This article investigates the usage of the word “Imam” in the Qur’an to see whether the Qur’an provides any support to the Shia concept of Imamah. In it a description is first given of Imamah as conceived of by the Shia, and that is followed by a detailed scrutiny of every place in the Qur’an where the word “Imam” or its plural “A’immah” has been used by Allah Ta‘ala.
by: Molana Muhammad Taha Karaan rahimahu Llah
There is no gainsaying that of all differences that exist between the Ahlus Sunnah and the Shia, the issue of Imamah is by far the most serious. It is in fact quite within the limits of reason and logic to say that the question of Imamah is the root of all Sunni-Shia differences; all other differences will upon closer scrutiny be found to result from the difference that exists on that central point.
Therefore, no person or organisation who is serious about bringing Shias and Sunnis closer to one another can afford to ignore the doctrine of Imamah. All endeavours aimed at removing the barriers that separate the Ahlus Sunnah from the Shia must start from this point. Starting from anywhere else would be similar to treating the symptoms, and not the cause, of a disease. For a while the symptoms might disappear, only to be reactivated at a later stage by the dormant cause. Likewise, attempting to solve Sunni-Shia differences from any perspective other than that of its root, Imamah, might for the immediate moment create the impression of removing obstacles to Muslim unity. In reality those very same obstacles will return as soon as the euphoria at the creation of that unity subsides.
As Muslims we are obliged to refer the differences that exist amongst us to Allah and His Rasul. In this series of articles we refer the doctrine of Imamah to the Qur’an, with the purpose of ascertaining whether this doctrine as conceived of and believed in by the Ithna ‘Ashari (Twelvers) (or Jafari) Shia is justified by Divine Revelation or not.
Before going any further it would be well-advised, for the benefit of those who may not be fully aware of what the Imamah of the Shia means, to expand somewhat upon the detail of the issue. Once the reader has a proper focus of what Imamah means to the Shia, and what its position in the belief structure of the Shia is, we will continue with our discussion of that doctrine in the light of the Qur’an.
Essentially, Imamah is about leadership of the Ummah after the demise of Rasulullah salla Llahu ‘alayhi wa sallam. The Shia believe that just as Allah chose Muhammad salla Llahu ‘alayhi wa sallam as His Messenger to mankind, he chose and appointed a line of twelve men to succeed him as the leaders of the Ummah in all matters, spiritual as well as temporal. The first of these leaders, or Imams as they are called, was ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib radiya Llahu ‘anhu. He was succeeded by his eldest son Hassan, and he by his brother Hussain. After Hussain, the Imamah continued in his progeny until the year 260 AH, when the twelfth Imam, a child of five, disappeared upon the death of his father. He is believed to be the Awaited Mahdi who will return from occultation to establish justice upon the earth. To these twelve men from amongst the family of Rasulullah salla Llahu ‘alayhi wa sallam alone belongs the right to assume leadership of the Ummah. There are two aspects to Imamah that need to be looked at with attention. The first is the nature of the appointment of the Imams, and the second is the nature of their office.
