Lecture 18 in the Ramadaan series:
UNPACKING THE MOST INTRIGUING QUESTIONS IN THE QURAN
Tuesday 12 May 2020 (19th Night of Ramadaan 1441)
Ahlul Bait (a.s) Masjid, Ottery, Cape Town
Mowlana Syed Aftab Haider
In this first probable night of Qadr, being the 19th night of Ramadaan, we are in the service of the Quran, trying to understand and unpack some of the questions related to the Holy Book of Almighty Allah (SWT). This first probable night of Qadr is the night of Quran and receiving the blessings of the Holy Quran.
We hope and pray that may Almighty Allah (SWT) include us amongst those who enlighten their hearts, minds and souls with the Noor of the Holy Quran and that it reflects in our practical life through our actions.
May Almighty Allah (SWT) keep us with the Holy Quran in this world and grant us the intercession of the Quran and keep us in the company of people who are in the service of the Quran in the Hereafter, Insha Allah.
This night of the 19th Ramadaan reminds us of that tragic event in Islamic history with the martyrdom and assassination of our master and leader, and Commander of the Faithful, Amir al-Mu’mineen Imam Ali ibn abi Talib (a.s).
We will dedicate these nights to address the question relating to both subjects ie. Quran and associated questions, and at the same time address our second subject which is the personality, status and position of our master, Amir al-Mu’mineen Imam Ali ibn abi Talib (a.s).
IMAMAT IS THE KEY DISTINCTION BETWEEN US AND MAINSTREAM MUSLIMS
Indeed, we as the followers of the Ahlul Bait (a.s) or Shia share with the rest of Muslims and the broader schools in the house of Islam most of our belief system (Aqeedah). However, there is one very important and striking feature where we differ with the rest of the mainstream Muslim position very strongly and profoundly. This is of course on the issue of Imamat or leadership.
This is a point of contention and in simple words, it makes us different.
We believe that Imamat or leadership is part of our Aqeedah (belief system), in the same way that we have Tauheed (belief in one Allah (SWT) and His justice and all His attributes) and the divinity of His Prophets (a.s) and the finality of our beloved Prophet Muhammad (SAWA) and we believe in the Hereafter.
Similarly, we also believe in the doctrine of Imamat (leadership). For us, this is not secondary to our other tenets of faith noted above. It is not secondary or lower down the list of our belief system. We believe that the matter of leadership is principle and part of our Usul-e-Deen (Roots of Religion). Therefore, one of the names given to us, very rightfully, is Imamia. This means a sect or a school of thought which believes in Imamat as part of the faith (Aqeedah).
Imamat is the most important distinction between us and our fellow Muslim brethren, because we share in all the other principles of faith, although we may differ in the details. Let us be clear, that our fellow Muslim brethren also believe in Imamat as a necessity of life, because any society, community, nation cannot survive without leadership. That said, they do not believe it is significant enough for it to be part of the Islamic ideology (Aqeedah).
This is where we differ on the doctrine of Imamat. While they regard it as a secondary issue, we regard it is a fundamental part of the Roots of Religion.
CAN WE PROVE IMAMAT DIRECTLY FROM THE QURAN?
It is on this basis where the question emerges with a very heavy-handed approach, that we constantly talk about Imamat, but where is this other than in a few Hadith narrations of our beloved Prophet Muhammad (SAWA)?
And then, according to them, these Hadith are also up for question regarding its authenticity. If this issue of Imamat is so crucial to our belief system, then why is it not discussed in the Holy Quran directly, since we all regard the Holy Quran as the comprehensive, complete divine message from Almighty Allah (SWT)?
In simple terms, their challenge is, can you prove the institution of Imamat purely based upon the Holy Quran, without the help of Hadith and the Prophetic Sunnah?
Insha Allah, these questions will all be clarified in this four-part series of discussions.
The first point of response to these questions is that with all due respect, we find this question on where Imamat is discussed in the Holy Quran to be particularly surprising, especially considering the very strong culture of memorization (Hifz) of the Holy Quran amongst mainstream Muslims.
A. THE TERM IMAM IS MENTIONED 12 TIMES IN THE QURAN
Before we delve deep into responding to this question, I would like to respond literally to this question, by drawing your attention to the fact that the Holy Quran has used the term Imam in its singular form and plural form (A’immah) 12 times!
