Among Shi’a the term “Imam” traditionally has been used only for Ali and his eleven descendants. We (Shi’a) believe that the Imamate is one of the fundamentals of Islam (usul ad-din), and that man’s faith can never be complete without belief in it.
It is wrong to imitate our fathers, family or teachers in this matter, even if we respect them, for it is just as necessary rationally to consider the Imamate as it is to consider tawhid (Unity of Allah) and nubuwwah (Prophethood). If a man does not believe in it, and supposes that it is not a fundamental of Islam, he should, nevertheless, examine the concept of the Imamate, if only to absolve himself of responsibility in this matter. The reason for this consideration is that, since we do not receive commands concerning our religious duties directly from Allah, we must refer in this matter to someone in whom we can trust, by following whom we may be sure that we will not be held responsible by Allah for having committed errors. According to our belief, the members of the Household of the Prophet fulfill such requirements.
We believe that, just as it is necessary for Allah to send someone as a prophet, so it is also necessary for Him to appoint an Imam. It is necessary that at all times there should be an Imam to represent the prophet, and that he should perform the duties of the prophet, such as guiding the people, and showing them the way of goodness and prosperity in this world and the next. He ought also to hold the highest position as a public authority in all aspects of people’s lives, so that he may cause Justice to increase among them and eliminate enmity and oppression from between them. The Imamate is therefore a continuation of the prophethood, and the reasoning which proves the former’s necessity is the same as that which proves the latter’s.
It is for this reason that we may say that the appointment of someone as Imam can only be accomplished by the Will of Allah through the Prophet or through the previous Imam. People cannot choose someone as an Imam because they have no authority to do so, and, should they seek to depose him: “He who dies without knowing the Imam of his time, it is as if he dies in jahiliyyyah (the time of ignorance)”. It will be seen from the above that it is impossible for there to be a time without an Imam appointed by Allah, and that it makes no difference if human beings deny him or not, help him or not, obey him or not, or if he is absent from people’s sight. Just as the Prophet was absent from people in the cave and in the mountain pass, so is it possible for the Imam to be absent. It also makes no difference, logically, if the absence is long or short.
Allah has said: And there is a guide for every people. (13;7)
And: And there is not a people but a warner has gone among them. (35;24)
Doctrine of the Infallibility of the Imam
We believe that, like the prophet, an Imam must be infallible, that is to say incapable of making errors or doing wrong, either inwardly or outwardly, from his birth to his death, either intentionally or unintentionally, because the Imams are the preservers of Islam and it is under their protection. Their position in regard to Islam is the same as the Prophet’s, and the reasoning which necessitates their infallibility is the same as that which necessitates the Prophet’s infallibility, and there is no difference between them in these matters.
An Arabic verse says:
“For Allah it is not impossible:
to unite all the world in one person.”
Doctrine of Obedience to the Imams
We believe that the Imams have authority, and that Allah has ordered people to obey them. They are witnesses for mankind, doors opening the way of Allah, guides to Him, guardians of His knowledge, interpreters of His revelation, pillars of His Unity, and custodians of His Wisdom. They are the cause of peace among the inhabitants of the earth, just as the stars are for the heavens. And so the prophet said:
My household is like the ark of Nuh; whosoever embarks upon it will be saved, and whosoever turns away from it will be drowned.
In accordance with the Qur’an, the Imams are: Honoured servants . They do not precede Him in speech and (only) according to His commandment do they act. (21;26-27)
those whom he has kept away from uncleanness and cleansed with a thorough cleansing.
We believe that their orders and prohibitions are Allah’s orders and prohibitions, that obedience and disobedience to them, friendship or enmity towards them, are all the same as if towards Allah. It is a sin to deny them, for everyone who denies them in fact denies the Messenger, and that is the same as denying Allah.
It is incumbent on all people to submit themselves to the Imams, to follow their commandments and to obey their sayings. So we believe that all commandments must be learned from their pure teachings, and that if one refers to another person concerning a commandment of the din, one will not be cleared of responsibility towards Allah and will not be sure that he has correctly performed his duty. Like the ark of Nuh, everyone who goes on board is saved, but those who remain behind are drowned in the stormy sea of doubt, wandering, pretension and strife. We do not seek at this time to prove that they were the legal khulqfa’ and that they possessed Divine authority, because this is not the place to do so, and discussing this question cannot bring back times gone by, nor restore things to their rightful owners. We only mean to show that we are obliged to refer to them to obtain the Divine commandments and to find out what the prophet truly said.
