Imamah is often translated into English into the word “Imamate,” however the more correct literal translation would be ‘’Leadership.’’
It derives its name from the Arabic term “Amam” meaning ‘’to be in front of.’’
Imamah is one of the 5 Usul al-Din of Shi'a Islam and refers to the station of the 12 Infallible Leaders who were designated by God to preserve the religion after the death of the Prophet Muhammad (s.a.w).
These Imams are protected by God from committing any sins whether minor or major.
Through these divinely appointed leaders, God safeguarded the religion as they protect the Sunnah of the Holy Prophet from undergoing any alteration at the hands of fallible men.
Within Islam, the most important areas of belief which define the key theological creed of a Muslim are known as the Usul al-Din (Pillars of Religion). These beliefs are so important in Islam that to reject any one of the Usul al-Din would be tantamount to disbelief.
Imamah, or Imamate as it translated into English, commonly forms one of the five Usul al-Din of the religion. Imamah, ''temporal and spirutual leadership'' derives its name from the Arabic root term “A-M-M” which means ''something comes in front of'' or ''leads other things''.
The term “Imamah” signifies the concept of leadership and the one whom Muslims should follow.
Shi'a theologians cite Qur’anic verses from the Prophetic traditions (ahadith) or rationally derived, logically based arguments, to conclude that Imamah is a necessity and is a duty appointed by God in order to guide the believers after the departure of the Holy Prophet.
The philosophy behind Imamah being a rational understanding that without perpetual direct revelation in the sense of Prophethood and messengers being sent, there must be a link between mankind and the Divine which allows the office of Divine guidance to continue after the finality of Prophethood. Without such a link, or figure, it would not be guaranteed that mistakes could be made in the understanding and transmission of the pure, authentic and original Islam that was brought to mankind via the Holy Prophet.
In order to ensure that such a task would be achieved, the Shi'a assert that the Imam (holder of the office of the Imamah) must be Divinely protected by God from making mistakes in order to prevent any errors in the Imam’s teachings, or in his explanation of the law, which could have devastating consequences on the believer’s understanding of the Law. This is due to the fact that it is through the Imams that believers understand the religion. In this sense the doctrine of Imamah is one of an infallible protected Imam who is guided by God in order to guide others.
Based upon numerous Prophetic statements, the Imams are recognized as being twelve individuals namely:
- Imam Ali (a.s)
- Imam Hasan (a.s)
- Imam Husayn (a.s)
- Imam Ali Zayn Al-Abidin (a.s)
- Imam Muhammad Al-Baqir (a.s)
- Imam Ja’far Al-Sadiq (a.s)
- Imam Musa Al-Kadhim (a.s)
- Imam Ali Al-Ridha (a.s)
- Imam Muhammad Al-Jawad (also al-Taqi) (a.s)
- Imam Ali Al-Hadi (also Al-Naqi) (a.s)
- Imam Hasan Al-Askari (a.s)
- Imam Muhammad Al-Mahdi (a.s). Imam Al-Mahdi (a.s) is the living but concealed Imam.
These Imams were all appointed by God on the basis of Divine selection of the best individuals to carry out this responsibility. The Phophet himself and the Imams acted upon the instruction of God. None of the Imams nor the Prophet himself selected any of the Imams rather they are merely instructed to bequeath their station to the one who had been designated by God.
The Imams, according to Islamic doctrine, must also be the most knowledgable amongst the people by default in order to overcome falsehood and attract people to their piety, knowledge and wisdom.
Imamate (al-Imamah) is one of the five Pillars of Faith for Twelver Shi'a which is necessary for one to accept in order to be considered a believer in Islam.
It is a rather contentious issue and is most probably the most highly debated pillar of the religion due to the scope of its recognition and inability of some individuals to distinguish it from Prophethood.
The belief in al-Imamah encompasses the belief that after the finality and the cessation of Prophethood, which God communicated to mankind through a conduit for his revelation, He continues to guide mankind using an individual, Divinely appointed by God. He commissions the chosen individual to preserve the religion and give the correct interpretation of the religion and its laws. The position of Imamate therefore must be understood in its Shi’a context in any discussion pertaining to it as a pillar of Shi'a religion as it is radically different in its conception in the other schools of Islam which can often reduce the concept to a purely political position as opposed to a Divinely sanctioned and appointed one.