The word Imam is used in eight of these instances in reference to human beings; twice in reference to the divine book; once in reference to the straight path and once in reference to that Heavenly preserved tablet which has the secrets to all of the universe and existence (Lauhim Mahfuz).
Hence, one becomes perplexed by this question in the context to the 12 instances noted above. Imamat is not a new fashionable concept which we as Shia have introduced to Islam. It is directly mentioned in the Quran, as noted above.
Similarly, those who challenge our doctrine of Imamat question where does this term Shia come from? There is nothing like this in the Holy Quran, according to them. While we will not go down this path, suffice to say that the Holy Quran does include the term Shia as well.
- IMAMAT OF PROPHETS EXPLAINED IN THE QURAN
I would like to now draw your attention to the references in the Holy Quran where the term Imam is used. The term Imam is used eight times for Prophets, of which one example is in reference to Nabi Ibrahim (a.s) being appointed as an Imam, in verse 124 of Surah Baqarah (chapter 2 of the Holy Quran):
وَإِذِ ابْتَلَىٰ إِبْرَاهِيمَ رَبُّهُ بِكَلِمَاتٍ فَأَتَمَّهُنَّ ۖ قَالَ إِنِّي جَاعِلُكَ لِلنَّاسِ إِمَامًا ۖ
And remember that Abraham was tried by his Lord with certain commands, which he fulfilled: He said: “I will make thee an Imam to the Nations.”
Similarly, in verse 73 of Surah Anbiyaa (chapter 21 of the Holy Quran):
وَجَعَلْنَاهُمْ أَئِمَّةً يَهْدُونَ بِأَمْرِنَا وَأَوْحَيْنَا إِلَيْهِمْ فِعْلَ الْخَيْرَاتِ وَإِقَامَ الصَّلَاةِ وَإِيتَاءَ الزَّكَاةِ ۖ وَكَانُوا لَنَا عَابِدِينَ
And We made them leaders, guiding (men) by Our Command, and We sent them inspiration to do good deeds, to establish regular prayers, and to practise regular charity; and they constantly served Us (and Us only).
Those who are familiar with the Holy Quran will know that this verse is referring to Nabi Ibrahim (a.s), Nabi Ishaq (a.s), Nabi Yaqoob (a.s) and Nabi Lut (a.s).
Another similar reference is verse 24 of Surah Sajda (chapter 32 of the Holy Quran):
وَجَعَلْنَا مِنْهُمْ أَئِمَّةً يَهْدُونَ بِأَمْرِنَا لَمَّا صَبَرُوا ۖ وَكَانُوا بِآيَاتِنَا يُوقِنُونَ
And We appointed, from among them, leaders, giving guidance under Our command, so long as they persevered with patience and continued to have faith in Our Signs.
These are some examples to prove that the Holy Quran has used the term Imam (leader) for Prophets.
- IMAMAT OF NON-PROPHETS EXPLAINED IN THE QURAN
This is very important to note. An example is verse 74 of Surah Furqaan (chapter 25 of the Holy Quran), when defining the qualities of Ibadur Rahman (Servants of the Most Merciful):
وَالَّذِينَ يَقُولُونَ رَبَّنَا هَبْ لَنَا مِنْ أَزْوَاجِنَا وَذُرِّيَّاتِنَا قُرَّةَ أَعْيُنٍ وَاجْعَلْنَا لِلْمُتَّقِينَ إِمَامًا
And those who pray, “Our Lord! Grant unto us wives and offspring who will be the comfort of our eyes, and give us (the grace) to lead the righteous.”
We can see from this verse that the term Imam is not applied on the Prophets of Almighty Allah (SWT). It is the pious servants of Almighty Allah (SWT) who are raising their hands in prayer, asking to be made leaders of the righteous.
Another verse in this regard is the very well-known verse 5 of Surah Qasas (chapter 28 of the Holy Quran):
وَنُرِيدُ أَنْ نَمُنَّ عَلَى الَّذِينَ اسْتُضْعِفُوا فِي الْأَرْضِ وَنَجْعَلَهُمْ أَئِمَّةً وَنَجْعَلَهُمُ الْوَارِثِينَ
And We desired to bestow a favor upon those who were deemed weak in the land, and to make them the Imams, and to make them the heirs.
