After the death of the founder of Islam and the emergence of a whole series of verbal disputes concerning the caliphate and succession to the Prophet, the question of the "holders of authority" (ulu 'l-amr) came to the fore as a controversial topic bound up with the various intellectual and political currents of the day. Naturally, the expression had not been foreign to the vocabulary and thoughts of the Muslims in the past; people had been acquainted with it since the very dawn of Islam and used it in their discourse.
We find, in fact, that when the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him and his family, began proclaiming his mission, messages would pass back and forth between him and the Meccan polytheists in which the word amr (authority) was used. Thus the polytheists and unbelievers who were enraged by the appearance of the new religion, sent the following message to the Messenger of God:
"O Muhammad, do not attack our idols and desist from affronting our objects of worship, for we are ready to submit to you in all you desire." When Abu Talib conveyed this message of the Quraysh to the Prophet, he replied: "If you were to place the sun in my right hand and the moon in my left, I will not abandon this amr. I cannot possibly agree; either God will make His religion triumph, or I will die engaged in this struggle.1"
After the people had finished swearing allegiance to Abu Bakr, Abu 'Ubaydah made this request to' 'Ali, peace be upon him: "Now abandon this amr to Abu Bakr."2
What is meant by amr in both these instances is nothing other than governance and rule.
The Noble Qur'an issues the following command to the Muslims, summoning them to obey the orders and instructions of God, the Messenger and the "holders of authority":
"O believers, obey the commands of God, the Messenger and the Holders of Authority. When you fall into disagreement concerning your affairs, refer to the commands of the Lord and His Messenger, if you believe in God and the Day of Judgement. This will be better for you than anything else you might imagine, and conducive to a far better outcome" (4:59).
This verse makes plain the true sources of authority in the various religious and social concerns confronting the Muslims. It first commands the believers to submit unreservedly and unconditionally to the commands of the Creator of the universe and all who inhabit it, for He bestows being on all phenomena and is their master and owner.
All forms of leadership must necessarily derive from His sacred being, and all forms of obedience must issue in obedience to Him. Obedience is necessitated and required by the Lord's attributes of ruler and creator, and since God is the origin of all legislation, the source of all commands and prohibitions, the role of the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him and his family, is in the first place the receipt of divine revelation and conveying to mankind what he is entrusted with conveying.
Next comes obedience to the Prophet who is God's representative among men, a prophet who is divinely protected against error and sin and who never speaks arbitrarily or out of mere fancy. In addition to the divine message and commands that he conveys, he has a specific set of plans and strategies for implementing the ordinances of God's religion.
The exercise of government requires the choice of a certain policy that will respond to the needs of society, a policy that in Islam was determined by the great leader of religion who perceived wherein lay the welfare of the ummah and issued commands that addressed themselves to current circumstances and were informed by an awareness of what leads to social equilibrium. This type of legislation was delegated to the Prophet by God and derived its efficacy and legitimacy from God, the ultimate master of all.
It is clear from the preceding that obedience to the Prophet, being the result of God's command, may also be regarded as a form of obedience to God, in just the same way that disobedience to him is in reality disobedience to God. This is set forth clearly in the following verse:
"Whoever obeys the Messenger has obeyed God." (4:80)
The conveyance of any decision taken by the Prophet is therefore equivalent to the promulgation of an order from God.
The third aspect of the Qur'anic injunction concerning obedience relates to the Holders of Authority, obedience to whom God has conjoined with obedience to Himself and Messenger. What is meant by the Holders of Authority are those persons to whom the ruling and governmental functions peculiar to the Prophet have been transferred, to whom the leadership of Islamic society has been entrusted by God and His Messenger, and who are the guardians of the religious and worldly affairs of the people.
