The Doctrine of Imamah

The Doctrine of Imamah continued
August 6, 2015
Accuracy and preservation of the Qur’an
August 6, 2015

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 The Doctrine of Imamah


The fourth and the last condition mentioned by us for perennial nubuwwah was that the nabi should be the centre of affections and source of guidance to his followers. Like the Oneness of Allah, Rasulullah salla Llahu ‘alayhi wa sallam is the sole expositor of divine laws and commands. Dr. Sir Muhammad Iqbal has correctly explained the cultural value of the finality of nubuwwah in Islam in one of his articles on Qadianism in which he says:


Muslims are naturally extraordinary sensitive to those movements which pose a threat to their unity; since Islamic unity derives its strength from the finality of the Prophet…

We believe that Islam as a religion was revealed by Allah but Islam as a society or community owes its existence to the personality of Rasulullah salla Llahu ‘alayhi wa sallam.[1]


Let us now take the belief and doctrines of Imamah held by the Shia as given in Usul Kafi [2].

The imam, according to their belief, is a successor to Rasulullah salla Llahu ‘alayhi wa sallam appointed by Allah. In that capacity he is infallible, endowed with a divine gift of impeccability, and has to be obeyed by all in religious as well as temporal matters. He is equal in dignity or rather excels the prophets. Divine judgment of man’s faith depends on the Imams, for they are the source of religious certainty. The world cannot last without an imam and it is incumbent on every faithful to acknowledge his leadership. Therefore, he is to be obeyed like Rasulullah salla Llahu ‘alayhi wa sallam.

The Imams have the authority to declare anything permissible or impermissible for they are divinely protected against error or sin. One who had faith in an imam, he would attain salvation even if he were a sinner and wrongdoer. The Imams are equal in dignity to the last Rasul salla Llahu ‘alayhi wa sallam but higher than all other prophets of Allah; they possess the knowledge of what was and what will be, that is, the past, present and future. The deeds of all creatures of Allah are presented every day before the Imams, who are continually visited by the angels. They experience mi’raj (ascension) every Thursday while a new Scripture is sent down to them each year on Shab al Qadr (Night of Power).

They possess authority over death and can grant whatever of this world or the hereafter they like on whomsoever they are pleased to confer. The significance of this concept of Imamah has been construed even by non-Muslim writers as making the Imams “partakers of the divine nature.”[3]


The inference drawn by another European writer, W. Ivanow is:


With the light of Imamah continually flowing into the world, the institute of prophetship, or apostleship, occupied only an auxiliary position.[4]


Phillip K. Hitti has also correctly assessed the implications of Imamah for he says:


The founder of Islam made a revelation, the Koran, the intermediary between God and man; the Shi’ah made the intermediary a person, the Imam. To “I believe in Allah, the one God” and “I believe in the revelation of the Koran, which is uncreated from eternity”, the Shi’ites now added a new article of faith: “I believe that the Imam especially chosen by Allah as the bearer of a part of the divine being is the leader to salvation.”[5]


Iranian Influence

This exaggerated view of Imamah which goes beyond racial and lineal chauvinism to raise the Imams to the position of divinity, reflects the ancient creed of Iran in the divine origin of kings. In the pre-Islamic Iran, religious and temporal authority used to be exercised by particular tribes. It was concentrated in the region of Media in the ancient past; after Zoroastrianism consolidated its hold on the country; religious leadership came to be held by the al Moghan tribe.

The Iranians believed that the priestly class was the shadow of Allah on earth, created for the service of gods and, therefore, the ruler of the country should also be from their flesh and blood. In the estimation of the Iranians, the ruler was the incarnation of Allah and it was his prerogative to officiate as chief priest at the fire-alter.

