Chapter 4: Imamat and Expounding of Religion

We have already discussed the different aspects of Imamat, in the course of which we pointed out that in order to be able to discuss the question of Imamat in its true perspective, it was necessary to understand those aspects very clearly. One aspect of Imamat, as we have already said, is the question of government.

Following the demise of the Holy Prophet whose duty was it to choose his successor? Was it the responsibility of the people themselves to elect their ruler from among themselves or did the Holy Prophet himself designate his successor? Lately this question has been put in such a way that at first sight the Sunni point of view in this respect appears to be more normal and natural.

Usually the question is set forth in this way: We want to see what form of government has been suggested by Islam. Is it hereditary in which every ruler designates his successor, and the people have no right to intervene in the government affairs?

Is it that the Holy Prophet designated a particular person as his successor, that person designated his successor and that successor again designated his successor, and thus the constitution of government was to be based on designation and nomination till the Day of Resurrection? Naturally this process cannot be applicable exclusively to the Imams, for according to Shi'ah belief the number of the Imams is confined to twelve, and this number can neither be increased nor decreased. According to this view the general rule in respect of the government will boil down to this procedure.

The Holy Prophet, who was the head of the State also, was to appoint his successor and that successor also in his turn was to appoint his successor and so on till the Day of Resurrection. In this case if Islam dominated the whole world as it once dominated the half of it and it so happened that the injunctions of Islam were observed in all parts of the world, the same rule would be operative whether there be one government in the world or several governments.

According to this view, it was on the basis of the general rule that the Head of the State should be a designated person, that the Holy Prophet nominated Imam Ali as his successor. But in the light of this philosophy it is not necessary at all that the Holy Prophet should have designated Imam Ali on receiving a commandment from Allah, for only he and the Imams, inspired and endowed with Divine knowledge through the Holy Prophet, could receive such a Divine commandment, but that could not be the case subsequently.

Therefore if it is admitted that from the viewpoint of Islam the government is to be based on the principle of designation, it was not necessary for the Holy Prophet to nominate Imam Ali by revelation. He could appoint him at his personal discretion. The Imams also could use their discretion similarly. On this basis Imam Ali's designation to Khilafat was similar to the appointment of a Governor of Makkah or the appointment of an Amirul Hajj. In such cases nobody says that the Holy Prophet on receiving revelation appointed such and such person the Governor of Makkah or, for example, sent Mu'az bin Jabal to Yemen for the propagation of Islam.

In contrast everybody admits that the Holy Prophet was entrusted by Allah with the charge of the administration of people, and so he was authorized to act according to his own discretion in all matters in which he did not receive a revelation. In the case of Imam Ali's designation to Khilafat also it may be said that this was the Holy Prophet's personal decision.

If we advance the question of Imamat in such a simple way, it becomes a question of worldly government and ceases to be the question of Imamat that we are discussing. If this be the nature of the question, really there is no need that Divine revelation should intervene in it. At the most Divine revelation can tell the Prophet that it is his duty to appoint as his successor whomsoever he deems fit, and that his successor also has to choose his successor in the same way. And so on till the Day of Resurrection.

If Imamat simply means government or ruler ship, then what the Sunnis say appears to be more attractive than what the Shi'ah say, for the Sunnis hold that a ruler has no right to choose the next ruler and that his successor should be chosen in a democratic way by the people, especially by those who have right to choose. But the question is not so simple. On the whole the belief of the Shi'ah in the designation of Imam Ali and other Imams to Khilafat is an offshoot of another question which is more basic.

Here an important question arises. The question is that the number of the Imams was not more than twelve. As such who was supposed to take charge of government after these twelve Imams. Let us suppose that Imam Ali had become the ruler exactly in the manner he was designated by the Holy Prophet and had been followed by Imam Hasan, then by Imam Husayn and so on till the twelfth Imam. In this case on the basis of the philosophy which we, the Shi'ites have, there would have been no reason for the occultation of the present Imam. He also like his forefathers would have had a short span of life and then would have passed away.