They are empowered to issue, in the light of God's laws, commands and ordinances for the administration of society, and to oblige people to obey them. The necessity of obeying the wishes of the Holders of Authority is, then, categorical and beyond all doubt; it is only in establishing the criteria for identifying the Holders of Authority that there can be any room for discussion or disagreement
Now let us see what the Qur'an means by the Holders of Authority (ulu 'l-amr). Can the one who happens to head an Islamic government having seized power over society be regarded as one of the Holders of Authority, in the sense that people are obliged to obey anyone who assigns himself the right to rule, even if he spends his whole life sunken in the darkness of sin and the oblivion of ignorance; is utterly devoid of all spiritual brilliance; is utterly unaware of God's laws and commandments; sacrifices the rights of the people to his own tyranny and lusts; and promotes oppressors and the workers of corruption to positions of power, so that the cries of the oppressed are stifled and the overwhelming majority of Islamic society is imprisoned in the chains of humiliation?
If the expression Holders of Authority be interpreted in such a sense, it would be in stark contradiction with the parts of the verse that precede and follow it. For if the ruler issues a command at variance with God's laws, the first part of the verse affirms that those laws must necessarily be implemented and have priority over all else. Yet the verse proclaims too that the commands of the Holders of Authority are to be obeyed! It is obvious that the Qur'an cannot enjoin at the same two contradictory things, or both command and forbid the same thing simultaneously.
In addition, wisdom and intelligence cannot accept the notion that it is incumbent to submit to absolutely any ruler, even if he violates God's laws and attempts to banish them from society.
How can one believe that on the one hand God should have mobilized His prophets to implement divine law, establish justice, and propagate the essence of religion, even at the cost of their lives, and that on the other hand He should impose upon people the duty of obeying the wishes of rulers who not only do nothing to protect the ummah and advance its religious awareness but even wish to nullify all the strivings of the prophets, trample God's law under foot, and enthrone tyranny and oppression in society?
Can the happiness and salvation of society be attained by following such rulers? Can such a government enable the Muslims to attain power and dignity? Can one ascribe to God the illegitimate and foolish view that such rulers deserve obedience?
Of course it might be possible to restrict obedience to the Holder of Authority to those cases where his edicts conform to the criteria of divine law, making it obligatory for Muslims to oppose him whenever he acts in a sense contrary to it.
However, there are certain difficulties connected with this view of things that cannot be overlooked or ignored. It is plain that not all of the people can be acquainted in detail with God's laws so that as soon as they encounter some ruling contrary to religion they begin to oppose it Even if they do protest and take up an oppositional stance, to what degree can they count on success?
When the masses are not equipped with the requisite religious knowledge, how can they adopt the appropriate attitude to the decrees of the ruler, obeying them when they conform to the criteria of religion and opposing them whenever they clash with God's ordinances?
Furthermore, if we accept such a hypothesis, when obeying the decrees of the ruler that conform to divine law we are in reality obeying God's commands, not those of the ruler, so that obedience to the Holder of Authority ceases to be a distinct category of obedience.
Another consideration is that whenever a group or class perceives a law to be contrary to its own interests it will find an opening permitting it to violate or subvert the law in question or openly rebel against it The sense of obedience will then be noticeably weakened in the people, in the absence of any regulatory instance. As a result the very pillars of society will begin to tremble and order and discipline will ultimately vanish. Our interpretation of the verse cannot, therefore, be made to rest on this hypothesis either.
A further possibility is that the Holders of Authority referred to in the verse are leaders chosen by the people, rulers whose exercise of power is based on public opinion. The text of the verse does not indicate this in any way, for the verse specifies only that obedience to the Holders of Authority is necessary, while remaining silent on how those Holders of Authority are to emerge and take power. The objections that we have raised to the preceding interpretations also apply to this interpretation. Bearing in mind all the different problems to which we have drawn attention, we must lay aside all the interpretations reviewed thus far in our attempt to understand the expression Holders of Authority.