The motive behind acceptance of Shi’ism by the Iranians and the peculiar concept of Imamah held by them has been thus explained by an eminent Egyptian scholar Dr. Ahmed Amin in the Duha al Islam:


A great majority of the Iranians were led to the faith in Shi’ism because they were accustomed to attribute divinity to their monarchs. They believed that the blood running in the veins of their rulers was different from that percolating in the body of a common man. Therefore, when they embraced Islam, they viewed the holy Prophet in the same light as they were attuned to treat their sovereigns. Thus they associated divinity to the Prophet’s salla Llahu ‘alayhi wa sallam household like the members of old imperial families.

When the Prophet bid farewell to the world, they were instinctively convinced that only the Prophet’s kin could become his successors.[6]


Faith in Imam al Gha’ib

The culminating point of this exaggerated concept of Imamah attributing it with a substance of nubuwwah and frequently with divine attributes, is the belief in the twelfth concealed Imam or Imam al Gha’ib. His birth and subsequent concealment and then guidance of the faithful to the end of time transcend the law of physical existence earth. In accordance with their beliefs, the twelfth Imam Muhammad withdrew to a cave in the town of Surra man Ra’a, ten days before the death of his father, the eleventh Imam, Hassan al ’Askari. It is believed that he is still alive and will reappear again in the last days as the Mahdi or “Director” to rule over the whole world.[7]

It is also held by the Ithna ‘Ashari or twelver sect of the Shia that initially the last Imam maintained contact with his followers and guided them from his cave. After a time, he went into total concealment and nobody can have access to him until now he decides to reappear again.[8]

‘Allamah Khomeini’s views about the Imams

Lest somebody may think that these incredulous dogmas were held by the people before the dawn of enlightenment but now the informed and educated persons, particularly after the Islamic revolution, must have changed their views, we give here the an extract from Imam Khomeini’s Al Hukumat al Islamiyyah. He says:


The Imam occupies the Glorious Station, the supreme place and wields such a delegated authority of genesis that everything in this universe submits to his surpassing glory. In accordance with the accepted tenets of our religion neither any angel of the highest rank nor anyone sent as a rasul can attain the sublime position of an Imam. As related from our ahadith, the Great Rasul and the Imams existed before the creation of this cosmic order in the form of light, encircling the Throne of Allah and enjoying such propinquity to Him as known only to Allah.[9]


Imam Khomeini entertains belief in the Imam al Gha’ib like all other theologians of the Ithna ‘Ashari sect. Although more than thousand years have passed since his concealment, the Imam may reappear, according to ‘Allamah Khomeini, after a lapse of another thousand years.


A Beatific Vision of Shah Wali Allah

These polytheistic beliefs about the Imam, bring to reason the beatific vision of Shah Wali Allah in which he claims to have seen Rasulullah salla Llahu ‘alayhi wa sallam and asked him about the Shia sect. Rasulullah salla Llahu ‘alayhi wa sallam is stated to have told him that the misbelief inherent in its creed could be understood by the term Imam.

Shah Wali Allah further says that:


After his descent from his spiritual transport he gave thought to the matter and came to understand how the belief in the impeccability of the Imam, unquestioning obedience to him in his reception and revelations — the distinctive features of the prophets of Allah — amounted to the denial of the finality of the last Rasul salla Llahu ‘alayhi wa sallam.[10]


The Glorious Lamp of Heaven

The Rasul of Islam salla Llahu ‘alayhi wa sallam deserves not merely our submission to his commands but much more than that. Every believer has to cultivate an affection and devotion, an emotional and spiritual attachment to him that overpasses the love of one’s own life, progeny and property. Next to Allah, the ardour for Rasulullah salla Llahu ‘alayhi wa sallam should be more intense than the regard for any human being, be he one of Rasulullah’s salla Llahu ‘alayhi wa sallam household, a doctor of religion or a saint perfect of soul. Rasulullah salla Llahu ‘alayhi wa sallam is like the glorious lamp of heaven while all others – his Sahabah, kinsmen, the reformers and the juro-consultants, the revolutionaries and the conquerors — bear resemblance to starry hosts made radiant by the sun.