Again, this is very clear, the oppressed being made heirs in the earth (Imams) are clearly not Prophets.
- IMAMAT OF BAD PEOPLE EXPLAINED IN THE QURAN
Thirdly, the Holy Quran does not only call pious, divine leaders like Prophets or the Ibadur Rahman or the Mustadafin, but even the leaders of kufr (disbelief) are referred to by the term Imam. An example is verse 12 of Surah Tauba (chapter 9 of the Holy Quran):
وَإِنْ نَكَثُوا أَيْمَانَهُمْ مِنْ بَعْدِ عَهْدِهِمْ وَطَعَنُوا فِي دِينِكُمْ فَقَاتِلُوا أَئِمَّةَ الْكُفْرِ ۙ إِنَّهُمْ لَا أَيْمَانَ لَهُمْ لَعَلَّهُمْ يَنْتَهُونَ
And if they break their oaths after their agreement and (openly) revile your religion, then fight the leaders of unbelief– surely their oaths are nothing– so that they may desist.
Another example of Imam in this negative context is verse 41 of Surah Qasas (chapter 28 of the Holy Quran):
وَجَعَلْنَاهُمْ أَئِمَّةً يَدْعُونَ إِلَى النَّارِ ۖ وَيَوْمَ الْقِيَامَةِ لَا يُنْصَرُونَ
And We made them Imams who call to the fire, and on the day of resurrection they shall not be assisted.
So here, in response to those leaders calling to the command of Almighty Allah (SWT), we find this verse referring to the corrupt leaders calling to the Hellfire!
- IMAMAT OF THE GOOD AND BAD EXPLAINED IN THE QURAN
The fourth aspect is that sometimes the Holy Quran uses the term Imam to refer to something much broader, which is all-encompassing, including Prophets, good leaders and also leaders of falsehood. Verse 71 of Surah Israa (chapter 17 of the Holy Quran) refers:
يَوْمَ نَدْعُو كُلَّ أُنَاسٍ بِإِمَامِهِمْ ۖ فَمَنْ أُوتِيَ كِتَابَهُ بِيَمِينِهِ فَأُولَٰئِكَ يَقْرَءُونَ كِتَابَهُمْ وَلَا يُظْلَمُونَ فَتِيلًا
One day We shall call together all human beings with their (respective) Imams: those who are given their record in their right hand will read it (with pleasure), and they will not be dealt with unjustly in the least.
Here the reference to Imam is for any leader, good or bad.
- IMAMAT OF THE DIVINE BOOK AND STRAIGHT PATH EXPLAINED IN THE QURAN
As noted earlier, the Holy Quran also uses the term Imam to refer to the divine book, mainly referring to the Torah revealed to Nabi Moosa (a.s). An example is this excerpt from verse 17 of Surah Hud (chapter 11 of the Holy Quran):
وَمِنْ قَبْلِهِ كِتَابُ مُوسَىٰ إِمَامًا وَرَحْمَةً ۚ
And before it (is) the Book of Musa, a guide and a mercy.
An example where the term Imam is used in reference to the straight path is verse 79 of Surah Hijr (chapter 15 of the Holy Quran):
فَانْتَقَمْنَا مِنْهُمْ وَإِنَّهُمَا لَبِإِمَامٍ مُبِينٍ
So We exacted retribution from them. They were both on an open highway, plain to see.
- IMAMAT OF THE HEAVENLY PRESERVED TABLET EXPLAINED IN THE QURAN
Another example where the term Imam is used in reference to the divine book is verse 12 of Surah Yaseen (chapter 36 of the Holy Quran). According to the religious scholars, this Book refers to the Heavenly Tablet (Lauhim Mahfuz):
إِنَّا نَحْنُ نُحْيِي الْمَوْتَىٰ وَنَكْتُبُ مَا قَدَّمُوا وَآثَارَهُمْ ۚ وَكُلَّ شَيْءٍ أَحْصَيْنَاهُ فِي إِمَامٍ مُبِينٍ
Verily We shall give life to the dead, and We record that which they send before and that which they leave behind, and of all things have We taken account in a clear Book (of evidence).