Only one way out of this dilemma remains, a single solution that places us on the straight path to attaining our goal. It consists of recognizing that it is God's prerogative to designate the ruler; He alone selects the one deserving of rule over the Islamic ummah, a person in whose exalted character the virtues of the Most Noble Messenger, peace and blessings be upon him and his family, and a profound connection to God are manifest, so that obedience to him becomes a natural corollary to obedience to God and the Messenger.
It is true, of course, that the Prophet of Islam set forth, in the course of his finite lifetime, the general principles of belief and of religious law, so that in this sense he perfected the religion of God. Those general principles are to serve as the foundation and basis for deriving the specific divine ordinances of which mankind will stand in need until the Day of Resurrection.
However, what was to be done after the death of the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him and his family? Did the people no longer need a religious authority to whom they might turn for solutions to their problems, in order to deal effectively, in the light of the Qur'an and the Sunnah, with newly occurring situations and circumstances that had not existed during the lifetime of the Prophet?
Thirteen years in the life of the Messenger of God were spent in struggle against the idolaters of Makkah who were loath that men desirous of truth should hear the liberating message of Islam. He did whatever he could to establish the truth of monotheism and refute idolatry, and he prepared men's minds to receive the rich culture of Islam. No opportunity remained for him to expound God's ordinances in detail, to set forth the norms and obligations of religion. That was left to be accomplished at another time.
Even while in Madinah, the Prophet was still not free of anxiety concerning Makkah. During the ten brief years of his life there he was confronted with a mass of problems and difficulties. Much of his time was absorbed in dealing with the plots of the Hypocrites and fighting battles against the Polytheists and the Jews, battles in which he participated no fewer than twenty two times. He had therefore little time left over to pursue his true mission, to prepare people for entry into Islamic society.
Was it not therefore necessary that after the death of the Prophet an outstanding personality should assume the task of preserving God' s ordinances from distortion and change and of further disseminating Islamic culture in all its branches in a form suited to the conditions of the age? Was there not a need for one whom God had preserved from all error and sin and whose very spirit and soul had been formed by the inhalation of divine light?
The Holders of Authority obedience to whom was categorically mandated by God as conjoint with obedience to Himself and the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him and his family, must in the very nature of things be free of all pollution by error and sin, since this lofty attribute also characterized the Prophet himself.
In other words, the rulers obedience to whom is of the same order as obedience to God and the Prophet are to be found exclusively in that house which God Himself had purified of all sin and to whom the Prophet had clearly referred in a number of utterances, proclaiming them superior to all others and enjoining the Muslims to love them, to follow them, and to be tied to them.
The deduction of the appropriate rulings for the countless situations that were to occur in later times, taking into account the verses of the Qur'an and the relatively few traditions that were transmitted from the Most Noble Messenger, was by no means an easy task, something that ordinary people could successfully undertake. Verses of the Qur'an that contain legal rulings and traditions of the Prophet concerning the permitted and the forbidden do not amount together to a total of more than seven hundred.
Taking this into consideration, who had the necessary qualifications of learning to deduce, from this relatively small number of texts, rulings for the constantly increasing problems of Islamic society? Could it be anyone other than someone directly instructed by God acquit himself of this grave responsibility?
Likewise, the elaboration of laws to address matters that change in accordance with temporally and spatially determined circumstances is also part of the responsibility of the Holders of Authority, for they have been given the power to promulgate the necessary ordinances at their own discretion. The fact that no explicit ruling for such matters is to be found in the Qur'an and the Sunnah should not be taken as a sign of deficiency in the shari'ah but on the contrary as an indication of the legislative potential and expansive logic that are to be found in religion.
In objection to all this, the verse proclaiming religion to have been perfected might be cited. However, it does not disprove our argument, for according to well known scholars of tradition, it was revealed on the Day of Ghadir after the appointment of the Commander of the Faithful, 'Ali, peace be upon him, as successor to the Prophet. If we examine carefully the situation prevailing at the time, we will see that the newly established religion of Islam was being threatened with attack by various enemies and the infliction of blows from various quarters.
