Imamate and Wilayah Part 2

Imamate and Wilayah1 Part 2

Mohammad Ali Shomali2


In Part 1 of this series, the concept of Imamate as one of the five principles of Shi‘i Islam was discussed, as well as the characteristics that qualify a person for the role of an Imam. Indeed, Prophet Muhammad (S) emphasized on the necessity of holding fast to the Qur’an and the Ahlul Bayt after his departure from this world. The first part ended with a discussion about the meaning of the “Ahlul Bayt.”

In this part, more narrations are cited to provide a description of the Ahlul Bayt. Narrations from Sunni texts will also be used to reveal the authenticity of the twelve successors and their role of upholding the religion of Islam after the Prophet’s death. The differences between Sunnis and Shi‘as with regards to whom these twelve successors are will be explained.

These hadiths and explanations will be offered to further clarify the term Imam - according to the Shi‘a - as a person who is a divinely appointed leader, one who displays infallibility and is unsurpassable in both knowledge and piety.

Who are the Ahlul Bayt?

Muslims unanimously agree that some of the Prophet’s relatives are excluded from the Ahlul Bayt, such as those who were disbelievers. However, current debates concern those who are left under the title. The Shi‘a agree that the Ahlul Bayt, because of their high status of being alongside the Qur’an, must be infallible, and that this group is a select group of the Prophet’s relatives. The Prophet himself clarified who the Ahlul Bayt are in many narrations (hadith). In one narration, Ahmad ibn Hanbal, the Imam of the Hanbali school of thought, narrates from ‘Umar ibn Maymun:

We were sitting with Ibn Abbas. A group of nine people came.3 These people told Ibn Abbas, “We would like to discuss a confidential matter – either you tell these people to leave so that only you and us remain, or you come with us and we will go somewhere and discuss it.” Ibn Abbas went with them, afterwards returned, angry at those nine people who disparaged Imam Ali.

This narrator says that after his return, Ibn Abbas described the position of Imam Ali according to the Prophet. Ibn Abbas mentioned the conquest of Khaybar by Ali and the announcement of the revelation of the Chapter al-Tawbah (The Repentance) to the polytheists by Imam Ali.

Then he mentioned another event in which the Prophet addressed his cousins and asked, “Who among you is prepared to believe in me and follow me in this world and the hereafter?” All the cousins of the Prophet refused to give a positive response; there was only one positive answer, and that was from Imam Ali. This question was repeated once more in the same session and again no one said “Yes” except Imam Ali. The Prophet asked them one last time, “Who is prepared to follow me and to believe in me?” and again only Imam Ali gave a positive response. Finally, the Prophet said, addressing Imam Ali that, “You are my wali (guardian/successor) in this world and the hereafter.” Then Ibn Abbas said that Imam Ali was the first person to embrace Islam.

He mentioned all these merits of Imam Ali because he was angered with their spitefulness of the Imam. The other event that Ibn Abbas mentions is:

The Prophet once took his cloak and covered Fatimah, Ali, Hasan, and Husayn with it and recited the verse:

إِنَّمَا يُرِيدُ اللَّـهُ لِيُذْهِبَ عَنكُمُ الرِّجْسَ أَهْلَ الْبَيْتِ وَيُطَهِّرَكُمْ تَطْهِيرًا

… Allah only desires to keep away the uncleanness from you, O people of the House! and to purify you a (thorough) purifying. (33:33)”

This hadith narrated by Ahmad ibn Hanbal mentions that this verse as well as the title Ahlul Bayt is only relevant to four unique people: Lady Fatimah, Imam Ali, Imam Hasan, and Imam Husayn.

Tirmidhi in his Sunan4 narrates from a person called ‘Umar ibn Abi Salamah5, the stepson of the Prophet, who reports from his mother:

The Prophet asked Ali, Fatimah, Hasan, and Husayn to go under his cloak. He then said, ‘O God these are my household, remove all uncleanliness from them, and purify them a thorough purification.’ Then God revealed verse 33:336 to the Prophet.

Thus, it seems that the Prophet first prayed and then his request was granted. Umm Salamah said, “I was present and I asked the Prophet, ‘Am I one of your household?’ The Prophet said, ‘You have your own place, but you are not among the Ahlul Bayt.’”

