the Muʿtazila believe that the promise of forgiveness from one’s sins is an essential rational precondition for repentance and turning away from sin.

The Prophets and Angels

The Imāmiyya believe that the Prophets are superior to the angels but the Muʿtazila believe the contrary.

Determinism versus free will

The Imāmiyya maintain that the human being is not subject to predestination and that whatever he does is the result of his own free choice. However, this does not mean that man is completely autonomous or that his actions exist independently of God either. However, the Muʿtazila believe man is autonomous and his actions are independent.

Mankind’s need for revelation

The Imāmiyya say that the human being, in order to fulfil their moral duties, is in need of divine guidance in the form of prophets, without whom he would go astray. On the other hand the Muʿtazila claim that human reason is capable of identifying a person’s moral duties independent of external guidance.

These are the differences between the Imāmiyya and Muʿtazila schools; it is to be noted that many of the Ashāʿira agree with the Imāmiyya on the aforementioned mentioned principles. Furthermore, insofar as these principles are mostly theological rather than doctrinal, it is not necessary for individual Muslims to affirm every last detail of them, and disagreements on these issues should not be a source of strife among the Muslims.

A comparison of the Imāmiyya with Ashāʿira

Abū al-Ḥasan al-ʿĀsh‘arī (d. 324/936) is the founder of the Ashʿarī school. For many years, he subscribed to the doctrines of the Muʿtazila, and was the pupil of one of the Muʿtazila’s greatest figures, Abū ʿAlī al-Jubāʾī. Then, in 305/917, he stood atop a pulpit, renounced his belief in the doctrines of the Muʿtazila and announced that he was turning to the school established by Aḥmad b. Ḥanbal (Ibn al-Nadīm, Fihrist, 271; Wafāyāt al-Aʿyān, 3/285 ). Even though Abūl al-Ḥasan declared himself as a convert to the doctrines of the traditionalists, he moderated many of their principles on the basis of reason. This was never accepted by the traditionalists and, as a result, the Ashāʿira appeared as a separate school, taking the middle path between the excessive rationalism of the Muʿtazila and the dogmatism of the traditionalists. However, in many cases it is in total disagreement with the Imāmiyya.

The points of disagreement between the Ashāʿira and Imāmiyya are as follows:

The relation of the Divine Attributes to the Divine Essence

According to the Imāmiyya, God’s attributes of essence (ṣifāt al-dhāt) like power, knowledge and life are identical with His essence and not additional to it. In other words, the essence enjoys a such a degree of perfection that it is knowledge, power, and life itself. The Ashāʿira consider God’s attributes of the essence to be additional to His essence, but still coeternal with it. As a result, in addition to God’s essence which is eternal, the Ashāʿira posit seven other eternal entities.

The revealed attributes

Revealed attributes (ṣifāt khabariyya) are those attributes which the Qur’an and Sunna ascribe to God, which we could not otherwise know or rationally ascribe to Him ourselves, for example God having a face or a hand.

The Imāmiyya believe that the literal sense of these words must be distinguish from the sense in which God intends them. Therefore, for example, whenever the Qur’an says: ‘…the Hand of Allāh is over their hands,’ the literal sense of this is that God has a hand which is above their hands; however, further reflection suggest that the phrase is meant to signify that God’s power is greater than theirs.

When it is said that the revealed attributes must be interpreted (ta’wil), this does not mean that the resultant interpretation is in conflict with the apparent one. In this method, the ultimate goal is to arrive at God’s intended meaning through the act of interpretation.

Human agency and human deeds

The Imāmiyya hold that the human being is the real immediate cause of his acts; he is the one who eats, fasts and prays. However, whatever he does is accomplished with the help of the Divine Power. The Ashāʿira, on the other hand, believe that in God is the cause of the human being’s acts, and man is where God’s actions are projected. In other words, whenever man wills and intends to do something, before his will turns into action, it is the Divine power which produces the action.

The above doctrine appears very close to determinism, so Ashʿarī, in order to escape this charge, added a new term which has produced much ambiguity. He claims: ‘God is the cause and creator of man’s actions and man only ‘acquires’ them. However, the meaning of ‘acquisition’ (kasb) as opposed to creation in human actions is not clear. By the same token, Ashʿarī’s doctrine of acquisition has been called as one of the three unsolvable riddles of the world.