As far as the nature of their appointment is concerned, it is a matter of consensus amongst the Shia that the right of their twelve Imams to lead the Ummah was bestowed by Allah Ta‘ala Himself. No distinction is made between the appointment of Muhammad salla Llahu ‘alayhi wa sallam as the Messenger of Allah and the appointment of the twelve Imams as his successors. Underscoring this vital aspect of Imamah, ‘Allamah Muhammad Hussain Kashif al Ghita, who was the most prominent Shia ‘alim of Najaf in Iraq during the seventies, writes in his book Asl ash-Shia wa-Usuluha:
Imamah is a divine station, just like Nubuwwah. Just as Allah chooses whomsoever He wants to for Nubuwwah and Risalah … similarly, for Imamah too, He selects whomsoever He wishes.1
It is interesting to note that the book from which this statement is drawn was written for the express purpose of correcting contemporary misconceptions about the Shia. Since Imamah is then for all practical purposes on exactly the same plane as Nubuwwah and Risalah, consistency would dictate that the rejection of Imamah be censured with the same severity as the rejection of Nubuwwah and Risalah. If rejection of the Nubuwwah of Muhammad salla Llahu ‘alayhi wa sallam cast the likes of Abu Jahl and Abu Lahab outside the fold of Islam, then it is only logical to expect that rejection of the Imamah of ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib radiya Llahu ‘anhu should cast the likes of Abu Bakr, ‘Umar and the rest of the Sahaba radiya Llahu ‘anhum out of the fold of Islam. For one who views the problem from this perspective, it thus comes as no surprise to find the Shia narrating from their Imams that “all the people became murtad after the death of Rasulullah, except three,”2 since it is consistent with the principle that equates Imamah with Nubuwwah in the sense that each of them is a position appointed by Allah.
What is surprising is the opinion the Shia of today express about the Ahlus Sunnah in general. One would expect them to say about the Ahlus Sunnah as they have said about the Sahaba: that they are unbelievers, out of the fold of Islam. After all, there are many non-Muslims who believe in the oneness of Allah, but do not believe in the prophethood of Muhammad salla Llahu ‘alayhi wa sallam, and for that reason we all regard them as unbelievers. If Imamah is then a “divine station, like Nubuwwah,” Sunnis who do not believe in the Imamah of the Twelve Imams must also be unbelievers. There have been many scholars of the Shia in the past who have displayed consistency in this regard and declared all those who deny the Imamah of the Twelve Imams—like the Ahlus Sunnah—unbelievers. For example, Ibn Babawayh al Qummi (died 381 AH), the author of one of the four canonical hadith collections of the Shia, Man La Yahduruhu al Faqih, states in the treatise in which he expounds the creed of the Shia:
It is our belief about one who rejects the Imamah of Amir al Mu’minin (Sayyidina ‘Ali) and the Imams after him that he is the same as one who rejects the Nubuwwah of the Prophets.
It is our belief concerning a person who accepts (the Imamah of) Amir al Mu’minin but rejects any one of the Imams after him, that he is similar to one who believes in all the Prophets but rejects the Nubuwwah of Muhammad salla Llahu ‘alayhi wa sallam. The Nabi salla Llahu ‘alayhi wa sallam said: “The Imams after me are twelve. The first is Amir al Mu’minin ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib and the last is the Qa’im (the Mahdi). Obedience to them is obedience to me, and disobedience to them is disobedience to me. Thus, whoever rejects one of them has rejected me.”
Whoever wrongfully claims the Imamah is an accursed oppressor. Whoever places the Imamah in anyone besides its rightful repositories is an accursed oppressor. The Nabi salla Llahu ‘alayhi wa sallam said: “Whoever shall deny ‘Ali his Imamah after me has denied my Nubuwwah, and whoever denies me my Nubuwwah has denied Allah His divinity.” Imam Jafar as-Sadiq said: “Whoever doubts the kufr of our enemies is himself a kafir.”3
His student Sheikh Mufid (died 413 AH) writes:
There is consensus amongst the Imamiyyah (the Ithna ‘Ashari (Twelvers)or Jafari Shia) that whoever denies the Imamah of any one of the Imams, and denies the duty of obedience to them that Allah has decreed, that such a person is a kafir, misguided, and that he deserves everlasting torment in Hell.4
The prolific Abu Jafar at Tusi, called Sheikh at Ta’ifah, (died 460 AH), who is the author of two of the four canonical hadith collections, has the following to say:
Rejection of Imamah is kufr, just as rejection of Nubuwwah is kufr.5
The mujaddid of Shi‘ism in the eighth century after the Hijrah, Ibn Mutahhar al Hilli (died 726 AH) expresses similar sentiments in the following terms:
Imamah is a universal grace (lutf ‘am) while Nubuwwah is a special grace (lutf khass), because it is possible that a specific period in time can be void of a living Nabi, while the same is not true for the Imam. To reject the universal grace is worse than to reject the special grace.6
This is the opinion held by four of the most eminent classical scholars of the Shia, and if seen from the angle of consistency, it is a commendable position indeed. Yet, if one has to ask the Shia of today (especially recent converts to Shi‘ism) whether they believe Sunnis are Muslims are not, they will respond with surprise, and might even appear grieved at such a question. As far as recent converts to Shi‘ism are concerned, this is to be expected, since it is in the interest of any propaganda scheme that certain facts be kept secret from neophytes. However those who are more knowledgeable about the technicalities of Shi‘ism will know that in the eyes of the Shia a distinction is made between a Muslim and a Mu’min. All those who profess Islam outwardly are Muslims: Sunnis, Zaidis, Mu‘tazilis, and all other sects. A Mu’min, however, is only he who believes in the Twelve Imams. By this clever ruse the fuqaha’ of the Shia kill several birds with one stone. By accepting all other sects as Muslims they protect themselves against the ridiculousness of casting out of the fold of Islam over 90% of its adherents, and the same men who carried the banner of Islam to all corners of the world. At the same time they avoid the antagonism of Sunnis and others, which facilitates proselytization for them. On the other hand, by the subtle measure of distinguishing Muslim from Mu’min, they effectively excommunicate their opponents. Muslims are those to whom the laws of Islam apply in this world. It is therefore permissible to intermarry with them, to pray behind them, to eat what they slaughter, etc., while Mu’mins are those to whom salvation in the Hereafter belongs exclusively, and that depends upon belief in the Twelve Imams. This distinction between Muslim and Mu’min can be found throughout classical Shia literature. The seventh century faqih, Yahya ibn Sa‘id al Hilli (died 690 AH), for example writes in his manual on fiqh, al Jami‘ lish-Shara’i‘:
It is correct for a Muslim to make an endowment (waqf) upon Muslims. Muslims are those who utter the two shahadahs, and their children. But if a person makes something waqf upon the Mu’minin, it will be exclusively for the Imamiyyah who believe in the Imamah of the Twelve Imams.7
Eight centuries later, exactly the same view is propounded by Ayatollah Khomeini. In his own manual of fiqh, Tahrir al Wasila, he states:
If a person makes a waqf upon the Muslims it will be for all those who confess the two shahadahs … If an Imami makes a waqf upon the Mu’minin it will be restricted to the Ithna ‘Ashariyyah (Twelvers).8
Some amongst the contemporary spokesmen for Shi‘ism, like Kashif al Ghita, have realised that even this ruse is not sufficiently subtle. He thus devised another terminology. He speaks of being a Mu’min in the special sense, and of being a Mu‘min in the general sense. Whoever believes in Imamah is regarded as a Mu’min in the special sense, while those who do not believe in it are regarded as being Mu’min in the general sense, as a result of which all the temporal laws of Islam are applicable to him. The result of this difference, he says, will become apparent on the Day of Judgement, in the degrees of Divine proximity and honour that will be bestowed upon the believers in Imamah.9
To us this reveals much more than what the author intended. It reveals to us that when the Shia say they regard Sunnis as Muslims, it is in strict reference to worldly matters. In eschatological matters, matters of the Hereafter, Sunnis who do not believe in the Imamah of the Twelve Imams are just like Jews, Christians, Buddhists, Hindus or any other rejectors of the Nubuwwah of Rasulullah salla Llahu ‘alayhi wa sallam. The only reason for saying that Sunnis are Muslims is expedience and convenience. Without professing such an opinion the Shia would have had to retreat into seclusion and bear ostracism from the rest of the Muslim world. This reason is given by Sayed ‘Abdullah Shubbar (died 1232 AH) in his commentary of az-Ziyarat al Jami‘ah, the comprehensive dua read at the graves of the Imams. At the point where the ziyarat reads:
Whoever denies you is a kafir,
he comments upon it, saying:
There are many narrations that indicate that the opponents are kafir. To document all of them would require a separate book. Reconciling such narrations with that which is known about the Imams, viz. that they used to live, eat, and socialize with them, leads to the conclusion that they (the opponents) are kafir, and that they will dwell in Hell forever, but that in this world the laws of Islam are applied to them as a gesture of mercy and beneficence to the True Denomination (the Shia), since it is impossible to avoid them.10
