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Shia’s Imamate (Head of State) Concept

Shia’s perspective about the Imamate had a great impact on some of the perceptions and opinions throughout the Islamic world and also on the forming of some of the practices in politics. It is not possible to understand the complete political perception of Islam or explain some of the perceptions and understandings imprinted on the minds of the modern-day Muslims about politics.

In this respect, we are going to try explaining the fundamental perspectives that had been manifested by the Shia about the Imamate by focusing on the works of the leading Shiite ulama such as Al-Kulayni (d. 329), Al-Kummi (d. 381), Al-Shaykh Al-Mufid (d. 413), Al-Tusi (d. 672), Al-Hilli (d. 726), Majlesi (d. 1110). The opinions we are going to focus on belong to the most influential and wide-spread branches of the Shia; Imamiyyah/Twelves (Ithnā’ashariyya).

Please be advised that although we have described the words “Imam” and “Imamate” as “head of state” or “presidentship” in parentheses to make it easy for the people who do not have detailed knowledge over the topic, the meaning attributed to “Imam” by the Shia and the duties expected from this office are way more. The lexical meaning of “Imam” is “leader”. According to Shia, the Imam is the leader and chairman of not only the people living inside the borders of the country but all of the Shiites for regulating both earthly and religious matters. 

The Importance of Imamate in Shia

Before explaining the conditions and requirements for being an Imam according to Shia, it is of great importance to remind the place of the Imamate in Shia in order to understand the whole content in a better way. According to the Followers of Sunnah, Shia transformed the Imamate, which is an accessory matter, into one of the fundamentals of faith, and furthermore, placed it in the base and center of their doctrines. (Tusi, Risale-i Imamate, p. 14) Therefore, Imamate is the first matter that comes to mind when “Shi’ism” is mentioned. This is why Ithnā’ashariyya Shia is also called Imamiyyah at the same time. 

Imamate had become the most important matter that revealed Shia’s characteristic features over time and formed the main axis of the branch, although this was not the situation throughout the first few centuries after it had emerged. Thus, it is important to underline here that it is not possible to understand Shiism without knowing the approaches about the matter of Imamate. It is also important to know that the reason for the Sunni ulama to include the matter of Imamate in their books is Shia’s attitude and opinion about this matter. Theologians had wanted to provide an answer to Shia, which embraces the matter of Imamate as a fundamental of the faith, with their own opinions and wanted to pinpoint the matter to its correct place. Therefore, the reason for the Imamate to be included in the theology books is not the way it is considered important or aggrandized at a level of definite judgments. As a matter of fact, the authors, who had written about the topic, had clearly stated that the Imamate is not a fundamental matter, and provided answers indirectly to the Shia with their perspectives about the election of the Imam and the requirements of being one.  

Appointment of the Imam

According to Shia, all of the Imams after Ali had been elected according to the Quran and Hadith. For them, Ali had been appointed as Caliph personally by Allah’s Apostle (PBUH) since he had said, “Whosoever I am his master, this Ali is his master.” (Al-Tirmithi, Menakib, 19) during the event of Ghadir Khumm, and Ali and all of the Imams after him had appointed the next Imam as a successor to themselves. The Shiites had tried to interpret and explain many Hadith and Quran verses for the sake of legitimizing the offices of Ali and other Imams. Therefore, it is out of the question for the Muslims to elect the Imam according to the Shia. Because, as we are going to explain later in this article, the Imam, who possesses spiritual and numinous offices beyond being the head of state and decorated with some superior authorities, cannot be elected by ordinary people according to them. Moreover, it is mandatory for the Imams to be sinless, and this is to be known only by Allah. 

For example, Al-Kulayni, one of the first period Shiite scholars, had stated that the Imamate is such a high office that it cannot be left under the initiative of the community. According to him, due to the fact that it is impossible for the community to acknowledge the value and position of the Imam, he must be appointed directly by Allah. And the appointment by Allah is only possible through a prophet or an Imam. Because Allah declares who would be the next Caliph to them. (Al-Kuaynş, Uslu’l-kafi, 1/99, 286) As well as Shia had acknowledged that the election of the Imam according to the ‘Quran and Hadith’ and based on appointment as an unchangeable basic; they had also pointed out that the Imam that would be appointed must be a member of Ahl al-Bayt (a descendant of the Prophet’s (PBUH) family)

Qualifications of the Imam

We had tried to explain about the merits, justice, knowledge, and trustworthiness a head of state should possess according to Islam in our previous article. In fact, Shia’s approach to the matter is very different and you are going to understand why shortly. According to them, the Imam, who will lead them about their religion and world, should be a person that is able to possess some of the divine features such as being protected from the sins (innocent), having the authority of legislation, individuality (there should be nobody like him at the time), representing the office of prophethood, and furthermore, knowing about Al-Ghaib (the concealed, unseen). Let’s describe these features. 