What would have happened after him? Could the number of the Imams be increased? Take another question - the question of the normal government in the present circumstances. Obviously the Imam of the Age cannot assume the political leadership of the Muslims during his occultation. Hence the question of political leadership and worldly government still remains unsolved.

Government is a Branch of Imamat

When the question of Imamat is discussed from the Shi'ah point of view, we should not make a mistake of simplifying it and saying that Imamat means administration of government, for it is such over-simplification that creates the above-mentioned difficulties. if it is admitted that Imamat means rulership, the question arises whether it is necessary that a candidate for becoming the Head of the State should be the best of all. Is it not enough that he should be the best only relatively?

In other words, is it not enough that he should be a good statesman, a good administrator and an honest man, though he may be inferior to some people in some other respects? Is it necessary that a ruler should be infallible? What is the need of his being so? Is it necessary that he should be offering night prayers? If so, why? Is it necessary that he should be well-versed in the rules of Islamic law? Cannot he consult others whenever necessary? A man who is relatively the best should be good enough. All these questions arise when we consider the problem from a narrow angle. It is a big mistake to think that Imamat and rulership are identical.

Some early scholars, especially some scholastic theologians, made this mistake. Now-a-days again this mistake has become too common. When one speaks of Imamat, at once rulership comes to mind, while in fact the question of rulership is a minor part of the question of Imamat, and these two questions must not be confused. Then what is Imamat?

Imam is the Successor of the Holy Prophet in Expounding of Religion

What is most important in connection with the question of Imamat is the question as to who succeeded the Holy Prophet for the purpose of explaining and expounding religion. There is no doubt that it was the Holy Prophet alone who received revelation which was totally discontinued with his passing away. Now the question is who after the Holy Prophet was responsible for expounding celestial teachings which admitted no personal opinion or private judgement.

Did this responsibility devolve on any one particular individual to whom all queries could be referred as they were referred to the Holy Prophet, whose answers were always perfectly right and about whom it could not be suspected that he would even give an answer based on his personal opinion or would ever make a mistake and rectify it later? About the Holy Prophet we cannot say that any of his answers was ever wrong or influenced by his personal whim. Such an allegation would mean not to acknowledge his Prophethood.

Once it is established that a particular thing was said by the Holy Prophet, we cannot say that it is wrong or that the Holy Prophet might have made a mistake. In contrast, in the case of a legislator to whose edicts people adhere, it is possible to say that in respect of such and such question he made a mistake or that he did not pay full attention to that particular question or that he was influenced by extraneous considerations. But it is not possible to say so in respect of the Holy Prophet, just as we cannot say about any verse of the Quran that there is a mistake in it or that it has been affected in any way by some selfish motive.

Was there any person after the Holy Prophet who could really be regarded as a competent authority for all religious matters and who could expound religious law in the same way as the Holy Prophet used to do? Did there exist a perfect man with all these characteristics. We say that such a man did actually exist.

The only difference between him and the Holy Prophet was that what the Holy Prophet said was based on direct revelation from Allah and what the Imams said was based on what they learned from the Holy Prophet, not in the sense that they were instructed by him in the usual manner, but in the sense in which Imam Ali said that the Holy Prophet had opened to him a door of knowledge because of which a thousand other doors had been opened to him. We cannot say how it happened just as we cannot explain revelation and say how the Holy Prophet used to receive Divine knowledge direct from Allah.

We cannot say what kind of spiritual relationship existed between the Holy Prophet and Imam Ali, but it is certain that the Holy Prophet taught Imam Ali all realities fully and completely and that he did not impart that knowledge to anyone else. Imam Ali says that he was with the Holy Prophet in the cave of Hira when he heard a piteous sound as if someone was wailing. He said to the Holy Prophet:

"Messenger of Allah, I heard the Satan's wailing when revelation was descending on you." He said: "Ali, you hear what I hear and you see what I see, but you are not a Prophet". (See Nahjul Balagha, Sermon 192)

Had there been somebody else in that place with Imam All, he would not have heard that voice, because that hearing was not the catching of sound waves reverberating in the space so that anybody having ears could hear it. It was a different sort of perception.

