The Concept of Imamat

There is a verse in the Quran which is a part of that series of verses which we are at present discussing. The remarkable verse is not connected with Imam Ali's person, but deals with the doctrine of Imamat in the sense which we have already explained and now we propose to explain it briefly.

As we have already said, it is an old mistake of the Muslim scholastic theologians to discuss the question of Imamat in a way as if both the Shi'ah and the Sunnis subscribe to the same conception of Imamat but hold different opinions with regard to its conditions.

The Shi'ah say that an Imam must be infallible, and is to be appointed by Divine ordinance; whereas the Sunnis do not subscribe to that point of view. The actual fact is that the Sunnis do not believe at all in that conception of Imamat in which the Shi'ah believe. The Imamat in which the Sunnis believe is only to this worldly aspect of the actual Imamat and one of its functions.

In the case of Prophethood also we see that the Holy Prophet was the leader of the Muslim community but this leadership or the administration of the State was only one of his functions as a Prophet. His leadership does not mean that Prophethood and leadership are synonymous. Prophethood is a reality which has so many aspects and features. One of the characteristics of a Prophet is that in his presence nobody else can be the ruler or the head of the Muslims. The Sunnis say that Imamat means, no more than the administration of the government and that an Imam is the head of this administration or the ruler of the Muslims. He is to be elected by the Muslims from among themselves.

The Sunni concept of an Imam does not go beyond the status of the head of the Muslim State. But according to the Shi'ah Imamat is a rank similar to Prophethood and in some respects, even higher than Prophethood by certain degrees. The high-ranking Prophets are those who were Imams also. Many Prophets were not Imams at all. Even the high ranking Prophets attained the assignment of Imamat long after they had been Prophets.

In short,

if we admit that Imamat is like Prophethood, we will have to admit also that as in the presence of a Prophet who has a superhuman aspect, the question who should be the ruler does not arise, similarly in the presence of an Imam; this question is out of question. This question arises only when there is no Imam, either because no Imam exists at all or because the Imam is in occultation as is the case during our times. We should not mix up the question of Imamat with that of government and then ask what the Sunnis say in this respect and what the Shi'ah hold. As a matter of fact the question of the government is different from that of Imamat.

According to the Shi'ah, Imamat is a phenomenon exactly like that of Prophethood, and that too like the highest degree of it. As such we the Shi'ah believe in Imamat whereas the Sunnis do not. It is not that they also believe in it, but the conditions required for an Imam, according to them are different.

Imam in Prophet Ibrahim's Progeny

The verse which we now would like to quote clearly denotes the concept of Imamat in which the Shi'ah believes. The Shi'ah maintain that this verse shows that there does exist a truth called Imamat, and that it has existed not only during the period following the death of the Prophet of Islam, but has been existing since the first appearance of the Prophets and will continue to exist in Prophet Ibrahim's progeny up to the Day of Resurrection. The Holy Qur'an says:

"And (remember) when his Lord tried Ibrahim with His commands, and he fulfilled them, He said: I have appointed you an Imam for mankind. Ibrahim said: And of my offspring? He said: My covenant includes not the unjust." (Surah al Baqarah, 11:124)

Prophet Ibrahim's Trials - Command to Migrate to Hijaz

The Qur'an itself has mentioned a number of trials which Prophet Ibrahim had to face. They included his struggle against Namrud and his henchmen who threw him into a burning fire as well as several subsequent events. One of these events was that Ibrahim received an astonishing command which could not be implemented by anybody not fully devoted to Allah. The old man had no children. For the first time his wife, Hagar gave birth to a child at the age of seventy eight. Prophet Ibrahim receives a Divine command to go from Syria to Hijaz, take his wife and that child on the spot where at present Masjidul Haram is located and keep them there and then leave the place. This command was not in keeping with any logic except that of complete self-submission and total devotion. As he was sure that it was a Divine command which he had received through revelation, he carried it out. He said:

"Our Lord: I have settled some of my posterity in an uncultivable valley near Your Holy House so that they may establish prayers." (Surah Ibrahim, 14:37)