a) Innocence

According to the perspective defended by the Shia, the Imams, who are basically the deputies and successors of the Prophet (PBUH), possess the title of Isma (or Ismah; the concept of incorruptible innocence) which is also possessed by the prophets. Therefore, they are protected against small or big sins and delusions from their childhood until the day they die. (Al-Kummi, el-I’tikadat, p 109-110) Although the Shiite Imams had tried to explain why the Imams should be sinless according to the needs of the community and as a requirement of the office they represent with some reasonable evidence, there had been criticism since many had thought that a ruler, whose rulings and practices would be deemed accurate, would gain the status of a theocrat, and such a system would bring the ideology of theocracy in the process of time. 

b) Individuality – Being The Most Virtuous of The Time

Just like the prophets, the Imams should be superior and more virtuous than their community. Because it is wrong both by reason and according to sharia for the people at a lower level to get ahead of the people who are superior than them. Therefore, the Imam must be the most virtuous person in terms of devoutness (to religion), generosity, and courage primarily, and also personality, moral characteristics, and physical condition. Al-Kulayni had stated that Allah grants these virtues and superiority to the Imams without considering their wishes or will, and also without the need for them to make an effort to possess these virtues. (Al-Kulayni, Usul’l-kafi, 1/201)

Due to the fact that the Imams are the most virtuous ones among the people, they would be at the nearest position to Allah without a doubt. The following words of Khomeini show what a great office they hold in the presence of Allah: “The Imams hold such a great office and level; neither the angels holding the highest level in Paradise nor the prophets who had been sent can reach them.” (Khomeini, el-Hukumetu’l-Islamiyye, p. 52)

c) Knowledge of Innate and Superficial Wisdom

There are lots of exaggerated descriptions for the knowledge of the Imams in Shia sources. Because they think that as well as the Imams are successors to all of the wisdom of the prophets, they also bequeath this superior wisdom to their successor Imams. It means that Allah is the direct source of the Imams beyond prophets due to the fact that they believe the Imams are capable of contacting the invisible world and obtaining information from the angels. Therefore, they do not need to learn anything from anybody else.  

Al-Kulayni had stated that Allah will not appoint a person as an Imam who answers “I don’t know” to any kind of question, and added that the Imams will know about everything happening on the ground and in the air; lifetime and time of death of the people; the ones in Paradise and hell; what happened and what will happen. Similarly, the Imams are capable of separating the believers from the nonbelievers. Thus, nothing is secret for them.  (Al-Kulayni, Usûlü’l-kâfi, 1/136-191; Sheikh Müfid, Evailu’l-makalat, p. 67-71)

d) Having the Authority of Legislation

It is a natural result for the Imams, who are capable of contacting the invisible world and have such broad and wide knowledge, to have a grasp of the essence of Quran and Sunnah. This situation had enabled the Imams to be considered as the “living example” of the Quran in the eyes of the Shia and authorized them to demonstrate the limits of the Nas; explain the secret things; assign provisions for the common, and moreover, even authorized them to establish new provisions. Therefore, the words and practices of the Imams had been seen as equal to the words and practices of Allah’s Apostle in terms of bindingness according to the Shia. 

According to Shia, it is illicit both for Allah’s Apostle and Imams to adjudicate. Because there are the possibilities of mistakes and accuracy in the nature of adjudicating. However, the Imams are protected against being mistaken. Thus, any word coming out of their mouths is based on revelation and inspiration. (Al-Hilli, Mebadiu’l-vusul, p. 240) All of this information leads to the understanding that the Imams are considered as “the source of resolution” just like Quran and Sunnah.  

e) Miracle Performing

Shia had accepted that the Imams are capable of performing miracles just like the prophets. According to them, the Imams would need miracles from time to time in order to prove that they are actual Imams. This means that they are appointed by Allah since they can perform miracles. (Al-Tusi, Risale-i Imamate, p. 22, Kummi, I’tikadat, p.110)

Although some of the Shiite scholars had tried to state and explain that there are differences between the prophethood and office of the Imams. However, when the qualifications of the Imams are analyzed such as divine appointment, virtues, contacting angels, superiority, and performing miracles; it is visible that Imams are considered as partners to the prophets and assimilated with them in terms of duties and authorities. Such approaches of these scholars caused the Imamate to be perceived as an extension of prophethood. 

