The Sunni concept of leadership of the Muslim community after the
death of the Prophet, the Caliphate, is essentially a temporal
leadership. The Caliph is a first among equals, elected ideally by
consensus, although later the hereditary principle became the norm. To
others, the theologians and experts in jurisprudence, is given the
task of expounding upon religious questions.
To the Shi'is, however, the succession to the Prophet is a matter
of the designation by the Prophet of an individual ('Ali) as Imam.
Each Imam designates his successor during his lifetime. The authority
of the Imam derives from his designation by his predecessor to a
spiritual station and is independent of his temporal standing, i.e. it
makes no difference to the Imam's station whether he is acknowledged
by the generality of Muslims or not, whereas this quite clearly does
not apply to a Sunni Caliph whose station is totally dependent on such
The Sunnis and Shi'is are basically in agreement with each other over
the nature and function of prophethood. The two main functions of the
Prophet are to reveal God's law to men and to guide men towards God.
Of these two functions, the Sunnis believe that both ended with the
death of Muhammad, while the Shi'is believe that whereas legislation
ended, the function of guiding men and preserving and explaining the
Divine Law continued through the line of Imams.
The Continuity of the Imamate
As can be seen from the above, the Imamate, as conceived in Shi'i
theology, is not an institution confined to Islam. From the time of
the first prophet Adam, there has been a continuous succession of
Imams. Some figures, such as Noah, Abraham, Moses, Jesus and Muhammad
have combined in themselves the function of prophethood and the
Imamate but at no time is the earth left without an Imam who is the
Guide (Hadi and Proof (Hujja) of God. Thus the Fifth Imam Muhammad
al-Baqir, is reported as having said: 'By God! God has not
left the earth, since the death of Adam, without there being on it an
Imam guiding (the people) to God. He is the Proof of God to His
servants and the earth will not remain without the Proof of God to his
servants. The Sixth Imam, Ja'far as-Sadiq, is reported as having
said: 'Were there to remain on the earth but two men, one of them
would be the Proof of God.
A much longer saying attributed to the Fifth Imam, Muhammad al-
Baqir, states that Jabir asked him: 'Why is the Prophet and the Imam
necessary?' He answered:
So that the World may remain in righteousness. Thus God withholds
chastisement from the World while a Prophet or Imam is upon it, for
God has said: 'God will not chastise them while you are among them'
(Qur'an 8:33) and the Prophet has said: 'The stars are safety for the
people of heaven and the members of my family are safety for the
people of the earth. If the stars went there would come to the people
of heaven, something hateful to them. And if the members of my family
went, there would come to the people of earth, something hateful to
them.' By 'members of my family' is meant the Imams. And God has
linked obedience to them to obedience to Him and He has said 'O
believers, obey God and the Apostle and those possessed of authority
among you' (Qur'an 4:59). And they are the sinless, the pure ones who
do no wrong and do not rebel and they are the ones who give help and
success and right guidance. Through them God gives sustenance (rizq)
to his servants and through them his lands prosper, and the rain falls
from heaven and the earth gives out its blessing and the rebellious
people are granted a respite and their penalty and chastisement does
not speedily come to them. The Holy Spirit does not leave them (the
Imams) and they do not leave it, nor does the Qur'an leave them and
they do not leave it. May the blessing of God be upon them all.
Some Shi'i Traditions even give the names of all the Imams going back
from Muhammad to Adam.
The Station of the Imams
Muhammad, Fatima and the Imams are conceived in their mystical
dimension as being a light that God created before the creation of the
material world. This light then became the cause and instrument of all
the rest of creation. The following Tradition is attributed to the
Prophet: 'God created 'Ali and me from one light before the creation
of Adam . . . then He split (the light) into two halves, then He
created (all) things from my light and 'Ali's light.'
The First Imam, 'Ali, is reported to have said: 'God is one; He was
alone in His singleness and so He spoke one word and it became a light
and He created from that light Muhammad and He created me and my
descendants (i.e. the other Imams), then He spoke another word and it
became a Spirit and He caused it to settle upon that light and He
caused it to settle on our bodies. And so we are the Spirit of God and
His Word. . .
and this was before He created the creation.