For this reason, the aims of Islam could not be advanced without the presence of a divinely appointed authority, designated by the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him and his family, nor could its structure have been maintained in the fashion the Prophet himself desired. The need was met by the appointment of 'Ali as the leader and ruler of the Muslims.
Moreover, the verse concerning the perfection of religion does not imply that detailed divine ordinances dealing with all conceivable concerns have now attained a state of perfection. It is true that on the one hand the revelation of divine command came to an end with the death of God's Messenger, who had been instructed by the Creator in the essential and unchanging needs of man, so that in this sense legislation had been completed.
However, we see at the same time that many general ordinances are to be found neither in the Qur'an nor in the Sunnah, and the legal sources and juristic mechanism; available at the time were inadequate to provide an answer for all the new situations that were bound to occur, the reason for this being the temporally finite nature of the Prophet's mission. In addition, the successive difficulties with which the Prophet had to deal prevented him from fulfilling some of his basic tasks, so that he was unable to teach men everything he had learned.
Many of the Companions and contemporaries of the Prophet were in a state of constant dependence on him, and as long as they lived in his shade, they paid no attention to the need of mastering directly the ordinances and concepts of religion. Although they came to occupy important positions after the death of the Prophet, they were ignorant of many matters pertaining to worship, social transactions, and juridical procedure, in addition to which their grasp of political concerns and the problems of the age was weak.
Numerous traditions are to be found in Sunni books which show that the Companions lacked clear ideas concerning questions of inheritance, judgeship, and penalties.
The very logic of the prophetic message necessitated that the ummah should gradually become acquainted with religious guidance over a period longer than that which had elapsed before the death of the Prophet. He therefore entrusted the accumulation of laws and ordinances that he had received by way of revelation to his successor and legatee, the very depths of whose being had been permeated by Islam, and in a short time he inculcated in his spirit and heart knowledge of all the truths and teaching of Islam, thus preparing him for leadership.
He assigned to him the task of preserving the authentic culture and knowledge of Islam, for him to convey to the Muslim ummah after his death in a manner dictated by the circumstances of the age, and instructing society in its duties, based on his own extensive learning.
What we know of the life of the Prophet and of 'Ali informs us that the Prophet spent many hours alone with 'Ali, instructing him in what needed to be done and the difficulties that lay ahead. Whenever 'Ali asked him a question, he would help him and explain the teachings of religion to him.
So after the death of the great founder of Islam 'Ali was the only direct channel for gaining access to truth, freeing the ummah of the need to act in accordance with supposition, doubt, analogy, or arbitrary judgement.
Were these last two to have any place in the judicial and penal system of Islam, it would mean that the shari'ah itself is based on speculation and supposition, and any religion the ordinances of which are subject to doubt and hesitation cannot fail to be weak, unsound and unconvincing.
The ummah, then, is in no situation to assume itself the task of selecting a successor to the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him and his family, rather it is incumbent on him to convey the trust that he has received from God to one who is like him protected from sin and who does not fail for a single moment to protect the religion of God. Were it to be otherwise, personal opinions would take the place of divine commandments and the purpose of the Prophet's mission would be undermined, and God's ordinances would be laid aside.
History itself bears witness that the religious learning and culture of those who assumed the leadership after the death of the Prophet were not at a level that permitted them to answer the question of the day. The events that occurred proved that they were incapable of dealing with serious problems or issuing the requisite instructions. Their lack of religious knowledge caused the laws of God to be diverted from their true course and ordinances alien to Islam to be implemented.
Historians record that five men were once brought before the caliph accused of sexual transgressions. The caliph ordered them to be punished, each with a hundred lashes. The Imam 'Ali who was present objected as follows:
"A different penalty must be applied to each of the five. One is an unbeliever in tributary relation to the Islamic government; since he has violated the conditions of this relation, he must be put to death. The second is a married man; he must be stoned. The third is an unmarried youth; his punishment is to be whipped. The fourth is an unmarried slave whose punishment is half that of a free man. The fifth man is a lunatic, and he is not subject to any punishment."
