- This article is about Imamate as the principle of Shi'a school. For explanation about Imams of Shi'a, see Imams of Shi'a.
Imamate (Arabic: إمامة /Persian: امامت), from a Shi'a point of view, is the leadership of the Islamic society, designated by God to succeed the Holy Prophet (s) in all religious and worldly affairs. It is among the principles of Shi'a school and one of the points of difference between Shi'a and Sunnis. The importance of this principle among shi'a led them to be titled as Imamiyya.
According to shi'a teachings, the Holy Prophet (s) made a lot of efforts to introduce his caliph and the leader of Muslims after himself since the beginning of his mission. His efforts towards this aim began since his first public invitation by introducing Imam 'Ali (a) as his caliph and successor and continued until the last days of his life on the way back from Hajjat al-wida' on Dhu l-Hijja 18 in Ghadir Khumm.
Sunni Muslims also emphasize on the necessity of an Imam and to obey him, however, they believe that it is upon the Muslim umma to elect an Imam and that the Holy Prophet (s) has not appointed any person as his successor.
During history, shi'a have found different opinions about the number of Imams (a); thus, some became Zaydi, some Isma'ili and some Waqifi who stopped after Imam al-Kazim (a) [and did not follow Imam al-Rida (a)].
According to Imami Shi'a resources, the number of Imams (a) is twelve; the first of whom was Imam 'Ali (a) and the last one of whom is Imam al-Mahdi (a). After Imam 'Ali (a), Imam al-Hasan (a) and then his brother Imam al-Husayn (a) became Imam and after these three, nine descendants of Imam al-Huasyn (a) became Imam one after another.
The reason behind Imam's existence is to safeguard and transfer religion and correctly explain religious teachings; therefore, to perform his duties properly, it is necessary for an Imam to have the power to abandon sins, God-given knowledge and Wilaya (guardianship) from God.
Meaning of Imam
Literally, imamate means leadership and the word imam refers to one or thing followed by people. Accordingly, different examples for this meaning have been provided in Arabic dictionaries such as the glorious Qur'an, the Prophet's (s) successor, an imam in congregational prayer, a commander of an army, a guide of passengers, a caravan leader, a camel herder and a scholar who is followed.
Imam in the Qur'an
In the Qur'an, the word "imam" is used both for some human beings and for referring to other issues; non-human usages of this word are: Lawh mahfuz, an open highway and the Book of Moses (a).
The usage of this word for humans has been two kinds: imam of the truth and imam of the falsehood.
Leaders of disbelief such as Pharaoh and his agents are imams of the falsehood in the Qur'an.
Also in some cases, the word "imam" is used including all the mentioned usages, "The day We shall summon every group of people with their imam" (17:71)
Theologians have defined imamate in two ways;
Some definitions are general and include prophethood as well; for example, it has been defined as the "general leadership in religious and worldly issues".
Given the above mentioned points, it can be said that the definition of imamate as the "leadership of the Islamic society in religious and worldly affairs as the successor of the Prophet (s)" is accepted by all Islamic schools.
Imamate in the View of Shi'a
Shi'a regards imamate one of the Islamic doctrines of faith, but Mu'tazilites, 'Asharites and other Islamic schools consider it among Furu' [secondary beliefs]. Accordingly, shi'a have a more prominent position for imamate compared with sunnis. In shi'a culture, imamate includes more duties and responsibilities, in addition to those of a caliph. Its importance can be clearly understood from verses of the Qur'an and hadiths about imamate because according to shi'a, imamate is in fact a matter similar to prophethood.
Imamate and Caliphate
The special position of imamate among Muslims also becomes obvious when the matter is historically studied. After the Prophet (s) passed away, the most important and critical issue debated and discussed among Muslims was imamate. No other religious teaching has ever been argued over like imamate has.
Leadership of the Islamic society after the Prophet (s) is called both caliphate and imamate and the one who take over this position is called both caliph and imam. From the point that people have to follow him, he is called imam and from the point that his leadership is in succession of the Prophet (s), he is called caliph. Therefore in Islam, Imam is the caliph and successor of the Prophet (s). However, about the question whether he can be called as Khalifatallah [vicegerent of Allah], there are two opinions among Sunni scholars; some regarded it permissible and some others considered it impermissible. Ahl al-Bayt (a) have also regarded imamate as vicegerency of God and His Prophet (s).
