To sum up the political aspects of Islāmic history, it is clear that the Caliphate is transmitted by way of nass through which the Prophet or the Imām designates who will succeed him in the Imāmate.1The Imām is the sole expert of the inner sense of the Scripture and the Sunnah. This exclusive knowledge was passed directly from the Prophet to 'Alī and through him to his descendants.2The Imām is thus the definitive authority on religion obligations [wājibāt/furūd] and the esoteric interpretation [tafsīr/ta'wīl] of the sharī'ah [Islāmic law]. Furthermore, the Imām possesses the quality of 'ismah, infallibility and impeccability.3
The controversial and contentious issue of the succession of the Prophet, disputed by Sunnis and Shī'ites for over a millennium, can never be understood if the essentially esoteric function of the Imāmate, as a prolongation and complement to the Prophethood, is overlooked. The issue of the Imāmate is more than an abstract question. It is the legitimate expression of Muhammadan spiritual authority and temporal power.
It is a concrete existential reality which needed to manifest itself in the world to continue expounding the bātin [esoteric aspect] of the Prophethood.
For Shī'ites, the completion of the “Cycle of Prophethood” [dā'irat al-nubuwwah] marks the beginning of the “Cycle of Initiation” [dā'irat al-wilāyah]. For metaphysical and cosmological reasons, the Cycle of wilāyah was to be opened through its own “door” [al-bāb], 'Alī ibn Abī Tālib, due to his role as “spiritual successor” [khalīfah rūhānī] and “executer” [wasī] of the Prophet's bātin [secrets] or initiator into the Muhammadan mysteries.
This is why the Imāmate is not merely a question of blood ties to the Prophet.4 The issue is not the degree of relation with him, be it wives, daughters, grandchildren, sons-in-law or parents-in-law. On the contrary, the worldly family union is the result of the pleromatic unity of the nubuwwah [Prophethood] and the wilāyah [guardianship].
As Corbin senses, the concept of the Imāms can only be understood if one considers them as divine luminaries and pre-cosmic entities.5They themselves affirmed so during the course of their worldly existence. Many traditions to this effect were gathered by al-Kulaynī in his voluminous compilation al-Kāfī.6
Shī'ite gnosis enables us to understand the importance of the situation and exactly what was on the line with the Caliphate.9By the political substitution of Abū Bakr for 'Alī, the organic link between the zāhir [exoteric] and the bātin [esoteric] was temporarily broken. In Sunnism, this led to the development of a legalistic religion, based on a purely juristic interpretation of Islām.10 It was thus left to Sūfī and Shī'ite Islām to preserve, in their exoteric practices and doctrines, the lost esoteric equilibrium.
'Allāmah Muhammad Bāqir al-Majlisī lists numerous traditions concerning this “Primordial Light” and how it was passed down from the prophets, to Muhammad and then to the Imāms (see chapters 1 and 2 of Hayāt al-qulūb). According to Imām Khumaynī:
[T]he Most Noble Messenger and the Imāms existed before the creation of the world in the form of lights situated beneath the divine throne; they were superior even in the sperm from which they grew and in their physical composition. Their exalted station is limited only by the divine will, as indicated by the saying of Jibra'īl recorded in the traditions on the mi'rāj: “Were I to draw closer by as much as the breadth of a finger, surely I would burn.” The Prophet himself said: “We have states with God that are beyond the reach of the cherubim and the prophets.” It is part of our belief that the Imāms too enjoy similar states… (Islām and Revolution 64-65)
Concerning these attributes of the Imāms, see Henry Corbin, Histoire de la philosophie Islāmique (Paris, 1964): 77 ff.
It is recorded in al-Kāfī that Imām al-Sādiq was asked about the verse: “Therefore, believe in Allāh and His Messenger and in the Light which we have sent down” to which he responded:
The Light, by Allāh, is the Light of the Imāms from the Household of Muhammad till the Day of Resurrection. They, by Allāh, are the Light which Allāh has sent down, and they, by Allāh, are the Light of Allāh in the heavens and on the earth.” (Kulaynī l80: hadīth 514)
In Lantern of the Path, Imām al-Sādiq relates a fascinating tradition on the authority of Salmān al-Fārisī in which the Messenger of Allāh explains that:
Allāh created me from the quintessence of light, and called me, so I obeyed Him. Then he created 'Alī from my light, and called him, and he obeyed. From my light and the light of 'Alī He created Fātimah. He called her and she obeyed. From me, 'Alī and Fātimah, He created al-Hasan and al-Husayn. He called them and they obeyed Him. Allāh has named us with five of His names: Allāh is al-Mahmūd [the Praised] and I am Muhammad [praisworthy]; Allāh is al-'Alī [the High], and this is 'Alī [the one of high rank]; Allāh is al-Fātir [Creator out of nothing], and this is Fātimah; Allāh is the One with Ihsān [beneficence], and this is Hasan; Allāh is Muhassin [the Beautiful] and this is Husayn [the beautiful one]. He created nine Imāms from the light of al-Husayn and called them and they obeyed Him, before Allāh created either Heaven on high, the out-stretched earth, the air, the angels or man. We were lights who glorified Him, listened to Him and obeyed Him.
In The Origins and Development of Shī'ah Islām, Jafrī questions the authenticity of the traditions describing the Imāms as supernatural human beings and the miracles attributed to them (300, 303). Miracles and mysticism are clearly incompatible with his training as a historian. He holds that “a great many traditions ascribing supernatural and superhuman characteristics to the Imāms, propounded by semi-ghulāt circles in Kufah, crept into Shī'ī literature” (303).
He therefore dismisses the traditions concerning the light of Allāh in 'Alī and the description of the Imāms as the “shadows of light” and “luminous bodies” (302). Shī'ite scholars, however, have always shown the greatest aversion towards ghuluw [extremism] and would not have accepted traditions from ghulāt or even semi-ghulāt sources. Shī'ite fuqahā' [jurists] are unanimous in their takfīr [declaration of infidelity] of the ghulāt (Khu'ī 28; Gulpāygānī 30 et al.). As Shaykh Sadūq says:
Our belief concerning those who exceed the bounds of belief [ghāl, pl. ghulāt] and those who believe in delegation [al-mufawwidah] is that they are deniers [kuffār] of Allāh, Glory be to His name. They are more wicked than the Jews, the Christians, the Fire-Worshippers, the Qadarites or the Kharijites, or any of the heretics [ahl al-bid'ah] or those who holds views which lead astray [al-ahwā' al-mudillah]. (141-142)
While Jafrī may believe that excessively zealous Shī'ites exaggerated the status of the Imāms, turning them into divine luminaries, what accounts for the presence of similar traditions in Sunnī and Sūfī sources? In 'Abd al-Rahmān Sulamī's (d. 1021) famous compilation of the Qur'ān titled Haqā'iq al-tafsīr, we find an exegesis of Sūrah 2:37 which is startling for a Sunnī source. In interpreting the verse “and Allāh taught Adam the names,”
Sulamī quotes a tradition from Imām Ja'far to the effect that: “Allāh existed before His creation existed. He created five creatures from the light of His Glory and gave each one a name from among His Names: Being the Praised One [mahmūd], He called His Prophet, Muhammad; being the Most High ['alī], He called the Leader of the Believers, 'Alī; being the Creator [fātir] of the heavens and the earth, he forged the name Fātimah; and since he has the most beautiful names [husnā], He forged two names for Hasan and Husayn. He then placed them to the right of His Throne…”The traditions in question are numerous and widely recorded. We are not dealing with isolated traditions with weak chains of narrations [sanad] which can easily be dismissed.