A married woman pregnant with an illegitimate child was brought before 'Umar, and he commanded that she should be stoned. The Commander of the Faithful, 'Ali, peace be upon him, remarked: "Although the woman is a criminal from the point of view of the law, the child she is bearing is innocent, and it cannot be punished together with its mother," Thanks to this intervention on the part of 'Ali, the implementation of a verdict contrary to justice and religion was avoided.3
On another occasion, the caliph gave orders for a madwoman who had committed an unchaste act to be punished. However, Imam 'Ali considered this verdict also to run counter to the criteria of Islam and he proclaimed her innocent, basing himself on a tradition from the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him and his family, to the effect that three groups of people are free of legal accountability, one of them being the insane. This brought the matter to a close.4
Many Sunni authorities record that whenever 'Umar was unable to solve a problem until he consulted 'Ali, he would repeat to himself: "Were it not for 'Ali, 'Umar would be lost." Sometimes he would also say: "I seek protection against the occurrence of a problematic event without 'Ali being present"5
What we have cited here are but a few examples of the issuance of verdicts and judgements that had no connection to God's revelation.6
Can we assume that God permitted His laws to be violated on numerous occasions after the death of the Prophet and invalid judgements to supplant them? Or was it rather that in order to protect religion the reins of the ummah were intended to be placed in the hands of persons who were thoroughly acquainted with all the details of revealed law and had the duty of implementing it in Islamic society?
Once the duty of obeying the leader or ruler is made contingent on his possessing all the necessary attributes, no contradiction between the desires of the ruler and the commands of God and the Messenger on the other will occur, To interpret the verse on obedience in this fashion will solve all the problems we have reviewed above and free us from the need to resort to all kinds of improbable and untrustworthy notions.
The Qur'an, in fact, does not permit the grant of obedience to those who prefer their own arbitrary wishes to the commands of God, for it clearly proclaims:
"Do not follow those who have forgotten mention of Me and pursue their own fancies." (18:27)
It is self-evident that any command issued in contravention of what God has willed will lack all validity, and that no one has the right to legislate in a sense running contrary to God's law. Both intelligence and conscience dictate, as well as the numerous verses and traditions that relate to the matter, that people must submit only to the law of God and obey His commands exclusively.
The Commander of the Faithful, 'Ali, peace be upon him, said: "The only obedience incumbent on people is to the laws of God and the commandments of the Prophet of God, peace and blessings be upon him and his family! As for obedience to the Holders of Authority, this has been made incumbent because they are immune from sin and in the very nature of things they cannot issue an order that violates or runs counter to God's commands."7
Imam Muhammad al-Baqir, peace be upon him, said: "The Holders of Authority are the leaders of the ummah, from the progeny of 'Ali and Fatimah who shall remain in existence until the Day of Resurrection."8
One of the companions of Imam Ja'far al-Sadiq, peace be upon him, asked him: "Who are the Holders of Authority obedience to whom has been made obligatory by God?"
He answered: "They are 'Ali b. Abi Talib, Hasan, Husayn, 'Ali b. Husayn, Muhammad b. 'Ali, and Ja'far (i.e., himself).
Give thanks then to God that He has made your leaders known to you at a time when many people are engaged in denial."9
A Companion of the Messenger of God by the name of Jabir once asked him about the meaning of the verse dealing with obedience enquiring "who are the Holders of Authority obedience to whom has been made obligatory on us by God?"