On this point it would be sufficient to say that the Shia bestow upon their Imams all the perfections and accomplishments of the Prophets, and even more. It would be impossible to document here all the narrations that deal with the status of the Imams, but it might be just as informative to quote the chapters under which they have been documented in a source that is described as a “veritable encyclopaedia of the knowledge of the Imams”: Bihar al Anwar of ‘Allamah Muhammad Baqir al Majlisi (died 1111 AH), widely reputed to be the greatest and most influential Shia scholar of the Safawid era. During his lifetime, he occupied the office of Sheikh al Islam in Isfahan, capital of the Safawids, and even to this day his works are indispensable to the Shia clergy as well as their lay public. We quote here the name of the chapter, as well as the number of narrations he documents in each chapter:
The titles of these chapters create quite a vivid impression of the narrated material upon which the Shia base their faith. The office of Imamah can thus be seen to incorporate more than just the political leadership of the Ummah. The Imams are more than just heads of state with a divine right to rule. They are the repositories of every branch of knowledge and perfection possessed by the Prophets. The existence of the world depends upon their presence. They are the intermediaries upon whose intercession acceptance of the prayers of even the Prophets depends. Their office is one that combines political, religious, scientific, cosmological, and metaphysical supremacy over the entire creation. From this one can understand the reason for al Khomeini’s statement in the book al Hukumat al Islamiyyah, upon which rests the entire philosophy of his revolution:
It is of the undeniable tenets of our faith that our Imams possess a status with Allah that neither Angel nor Messenger can aspire to.17
After this introduction to the concept of Imamah, the nature of the appointment of the Imams, and the nature of their office, we pose the question: Is belief in such a concept justified and upheld by the Qur’an? Surely a belief of such momentousness, an article of faith with such far reaching consequences, that supercedes even belief in the Prophets, must be rooted in the Qur’an, the book which was revealed by Allah:
as an explanation of all things, a guide, a mercy,
and glad tidings to the Muslims. (an-Nahl: 89)
It is with the purpose of answering this question that this article is written.
In this article we investigate the Qur’anic foundations of the Shi‘ite concept of Imamah. By analysis of the usage of the word imam and its plural form a’immah in the Qur’an we will investigate whether the Qur’an provides any basis for the doctrine of Imamah as formulated in Shi‘ite theology. In limiting our investigation to the Qur’an, it is not our contention that the Sunnah is inconsequential in issues of doctrine. Instead, it is out of the conviction that a doctrinal issue like Imamah, which Shi‘ite theology places above Nubuwwah, must find textual support from the Qur’an. After all, the “secondary” issue of Nubuwwah finds more than ample support in the pages of the Qur’an. No one, after reading the clear and unambiguous Qur’anic texts wherein Allah makes mention of His Messengers and Prophets, their status,
And each (of them) we favoured above all the worlds. (al An‘am : 86)
And has there come to you the story of Musa? (Taha : 9)
And recite to them the story of Ibrahim. (ash-Shu‘ara : 69)
We relate unto you, the most beautiful of stories. (Yusuf : 4)
the explicit mention of their names,
Such was the argument we gave Ibrahim against his people. We raise in degree whomsoever We will, and your Lord is Wise, All-Knowing. We gave him Ishaq and Ya‘qub; each of them We guided. And before that, We guided Nuh, and among his (Ibrahim’s) progeny (We guided) Dawood, and Sulaiman, and Ayub, and Yusuf, and Musa, and Harun; thus do We reward those who good. And (We guided) Zakariyya, and Yahya, and ‘Isa, and Ilyas; all of them of the Righteous. And Ismail, and Alyasa‘, and Yunus, and Lut; each of them We favoured above all the worlds. (al An‘am : 83-86)
and the importance of belief in them as an integral part of faith in Islam,
And whoever denies Allah, His Messengers, His Books, and the Last Day has clearly gone astray. (an-Nisa’ : 136)
can reasonably doubt that the Qur’an supports, or rather enjoins, belief in Nubuwwah. The question now is: Does the same hold true for Imamah? If Imamah is superior to Nubuwwah, as the theology of the Ithna ‘Ashari (Twelvers)Shia teaches, it would be only reasonable to expect that the Qur’an would deal in equally explicit terms with Imamah; and if not, that at least a clear, unambiguous picture what Imamah is and who the Imams are, would be drawn by the Qur’an.