With this synopsis of a whistle-stop tour of the Holy Quran, we understand the different references to the term Imam in the Quranic context. Imam and Imamat is not strange to the Quran and is not a foreign concept.
B. HOW DOES IMAMAT BENEFIT US ON THE DAY OF JUDGEMENT?
The second point I wish to expound upon is on the question of where our concept of Imamat has been discussed in the Holy Quran. Numerous verses cited above (not all) present the discussion on Imamat quite clearly. You can look forward to the next discussion where we will address the qualities of an Imam. We will then understand who qualifies to be an Imam, based upon these verses of the Holy Quran.
This means that the Holy Quran does not only explain the term Imam, but rather, it also explains the status of an Imam, and the qualities and attributes required of an Imam. We will understand from this discussion, who is capable of being an Imam from the Quranic perspective.
- EVERY NATION IS CALLED BY THEIR IMAM ON THE DAY OF JUDGEMENT
The Quran is saying that on the Day of Judgement, our recognition or identity card is through our Imam. Then, supporting this we have the Hadith recorded overwhelmingly in Sunni and Shia resources that the one who dies not knowing the Imam of his time dies the death of an ignorant ie. a Jahil like those people before Islam!
What we understand from this is the connection between death as a Jahil and Imamat. This is not a Shia Hadith! When the Holy Quran says that we will be recognized by our Imam on the Day of Judgement, the view of majority of mainstream Muslims is that the Imam referred to here is the Holy Quran.
A closer inspection shows that this view is inconsistent with the DIRECT meaning of this verse 71 of Surah Israa (chapter 17) noted above:
يَوْمَ نَدْعُو كُلَّ أُنَاسٍ بِإِمَامِهِمْ ۖ
One day We shall call together all human beings with their (respective) Imams.
This verse is not saying that we will be called together by the Book. It is quite explicit in referring to us being called by our respective Imam. If it was meant to be understood that we will be called by the Book, then that is a reference to all people being called by the Quran.
This is different to what this verse is saying, that we shall be called by OUR Imam, whereas the Quran is one Book for all of humanity, after the revelation of the Quran and the Prophethood of the seal of Prophets, Muhammad (SAWA).
This Book is therefore for everybody. If we want to say that Imam in this verse refers to the Book, then there is only one Book for everyone. It therefore does not make sense that everyone will be called by their Book if there is only one Book! Imam in this verse therefore refers to the leader whom we followed in whatever time, from Nabi Adam (a.s) until the Day of Judgement, on which day we will be resurrected with our Imam.
- WE WILL TAG ALONG WITH OUR IMAM ALL THE WAY TO PARADISE ON THE DAY OF JUDGEMENT
I would like to now take this a little deeper. On the Day of Judgement, we have the embodiment of our actions. This means that whatever we have done in this world will be embodied and presented to us in the form of punishment or reward.
An example is backbiting, which the Holy Quran refers to in verse 12 of Surah Hujraat (chapter 49 of the Holy Quran) as being like eating the flesh of your dead brother! Now, on the Day of Judgement, this sin of backbiting will be presented to you in the form of the dead flesh of your brother! Similarly, all our deeds will manifest itself.
On a more positive example, we understand in light of the verses of Surah Noor (chapter 24 of the Holy Quran), that the people of Paradise will have Noor. This Noor is the embodiment of their good deeds and their foreheads will be shining with this Noor!
The Quran also says that the people destined to Hell will beg from the people of Paradise to borrow some of their Noor, because they are in complete darkness in the Hellfire. The people of Paradise will reply that it is not possible, despite them having free will to do so. The reason they will reply saying that its not possible is that there is nothing for the people of the Hellfire which can manifest in the form of Noor. Therefore, they cannot get this Noor, because there is no Noor to manifest in the darkness of the Hellfire.
Similarly, we said that relationships will also embody on the Day of Judgement, the same way that deeds will embody. This is the meaning of verse 71 of Surah Israa (chapter 17) noted above:
يَوْمَ نَدْعُو كُلَّ أُنَاسٍ بِإِمَامِهِمْ ۖ
One day We shall call together all human beings with their (respective) Imams.
