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An Introduction to Shi'i Islam

by Moojan Momen

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Chapter 6


On the Imamate

      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 acknowledgement.

      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.[1] 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.[2]

      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.[3]

      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.'[5]

      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.[6]

      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.'[7] 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.[8]

      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 Imams.

      Muhammad, Fatima and the Imams are created out of the substance of 'Illiyyun.[9] 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.[10] The word itself is almost certainly derived from the Hebrew 'elyon meaning the highest.

      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.[11]

      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).[12] 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.[13]

      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 Imam.

      The difference between the apostles, the prophets and the Imams is summarised thus in a saying attributed to the Sixth Imam, Ja'far as-Sadiq:

      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[14]) hears the voice but does not see anything.[15]

      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 wishes.[17]

      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 commentary.

      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

The Twelfth Imam, His Occultation and Return

      Perhaps no aspect of the history of Shi'i Islam is as confused as the stories relating to the Twelfth Imam and this is not surprising as this is the point in Shi'i history where the events related become of a miraculous, extraordinary nature and the non-believer may be unwilling to go along with the facts as related by Shi'is. But even for the committed believer, it is difficult to decide which of the many and often contradictory versions presented in the Traditions to follow. The following version is the one that is usually presented in the books published for popular reading.

      The mother of the Twelfth Imam was a Byzantine slave-girl named Narjis Khatun (or Saqil or Sawsan or Rayhana). In the more fully elaborated versions of the story she becomes the Byzantine Emperor's daughter who was informed in a vision that she would be the mother of the Mahdi. She was bought by the Tenth Imam, 'Ali al-Hadi, for his son the Eleventh Imam, Hasan al-'Askari.

      The Twelfth Imam was born in 255/868 (some sources vary by as much as five years from this date) in Samarra. He was given the same name as the Prophet, Abu'l-Qasim Muhammad.

      The usual miraculous accounts of his talking from the womb, etc. (see p. 23) may be passed over to the only occasion on which he is said to have made a public appearance. This was in 260/874 when the Eleventh Imam died. It appears that none of the Shi'i notables knew of the birth of Muhammad and so they went to the Eleventh Imam's brother, Ja'far, assuming that he was now the Imam. Ja'far seemed prepared to take on this mantle and entered the house of the deceased Imam in order to lead the funeral prayers. At this juncture a young boy came forward and said: 'Uncle, stand back! For it is more fitting for me to lead the prayers for my father than for you. ' After the funeral,Ja'far was asked about the boy and said that he did not know who the boy was. For this reason, Ja'far has been vilified by generations of Shi'is as Kadhdhab, the liar.

      The boy was seen no more and Shi'i tradition states that from that year he went into occultation. At Samarra, beside the gold-domed Shrine of the Imams 'Ali al-Hadi and Hasan al-'Askari is a mosque under which there is a cave. The end of one of the rooms of the cave is partitioned off by a gate which is called Bab al-Ghayba (Gate of the Occultation) and was built on the instructions of the Caliph an-Nasir in 606/1209. The area behind the gate is called Hujrat al-Ghayba (Chamber of the Occultation) and in the corner of this is a well, the Bi'r al-Ghayba (Well of the Occultation) down which the Imam Mahdi is said to have disappeared. Shi'is gather in the rooms of the cave and pray for his return.

The Lesser Occultation

      Those Shi'is who followed the line of the Imams were thrown into confusion by the death of Hasan al-'Askari. Ja'far remained unshakeable in his assertion that his brother had no progeny and some gathered around him as the Imam. Others asSerted that the Twelfth Imam had not yet been born but would be born in the Last Days just before the Day of Judgement. Others asserted that it was the Eleventh Imam, Hasan al-'Askari, who had gone into occultation. Thus the Shi'a were fragmented into several factions (for a fuller account of these sects see pp. 59 60). It is difficult to assess at this distance in history and with the bias of the sources available what proportion of the Twelver Shi'is of the time accepted the position of 'Uthman al-'Amri which was to become the orthodox Twelver position. Al-'Amri claimed that Muhammad, the son of Hasan al-'Askari, did exist and was in occultation and that he, 'Uthman, was the intermediary between the Hidden Imam and the Shi'a.

