Imamate in the Qur'an

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Portion of the Qur'anic verse 59 from surah 4 written in calligraphy

Imamah (Arabic: الإمامة) is one of the core beliefs of Shia Islam and is what explicitly separates them from other Muslim sects. The belief of Imamate implies that in every time and place, there must be an infallible, divinely appointed guide who preserves the religion. The Shi'as argue for the authority of the Twelve Imams from the family of Prophet Muhammad on a number of basis, the first of which is the Qur'an.


Verse 33:33

One of the most primary verse that is used, and often recited by Shi'ites, is verse 33:33 of the Qur'an: "Indeed Allah wishes to remove from you all impurities, people of the house, and to purify you with a thorough purification." Commentaries on this verse hinge on a number of points.

First, is the use of the word innama (إنما) at the beginning of this verse. This phrase is usually translated as "but" or "whereas", and is used as a particle of exclusion. It indicates that this group, and this group alone, are the ones who are the subject of the purification that is referred to within the verse.

Second, are discussions about the meaning of the word intends (يريد). According to some narrations as well as the teachings of some theologians and philosophers, what Allah "intends" is not always the same as what Allah "wills." For example, in narrations in Usul al-Kafi, Imam Jafar al-Sadiq explains that while Allah did not intend or want for Prophet Adam to eat the fruit of the forbidden tree, he nonetheless willed that He did. The Divine Intent or "Desire" (الأرادة الالهية) indicates what Allah has legislated, rather than what actually happens. The latter is the Divine Will (المشيئة), and the "Desire" and "Will" are said to not always accord with each other. Allah may desire that a person pray, but wills that this person does not pray. While this may be an accepted theological distinction, most scholars of Qur'anic commentary do not accept that this distinction is observed by the Qur'anic language. For example, we find the same phrase in verse 36:82, where Allah says "Indeed, the command of Allah is such that if he desires a thing, he says to it, "Be!", and it is." This type of creative desire is seen to be identical to the Divine will itself.

Ayatullah Muhammad Taqi al-Hakim argues that the Divine intention is the complete cause for all created entities, and that it is impossible to separate a cause from its effect. The fact that Allah says He "intends" or "desires" to remove all impurity from the family of the Prophet, that means He has actually done so.

Others observe a distinction between the existentiating desire of God, and the legal desire of God. The first is the type of desire referred to in verse 36:82. This is a desire that is the complete cause of all existing things, and brings them into actuality in conformance to the Divine intent. The legal desire (الأرادة التشريعية) is of a different order, since it is possible that the created entities will fail to submit to the injunctions dictated by the legal desire of God. Al-Hakim argues that this interpretation does not fit with this verse, since the use of the exclusive particle innama at the beginning indicates that the focus is on the Ahl ul-Bayt themselves, and is obviously not making any type of specific, legal injunction concerning them, since their obligations are the same as anybody else's.

Others will respond that endowing the family of the Prophet with such infallibility would be violating the principle of free-will. It would be taking away from them the power to do evil, which is a power that defines human beings for what they are. If they had their free-will removed, then they would be unfit for any reward, and so would not be able to be granted Paradise in the hereafter. Al-Hakim argues against this position. He says, firstly, that it is true that Allah is the creator of all our acts. However, He creates those acts through the intermediary of the intentions of human beings, intentions that are formed freely by them. The personal acts of the Imams are created by Allah, but they reach them via the intermediary of their own choices. Their choices, in turn, are based on knowledge they have been granted. It is said that a being who has seen the hellfire itself, and knows it for what it is in all of its truth, is not going to commit any act which will bring them into that hellfire. Rather, that knowledge immunizes them from such sins, and this "immunization" is the actual linguistic meaning of the word "infallible" in Arabic (معصوم).

Questions have also been raised about why this verse is taken to refer to the progeny of the Prophet and not to the wives of the Prophet. This narration is taken as an indication that only those who entered under the cloak were those who were purified. Other evidences are drawn to argue that it cannot refer to wives of the Prophet, especially Ayesha. Her war against Imam Ali indicates that she was not part of this select group, since it is impossible for both to have been infallible and for both to have engaged in armed conflict against each other.

Verse 4:59 and Verse 4:83

Other Qur'anic verses are taken as an indication that there must always be such a person after the Prophet. An example is the verse 4:59: "Obey the Prophet, and obey the Messenger, and the holders of authority from amongst you." A number of scholars have observed that even though there are three entities to whom obedience is made obligatory, there are only actually two commands. The first command is to obey Allah, and the second is to obey the Prophet and the holders of authority from amongst you. This means that obedience to the holders of authority is as obligatory as it is to the Prophet, since they are actually one command. Since the obligation to obey the Prophet is absolute, the obligation to obey the the holders of authority is absolute as well. This indicates that the holders of authority must also be infallible, like the Prophet. For if one were ordered to obey the holders of authority, and the holders of authority were disobeying Allah, then that would amount to Allah ordering a person to disobey Him.