Your relationship with your Imam will manifest on the Day of Judgement. If you are following a leader of disbelief (Kufr and Shirk) then naturally, this relationship with your leader will manifest on the Day of Judgement and you will be called through this leadership.
Conversely, if you truly follow the infallible Imams, who are the leaders of the pious, led by the soul of Imamat in the form of Imam Ali (a.s), then this pious relationship will manifest on the Day of Judgement in this form. You will simply follow them along when they are moving towards Paradise!
C. WILAYAH – THE DEEP ESSENCE OF IMAMAT IN THE QURAN
Another very important point to draw your attention to is that the discussion about Imamat in the Holy Quran is not confined to the eight verses referenced earlier, where the term Imam is directly mentioned. Imam is one word to convey the philosophy and doctrine of Imamat and leadership.
Of course, this is the most explicit word, but there are numerous other words noted directly and indirectly in the Holy Quran which speak very much about the issue of leadership. One of the most important terms which conveys the doctrine of Imamat without using the term Imam is Wilayah (guardianship).
We all know very well the verse referring to the Wilayah of Imam Ali (a.s), who gave charity while in the position of Rukuh. Verse 55 of Surah Maida (chapter 5 of the Holy Quran) refers:
إِنَّمَا وَلِيُّكُمُ اللَّهُ وَرَسُولُهُ وَالَّذِينَ آمَنُوا الَّذِينَ يُقِيمُونَ الصَّلَاةَ وَيُؤْتُونَ الزَّكَاةَ وَهُمْ رَاكِعُونَ
Only Allah is your Guardian and His Messenger and those who believe, those who keep up prayers and pay the poor-rate while they bow.
The Holy Quran regularly speaks about this crucial issue of Wilayah, which is basically the deeper face of Imamat. Allama Tabataba’i, the great philosopher and commentator of the Holy Quran of the 20th century, very beautifully explains that Imamat is the external layer of leadership, and Wilayah is the core of Imamat.
Imamat on the public level is leadership, and therefore the term Imam is used. However, in the cosmos it is Wilayah, which in the public level explains our relationship to the leadership, the true believers and the enemies. This can best be presented in the form of a triangle, where we have the Imam on the one side, people on the other side, and the enemies on the third side.
We have positive and negative Wilayah. We have Wilayah in the following relationships:
- True believers (mu’min versus mu’min);
- Enemies (mu’min versus Kafir);
- Mu’mineen versus Imam
The Holy Quran is very clear in explaining that the only people who will be successful are those who have Wilayah, because Almighty Allah (SWT) refers to them as the Hizbullah (party of Allah (SWT)). The party has leadership, and those who are connected to the Wilayah means those who are connected to the leadership.
Conversely, there is the Hizbus Shaytan. They also have the relationship of Wilayah between them, albeit a negative one. This is explained further in Surah Mumtahina (chapter 60 of the Holy Quran) where Almighty Allah (SWT) says that we should not make His enemy and our enemy as the Wali. This adds deeper meaning into the purity of the institution of Imamah.
D. HOW IS THE JOB OF PROPHETHOOD DIFFERENT TO IMAMAT IN THE QURAN?
The question which may come in the mind at this point is that this whole discussion so far goes back to Prophethood (Nubuwwat), and therefore we are struggling to see the distinction between Nubuwwat and Imamat as they appear from this discussion to be interchangeable?
To backtrack, you will note the verses referenced above where the Holy Quran uses the term Imam for non-Prophets, in the positive and negative sense. This therefore proves that we cannot claim that the status of Imamat in the Holy Quran is for Prophethood and nothing else.
One critical point we missed up to now is the establishment of Prophethood (Nubuwwat) in the Holy Quran. The status of Prophethood (Nubuwwat), and the job responsibility of a Prophet (Nabi) is that of bringing the news. Rasul means messenger, who brings the message.
The principle job of a Prophet is to convey the divine message of Almighty Allah (SWT) to the people. Verse 17 of Surah Yaseen (chapter 36 of the Holy Quran) refers:
وَمَا عَلَيْنَا إِلَّا الْبَلَاغُ الْمُبِينُ
And our duty is only to proclaim the clear Message.