And the Sixth Imam, Ja'far as-Sadiq, is reported to have said: 'Our
light separates from our Lord like the rays of the sun from the sun.'
In the Khutba at-Tutunjiyya, 'Ali is reported to have said: 'I am
the First and I am the Last; I am the Hidden and I am the Manifest; I
was with the Universal Cycle before it began; I was with the Pen and
the Tablet before they were created; I am the Lord of Pre-eternity.
This light, created by God, which is the inner essence of the Imams,
descended in turn upon Adam and then upon each of the Prophets and
Imams until it became embodied in Muhammad, Fatima and the twelve
Muhammad, Fatima and the Imams are created out of the substance of
'Illiyyun. There is some difference of opinion among the commentators
as to what exactly is meant by 'Illiyyun (see Qur'an 83:19) but Shi'is
generally consider that it is a synonym for an elevated station, the
Seventh Heaven, or the Farthest Tree (Sadrat al-Muntaha. The word
itself is almost certainly derived from the Hebrew 'elyon meaning the
The Imams are assisted by God through the Holy Spirit. The Third Imam,
Husayn, was asked: 'From what stems your authority?' He replied: 'le
rule by the authority of the House of David, and if we lack anything
then the Holy Spirit sends it to us.
Although the consensus of the Shi'is is that the full prophetic
revelation (wahy) that came to Muhammad and the other apostles of God
(such as Moses and Jesus) did not come to the Imams, nevertheless some
of the Shi'i scholars have allowed that a lesser form of wahy did come
to the Imams. This type of wahy is explained in a Tradition ascribed
to Muhammad al-Baqir, the Fifth Imam: 'It is not the wahy of
prophethood but, rather, like that which came to Mary, daughter of
'Imran (see Qur'an 3:45) and to the mother of Moses (Qur'an 28:7) and
to the bee' (Qur'an 16:68). In any case, if there is disagreement
among the Shi'i scholars on the question of wahy, there is no
disagreement on the fact that the Imam received inspiration (ilham)
from God. The following is attributed to Muhammad al-Baqir, the Fifth
Imam: "Ali used to act in accordance with the book of God, i.e. the
Qur'an, and the Sunna [example or Tradition] of His Apostle [i.e.
Muhammad] and if something came to him and it was new and without
precedent in the book or the Sunna, God would inspire him.
In some of the Traditions the link between God and the Imams is
visualised as being a pillar of light descending from heaven upon the
The difference between the apostles, the prophets and the Imams is
* Apostle (Rasul) is here used to mein Messenger of God or major
prophet. This should not be confused with its Christian usage.
summarised thus in a saying attributed to the Sixth Imam, Ja'far as-
An apostle is one who sees the Angel who comes to him with the message
from his Lord. He speaks with him just as one of you would speak with
your companion. And the prophet does not see the Angel but revelation
(wahy) descends upon him and he sees (the Angel) in a vision . . . and
the speaker (al-muhaddith, i. e. the Imam) hears the voice but
does not see anything.
The Imam is the Proof of God (Hujjat Allah) to mankind and the Sign
of God (Ayat Allah) on Earth. Indeed, 'Ali is reported to have said:
'God has no greater sign than me.16 The Imam is the successor of the
Prophet and the Vicar of God on Earth. All political authority and
sovereignty is his. Obedience to him is obligatory to all on Earth.
The Sixth Imam, Ja'far as-Sadiq, is reported to have said:
We are the ones to whom God has made obedience obligatory. The people
will not prosper unless they recognise us and the people will not be
excused if they are ignorant of us. He who has recognised us is a
believer (mu'min) and he who has denied us is an unbeliever (kafir)
and he who has neither recognised nor denied us is in error unless he
returns to the right guidance which God has made obligatory for him.
And if he dies in a state of error, God will do with him what He
The Imam has, according to tradition, certain books in his possession.
