I feel it is high-time that I share, with the non-Arabic speaking world, a new and fresh approach to understanding Islamic doctrines, in order for us to come out of this dormant, repetitive and unproductive state as a Muslim collective.
One such topic is the concept of Imamah (divine vicegerency). I believe that the theological method does not come near to give this topic its due, and in terms of content misses the high status of the Quranic definition, which in turn has created more problems than it has solved. This is not to say that the theological scholars like Sheikh al-Tusi, al-Murtadha and al-Mufid have not contributed to the development of the Shi’a Imamaiyah school of thought. However, they, and their followers, were dragged into reacting to accusations instead of establishment of Quranic concepts, which has left the Muslim collective in a divided state for over 1000 years. Some of these Quranic concepts (within the framework of Imamah), that have been left virtually unaddressed are the responsibility of the Imam, his knowledge, infallibility and divine appointment/selection.
The other (non-Shi’a) schools have limited Imamah to the responsibility of political leadership, with ‘Shura’ council as the means to electing the Imam. The Shi’a school responded with the theory of ‘divine appointment/selection’ of the Imam, even though there is no similarity whatsoever between the two theories, since the purpose of ‘divine selection’ lies somewhere else. Likewise, the issue arose with the concept of infallibility, where the other schools believed that the Shi’a give the status of infallibility to the political ruler, whereas infallibility applies to the (divinely appointed) Imam exclusively. This difference in understand has led the Sunni school to believe that the Shi’a have abandoned the condition of infallibility during the ‘greater occultation’ (of the 12th and final infallible Imam).
What I will try to cover in this series of posts, is to establish the Quranic view of the concept of Imamah, which gives 4 complete roles to the Imam, of which is the juristic role (in the holistic sense of explaining doctrines, ethics and that which is permissible and what is not, i.e. to explain the entire Quran), which requires infallibility, therefore making infallibility a necessary condition for the Imam to perform his duties and responsibilities, and not a condition for political leadership. Leadership is one of the responsibilities of the infallible Imam when he is alive and visible to his followers. Therefore the Shi’a school has not abandoned the condition of infallibility during the ‘greater occultation’, and the role of divine appointment is to reveal the infallible Imam and not the political ruler.
The same applies to the knowledge of the Imam, which is considered, along with infallibility, to be of fundamental importance to establishing a complete picture to the concept of Quranic Imamah. These two topics are so vast and deep, that even some Shi’a scholars and their adherents find difficulty in accepting. As for the Sunni school, they see no need for a religious political leader to possess any special knowledge (of the past, present and future), or the absolute infallibility the Shi’a school finds necessary.
Aspects of the new approach
The concept of Imamah according to the Quranic definition, begins by differentiating between ‘General Imamah’ and ‘Specific Imamah’, similar to the methodology used to differentiate between Prophethood as a concept (General Prophethood – the necessity of humanity for Prophets, its conditions and responsibilities, the necessity for infallibility of Prophets, miracles, etc) and the physical real life embodiment of this divine position (Specific Prophethood -who are the Prophets? what are the surrounding socio-political conditions during his mission? what is his miracle? why this particular miracle? etc).
The same method is applied when establishing the concept of Imamah as defined by the Quran (it’s the least we should do if we consider Imamah to be one of the 5 fundamental doctrines of the Shi’a sect). Similar questions must be asked in 2 steps: Is the Imam divinely appointed or elected by the people? Are infallibility and special knowledge necessary? Is Imamah continuous or temporary? Amongst other fundamental topics that define the general understanding of Imamah. Similarly, specific Imamah specifies who the Imams are, their specific characteristics, etc.
In this series, I will focus on establishing the general concept of Imamah according to the Quran, by tackling the following key features: infallibility, divine appointment/selection, continuity, and special knowledge. As for the responsibilities of the Imam, they are: the existential role, the juristic role of religious emulation, political leadership, and the ethical role model.
These features and responsibilities have been the focus of dispute between the two main schools of thought in Islam to this day, which I will detail and clarify in the next post, insha’Allah.