Umm Salamah was a very pious lady, but she was not included among the Ahlul Bayt. Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal also narrates this in his Musnad.

This, it seems very clear who the Ahlul Bayt are. Sometimes instead of the term Ahlul Bayt other terms have been used such as ‘itrah and qurbai which both mean ‘near relatives.’ For example, Zamakhshari a Sunni scholar and author of a well-known commentary of the Qur’an called Al-Kashshaf says:

When the verse 23 of chapter ash-Shura (The Consultations) was revealed7 the Prophet was asked what is meant by qurba (near relatives), and the Prophet replied: “Ali, Fatimah, and their two sons.”

The result is that all Muslims must feel compelled to refer to the Ahlul Bayt to be able to understand Islam as it is, as it was revealed to the Prophet, and as was taught by him, and as it was left for them by the Prophet. The Shi‘a felt compelled to do this right from the beginning. As it is believed, Shi‘i Islam began with the Prophet himself, rather than being a belief that was founded after the Prophet. The Prophet himself asked people to believe in and love the Ahlul Bayt as those who will be responsible for presenting Islam after him. There are many hadiths in which the Prophet himself used the term Shi‘a for the followers of Ali, and sometimes instead of saying ‘your Shi‘a’ the Prophet said ‘our Shi‘a,’ because followers of Ali are indeed followers of the Prophet and it is because of his instructions that they follow Ali.

In addition to the hadith in which the expressions like “Ahlul Bayt” and “qurba” are applied to Imam Ali (as), Lady Fatimah (sa), Imam Hasan (as) and Imam Husayn (as), there are also hadiths that refer to twelve Imams and leaders and prove their authority. This set of hadiths can also shed light on who are meant by the “Ahlul Bayt.”

Who are the ‘Twelve Imams’?

A set of hadiths narrated by our Sunni brothers about twelve successors of the Prophet will be presented. There are different versions of these hadiths; sometimes the term amir, or ruler/leader is used for the twelve Imams and sometimes the term caliph, or successor, is used. It is interesting to note that in these sets of hadiths, the number twelve is always used.

In a hadith in Bukhari, the narrator quotes the Prophet (S):

‘There will be twelve leaders after me.’ The narrator then remarks that the Prophet said something that he could not hear. And he asked his father, who was present, to tell him what the Prophet said. His father replied, ‘The Prophet said that all these twelve leaders (ithna ‘ashar-a amir- an) will be from Quraysh.’8

In another version of the hadiths, Muslim in his Sahih narrates that the narrator went to his father who claimed the Prophet Muhammad (S) said, “This religion will not perish until there will have been twelve successors.”9 The continuation of the hadith is similar to the first version in that the narrator asked his father to restate the hadith. His father then repeated the Prophet’s words: “All the successors are from Quraysh.” In this hadith, instead of amir, the term ‘successor’ is used. Muslim says that this person heard from his father that the Prophet said that the religion of Islam will not perish and it must be accomplished. Thus, it is assured that before this world ends, there must be twelve successors.

In another hadith, Muslim reports that the Prophet said, “The people’s affairs will be properly conducted as long as twelve men lead them.”10 Again, we have the number twelve, but the sentence is different: it refers to everything turning out well so long as these twelve people lead the people, and that the people follow their leadership.

In yet another tradition, the Prophet is quoted as saying, “This religion will be exalted as long as there are twelve successors.”11 So Islam will have a very high position if these twelve people are leading.

It should be noted that one of the implications of these hadiths is that you cannot find any period in which none of these twelve exist. For example, the Prophet said, “This religion will remain as long as there exist twelve successors from Quraysh.”12 The previous hadith indicated that there must always be one of these twelve people living on earth. This means that one cannot find any period in which none of these twelve exist.

In another set of hadiths located in Sunni sources it has been narrated, “Even if two people live in the earth, one of them must be from Quraysh.” They narrate from the Prophet that “So long as there remains two people on earth, there will be one from Quraysh to lead them.”13 So there must be always one Imam, or leader, from Quraysh on earth.

When we collect the hadiths narrated by Sunni scholars in their most prominent and authentic books,14 several questions arise. Who are these twelve people? Who are the successors of the Prophet, as the Prophet said that there will be twelve successors. How is it possible that the lifespans of twelve people extend to the end of the time? They are twelve people, but they cover the history of mankind after the Prophet. How lengthy is their life or how long must the life of some of them be?