      But it should not necessarily be assumed that 'Uthman al-'Amri's assertion was perceived by the Shi'is of the time as being a radical change. For, after all, the Tenth and Eleventh Imams, as far as the generality of their followers were concerned, had also been in effective occultation. Because of the vigilant and hostile surveillance of the 'Abbasids, they had rarely showed themselves to their followers and are even said to have spoken to some of those who met them from behind a curtain. Their contact with their followers was through a network of Shi'i agents called the Wikala which had been responsible for communicating the messages of the Imams and collecting the monies offered by the Shi'a. This network of agents was in contact with one or two special agents of the Tenth and Eleventh Imam who in turn were in direct contact with the Imam. 'Uthman al-'Amri had been the secretary and special agent of the Tenth and Eleventh Imams and thus effectively controlled the Wikala. With the death of the Eleventh Imam, all that al-'Amri was saying was that the Twelfth Imam was also in hiding due to the threat against his life from the 'Abbasids and that he, 'Uthman, had been appointed to continue the position that he had held under the previous Imams. For the majority of the Shi'a it must have seemed that nothing much had changed. It is probably only after about seventy years (i.e. the normal life-span of a man) had passed that the question of the Occultation became problematical (see pp. 74-5) and began to require doctrinal exposition. Thus al-Kulayni, who completed his book (see p. 174) less than seventy years after the start of the Occultation has little or no discussion of the Occultation itself or of the position of al-'Amri and his successors as intermediaries and neither do any of the extant Shi'i books preceding it. A few decades later, however, it is a topic of major importance to most Shi'i writers and whole books are devoted to the issue.

      'Uthman nominated his son, Abu Ja'far Muhammad ibn 'Uthman, as his successor. For forty-five years these two laid claim to the position of being the agents of the Hidden Imam. They would take messages and questions from the Shi'a to the Hidden Imam and would return with answers, usually verbal but sometimes written. They would also receive the monies offered by the Shi'a to the Imam as khums and zakat (see p. 179). They were involved in bitter disputes with Ja'far and his followers who denied the existence of the Eleventh Imam's son and laid claim to his brother's estate — a legal battle that took seven years and was finally decided by the Caliph al-Mu'tamid. Narjis, the supposed mother of the Twelfth Imam, was also the subject of much wrangling that went on over twenty years.

      The third person to be nominated as the agent of the Hidden Imam was Abu'l-Qasim Husayn ibn Ruh an-Nawbakhti. He came to this position in 305/917, after the death of Muhammad al-'Amri. Conditions had changed considerably by this time. The Caliph Muqtadir (reigned AD 907-932) was favourable to the Shi'a and the Nawbakhti family, who were Shi'is, wielded considerable power at his court as ministers. However, even at this late date there were disputes among the Shi'a over the question of the Occultation. Abu Ja'far Muhammad ibn 'Ali ash-Shalmaghani (executed in 322/933), who had been a close confidant of Husayn ibn Ruh and his agent in Baghdad, suddenly turned against the latter and at first laid claim to the position of being the rightful agent of the Imam and later denounced the whole concept of the Occultation as a lie. Another who fell out with what was rapidly by now becoming the Twelver Shi'i orthodoxy was Husayn ibn Mansur al-Hallaj (c. 244/8 5 8 executed 309/922). Exactly what it was that Shalmaghani and Hallaj said or did which brought upon them the anger of the Shi'is and eventually, through the power of the Nawbakhti family, death at the hands of the state cannot now easily be discerned among the mass of gratuitous accusations and disinformation piled upon them by later writers. It has been suggested, however, that their open avocation of extremist claims (ghuluww) was threatening the delicate balance which allowed Shi'i families such as the Nawbakhtis and the Al al-Furat to hold power and authority in a Sunni state and thus allowed Shi'is to enjoy unprecedented freedom. It is clear that whatever differences there may have been among the Shi'a following the death of the Eleventh Imam in 874, by the third and fourth decades of the 10th century (i.e. the closing years of the Lesser Occultation), the majority of the Shi'is were agreed about the line of Twelve Imams. There was still confusion and doubt over the question of the Occultation and this was to continue for a further hundred years. It was also during this period that the first of the four 'canonical' collections of hadith, al-Kafi fi 'Ilm ad-Din, was being completed by al-Kulayni thus helping to bring about a convergence and consolidation of views among the Twelver Shi'is.

      The fourth and last agent of the Hidden Imam was Abu'l-Husayn 'Ali ibn Muhammad as-Samarri. He held office for only three years and died in 329/941. These four successive agents of the Hidden Imam are each called by the Shi'is the Bab (Gate, plural Abwab), the Safir (Ambassador, plural Sufara) or Na'ib (Deputy, plural Nuwwab) of the Twelfth Imam.