Imamate as the Divine Promise
- Main article: Trial of Ibrahim (a) Verse
The glorious Qur'an has regarded Imamate higher than prophethood, because about the Prophet Abraham (a), it has mentioned that after he (a) achieved the position of prophethood and was successful in trials and divine tests, the position of Imamate was granted to him.
"And when his Lord tested Abraham with certain words, and he fulfilled them, He said, 'I am making you the Imam of mankind.' Said he, 'And from among my descendants?' He said, 'My pledge does not extend to the unjust.'" (2:124)
Imamate as the Cause of Religion's Perfection
- Main article: Al-Ikmal Verse
One of the hadiths which have been mentioned as the cause of revelation from the verse Ikmal al-din [perfection of religion] is the great position of imamate. According to these hadiths, the mentioned verse has been revealed about the event of Ghadir Khumm when by the order of God, the Prophet (s) introduced 'Ali (a) as the leader of Islamic society after himself. Accordingly, Islam reached its desired perfection through Imamate.
- Main article: Tabligh verse
The verse of Tabligh is also referring to the same issue; since, according to this verse and the hadiths about the cause of its revelation, Imamate has such a great position that if the Prophet (s) did not announce it, it was as if he (a) had not accomplished his mission and his efforts would be lost.
Importance of Imamate on the Day of Judgment
"The day We shall summon every group of people with their imam" (17:71)
This is also mentioned in a hadith both shi'a and Sunnis have narrated from Imam al-Rida (a). it says that on the Day of Judgment, every group is summoned by their divine book and the tradition of their prophet and leader.
Imam 'Ali (a) said, "Imams (a) are God's guides and leaders for His servants and no one will enter the paradise unless he knows them and they know him and no one will enter the hell unless he rejects them and they reject him."
In many hadiths narrated from Imams (a), it is mentioned that prayer, zakat, fasting, hajj and wilaya are the pillars of Islam, among which wilaya has a better position because it is the key and guide to the rest.
Necessity of the Existence of Imam (a)
From the viewpoint of Twelver shi'a theologians, imamate is incumbent and its necessity is theological; i.e. it is incumbent upon God, not necessary for people. The meaning of this necessity is that it is a matter required by justice, wisdom, grace and other attributes of God's perfection; and since, abandoning it implies a deficiency in God and thus impossible, thus doing it is necessary and incumbent upon God. However, this obligation roots in God's attributes of perfection, not an outside obligation. As God has made mercy and guidance obligatory upon Himself, Nasir al-Din al-Tusi says, "Twelver shi'a believe that appointment of Imam is an act of kindness; because it draws people near to obedience and away from disobedience; and that kindness is incumbent upon God."
Most Islamic schools consider imamate necessary, even though there is a disagreement about whether it is a jurisprudential, theological or rational obligation.
- 'Asharites: They regard it obligatory but because they do not believe in rational goodness and evil [Husn and Qubh 'Aqli] and any obligation for God, they regard imamate obligatory for people due to hadiths, not rationally obligatory. 'Adud al-Din al-Eyji believes that 'Asharites consider appointment of Imam obligatory according to hadiths meaning that existence and appointment of Imam is necessary because God has said so, not because our intellect has concluded it.
- Mu'tazilites: Mu'tazilites, Maturidites, Abadiyyas and a group of Zaydis regarded imamate incumbent upon people. Some Mu'tazilites regarded the necessity of imam rational and some others considered it necessary due to hadiths.
Reasons for Necessity of Imamate
Verse of Uli al-Amr
- Main article: Uli al-Amr Verse
"O you who have faith! Obey Allah and obey the Apostle and those vested with authority among you." (4:59)
In this verse, God orders people to obey Uli al-Amr, thus, they need to exist in the first place so that people obey them. Taftazani refers to this reason and says. "the necessity of obedience from Uli al-Amr requires its actualization."
Hadith Man mat
- Main article: Hadith Man mat
Some Islamic theologians has interpreted this hadith as the reason for the necessity of imamate, since according to this hadith, knowing Imam at any time is a religious duty and requires constant existence of Imam.