The statement of Al-Shaykh Al-Mufid is also important to see how the Shia viewed the Imams: “Although Sharia (Islamic Law) prohibits us to name our Imams as prophets, there is no obstacle for us to call them prophets in terms of mentality due to the fact that they possess the meaning we attribute to the prophets.” (Al-Shaykh Al-Mufid, Awail Al Maqalat, p. 41-45)

Reflections of Imamate Concept On Faith and Fiqh

It had been stated that the Imams must absolutely be obeyed and loved as a result of them being considered as leaders decorated with many religious privileges and superior qualifications. Kummi had stated that loving an Imam is a requirement of faith, and hating them will result in blasphemy. (Kummi, I’tikadat, p. 110)

And Al-Kulayni had stated that the Imams are just like the prophets in terms of obedience and added that it would not be possible for an individual to be considered a believer without knowing the Imam of the time and obey him. (Al-Kulayni, Usulu’l-kafi, p 1/80, 208)

Perceiving the Caliphate of the first three Caliphs as illegitimate and hurling serious accusations at them, and also recognizing the sahaba (companions of Muhammad (PBUH)) who do not pay homage to Ali after the passing of the Prophet (PBUH) as apostates are reflections of this perception about the Imamate. 

They also believe that “Who is your Imam?” will be added for the questioning in the grave; people will not be able to pass As-Sirat (the bridge that leads to the Paradise) if they do not show commitment to the Imam; the right of mediation is given to the Imams; the Imams will distribute the water of Al-Kawthar (a river in Paradise); the Imams will question their community on the Day of Judgment; the supporters of the Imams will not be questioned for their sins.  

The Imamate had not been left only as a religious matter in the Shia doctrine; it had also been very effective towards formalizing many resolutions of Fiqh. (Islamic jurisprudence, human understanding of Islamic Law) The following are further examples on this subject; making an addition to the adhan about Ali’s authority; considering the prostrating on a stone that is made of Karbala soil virtuous; allocating 3/5 of the hummus to the Imam; performing prayers behind, giving zakat to, or marrying with the Imam who does not accept the Imamate to be considered illicit; visiting the graves of the Imams to be considered as one of the most important ways of worshipping; forming a prayer literature common to the Imams; holding memorial ceremonies for the date of births and deaths of the Imams by attributing special importance on these days. 

Legitimacy of the Opinions About Imamate 

There is no clear evidence both in Quran and Sunnah about these claims of Shia about the Imams such as “appointment by Allah, innocence, knowledge of innate science, receiving information from angels, performing miracles, providing information from the invisible world”. Moreover, it is a fact that the claims about the first three Caliphs and the sahaba and their virtues contradict with many verses of Quran and Hadith. It is also important to state that there are no clear statements in the verses or Hadith, which had been provided as evidence, for the Imamate of Ali. Because just like Imam al-Ghazali had stated; had Allah’s Apostle (PBUH) wanted to appoint the succeeding Caliphate, he would have had explained so clearly for the avoidance of debates and controversy. Therefore, the sahaba would have had information and paid homage to the succeeding Caliph after the Prophet (PBUH). (Al-Ghazali, al-Iktisad fi’l-i’tikad, p 320-321) However, the fact that none of the sahaba had mentioned such narratives and the gathering of the prominent sahaba in Saqifah in order to elect a new Caliph clearly shows that there had been no appointment made.

The fact that Ali had not claimed the Caliphate or referred to any narration about this matter, and also paid homage to the three Caliphs invalidates the claim of Shia. When Ali was asked whether he would appoint Hasan as the Caliph or not, his following answer is another evidence that there is no divine appointment about this matter: “I will not advise nor reject.” (DIA, article “Constitution”) We content ourselves only with this due to the fact that there have been numerous studies based on verses of Quran, Hadith, and historical facts which refuted the claims of Shia about this matter.

Source of Shia’s Imamate Perception

It is not possible to base Shia’s opinions about the matter on the verses of Quran and Hadith; on the contrary, there is no doubt that these opinions are against many of the fundamental principles of religion. Thus, how was it possible for these opinions to gain existence? Researchers expressed many opinions about this matter.

Islamic historians such as Ibn Hazm and Al-Maqrizi explained that Shia came into existence because of Persians’ hostility towards Islam. According to them, Persians injected their opinions, which had the potential to hurt Islam, into Islam through Shia. Aside from the Islamic ulama, many orientalists also believe that Shia is based upon the Persians. According to Browne, who is one of these people, the marriage between Hussein and the daughter of the king of Persia after the conquest of Persia caused the Persia to find confidence and consolation by connecting with their children of the married couple.

Some researchers pointed out that the understanding of the Imamate, which is difficult to describe with regards to the verses of the Quran and Sunnah, is actually an extension of the culture of Sasania/Morocco and drew attention to the similarities between the office of the Shah in the Sasanian state tradition and the Imamate matter. It was also pointed out that the first Shiites are from Morocco and the fact that Moroccans have been adopting the Shia branch until today support this thesis.  