These include certain books of the Prophet: Al-Jafr (The Divination),
As-Sahifa (The Book); Al-Ja-mi' (The Compilation); another is the Book
of Fatima (Mashaf Fatima), a book revealed by Gabriel to Fatima to
console her on the death of her father, the Prophet. Also with the
Imams is a copy of the Qur'an written by 'Ali and containing 'Ali's
The Imam has knowledge of one of the great mysteries in Islam, the
Greatest Name of God. Indeed, it is through his knowledge of this that
he has been given his powers:
Our Lord has given to us knowledge of the Greatest Name, through which
were we to want to, we would rend asunder the heavens and the earth
and paradise and hell; through it we ascend to heaven and descend to
earth and we travel to the east and to the west until we reach the
Throne (of God) and sit upon it before God and He gives us all things,
even the heavens, the earth, the sun moon and stars, the mountains,
the trees, the paths, the seas, heaven and hell.18
There was no straightforward statement in the Qur'an designating
'Ali and his descendants as Imams. However, the Qur'an is divided by
scholars into clear verses (i.e. those whose meaning is clear) and
ambiguous verses (see Qur'an 3 :7). Since Imams are the sole
authorised interpreters of the Qur'an, they are the ones to whom it is
obligatory to turn in the case of the ambiguous verses. In carrying
out this function, Imams have interpreted many of these verses as
referring to the Imamate
and its station. Indeed, 'Ali is reported to have said that one
quarter of the Qur'an is about the Imams. 19 Among the verses of the
Qur'an which are interpreted in this way are the following:
1. The Signs of God: 'Only the unbelievers would deny our signs'
(Qur'an 29:49). The Imams are the Signs of God (Ayat Allah) on Earth.
Many other references to 'sign' or 'sins' are also references to the
Imams (e.g. 7:9; 10:7 and 101; 22:57; 38:29).
2. The Straight Path. 'Guide us to the Straight Path' (1:6). The Imams
are the 'Straight Path' (as-Sirat al-Mustaqim) referred to in this
opening chapter of Qur'an (and also in 6:153; 15:41; 16:76; 20:135;
3. The Way. The Imams are the Way (as-Sabil) referred to in several
verses (25:827; 6:153; 29 69; 31:15)22
4. The Bounty of God. 'Do you not see those who exchange the Bounty of
God for disbelief' (14:28,29). The Imams are the Bounty of God and the
people referred to in this verse are their opponents and especially
the Umayyads (see also 16:83).23 The Imams are also 'the favours of
God' (7:69; 55:13)
5. The Firmest Handle. 'He who disbelieves in idols and believes in
God has grasped hold of the firmest handle (al-'Urwa al-Wuthqa which
will not break' (2:256) The 'firmest handle' is love for the house of
the Prophet, i. e. the Imams. 25
6. The Cord of God. 'Hold fast to the cord of God (Habl Allah)' (3:
102). The (cord) or rope of God can mean the Qur'an or the religion of
Islam, but it is also interpreted as referring to the Imamate.26
7. The Light of God. 'Therefore believe in God and His Apostle and the
Light which we have sent down' (64:8). The light of God is within the
Imams (see p. 148). Several other verses mentioning light are stated
to refer to this light (e. g. 4:174; 6:122; 7:1577; 9:32; 24:36;
57:28; 66:8). 27
8. The Trust. 'We offered the Trust to the Heavens and to the Earth
and to the mountains, but they refused to undertake it and were afraid
of it; but man undertook it; surely he is sinful and ignorant'
(33:72). The trust referred to is stated to be the Walaya or Imamate
of 'Ali and the sinful and ignorant men are those who took the
rightful place of the Imams. -
'God has ordered you to make over the trusts to those who are
entitled to them' (4:58). This is stated to refer to the designation
by each Imam of the one who is to follow him. 2')
9. The Guides of Men. 'Among those whom We have created are people who
guide (men) to the truth and through it they act with justice'
(7:181). These are, of course, the Imams.3"
10. The Possessors of Knowledge. 'No-one knows the interpretation of
it (the Qur'an) except God and those who are deeply rooted in
knowledge' (3 :7). 'Those who are deeply rooted in knowledge' is held
to refer to the family of Muhammad (i. e. the Imams).
