For Sunnī Muslims, the legitimacy of the Caliphate is an issue of secondary or relative importance. According to Sunnī thought, even an illegitimate Caliph is acceptable as long as he has sufficient strength and ability to resolve the socio-economic problems of the society.1It is easily understood how individuals with stubborn tribal mentalities and notions of superiority could perceive the Caliphate as being the pinnacle of Arabism.
Even the trials and tribulations they suffered due to their loyalty to Islām and the Prophet could not make them forget their prior status as oligarchic tribal chiefs. It is therefore not surprising that the election of Abū Bakr as Caliph was based on pre-Islāmic tribal customs. The Caliphate allowed the tribal chiefs to satisfy their nostalgia for the old order by giving the emerging system, despite its radical transformation, traits of political and economic centralism which has been abolished by Islām.2
Abū Bakr assumed the Caliphate, not through the legitimacy of his aspiration, but through the complicity of his peers from the tribe of Quraysh. He gained the unanimous support of the leaders of his tribe and maneuvered himself into power at a time when differences in opinion and division of loyalties prevailed.
History will never understand the cause of such a phenomenon without considering the rivalry between the Quraysh and the non-Quraysh and the muhājirūn [the emigrants] and the ansār [the allies].
Without such an understanding, any explication of the development of Shī'ism would be nothing but a deceitful distortion. Was not the rise of Shī'ism the case of a revolt of the new over the old established order? Indeed it was. The political and economic centralism of the elders of Quraysh from the days of ignorance [jāhiliyyah] was not extinguished with the arrival of Islām. The partisans of the old order mobilized against the new Islāmic order established by Muhammad and embodied by 'Alī.
The Quraysh defended the old order with the same drive and determination they demonstrated during the lifetime of the Prophet when the Makkan oligarchy had resisted with all their strength against Muhammad's divine and revealed message. The ruling classes were particularly disturbed by the fact that, from the very beginning of his mission, the Messenger of Allāh had rejected concepts such as social superiority, pride in ancestry, and Arabism.3Muhammad viewed himself, first and foremost, as an “admonisher” [nadhīr] and a “guardian” of his people rather than its “king” [malik].4
As he put it himself, “Surely I am not a king [malik] … I am but the son of a woman who ate dried meat” (Tirmidhī). And to the scandal of the Makkan oligarchy, he abolished all distinction between race and class with the decisive declaration that: “All human beings are equal like the teeth of a comb. There is no superiority of an Arab over a non Arab, of a non-Arab over an Arab, of a white man over a black man or of a male over a female. The only merit in God's estimation is righteousness.”5
In truth, the Prophet never manifested in any of his sayings or ahādīth that belonging to the tribe of Quraysh or social status were necessary conditions for being elected Imām or Caliph. Abū Bakr, on the other hand, always maintained, in accord with his background, that the right to the Caliphate belonged to the members of the tribe of Quraysh by the simple fact that they were descendants of “the most honorable Arabs.”6
Whoever examines the Islāmic accounts of the period will notice with great surprise that the sector of Muslims who proclaimed Abū Bakr as the First Caliph in the saqīfah soon lost the esoteric and spiritual significance of the Imāmate or the Caliphate, if they ever possessed it at all. For them, as we have said, spiritual authority and temporal power were united in the person of Muhammad by the fact that he was the Messenger of God and the Intercessor between God and man.7
When it came to Imām 'Alī, he was viewed by the old oligarchy, in the best of cases, as merely a half-Muhammad, blessed with an inspired character and the spiritual wisdom of a prophet.8 They did not, however, consider him fit to assume the functions of legal administrator and political leader. For the followers of 'Alī, among whom were the closest and most famous companions of the Prophet,9 this separation between spiritual authority and temporal power was intolerable. It was not so much the political Imāmate that 'Alī inherited from Muhammad which drew the Shī'ah. Rather, it was the esoteric sense of the Prophethood that continued to pulse within him: Imāmate was the amplification of Prophethood, a more interiorized complement.
According to Shī'ite thought, divine guidance takes two forms: nubuwwah and wilāyah.10The first is co-substantial to the “Muhammadan Truth” [al-haqīqah al-muhammadiyyah], in an absolute, integral, primordial, pre-eternal, and post-eternal sense. The second is constituted by the partial realities of the first: its emissions and luminous epiphanies [mazhar]; in other words, the Imāms of the Prophetic Household who initiated and continued the “Cycle of Initiation” [dā'irat al-nubuwwah] that was sealed by the Prophet and which, like his luminaries, are identified with the pleroma of the “Light of Light” [nūr al-anwār] of the “Muhammadan Light” [al-nūr al-muhammadī].
From this metaphysical point of view, the Twelve Imāms belong, in their condition of luminous epiphanies of “Muhammadan Light,” to the same spiritual and temporal category as the Prophet without them been truly and properly prophets.11This notion is repeated in many ahādīth [traditions] in relation to 'Alī, like the one which says “You are to me as Aaron was to Moses except there will be no prophet after me” (Bukhārī, Muslim, Hākim, Sadūq, Mufīd, Kulaynī).12
The bond that exists between Muhammad and 'Alī goes far beyond that of blood. What exists between them is a special spiritual tie [nisbah ma'nawiyyah] which surpasses the relation of impossibility that “there will be no prophet after me.” The bond between Muhammad and 'Alī is the result of their common pre-existence in eternity where they were two spiritual entities united in the same luminous identity.
