Chapter 6: Imamah

Questions addressed in this chapter:

- The meaning of Imamah

What does the position of Imamah mean?

Why is it a choice of God?

- The Prophet’s (S) successor

Would the Prophet (S) leave his people to their fate after his departure?

- God has promised to preserve this religion

How does God protect this religion? By what means?

- Who were the infallible Imams (‘a)?

How did they pass on the message and prepared for the last awaited Imam, Imam Al-Mahdi (‘aj)?

L. The Significance And Meaning Of Imamah

Imamah can briefly be described as a divinely chosen leadership that guides and leads people to their creational purpose.1

This means that there is a divinely chosen leadership that aims to guide people in all matters. Both worldly issues and issues concerning faith and the next life. This leadership leads the way in accordance with the Prophet's (S) approach and is, therefore, a continuation of the prophetic line.2

Imamah Is A Divine Rank In Accordance With The Holy Qur’an

It has been established by God, via the Prophet (S), that the leadership after the Prophet (S) is by God’s decree. On closer reflection, it is not peculiar that the leadership whose aim is to protect the message and guide the people, is of a divine nature. Especially when bearing in mind the importance of the mission, its conditions and its purpose. This conclusion can be derived from the Qur’anic verse in which Prophet Ibrahim (‘a) was granted the position of Imam.3 Ibrahim (‘a), who was already a prophet, was named Imam subsequent to overcoming difficult trials successfully. God rewarded him by saying, ‘I will make you Imam.’

This event clarifies and establishes three things:

• God appointed the rank of Imamah

• The rank of Imamah was appointed as an upgrade

• The rank of Imamah is not appointed to sinners

Imamah is a divinely appointed status, with the condition to possess the same 'isma (infallibility) that a prophet possesses.4 In a well-known narration of Imam Al-Ridha’ (‘a), you get a glimpse of Imamahs’ high position, where Imam Al-Ridha’ (‘a) narrated in a long narration:

“Imamah is an equal position to prophecy [with the same course of action, but excluding the receiving of wahy (revelation)], and Imamah is the legacy of the prophets. Truly, Imamah is a representative of God and His Messenger. Indeed, Imamah is the leadership of religion, the Muslim’s governorship, a system of order, the refinement of the world and the glory of the faithful people.”5

L1. Why Is Imamah Needed?

Imamah is needed for the guidance and the message to be preserved and protected but above all, to be followed. There is a need for guides who continue to guide the people and protect the line of religion, even after the Prophet (S)6. There are clear and obvious examples for the need of guides in the course of history; not least in the preceding divine writings that have been subject to distortion. Islam is the final and most complete message. After Prophet Muhammad (S), no more prophets (‘a) are sent. Previously, the revealed scriptures had been distorted after a while, whereby a new prophet (‘a) was sent to re-emphasize the message of the former prophets (‘a) and guide the people back to the right path. But now this was the definitive religion that would forever offer guidance of people back to God, back to the creational aim. Therefore, God appointed guides for all people after the Prophet (S) to protect the message and guidance that the Prophet (S) brought, of which the first is Imam Ali (‘a) and the last is Imam Al-Mahdi (‘aj). Imam Ali (‘a) also said:

“Truly, the earth never ever becomes empty from one who stands up to God with divine proof, either while visible and striking, or scared and concealed so that God’s evidence and clear signs are not repealed.”7

The Prophet (S) was ordered to announce this notion to the people on several occasions and at different times. From the very first public call to religion up to the public announcement in Ghadir Khumm, in connection with the farewell pilgrimage.8 Evidently, Imamah is a precept of God. The importance of knowing and following the Imam of one’s time is emphasized in a hadith from/by the Prophet (S). The narration mentions that the lack of such knowledge/knowledge of one’s Imam at the point of death is equal to death in Jahiliyyah (the era of ignorance – the pre-Islamic era).9

If one understands the importance of Imamah and the purpose of this divine position, it is not difficult to understand why the one ignorant of the Imam (‘a) of his time, that is his leader, is equal to those who lived during the era of ignorance. A clear reason is that one’s own knowledge of religion10 is incomplete, and with it, one’s faith stands without protection. A person’s faith can easily be harmed by misconceptions and faults. Imamah preserves the true doctrine of belief. Thus, an infallible Imam (‘a), who holds a complete and protected faith, becomes a standard to conform to. They are our God-sent means to guidance.