Eulogistic Poetry

The doctrine of Imamah is at odds with the nurturing of tender feeling for Rasulullah salla Llahu ‘alayhi wa sallam. A logical result of the reliance on Imamah as an article of faith has been that Shia writers have failed to produce good biographies of Rasulullah salla Llahu ‘alayhi wa sallam or odes in his praise. Their rhymes lamenting the martyrdom of Hussain radiya Llahu ‘anhu and panegyric poems in the honour of Rasulullah’s salla Llahu ‘alayhi wa sallam household do express exquisite expressions of the heart and can be classed as paintings with the gift of speech, but when it comes to the eulogium of Rasulullah salla Llahu ‘alayhi wa sallam himself, their compositions betrays the lack of poet’s inner most feelings issuing in rhythmic language.

They have failed to produce any poet indicting laudatory verses comparable to even Amir Mana’i, Altaf Hussain Hali, Muhsin Karkorwi, Muhammad Iqbal or Zafar ‘Ali Khan, let alone in the calibre of Qudsi and Jami. The reason of their failure is not far to seek.

The writer of these lines had thrown light on this issue in one of his works entitled Darya-e Kabul se Darya-e Yarmuk Tak. It would not be out of place to reproduce his observations here.


The revered Imams of Rasulullah’s progeny have always been very like lighthouses of guidance in the surrounding sea of darkness. No Muslim true to his faith can have the least doubt about it. But we feel that the immoderate emotional attachment and extravagance of the Shia in the adoration of Rasulullah’s salla Llahu ‘alayhi wa sallam household has overcome their intellect and conscience.

In our opinion this superabundance of affection for Rasulullah’s salla Llahu ‘alayhi wa sallam household has weakened their regard and ardour for Rasulullah salla Llahu ‘alayhi wa sallam himself, although it should have been the ruling passion of every Muslim. For Rasulullah’s salla Llahu ‘alayhi wa sallam kin are honoured by us because of Rasulullah salla Llahu ‘alayhi wa sallam himself, he deserves our devotion more than anybody else. It seems that a part of the love and regard which was due to Rasulullah salla Llahu ‘alayhi wa sallam has got itself surreptitiously transferred to his household.

The eulogistical poetry of Iran versified in the later period lacks intensity of passion and exquisite felicity that immortalises the feelings of love for Rasulullah salla Llahu ‘alayhi wa sallam. The panegyric poems in the honour of Rasulullah’s salla Llahu ‘alayhi wa sallam household and verses lamenting the martyrdom of Hussain and ‘Ali radiya Llahu ‘anhuma as well as those describing the hardship undergone by them, breathe a spirit of tenderness. This difference in the painting of innermost passion can be seen everywhere in Shia poetry. For instance, if we compare the elegies of Anis and Dabir with eulogistical rhymes composed by them or their contemporary poets, we would see a marked difference between the two. The one would seem to be a genuine work of art whiles the other an attempt at mimicry. This holds good, more or less, for the biographies of Rasulullah salla Llahu ‘alayhi wa sallam and his household.

We have noticed the effect of this attitude in other spheres also. The Iranians have a greater regard for the shrines than the masjids and more intense longing of paying a visit to Najaf and Karbala and similar other holy places than performing haj or undertaking a journey to call at the two sacred masajid.

This attitude of our Shia brothers might be a reaction to the failure of certain overzealous Sunni scholars who sometimes fail to acknowledge the service of or do not pay the honour due to the household of Rasulullah salla Llahu ‘alayhi wa sallam. But this turn of mind is something more than a mere reaction. Their intense passion of love, ardent regard and devotional leanings seem to be encircling the spiritual centre of Rasulullah’s salla Llahu ‘alayhi wa sallam household and their intemperate glorification of Imamah is capable of holding it up as the rival of nubuwwah, attributing the characteristics of the latter to the former. If it comes to that course, the entire life-pattern of its votaries would be woven round an emotional centre which might come up to vie with the attachment to the leader and last of the prophets.[11]


