Lecture 21 in the Ramadaan series:
UNPACKING THE MOST INTRIGUING QUESTIONS IN THE QURAN
Friday 15 May 2020 (22nd Night of Ramadaan 1441)
Ahlul Bait (a.s) Masjid, Ottery, Cape Town
Mowlana Syed Aftab Haider
See Also: Imamat in Quran (Part 3)
In continuation with our discussion about Imamate in the Holy Quran, we tried to explain the Quranic concept of Imamate in light of Ayatul Khilafa (verse 30 of Surah Baqarah) and the concept of a divine vicegerent.
In this discussion, we will once again analyze the reality and truth of Imamate, and what is really the criteria of Imamate in the Holy Quran, in light of verse 73 of Surah Anbiyaa (chapter 21), together with the context sketched in the verse before i.e. verse 72 of Surah Anbiyaa:
وَوَهَبْنَا لَهُ إِسْحَاقَ وَيَعْقُوبَ نَافِلَةً ۖ وَكُلًّا جَعَلْنَا صَالِحِينَ
- And We bestowed upon him Isaac, and Jacob as a grandson. Each of them We made righteous.
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).
Verse 73 above is one of those crucial verses to understand Imamate in the Holy Quran.
We extracted pertinent points in light of the various verses we discussed on the subject of Imamate from the Quranic perspective in the preceding three lectures. One point which is very much connected to this discussion is “ja’l” which is the point I am insisting on from the first lecture.
IMAMATE IS THE DIVINE APPOINTMENT BY ALMIGHTY ALLAH (SWT)
The Holy Quran repeated uses this verb “ja’l”, meaning appoint. The start of verse 73 of the Holy Quran is quite explicit in saying that Allah (SWT) appoints the Imams. Let us keep this point uppermost in our mind as we navigate through this discussion. Imamate is by the “ja’l” of Almighty Allah (SWT) i.e. Imamate is by His divine appointment and not by the appointment of people or society.
What we aim to do in this discussion is unpack this concept to understand what it means that the Imam is the divine appointment made by Almighty Allah (SWT). Our main reference for this discussion will be Tafsir al-Mizan, the remarkable commentary of the Holy Quran by the great scholar of the Quran, Allama Tabataba’i (r.a), specifically focusing on his understanding of Imamate in the Holy Quran.
He explains verse 73 above as follows, together with ample evidence to back up his claims.
He says “them” in the beginning of the verse refers to Nabi Ibrahim (a.s), Nabi Ishaq (a.s) and Nabi Yaqoob (a.s), and Nabi Lut (a.s) all being made Imams. The verse before (verse 72) gives indication to this too, and all four of them were Prophets (a.s). This is in line with what we covered previously 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.”
The key point we extract from this verse is that Imamate and Nubuwwat are different principles in ideology. This verse establishes that distinction, which we discussed previously.
IMAMATE IS A HIGHER STATION WHICH CERTAIN PROPHETS ACHIEVED
The point I want to make is that this distinction between Imamate and Prophethood is again proven through verse 73 of Surah Anbiyaa noted above, because Nabi Ibrahim (a.s), Nabi Ishaq (a.s) and Nabi Yaqoob (a.s) are already Prophets (a.s) and only thereafter does the Holy Quran say they were appointed as Imams (leaders).
It would be a redundant statement in this verse, if Imamate and Prophethood are the same. That would mean that they are Prophets (a.s) and this verse would be saying again that they are Prophets (a.s). This clearly would not make sense. Hence, Imamate and Prophethood are different, for sure.
Now, what is Imamate, and who are Imams is explained in the next part of the verse which reads “yahduna bi-amrina” i.e. they guide by Our Command. Again, how do we make sense of this, because Nubuwwat (Prophethood) is also guidance. The job of a Prophet is to guide, and in this verse 73, the Quran is saying that the Imam is also a guide by the command of Almighty Allah (SWT).
