Chapter 5: Cholastic Study of Imamat

With a view to make clear the basis of the arguments which the Shi'ah scholars advance in support of their conception of Imamat and to show what others say in this respect, we deem it fit to reproduce with some explanatory remarks a passage written by Khwaja Nasiruddin Tusi. This passage is very precise and the Shi'ah and the Sunni scholars alike have been commenting on it since it was written.

You must have heard the name of a book, Tajrid, written by Khwaja Nasiruddin. A part of this book deals with logic and is called the logic of Tajrid. Another part of it deals with scholastic theology and discusses such questions as Monotheism, Prophethood, Imamat, the Hereafter etc. The tone of that section which discusses Monotheism is rather philosophical for in this section Khwaja Nasiruddin has followed the style of the philosophers. A commentary on both the parts of this book has been written by Allama Hilli, whose name also must be familiar to you. He was not only one of the greatest Shi'ah jurists but also one of the greatest jurists of Islam.

In logic, scholastic theology, philosophy, mathematics etc, he was a pupil of Khwaja Nasiruddin. He learned jurisprudence from Muhaqqiq Hilli, the author of Sharaya, who was also one of the most distinguished Shi'ah jurists. Allama Hilli and Khwaja Nasiruddin are counted among the most talented scholars. Khwaja Nasiruddin is considered to be one of the world class mathematicians also.

Recently newspapers have announced that some parts of the moon have been named after certain Iranian mathematicians, such as Umar Khayyam, Ibn Sina and Khwaja Nasiruddin, who centuries ago advanced some very sound theories about the moon. There is no doubt that Allama Hilli is a genius in his own field that is jurisprudence. He is the author of many books, including one in two volumes named Tazkiratul Fuqaha. When one studies this book, one marvels at the mastery of its author.

Muhammad Qazwini says that when he was in Tehran he used to attend the lectures of Mirza Ashtiyani. Later when he went to Europe, and had a chance to meet several European scholars who were specialists in their subjects, he felt that Mirza Ashtiyani was a specialist in the real sense of the word.

The Tazkiratul Fuqaha is a book that deals not only with Shi'ah jurisprudence, but in regard to every rule of law it also mentions the opinion of the Sunni schools founded by the four Sunni Imams, namely Abu Hanifah, Shafi'i, Malik and Ahmad bin Hambal, as well as the verdicts of the most prominent jurists preceding the formation of these four Sunni schools. Dealing with every question, it says that Abu Hanifah says so, Shafi'i says so and we the Shi'ites hold such and such opinion. Sometimes he refutes an opinion. Sometimes, for example, he says that Shafi'i first said so and then changed his opinion and said so.

Shaykh Muhammad Taqi Qummi used to say that when it was decided to publish the Tazkirah, an expert of every Sunni school was called. These experts were astonished to find that Allama Hilli knew more than what they knew about the teachings of their schools. Such an extraordinary man Allama Hilli was!

He compiled a commentary on the Tajrid. That part of it which deals with logic is known as al Jawharun Nazid. It is one of the best books on logic. The scholastic part of the book is named Kashful Murad and is now known by the name of Sharhut Tajrid. Both the parts of Allama Hilli's commentary on the Tajrid are quite brief in expression. That is why they have again been commented upon subsequently and explanatory notes written on them. Perhaps no book in the Muslim world ever attracted so much attention of the scholars as the Tajrid. This book has been refuted by some and supported by others. No other book has been furnished with so many commentaries and annotations as this book. The reason is that when Khwaja Nasiruddin wants to describe a question from the Shi'ah point of view, he touches it only briefly.

In most cases he hurriedly refers to it and then passes away. In the concluding part of the book he has described the question of Imamat in a manner that has been approved by all Shi'ah scholars, and hence from his description of the question it is easy to understand how the Shi'ah scholars think about this subject. The book which I have at my disposal at present is Mulla Ali Qushchi's commentary on the Tajrid. Mulla Ali Qushchi is an eminent Sunni scholar. Naturally he puts forward the Sunni point of view and in most cases refutes that of Khwaja Nasiruddin. Thus in this book the Sunni view has been reflected side by side with the view of Khwaja which of course is the Shi'ah view. Definition of Imamat The first thing to be mentioned about Imamat is its definition, about which there is no difference of opinion. It is said that Imamat is the general charge of the religious as well as the secular affairs. Khwaja Nasiruddin uses a scholastic expression and says that the Imam is a Divine favour (Lutf). What he means is that like Prophethood the question of Imamat is also beyond human control. Hence an Imam cannot be selected by a human decision. Like a Prophet he is to be appointed by Divine ordinance. The only difference is that the Prophet has a direct contact with Allah, whereas an Imam is appointed by the Prophet on receiving Divine instructions.