In what follows we will investigate how the word Imam and its plural A’immah have been used in the Qur’an. From the way Allah has used the word in the Qur’an it will then be seen whether the Shia concept of Imamah that has been explained above, finds any sort of Qur’anic support.
The word imam recurs 7 times in the Qur’an, while its plural form, a’immah, appears 5 times. In 3 of these cases it refers explicitly to a book:
And before it was the Book of Musa, a guide and a mercy. (Hud : 17)
And before it was the Book of Musa, a guide and a mercy. (al Ahqaf : 12)
Verily, we will restore the dead to life, and we write that which they sent forth, and that which they left
behind; and of everything we have taken account in a Clear Book. (Yasin : 12)
In another 2 cases it refers to the champions of kufr:
Fight the leaders of kufr. (at Tawbah : 12)
And We made them leaders who call towards the Fire. (al Qasas : 41)
One reference is to a clearly discernible road:
And verily, the two (cities) lie next to a clear road. (al Hijr : 79)
In the remaining six places where the word is used, it is used in terms of its literal meaning, i.e. leadership. In Sura al ambiya it is stated:
We said: “O fire, be cool and (a means of ) safety unto Ibrahim.” And they planned against him; but We made them the greater losers. And We delivered him and Lut to the land which We blessed for the nations. And We gave him Ishaq, and Ya‘qub as an additional gift; and all of them We made righteous men. And We made them leaders who guide by Our command; and We revealed to them the doing of good, the establishment of prayer, and the giving of alms. And they were men who served Us. (al ambiya : 69-73)
In this extract, which had to be extended somewhat in order that the reader may see the full context in which the word a’immah is used, one clearly sees its association with the function of the Prophets as the leaders of men, who guide them towards Allah. This unequivocal identification of a’immah as Prophets leads us to conclude that the reference in Sura as-Sajdah too, is to the Prophets, and not to any other category of men:
Indeed, We gave Musa the Book, so be not in doubt about meeting him; and We made it a (source of) guidance for the Children of Isra’il. And We made from amongst them leaders who guided by Our command, when they persevered. And they had full certainty in Our signs. (as-Sajdah : 23-24)
Even if the scope of a’immah in this verse were to be extended to include people other than the Prophets, there is nothing to justify its identification with the elaborate doctrine of Imamah as conceived of by the Shia.
In a third verse Allah speaks of His plans for the oppressed Israelites in Egypt:
And We wished to be gracious to those who were oppressed in the land, and to make them leaders, and to make them heirs. (al Qasas : 5)
In order to see who the word a’immah refers to in this verse, one only has to look at the persons in whom this divine wish came to fulfilment. It was primarily in Nabi Musa and the other prophet-kings of Bani Isra’il like Nabi Dawood and Nabi Sulaiman ‘alayhimus salam that the leadership referred to in this verse, came to be vested. If at times they were ruled by men other than the Prophets, the status of those leaders was never seen to be superior to the rank of the Prophets. Verses like the above three, apart from dealing specifically with the Prophets of Bani Isra’il, are not in the least indicative of the existence of a rank like that of Imamah as conceived of by the Shia.