He answered: "The first of them will be 'Ali b. Abi Talib. He will be followed by his sons, Hasan and Husayn; then by 'Ali b. Husayn; and then by Muhammad al-Baqir, whom you will live to see. When you go to meet him, give him my greetings. He will be followed in turn by Ja'far al-Sadiq, Musa al-Kazim, 'Ali ar-Ridha’, Muhammad al-Jawad, 'Ali al-Hadi, Hasan al- Askari, and finally the Expected One, the Promised Mahdi. These will be the leaders after me."10
One of the companions of Imam Ja'far al-Sadiq, peace be upon him, addressed him as follows: "Inform me of those pillars of Islam on the observance of which depends the acceptability of my deeds, and tell me too of those things ignorance of which will not harm me,"
He replied: "Bearing witness to the oneness of God; testifying to the prophethood and messengerhood of Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him and his family, and belief in that which he conveyed from God; adherence to financial obligations such as the payment of zakat; and allegiance to those to whom God has commanded it, that is, to the Family of the Prophet. For the Prophet himself said, 'Whoever leaves this world without knowing the Imam of his age will have died as people died during the Jahiliyyah,' and God commanded obedience to Himself, the Messenger, and the Holders of Authority."
"The first of the Holders of Authority was 'Ali, peace be upon him, followed in order by Hasan, Husayn, 'Ali b. Husayn, Muhammad b. 'Ali, and this line of authority still continue.
"A world that is devoid of an Imam cannot be set right, and to die without knowing the Imam is equivalent to dying the death of one who lived in the Jahiliyyah. More than at any other time, man needs to know his Imam during the last moments of his life; he will be guaranteed high station if he openly acknowledges his Imam at that time."11
The atrocities inflicted by the Umayyad and 'Abbasid caliphs on the Muslims in general and even on their leaders in religion were not few in number. They perverted the caliphate into an instrument of voice and immorality and plunged their hands into the blood of the innocent simply to shore up their unjust rule. Despite this, they called themselves Commanders of the Believers!
If God were to recognize the rule of these shameless criminals as legitimate and to impose obedience to them on the Muslims as a duty, what would become of justice, equity, and equality, of the rights of the individual and society?
Would this not make a mockery of the divine commandments that ensure the happiness of mankind in this world and the hereafter and promote its true advancement?
In addition to all the foregoing, it may be remarked that traditions reported by many great Sunni scholars also interpret the expression Holders of Authority as referring to the Imams from the House of the Prophet.12
The Noble Qur'an restricts authority over the Muslims to God, the Messenger, and to those who pay zakat while bowing down. Thus it says:
"Authority over you belongs to God and the Prophet and those believers who establish regular prayer and pay their zakat while bowing down" (5:55).
This verse refers to an occurrence that happened only once, for there is no general injunction in Islam that zakat must be paid while one is bowing; this is neither obligatory nor recommended, and we cannot assume that some people used to do it as a matter of practice.
The event in question is the following. A certain poor main entered the Prophet's Mosque while 'Ali, peace be upon him, was bowing in prayer. The beggar asked him for his help, and 'Ali stretched out his finger toward him, meaning that he should remove the ring and take it The beggar complied and left the mosque.13
At this point the angel of revelation came to the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him and his family, and revealed to him the verse we have just cited.
Sunnis and Shi's agree unanimously that the verse was revealed with reference to 'Ali and that he manifested the action that is mentioned in it 186 The verse then is a concise allusion to 'Ali. Although the verse uses a plural ("those believers who ... pay their zakat while bowing down") it refers to a single individual. While the reverse the use of a singular with the intention of a plural is not permissible in the Arabic language, the use of a plural with singular meaning is quite common and by no means restricted to this instance. For example, the Qur'an uses a plural to refer to Na'im b. Mas'ud al-Ashja'i, in 3:172 and to refer to 'Abdullah b. Ubayy in Surah al-Munafiqun, apart from other instances that might be cited.14
Considering the admission of Sunni scholars that this verse refers to 'Ali, no doubt can remain that the leader and ruler of the Muslims after the Prophet, peace and blessing be upon him and his family, was 'Ali, peace be upon him, for here his authority is conjoined with that of God and the Messenger.