Another question arises: How are these people sources of pride and honor for Islam, given that the Prophet said, “This religion will be exalted as long as there are twelve successors”?15 Who are these twelve in the history of Islam who all are from Quraysh and exaltation of Islam depends on them?

Our Sunni brothers have done their best to identify these twelve. But unfortunately, they could not find any set of twelve to fit in with this set of hadiths. For example, they managed to start with the immediate caliphs, that is, 1) Abu Bakr, 2) Umar, 3) ‘Uthman, 4) Ali, 5) Hasan and 6) Mu’awiya; however, when they reach Yazid, they cannot accept him as one of these twelve. Thus, they were required to choose good caliphs. They may not be twelve successive caliphs, but they can be chosen from the Umayyads and Abbasids. But the problem is that it means that there must be some gap. But the above mentioned hadiths indicate that there must be a kind of continuity among these twelve.

Another issue that arises is that our Sunni brothers themselves have narrated from the Prophet that caliphate ended by the arrival of the Umayyads. According to a hadith, the Prophet Muhammad (S) said, “In my nation there will be caliphate for thirty years. And then there will be a kingdom.”16 Thirty years after the demise of the Prophet (S) marks end of the Caliphate of Imam Ali (as). Therefore, Mu‘awiya was not a caliph; he acted as a king.

In Tirmidhi there is some continuation for this hadith. The narrator, Safinah, said that the caliphate of Abu Bakr, ‘Umar, ‘Uthman, and Ali lasted thirty years. This is in addition to ten years because the Prophet died after ten years after immigration, equaling forty years. One of those present asked the narrator, “What about the Umayyads? They were also caliphs.” Safinah replied that that the Umayyads were “liars and kings of the worst type: they were not caliphs, nor were they successors of the Prophet.” They came after the Prophet and some believe that whoever came after the Prophet is to be considered as a successor, but ‘successor’ actually refers to someone who legitimately ruled after the Prophet.

Thus, this hadith stopped our Sunni brothers from referring to the caliphs of Umayyads and Abbasids as a few of those twelve. This resulted in not having solid solution, and they consequently disagreed about these twelve.

The Shi‘a believe that it is very clear that these must be twelve Imams of the Ahlul Bayt (as), out of whom the last one will have such a long life that would allow him to be alive till end of this world. So life of these twelve will be equal to the life of Islam after the Prophet. So as long as Islam is alive, that is, until end of the time, one of these twelve must be there. Especially if you also bear in mind the set of hadiths which says that even if there are two people on the earth, there is one from Quraysh to lead them. This set of hadiths is enough if someone wants to know who the Imam will be, who the successor will be, and who will be qualified to lead the Islamic society to maintain the honor and dignity the Prophet gave to it.

We have about twelve hadiths in addition to hadiths in which all the names of the twelve Imams are mentioned. For example, we have a hadith from the Prophet Muhammad (S) addressing Jabir ibn ‘Abdullah al-Ansari, who was a companion of the Prophet and also a companion of all the Imams up until Imam Baqir (as). So the Prophet mentioned the name of all the Imams, and when he reached the name of Imam Baqir, he told Jabir to convey his salam to him. And this is exactly what he did.17 More interestingly, similar hadith are cited in Sunni sources.18

Imamate in Shi‘i Islam

Having an Imam is necessary for both Shi‘as and Sunnis. The understanding and concept of Imamate according to Sunnis is different. As illustrated in these series, Imamate is a very high position, and it is only Allah who can decide who is qualified for it. And if the Prophet Muhammad (S) announced to the people that these twelve are the leaders, or that this Ahlul Bayt are the people that we must refer to, or in other in which indicate his appointment of Imam Ali, it was only because he was asked by Allah to do so. The Prophet did not intend to give special privilege to his family for the mere reason of being his family.

In the early years of Islam, once the Prophet (S) invited the leader of an Arab tribe to embrace Islam. And that was when the Prophet was gravely in need of support. There were only very few Muslims in the early years in Mecca. That person said, “We will believe in Islam, we will support you, but there is one condition: when you are going to die, you must ask the people to follow us; your successor must be one of us.” This was the condition. The Prophet refused, saying that it is up to Allah to choose who will succeed him. It was not the Prophet’s decision. It was Allah’s decision.