Meaning and Etymology
The term ‘Imamah’ literally could be translated as ‘temporal and spiritual leadership’ and the term ‘Imam’ refers to a Leader, one who comes in front of the rest, hence in religious terms, the prayer leader of the congregational prayer of the Muslims is often called the Imam.
Allamah Tabataba’i (d.1980) defines Imam in its broader generic sense as “the title given to a person who takes the lead in a community in a particular social movement or political ideology or scientific or religious thought.”
The Role of an Imam
According to reason, if Muhammad was the Last of the Prophets and Messengers, and Prophethood was the previous link of Guidance from God to mankind, unless God was unjust, the link of Guidance sent from God would have to continue via another means of reaching mankind other than Prophethood. Since one of the names of God is ‘al-Adil,’ then it is only fitting that another institution is set into place in order to guide mankind.
As the Holy Qur’an states in Surah 13: Ayah 7:
"Indeed you are but a messenger, and to every people there is a guide."
Every nation is to have a guide of its own and that guidance would not be fulfilled without the presence of a guide contemporary to us and a guide for all past, present and future.
The Prophet plays the role of an enlightened guide and law-giver, able to distinguish between justice and injustice, and to remind man of the existence of the Creator, the Imam carries a similar function.
In the Qur’an verse 35:24, it is said that there is no nation except that there has passed amongst them a warner. Similarly, the Imams are warners sent to call people back to the Worship of God, much like the Prophets did prior to them.
According to leading theologians and philosophers, an Imam must also by necessity be an Infallible being, refraining from sin and mistakes by his own power and will as it is their duty to preserve and convey the original pure teachings of the Prophet Muhammad (s.a.w). If they are not infallible they will cause confusion among the people. Their infallibility is no different from the Prophet’s own infallibility in this sense.
The Imams would fall under the category of people described in the Holy Qur’an as:
‘Honoured servants who speak not until He has spoken and act by His command’ (21;26-7)
Hence, in Akhlaq (ethics), and every area of human morals and values, they reached the pinnacle and did not fall prey to the base desires that most other human beings have allowed themselves to be resorted to. There can be none on earth more deserving to be followed; otherwise that person by necessity would have been chosen by God to be the Imam.
In terms of understanding the station of the Imam, many have been confused to the point of accusing the Shi’a of extremism and exaggeration, however, it should be made clear as is summarised by Allamah al-Mudhaffar (1963AD):
“We believe that they are human beings like ourselves, i.e. that if they do good they are rewarded and if they commit sin they are punished. Indeed, they are honoured servants and Allah has given them great dignity and authority, for they have the highest perfections, namely knowledge, goodness, bravery, generosity, chastity and every virtue and worthy quality. Nobody can equal them as far as morality is concerned. Thus, they deserve to be Imams; guides and authorities after the Prophet in those matters in which people require help: religious commandments (Ahkam), judgement (Hukm), legislation (Tashri'), and the commentary (tafsir) and interpretation (ta'wil) of the Qur'an.”
Imam’s Role in Legislation
The Imam is unable to legislate anything which is in contradiction to the Shar’iah of the Prophet Muhammad (s.a.w.) becuase their role is purely to interpret the Shar’iah of the Prophet Muhammad (s.a.w) and explain the issues which have arisen since his lifetime within the context of his teachings.
The Imams receive their knowledge through the transmission of Prophetic wisdom from the Prophet to the Imam and onto Imam's successor and so on. The Imams are also inspirated by God in order to provide guidance to people.
How Imams are Appointed
The belief of the Shi'a is that the Imams are recognized through Nass or explicit designation, the first of such designations took place at Ghadir Khumm during which the Holy Prophet explicitly appointed Imam ‘Ali (a.s) as his successor, and it is incumbent upon every Imam thereafter to explicitly name his successor. However the Imam does not choose his successor, rather the choice has been made by God Himself.
For those who have not had access to the previous Imam, in order to understand who the Imamate has been transferred to, there was always an alternative means to recognize the Imam of their time, either by questioning him on issues of religion or via the miracles that were bestowed upon the Imams in order for them to gain the recognition of the people around them.