The path of those who were not educated by the Imams, or whose minds are not enlightened by knowledge of the Imams is in deviation from the straight path of Islam, and such a person will never be sure that he is free from the obligations and necessary duties that were revealed by Allah; for, granted that there are differences in opinion between Muslim groups as regards the commandments of the din, and that there is no hope that they will agree with each other in their opinions, one cannot just follow them blindly. It is necessary to consider each one until one gains positive assurance of the truth from one of them and is sure that he is doing what Allah commanded him to do. For if one is under an obligation, one must clear oneself of that obligation with certainty through rational means.
Clear reasoning thus obliges one to refer to the Household of the Prophet. We must refer to them concerning Islamic doctrine and legislation as they were revealed to the Prophet. The Prophet said:
I leave two great and precious things among you: the Book of Allah and my Household. If you keep hold of both of them, you will never go astray after me. One of them is greater than the other.
The Book of Allah is like a rope hanging from heaven to earth, and the other is my Family and Household. Remember, these two will never be separated from each other until they encounter me at Kawthar (in paradise).
This tradition is narrated by Sunni and Shi’a traditionalists alike. If you consider it carefully, you will be amazed and convinced by its good sense and by its excellent expression, because at first it says “if you keep hold of both of them, you will never go astray after me”. What the Prophet left among us were two worthy things; together he considered them to be one, and he did not say that one need only hold on to one of them, but that one should hold on to both of them so as not to be misled. He explained the reason in the next phrase very clearly.
“these two will never be separated from each other until they encounter me at Kawthar”. So, if a man separates them and takes hold of only one of them, he will never be rightly guided. So they are the ship of Nuh, and peace for the inhabitants of the earth. All those who do not take refuge with them will be drowned in the depths of perdition.
It is not correct to say that the meaning of this tradition is that it is necessary merely to love the Household of the Prophet, without following and obeying them; no-one can apply this interpretation unless he be a fanatic or totally ignorant, because this is an incorrect interpretation of the Arabic sentence.
Our Belief in the Imams
We do not exaggerate about the Imams as some sects have done:
A grievous word it is that comes out of their mouths. (18;5)
but we believe that they are human beings like ourselves, i.e. that if they do good they are rewarded and if they commit sin they are punished. Indeed, they are honoured servants and Allah has given them great dignity and authority, for they have the highest perfections, namely knowledge, goodness, bravery, generosity, chastity and every virtue and worthy quality. Nobody can equal them as far as morality is concerned. Thus, they deserve to be Imams; guides and authorities after the Prophet in those matters in which people require help: religious commandments (ahkam), judgement (hukm), legislation (tashri’), and the commentary (tafsir) and interpretation (ta’wil) of the Qur’an.
Imam Ja’far Sadiq said: Whatsoever is reported about us, if it is possible for one of mankind and you do not understand or comprehend it, do not deny it, but you can attribute it to us. However, if it is impossible for anyone of mankind, then deny it, and do not attribute it to us.
The Imamate must be from Allah
We believe that the Imamate, like the Prophethood, must be an appointment from Allah, through His Messenger, or an appointed Imam. From this point of view, the Imamate is the same as the Prophet hood.
It is wrong for people to dispute against him whom Allah has sent as a guide and leader for all people, for they cannot elect him. One who is able to bear the responsibilities of the Imam of the people and the guide of mankind can only be recognised and appointed by Allah. We believe that the Prophet declared who was to come after him (his khalifah), and that he appointed his cousin ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib as the Commander of the Faithful (Amir al-mu’minin), guardian Of the revelation and Imam for the people on several occasions. The Prophet obliged everyone to take an oath to agree to ‘Ali’s succession on the day of Ghadir, and he said at that time:
O faithful! for whomsoever I am his master (mawla) and the authority whom he obeys, ‘Ali will be his master. O Allah! be friendly towards the friends of ‘Ali; help those who help him, and hinder those who hinder him, and may the Truth always be with him.
The first place in which the Prophet declared the Imamate was when he had gathered his close relatives and kinsfolk and said to them: He (‘Ali) is my brother, inheritor (wasi) and vicegerent (khalifah).
You must listen to him and obey him.
At the time the Prophet said this, ‘Ali had not yet come of age.
The Prophet spoke many times on this matter:
O ‘Ali! your place in relation to me is the same as that of Harun in relation to Musa; except that there will be no prophet after me. Other traditions indicate that ‘Ali had guardianship over the people, as do the verses in the Qur’an such as:
Your friend is only Allah and His Messenger, and the believers who perform the prayer and pay the alms while they do ruku’. (5;55)
The last part of this verse was revealed about ‘Ali who gave his ring to a beggar while doing ruku’ in prayer. Naturally we are not able, in a book such as this, to q uote all such traditions and verses, and to consider them.
Imam ‘Ali publicly declared the Imamate of Hasan and Husayn, and the latter declared the Imamate of his son ‘Ali Zayn al-‘Abidin, and similarly each Imam was appointed by the previous one.