Command to Slaughter His Son

More astonishing than these events is the story of Prophet Ibrahim's slaughtering his son at Mina. It is in memory of this extraordinary self-surrender that we now sacrifice goats and sheep. (As we perform what we have been told by Allah, there can be no question of why and what for in this connection.) After seeing two or three times in dream as if he was sacrificing his son, Ibrahim was convinced that it was Allah's Command to him to do so. He told his son about it. His son readily agreed and said: Father, do that which you are commanded. Allah willing you will find me of the steadfast. The Qur'an depicts a wonderful picture. When they had both surrendered (to Allah) and he had flung him down upon his face. (At last when Ibrahim was absolutely sure that he would cut off the head of his son, and Isma'il had no doubt in his mind that his head would be severed:

We called to him: Ibrahim, you have already fulfilled the vision. (Surah as-Saffat, 37:102-105).

What Allah says is that He did not actually want Isma'ils head to be cut off. He only wanted to see that Ibrahim and Isma'il showed their complete submission to His will, which they did.

The Quran expressly says that Allah gave a son to Prophet Ibrahim in his old age. It says when the angels came to him and told him that he would be granted a son by Allah, his wife said:

"Shall I bear a child when I am an old woman and this my husband is an old man? The angels said to her: Do you wonder at the commandment of Allah? The mercy of Allah and His blessings be upon you, people of the house." (Surah Hud, 11:72-73)

According to this verse Allah gave a child to Ibrahim when he was an old man. So long as he was young, he did not have any child. When he got a child, he was already a Prophet. In the Qur'an there are fairly a large number of verses about Ibrahim. They show that he got a child towards the end of his life when he was seventy or eighty years old. After that also he lived for ten or twenty years more, Ishaq and Isma'il both grew up during his lifetime. Isma'il becomes so mature to help his father build the Ka'bah.

The Qur'an says:

"And (remember) when his Lord tried Ibrahim with his commands, and he fulfilled them. He said: I have appointed you an Imam for mankind. Ibrahim said: And of my offspring? He said: My covenant includes not wrong-doers." (Surah al-Baqarah, 2:124)

What period of Ibrahim's life do these verses refer to? Do they pertain to his early age?

There is no doubt that they refer to that period of his life when he was already a Prophet, for they speak of a revelation. Further, they pertain to the concluding period of his Prophethood, for they speak of the trials through which Prophet Ibrahim had passed. These trials covered his whole life, most important of them having taken place during the declining period of his age. Furthermore in these verses there is a mention of his offspring. That shows that when this conversation took place, he already had at least one child.

In fact according to this verse Prophet Ibrahim was told toward the end of his lifetime: I have made you an Imam for mankind. Thus he was given a fresh assignment. That shows that he was already a Prophet and a Messenger of Allah. But there was still a stage which he had not reached so far. He reached it only after successfully passing through all the trials. Does it not show that according to the Quran there is one more reality the name of which is Imamat? Now what is the meaning of it?

Imamat is a Divine Covenant

Imamat means the stage of becoming a perfect man and a perfect leader of all others. When Ibrahim was appointed an Imam, he at once thought of his progeny and offspring and said: 'What about my offspring? How about my descendants? He was told: My covenant includes not the wrong doers.

Here Imamat has been described as Allah's covenant. That is why the Shi'ah say that the Imamat in which they believe is Divine. The Qur'an also describes it as "My covenant". It is Allah's covenant, not of the people. If we take into consideration the fact that Imamat is different from the guardianship of the Muslim community, we will not find it surprising that Imamat is a Divine assignment. People ask who is to set up the government, Allah or people? We say that the question of government is different from that of Imamat. Allah says to Ibrahim: Imamat is My covenant and it will not include the wrong doers among your children. In reply to Prophet Ibrahim's question Allah neither says 'no', nor 'yes' to him. He makes discrimination and excludes wrongdoers from the scope of Imamat. Thereafter only the non-wrongdoers of Ibrahim's progeny remained. This verse shows that among them Imamat will always be existing.