Rational Argument of the Shi'ah

In this connection Khwaja Nasiruddin does not put forward more than one sentence. Anyhow the basis of the explanation given by the Shi'ah scholars is the same as mentioned by us earlier. They first advance a historical argument and say if Imam Ali's Imamat is proved, that of the other Imams' can be based on the authority of a declaration made by the preceding Imam. The Shi'ah scholars say that they know that Islam is the final religion and that it would not be followed by any other religion. It is the most comprehensive religion and a complete code of human life. Then they put a question and ask whether the account of the Holy Prophet's life shows that he got enough opportunity to impart all the teachings of Islam to the people in general. When we study Islamic history we find that during the 23 years of his Prophethood he did not get such an opportunity. Although he did not miss any chance which he could avail of and taught many things to the people, yet in view of his special circumstances and his preoccupations in Makkah and Medina, it is certain that a period of 23 years was not enough for him to pronounce all the laws of Islam to all the people.

At the same time it was also not possible for him to give in complete information about such a perfect religion. Therefore there must be one or more persons among the companions of the Holy Prophet who might have obtained complete knowledge of Islam from him and be in a position to explain the teachings of Islam after his demise exactly in the same manner as he himself would do, with the only difference that he received Divine revelation direct, whereas they were to acquire this knowledge through him. The Shi'ah scholars say that the Sunnis do not acknowledge the existence of any person to whom all questions regarding Islam could be referred, which means that they regarded Islam as imperfect. That is the reason why they had to resort to the theory of analogy, which they have put forward because they say that in the case of the questions which have not been provided for in the Sunnah, they have no alternative but to compare one question with another and to depend on hypothetical similarities for the purpose of deducing rules of law. The Shi'ah naturally do not share such a view. Imam Ali in Nahjul Balagha has denounced such a view and so have all other Imams. Imam Ali says: "Has Allah revealed an incomplete religion?" (Sermon 18). Does it need private judgement to complete? All the Imams have emphatically said that there is no question of Islam being imperfect and incomplete, and therefore no rule of law can be based on a personal opinion, a private judgement or conjecture. There is a chapter in al-Kafi which is entitled: "There is nothing Permitted or Forbidden that is not provided in the Qur'an or the Sunnah". At least the general principles covering every rule of law have been provided.

All that is to be done is to apply these principles to the particular cases. That is what is meant by ijtihad from the Shi'ah point of view. In other words, there is an adequate number of general laws in Islam, and the mujtahid (jurist) has only to provide details in their light. In contrast the theory of analogy implies that the number of the general laws is inadequate and therefore rules of law must be deduced on a hypothetical basis. The Shi'ah scholars say that both the Shi'ah and the Sunnis admit that during the 23 years of his Prophethood the Holy Prophet could not make known to the people all the rules of Islam even in a general manner. The Sunnis say that the Holy Prophet left the matter as it was and departed this life; But the Shi'ah hold that it was not so. In order to complete his mission he selected certain persons who were inviolable and made known all the truths of Islam to the first one of them, namely Imam Ali. All these persons were fully equipped and competent to answer any question put to them. Imam Ali often said that he would answer any question put to him regarding Islam. Imam Means an Expert in Religious Matters Let us now explain this point in modern language. The Shi'ah scholars say that those who deny the existence of Imams with all their characteristics, in reality belittle Islam. An expert invariably accompanies technical equipment when it is sent somewhere. When a country like America or the Soviet Union dispatches technical equipment like a phantom or a combat aircraft to a country the people of which are not conversant with that equipment, it always sends some experts also along with it. Of course in the case of such simple arms as the textiles experts are not required. Now what do you think about Islam which has come from Allah? Do you consider it to be a simple thing for which no experts are required or regard it as a complex equipment which when issued, is always accompanied by technical experts who train people at the receiving end till they become conversant with it. An Imam means an expert in religious affairs - a real expert who does not make a mistake and does not fall into any error. The Holy Prophet brought Islam to the people. It was necessary that at least for some time Divine experts should be present among the people to acquaint them with it. The Holy Prophet appointed a competent person to undertake this responsibility. The Shi'ah scholars call this appointment a Divine favour, for it was beneficial for humanity. As humanity must proceed towards Allah, His benevolence requires that He should show His favour to it. Just as Prophethood is a Divine favour, similarly Imamat also is a Divine favour. This may be called a rational proof of Imamat, a cardinal principle of the Shi'ah creed. Infallibility

Here the question of infallibility arises. The Shi'ah believes that an Imam is the custodian and protector of Islamic law. It is through him only that people can know Islam.30 The Shi'ah believes that an Imam is as infallible as the Holy Prophet, whose infallibility is beyond all doubts. If we know for certain that the Holy Prophet has made a particular statement, we can never doubt its veracity. We can never say that the Holy Prophet has made a mistake. It is unimaginable that one sent by Allah for the guidance of the people needing guidance would ever make a mistake or commit a sin. A Prophet cannot disobey Allah knowingly and intentionally.