There is no responsibility on the Prophet beyond this. Their responsibility is the successful delivery of the divine message. Whether people follow the message or not is outside the boundaries of the job description of the Prophet in his capacity as the Nabi.
- SOME PROPHETS ATTAINED THE STATUS AND RESPONSIBILITY OF IMAMAT
To take this point further, some Prophets (not all) also achieved the status of Imamat, Almighty Allah (SWT) commands them to lead and guide people. This is a different responsibility to Nubuwwat, for which the responsibility on Prophets were to convey the divine message to the people.
Leadership and guidance, and the ESTABLISHMENT of that message on social levels where the Holy Quran explains the purpose of Prophethood to uphold justice. Now, upholding justice is possible by leadership. Of course, in the pre-Islamic era and during the time of our Nabi Muhammad (SAWA), Nubuwwat and Imamat was shared. What this means is that the Nabi is the Nabi and at the same time (not always) he is also an Imam, meaning he has attained that status of leadership.
This means that the Prophet who reached the status of Imamat does not only convey the message, but rather, he takes it further to establish the message as well. He does not only convey the message of Tauheed (as a Prophet), but rather, he fights with the idols too (as an Imam). This role that he fulfils as the Imam is not fundamentally the role of the Nabi, whose mission is to convey the message.
Therefore, when the Holy Quran speaks about the establishment of the divine message, and the implementation of the divine revelation (wahi) on the earth, it is very clearly from the status of Imamat which Rasulullah (SAWA) attained.
Imamat is explained widely and in great detail in the Holy Quran. The issue is that in most cases, the Holy Quran is referring to previous nations where Nubuwwat and Imamat were shared in that era. That is the reason for people incorrectly confusing Nubuwwat and Imamat to be the same thing, when in fact they are two different responsibilities.
- NABI IBRAHIM (A.S) ATTAINED IMAMAT LONG AFTER BEING A PROPHET
Verse 124 of Surah Baqarah (chapter 2 of the Holy Quran) noted earlier explains the tests which Nabi Ibrahim (a.s) had to go through as a Prophet. He was appointed as Imam only after graduating from these tests. Now, if Nubuwwat and Imamat were the same, then it does not make sense for him to be declared an Imam, as it seems to be a redundant statement.
What this would then mean is that Nabi Ibrahim is being appointed as a Nabi when he is already a Nabi. He achieved something which he already achieved and was seeking something which is already there. Hence, this verse shows that Imamat was the next level of achievement for Nabi Ibrahim (a.s).
Nabi Ibrahim (a.s) endured tests when he went in the fire of Nimrod and when he broke the idols and he was commanded by Almighty Allah (SWT) to slaughter his son, Nabi Ismail (a.s). Only after having successful completed all these tests, did Almighty Allah (SWT) appoint Nabi Ibrahim (a.s) as an Imam. Imamat is therefore not equivalent to Nubuwwat, which is the critical point to understand.
E. IMAMAT IS INTRINSIC TO THE SURVIVAL OF SOCIETY
The final key point of this discussion is regarding the question we get asked, about the Imamat (leadership) that we Shia have made part of our faith not being mentioned in the Holy Quran, according to them. Even though we have proven that Imamat we believe in is described in the Holy Quran, I wish to now delve further into the aspect of leadership from a rational perspective.
The survival of any society depends on leadership. Good leadership succeeds. Corrupt leadership destroys. This is a simple, rational, common sense matter. Leadership is not a deeply philosophical concept. We all believe in the finality of Prophet Muhammad (SAWA), who was also the Imam (leader) of the Muslim nation (Ummah).
Revelation came to an end with his departure from this world, but did guidance also come to an end? Do we not need a guide to lead us socially, politically, culturally, spiritually and academically after revelation came to an end? Were we simply left as sheep without a shepherd after the passing of Rasulullah (SAWA)? How is this possible that the Holy Quran, which is a complete revelation, can abandon a key issue such as leadership?
Leadership is a matter of life and death of a nation. How is it fathomable that it is not explained in the Holy Quran? If this is the position we adopt, then we are saying that Islam does not have a system of leadership, nor does it have any political philosophy or ideology, because we can decide whichever way we want to go. Naturally, this is not possible to accept.
Also See: Imamat in the Quran (Part 2)