Approbation or Denunciation

The incredulous beliefs of the Shia and their exaggerated ideas presenting Rasulullah’s salla Llahu ‘alayhi wa sallam household as supernatural beings, sometimes making the Imams partakers of divinity, help to portray them as characters with contradictory morals and behaviour. They present them — including ‘Ali radiya Llahu ‘anhu who was known for his valour, spirit and determination — as men lacking boldness, courage of conviction, losing their nerves in speaking out what they considered to be correct and right, procrastinating always and taking recourse to dissimulative as masters in the art of disguising their creeds, not at all in an apologetic way, but considering it as an act of merit and means of gaining propinquity to Allah.[12]

They are sometimes stated to have concealed the truth and teachings of Rasulullah salla Llahu ‘alayhi wa sallam when with a little courage or no great danger to their own person; they had the opportunity of winning the support of the people. The biographical accounts of the Imams written by the Shia present them as strategists and intriguers, spearheads of underground movements like the Free Masons and Ikhwan al Safa.[13]

Their writings fail to stir up courage and ambition, fortitude and venturesome spirit for the cause of Islam which always appeared at the darkest hour of Muslim history and turned the tables on its adversaries.[14]

Iqbal has correctly listed the sterling features of such godly souls in a couplet which says:


The free-handed austere beats Dara and Sikandar,

Whose poverty smacks of spirituality and valour.

Mark of courageous man is valour and truthfulness.

For lions of Allah know not how to be heartless.[15]


Character of ‘Ali and his Progeny

Rasulullah’s salla Llahu ‘alayhi wa sallam household, his nearest kin, particularly ‘Ali radiya Llahu ‘anhu and his descendants were men of great respect. Unlike descendants of other religious leaders they never tried to take advantage of the love and regard of the people because of their relationship to Rasulullah salla Llahu ‘alayhi wa sallam. Let alone deriving worldly benefit, they disdained to claim any kind of privileged position or miraculous powers as were attributed to them later on.

Historical and biographical literatures concerning these sons of Islam enumerate numerous examples of their restraint, simplicity, dignity and indifference to the worldly things. They were a class by themselves entirely different from those belonging to priesthood among the followers of other religions, living on the labour of others. A few instances of their lives will illustrate their character.

Once Hassan ibn ‘Ali radiya Llahu ‘anhu was on an errand of making purchases. He asked a price of a certain article which was told by the shop-keeper. Thereafter, somehow the shop-keeper came to know that he was the grandson of Rasulullah salla Llahu ‘alayhi wa sallam. He reduced the price as a concession to him but Hassan radiya Llahu ‘anhu left the shop without purchasing the wanted article. He said later on that he did not want any concession to be made for him.

Juwairiyah ibn ‘Asma, the personal attendant of ‘Ali ibn Hussain rahimahu Llah, who is also known by the name Zayn al ’Abidin, relates that the latter never availed himself for any concession even equivalent to a dirham because of his kinship to Rasulullah salla Llahu ‘alayhi wa sallam.[16] Whenever ‘Ali ibn Hussain rahimahu Llah went on a journey he never allowed people to know his name and affiliation. On being asked the reason for it he replied: “I do not want that I be benefited by them while I am unable to do so.”[17]

The descendants of ‘Ali radiya Llahu ‘anhu had inherited the courage and fortitude of their forefathers who had always staked their lives in defence of what they considered to be true and right and had set a glowing example of self-sacrifice for a nobler cause. Zaid ibn ‘Ali (son of Zayn al ’Abidin) attempted a rising in 122/740 against Hisham ibn ‘Abd al Malik, the Umayyad Khalifah — who was the most powerful ruler of his day — who in turn carried a larger imperial army against Zaid rahimahu Llah in several battles, and ultimately had him crucified.[18]

Muhammad, a great grandson of Hassan, whose lofty standard of virtue had obtained for him the name of al Nafs al Zakiyyah, or ‘the Pure Soul’, raised the banner of revolt against the ‘Abbasid Khalifah Mansur in Madinah in Rajab 145/September 762, while his brother Ibrahim ibn ‘Abdullah gave battle to the troops sent against him at Basra in Dhu al Hijjah, 145/March 763.