Tradition of Muslims
Some theologians have regarded the tradition of Muslims as the reason for necessity of imamate since it can be understood from the tradition of Muslims that they have considered the necessity of imamate a certain and unshakable issue. The disagreement between shi'a and Sunnis has been actually over the case of imamate, not its principle. Abu 'Ali and Abu Hashim Jubba'i and some others have referred to the consensus of companions on necessity of imamate.
Qa'ida Lutf [Rule of Kindness]
- Main article: Qa'ida Lutf
The most important rational reason theologians bring for necessity of Imamate is the Rule of Kindness. Shi'a theologians consider Imamate a clear example of the Rule of Kindness and have said that God should be kind to His servants and appointing and introducing Imam is an act of kindness, thus imamate is incumbent upon God.
To explain that imamate is an act of kindness, al-Sharif al-Murtada said,
"We know that human beings have rational duties and we know that the duty-bound are not infallible. Therefore, the reason for necessity of imamate is that any intelligent person who is familiar with the common sense and the tradition of the wise would know that whenever there is a competent and wise leader in a society who stand against tyranny and evil and defends justice and human values, social situation will be readier for development of virtues and values and this nothing but God's grace, since kindness is what causes the duty-bound turn to obedience and virtues and turn away from vices and evil. Therefore, imamate is an act of kindness towards the duty-bound."
Theologians such as Ibn Maytham al-Bahrani, Sadid al-Din Humsi, Nasir al-Din al-Tusi and others have had different explanations for imamate and its necessity with regards to the mentioned rule [of Kindness].
Even though Mu'tazilite theologians have accepted the Rule of Kindness, they do not accept its effect on this issue and that imamate is an act of kindness and have mentioned some criticisms which al-Sharif al-Murtada have answered to in al-Shafi fi al-imama.
Philosophy of Imamate
Since Sunnis consider imam only a political leader of the society, they mention establishment of a government, performance of ordinary responsibilities of the government and management of the society as the philosophy for the existence of imam.
For example, from Mu'tazilite viewpoint, performing religious rulings, guarding the existence of the Islamic society, preparing and mobilizing soldiers to fight with the enemy and such affairs are included in responsibilities of the Imam.
However, Twelver shi'a have stated two kind of goals for the existence of Imam:
The first kind are the same practical goals and benefits Sunnis have mentioned. Accordingly, preserving the Muslims' social system, establishing social justice, Islamic rulings especially those with collective aspects and performing religious punishments have been mentioned among the goals of imamate. However, another area which covers the most important goals of imamate include: delivering, preserving and explaining religion.
From the Twelver shi'a viewpoint, God has revealed religion to the Prophet (s) in complete form and the Prophet (s) has delivered it to Imams (a) in complete form so that they gradually explain all the rulings to people.
Accordingly, details of the rulings related to worship, contracts, unilateral deals, heritage, punishments, blood-money are not mentioned in the Qur'an and the conduct of the Prophet (s). What is mentioned is the general aspects of these rulings. The rulings we have received through hadiths of the Prophet (s) are limited and not all of them are authentic regarding their references.
Qiyas, Istihsan and other non-certain methods are regarded invalid by shi'a, since we do not have any authentic rational or legitimate proof according to which such methods can be used in the process of judgment. For example, fasting the last day of Ramadan is obligatory, the first day of Shawwal forbidden and the second day of Shawwal is recommended while these days are the same apparently. Therefore, just based on their similarity, one cannot extend the ruling for one to another.
From shi'a viewpoint, the Prophet (s) has delivered Islam fully and there has not been any deficiency in it to be compensated by Qiyas or Istihsan. However, due to people's lack of maturity and lack of many issues at that time, many rulings would not be applied to common people at that time. The Prophet (s) taught these rulings to Imams after himself so that they later explain them to people.
Another criterion which necessitates the existence of imam and is mentioned among philosophies of the existence of imam is guarding religion. Accordingly, existence of imam helps religion to be saved from alterations, because the Qur'an has neither explained the details of rulings, nor does it speak by itself and needs interpretation. However since people's understanding of the Qur'an would be wrong, there is a need for those whose understanding of the Qur'an would be free from error or alteration. Their existence is a standard for recognizing others' misunderstandings and it would be what guards religion.