What is the difference then, because both Nubuwwat and Imamate is guidance? This is where Allama Tabataba’i (r.a) explains very beautifully that there are two types of guidance:
- To show the path;
- To take you to your destination
GUIDANCE THROUGH SHOWING THE PATH VERSUS TAKING TO THE DESTINATION
Let us explain the difference between these two types of guidance through a basic example. Let’s say that someone wants directions to go to Cape Town from Ottery. You decide to give the person a map, which shows the route and which roads, highways and turns to take to get you to where you need to be.
This is showing the path. It does not matter whether the person you are guiding listens to you or not. The onus is not on you to get the person to their destination. Your job was simply to give the map which shows the directions.
Now, let us contrast this with the second type of guidance, whereby you take the person by the hand all the way to the destination, which is Cape Town in our example. You make sure that this person gets to Cape Town. So, you give the person the map, but in addition you also physically take him to his destination.
Let me give you another easy example to understand the distinction between the two types of guidance. Let’s look at streetlights or headlights on a car. The purpose of these is to show you the clear path to travel, especially in the night, so that you do not veer off the road and land up in a ditch.
Despite its very important purpose, there is no power in these streetlights or headlights to protect you from landing in a ditch. Yes, they provide the guidance, but it is still up to you to follow the guidance.
Now, imagine if these lights have a strong magnetic power which controls the car too, in addition to providing the guidance to stay on the correct side of the road. If you deviate from the straight path as guided by the lights, then this magnetic power will prevent you from veering off the road. In fact, these days we find some cars with advanced safety features like this, whereby your steering will vibrate if you are moving out of your lane without indicating.
Allama Tabataba’i (r.a) says that the job of Nubuwwat (Prophethood) is showing the path, while the job of the Imam is to make sure you get to your destination. This is the clear difference, while both are guidance.
PROPHET SHOWS THE PATH AND IMAM TAKES YOU TO THE DESTINATION
In his technical wording, he beautifully explains that a divine Prophet has two responsibilities, referred to as “Talaqqi” and “Tahaamul”. The Prophet has the job of receiving the divine message of Almighty Allah (SWT). This is a very big responsibility or reception.
The second job is to carry this message of Almighty Allah (SWT) to the people. This is the job description of a Prophet, listing two accountabilities. Whether people listen to the Prophet or follow him or not is not his responsibility, and we have already explained this in the earlier discussions on this topic.
The difference between these two accountabilities and that of the Imam is that the Imam is also responsible for showing the path and conveys the message of Almighty Allah (SWT). At the same time, the Imam naturally has control over the hearts of the people. Therefore, the Imam protects these hearts from deviating or veer off the tracks into a ditch! The Imam’s job is therefore to take a person all the way to the pleasure of Almighty Allah (SWT).
CAN WE PROVE THIS DIFFERENCE IN JOB DESCRIPTION BETWEEN NABI AND IMAM FROM THE QURAN?
We can now see the difference in responsibilities between the Imam and Nabi. Naturally, the question that arises is where do we derive this difference in responsibilities from? How do we conclude that the job of the Nabi and Imam are different, because the Quran explains that both of them guide? From where do we distinguish the role of these two?
The distinction comes from verse 73 of Surah Anbiyaa referenced earlier, specifically the words “yahduna bi-amrina”. ALL THE SECRTES ARE IN THESE TWO WORDS, which means “they guide by Our Command”. How does this explain the distinction, because Prophets also guide by the command of Almighty Allah (SWT)?
Indeed, Prophets also guide by the command of Almighty Allah (SWT), but there are two types of commands from Him. The one is called “Tak’winiyyah” and the other is called “Tashri’iyyah”. Sometimes, divine commands refer to the command of Almighty Allah (SWT) which is part of creation and the system of creation in this world. Verse 50 of Surah Taha (chapter 20 of the Holy Quran) refers:
قَالَ رَبُّنَا الَّذِي أَعْطَىٰ كُلَّ شَيْءٍ خَلْقَهُ ثُمَّ هَدَىٰ
He said: Our Lord is He Who gave to everything its creation, then guided it (to its goal).