In this respect there is one more verse in the Qur'an:

"And He made it a word enduring in his descendants." (Surah az-Zukhruf, 43:28)

Who is a Wrongdoer?

Now the question is what is meant by a wrongdoer. The Imams (Peace be on them) have based their arguments on the use of this term in this verse. From the point of view of the Qur'an everybody who is unjust to himself or others is a wrongdoer. In common parlance, a wrongdoer is only he who violates the rights of others. But according to the Qur'anic terminology he is also a wrongdoer who is unjust to himself. There are many Qur'anic verses in which those who were guilty of transgression against themselves, have been called wrongdoers.

In connection with Prophet Ibrahim's question about his offspring Allamah Tabataba'i quotes one of his teachers as having said that Prophet Ibrahim's descendants from the point of view of being good or bad can be divided into four categories:

" Those who throughout their life have been wrongdoers;

" those who were wrongdoers in the beginning, but became virtuous later;

" those who were virtuous in the beginning but became wrongdoers subsequently;

" those who were not wrongdoers at any time.

Prophet Ibrahim fully realized the importance of the high office of Imamat; which was granted to him after he had been a Prophet for a fairly long time. As such it is impossible that he would ask this position for those of his descendants who were bad throughout their life or who were good at first but turned wrongdoers later. Prophet Ibrahim must have asked this position only for those who were good. Hence his good descendants included: those who had been good throughout their life and those who were bad in the beginning but became good later. It is certain that he could not have asked this position for those who were not included in these two categories. Now we see that the Holy Qur'an says:

"My covenant does not include those who have been wrongdoers."

It is evident that Ibrahim's question did not include those who had been wrongdoers throughout their life or those who had been good in the beginning, but turned wrongdoers in the later part of their life. Therefore what the Qur'an says amounts to saying that those whose past has not been above reproach, will not get Imamat.

It is on this basis that the Shi'ah argues that those who have been polytheists in any part of their life are not fit for holding Imamat.

Questions and Answers

What does the infallible mean? Is the conception of infallibility a by-product of our Shi'ah logic or has it any basis which we have further developed and improved? Who is infallible, he who does not commit any sin or he who besides not committing any sin does not commit any mistake too? Some twenty years ago I attended a lecture by the late Mirza Abdul Hasan Faroghi, who had made a special study of the question of infallibility and had formed his own opinion about it. He gave a detailed and neat talk. I did not understand 80% of it, but from the 20% that I understood, I came to the conclusion that he defined infallibility in an unfamiliar way.

He said that the infallible was not he who did not commit any sin, for there were so many people who never committed a sin during their whole life. Still they were not called infallible. Now I have nothing to do with that talk. I would like His Eminence (Mutahhari) to say who the infallible is. If the infallible is he who does not commit any mistake, I see that out of the 12 Imams only two, Imam- Ali and for a short period Imam Hasan were able to assume Khilafat, and even they committed mistakes in the administration of the State. This is a point beyond any dispute from historical point of view. This position is not in consonance with the definition of the infallible. For example, we see that Imam Hasan detailed Ubaydullah ibn Abbas to conduct fighting against Mu'awiyah

Imam Ali himself appointed Abdullah ibn Abbas Governor of Basrah. It is certain that he would never have appointed him if he had known what disgrace he would bring about and how dirty his behaviour would be. This means that he did not know in advance the consequences of his action. He thought that he had selected the best man for the particular job, but Ibn Abbas proved contrary to his expectations.

If we carry out further investigation into Imam Ali's period of government, we will come across many more examples of this kind. From historical point of view such mistakes are all right, but they are not in keeping with this definition of infallibility. As I have said, any unilateral discussion all the participants of which subscribe to a particular ideology is not very useful. The reason is that when a man has a particular belief, he begins to love it and is not willing to listen to anything contrary to that belief.

