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Chapter 1: Imamate in the Qur’anic Verse of Ibtila’

وَ إِذِ ابْتَلى إِبْراهِيمَ رَبُّهُ بِكَلِماتٍ فَأَتَمَّهُنَّ قالَ إِنِّي جاعِلُكَ لِلنَّاسِ إِماماً قالَ وَ مِنْ ذُرِّيَّتِي قالَ لا يَنالُ عَهْدِي الظَّالِمِينَ

And when his Lord tried Ibrahim with commands, he fulfilled them. He said: Surely I will make you an Imam for mankind. (Ibrahim) said: And of my offspring (will there be leaders)? He said, my covenant does not include the unjust. (2:124)

The verse illustrates two points:

1. The position of Imamate is higher in rank than that of Prophet Hood.

2. Imamate (religious leadership) does not include the unjust.

The following section is divided into three parts, each one focuses on one of the following topics:

1. The prominent status of Imamate

2. The (position of) Imamate does not include the unjust

3. The (status of) Imamate in the words of the Imams themselves

Part One: The Prominent Status of Imamate

The above mentioned Qur’anic verse refers to the tests to which Allah exposed the Prophet Ibrahim many years after his prophet hood at the end of his life. Having successfully passed the divine tests and patiently withstood the great hardships, he was granted the position of Imamate.

In order to elucidate the above Qur’anic words, it is necessary to explain some basic questions such as:

1. What relationship was there between the series of trying to which the Prophet Ibrahim was exposed and granting him the position of Imamate?

2. What are the kinds of test to which the verse refers?

3. Can one say that the Imamate bestowed on the Prophet Ibrahim is equal to his Prophetic mission?

4. What idea does the above–mentioned Imamate convey?

We will now go through the above questions one by one.

The Relationship between Trying and the Position of Imamate

Question: In the Qur’anic verse

And when his Lord tried Ibrahim by means (of certain) words, he fulfilled them. He said: Surely I will make you an Imam for mankind…,

The word “when” which is an adverb of time, requires an adjunct. The question is: What is its adjunct? The first supposition is that the word “when” requires the adjunct remember, which has not been stated explicitly. Thus, the verse reads

O Prophet! Remember the time when his Lord tried Ibrahim by means (of certain) words…

An assumption like this is open to criticisms, like:

1) This supposition entails deleting something or refraining from stating it explicitly which is contrary to basic rule (of rhetoric).

2) Without a conjunction “and” the clause “Surely I will make you an Imam for mankind, is separated from the previous one.

Apparently, the context of the clause “I will make you an Imamis not disconnected from the previous one but it is semantically and syntactically dependent on it. Since there is no conjunction “and” to join the two parts, it seems that when this part comes with the preceding part it forms a whole.

The relation between these two parts is an outcome of the dependence of “when” or “He said”. Thus the meaning will be like this: “When his Lord had tested Ibrahim, He said to him ‘I will make you an Imam’”.

Accordingly, tests prepared the ground for granting Imamate to Prophet Ibrahim. Another solid evidence is the Qur’anic verse wherein the relationship between the “patience” and “Imamate” of prophets is clearly explained:

And we made of them Imams to guide by our command for they were patient, and they were certain of our clear signs. (32:24)

The above verse mentions that it is due to the prophets’ “patience” and “certainty” that they were granted Imamate, and this clearly shows that there is a connection between the tests to which the Prophet Ibrahim was exposed and the rank of Imamate to which the stated verse refers.

Ibrahim’s Tests and Trials

What were the tests that made the Prophet Ibrahim worthy of holding the position of Imamate?
The Qur’anic verse states that Ibrahim was tested through “words”, and he brilliantly succeeded in the test. The words were apparently particular commands by means of which he was tested.

What the noble Qur’an means by “manifest trial1 which the Prophet Ibrahim faced in his life is his determination to offer his son as a sacrifice; an act which confirms Ibrahim’s boundless generosity and complete submission to Almighty God.

It should be noted here that the Prophet Ibrahim was put to test when he was very old, many years after he had been made a prophet and was given a son, Ismail, when aged.

Does Imamate to which this Qur’anic verse refers mean the same as Prophet Ibrahim’s prophethood?

Some commentators maintain that the Imamate given to the Prophet Ibrahim is identical to his divine mission and prophet hood but as previously stated Imamate is different from prophet hood for two reasons:

(a) The Qur’anic verse clearly states that this Imamate was granted to the Prophet Ibrahim after many trials, one of which is the offering of his son as a sacrifice, long after he had been made a prophet.

(b) The expression ja’iloka (I am assigning you) derived from the verb ja’l (make) is a present participle and its objective complement, imaman اماماً that has nunation (tanween) does not refer to the past it refers to the present or future.