NATURAL COMMANDS VERSUS LEGISLATIVE COMMANDS IN THE DIVINE SYSTEM
That guidance, which is the natural command of Almighty Allah (SWT), is binding and inevitable. There are plenty of examples, such as His command in the solar system for the sun and stars must move and that the earth must rotate. In our human system, His command is that our heart must beat. He has given guidance to whatever He has created, and this guidance is unavoidable to us.
Nobody can go against it, as explained in the penultimate verse of Surah Yaseen (chapter 36 of the Holy Quran), verse 82:
إِنَّمَا أَمْرُهُ إِذَا أَرَادَ شَيْئًا أَنْ يَقُولَ لَهُ كُنْ فَيَكُونُ
His command, when He intends anything, is only to say to it: Be, so it is.
This verse explains that the command of Allah (SWT) is that if He wants something, then it will be, and nobody can avoid it. This further shows that the will of Allah (SWT) is equal to the action of Allah (SWT). This is called the unavoidable command, where it is impossible to go against it.
Now, on the other hand, we have the legislative commands of Almighty Allah (SWT). An example is that He wants everybody to be pious and righteous people on this earth. He wants us all to be kind, caring, just etc. It is His desire that every single human being must achieve perfection and avoid evil, injustice and oppression. However, this is not a natural command. It is a legislative command, and by definition, it is avoidable, because He gives us the option, as explained in verse 3 of Surah Insaan (chapter 76 of the Holy Quran):
إِنَّا هَدَيْنَاهُ السَّبِيلَ إِمَّا شَاكِرًا وَإِمَّا كَفُورًا
Surely, We have shown him the way: he may be thankful or unthankful.
He shows us the path. This means His command is there for us to be good, but we still disobey His command unfortunately. This is because it is a legislative command as explained in this verse, where it is up to us to choose if we want to be good or bad.
This therefore explains the distinction between His natural command which cannot be violated (like breathing and the functional design of the solar system etc.) and His legislative command where we have the free will to choose whether to obey or disobey.
IMAMATE IS GUIDANCE BY THE DIVINE COMMAND FROM THE QURAN
Allama Tabataba’i (r.a) explains that “yahduna bi-amrina” (they guide by Our Command) is that Takwini command i.e. the natural command which we cannot go against. Therefore, it means that the Imam has the authority over the hearts of the people, and he takes them to the final perfection of Almighty Allah (SWT). This is because the Imam provides guidance with his natural command representing the divine authority he received from Almighty Allah (SWT).
The understanding of Imamate in the Quran, from the teachings of the Ahlul Bait (a.s), as explained by Allama Tabataba’i (r.a), the leadership of Imam is leadership in this sense, meaning that due to the wilayah (guardianship) he has from Almighty Allah (SWT), he possesses the hearts (the reality of human beings as described in lectures 13 and 15 in this series). So, the Imam has authority on that soul of human beings, and through this power, the Imam is able to guide us all the way to our destination.
Naturally, to receive this type of guidance which guarantees that we will reach our destination, can be done by the Imam, but it requires capacity from us to receive this guidance. This capacity is achieved by our efforts. We need to develop our souls to the level where the Imam can come and take us through the natural guidance towards the destination.
IMAMATE IS THE DIVINE CHANNEL OF BLESSING FROM ALMIGHTY ALLAH (SWT)
Allama Tabataba’i (r.a) draws another beautiful point, where he says that the Imam, due to his status of Imamate, is somebody who is the connection or medium in the matters of nature. In the natural guidance of human beings, the Imam is a channel of blessings from Almighty Allah (SWT).
Allama Tabataba’i (r.a) takes it a step further by saying that not only in guidance (hidayah), but in fact ALL the blessings of Almighty Allah (SWT) descend towards this world through the Imam of the time! It is through the Imam of our time that humanity receives sustenance from Almighty Allah (SWT), and it is through him that the earth and heavens remain stable.
This is what is meant by “yahduna bi-amrina” (they guide by Our Command). Otherwise, it does not make sense, because Prophets also guide.