The similarities are indeed remarkable between the Imams and the kings due to the fact that they are viewed as holy in the eyes of the people; also the Moroccans are accustomed to being ruled by the kingdom and the line of succession within the kingdom. This is the reason it was asserted that the king-god perception in Persia turned into the holiness of the Imams in the new religion of the Persians. 

The fact that Imamate is descendable and the Imams being viewed as sinless were also correlated with Zoroastrianism which was the former religion of Iran. Because it had been accepted that the religious functionaries could manage to contact God directly in Zoroastrianism and it had been believed that they could not make any mistakes or stumble. Both the first period Shia scholars such as Al-Kashi and Al-Nawbakhti and also the modern researches such as Ehsan Elahi Zaheer and Wellhausen laid emphasis on Abdullah ibn Saba’ for the dawn of the Shia. According to these individuals, the person, who had rejected the Imamate of the first three caliphs, asserted the opinion of Ali about the Imamate and attributed this to the ideas of nas and appointment was Ibn Saba’. Al-Nawbakhti, Firaku’s-Shia, p.43; Ricalu’l-Kessi, p. 103; Ehsan Elahi Zaheer, Shia’s Perspective of Quran, Imamate, and Deception, p. 11-35)

In addition to these, there were some researchers mentioned the influence of Christian and Hindu ideas. It was asserted that the idea of attributing some qualifications to Ali and other Imams is parallel to Catholic Christianity. 

The Shia theory about the Imamate was formed throughout long centuries. They tried to interpret the Hadith from a different point of view in order to provide consistency and legitimacy to the theory, which was presented by them by the influence of social and political conditions and also other religions and cultures, and rendered the incidents happened throughout the first years of Islam in such a way that they supported their own point of views. Similarly, they tried to interpret some of the verses of the Quran and Hadith by focusing on their esoteric and signalized meanings without considering whether their virtual meanings would contravene or not for the sake of attributing these theories upon the verses of the Quran and Hadith. 

Guardianship of the Islamic Jurist

According to the Shia belief, the possibility of the Imams performing the Imamate of the state is abolished together with the disappearance of the twelfth and last Imam Mohammad al-Mahdi. They believe that the last Imam will return back to the earth and will bring justice to the world which will be filled with cruelty. Khomeini realized that the prolonging of the absence period for centuries generated an emptiness with regards to both religion and politics for the Shia, and finally discovered the “Welâyat-e Faqih” office which was the engine of the 1979 Iranian revolution. 

According to this, the most virtuous and wisest of the Islamic jurist was accepted as the regent and representer of the Mahdi during the absence of the Imam, and all of the authorities given to the Imam were granted to this individual including fatwa, provisions, hummus, and zakat, and also the other jurists were linked up to him. Thus, the perception of Imamate was put into practice, even though partially, in the shape of “sovereignty of the religious functionaries”. 

Conclusion

As these descriptions reveal, there are serious differences between the Caliphate theory of the Sunnis and the Imamate perception of Shia. The Caliph does not possess any superhuman powers according to the ulama of the followers of Sunnah. There is no holiness or unquestionable authority neither. Similarly, it cannot be mentioned that the Caliph is sinless or bears legislation authority. The Caliph does not receive legitimacy from Allah or the prophets but on the contrary, he receives it by the consent and approval of the community. Therefore, he is obliged to answer the people about all of his actions. He does not have any kind of immunity. He deserves to be dismissed when he loses the qualification of being just. He takes over his duty with an election and he is asked to provide advice for matters. 

However, when some of the opinions and practices are observed in the Islamic world, it is visible that the approaches and beliefs of Shia about the Imamate have an effect over the Sunni world. Especially when we analyze the discourses and practices of the political Islamists about Caliphate, politics, government, and state, it is not difficult to see the remarks of the Shiite opinions inside their minds. Khomeini and his opinions started to be important references for the political Islamists after the Iranian revolution, and they became good power supplies which formed their mental backgrounds.

Due to the fact that many of the recent political Islamists do not have sufficient knowledge about Islamic information and methodological background; their mentality became exposed to the ideas such as the holiness and greatness of the rulership, and therefore, they have drifted apart from a Quran and Sunnah centered political understanding. 

In conclusion, it is important to state that although the opinions that view the head of state as the “person who possesses all of the attributes of Allah”; assume touching this person is a way of worshipping; tell this person is the “eternal and everlasting ruler” could find support inside Shia, it is not possible to explain any of these with the Sunni political opinions. 

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YUKSEL CAYIROGLU
YUKSEL CAYIROGLU
Professor Yuksel Cayiroglu is a scholar focusing on Islamic Law and Religous Studies.
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