Appointment of an Imam is equivalent to appointment of a Prophet. We cannot select or elect our Prophet because we do not know who is qualified or who pleases Allah. The Qur’an says,

اللَّـهُ أَعْلَمُ حَيْثُ يَجْعَلُ رِسَالَتَهُ

God knows best where to place His apostleship” (6:124).

Similarly, Imam is also the one chosen by Allah (s.w.t.) and announced by the Prophet. This is why we say Imamate means ‘divinely appointed leadership.’ It is a sort of leadership which is divinely appointed. And it is interesting that Imam in the Qur’anic concept not only included legitimate successors of the Prophet, but he also includes some of the Prophets who were qualified to lead. So Imamate was even there before Islam, although for specified Prophets, not for all of them. For example, the Qur’an says about Prophet Abraham (as):

وَإِذِ ابْتَلَىٰ إِبْرَاهِيمَ رَبُّهُ بِكَلِمَاتٍ فَأَتَمَّهُنَّ  قَالَ إِنِّي جَاعِلُكَ لِلنَّاسِ إِمَامًا قَالَ وَمِن ذُرِّيَّتِي  قَالَ لَا يَنَالُ عَهْدِي الظَّالِمِينَ

And when his Lord tested Abraham with certain words, and he fulfilled them, He said, “I am making you the Imam of mankind.’ Said he, ‘And from among my descendants?’ He said, ‘My pledge does not extend to the unjust.’ (2:124)

Prophet Abraham was able to accomplish these tests and successfully pass them. Among the discussions of various scholars on this verse, two of them will be referred to. First, Imamate, or divinely appointed leadership, is a general concept according to the Qur’an. It is not only for the period after the Prophet Muhammad (S). Even some of the Prophets in the past were able to act as an Imam, they were chosen by Allah after fulfilling all the requirements. Not just to become a prophet means to become an Imam. Sometimes there were tens of Prophets living at the same time in the same region, but only one of them was able to act as an Imam.

Secondly, Allah (s.w.t.) told Prophet Abraham that no one can expect to be an Imam even if it is from his offspring if he is unjust. ‘Allamah Tabataba’i explains this in his Al-Mizan fi Tafsir al-Qur’an, where people are described as being one of four groups: a) those who constantly commit sins, b) those who are good and eventually become corrupt, c) those who have sinned and with repentance, embraced Islam afterwards, and d) those who have never committed any sins.

Prophet Abraham could not have asked God about the first two groups; he asked God about the last two groups, those who have sinned and then repented, and those who have never committed sins. As mentioned in the Qur’an, those who have been unjust to themselves and others and have committed sins cannot become the Imam. Thus, one group remains: those who have constantly been good. And this is the idea of infallibility, or being immaculate.

Whoever believes in Imamate according to the Shi’ite perspective believes that an Imam is a leader who is appointed by Allah and that he is necessarily infallible. He is not just deemed pious or the most pious. He must be infallible. Our Sunni brothers believe the Imam to be a political leader and he does not need to be chosen by God or be the most pious, let alone infallible. They believe piety to be an unnecessary quality, let alone believing in the infallibility of the Imams. They believe that there may be people who are more pious than the Imam.

Interestingly, many Sunnis, especially Sufi Sunnis, believe that Imam Ali was the most qualified person, in both spirituality and knowledge, although they believe the first successor to the Prophet was Abu Bakr, and then ‘Umar, ‘Uthman and Ali. And they distinguish between being the most knowledgeable and pious with being a caliph. Many Sunni scholars, especially the Sufis and mystics, believe in wilayah or guardianship (further discussed in the upcoming articles). They even believe in the wilayah of the Imams of the Ahlul Bayt, but at the same time, they believe in the successorship of the first, second and third caliphs.

For the Shi‘a, it is necessary for an Imam to be most pious and knowledgeable. If someone possesses these qualities, how can we accept the leadership of a less pious person? Of course, we human beings may make mistakes and follow the wrong person. But people are to know that Allah will never be mistaken in ordering us to follow the most qualified leader.