Additionally, an Imam intends to guide and lead people to achieve their creational goals and actualize their highest potential. Without such guidance, people will get lost in the darkness of ignorance, unaware of either the goal, the direction or the approach needed to reach the goal.

We are therefore commanded to obtain guidance from the Imams (‘a), whose obedience is equal to that of the Prophet (S) and God.11 They are the perfect examples to follow and the true guides after the Prophet (S).12

L2. Why Does The Choice Of An Imam Have To Be In God’s Hands?

God appoints an infallible leader to secure/protect the message and the guidance of people. There are numerous Qur’anic verses and prophetic narrations that accentuate the fact that the Imams are chosen and commanded to follow by God.13 The Prophet (S), on God's order, told the people on several occasions about the coming Imams (‘a) and mentioned them by name.14

Who Else But God Is Justified In Appointing The Most Important Position That Will Guide People To The Creational Purpose?

The purpose of Islamic leadership is to guide people and protect religion. So that the truth always exists, regardless of the number of distortions and misguided paths that arise. Would then the choice of an absolute leader for people's guidance towards the goal of their existence be neglected or left unsaid? Would that choice be left to fallible people who can make mistakes in the choice they make? And who besides God is qualified to appoint such a leader?

There are many examples of choosing leaders in everyday life. Leaders are appointed to important missions on the basis of/according to a clear structured and well thought out plan. A current example is a way in which boards elect a CEO, i.e. a chief executive officer/managing director, to a company. It is considered the board's most important task to appoint a CEO. The person appointed will have an important role in the company, with a view to run it in the direction the management board has set as a goal. Hence, a CEO is selected with great care. The recruitment process is taken very seriously, and the applicant's skills, qualifications and previous record are carefully considered, which is both understandable and expected. Despite the rigorous process, it may occur that the wrong person gets chosen. The selected CEO can, in turn, causes a great deal of damage to the company.

Equivalent scenarios may occur in other people-elected contexts. How often have incorrect and inappropriate people been selected for major and important missions? How often have these elected leaders failed to complete the missions they have been assigned? How often has the person been wrong for the mission from the start, or was the right person but corrupted along the way? Even in cases where people succeed in their leadership, they, nevertheless, make several wrong decisions on the way.

Would God then give a board of people, with limited knowledge and insight, the responsibility to appoint the leader who will guide all of mankind to their creational aim? How will they know the core qualities of the various candidates? How will they be able to decide who is most suitable without any guarantee or insight into the future?

In addition, God equates the obedience to the appointed guide to His and his Prophets’ (S) obedience. As a guide of this calibre and with such a worldwide mission needs to have guardianship over/of the people. Would God demand total obedience and the following someone at risk of making mistakes or being corrupted on the way? And would God entrust the choice of such a leader to unversed people who themselves can make mistakes or be corrupt?

God is just and wise as He is merciful and completely free from defects and thus cannot be associated with such contradictions. And with the facts in hand, history bears a clear testimony of how the Islamic government and the people suffered enormous damage due to corrupt leaders.

How Else Should This Leader Be Appointed?

It is obvious that the Islamic denominations do not have a unified answer to this question. Let's take a look at history and how the choice of successors went about:

1. The choice of the first caliph was made at the time when Imam Ali (‘a) was performing the burial rites of the Prophet (S) and while the people were in a state of shock after the Prophet’s (S) passing. The first caliph was chosen from among a group of people who had gathered in a remote place. Many great personalities of the Prophet's (S) companions, especially Imam Ali (‘a), were not present at the gathering. The election came after a dispute in which a follower claimed that the first caliph had a greater right to become a caliph because of his kinship with the Prophet (S). Despite the fact that Imam Ali (‘a) was closest to the Prophet (S) in kinship and had been appointed successor by the Prophet (S) himself.

2. The second caliph was chosen by his predecessor, the first caliph.

3. The third caliph was chosen by a group of 6 people, all of whom were candidates for the caliphate. This was done in accordance with instructions from the second caliph, who himself selected these 6 candidates. These included Imam Ali (‘a). The second caliph had denied Imam Ali's (‘a) leadership a few years earlier as he argued that prophecy and leadership could not arise from the same household. Nevertheless, he chose Imam Ali (‘a) among his candidates.15

Considering that the manners detailed above contradict the Prophet's (S) requests, the question arises: which manner is the right one?