There are numerous evidences put forward by the Imams themselves, their companions as well as the early Shi’a theologians, pertaining to the nature of Imamah and the qualities required of an Imam. These arguments can subsequently be divided into three categories:
Qur’an Arguments in regards to Imamate and the nature of the Imam
- Arguments based upon narrations of the Holy Prophet
- Rational Arguments
1. The Qur’anic Arguments for Imamah:
"Indeed, your guardian is Allah, and the Prophet, and those who believe, those establish prayer and give out charity, even while they are bowed in prayer."
The reason for revelation of this particular verse is said to be that during the time that Imam Ali (a.s.) was in prayer, a jewish beggar had entered the mosque and was appealing for charity. Imam Ali (a.s.) was the only one who offered the beggar anything, by giving away his ring whilst bowing in prayer. The acceptance of this narrative as the reason for the revelation of this Ayah is not something restricted to Shi’a commentaries of the Qur'an (tafsir) and it is actually the prevalent view in the majority of early Sunni books of Tafsir, including the highly authoritative commentary of Ibn Kathir. The term used in this Ayah for “Guardian” is the Arabic word “Wali” which derives from the same three letter root which “Mawla” is taken from and therefore is seen as giving “Wilayah” (also from the same three letter root) to Imam ‘Ali.
"Obey God, and obey the Messenger, and those vested with authority from among you."
This verse is recognized as another indication of the Divine station of Imamah being alluded to clearly in the Qur’an. The verse clearly recognizes the unconditional obedience of three particular individuals, namely Allah, the Messenger and those entrusted by God with authority from amongst the Muslims. Shi’a scholars argue that reference to Imamah in this verse directly after the mention of the authority of God and Prophet Muhammad (s.a.w), is proof of the Infallible nature of the Imams. For this reason, it is interesting to observe the conclusion derived by the famous Sunni Qur'an commentator Fakhr al-Din al-Razi who states that the one who possesses authority in the verse must be Infallible:
"Indeed, Allah the Exalted has ordered certain obedience to the holders of authority. If anybody's obedience is ordered with clear certainty by Allah, then that person must be infallible from all mistakes. If he was not infallible, then this would mean that Allah would be ordering a person to commit an error. This would mean that a command and a prohibition would be simultaneously united, and this is impossible. Therefore, it is proved that if Allah orders the obedience of any person with certainty, it is necessary that that person be infallible. Therefore, the holders of authority are infallible."
Surah 2: 30
"Indeed, I am He who places a vicegerent in the Earth."
This verse is particularly insightful in light of the verse of the Qur’an in chapter Azhab, verse 62 (33:62) which states:
"You will not find any change in the sunnah of Allah."
This refers to the fact that it is part of the Sunnah, or way of Allah, to place within the earth a vicegerent (Khalifah) and that the Sunnah of Allah is unchanging. It is still part of God’s ordained practice to continually place within the earth a Khalifah at every time. Hence, Shi’a scholars infer from this verse that the Imam must be one who is designated and chosen by Allah to lead the people. It would not make sense for this Khalifah, who is placed in the earth by Allah, to be misleading people in terms of making fallible decisions.
Surah 21: 73
“And we made the Imams, guiding by our command."
This is another clear verse which shows that Imamah is a designated station by the command of Allah, and due to the fact the Imam guides according to the command of God, it would not be possible for them to offer misguidance.
Surah 33: Ayah 33
"Indeed God wishes to repel from you all impurities, people of the house, and to purify you with a thorough purification."
The verse quoted above, known as Ayat al-Tatheer (The Verse of Purification), is one of the verses used by the Imams (a.s.) and Shi’a scholars to demonstrate the Purification from all impurities of the 14 Infallibles by Allah (s.w.t.). It is clearly linked to the famous narrative of Hadith al-Kisa. This verse was revealed onto the Ahl al-Kisa, namely the Prophet Muhammad (s.a.w), Sayyeda Fatima al-Zahra (a.s), Imam ‘Ali (a.s), Imam Hassan (a.s) and Imam Husayn (a.s).
The scholars of the Qur’an hold that seeing as these individuals have been purified and made Infallible, according to this verse of the Qur’an, their position as leaders of the Ummah for the Divine station of Imamah is unambiguous.