MALAKOOT – PIERCING THE DIVINE VEIL INTO THE SECRETS OF EVERYTHING
Allama Tabataba’i (r.a) takes his analysis even further by saying that if the Imam is the link between Almighty Allah (SWT) and us, then the Imam should be someone who is knowledgeable of ALL the “malakoot”, including the “malakoot” of humanity. Allama Tabataba’i (r.a) presents a very detailed explanation of what is “malakoot” as referred to in the last verse of Surah Yaseen (chapter 36 of the Holy Quran):
فَسُبْحَانَ الَّذِي بِيَدِهِ مَلَكُوتُ كُلِّ شَيْءٍ وَإِلَيْهِ تُرْجَعُونَ
So glory to Him in Whose hands is the dominion of all things: and to Him will ye be all brought back.
“Malakoot” in this verse is translated as the dominion of everything. He says that “malakoot” of everything is basically that point of linkage of anything which exists with Almighty Allah (SWT). That aspect of any existence (including human existence) which connects you to Almighty Allah (SWT) is “malakoot”.
Now, if the Imam of our time wants to take us to the destination through natural guidance, then he MUST have knowledge of the truth and reality of EVERYTHING. Otherwise, this link between us and Almighty Allah (SWT) is an unstable link if the Imam does not have full knowledge over EVERYTHING!
When Nabi Ibrahim (a.s) asks Almighty Allah (SWT) to show him the kingdom, he is asking Almighty Allah (SWT) to show him the secret of every existence. Remember, Nabi Ibrahim (a.s) could already see everything, but he wanted to pierce the veil into the deepest secret of Almighty Allah (SWT) to every existence.
Thus, we read in Surah Anam Verse 75 that Almighty Allah says in relation to Prophet Ibrahim (a.s) the following:
وَكَذَلِكَ نُرِي إِبْرَاهِيمَ مَلَكُوتَ السَّمَاوَاتِ وَالأَرْضِ وَلِيَكُونَ مِنَ الْمُوقِنِينَ
“And thus did we show Abraham the dominions of the heavens and the earth and that he might be of those who are sure.”
“Malakoot” is the inner secret of everything. So, an Imam is someone who is aware of the “malakoot” of EVERYTHING, and he guides through that connection with “malakoot” i.e. the inner secret of everything. Here, the conclusion will be that the Imam should be on that position of knowledge and spirituality that he has access to the “malakoot” i.e. the secret truth and reality of everything.
IMAM LEADS US TO THE DIFFERENT STATIONS OF DIVINE BLESSINGS
Allama Tabataba’i (r.a) explains that the meaning of “yahduna bi-amrina” noted in verse 73 of Surah Anbiyaa (chapter 21 of the Holy Quran) referenced at the beginning of this discussion, is exactly the same spiritual stations of blessings which true believers (mu’mineen) acquire with their righteous deeds, in the shadow of the mercy of Almighty Allah (SWT).
According to Allama Tabataba’i (r.a), the Imam is that connection between people and their Lord (SWT) in achieving the rewards and bounties of Almighty Allah (SWT). He says so beautifully that the Imam is the leader of the believers to these stations of Heavenly blessings.
Allama Tabataba’i (r.a) then explains the difference between Nabi (Prophet) and Imam (leader). He says that the Nabi is also a guide. The Nabi guides the people towards the correct ideological belief system (Aqeedah) and righteous deeds. He does this through provoking their thinking. However, they have the free will to follow or not, and they will bear the consequences of their choice.
On the other hand, an Imam is someone who not only guides the people towards the correct ideological belief system (Aqeedah) and righteous deeds, but he also takes them along on this journey towards the destination.
Another very interesting point which Allama Tabataba’i (r.a) makes is that the same person can hold the role of both Nubuwwat (Prophethood) and Imamate (leadership). A classic example is Nabi Ibrahim (a.s) who was confirmed as an Imam while he was already a Prophet. The detailed discussion on verse 124 of Surah Baqarah (chapter 2 of the Holy Quran) serves as reference in the earlier lectures.
However, it is possible for someone to be an Imam while not being a Nabi and vice versa, meaning not all Prophets were Imams.