This principle applies especially to us, the Shi'ites in whose hearts love of Shi'ism and Imam Ali's house has been ingrained from childhood and who have never heard any criticism against them. We might have heard some criticism against our religion, its principles and even against monotheism and religiousness, but have never heard anybody criticizing Shi'ism, the Imams or the actions taken by them. That is why we feel very much perturbed if anybody raises any objection against, for example, Imam Hasan. To listen to anything against Imam Husayn is far more difficult.

His Eminence has laid stress on the verse that says:

"Those who offer prayers and pay zakat while they are bowing (in prayers)."

He has argued that this verse refers to none but to Imam Ali and that it was revealed in connection with his giving away his ring while bowing in prayers. In my opinion this argument is not very sound and logical because: We have heard and have read in Imam Ali's life account that while offering prayers he was so devoted to Allah that he was unable to recognize any individual. It is also said that while performing ablution he did not recognize anyone passing in front of him.

Then how can it be expected of such a person that he would be so vigilant while offering prayers that he would pull out his ring and give it to a beggar who had appeared before him and to whom nobody else had given anything. Further it is not a good thing to give money to a beggar. At least giving money to a beggar was not so important that for the sake of it one should impair one's prayers. Furthermore, zakat is not due on a ring. According to the verdict of the Shi'ah jurists a ring is not one of those things on which zakat is due. Besides that, some people who are biased in this respect, have with a view to magnify this incident, said that the ring was very costly, while we know that Imam Ali never wore a costly ring.

Answer: In respect of the question of infallibility very few individuals hold a different opinion. Anyhow, it is a useful practice to ask questions.

What is the meaning of infallibility? Sometimes man tends to think that Allah keeps a watch on certain selected people and does not allow them to commit a sin. Whenever they intend to commit it, He prevents them from carrying out their intention. Of course that is not infallibility and even if that be; it does not bring any credit to anybody. If somebody always keeps a watch on a child and does not allow him to do anything wrong, that cannot be considered to be a merit of the child. But there is another meaning of infallibility which can be deduced from the Qur'an. In the story of Prophet Yusuf whom a particular woman tried to seduce him, the Quran says:

"She verily desired him and he would have desired her if it had not been that he saw the argument of his Lord." (Surah Yusuf, 12: 24).

Prophet Yusuf after all was a human being. He was young and had innate impulse. That woman advanced towards him but he did not advance towards her. If it had not been that he' knew that he was being watched by Allah, he also would certainly have advanced. The perfect faith with which he was endowed by Allah prevented him from during a wrong thing and made him conscious of its harmful consequences.

Each one of us without the intervention of any outside force desists from committing many sins and lapses because we all are fully convinced of their dangerous consequences. For example it is a sin to fling oneself from the top of a four-storied building or throw oneself into a burning fire. We never commit such a sin, because we are fully conscious of the danger which it involves. We know to touch an electric live wire means instant death. We commit this sin only when we ignore its underlying danger. A child touches fire without hesitation, because he does not realize its danger as we the grown ups do. Piety becomes a trait of a righteous man's character and therefore he does not commit many sins at all.

This trait of his character makes him infallible to a certain extent. Therefore infallibility depends on man's faith and his conviction. We have accepted certain acts to be sinful because they are prohibited by our religion. We say that as Islam has forbidden drinking wine, we do not drink it, and as Islam has forbidden gambling, we do not gamble. We more or less know that these things are bad. But the risk that these sins involve is not as clear to us as the risk involved in throwing ourselves into a burning fire. If we had been as much convinced of the harm of these sins as we are convinced of the harm of throwing ourselves into a fire, we would have been infallible as far as these sins were concerned.

Therefore infallibility means perfect faith and conviction. He who has said: "Even if the curtain was lifted, my conviction would not increase" 39, was certainly infallible, for while this side of the curtain, he could clearly see the other side of it. He could feel that if he used foul language against anyone he would be creating a scorpion for himself, and for that reason he would not talk abusively.

The Quran itself mentions some examples of the faith of this degree. That is why it is said that infallibility is relative term and infallibility has several degrees and stages. Those who are infallible never commit those sins which we sometimes commit and sometimes avoid. They are impeccable. Still they have stages and degrees and all of them are not alike. In certain stages they are like us. As we are not immune from committing sins, they are also not immune from committing certain types of mistakes.