Shi'ite scholars have argued that it is impossible to say that the command to obey the holders of authority is conditioned by their own obedience to the Prophet, since the command is singular here, and something cannot be conditioned by itself. According to this view, the holders of authority must also be sinless, which then brings us back to verse 33:33, which indicates the sinlessness of the Prophets family. They, therefore, must be the ones who are encharged with authority. Some Sunni scholars have conceded this interpretation, such as Fakhr al-Din al-Razi, when he writes in his Tafsir al-Kabir:

"Indeed, Allah the Exalted has ordered certain obedience to the holders of authority. If anybody's obedience is ordered with clear certainty by Allah, then that person must be infallible from all mistake. If he was not infallible, then this would mean that Allah would be ordering a person to commit an error. This would mean that a command and a prohibition would be simultaneously united, and this is impossible. Therefore, it is proved that if Allah orders the obedience of any person with certainty, it is necessary that that person be infallible. Therefore, the holders of authority are infallible."[1]

Another verse, verse 4:83, is taken to make a similar indication: "If they had only turned the issue over to the Prophet and the holders of authority from amongst them, they would have been taught by those who were able to derive the issue in truth from them." The same argument is made: in areas of dispute, a group of people (here classed as "the holders of authority") are the ones who will settle the dispute properly. This makes those holders of authority a court of final appeal, submission to whom is made equivalent to submission to the Prophet, as in the previous verse.

Verse 5:55

The specific authority of Imam Ali is also said to be indicated by the verse of authority, verse 5:55: "Indeed, your lord is Allah, and the Prophet, and those who believe, those establish prayer and give out charity, even while they are bowed in prayer." Shi'ite alongside many Sunni scholars have concurred that this verse refers to a specific incident in the life of Ali, where he gave one of his rings to a beggar while he was bowed in ritual prayer. The use of the word wali, meaning guardian, is taken as assigning walayah (الولاية) to Imam Ali ibn Abi Talib, exclusively.

Verse 13:7 and Verse 35:24

The existence of guides after the Prophet is also believed to be referred to by verse 13:7, which states: "Indeed you are but a messenger, and to every people there is a guide." This verse speaks first, exclusively, about the Prophet, using the particle of exclusion, inama. A second clause begins, which says that every people have a guide. Shi'ite scholars have generally argued that because of the use of the exclusive particle at the beginning, the guide that is for every people cannot be the Prophet, but rather another entity. The fact that a third class of people, the "holders of authority", has been referred to in previous verses, indicates that there is an additional set of authority alongside of the Prophet.

That entity is a singular person, according to the Shi'ite interpretation, insofar as it says "to every people there is a guide", instead of "to every people there are guides." This is taken as being a basis for the idea that the Imam is one, single person in every time and place, and cannot be predicated upon the community as a whole. Nor does it refer to the scholars, or any other group of people.

Verse 35:24 is also taken to make a similar point: "Indeed, we have you sent with truth, as a bearer of glad-tidings, and a warner. And there is no nation, except that there has passed amongst them a warner." This would assume that every generation of every people must have a warner amongst them, indicating that if there is no law-giving Prophet, there must be an infallible source who replaces him.

Verse 75:36

This verse asks of the human race: "Does the human being think he will be left aimless?". Shi'ite scholars have argued that this verse means it is impossible for the Prophet to have departed the world without first appointing a successor to preserve the religion after him. The old adage of "no religion survives the death of its founder" is seen to apply here. Without a specific source of guidance, humanity would be left to try and piece together what they know of the religion, producing a patchwork of competing beliefs and theories, without ever hitting the mark. Sending the Prophet would, according to a rational interpretation offered by many Shi'ite scholars, require that another person come to stand in place of the Prophet. Otherwise, sending him would have been pointless. The verse which states "Indeed, we have not sent you except as a warner unto all the worlds" would be rendered meaningless, since the generations that post-dated the Prophet would be powerless to discover the truth of the religion amidst competing claims.

The question posed in verse 75:36 is, of course, interpreted as a rhetorical question, and as a challenge. When this verse is taken in context with the previous, the question is read as: "Do you think that we have not appointed somebody to answer your questions?" The existence of such a being would, according to Shi'ite scholars, be indicated by verse 4:59 and verse 4:83.

Verse 2:30 and Verse 21:73

Verse 2:30 reads: "Indeed, I am He who places a vicegerent in the Earth." This verse is taken as indicating that the Imams are those who are appointed by God, rather than appointed by the community through some other form of consultation. This is seen to be the sunnah of Allah, of which Allah says in verse 33:62: "You will not find any change in the sunnah of Allah." Since His sunnah does not change, the sunnah of always appointing the leader of the religion and the religious community. The use of the adjective ja'il (جاعل), meaning one who places, is also important for Shi'ite scholars in interpreting this verse. When He says "I am He who places..." this indicates that He was not merely just placing a vicegerent in the Earth during the specific incident referred to by this verse (the creation of Adam), but is rather a constant attribute of Allah. He is thereby always appointing His vicegerent, His caliph, and it has nothing to do with whether or not people have chosen to appoint one for themselves or not.

Verse 21:73 is interpreted similarly: "And we made the Imams, guiding by our command." This also is taken as indicating that the Imams are Divinely appointed figures. This is, firstly, taken to indicate that the Imams are infallible, as they described as guiding by and in accordance with the command of Allah. The use of the word command is also important, for we have seen that the "holders of authority", the ulil al-amr, are the "holders of the command" as well.


  1. Tafsir al-Kabir, vol 10, p. 148
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