PROPHETHOOD ENDED WITH RASULULLAH (SAWA) BUT LEADERSHIP IS REQUIRED UNTIL THE END OF TIME
Another interesting conclusion which Allama Tabataba’i (r.a) draws from the same “yahduna bi-amrina” is that this “hidayah” (guidance) is always required. Whatever comes from Almighty Allah (SWT) is through the divine link i.e. the Imam. The Imam is the link between us and the blessings of Almighty Allah (SWT), be it material blessings or the blessings of guidance.
Let us explain this through the example of the sun. The sunlight we receive is not sunlight per se. Rather, it is the light which Almighty Allah (SWT) provides the sun. This means that the sun is the donor and receiver! The sun receives this energy from Almighty Allah (SWT) but donates it to all of us.
So, it depends from which angle you are looking at it, meaning the angle of rewarding and giving or the angle of receiving and dependency. The sun is fully dependent on Almighty Allah (SWT), but at the same time it is a donor and supporter as well.
This guidance must always be available. It cannot end with Nubuwwat, because what we discussed is that the job of the Prophet is to receive the divine message of Almighty Allah (SWT) and convey this divine revelation to society. With our beloved Prophet Muhammad (SAWA), he received the final message and successfully delivered this message to society.
There is no further need for Prophethood as he already delivered the complete, final divine message from Almighty Allah (SWT). However, Imamate is still very much needed, because we still need guidance. We still need the link to receive the blessings of Almighty Allah (SWT).
Therefore, we reached the point where we said that Prophethood has certainly ended with our beloved Prophet Muhammad (SAWA) being the seal of Prophethood, but Imamate cannot come to an end, because the whole universe cannot survive without Imamate.
GUIDANCE THROUGH THE IMAM OF OUR TIME DEPENDS ON OUR CAPACITY TO RECEIVE
Perhaps the question that is now coming in our minds is that if the job of the Imam is to take us to perfection by force, then why are we not there yet? Why are we still lost? The first point to clarify is that this is not by force. The capacity is in our hands.
We are the ones who prepare our hearts and souls to be capable of receiving this guidance from the Imam. Hence, the beneficence from Imam depends on our levels of capacity. As our capacity is higher, then naturally it translates into our reception being higher. Our journey to perfection is then easier and we are able to fly higher and achieve higher levels of perfection.
Let me conclude by saying that with this understanding of Imamate, which is based purely on evidence from the Holy Quran. It is supported by Hadith, which has been less of a focus in this analysis, as proving Imamate from the Holy Quran was our main objective.
IMAMAT IS NOT RESTRICTED TO SOCIO-POLITICAL LEADERSHIP
This concept of Imamate we discussed is very different to the common understanding of Imamate, which is restricted to socio-political leadership. If Imamate is confined to only being socio-political leadership, then naturally, the conditions of infallibility and the highest level of piety, courage, vision and divine knowledge of everything and the other long list of conditions to be a divinely appointed Imam is not required.
The reason is that one does not need to be infallible to be a great socio-political leader. What we have learnt through this four-part series of discussions is that Imamate in the Holy Quran is much more comprehensive and socio-political leadership is a subset of this.
Indeed, without question, the most suitable and most deserving person for socio-political leadership is the link between us and the blessings of Almighty Allah (SWT) i.e. the Imam. Unfortunately, this is where our Sufi brothers and we are not aligned, as they believe that this Imamate does not necessarily extend to socio-political leadership.
In the school of Ahlul Bait (a.s), we insist that this perfect human being, the divine link between us and Almighty Allah (SWT), is indeed the most appropriate person to lead and guide us in everything, including socio-political aspects.
There is a beautiful Hadith from the 8th Imam of Ahlul Bait (a.s), Imam Ali Ridha (a.s), where he explains the status and position of Imam in this whole universe. This Wilayah (guardianship) in nature which is coming from the divine command of Almighty Allah (SWT) is beyond being confined to socio-political leadership.
This is the meaning of Imamate which fits on people like Ali ibn abi Talib (a.s), the head of this institution of Imamate, who is aware of the “malakoot” i.e. the truth and reality of EVERYTHING. He can therefore look at us and know what our future is! The Imam is connected to that secret divine reality. Imam Ali (a.s) is the manifestation of that supreme status of Imamate.