For example, if Allah wants a Prophet to convey a certain message to the people, the Prophet cannot change it on the plea that it does not suit his personal interest. To do so would be against the very nature of Prophethood. If it is admitted that Imamat is something supplementary to Prophethood for the purpose of expounding religion, then it becomes certain that the existence of an Imam is a must, and that an Imam is infallible for the same reason for which a Prophet is infallible.

If somebody says that the infallibility of an Imam is not so essential, because if an Imam makes a mistake, it is possible that some other person brings the mistakes to his notice, we would say that in that case that other person would again require somebody else to keep a watch on him, and so on. At the final end we would certainly need a protector of Islamic law who may be infallible. Further, should an Imam do something wrong, it would be the duty of others to guide him a right, while the people's duty is to follow him, not to guide him. These two things are not consistent with each other.

Divine Designation

The question of infallibility leads us to the question of Divine designation. The Shi'ah scholars say that Imamat is a favour of Allah, and as such it must exist. As this favour entails infallibility, an Imam must necessarily be infallible and for this very reason should be divinely designated, for it is beyond the power of the people to determine who is infallible. As the people cannot choose a Prophet, they cannot choose an Imam also. As a Prophet is appointed by Allah, similarly an Imam is also appointed by Him.

The only difference is that a Prophet is recognized by means of the signs which he shows and the miracles which he works, whereas an Imam is introduced by the Prophet. That is what we meant by designation. An Imam is to be designated by the Prophet and not appointed by the choice of the people. Thus the Shi'ah scholars have advanced from the question of infallibility to that of designation. Now the fourth step is the Imamat of Ali. Khwaja Nasiruddin says that infallibility and designation are the two characteristics which are applicable to Imam Ali only. There is no difference of opinion about the fact that the Holy Prophet did not designate any other person. It is not that we say that the Holy Prophet designated Imam Ali and others say that he designated someone else. In fact the question is whether he did or did not designate anybody. If he did, the designated person can be none but Imam Ali. All that we say is that the Holy Prophet must have designated someone to be an Imam after him, and if so, he cannot have designated anyone else, for no counter claim exists.

The Sunnis deny the very designation. Even the caliphs did not claim to have been designated by the Holy Prophet. Their followers also make no such claim. Therefore this is not the point at issue. The same is true of infallibility. Neither the caliphs claimed to be infallible, nor do their followers say that they were infallible. In contrast, the caliphs expressly confessed that they made mistakes. As we have already pointed out, according to the Sunni point of view the question of Imamat is exclusively tantamount to that of the administration of government.

As such according to them the question of infallibility does not arise. The Sunnis believe that although the caliphs were not infallible and made many mistakes, they were irreproachable to the humanly possible extent and were quite fit to lead prayers. The Sunnis do not claim that the caliphs held any position higher than this. They report, as affirmed by Mulla Ali Qushchi, that Abu Bakr used to say that he had a Devil which seized him occasionally. He asked the people to guide him aright if they found him going astray. Umar on many occasions, some say on 70 occasions, admitted that he would have been ruined if there had not been Ali.

It is not a disputable point between the Shi'ah and the Sunnis that he said so many times. On numerous occasions it so happened that he issued a wrong order and Imam Ali pointed out his mistake which he admitted. As such neither the caliphs ever claimed that they were not infallible, nor do others claim that they were so. If the question of Imamat is considered from this high level, that is the level of Divine favour, infallibility and Divine ordination, nobody other than Imam Ali can claim to be on this level. This is the scholastic form of the question, and in this case we begin from the top. We have said that as Prophethood is indispensable and at the same time a Divine favour, so should be Imamat also. Now let us see whether in actual practice also it is so, and whether the Holy Prophet has or has not designated Imam Ali. For this purpose let us look into the texts. In this connection there is one more point worth mentioning.

The question is why we should after all adopt a scholastic method and should begin from the top. Why should we not begin from the bottom, and discuss the position as it actually exists? The scholastic theologians begin from the top and then gradually come down to the position as it exists on the ground. But in this case the question arises what we have to do with such points as to whether Imamat is a Divine favour, and if so, an Imam should naturally be infallible and designated. These should actually amount to prescribing a duty for Allah. Therefore we should better go after what actually exists.

If it is proved that the Holy Prophet has made a designation that is enough for us. It is not necessary to prove rationally that Imamat is a Divine favour and that an Imam must be infallible and designated. Let us see what arguments the Shi'ah have in this connection. It may be noted in this connection that the Sunnis either do not accept that such texts exist or interpret them differently. In many cases they do not deny the reports totally, but allege that they are isolated reports, not continuous or mutawatir.