Imamah in the Hadiths of the Holy Prophet
There are numerous incidents in the lifetime of the Holy Prophet which allude to the divinely sanctioned station of Imamah and the Prophet’s propagation of the position of Imam Ali (a.s) as his successor. The most obvious ones include:
- Hadith al-Wilayah
- Hadith al-Manzila
- Hadith al-Thaqalayn
- Khutbah al-Ghadeer
1. Hadith al-Wilayah:
Hadith al-Wilayah is a narration which includes numerous variations, however, one can generally ascertain from the narration that it was stated by the Holy Prophet in response to complaints and slandering of Imam ‘Ali (a.s) by other Sahaba (companions) upon returning from Yemen.
The various narrations all share common phrases.
“What do you want from Ali? What do you want from Ali? What do you want from Ali? Certainly, Ali is from me and I am from him, and he is the Wali of the believers after me!". “Do not complain against Ali, for he is from me and I am from him, and he is your Wali after me. He is from me and I am from him, and he is your Wali after me
This Hadith clearly illustrates the Leadership of Imam ‘Ali (a.s) after the Holy Prophet. Furthermore, Imam ‘Ali (a.s) is described as being from the Holy Prophet, a very unique attribute which is given to other members of the Ahlulbayt such as Imam Husayn (a.s) and Lady Fatimah (a.s), showing their unique status above others.
2. Hadith al-Manzila
Prophet [s] to Ali: ''You are to me as Harun was to Musa, except there is no Prophet after me''
Hadith al-Manzila is a commonly quoted Hadith from amongst the merits of Imam ‘Ali (a.s) and is often cited as a specific Hadith in demonstrating the closeness of Imam ‘Ali (a.s) to the Holy Prophet and particularly the unique role of Imam ‘Ali (a.s) in the mission of the Holy Prophet. It is recognized as being Mutawatir, which is a Hadith that has been transmitted by so many individuals through different chains to the extent that it is undoubtedly from the words of the Holy Prophet and unanimously recognized as being so.
It is sometimes contested that this is not an allusion to the Imamah of Imam ‘Ali (a.s) as it was Yushu’ bin Noon who was the Successor and Prophet of the Prophet Musa after his lifetime and that Harun died prior to Moses. The comparison can be seen as valid by analyzing Qur’anic statements regarding the narrative of Musa (a.s) and Harun (a.s)such as:
“And indeed We gave Musa (a.s) the Book and We did appoint with him Harun (a.s) as an Apostle and his Vizier” (25:35).
“and Musa (a.s) said to his brother Harun (a.s): Take my place among my people.” (7:142)
The term used in the second Ayah (7:142) for “Take my place” is “Ukhulfni” derived from the same root word for “Khalifah,” this demonstrates that Harun took the place of Nabi Musa (a.s)whilst Nabi Musa (a.s) was inaccessible.
Hence, after the Prophet passed away, Imam ‘Ali (a.s) took the place of the Prophet Muhammad (s.a.w) and, much like Harun (a.s), found himself in a situation in which the people began to deviate.
The following Hadith validates that point:
“Except there is no Prophet after me”
Namely that unlike the situation of Musa, in which there was a Prophet (Yushu’) to replace him, there would be no such figure after the Prophet Muhammad and hence Imam ‘Ali would continue to act in the position of leadership.
3. Hadith al-Thaqalayn
Hadith al-Thaqalayn is another undisputed mutawatir tradition of the Holy Prophet which is found within the books of both the Shi’a and the Sunni.
It has been narrated so frequently that is impossible for it to be contested. Although it has also been narrated in certain variations, the key text is clear.
"I am leaving among you something which is very important and should be followed, you will not go astray if you get hold of it after I am gone, one part of it being more important than the other: Allah's Book, which is a rope stretched from Heaven to Earth, and my close relatives, who belong to my household. These two will not separate from one another till they come down to the reservoir, so consider how you act regarding them after my departure."
The Hadith has also been called the Hadith of the Khalifatayn as some variants include the term “Khalifah” (Successor) as opposed to “Thaqal” (Important/Weight). However this Hadith is used to show the fact that the Family of the Prophet, namely the five mentioned in the verse of Purification and their successors, are the second important object which will never separate from the Qur’an which has been left behind by the Prophet.
4. Hadith al-Ghadir
The most commonly quoted source for the open declaration of the Nass (designation) of Imam ‘Ali (a.s) as the direct successor to the Holy Prophet Muhammad (s.a.w), is the Hadith or Sermon known as ‘The Sermon of Ghadir.’