They do not do anything which we regard as a sin, but they may do certain things which they themselves regard as sins although we may not regard them as such at all, for we have not reached that stage which they have. If a student of class V solves a question of class VI, it is creditable to him and he may get a reward for that, but if a student of IX class solves the same question, it does not bring him any credit. What is meritorious to us may be sinful to the infallible. As the proverb goes, one man's food is another man's poison.

That is why we find that in the Qur'an disobedience has been ascribed to some Prophets also.

"And Adam disobeyed his Lord and went astray." (Surah Taha, 20:121)

To the Holy Prophet Allah says:

"So that Allah may forgive you of your sin, that which is past and that which is to come." (Surah al Fath 48:2)

These verses show that infallibility is a relative term. The Prophets and the Imams are infallible according to their capacity and we are according to our capacity. The very nature of infallibility protects one against sins. The scope of this protection depends on the degree of the perfection of one's faith. A man is as much near the stage of "if it had not been that he saw the argument of his Lord" as much his faith is perfect. Infallibility is automatic. It is not that an infallible person desires like us to commit a sin, but someone is sent by Allah to hold his hand and prevent him from carrying out his intention. Had that been the case, there would have been no difference between me and Imam Ali. Like me he also would have desired to commit sins.

At the most he would have been prevented from actually committing them by someone sent by Allah, whereas for me no such arrangement exists. If someone from outside prevents a man from committing a sin that is not creditable to that man. Suppose someone committed theft, but I did not merely because I was always being escorted by a watchman. In this case I am as good a thief as that man is; with the difference that no watchman prevented him from committing the crime whereas a watchman prevented me. This can bring no credit to me.

The main ingredient of infallibility is the incapability of making a sin. The incapability of making a mistake is quite a different matter. Anyhow, we cannot say that the Holy Prophet might have made a mistake in conveying the commandments of Islam or might have conveyed anything contrary to what was revealed to him, as often happens in the case of ordinary messengers, who sometimes deliver a wrong message. In regard to the Holy Prophet it is not possible to say that in the delivery of his message he might have made a mistake.

As for other questions, the questioner has been hasty in drawing his conclusions. He has been unjust even to Imam Ali. If he were in Imam Ali's place, is he sure that he would not have selected Ubaydullah ibn Abbas? There is no harm if one draws a speculative conclusion in such historical matters. Anybody can easily say that he thinks that it would have been better if such and such person instead of doing that 500 years ago would have done this. If somebody asked him whether he was sure about that, he could say that it was his personal guess. But it is dangerous to come to a definite conclusion in such matters, not only in respect of Imam Ali but in respect of other individuals also. Imam Ali was aware of the situation as it prevailed. He knew Abdullah ibn Abbas and his other companions better than you and me.

But still we say if he had selected someone else instead of Abdullah ibn Abbas, he would have done the job better. This is a hasty conclusion in this matter. Further you yourself have always stated that Imam Ali had a special policy of his own and he did not want to budge an inch from it. But he did not have any supporters of his policy.

He always said that he did not have any man. This Abdullah ibn Abbas and other often advised him to be flexible. They urged him to pursue that which was now-a-days called diplomacy. I ask you to prove to me that Imam Ali had enough men to choose from, but he made a mistake in his selection. I for one cannot prove that. All that I know is that the Holy Prophet designated Imam Ali as his successor. Imam Ali himself complained that Khilafat had been snatched from him. When after Uthman people came to him to pledge their allegiance to him, he retracted and said:

"Leave me alone and seek someone else, for we are facing a many-sided situation. The atmosphere is overcast and the route has changed beyond recognition."

What Imam Ali meant was that the conditions were extremely bad and he lacked supporters and workers with whose help he might be able to improve the conditions and reform society. Then he said what amounted to saying:

"Still I have no excuse. If I make an excuse, history will not accept it. People will say that Ali through his own negligence lost the opportunity. Though in fact it is not an opportunity; I accept your suggestion so that history may not blame me."