      At the time of his death, as-Samarri brought the following written message from the Hidden Imam:

      In the name of God the Merciful, the Compassionate! O 'Ali ibn Muhammad as-Samarri, may God magnify the reward of your brethren upon you! There are but six days separating you from death. So therefore arrange your affairs but do not appoint anyone to your position after you. For the second occultation has come and there will not now be a manifestation except by the permission of God and that after a long time has passed, and hearts have hardened and the earth become filled with tyranny. And there will come to my Shi'a those who claim to have seen me, but he who claims to have seen me before the emergence of the Sufyani and the cry (from the heavens) is assuredly a lying imposter. And there is no power nor strength save in God the Almighty, the All-High.'

      And so the Shi'is passed, in 329/941, into what is known as the Greater Occultation, the period of time when there is no agent of the Hidden Imam on earth.

      One final historical point is that although the history of the four agents of the Hidden Imam has been given above as it is to be found in the Shi'i histories, there is some considerable evidence that this was a later superimposition of interpretation On the facts of history. In the early works there is no indication that the number of agents was limited to four and several others are mentioned.2 It seems likely, then, that after the death of the Eleventh Imam, for the duration of a natural lifespan (i.e. seventy years), the former system of the Wikala had continued to operate. But then the Shi'is began to be thrown into confusion and doubt over the matter of the Occultation.3 And so the scholars of the early Buyid period spent a great deal of time in writing books explaining and proving the doctrine of the Occultation of the Twelfth Imam. It was probably also at about the end of the Lesser Occultation that the Twelfth Imam came to be identified with the figure of the Mahdi.

The Doctrine of Occultation

      In its simplest form, the doctrine of the Occultation (Ghayba) declares that Muhammad ibn Hasan, the Twelfth Imam, did not die but has been concealed by God from the eyes of men. His life has been miraculously prolonged until the day when he will manifest himself again by God's permission. During his Lesser Occultation, he remained in contact with his followers through the four Ba-bs (al-Abwa-b al-Arba'a). During the Greater Occultation, which extends to the present day, he is still in control of the affairs of men and is the Lord of the Age (Sahib az-Zaman) but there is no longer a direct route of communication. However, it is popularly believed that the Hidden Imam does still occasionally manifest himself to the pious either when awake or more commonly in dreams and visions. It is believed that written messages left at the tombs of the Imams can reach him. The Hidden Imam was popularly supposed to be resident in the far-off cities of Jabulsa and Jabulqa and in former times books were written about persons who had succeeded in travelling to these places. Less has been made of this particular tradition in recent times when modern geographical knowledge permeated the Shi'i masses and it became generally realised that no such places existed. There are also accounts of persons who have seen the Imam in person, in visions or dreams.[4]

      The occurrence of the Occultation is considered to have been due to the hostility of the Imam's enemies and the danger to his life. He remains in occultation because of the continuance of this threat. The severance of communication with the Hidden Imam is not considered to contradict the dictum that 'the earth is not left without an Imam', for, say the Shi'i writers, the sun still gives light and warmth to the earth even when hidden behind a cloud.

      The Hidden Imam has a large number of titles including the following: Sahib az-Zaman (Lord of the Age), Sahib al-Amr (Lord of Command), al-Mahdi (the Rightly-Guided One), al-Qa'im (He who will arise), al-Imam al-Muntazar (the Awaited Imam) and the Baqiyyat Allah (Remnant of God).

The Doctrine of Return (Raj'a)

      The Hidden Imam, the Imam Mahdi, is in occultation awaiting the time that God has decreed for his return. This return is envisaged as occurring shortly before the final Day of Judgement. The Hidden Imam will then return as the Mahdi with a company of his chosen ones and there will also return his enemies led by the one-eyed Dajjal and the Sufyani. The Imam Mahdi will lead the forces of righteousness against the forces of evil in one final apocalyptic battle in which the enemies of the Imam will be defeated.

      The Imam Mahdi will rule for a number of years and after him will come the return of Christ, the Imam Husayn and also the other Imams, prophets and saints. Strictly speaking, the term raj'a only applies to the return to life of figures who have died such as the Imam Husayn. It is more correct to refer to the zuhur (appearance) or qiyam (arising) of the Twelfth Imam who did not die and is in occultation. Return is envisaged by Shi'is as involving only the Imams, their supporters and their enemies. Those who were neutral in or unaffected by the struggle will remain in their graves until the Day of Resurrection.[5]

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