There are in fact recent Imamic phenomena in Christian Protestantism. Two examples are found in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and a Seventh-day Church of God group. The organisation by a council of twelve reveals an awareness, however dim, of Biblical Imamic principles. Sadly, the imposition of such an organisation does not guarantee divine authority. It merely imitates it. We must find the true continuity of Biblical Imamic authority within a few centuries after Jesus. A gap of nearly two thousand years is not acceptable.
Muhammad appeared as a prophet of God at the right time. As did all prophets, he condemned idolatry and polytheism. His mission in terms of the Imamate was timely. First of all, he warned the Jews for their rejection of the claims of Jesus. He condemned them for rejecting the Imamate. Secondly, and this was the most timely of all, he attacked the Christian corruption of the Imamate.
Although the Imamate was already misunderstood by many Christians in the first century, the replacement of the Imamate by the doctrine of the trinity and Episcopal authority did not become complete until shortly before the coming of Muhammad. Muhammad condemned the Christians' paradoxical rejection of Jesus' Imamic role and their raising him to the status of God.
When Muhammad appointed his cousin and son-in-law Ali ibn Abi Taleb as his Imamic successor, he inaugurated a line of twelve authoritative figures. All of these claimed Imamic authority. It is our purpose at this point to summarise the Biblical aspects of the Imamate which are reproduced among these twelve divine proofs.
The following characteristics arise from the Bible account. The Imam is first of all a witness to the unity of God and its clearest exponent. He applies the law of God authoritatively to situations not clearly covered by the verbal revelation. Such situations include the difficult areas of purity but may extend to other applications of the law, even to the case of verdicts on concealment or taqiyya. The factor of diplomacy is balanced by the factor of deliverance. At times the Imam is called upon to lead people out of oppression into freedom. The Imamate is related to series of twelve. The experience of occultation, at first only tenuously related to the Imamate, appears full-fledged in the Imamic experience of Jesus. With David the necessity of continued and strong loyalty to the Imam appears. The Biblical Imamate is summed up as living proof of divine guidance.
An examination of the lives and teachings of the twelve holy Imams from Imam Ali to Muhammad al-Mahdi reveals a remarkable correspondence between the Bible teaching and the Imamic fulfilment. The Bible carefully and consistently develops the theme which appears in the twelve holy Imams. The Bible asserts itself not only as the foundation for the Imamate, a grand source for the development of Imamic principles, but as a prophetic witness of the final flowering of the institution in the descendants of Muhammad.
The prophetic character of the Bible Imamate appears vividly in the symbolism of the series of twelve. Each slot or position in the series has its own character. The first slot is obviously a commencement. The second is conciliatory. The third is martyrdom. The fourth is praise. The fifth is clarity of distinction. The sixth is codification. The seventh is loyalty. The eighth is betrayal of promises from the world. The ninth to the twelfth progress from imprisonment and secretness to occultation.
The most easily identifiable of these are the third and fourth slots, martyrdom and praise. As we examine the Biblical series of twelve, we note that very often these two aspects occur at the expected points. The names of the sons of Ishmael are the normative point of departure. The name of the third son is `Adbeel', disciplined of God, and the name of the fourth is `Mibsam', fragrance. These two names give a rough equivalent to the third and fourth slots we have already seen. Levi and Judah are the third and fourth sons of Jacob. Levi with his brother Simeon took part in the slaughter of the Shechemites and was therefore scattered in Israel. His descendants became the priests, those who engaged in sacrifice. The figure of Levi eminently represents martyrdom in sacrifice. The name 'Judah' means praise.
The names of the third and fourth judges are Shamgar and Deborah. The only thing we know about Shamgar is that he slew six hundred Philistines with an ox-goad (j udges 3:31). His one act fits perfectly into the slot of martyrdom and sacrifice. The story of Deborah in the book of judges is the only one to contain a hymn of praise to God (j udges 5).
The third and fourth good kings are Rehoboam and Abijah. Although these two are not actually called good, since they permitted evil things in the kingdom, still they opposed the idolatry of Jeroboam and remained faithful to God. Rehoboam is the one who lost the kingdom of Israel, thus representing martyrdom and sacrifice. His loss of the temple treasure to Shishak the Pharaoh is also representative. Abijah's war experience with Israel contrasts with Rehoboam and represents the power of praise. He was victorious over Israel without the use of arms. The priests blew trumpets and the people shouted, and God worked for them without their engaging in battle. (2 Chronicles 13:1415).
The third and fourth in the series of minor prophets are Amos and Obadiah. All of the prophets in this series are similar in predicting woe and judgements and finally restoration. It is thus difficult to place them in characteristic slots without doing violence to their true character.
Psalms 74 and 75 are the third and fourth of the twelve Psalms of Asaph. Psalm 74 begins with the words `O God, why hast thou cast us off for ever?' It is like a study of the Karbala massacre itself and is one of the most clearly prophetic passages of the Bible. Psalm 75 begins with the words `Unto thee, O God, do we give thanks'. A comparison with the supplications of Imam Zeynel Abideen shows a remarkable similarity between the themes of this Psalm and the Imam's work. As such, this Psalm also forms a remarkable prophecy of the coming fourth Imam.
The clearest prophetic expressions of the Imamate in the Bible are thus truly the names of the sons of Ishmael and the twelve Psalms of Asaph, which fit all twelve slots perfectly.
The twelve apostles of Jesus are slightly problematic. They are not a series of twelve successive figures, and as such are more like the sons of Ishmael and Jacob than like the judges or kings. Nor do they clearly fit into the slots of twelve. The Gospel of John gives Peter and Philip the third and fourth place chronologically. The martyrdom of Peter is striking, but the martyrdom of James takes precedence in being the first. Nor does the theme of praise necessarily attach itself to Philip. The apostles of Jesus, like the minor prophets, are relevant to the Imamate mainly because they appear as twelve. They do not have an Imamic role of their own, although they are among the greatest witnesses to the Imamate. They are the ones who answer and affirm Jesus' Imamic call `Follow me'.
The actual Imamate seems to have been conferred on James by Jesus, for we find James taking a leadership role in the church at Jerusalem after the occultation of Jesus. The successors of James fled from Jerusalem into Arabia in AD 70 where they kept the faith in obscurity until the coming of the prophet Muhammad. There may well have been twelve of them in all over this period of a little over five hundred years. From the Imamate of James beginning in AD 31 to the birth of Muhammad in AD 570 is 539 years. An average of about forty-four years is not at all unrealistic for this quiet period. But we do not know their names. We only have the prophecy that when faith is gone from Israel, a remnant shall always exist in Kedar (Isaiah 21:16-17; 42:11-12).
In sum, the principle of the Imamate is a central issue of the Bible. From beginning to end there have been authoritative figures which the text assumes to have been sent from God. Love, loyalty and obedience are seen in the text to be their due. The second point of our list of Islamic distinctives is amply illustrated from the Bible. Only the Islamic doctrine of Imamic infallibility is left somewhat undeveloped before the emergence of Jesus as a God-sent figure. As a whole, divinely appointed leadership as it appears in the Bible corresponds amazingly closely to the Islamic Imamate. No institution in established Christianity so closely parallels it.