By Following The Ahl Al-Bayt (‘A) As The Prophet (S) Urged The Path Becomes Clear And All The Pieces Fall Into Place!

According to the caliphs, there were three different manners to appoint a leader. So, which is the right one? And how can it be obvious that the last Imam (‘aj) will be chosen by God but not the first Imam (‘a)?

Once again, there are puzzle pieces missing among today's Muslim denominations. In line with all ahadith, everyone acknowledges that there will be 12 leaders and the leader in the last era will be Imam Al-Mahdi (‘aj). While claiming that the leader is not appointed by God and they cannot list who the twelve leaders are, they acknowledge that Imam Al-Mahdi (‘aj) is from Ahl Al-Bayt (‘a) and the last of these leaders. Who are the first 11 in that case? The only Islamic denomination with a clear theme and which can give a clear answer to this question is the Shi’a school, Ahl Al-Bayts (‘a) followers who cling to the Qur’an and Ahl Al-Bayts’ (‘a) leadership and followers, such as the Prophet (S) commanded. The puzzle pieces that are missing are easy to find; via the Prophet (S) and his successors, the Imams (‘a) of the Ahl Al-Bayt (‘a). Then everything falls into place; all parts linking Imam Al-Mahdi (‘aj) to the Prophet (S) fall into place and make the whole picture clear and obvious. The right path is one and the same, according to clear Qur’anic edicts and prophetic narrations, the successors and guides are the twelve selected Imams from the Ahl Al-Bayt (‘a).16

The figure illustrates Ahl Al-Bayt’s (‘a) tree with the fourteen ma’soomin (infallible) – Prophet Muhammad (S), Fatimah az-Zahra’ (‘a) and the twelve Imams (‘a).

  • 1. This topic has been discussed earlier in the book; see D1.
  • 2. In this part of the book, a summary of the topic of Imamah is given with references to more detailed discussions earlier in the book. Consequently, this part should primarily have the function of a look back, which provides the reader with an overall picture to carry with them for the next part of the book that deals with the Imams (‘a) life more extensively.
  • 3. The subject has been dealt with extensively earlier in the book where Qur’anic evidence for the position of Imamah was presented; see F.
  • 4. The subject has been dealt with extensively earlier in the book; see F4.
  • 5. This is narrated i.a. in Usul Al-Kafi volume 1 p. 200. The subject Imamah has been dealt with extensively in the book Imamah by Ayatullah Makarim Shirazi (HA)
  • 6. The subject has been dealt with extensively, among other things, in connection with the question ‘why are guides needed’; see F and on.
  • 7. The following is part of a longer statement from Imam Ali (‘a) to his faithful companion Kumayl Ibn Ziyad, which is narrated in Nahjul Balagha’s Words of Wisdom 139.
  • 8. The subject has been dealt with extensively earlier in the book in connection with the Prophet's (S) history; see I2 and further on.
  • 9. In reference to the hadith mentioned in the previous chapter; see note 181.
  • 10. Note that religion does not only refer to specific acts of worship but it also includes one's view of life. One's faith is thus the view of life that determines one's way of life. In other words, man lives by what one believes in, and in this way, religion encompasses everything that concerns humanity and all aspects of one's life.
  • 11. In reference to the Holy Qur’an 4:59, which was dealt with extensively earlier in the book in connection with the account of the "Ul ‘ul-amr verse"; see F4 onwards. This fact is also ascertained through many other verses and ahadith including in connection with the Prophet's (S) hadith that obedience to Imam Ali (‘a) is obedience to the Prophet (S) and further obedience to God; see F4.
  • 12. The Imams (‘a), after the Prophet (S), are the best role models for people in all aspects and are, in fact, the living exemplification of the perfect man, the application of God's religion, the manifestation of His attributes and the realization of the statues. The khalifat-Allah (Deputy of God) on earth, for which God created man.
  • 13. The topic has been dealt with extensively earlier in the book. in connection with the question of Islam (infallibility); see F4.
  • 14. This has been presented both throughout the book, i.a. F3, and can be seen in several hadiths and depictions including in Prophet's (S) speech at Ghadir Khumm.
  • 15. Imam Ali (‘a) refers to these events in short and deep terms in the sermon of Shaqshaqiyya, sermon 3 in the book Nahjul Balagha. The historical narratives of the events follow later in the book; see P and further on.
  • 16. Most hadiths are mentioned throughout the book; see G5, among others.