There remain three places where the word imam is mentioned in the Qur’an. In one of these three places Allah speaks of the prayer of His exemplary worshippers:
(They are) those who say: “Our Lord, grant us the coolness of (our) eyes in our wives and children, and make us leaders of the pious.” (al Furqan : 74)
This verse speaks of normal people who do not belong to a special class like the Prophets, asking Allah to make them imams, in the sense of paragons of virtue, whose example others would strive to emulate. It is very obvious that it cannot refer to a group of “divinely appointed Imams”, for the reason that the Imams’ elevation to the rank of Imamah is not on account of their prayers. Since their appointment, like that of the Prophets, is supposedly divine in origin, it not attainable by any amount of exertion or devotion.
It is interesting to note that this verse proved to be so unpalatable to certain of the early Shia that they declared it to have been corrupted. The following narration appears in the Tafsir of ‘Ali ibn Ibrahim al Qummi, the teacher of Abu Jafar al Kulayni:
It was read to Abu ‘Abdillah (i.e. Imam Jafar as-Sadiq):
And make us leaders of the pious.
He said: “It would be an enormous thing for them to ask Allah to make them Imams of the pious.” [The Shia concept of an Imam is intended, of course, since the Imams are appointed, and no one can become an Imam by praying for it.]
Someone then enquired:
“How was it then revealed, O son of Rasulullah?”
He replied: ‘It was revealed:
…and make for us leaders from amongst the pious.18
This narration, documented in a tafsir of great repute amongst the early tafsirs of the Shia, (a tafsir, in fact, that is described by its twentieth century editor as being “in reality the commentary of the Imams al Baqir and as-Sadiq,”19 and each one of whose narrators is regarded as reliable and credible by Shia hadith experts,20 which vouches for its authenticity by Shia standards) obviates the need for further discussion around the meaning of the word Imam as it appears in this verse.
There remains one place in the Qur’an where the word Imam is used. It is in Sura al Isra’ where Allah Ta‘ala says:
The day when we will call all people by their leaders. (al Isra’ : 71)
The Imam spoken of in this ayah is recognised by the mufassirin of the Ahlus Sunnah as either the book of deeds or the prophet to whose Ummah the person belonged. The first meaning is preferred by Ibn Kathir,21 who mentions in support of his preference the ayat where the word Imam was used in the sense of a book (see above). This meaning is further supported by the rest of the ayah:
So those who are given their book in their right hand will read their books.
The second meaning also finds ample support in the Qur’an. In another ayah Allah says:
How will it be when We bring forth from every Ummah a witness, and bring you (O Muhammad) as a witness over these? (an-Nisa’:41)
From the way in which the position of the Nabi salla Llahu ‘alayhi wa sallam is compared to the position of the “witnesses” of the other Ummahs we can only conclude that the reference is to the Prophets. It therefore follows that those Ummahs will be called by the names of their Prophets. Calling the Ummahs of the past by the names of the Prophets who were sent to them is further a common thing in both the Qur’an and the Sunnah. The ‘Ad, for example, are commonly referred to as “the people of Hud”, just like Banu Isra’il are called “the people of Musa”. Identifying the Imam mentioned in the ayah under discussion with the Prophets is therefore warranted by both the Qur’an and the Sunnah.
As for the claim of the Shia that it refers to the Twelve Imams,22 this claim not only lacks Qur’anic support, it also curtails the general scope of the ayah. The lack of Qur’anic support is evident from the above discussion on the usage of the word Imam in the Qur’an. The restriction of the general scope of the ayah arises from the chronological disparity between the times when the Twelve Imams lived, and the periods during which previous Ummahs flourished. If we say that all Ummahs will be called by the names of the Twelve Imams, then what about the Ummahs that existed before them? By whose name will they be called? After all, the ayah says that all people will be called by their leaders.