Thus, for the Shi‘a, Imamate is a special kind of leadership. It is not a mere leadership or a matter of government. As mentioned in the previous part, to govern society and to discuss the legitimacy of a person to rule Islamic society after the Prophet is important, although it is not too important for us today. We discuss this issue because we want to understand what to do at present. We want to know from whom we should learn Islam.

For this reason, we first discuss the knowledge and authority of the Ahlul Bayt in spreading and presenting Islam. We then discuss the importance of political leadership which comes after upholding infallibility as one who is infallible can then undertake political leadership. This is an overview about Imamate.

Imamate in a narrower sense refers to the Imams after the Prophet Muhammad (S), that is, the twelve Imams, but if we use it in a broader sense it will be more than twelve, it will also include Prophets like Abraham, David and Moses.

The definition of Imam

So here, what does Imam mean? In addition to the requirements of being a) appointed by God, b) the most knowledgeable, c) the most pious, and d) infallible, what does Imam mean here? It means that these people’s leadership must be declared or announced by the Prophet Muhammad (S). We believe in the importance of nass, or explicit declaration by the Prophet. We believe that Imam must be appointed by God and declared by the Prophet, and indeed, these twelve are all declared by the Prophet.

Abu al-Hasan al-Ash‘ari, a prominent Sunni theologian who wrote about different sects and Islamic schools of thought called Maqalat al-Islamiyyin wa Ikhtilaf al-Musallin says that the Shi‘a were called Shi‘a only because they followed Ali and believed that he was more privileged than other companions of the Prophet. He was one of the early Sunni scholars who died in 330 A.H. Afterwards, Shahrestani, another Sunni scholar who died in 548 A.H., in his Al-Milal wa al-Nihal, deemed the Shi‘a as those who follow Ali and believed in his Imamate and caliphate according to the explicit instruction of the Prophet Muhammad (S).19

Thus, the Shi‘a are those who believe in Imamate in general and then they identify their Imam after the Prophet with Ali because of the explicit teachings and testament of the Prophet. They follow Ali as a result of the command of the Prophet, not because they have personal relationship with Ali, or for trivial reasons such as his race or colour. It was because the Prophet instructed them to do so.

In some hadiths from the Prophet Muhammad (S) we have the expression “our Shi‘a” and in other hadiths we have “your Shi‘a” addressing Ali. In one narration, Ibn Asakir narrates the Prophet:

Surely there is a spring in paradise that smells better than musk, is sweeter than nectar, smoother than butter, and cooler than ice. In that spring is the clay from which we were created and our Shi‘a are made from the same clay.

In another narration, a well-known Sunni scholar, Ibn Athir, narrates that Imam Ali was addressed by the Prophet, and the Prophet said, “Oh Ali, you and your Shi‘a will meet God being pleased with Him and well-pleasing Him. And your enemies will meet Him while they are angry and they will be seized by their necks.” The Prophet then demonstrated with his hands how these people will be taken by their necks.

Both hadiths confirm the authenticity of the term Shi‘a as a person who follows Imam Ali and his successors as divinely appointed leaders.


Upon reading the hadiths, we see that the Ahlul Bayt are none other than the Prophet, Ali, Fatimah, Hasan and Husayn. The Prophet emphasized on following the Qur’an as well as these four immaculate beings after his death. In addition to following the Ahlul Bayt, hadiths in both Sunni and Shi‘a sources refer to the importance of following twelve successive leaders after the Prophet. Sunni scholars disagree among themselves as to who these twelve are, whereas the Shi‘a believe them to be the descendants of Imam Ali (as).

The hadiths evidently state that there will be twelve successive leaders who will uphold the religion of Islam because of their matchless qualifications of infallibility, piety and knowledge. On the other hand, Sunnis deem knowledge and piety as unnecessary traits when holding political leadership. The two sects differ also on the necessity of designation and appointment, as the Shi‘a are those who follow the twelve Imams because of their appointment by Allah (s.w.t.), as the Prophet explicitly stated that they are to be followed.