The relationship between ability and action

The human being’s ability to act is sometimes concomitant the act itself and sometimes precedes it. If the ability to act is by itself a sufficient cause for an action to occur, it must evidently be concomitant with the act, while if it refers to a contributing cause, then it precedes the action.

God is beyond human sight

According to the Imāmiyya, the Sacred Essence of God both in this world and in the Hereafter is beyond man’s perception. Meanwhile, the Ashāʿira believe that man would be capable of perceiving God’s Essence in the Hereafter. For the Validity of their claim they refer to a tradition cited in Ṣaḥīḥ Bukhārī.

God’s word is His action

Speech (takallum) is undeniably an attribute of God. For the Imāmiyya, speaking is included with God’s attribute of the Creator. They argue that since all the creatures, through their creation, are making manifest the Power and Beauty of their creator. As Imam ʿAlī says in Nahj al-Balāgha: ‘His speech is an act of His creation. (Sermon 186). But the Ashāʿira considers speech to be one of God’s attributes of essence rather than of action, and justify it by saying that He speaks to Himself.

Good and evil are rational

The rationality of good and evil is amongst the most basic principles of the Imāmiyya. It means that when you observe an action, irrespective of the doer, you understands that action to be innately good or evil. In other words, when a person witnesses an instance of justice and an instance of injustice, immediately he understands the goodness and rightness of the first and the immorality and incorrectness of the second. This kind of judgment and evaluation is not contextual or fluid. Our intellect tells us that we should respond to kindness with kindness and keep our promises, because these are pleasant and beautiful acts. In its judgement, the intellect only considers the act and it pays no attention to the doer or external factors. The Ashāʿira do not believe in this principle; they believe that good and evil can only be known through revelation.

It should be reminded that the rejection of this principle makes all the other religious principles, save the existence of the Creator, impossible to know.

In the above seven points, the Imāmiyya disagree completely with the Ashāʿira and partially agree with the Muʿtazila. A detailed study of these points of conflict and accord demonstrates that Shīʿism is an independent school, with its own individual doctrines and tenets.

Studying the works of theology written between the time of Fazl b. Shazan (d. 260/874) and Shaykh al-Ṭūsī (460/1068) reveals that the Imāmiyya theologians have relied exclusively upon the Qur’an, Sunna, and the traditions of Household (a.s) in constructing their doctrines, and never drawn upon any other resources. The reader can find out this point him/herself by studying the following books, which have been written during Shaykh al-Ṭūsī’s lifetime or after his death:

  1. Taqrīb al-Maʿārif by Abū al-Ṣalaḥ al-Ḥalabī (d. 447/1084)
  2. al-Munqidh min al-Taqlīd by Sayyid al-Dīn al-Ḥimsi (d. 600/1204)
  3. Taqrīb al- Maʿārif by Ibn Maytham Al-Baḥrānī (d. 589/1193)
  4. Many of ʿAllāma al-Ḥillī’s books on doctrines and theology are filled with argumentations derived from Qur’anic verses, traditions and rational discussions.

It is also worth noting that the following two books by Sharīf al-Murtaḍā mostly revolve around rational argumentations:

  1. al-Shāfī fī al-Imāma (a critique of part of Qādī ʿAbd al-Jabbār’s work, al-Mughnī)
  2. al-Dhakhīra

The Imāmiyya have paid special attention to the study of theology, as is evident from the numerous books they have produced in a variety of languages and subjects.

Fortunately, most of the theologians and theological writings of the Imāmiyya have been catalogued and published in a five-volume set by the Imam al-Ṣādiq Institute, Qom.

In spite of the differences between the Imāmiyya, Muʿtazila, and Ashāʿira, there is a vast common ground between them that paves the way for the Muslims to live in unity and to listen to the Qur’an’s call for unity: ‘The believers are indeed brothers…’ (Q49:10).

Since some of the foundational principles as to which the Imāmiyya disagrees with others are not yet fully clarified, we will discuss them in detail now in order to remove any ambiguities or misconceptions that others might have about them.



[1] ‘Falsehood cannot approach it, from before it nor from behind it, a [gradually] sent down [revelation] from One all-wise, all-laudable.’ (Q41:42)

[2] Ibṭāl means rejecting the actuality of God’s attributes of the essence and of action. Tashbīh means taking the meanings of the attributes literally, for example, to say that God has real hands, eyes or a face.

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