Moreover, rulings and teachings which have been narrated as agreed by consensus or by many people are few and do not cover all the rulings of religion. Also, consensus alone, without referring to the ideas of the Infallible (a) is invalid. Therefore, the only way left is that religion would be guarded by an infallible imam (a), because then his opinion is all right due to his infallibility and through which other opinions interpreting the Qur'an and explaining religion can be evaluated.
Explaining Religious Teachings
Among other factors which necessitate the existence of Imam is explanation of those religious rulings and teachings which have not been explained by the Prophet (s) due to lack of time and appropriate situation and they have been left to imam for explanation.
Attributes and Requirements of Imamate
- Main article: Infallibility
One of the conditions and requirements of imamate is his immaculacy from sins and error in carrying out his duties and mission. The reason for it is that imam is the successor of the Prophet (s) and the reference in religious rulings and teachings, the Qur'an and the conduct of the Prophet (s). Therefore, he needs to be immaculate from sins and errors so that people can trust on him and his words. Otherwise, people's trust would be lost and God's goal from appointment of imams would be found meaningless.
- Main article: God-given Knowledge
Infallible imams (s) had some other knowledge beside those they had heard directly or indirectly from the Prophet (s). That knowledge is among extraordinary knowledge which they have been given through inspiration and intuition such as those given to Khidr, Dhu l-Qarnayn, Virgin Mary (a) and mother of Moses (a). It was having such a knowledge that made some Imams (a) reach imamate in young ages. Thanks to this knowledge, they were aware about anything they needed for the guidance of people and carrying out their duties and did not need to learn them from others.
- Main article: Wilaya
Wilaya is a closeness to God which brings about a certain power of influence for the closed one. This Wilaya has two types: in creation and in religion. Wilaya in creation or Wilaya over creation is Imam's guardianship over creatures of the world and influencing on them. The other type is Wilaya in religion which includes Imam's guardianship in interpretation and explanation of the Qur'an, the conduct of the Prophet (s) and leadership of the society.
Authoritativeness of his Words and Necessity of his Obedience
It means that Imam's words and his interpretation of God's word is authoritative and necessary to be obeyed. This attribute is the result of benefiting from God-given knowledge and knowing God's intention in verses of Divine Books.
Imams (a) of shi'a
- Main article: Imams of Shi'a
Imams of shi'a are twelve people from the progeny of the Prophet (s) who are intellectual, spiritual and political leaders of shi'a. The first one of whom was Imam 'Ali (a) and the rest are Imam 'Ali (a) and Lady Fatima's (a) children and grandchildren. According to shi'a beliefs, after the Prophet (s), leadership of the Islamic society would always be upon Imams (a) who have been appointed by God. These Imams (a) have God-given knowledge, infallibility and the rights of intercession and by making Tawassul to them, one can become close to God. In addition to authority in religious teachings, these twelve Imams (a) have political leadership of the society as well. There are many hadiths from the Prophet (s) which have described their attributes and mentioned their names and show that all of them are from Quraysh and among the Ahl al-Bayt (a) of the Prophet (s) and the Promised Mahdi (a) is the last one of them.
There are clear hadiths from the Prophet (s) about imamate of Imam 'Ali (a), the first Imam. Also, there are definite hadiths from the Prophet (s) and Imam 'Ali (a) about the imamate of the second Imam and respectively Imams (a) have clearly mentioned the Imams after them. According to these hadiths,
Imams (a) are 12 and their names are:
Question about Incompatibility of Imamate with Khatamiyyat [the End of Prophethood]
As it was mentioned, imamate is among challenging doctrines which has been the center for many arguments since early Islam. One of the questions mentioned about it is that imamate as explained above and shi'a believe in is incompatible with Khatamiyyat [the End of Prophethood]; since, the person qualified for imamate as shi'a believe in has no difference with the Prophet (s).
Ja'far Subhani answered this question as below:
"The difference between prophethood and explanation of the knowledge of the Holy Prophet (s) is obvious and does not need much explanation; as prophethood means that the Prophet (s) receives revelation, hears God's word, sees His messenger and either delivers an independent religion or preaches the religion before himself.
Moreover, some others believe that imamate as defined above is only a result of shi'a's exaggeration and has not been existed in early authentic Islamic texts and beliefs of the shi'a in the first centuries.
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