As Prophet has explained in various ahādīth, ”'Alī and I are from the same Light”13 (Kulaynī, Majlisī, Ma'sūm 'Alī) “People are from various trees, but 'Alī and I are from the same Tree” (Tirmidhī, Ibn al-Maghazalī).14The eminence and spiritual supremacy of the First Imām is also established in the significant tradition in which the Prophet states: ”'Alī has been sent secretly with every Prophet; but with me he has been sent openly” (Kāshānī qtd. in Ahmed 'Alī 1157).15
It can also be seen in the tradition which states that: “Every prophet has an executor [wasī] and a successor [khalīfah] and surely my executor and successor is 'Alī ibn Abī Tālib” (Muttaqī, al-Baghdādī). There is also the tradition that”'Alī is part of me and I am part of 'Alī and nobody acts on my behalf except 'Alī” (Ahmad, Tirmidhī, Ibn Mājah, Nasā'ī, Ibn Kathīr, Suyūtī, Sadūq, Mufīd, Kulaynī).
In a passage from the well-known tradition of Ghadīr, delivered shortly before the Prophet's death, 'Alī successorship is once again confirmed: “Oh People!” said the Prophet, “Allāh granted me the wilāyah [guardianship], placing me above all believers. To whom I have been the mawlā [master, protector, lord and guardian], 'Alī is also his mawlā [fa man kuntu mawlāhu fa 'Alī mawlāhu] (Hākim, Dhahabī, Ahmad, Tirmidhī, Sadūq, Mufīd, Kulaynī).”16
In relation to this Shī'ite doctrine of the “Muhammadan Light” there is a hadīth from the Prophet which affirms he and 'Alī are two identical and pre-existing lights that God manifested separately and simultaneously during the “reign” of Adam and in the hidden worlds.17
After having passed from one “reign” to another they were finally placed in the persons of Hasan and Husayn who were, simultaneously, two luminous epiphanies that emanated from the “Primordial Light” through which the “Lord of the Worlds” [rabb al-'ālamīn] illuminated all of creation through the “light of the logos” [nūr al-kalām] or initial fiat lux.18This “primordial light” protects the Prophet and the Imāms from sin, making them immaculate19[ma'sūmīn]. At the same time, it confers on them the status of supremacy of the poles [aqtāb] of the universe and vicars [khalīfah] of God as well as spiritual legatees [wasī] of the bātin [esoteric aspects] of the scripture.
As the Imāms have stated, “We are the first and the last. We are the logos of God. We are the executors of the revelation.”20As can be seen, the parallel between Moses' position and that which Muhammad would occupy in later times becomes evident in light of these words.
It was also at this time that the Imāmate was established as part and parcel of the Prophethood. The true Imām and Prophet was Muhammad; and Muhammad had a successor, his Aaron, in the person of 'Alī ibn Abī Tālib.21It is for this reason that Shī'ite Muslims consider descent from 'Alī ibn Abī Tālib to be an obligatory requirement for any candidate to the Caliphate along with the criteria considered necessary by Sunnī Muslims. The Shī'ite, however, differ with the Sunnī in that they categorically reject election through shūrah [consultative assembly].
In their eyes, the pre-Islāmic process of shūrah does nothing but continue the timocratic orientation of Abū Bakr and the representatives of the old Quraysh oligarchy established in the saqīfah. Since spiritual authority and temporal power come from God above, it is impossible for a man to receive the sacred investiture of Imām or khalīfah through a classicist covenant or a political plot between parties. The word khalīfah appears twice in the Qur'ān. In the first case it refers to Adam [2: 28]. In the second case, it refers to David [38: 257] with the sense of “legislator:” “We have made you a khalīfah on earth,” says God to Adam, “decide among men with justice!” For Muslims, David was both a Prophet and an Imām, combining both spiritual and political authority.22The word appears several times in the Qur'ān in the plural, khulafā' and khalā'if.
The plural “Caliphs” appears in contexts which, in relation to the descendants of Muhammad, can be translated as “successors” and, at times, as “inheritors,” “proprietors” and even as “vicars” and “substitutes.” The Arabic word khalīfah, from which the English word “Caliph” is derived, comes from a root that is found in several Semitic languages. At times, it has the meaning of “to pass on” or “to transmit.”
This would make the word the equivalent of the Latin word traditio and the Greek word paradosis. In Arabic, however, the generally accepted meaning is that of “following” or “coming in place of.” By far, the most common interpretation by the majority of Sunnī 'ulamā' [scholars], with the sole exception of the Sūfi Masters, is that the Caliph is the vicar or successor of the Prophet. The Caliph is the custodian of his moral and legal inheritance as founder of the faith and legislator for the Islāmic government and community.