The Tradition of Thaqalayn

In regard to Imamat the basic question is its spiritual aspect. The Imams are spiritual leaders below the Prophet in, rank. They know and acknowledge Islam spiritually. They are infallible like the Prophet himself. An Imam is an absolute authority on religion. There is no question of any mistake or any intentional deviation in what he says. That is what we mean by infallibility. In this connection the Shi'ah declare that the Holy Prophet has said:

"I leave among you two heavy trusts: the Book of Allah and my descendants." (Sahih Muslim, Vol. VII, p. 122)

In fact, it cannot be denied that the Holy Prophet has actually said so. This is not a tradition reported by the Shi'ah only. In fact it has been reported by more Sunni sources than the Shi'ah.

When we were staying at Qum a magazine named Risalatut Taqrib was started by Darut Taqrib of Egypt. In one of its issues a Sunni scholar quoted the tradition of Thaqalayn in these words:

"I am leaving among you two heavy trusts: the Book of Allah and my Sunnah."

The late Ayatullah Burujardi, who was a scholar and divine in the real sense, dealt with such questions very prudently. One of his pupils was Shaykh Qawam Wishnawah'i, a nice man, much interested in studying books and collecting references.

The Late Ayatullah asked him to trace the sources of this tradition in the Sunni books in which this tradition might be found. Accordingly he collected such references and cited more than 200 reliable Sunni books, which had reported that the Holy Prophet had said:

"I am leaving among you two heavy trusts: the Book of Allah and my descendants."

It is certain that the Holy Prophet expressed this point in this form on numerous occasions and at several places. But we cannot rule out the possibility of his having said on some occasion that he was leaving two things: the Book of Allah and his Sunnah. There is no inconsistency between the Holy Prophet's descendants and his Sunnah, for his Sunnah is explained by his descendants only. It is not that we can refer our problems either to the Holy Prophet's descendants or to his Sunnah, for these two do not exist independently of each other. It is the Holy Prophet's descendants who are the expounders and custodians of his Sunnah.

When the Holy Prophet mentions his descendants along with the Book of Allah, he means to say that his Sunnah is to be acquired from his descendants. Furthermore, even the statement that the Holy Prophet has said: "I am leaving among you two heavy trusts: the Book of Allah and my descendants", itself is a Sunnah. As such there is no inconsistency between the Holy Prophet's Sunnah and his descendants. If at one place and even that is not certain, the Holy Prophet has said: "I am leaving among you two heavy trusts: the Book of Allah and my Sunnah", at so many other places he has used the other expression. If in one book this tradition is written in one form, in two hundred other books it is written in the other form.

Anyway, Shaykh Qawam prepared a treatise and sent it to Darut Taqrib of Egypt. Darut Taqrib too was not unfair. It printed and published it. Being authentic it could not be turned down. Nobody could raise any objection against it. Had the late Ayatullah Burujardi done what others usually do in such cases, he would have raised great hue and cry, would have called the people of Darut Taqrib dishonest and would have accused them of intriguing against the Prophet's chosen descendants.

The expounding of religion is the true spirit of Imamat. Islam is a comprehensive and bright religion. But the question is whether the teachings of Islam are limited to the principles and the general rules mentioned in the Qur'an and further elaborated and explained in the Holy Prophet's sayings. Was Islam only this much? There is no doubt that Divine revelation ceased with the Holy Prophet's demise. Islam was completed. But had every article of Islam been enunciated by that time?

Or were there many questions of law which were in the custody of Imam Ali and which were still to be made known to the people and explained either gradually or on some suitable occasions? In the latter case this tradition proves the infallibility of the Imams, for the Holy Prophet has directed the Muslims to get their religion from two sources, the Book of Allah and his descendants. As one of these sources, that is the Qur'an is infallible and free from all errors, the other source must also be infallible. It is impossible that the Holy Prophet would ask his followers to acquire religion from a person who is liable to commit mistakes.

It is here that the Shi'ah doctrine basically differs from that of the Sunnis in respect of gathering and expounding religion. The Sunnis say that just as revelation ceased with the passing away of the Holy Prophet, similarly the authentic expounding of religion also has come to an end. Now there is nothing except what is deduced and inferred from the Qur'an and the Prophetic traditions.