It is one of the most important final acts of the Holy Prophet where he announced the Leadership of Imam ‘Ali (a.s) to masses of Muslims and openly took the pledge of allegiance from them for Imam ‘Ali (a.s). This hadith is recognized by all Muslims due to the large amount of narrations and narrators.
It will suffice to quote the key part which afirms to the Leadership of Imam ‘Ali (a.s):
The Prophet of God asked: “Do I not possess more authority over the believers than themselves?” They replied Yes! Then the Holy Prophet said “Whoever I am the mawla (master) of, Ali is their master”.
This Hadith is used due to the term “mawla" (master) being conferred upon Imam ‘Ali (a.s) in the Prophet’s saying “Whoever I am mawla of, Ali is his mawla.” Some have pointed out that the term mawla can embody 40 meanings and that master may not be the appropriate one, rather friend could be a more appropriate translation. However, Shi'a and some Sunni scholars have rebutted this argument in a number of ways, one of the main counter arguments is the context of the Prophet'''s statement.
“Do I not posses more authority (awla) over the believers than themselves”
This gives the key for interpreting the next sentence because “awla” and “mawla” are derived from the same root word and the Prophet was clearly contextualizing his next sentence.
The classical Arabic linguist IbnMandur in Lisaan al Arab, volume 15, pg 402 defines Mawlaas:
“Mawla is guardian who has authority over people.”
What is also striking about this hadith is that the Messenger of Allah chose to make this announcement of the Leadership of Imam ‘Ali in front of thousands of Muslims on his return from Hajj, in an isolated part of the desert, which arguably would not be necessary or fitting for an announcement of mere friendship.
Imamah as a Rational Necessity
This has long been debated by Mu’tazilis, who prefer rationality over scripture. This sparked a theological debate with the Companions of the Imams (a.s.), who prepared a rational defense of the Imamah to satisfy the Mu’tazalis.
The earliest reference to a book written by an Imami in refutation of other schools of thought regarding the doctrine of Imamah, is said to be the text of Ali b. Ismail b. Maytham al-Ṭayyar [sic] who wrote a book defending the theological basis for Imamate in response to Mutazila Abu al-Huthayl al-Allaf (226AH/841AD) and Abu Ishaq al-Nazzam (231AH/845AD).
Among the greatest of the Imami scholars to provide a conclusive summary, Shaykh al-Mufid provides an excellent synopsis of the doctrine:
The Imamate is a divine position, for the spiritual and temporal leadership of the Muslims. It is a grace from Allah bestowed on His bondsmen, making it second to Prophethood. The Imam is appointed by Allah through the prophet. He must be inerrant with respect to grave wrongdoings and petty misdemeanors. There must be, at all times, an impeccable Imam who is the proof of Allah to mankind. His presence is the safeguard of complete religious interests. He must be knowledgeable in all religious sciences. The appointment of the Imam by Allah is an act of grace from Him towards His bondsmen. And the graciousness of sending the prophet and appointing the Imam are incumbent upon Allah. The Imamites [i.e. Twelver Shi'a] are of the view that the inerrant Imams are best among their contemporaries of different times and in all fields, in knowledge and intellectual capacity. They do not know the unseen, but they know the intentions of people through a process of inspiration imbued by Allah.
Imamah remains to this very day a highly debated issue within Islamic theology and the writings on the topic are extensive.
Al-Mufid, Mohammed b. al-Nuʿman, Tashih al-iʿtiqad (Tabriz, 1951)
Al-Mufid, Mohammed b. al-Nuʿman, Awaʼil al-maqalat (Tehran, 1993)
Al-Hilli, Hassan b. al-Mutahhar, kashf al-murad fi sharhtajrid al-iʿtiqad (Qum, 2004)
Al-Hilli, Hassan b. al-Mutahhar, al-bab al-hadiʿashar (Tehran, 2006)
Al-Mudhaffar, Mohammed Rida, ʿaqaʼid al-imamiyyah (Najaf, 2004)
Al-Shubbar, ʿAbd Allah, haqq al-yaqin fi maʿrifat usul al-Din (Beirut, 1983)
1Ar-Razi, At-Tafsir al-Kabir, vol. 1, p. 144