  • 1. This paper is based on first part of lecture four and whole lecture six of a series of lectures delivered by Dr Mohammad Ali Shomali in summer 2004 in Qum. Lecture five and the remaining part of lecture four relate to the ban by the first three Caliphs on narrating hadiths of the Prophet Muhammad (S) and will be published separately in future.
  • 2. Associate Professor of the Imam Khomeini Education & research Institute, Qum.
  • 3. Ibn Abbas was the cousin of the Prophet (S) and Imam Ali (as), the son of Abbas the uncle of the Prophet. He was very knowledgeable and was respected by all Muslims. His commentaries on the Qur’an have been recently published in two volumes. When the Prophet (S) passed away he was very young and therefore he received most of his knowledge from Imam Ali.
  • 4. One of the six Sihah
  • 5. Um Salama: One of the wives of the Prophet who bore Umar from her first husband, Abi Salama.
  • 6. Allah only desires to keep away the uncleanness from you, O people of the House! and to purify you a (thorough) purifying. (33:33)

    إِنَّمَا يُرِيدُ اللَّـهُ لِيُذْهِبَ عَنكُمُ الرِّجْسَ أَهْلَ الْبَيْتِ وَيُطَهِّرَكُمْ تَطْهِيرًا

  • 7. “That is the good news Allah gives to His servants who have faith and do righteous deeds! Say, ‘I do not ask you any reward for it except love of [my] relatives. Whoever performs a good deed, We shall enhance for him its goodness. Indeed Allah is all-forgiving, all-appreciative’.” (42:23)

    ذَٰلِكَ الَّذِي يُبَشِّرُ اللَّـهُ عِبَادَهُ الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا وَعَمِلُوا الصَّالِحَاتِ  قُل لَّا أَسْأَلُكُمْ عَلَيْهِ أَجْرًا إِلَّا الْمَوَدَّةَ فِي الْقُرْبَىٰ  وَمَن يَقْتَرِفْ حَسَنَةً نَّزِدْ لَهُ فِيهَا حُسْنًا  إِنَّ اللَّـهَ غَفُورٌ شَكُورٌ

  • 8. The actual term here was amir, or leader. The Prophet said there will be twelve leaders after me and all are from Quraysh, the same tribe of the Prophet (S). This is in Sahih of Bukhari, Kitab al-Ahkam according to Sakhr serial no. 6682. The same hadith is narrated by Tirmidhi in Sunan, Kitab al-Fitan no. 2149 and Musnad of Ahmad no. 19920. This is in Sahih of Muslim, Kitab al- Imarah, (Leadership), no. 3393.
  • 9. Sahih of Muslim, no. 3393
  • 10. Sahih of Muslim, the following hadith, no. 3394.
  • 11. Sahih of Muslim no. 3395-7. Sunan of Abu Dawood, another major Sihah fi kitabil Mahdi no. 3732. Musnad of Ahmad, no. 19936, 20019, and 20032.
  • 12. Sunan of Abu Dawood, no. 3731 and Musnad of Ahmad, no. 19875 and 19901.
  • 13. In Bukhari, Kitabul Ahkam in Sakhr, no. 3240, 6607. Sahih of Muslim, no. 3392. Musnad of Ahmad: 4600, 5419, 5847.
  • 14. Sahih Bukhari, Sahih Muslim, and al-Sihah
  • 15. Sahih of Muslim no. 3395-7. Sunan of Abu Dawood, another major Sihah fi kitabil Mahdi no. 3732. Musnad of Ahmad, no. 19936, 20019, and 20032.
  • 16. Sunan of Tirmidhi, no. 2152. Musnad of Ahmad, no. 20910.
  • 17. Bihar al-Anwar, vol. 46, pp. 223 & 224.
  • 18. For example, Jabir is quoted as saying that the Prophet (s) referring to Husayn ibn Ali said:
    [Majma‘ al-Zawa’id, vol. 10. p. 22; Mu‘jam al-Awsat, vol. 6, p. 304; Tirikh-u Dimashq, vol. 57, p. 215; Al-Wafi bi’l-Wafayat, vol. 4, p. 103.]
    أنه يولد لابني هذا ابن يقال له علي بن الحسين، وهو سيد العابدين، إذا كان يوم القيامة ينادى مناد: ليقم سيد العابدين فيقوم علي بن الحسين، وهو يولد لعلي بن الحسين ابن يقال له: محمد، إذا رأيته يا جابر فأقرئه مني السلام، ياجابر، اعلم ان المهدي من ولده، واعلم ياجابر ان بقاءك بعده قليل.
  • 19. Al-Milal wa al-Nihal, Dar al-Ma‘arif, Beirut, vol. I, p. 169.