God is sufficient as a witness between you and me and so also are
those who possess knowledge of the book' (13:43). 'Those who possess
knowledge of the book' refers to the Imams.32 This phrase occurs in
several other places (e.g. 16:27; 29:49; 34:6).33
11. The Inheritors of the Book. 'We have caused those of our servants
whom We chose to inherit the Book . . . ' (35:32). This is stated to
refer to the Imams, although there is some difference of opinion as to
whom the rest of the verse is referring.
'Those to whom We have given this book and who recite it as it
should be recited, they believe in it' (2:121). This whole passage
refers to the Imams.
12. The Possessors of Authority. 'O believers! Obey God and obey the
Apostle and those who have been given authority among you' (4:59)
'Those who have been given authority' are the Imams and thus this
verse makes obeying them obligatory.
13. The Truthful Ones. 'O ye who believe! Fear God and be with the
truthful ones' (9:119). The Imams are the 'truthful ones'. But the
phrase 'truthful ones' is also held to refer to Hamza, Muhammad's
uncle and Ja'far, 'Ali's brother (see also 33:23).
14. The Family of Ya Sin.'Peace be upon the family of Ya Sin (37:130).
Ya Sin is interpreted as Muhammad and thus his family refers to Imams.
15. The People of the Remembrance. 'Then question the people (or
family) of the Remembrance if you do not know' (16:43-4). The
Remembrance is held to be Muhammad and thus his family refers to the
Imams whom it is obligatory to question regarding any points in the
Qur'an that are not understood.
16. The Family of Abraham. 'God has chosen . . . the family of
Abraham' (3:33) . This is stated to refer to the family of Muhammad
(i. e. the Imams, but see also page 172). In other places the seed
of Abraham is stated to refer to the Imams (e.g. 19:58; 14:38).
17. The Family of the Prophet. 'Say: I ask of you no recompense for it
except love among kindred' (42:23). Shi'i commentators have
interpreted the last phrase as 'love for my kindred' (i. e. the
Imams), 41 and even Sunni commentators like Baydawi and Razi agree
that this phrase refers to 'Ali and Fatima and their sons.42
'And the blood relatives (of the Prophet), some of them are nearer
to one another in the book of God than the believers and the
emigrants' (33:6). This is held to refer to the authority vested in
the Imams. 43
18. The People of the Right Hand. Concerning the time of the End, the
'people of the right hand' who are to be greeted in Heaven are the
and the 'people of the left hand' who are to go to Hell are their
enemies. The 'predecessors' who are 'the near ones' refers to
Muhammad, Fatima and the Imams (56:8-11, 88-91).
19. The Sun and Moon. 'By the Sun and its brightness and the moon when
it follows it and the day when it reveals its glory and the night when
it covers it' (91:1-4). The Prophet is the sun and the moon is 'Ali.
The day is the Imam (or in some Traditions, specifically the Imam
Mahdi) and the night represents the enemies of the Imams and in
particular Abu Bakr whose caliphate 'covered' 'Ali.
20. The Two Seas. 'He has set the two seas in motion that they may
meet one another, and between them is a barrier that they overpass
not, . . . and from the two of them come forth pearls and coral'
(55:22). The 'two seas' are 'Ali and Fatima, neither of whom is
superior to the other and the Imams Hasan and Husayn are the 'pearls
and coral' that come out of the two seas.
21. The Party of God. 'Those who take God and his Apostle as their
masters and those who believe, surely the Party of God will triumph'
(5:56). The Imams and the Shi'is are the Party of God.
22. The Servants of the All-Merciful. The whole of the lengthy passage
that begins: 'The servants of the all-merciful are those who walk upon
the Earth with humility . . . ' (25:63) refers to the Imams.
23. The Men on the Battlements (al-A'raf). Regarding entry to
Heaven or Hell, it is written: 'And on the battlements are men who
recognise all by their signs . . .' (7:46). The men on the battlements
are the Imams who, on the Day of Judgement, decide who will enter
Heaven and who will enter Hell.
There are many other verses of the Qur'an that are similarly
interpreted but the above is sufficient to give the reader some idea
of the manner of Shi'i commentary upon the Qur'an on this subject.
Necessary Attributes of the Imams
There are several attributes considered by Shi'is to be necessary for
the Imams and these conditions are held to be proved both by
Traditions and by logical necessity. Thus the Imams are considered to
be mansus (designated), ma'sum (sinless or infallible) and afdal an-
nas (the best of the people).