Imam Malik rahimahu Llah and Imam Abu Hanifah rahimahu Llah, the founders of the two important and popular juristic school of Sunni jurisprudence sided with Muhammad and Ibrahim by urging their followers to take oath of fealty to them and also offered financial assistance for their cause. The struggle of the two brothers closed with a heroic fight and death of Muhammad at Ahjar al Zayt near Madinah on 15 Ramadan, 145/15 March 763. Imam Malik and Imam Abu Hanifah had to undergo severe hardships by incurring the displeasure of Khalifah Mansur.[19]

These insurrections speak volumes of the courage and intrepidity of the progeny of ‘Ali radiya Llahu ‘anhu but few and far between occurrences of this nature tend to show that the descendants of ‘Ali radiya Llahu ‘anhu had, by and large, arrived at the conclusion that there was no need to raise a revolt against the well-established ‘Abbasid Khilafah, holding sway of a greater part of Asia and Africa, since it maintained law and order, promoting learning and arts and trying to enforce commandment of Islam as law of the land, they did not want to fan the fire of disorder and lawlessness against the Muslims. They desired no personal gain at the cost of the vast majority of their co-religionists. Instead, they devoted their energies to the spiritual uplift and religious guidance of the Muslims, which, by no stretch of imagination, can be construed as procrastination or dissimulation as implied by imputing taqiyyah to them.

The author has made an appraisal of a valuable services rendered to Islam by the illustrious progeny of ‘Ali radiya Llahu ‘anhu in his Saviours of Islamic Spirit. It will bear repetition here.


Although crass materialism had captured the soul of the ruling classes during the Umayyad (also ‘Abbasid) period, the masses had still not forsaken the moral values and the deep-seated deference for Islamic teachings. The regard for moral worth and tenets of Islam was due mainly to those scholars of impeccable worth and ability who were held in high esteem by the masses for their moral and spiritual excellence, selflessness, piety, sagacity and beneficence. Outside the governmental circles these persons wielded tremendous influence over the people which acted as the corrective force and saved the masses from falling prey to the pulls of worldly temptations.

The person most respected and loved during the period was ‘Ali ibn Hussain rahimahu Llah (Zayn al ’Abidin). In the simple, pure and saintly life led by him, ‘Ali ibn Hussain rahimahu Llah had no peer. Once Hisham ibn ‘Abd al Malik — the crown prince — came to the Ka’bah for tawaf (circumambulation) but owning to the huge gathering, he could not reach the Hajar Aswad. He, therefore, sat down to wait till he could get a chance to kiss it. In the meantime ‘Ali ibn Hussain rahimahu Llah arrived and the people at once cleared the way for him to make tawaf and kiss the Hajar Aswad. Everyone present at the Ka’bah received ‘Ali ibn Hussain rahimahu Llah with the utmost deference. At last Hisham, pretending as if he did not know ‘Ali ibn Hussain, asked who he was. The poet Farzdak, who happened to be present on the occasion instantaneously composed an introductory ode for ‘Ali ibn Hussain rahimahu Llah, it is alleged that certain additions were made to this famous ode later on; it is still regarded as a masterpiece of Arabic poetry. It opened with the verse:

Pebbles and paths of Makkah affirm his virtue,

The house of Allah knows him well as the environs do.

Other highly reputed religious scholars of outstanding piety during the Umayyad period were Hassan al Muthanna, his son ‘Abdullah al Mahad, Salim ibn ‘Abdullah ibn ‘Umar, Qasim ibn Muhammad ibn Abi Bakr, Sa’id ibn Mussayyab and ‘Urwah ibn Zubair. Complete detachment from the ruling circles of their day, immaculate selflessness, and unswerving truthfulness, readiness to serve and make any sacrifice for the cause of religion, erudition and moral worth had made each of these persons an ideal of Islamic piety.