Therefore, (contrary to the claim of some commentators,) the present participle “assigning” does not apply to the past and so it cannot indicate that the divine mission and prophet hood are the same as Imamate.

What does Imamate mean?

From the Qur’anic verse we learn that Imamate or religious leadership is different from nubuwwat (prophet hood). An Imam is a leader, definitely appointed by God, to be a guide and an example for people to follow in all aspects.

1. That the position of Imamate was granted to Ibrahim years after his being messenger and after he had successfully passed the great divine trials, clearly shows that Imamate is not on the same plane as prophet hood, but enjoys a higher status.

2. Now that Imamate has been proved to have a higher status than prophet hood, and according to immutable reasons a prophet must be divinely protected against any error and sin, it follows that inerrancy is inseparably linked to the position that is loftier than prophet hood.

Part Two: Imamate does not include the unjust

The stated Qur’anic verse points to the impeccability of Imams when it says

My covenant does not include the unjust

Thus signifying that the unjust must not hold this position.

When God, the Most High said,

I will make you an Imam for mankind

The Prophet Ibrahim (as) asked,

And of my offspring (will there be leaders)?”

God the Most High replied,

My covenant does not include the unjust.

So, this verse suggests the following points:

    a) Imamate is God’s covenant.

    b) This covenant does not include the unjust, and since a sin is considered injustice, a person who is not divinely protected commits sins.

The above verse clearly and irrefutably shows that a religious leader (Imam) must necessarily be immune from sins and errors when his Imamate begins.

Does this mean that those who previously were unjust can hold the position of Imamate? In other words, does the (Arabic) derivative zalim (unjust) concern the present, not the past so that it does not include those who were unjust in the past but those who are just now?

Does the Qur’anic verse suggest that the person who is unjust at the time of undertaking Imamate will be deprived of this position, but the person who was unjust in the past but is not unjust now, can become an imam, (a religious leader)?

In answer to the above assumption, let us consider two citations:

1. In his Qur’anic Exegesis of al–Meezan, Allamah Tabataba’i quotes the renowned scholar the late Haji Sheikh Mohammad al–Husain Isfahani as saying, Prophet Ibrahim’s offspring can be divided into four groups:

    a) Those who had been unjust before holding the position of Imamate;

    b) Those who had been just before holding the position of Imamate, and became unjust after their holding it.

    c) Those who had been unjust prior to holding the position of Imamate, but became just after holding it.

    d) Those who were just both before and after holding the position of Imamate.

Prophet Ibrahim, grand as his dignity is, never includes the first two groups in his inquiry. Therefore, his words “and of my offspring?” refer to the third and fourth group.

Then, the reply which he gets from God, the Most High, “My covenant does not include the unjust, excludes those in the third group who were unjust in the past and are just at the time of occupying the position of Imamate. Accordingly, only the fourth group of his progeny are worthy of Imamate.

2. In his Ma’jma’ al–Bayan, a Qur’anic exegesis, the late Tabarsi says:

“We agree that the term zalim (unjust) does not apply to the person who is not unjust at the present, but this word applies to the person who had previously been unjust at the moment of his exercising injustice. The above mentioned Qur’anic verse refers to such a person whom it considers not worthy of becoming Imam. The statement “does not include”, which is a negative present tense, testifies to this idea”.

It follows that a person who has sinned, though for a single moment throughout his life can never become an Imam because such a person was a sinner at that particular moment, and the noble Qur’an states, “My covenant does not include the unjust.

It is clear now that the Qur’anic verse emphasizes a twofold inerrancy of Imams, including the time of their holding the position of Imamate and throughout their lifetime. It is also clear that Imamate is a divine post set by the Almighty God, i.e. a divine gift given to those whom God considers worthy of it.

Part Three: The Status of Imamate in the Words of Imams

After we have investigated the Qua’anic verse, it is now befitting to go through a narration reported from Imam Ali ibn Musa al–Rida (as), the 8th Imam of the Shi’ah, in which he elucidates the reality of Imamate:

“Abdul Aziz ibn Muslim is quoted to have said, ‘On the first days of our arrival at Marv, we assembled in the presence of Imam al Rida, (as) in the great mosque of the city of Marv. Some started talking about Imamate and said that there had been different views over it.

So, I went to my master, Imam al–Rida (as), and informed him about people’s arguing about the subject. He smiled and said ‘O Abdul Aziz, these men do not know the reality and have been deviated from what they believe to be right.

‘God, the All–mighty did not raise his Prophet up (to Him) before He had perfected the religion for him ,sent on to him the Qur’an, which ‘clearly explains everything and delineatedthe lawful, the unlawful, hudood (penal law), divine precepts and all that people need, as he says

‘We have not neglected anything in the Book’. (6:38)

In the Farewell pilgrimage and towards the end of the Prophet’s life; God, revealed the verse:

‘This day have I perfected for you your religion and completed my favour on you and chosen for you Islam as a religion. (5:3)

Therefore, Imamate is indispensable to religion.