A. The Conferment of the Imamate by Designation or Covenant
One of the important principles of Shi'i Islam is that the Imamate can
only be passed on from one Imam to the next by divinely-inspired
designation (nass). This process is sometimes referred to as a
('ahd) from one to the next. The following Tradition is from the Sixth
Imam, Ja'far as-Sadiq: 'Each Imam knows the Imam who is to come after
him and so he appoints him as his successor.'
This succession is not a matter of the personal choice of the Imam,
as these two Traditions from the same Imam show:
Do you imagine that we place this Cause of ours (i.e. the Imamate)
with whomsoever we wish? No! Not at all! By God! It is a covenant of
the Apostle of God with 'Ali, the son of Abu Talib, and then one man
after another until finally it comes to the Lord of this Cause (i.e.
None of us (the Imams) die until God has informed us of the one who is
to succeed us. 52
At any one time there is only one Imam, but his successor, if
alive, is called the Silent Imam (al-Imam as-Samit). The following
Tradition from the Sixth Imam illustrates this point:
The Sixth Imam said: "Ali, the son of Abu Talib, was the possessor of
knowledge in this community, and his knowledge became an inheritance,
and not one of us die until he has passed on the knowledge that he
learned from his father. And the earth will not remain one day without
an Imam from us with whom the community can take refuge.' And I asked
him: 'May there be two Imams?' He said: 'No! Unless one of them be the
Silent one who does not speak until the first one has died.'53
Thus each prophet sets up two covenants, one regarding the next
prophet who will eventually come and one regarding his immediate
successor, the Imam. This is most clearly expressed in a Tradition
attributed to the Sixth Imam, Ja'far as-Sadiq:
Noah lived for five hundred years after his disembarkation from the
Ark. Then Gabriel came to him and said: 'The period of your
prophethood has ended, O Noah! And the days of your life are drawing
to a close and God says: 'Pass on the inheritance of your knowledge
and the signs of your prophethood to your son Sam. For I do not leave
the earth without there being on it someone who knows obedience to Me
and is a source of salvation between the death of one prophet and the
sending out of the next. And I do not leave the people without a Proof
and someone who will summon them to Me, and guide them to My path
someone who knows My Cause. And I have decreed that I will place for
each people a Guide who will guide fortunate ones and who will be a
Proof to the wretched ones.' And so Noah handed all this over to his
son, Sam [who thus became the Imam. And as for Ham and Yafith, they
did not have a knowledge which would benefit them. And Noah also gave
the good news of the coming of Hud [i. e. the next prophet] and
ordered them to follow him.
The conferment of the Imamate by designation is also considered a
logical necessity since the Imam must be immune from sin and error
(see next section) and only God can know who is thus immune and can
therefore designate the Imam. This designation can similarly only be
conveyed to mankind by one who is himself immune from error, the
previous prophet or Imam.
B. Immunity from Sin and Error
'Isma (sinlessness and infallibility) is considered a necessary pre-
condition for the Imamate. This is proved from logic by Shi'i writers
in that, since God has commanded obedience to the Imam, the Imam can
only order what is right, or otherwise God would be commanding man to
follow the pathway of error and this would be contrary to God's
The sinlessness of Muhammad, Fatima and the twelve Imams is also
considered proven by Tradition. According to the Qur'an (33:33): 'God
desires to remove all uncleanliness from you, O members of his family,
and to purify you completely.' Shi'i Traditions relate this verse to
the Imam. One Tradition reports the Prophet as saying: 'I, 'Ali,
Hasan, Husayn and nine of the descendants of Husayn are pure and
The concept of 'Isma'il includes sinlessness or impeccability and
also, because of being protected from error, infallibility. The Sixth
Imam Ja'far as-Sadiq, is reported as having said:
The one who is sinless (ma'sum) is the one who is prevented by God
from doing anything that God has forbidden. For God has said: 'He who
cleaves to God is guided to the Straight Path.'