Thus Imam Ali himself admitted that he did not have enough men, and the time was not opportune for his Caliphate.

One may doubt anything, but even history does not doubt that Imam Ali believed that his claim to Khilafat was stronger than that of anybody else. Sunnis admit that Imam Ali considered himself to be a more legitimate candidate for Khilafat than Abu Bakr and Umar. Nevertheless when after Uthman people went to him and asked him to accept Khilafat, he declined and said that he would rather like to continue to be an adviser and guide than to become a ruler. From this it is clear that he did not have enough competent men around him. Why so?

That is a different question.

As for the verse, They establish prayers and pay zakat while they are bowing, you say that zakat is not due on a ring In fact zakat includes everything given for a good cause. Its modern use as a technical term for the obligatory zakat is the use of the jurists. In the Qur'an this word has not been used everywhere in this sense. Zakat means purification of property and money.

This word is used in connection with spiritual purification also. The Qur'an has at different places described spending for the sake of Allah as Zakat of wealth, Zakat of soul, and Zakat of self. The same case is with the word, "Sadaqah" (charity alms). Today it has a special significance. For example we say 'secret sadaqah', but according to the Qur'an every good deed is called sadaqah. If you build a hospital or write a beneficial book, that will be a sadaqah jariyah (running charity) in the words of the Qur'an. That is why even the Sunnis who do not accept the conception deduced from this verse, have not objected to this word. They being conversant with Arabic literature know that zakat does not always mean obligatory Zakat only.

Now the question is how comes it that Imam Ali gave his ring while bowing in prayers. This is an objection which was raised by some early scholars like Fakhruddin Razi also. They say that Ali was always so absorbed in his prayers that he never paid any attention to what was going on around him. Then how could all this happen while he was offering prayers? In reply, it may be said that it is true that Imam Ali used to be fully absorbed in his prayers, but it is also a fact that the state of the Holy men is not always the same.

It has been reported about the Holy Prophet that sometimes he was so violently carried away by a desire to offer prayers that he could not wait for the call to prayers by Bilal to be finished and asked him to make haste. On some other occasions while he was prostrating in prayers it often happened that Imam Hasan, Imam Husayn or some other grandchild of his came to him and rode his shoulders, and he waited calmly until the child got down. Once while he was standing in prayers, he found that some spittle was lying in front of him, he took two steps forward, covered it with dust by his foot and then returned to his place. From this incident the jurists have deduced a number of rules concerning prayers.

Bahrul Ulum has said:

"The most noble person walked while offering prayers. This incident solves many questions."

For example the jurists have on the basis of this incident decided what amount of action not relevant to prayers is permissible during prayers. A number of other rules also have been deduced.

All this shows that the Holy men have different spiritual states, and according to these states they behave differently on different occasions.

There is another point. The Gnostics according to their taste say that when man reaches the most perfect spiritual state of being fully attracted towards Allah, he returns to this world. In other words in this state he attends to Allah as well as to the creation. That is what the Gnostics say, and I agree to their view, although it may not be acceptable to many.

Another spiritual state is that of disincarnating or casting off the body. Those who reach this stage, in the beginning cast off their body for one or two seconds or at the most for an hour or so. But some individuals ultimately reach a stage at which they are in this state all the time. (I believe that and have personally observed it.) Sometimes it may happen that you see some individuals sitting with you like ordinary people, but actually they are in this state.

According to these people the state in which an arrow was pulled out of Imam Ali's body while he was offering prayers without his being conscious of it was a lower state than that in which he attended to a beggar without being unconscious of Allah. He was so attentive to Allah that he could see the whole world. In the presence of all this evidence this incident cannot be denied.


  1. She is held in very high respect by the Shi'ah and is regarded as the most eminent wife of the Holy Prophet (SA) after Khadijah. She is greatly respected by the Sunnis also. According to them, she ranks next to Khadijah and 'Ayishah.

  2. Imam Ali (AS) is reported to have said so. (Safinat ul Bihar, vol. 2)