The Caliph is not, however, in the eyes of most Sunnī scholars, the successor to the spiritual office of the Prophet, the executor of his bātin or the esoteric interpreter of the word of God. This interpretation, however, is inconsistent with the meaning of the word wilāyah which appears to indicate that the function of the Prophet was not destined to disappear after his death but rather, on the contrary, to continue by means of the spiritual authority and temporal power of the Imāms until the end of times.
Then he said:
Question me before you lose me, for by Him Who split the seed and brought the soul into being, if you questioned me about [it] verse by verse, I would tell you of the time of its revelation and why it was revealed, I would inform of the abrogating [verse] and the abrogated, of the specific and general, the clearly defined and the ambiguous, of the Meccan and the Medinan. By Allāh, there is not a party who can lead astray or guide until the Day of Resurrection, without me knowing its leader, the one who drives it forward and the one who urges it on. (Mufīd 21-22; Kulaynī)
Imām Ja'far al-Sādiq used to say:
Our knowledge is of what will be [ghābir], of what is past [madbūr], of what is marked in hearts [naksh fī al-qulūb], and what is tapped into ears [naqr fí al-asmā']. We have the red case [jafr], the white case, and the scroll of Fātimah, peace be upon her, and we have [the document called] al-jāmi'ah in which is everything the people need.
He was asked to explain these words and he said:
Ghābir is knowledge of what will be; madbūr is knowledge of what was; what is marked in the hearts [naksh fí al-qulūb] is inspiration; and what is tapped into the ears [naqr fí al-asmā'] are words of angels; we hear their speech but we do not see their forms. The red case [jafr] is a vessel in which are the weapons of the Messenger of Allāh, may Allāh bless him and his Family. It will never leave us until the one [destined] among us Members of the House [Ahlul Bayt ] to arise [qā'im], arises. The white case [jafr] is a vessel in which are the Torah of Moses, the Gospel of Jesus, the Psalms of David and the [other] Books of Allāh.
The scroll of Fātimah, peace be upon her, has in it every even which will take place and the names of all the rulers until the [last] hour comes. [The document called] al-jāmi'ah is a scroll seventy yards long which the Messenger of Allāh, may Allāh bless him and his Family, dictated from his own mouth and 'Alī ibn Abī Tālib, peace be upon him, wrote in his own handwriting. By Allāh, in it is everything which people need until the end of time, including even the blood-wit for wounding, and whether a [full] flogging or half a flogging [is due]. (Mufīd 414; Kulaynī)
The Prophet said of 'Alī: “You can hear what I hear and see what I see, but you are not a prophet; you are a vizier and you are well off” (Nahj al-balāghah, ed. 'Abd al-Hamīd 2: 182-83)
Imām Ja'far al-Sādiq used to say:
My traditions are my father's traditions; my father's traditions are my grandfather's traditions; my grandfather's traditions are the traditions of 'Alī ibn Abī Tālib, the Commander of the Faithful; the traditions of 'Alī, the Commander of the Faithful, are the traditions of the Messenger of Allāh, may Allāh bless him and his Family; and the traditions of the Messenger of Allāh, may Allāh bless him and his Family, are the word of Allāh, the Mighty and High. (Mufīd 414; Kulaynī)
Imām Ja'far al-Sādiq said: “We have the tablets of Moses, peace be upon him, and we have the rod of Moses, peace be upon him. We are the heirs of prophets” (Mufīd 414-15; Kulaynī).
Imām Ja'far al-Sādiq said:
I have the sword of the Messenger of Allāh, may Allāh bless him and his Family. I have the standard of the Messenger of Allāh, may Allāh bless him and his Family, and his breast-plate, his armor and his helmet… Indeed the victorious standard of the Messenger of Allāh is with me, as are the tablets and rod of Moses. I have the ring of Solomon, the son of David, and the tray on which Moses used to offer sacrifice and I have [knowledge] of the [greatest] name [of Allāh] which when the Messenger of Allāh, may Allāh bless him and his Family, used to put it between the Muslims and the polytheists no arrow of the polytheists could reach the Muslims.
I have the same as what the angels brought. We have the weapons in the same way that the Banū Isrā'īl had the ark of the covenant. Prophecy was brought to any house in which the Ark of the Covenant was present; the Imāmate will be brought to which ever of us receives the weapons. My father dressed in the armor of the Messenger of Allāh, may Allāh bless him and grant him peace, and it made marks on the ground. I put it on and it was [like] it was [for my father]. The one [destined] to rise up [qā'im] from among us, will fill it [so that it fits him exactly] when he puts it on, if Allāh wishes. (Mufīd 415-416)
Imām Ja'far al-Sādiq was asked about what the people were saying that Umm Salamah, the mercy of Allāh be on her, had been handed a sealed scroll. He said: “When the Messenger of Allāh, may Allāh bless him and grant him peace, died, 'Alī, peace be upon him, inherited his knowledge, his weapons and what there was. Then that went to al-Hasan, peace be upon him, then to al-Husayn, peace be upon him.” “Did it go to 'Alī ibn al-Husayn, peace be upon them, after that, then to his son and now has it come to you?” he was asked. “Yes,” he replied (Mufīd 416).