C. He is the Best of Men
The Imam is the most excellent of men in all attributes vital in
religion. This is considered to be a logical necessity of the fact
that he is immune from sin. Also it is considered that if there were
any man better than he, God would choose that man to be His Proof on
Earth and His Guide to the people.
Other Attributes of the Imams
Apart from the above necessary attributes of the Imams, there are a
large number of other qualities attributed to them. These include:
A. Knowledge ('Ilm)
This refers to both general and religious knowledge. Religious
knowledge may also be divided into knowledge concerning the externals
of the religion (such as the Qur'an, hadith, principles of
jurisprudence, etc.) and esoteric knowledge which includes the
allegorical interpretation of the Qur'an and mystical knowledge. The
following Tradition illustrates this point:
I was with Abu'l-Hasan in Mecca when a man said to him: 'You are
commenting from the Book of God some matters which you did not hear. '
And he said: 'It was revealed to us before it was revealed to the
people and we commented upon it before it was commented upon by
others. We know what is permitted and forbidden in it, we know which
verse abrogates and which verse is abrogated in it, and how many
verses were revealed on which night, and concerning what and whom they
were revealed. We are the judges of God on His Earth and His witnesses
for His creation.'
And concerning the Qur'anic verse: 'He is it who has sent down the
Book . . . and none know its explanation except God and those who are
deeply-rooted in knowledge' (3:7), the Imam Ja'far as-Sadiq said: 'We
are the ones who are deeply-rooted in knowledge and we know its
The channel by which the knowledge reaches the Imams is a Spirit from
God. Thus in the following Tradition Ja'far as-Sadiq is questioned:
'Inform me about the knowledge that you have. Is it something that you
learnt from the mouths of men . . . or something written that you
possess from the Apostle of God?' And he said: 'The matter is greater
than that. Have you not heard the words of God in His Book: "Thus we
have revealed to you a Spirit by Our command. You did not know what
the Book was nor Belief." and when God gives this Spirit, knowledge is
with it. And thus when it comes to a servant (of God), knowledge and
understanding are with it. '59
There is also the following Tradition, attributed to the same Imam,
that defines two types of knowledge and indicates that the Imam's
knowledge is co-extensive with that of the prophets and apostles:
God has two types of knowledge: A knowledge that He manifests to His
angels, prophets and apostles and what he has manifested to these, we
also know; and a knowledge which is confined to Himself. And when He
spread some of this [second type of knowledge], he caused us to learn
it and he showed it to those Imams who were before us.
However, the exact extent of the knowledge of the Imams has been a
subject of some controversy among the Shi'is. Most Shi'i theologians
have agreed, however, that the Imams do not inherently possess
knowledge of the unseen ( 'ilm al-ghayb), that is to say what is in
the future and what is in men's minds, although glimpses of this
knowledge are occasionally given to them by God out of His bounty.61
Thus the Imam as a result of his knowledge is perfectly able to give
judgement on all matters of religious law and his judgement is always
legally correct. He is the Guardian of the Law. The Imam is also a
supreme educator of mankind.
Concerning the time and manner of the transfer of this knowledge
from Imam to Imam there is some disagreement. For with respect to
'Ali, there are numerous Traditions attesting to how assiduous 'Ali
was in collecting knowledge concerning the Revelation and how he would
not go to sleep each evening until he had ascertained what Revelations
had been vouchsafed to Muhammad that day and the circumstances of the
Revelation. However, with respect to some of the later Imams, and in
particular the Ninth and Tenth Imams, Muhammad at-Taqi and 'Ali al-
Hadi, who became Imams while they were mere children, the emphasis is
on a miraculous transfer of knowledge at the moment of death of the
B. Spiritual Guidance (Walaya)
The concept of Walaya or Wilaya is one of the most difficult Islamic
terms to translate, particularly since in different contexts its
meaning varies. The word is derived from the same root as wall which
has already been discussed, and can mean master or friend (see p. 17).