The Prophet did not leave this world before he had clarified to the Muslims the principal features of their religion, pointed out the true path and appointed ‘Ali (as) as their leader, leaving nothing of their problems unsettled.

So, those who suppose that God, the All–mighty has not perfected His religion reject the Book of Allah, and those who reject the Book are disbelievers. Do they know the significance of Imamate and its status in the community to allow themselves to embark on it?

Imamate is too great in worth, too lofty in status, too high in rank, too invincible in nature and too profound in depth for people to fathom it by their intellect or approach it through their thought or elect an Imam according to their will.

Imamate is a position for which God, the All–mighty, has singled out Ibrahim (as) after granting him the rank of prophet hood and taking him as a friend, a favour with which He has honoured him, as he said, I will make you an Imam for mankind. Then, God’s friend, Ibrahim, who was highly delighted asked, “and of my offspring?

God the All–mighty said, “My covenant does not include the unjust”. This Qur’anic verse has nullified the possibility of the unjust ones’ becoming imams until the Day of Resurrection and so Imamate has become a privileged position for the purified. God has honoured Ibrahim when He granted Imamated only to the selected and pure ones from among his offspring, as in the Qur’anic verse:

And We bestowed Isaac and (then) Jacob on him as an additional boon; each We made into honourable man. We made them leaders to guide (others) by Our command and We inspired them to perform good deeds, keep up prayer, and pay alms. They have been serving Us (alone)”. (21:72-3)

Imamate continued as a previledged position for his offspring over the ages until God, the Mighty and High donated it to the holy Prophet, and said,

Most surely the nearest of people to Ibrahim are those who followed him and this Prophet and those who believe and Allah is the guardian of the believers. (3:68)

Then, by God’s command, the Prophet (sa) placed Imamate in ‘Ali and in his chosen offspring, to whom God, the Mighty and High, has given knowledge and faith, as the Qur’an says,

And those who are given knowledge and faith will say: Certainly you tarried according to the ordinance of Allah till the day of resurrection. (30:56)

This position will remain in Ali’s (as) unerring offspring until the day of resurrection. How can these ignorant people designate an Imam? Imamate is a previledged position for the Prophets and a heritage for the Prophet’s trustees.

Imamate is God’s caliphate and a successor to the Prophet’s caliphate (saws) it is a previledged position of the Commander of the Faithful (saws), and the inheritance of al–Hasan (as) and al–Husain (as). Imamate is the reins of the religion, the Muslims’ order, the soundness of this life and the believers’ might. Imamate is the cornerstone of ever-growing Islam and its highest branch.

It is only through the Imam that prayers, alms, fasting, Hajj and holy war (jihad) can be accomplished; it is through Imam that the divine punishments and laws can be executed and frontiers safeguarded.

It is the Imam who proclaims lawful what God has made lawful and proclaims unlawful what God has made unlawful, defends God’s religion, and summons (people) to the way of Allah through wisdom, good advice and conclusive argument. The Imam is like the sun that lights up the world while it is high up in the sky neither hands can reach it nor eyes can perceive it.

The Imam is the bright moon, the illuminating beacon, the radiant light and the star that (safely) guides people in gathering darkness, (unknown) tracks of towns and deserts and swelling waves of sea. The Imam is like pure drinking water, rainy cloud, a falling rain, a bright sun, and a shading canopy, an expanse of land, a gushing spring, and a brook and a garden.

The Imam is a companion, a friend, a loving father, an equal brother, a kind mother, a shelter to the God–fearing at the time of greate distress. The Imam is Allah’s trustee for His creatures, His proof over His worshippers, His calipha in His land, the one who summons (people) to Allah and defends Allah’s sanctity.

The Imam is purified from sins and kept entirely free from defects, singled out as a man of (divine) knowledge and known for his endurance; hea source of the order of the religion, honour of Muslims, anger of hypocrites, and eradication of disbelievers.

The Imam is a peerless one of his time, whose dignity no one (else) can attain, whose merits are not acquired, but are granted to him by God, the Bestower who can (claim to) have known the Imam thoroughly, or to have the ability of electing him?

What an idea! Intellects are lost, visions are weary, the eminent are little, the sage had bewildered, orators have fallen short to give speech, poets have been togue-tied, men of literature have failed and the eloquent have not been able to describe a single feature or a single merit of the Imam, for the Imam is like a star, too distant for men to reach or for describers to describe.

Do you imagine that these attributes are found in other than the family of the Prophet (saws)? I swear by God that, their souls that have cheated them and their illusion has made dire them deviate (from reality).