The demoralisation that had set in owing to the frisky conduct of the ruling elite was undoubtedly on the increase but moral influence wielded by these persons on the masses was not without a salutary effect; their pure and simple life was a standing reproach to the unprincipled worldliness of the rulers, which made people think of reforming their intemperate life.[20]


NEXT⇒ The Doctrine of Imamah continued

[1]  Sherwani, Latif Ahmed (ed.) Harf-e Iqbal, Lahore, 1947, p. 122, 136.

[2] Usul Kafi, op. cit., pp. 103-259.

[3]  Thomas Patrick Hughes, Dictionary of Islam, London, 1885, p. 574.

[4]  H.A.R. Gibbs and J.H. Kramers, Shorter Encyclopedia of Islam, Leiden, 1953, p. 166.

[5]History of the Arabs, op. cit., p. 248.

[6]Duha al Islam, Egypt, 1952, Vol. III, p. 209.

[7]Usul Kafi, op. cit., pp. 202, 207.

[8]  Al Nuri al Tabrasi, Ihtijaj Tabrasi, Tehran, 1302 A.H., p. 230.

[9]  ‘Allamah Khomeini, Al Hukumat al Islamiyyah, Kutubkhana Buzurg Islami, p. 52.

[10]  Shah Wali Allah, Al Durr al Thamin fi Mubashshirat al Nabi al Amin, Matba’ Ahmedi, Delhi, p. 504.

[11]Darya-e Kabul se Darya-e Yarmuk Tak, Lucknow, 1978, pp. 104-6.

[12] Imam Jafar al Sadiq is stated to have told his disciple Salman: “O Salman! He among you is the most honoured before Allah who uses the taqiyyah most in concealing the faith and he is the most demeaned who publishes it.” Imam al Baqir is reported to have said: “He is dearest to me who is most pious, versed in jurisprudence and hides away our tenets.” (Usul Kafi, pp. 485-86). Shia scholars even assert that nine-tenths of their faith consists of taqiyyah and one who does not practice it, has no faith at all. (p. 483)

[13]Ikhwan al Safa (Brethren of Purity) was a secret society during the ‘Abbasid period. It was an interesting eclectic school of popular philosophy. The Ikhwan formed not only a philosophical but also a religious-political association with ultra Shia, probably Ismaili, views and were opposed to the existing political order, which they evidently aimed to overthrow by undermining the popular intellectual system and religious beliefs. Hence arises the obscurity surrounding their activities and membership. Baghdad was their centre in the fourth century A.H. They held meetings in privacy and no outsider was allowed to participate in them. A collection of their epistles, the names of writers were kept secret. Mu’tazilah and others sympathetic to their way of thought used to make out copies and smuggle them into other Islamic countries. These letters were published from Leipzig in 1883, from Bombay in 1886, and from Egypt in 1889, (for details see History of the Arabs op. cit., pp. 372-73, 401).

[14]  A detailed account of these revivalist movements will be found in the author’s Saviours of Islamic Spirit, Vols. I-III.

[15]Bal e Jibraʼil.

[16]  Ibn Kathir, Al Bidayah wan Nihayah, op. cit., Vol. IX, p. 106.

[17]  Ibn Khallikan, Wafyat al Ayan, Vol, II, p. 434.

[18]  The incident is mentioned by all the historians like Ibn Jarir al Tabri, Ibn al Athir and Ibn Kathir.

[19]  Imam Abu Hanifah rahimahu Llah had also supported the revolt of Zaid ibn ‘Ali. Sayed Manazir Ahsan’s Imam Abu Hanifah ki Siyasi Zindagi gives a detailed account of these events.

[20]Saviours of Islamic Spirit, Vol. I, (Lucknow, 1983), pp.16-17.