The Imam is seen as the spiritual friend or supporter who guides and
initiates mankind into the mystical or inner truth of religion. It is
through him that God's grace reaches the Earth. As the apostles or
prophets are concerned with the external aspects of the religion, in
particular with the legislation of religious laws and ordinances, the
Imam (and this also, of course, applies to the apostle in his function
as an Imam) is concerned primarily with the inner or esoteric aspects
of religion, guiding mankind onto the path of spiritual enlightenment
and progress. The Imam is therefore, at one and the same time, master
and friend in the journey of the spirit. This theme is, of course,
very close to the Sufi idea of the Wilaya possessed by a Sufi Shaykh
(see p. 208).
The Necessity of Recognising the Imam
God and the Prophet have made a covenant (mlthaq) with the whole of
creation regarding the Imams. Thus the Sixth Imam, Ja'far as-Sadiq,
relates the following words of 'Ali:
The Apostle of God said: 'God does not cause a prophet to die until he
has ordered him to appoint a successor someone from his close family',
and He ordered me to appoint a successor. And so I asked Him: 'Who? O
Lord. ' And He replied: 'Appoint your cousin 'Ali, the son of Abu
Talib, as your successor, O Muhammad! For I have established this in
the former books and have written that he is your successor and have
made a covenant with all created things and with My prophets and
apostles. I have made covenants with them all concerning My Lordship
and your prophethood, O Muhammad, and the successorship of 'Ali, the
son of Abu Talib.63
Thus it is necessary for everyone to recognise and obey the
Imam. One of the most famous sayings attributed to the Apostle
is as follows: 'He who dies not knowing his Imam dies the
death of the Jahiliyya [the period of ignorance before Islam
arose].' 'By the death of the Jahiliyya is meant in the
condition of idol-worship and ignorance of the principles of
Islam, the condition of the people before Islam came.'
Thus knowledge of the Imam of his age is an essential part
of Islam for every believer. The Sixth Imam, Ja'far as-Sadiq,
is reported as having said:
Husayn, the son of 'Ali, came one day to his
companion and, after praising God and wishing peace
upon the Apostle of God, he said: 'By God! God
created mankind in order that they might know Him
and in knowing Him they might worship Him, and, in
worshipping Him, might free themselves from the
worship of anything other than Him.' and a man said
to him: 'O descendant of the Apostle of God! What is
knowing God?' He replied: 'It is that the people of
each age know their Imam, for obedience to him is
obligatory for them.'
And concerning one who opposes the Imam, when the Prophet
was asked: 'Who is the Imam?' he is reported to have replied:
They are my successors. Whosoever of my community
dies and does not have an Imam from among them, has
died the death of the Jahiliyya. If he has not
recognised him [i.e. the Imam] and has been at
enmity with him, he is a polytheist (mushrik) and if
he has not recognised him but has not been an enemy
nor assisted his enemies, then he is merely
accounted as being of the ignorant and is not a
The judgement of the Fifth Imam, Muhammad al-Baqir, is
He who has repudiated an Imam from God and has cut
himself off from him and his religion is an
unbeliever, an apostate from Islam. For the Imam is
from God and his religion is the religion of God,
and he who cuts himself off from the religion of
God, his blood, while he is in this state, may be
spilt with impunity unless he returns and repents to
God all that he has said.
Moreover, it is necessary for the believer to recognise
the living Imam of his age. It is not enough to have
recognised past Imams. When asked: 'Is one who has
recognised the Imams, but does not recognise the Imam of his
age, a believer (mu'min)?', Ja'far as-Sadiq replied: 'No!'
When then asked: 'Is he a Muslim?', he replied: 'Yes!'
The Shi'i scholar, ibn Babuya, has explained the difference
between one who has Islam (a Muslim) and one who has Imam
(belief, i.e. a mu'min):
Islam is acknowledgement of the Shahadatayn [the declaration
that there is no God but God and that Muhammad is His
Apostle], and whoever does this may retain his life and
possessions. But recompense is for belief (Imam).
The Eighth Imam, 'Ali ar-Rida, is reported to have said
that the Prophet told 'Ali:
You and the Imam from among your descendants, O 'Ali, are
the Proof of God to His creation after me, and the people of
knowledge among His creation. He who denies any one of you,
has denied me; he who has opposed any one of you has opposed
me; he who has treated any one of you harshly, has treated
me harshly; he who has reached you, has reached me; he who
has obeyed you, has obeyed me; he who has befriended you,
has befriended me; and he who is an enemy to you, is an
enemy, to me. For you are of me, you are created of my
substance, and I am of you. '
Moreover, there is no entry to Heaven without
acknowledgement of the Imam. The Apostle is reported to have
O 'Ali! When the Day of Judgement comes, we will be seated
on the Path, you, Gabriel and I, and we will not permit
anyone to pass who does not possess a writ of being
guiltless with respect to your authority.
