Chapter 9: The Imāmate: The Esoteric Inheritance or the Bātin of the Prophet

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

They stress the fact that the Prophet and the Imām are from the same essence and the same light7 and what is said of one is applicable to any one of the twelve.8

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.

  • 1. Editor's Note: The nass or appointment of 'Alī and the succeeding Imāms is one of the issues stressed by Shaykh Mufīd in Kitāb al-irshād.
  • 2. Editor's Note: As Imām al-Sādiq explains, ”'Alī was a man of knowledge, and knowledge is inherited. And a man of knowledge never dies unless another one remains after him who knows his knowledge” (al-Kāfī, 156: hadīth 590). Imām al-Ridā wrote in a letter that “Muhammad was Allāh's custodian over His creatures. When he was taken, we, the Household, were his inheritors” (160, hadīth 598).
  • 3. Editor's Note: 'Ismah may also be translated as “a state of sinlessness.”
  • 4. Editor's Note: There can be no monarchy in Islām as can be seen in Imām Khumaynī's “The Incompatibility of Monarchy with Islām,” Islām and Revolution (Berkely: Mizan P, 1981): 200-208. The Imāmate was given to those appointed by Allāh, and was not necessarily from father to eldest son. As Imām al-Sādiq explains “Do you think that he who appoints a successor from among us, appoints anyone he wishes?
    No, by Allāh, indeed it is a covenant from the Messenger of Allāh to one man after another, until it comes down to the one who is entrusted with it” (Kulaynī 1:2, IV, 320: hadīth 739). In another hadīth he explains that “The Imāmate is a covenant from Allāh, to Whom belong Might and Majesty, which is entrusted to men who are named” (320: hadīth 738).
  • 5. Editor's Note: As Nasr explains, “Shī'ism believes that there is a 'Primordial Light' passed from one prophet to another and after the Prophet of Islām to the Imāms. This light protects the prophets and Imāms from sin, making them inerrant [ma'sūm], and bestows upon them the knowledge of divine mysteries” (Sūfī Essays 111).

    '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.

  • 6. Author's Note: See al-Kulaynī, al-Kāfī (Karachi 1965). There is also a more recent edition (Tehran 1400/1980).
    Editor's Note: al-Kāfī fī 'ilm al-dīn [The Sufficient in the Knowledge of Religion] is one of the “Four (Fundamental) Books” of the Shī'ites. The others include Man lā yahduruhu al-faqīh [For Him not in the Presence of a Jurist] by Shaykh al-Sadūq Muhammad ibn Bābawayh al-Qummī (d. 381/991), Tahdhīb al-ahkām (Rectification of the Statutes) by Shaykh Muhammad al-Tūsī (d. 460/1068) and al-Istibsār fī mā ukhtulifa fīhi min al-akhbār (Reflection upon the Disputed Traditions) also by al-Tūsī.
  • 7. Editor's Note: It is related that Imām Muhammad al-Bāqir said that “The first beings that Allāh created were Muhammad and his family, the rightly guided ones and the guides; they were the phantoms of light before Allāh” (Kulaynī 1: 279).
  • 8. Editor's Note: The Messenger of Allāh said of his Holy Household: “We are exactly the same as regards command, understanding, and what is lawful and what is unlawful” (Kulaynī 314: hadīth 728). As Nasr explains,
    The Imāms are like a chain of light issuing forth from the “Sun of Prophecy” which is their origin, and yet they are never separated from that Sun. Whatever is said by them emanates from the same inviolable treasure of inspired wisdom. Since they are an extension of the inner reality of the Blessed Prophet, their words really go back to him.
    That is why their sayings are seen in the Shī'ite perspective as an extension of the prophetic hadīth, just as the light of their being is seen as a continuation of the prophetic light. In Shī'ite eyes, the temporal separation of the Imāms from the Blessed Prophet does not at all affect their essential and inner bond with him or the continuity of the “prophetic light” which is the source of him as well as their inspired knowledge. (A Shī'ite Anthology 6-7)
  • 9. Editor's Note: The office of the Imāmate and Caliphate was meant, by divine design, to function as the Government of God on earth. The Prophet has said that: “He, who denies 'Alī his Imāmate after me, verily denies my Prophethood [nubuwwah]. And he who denies my Prophethood has denied Allāh His divinity” (Sadūq 107).
    He also stated that “The Imāms after me are twelve, the first of them is the Prince of Believers 'Alī ibn Abī Tālib, and the last of them is the Mahdī [rightly-guided], the Qā'im [the upholder of the true religion]; obedience to them is obedience to me and disobedience to them is disobedience to me; and who denies one of them has verily denied me” (108). Imām al-Sādiq has said that: “He who denies the last among us is like him who denies the first among us” (108). The following tradition from Imām al-Sādiq illustrates what is at stake when the authority of Ahlul Baytis forsaken:
    We are those obedience to whom Allāh has made an obligation. Nothing is proper for the people except to know, nor are the people absolved from being ignorant about us. He who knows us is a believer, and he who denies us is an unbeliever. He who neither knows us nor denies us is misguided, till he returns to the path of guidance, which Allāh has made an obligation for him as a binding obligation to us. If he dies in misguidance, Allāh will do with him whatever he pleases. (Kulaynī 60 hadīth 489)
    The Imām has also issued the following firm warning: “Whoever dies without having known and acknowledged the Imām of his Age dies as an infidel” (Kulaynī I 318). Recognition of the Imām is an absolute duty of every believer. Loving the Household of the Prophet is mandatory. As we read in the Holy Qur'ān:
    “No reward do I ask of you for this except the love of those near of kin” (42:23)
    This is not to imply that failure to recognize the Imāms is an act of disbelief. As Ayātullāh Mutahharī clarifies in Islām and Religious Pluralism:
    The verses and traditions that indicate that the actions of those who deny Prophethood or Imāmate are not acceptable are with a view to denial out of obstinacy and bias; however, denial that is merely a lack of confession out of incapacity (qusūr)–rather than out ofculpability (taqsīr)–is not what the verses and traditions are about.In the view of the Qur'ān, such deniers are considered musta'af (powerless) and murjawn li'amr illah (those whose affair is referred to God's command).
  • 10. Editor's Note: Sunnism is primarily ritualistic while Sūfism is primarily spiritualistic. Shī'ism presents a balance between the ritual and the spiritual. As Nasr explains, “Sūfism does not possess a sharī'ah; it is only a spiritual way [tarīqah] attached to a particular Sharī'ite rite such as the Mālikī or Shāfi'ī. Shī'ism possesses both a sharī'ah and a tarīqah” (Sūfī Essays 107).