A Tradition About Imamat
Before mentioning the verses of the Qur'an in regard to Imamat, we would like to quote a tradition which has been reported by the Shi'ah as well as the Sunnis. Normally a tradition upon which both the Shi'ah and the Sunnis agree cannot be ignored, because this agreement shows that the tradition is substantially authentic, though its wording may differ in different reports. We the Shiites usually report this tradition in the following words: "He who dies without recognizing the Imam of his time, would die a pre-Islamic death."
These are very serious words, for in the pre-Islamic period people neither believed in the unity of Allah (monotheism) nor in Prophethood. This tradition (hadith) is found in most of the Shi'ah books of traditions including the Kafi which is regarded as the most reliable collection of the Shi'ah traditions. The important fact is that this tradition is found in the Sunni books also. According to one report they quote the following wording:
"He who dies without an Imam, will die a pre-Islamic death."
Another wording is this:
"He who dies and has no bayah (oath of allegiance) in his neck, will die a pre-Islamic death."
Still another text says:
"He who dies and has no Imam, will die a pre-Islamic death."
There are several other versions, and that shows the great importance which the Holy Prophet attached to the question of Imamat.
Those who take Imamat only in the sense of social leadership say that the Holy Prophet has attached utmost importance to the question of leadership because the implementation of the Islamic injunctions depends on the presence of a virtuous and sound leader and the strong allegiance of people to him. Islam is not an individualistic religion. Nobody can say that as he believes in Allah and His Prophet, he has nothing to do with anybody else. Everybody must know and understand who the Imam of his time is, and must carry out his activities under his leadership.
Those who take Imamat in the sense of religious authority, say that he who is interested in his religion, must recognize his religious authority and must know whom he should follow in religious matters. It is absolutely un-Islamic to believe in the religion but to acquire it from a source which is contrary to it.
Those who believe in Imamat in the sense of spiritual Wilayat say that this tradition shows that a man who is not under the care of a perfect wali (guardian) is just like him who died in pre-Islamic days. As this tradition is a mutawatir hadith (reported by continuity of numerous authorities) we mentioned it first so that you may keep it in mind while we discuss the question of Imamat further. Now we look at the verses of the Qur'an.
Imamat in the Holy Qur'an
Several verses of the Qur'an are cited by the Shi'ah in connection with Imamat. One of them is the verse which begins with the words, "Your guardian can be only Allah".
Incidentally in all these cases there exist Sunni traditions which support the Shi'ah point of view. In the Qur'an this verse runs as follows: "Your guardian can be only Allah and His messenger and those who believe, who establish prayers, pay the zakat while bowing." (Surah Mai'dah, 5:55) The word used in this verse is Wali, which means a guardian. Hence Wilayat means guardianship. According to the teachings of Islam zakat is not paid while bowing in prayers. Hence the payment of zakat while bowing cannot be called a general rule applicable to many individuals.
This verse refers to a particular incident, which took place only once and which has been reported both by the Shi'ah and the Sunnis. Once Imam Ali was bowing while offering prayers when a beggar appeared and began to ask for alms. Imam Ali beckoned and called his attention to his finger.
The beggar promptly drew Imam Ali's ring from his finger and left the place. In other words Imam Ali did not wait till his prayers were finished. He was so particular to give alms, that while he was still praying he told the beggar by gesture that he might pull out his ring, sell it and spend the money to meet his needs. Both the Shi'ah and the Sunnis agree that Imam Ali did so, and that this verse was revealed on this occasion. It may be noted that giving alms while bowing in prayers is not included in the teachings of Islam. It is neither an obligatory nor a commendable act.
Hence it cannot be said that several persons might have done so. Therefore (those who do so) is an obvious reference to Imam Ali. The Qur'an at several places has used the expression, 'they say. . .', while that thing was said by only one individual. Here also 'those who do so' means the individual who did so. Therefore by means of this verse Imam Ali was appointed the guardian of the people. Anyway, this verse needs further discussion, which we are going to undertake later.
There are other verses which concern the event of Ghadir. This event itself is a part of the Islamic traditions, but we are going to discuss it later. One of the verses revealed in connection with the event of Ghadir says:
"0 Messenger! Make known that which has been revealed to you from your Lord, for if you do it not, you will not have conveyed His message."(Surah al-Mai'dah, 5:67)
The tone of this verse is as serious as that of the tradition:
"He who died and did not recognize the Imam of his time, died a pre-Islamic death." Briefly it may be said that the verse itself shows that its subject is so important that if the Prophet does not make it known, that would mean that he has not conveyed the message of Allah at all.
The Shi'ah and the Sunnis agree that Surah al-Mai'dah is the last surah (chapter) revealed to the Holy Prophet, and this verse is one of the last verses of this surah. In other words it was revealed when the Holy Prophet had already conveyed all other injunctions and teachings of Islam during his 13 years' stay in Makkah and 10 years' stay in Medina as the Prophet.
This verse was among the last instructions of Islam. Now the Shi'ah ask what that instruction could be which was so important that if it was not conveyed all that the Holy Prophet did in the past would become void. You cannot indicate any subject connected with the last years of the Holy Prophet's life which may be so important. But we say that it is the question of Imamat, which is so important that if Imamat is lost, nothing remains. Without Imamat the whole structure of Islam would crumble down. Moreover, the Shi'ah cites the reports and the traditions of the Sunnis themselves in support of their claim that this verse was revealed in connection with the Ghadir Khum event.
In Surah al-Ma'idah itself there is another verse which runs as follows:
"This day have I perfected your religion for you, completed My favour to you and have chosen Islam for you as religion." (Surah al-Ma'idah, 5:3) This verse shows that on that day something happened, which was so important that it perfected religion, completed Allah's Favour to mankind and without which Islam could not be as Allah wanted it to be. The Shi'ah argue that the stringent tone of the verse shows that the thing to which it refers is so important that the very existence of Islam as a true religion depends on it.
Now the question is what that thing can be. The Shi'ah say that they can point out that thing; whereas others cannot. Furthermore, there are reports which confirm that this verse was revealed in connection with the question of Imamat. We have put forward these three verses as the gist of the Shi'ah arguments.