They have taken a steep roadwhere their legs take them to degradation. They relyed on their defective minds in their conception of the (office of) Imamate, therefore they have gone astray and deviated (from the divine command) so mach so that they have too far from him,

“May Allah destroy them, how they are turned away” (9:30)

Having distanced themselves from the choices of God, His messenger and the Prophet’s Household, they followed their own inclinations, although the Qur’an addresses them as it states:

“And your Lord creates and chooses whom He pleases; to choose is not theirs”, (28:68)

And it behaves not a believing man and a believing woman that they should have any choice in their matter when Allah and His Apostle have decided a matter (33:36)

How do you judge? (10:35)

Or have you a book wherein you read? That you have surely therein what you choose? Or have you received from us an agreement confirmed by an oath extending to the day of resurrection that you shall surely have what you demand? Ask them which of them will vouch for that. Or do they have associates if they are truthful (73: 36-41)

Also, the Qur’an states:

Do they not then reflect on the Qur’an? Nay, on the hearts there are locks” (47:24)

…a seal is set on their hearts so they do not understand. (9:87)

…they said, we hear, but they did not obey. Surely the vilest of animals, in Allah’s sight, are the deaf, the dumb, who do not understand. And if Allah had known any good in them He would have made them hear, and if He makes them hear they would turn back while they withdraw. (8:21-23)

“They said; we hear and disobey. (2:93)

How can they ever venture to elect the Imam? he is one in whose sphere of knowledge ignorance has no place; he is a leader who knows no fear, nor does he retreat; he is the substance of divinity and sanctity, purity, , asceticism renunciation; knowledge and worshop of God.

He has been singled out in the Prophet’s supplications, he is a descendent of the Pure Fatimah, God’s peace be upon her; he is one whose lineage no one can question, he enjoys a unique honourable stition, he comes from the Quraysh and is the pinnacle of the Hashim clan, a descendant of the holy Prophet, may God’s peace and blessing be on him, and the object of God’s good pleasure the honour of the noble.

The offspring of Abd Monaf, praiseworthy who is known for his thrivingknowledge and endless forbearance, Fully competent in imamate and aware of politics, obeying him is in combenton Muslims, he upholds God’s command, offers counselling to god’s servants, and protects God’s religion.

Surely God gives success to prophets and Imams and grants them of his stored knowledge and wisdom, what he has not given to any, and so their knowledge is beyond that of the people of their time, as God has said,

Is He who guides to the truth more worthy to be followed, or he who himself does not go aright unless he is guided? What is the matter with you; how do you judge? (10:35)

Or, “and whoever is granted wisdom, is given a great good. (2:269)

Or, referring to saul he has said “Surely Allah has chosen him in preference to you, and has increased him abundantly in knowledge and physique; and Allah grants His kingdom to whom He pleases, and Allah is Ample–giving, Knowing. (2:247)

God, the Mighty and High address His Messenger when he says,

And Allah has revealed to you the Book and the wisdom, and He has taught you what you did not know; Allah’s grace to you is very great (4:113)

As regards the Imams from the Household of the Prophet, God, the Most High, has said,

Or do they envy the people for the greace that Allah has given them? We gave the people of Ibrahim the Book and the wisdom, and we gave them a grand kingdom. So some of them believed in him and some turned away from him; and hell is sufficient to burn” (4:54)

When God appoints someone to manage the affairs of His servants, He expands his breast for it, deposits fountainheads of wisdom gush in his heart, and inspires him with abundent knowledge that enables him to answer any question and not to deviate from the right path.

That is, the Imam is fully immune from sin and error, is singled out for this by God to be God’s proof over His servants,

This is Allah’s grace, He gives it to whom He pleases and Allah is Ample–giving, Knowing. (5:54)

Do people have the ability to elect such a person? Or does their candidate enjoy such qualities? I swear by the house of God that these people have transgressed the right they have been entitled to,

And they threw the Book of Allah behind their back as if they knew nothing” (2:101)

Whereas in the Book of Allah there is guidance and cure. They disregarded the Book of Allah and followed their own whims, and so God blamed them and despised them, as he says:

and who is more erring than he who follows his low desires without any guidance from Allah? Surely Allah does not guide the unjust people”, (28:50)

Or, “for them is destruction and He has made their deeds ineffective (47:8)

Or, “greatly hated is it by Allah and by those who believe. Thus does Allah set a seal over the heart of every proud, haughty one? (40:35)

“May God’s abundant peace and blessing be upon the Prophet Mohammad and his descendants”!2

  • 1. – Surah 37, verse 106
  • 2. – Usool al-Kafi, the translation of vol. 1, p. 283 (the original text: vol. 1, p. 198); Oyoon Akhbar al-Rida (p.b.u.h.), vol. 1, p. 216.

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