Rational Proofs for the Imamate
In the eyes of the Shi'i ulama, the rational proofs of the
necessity of the Imamate are equally as if not more
important than the proofs derived from the Traditions. Since
these rational proofs are so important in Shi'i eyes, a
brief resume of the main lines of reasoning used are given
i. Since there are verses in the Qur'an that are not clear
and guidance is needed to understand these passages, God
could not have caused the Qur'an to be revealed without also
providing someone to explain it.
ii. Since there are many possible interpretations of the
sacred law (the Shari'a), the Imam is needed to give
authoritative guidance on the application of the law.
Otherwise the people would err in applying the sacred law
and a just God could not hold a people responsible for their
breaking the law if they had not been properly guided in it.
iii. Since a perfectly just ruler is necessary to maintain
order in the world, God, who is beneficent and does not wish
to see tyranny and anarchy in the world, must of necessity
provide such a ruler--the Imam. The analogy is made with the
human body: the mind is needed to control and co-ordinate
the body as well as to make sense of the incoming sensory
data. In human society, the Imam fulfils the same role.
iv. It is proved from the above that a leader is needed for
the Muslims to rule and guide them. If God had left it to
the choice of the people, then they might have chosen
someone who was not adequate for the task and this would
have made God's favour to mankind incomplete. Since the best
course then is for God to choose and designate the leader,
and since God is beneficent and all-wise and would always
choose the best and most expedient course, this must result
in God's provision of an Imam.
Many of the most important Shi'i books of the early and
medieval period (and particularly from the 10th to the 13th
contain both rational proofs (from Mu'tazili-based kalam)
and traditional proofs (from the Traditions of the Prophet
and the Imams) on the Imamate as well as on a mixture of
other subjects such as the legitimacy of 'Ali's succession
to the Prophet, the lives and miracles of the Imams and the
Occultation of the Twelfth Imam. This admixture often makes
it difficult to assign a classification of subject matter to
these books. They were usually written to counter Sunni
polemics. The following is a list of the most important of
such works, indicating the main subjects that they deal with
(the following abbreviations are used: I - the Imamate; AS -
'Ali's succession; LI - Lives of the Imams; O - Occultation
of the Twelfth Imam):
Muhammad an-Nu'mani, Kitab al-Ghayba (Book of the
Occultation; composed 342/953) - O
Ibn Babuya, al-Amali (Dictated Notes) - AS, LI
Ibn Babuya, Kamal ad-Din wa Tamam an-Ni'ma (The Completion
Religion and the Perfection of Beneficence)--I, O
Shaykh al-Mufid, al-Ikhtisas (Distinction) - I, LI, O
Shaykh al-Mufid, Kitab al-Irshad (Book of Guidance) - LI
Shaykh al-Mufid, Awa'il al-Maqalat (The Foremost of
Treatises) - I
Shaykhu't-Ta'ifa at-Tusi, Kitab al-Ghayba (Book of
Occultation) - O
Shaykhu't-Ta'ifa, as-Shafi fi'l-Imama (The Salutory Book
about the Imamate) - I
al-Fadl ibn Hasan at-Tabarsi, al-Ihtijaj (Argumentation) -
Ibn Shahrashub, Manaqib Al-Abi Talib (The Virtuous Deeds of
the Family of Abu Talib, i.e. the 'Alids) - I, LI
'Ali ibn Musa, ibn Tawus, al-Yaqin fi Imara Amir al-Mu'minin
(Certainty regarding the Authority of the Commander of the
Faithful) - I, AS
'Ali ibn 'Isa al-Irbili, Kashf al-Ghumma fi ma'arifat al-
A'imma (The Disclosure of Affliction; concerning knowledge
of the Imams)--1, LI, O