In addition, when for argument’s sake we do assume that the reference is to the the Twelve Imams, we are left with a somewhat incongruous situation. Sayyidina ‘Ali, the first of the Twelve Imams, died in the year 40. His son Sayyidina Hassan died nine years later, in 49. If Sayyidina ‘Ali is the Imam for the people of his time, Sayyidina Hassan is left with only those people who were born during his nine years. All the other people of his time who were alive during his father’s time will form part of his father’s group, and not his. The tenure of the 3rd Imam lasted for 22 years; the 4th for 34 years; the 5th for 19 years; the 6th for 34 years; the 7th for 35 years; the 8th for 20 years; the 9th for 17 years; the 10th for 34 years; and the 11th for only 6 years. Suddenly, with the 12th Imam, the Awaited Mahdi, we have a tenure of Imamah that has been running for over 1200 years. The group that will supposedly be called by the name of the 11th Imam, for example, will only include people that were born during his Imamah that ran from 254 up to 260, while the numbers of those who will be called by the name of the 12th Imam will be practically incalculable.
Compare this incongruous scenario with the much more orderly and Qur’anic system of having the various Ummahs called by the names of their Prophets on the Day of Qiyamah, and the absurdity of using the 71st ayah of Sura al Isra’ to substantiate the doctrine of Imamah as conceived of by the Shia will be fully exposed. There can be no question that the word Imam in this ayah does not refer to the Twelve Imams.
We have discussed here each and every place in the Qur’an where the word Imam and its plural A’immah were used in the Qur’an. It was demonstrated how Allah Ta‘ala used this word to refer variously to
Any attempt by the Shia to identify their idiosyncratic notion of Imamah with the Imamah of the Qur’an is totally incongruous. The closest they could come to it would be to draw a similarity between their own Imamah and the leadership of the Israelites. However, such a similarity is immediately rejected when one considers that this leadership of the Israelites is clearly identified in the Qur’an with the Prophets of Bani Isra’il. The Qur’an provides no grounds whatsoever to identify this leadership of the Israelites with anyone but the Prophets. It is not uncommon to find the Shia quoting verses such as the 5th verse of Sura al Qasas to substantiate their belief of Imamah. If they only took the trouble of reading the verse in its proper context, without adding to it the excrescences of their own theology, they will see just how far fetched their identification of Qur’anic Imamah with Shia Imamah really is. In al Qasas:5 for example, the reference is clearly to Musa and his people. Just how, one wonders, is that verse extended to Ali ibn Abi Talib and eleven persons from his progeny?
The attempt to draw a comparison between the Qur’anic Leadership of the Pious and the Imamah of the Shia is similarly fraught with problems. It has been seen above how this form of leadership is a favour sought from Allah by His ideal servants. The Imamah of the Shia, on the other hand, is like Nubuwwah, divinely granted, and cannot be aspired to by any person. The utter lack of harmony between this form of leadership and Shia Imamah is nowhere more clearly brought to light than in the authentically narrated saying of Imam Jafar as-Sadiq which points at the corruption of the text of the Qur’an at the hands of the Sahaba radiya Llahu ‘anhum as the reason for the disparity.
The only other Qur’anic meaning of the word Imam left to the Shia is the one which refers to the Day of Qiyamah, when nations will be called by their “Imams”. Is it possible that the word “Imam” here could be referring to the Shia concept of Imamah? Unfortunately for the Shia, once again that is not possible. It is not possible for two reasons:
Firstly, because a holistic reading of the immediately following verses, as well as of other verses of the Qur’an point unmistakably to the fact that the Imamah spoken of here refers either to the Prophets, by whose names nations are called not only in the Hereafter, but in the Qur’an and Sunnah too, or to their books of deeds by which they will be called to account.
Secondly, because identifying the verse with the Shia concept of Imamah leads to a very problematic distribution of nations for the various Imams.