The intellectual criteria of a Marja’ – Part 2 – Understanding Judicial Laws vs Understanding Religion

When we say that the problem of tradition and modernity can be solved through the process of ijtihad – bearing in mind that human development and modernisation comprises all aspects of life, including natural and intellectual dimensions – it is because the quranic meaning of fiqh is broader and more comprehensive than the mere judicial laws governing the relationship between God and the human being (as is commonly understood by contemporary scholars and the religious seminaries as a whole), but should also include the relationship between the human and his fellow human, and the human and his surrounding environment. Quranically, fiqh is not what is written in the books of practical laws (risalah ‘amaliyah), but should address all issues and problems in our daily lives, both on a personal level and in society as a whole.

On a religious level, this comprehensiveness must therefore include all aspects of ones belief, of which doctrines (aqa’id) should be at the forefront of a mujtahid’s specialisation. Aspiring scholars should ask themselves: should there be ijtihad in theology, philosophy, morals, etc?

This brings us back to the verse in the last postلِّيَتَفَقَّهُوا فِي الدِّينِ (‘to obtain understanding in religion’), where the word ‘fiqh’ linguistically means ‘to arrive at an unknown (piece of knowledge) through a known (piece of knowledge), so it is more specific than knowledge.’ [1]; since knowledge can occur by merely standing in front of an object, where that object is imprinted as a mental image in the mind, which is a piece of knowledge gained by the individual without any effort.

So ‘obtaining understanding in religion’ by necessity means to obtain understanding in all aspects of religion (in the absolute sense [2]) in order to answer and deal with all contemporary issues faced by muslim communities around the world. However, this isn’t generally the case when one investigates the current seminary system, or what is generally understood the role of the mujtahid to be (unfortunately and to the detriment of this respected establishment, however don’t be fooled in thinking that this has always been the case..! [3]).

Narrations supporting the Quranic definition of ‘fiqh’

1) ‘When a true believer dies the angels and the parts of earth where he worshipped Allah weep because of his death. Also the doors of the heavens through which his good deeds had been taken up weep and it causes an irreparable damage in the Islamic system. It is because the true believing Fuqaha, people of proper understanding in religion and its laws are the strongholds of the Islamic system just as the fortress around a city is a stronghold for it.’ [4]

So, if someone specialises in one aspect of religion, like judicial laws dealing with an individuals relationship with God, does that make him a protector of Islam? In fact, he is but one part of a larger ‘fortress’ that is protecting Islam, and not the entire structure.

And this is why we need to be more specific on who we class to be a specialist in lesser fiqh (in the commonly understood sense of the word), and those experts or mujtahids in greater fiqh (in the more general sense of the word, which includes doctrines and akhlaq, etc), since we will rarely find someone who will encompass and be knowledgeable in all aspects of religion.

2) ‘The scholars are the heirs of the prophets,…’ [5]

It is evident that the role of the Prophets wasn’t limited to explaining the judicial laws, especially considering that only 10% (or less) of the Quran deals with such matters. So for those who wish to become heirs to the Holy Prophet (s) and his pure progeny (as), should think deeply about these narrations and the preceding quranic discussion before taking on such a heavy burden…! Yet how easy it is to spend 5-10 years studying laws dealing with purity of water and doubts in salat…!! And yet even with such a limited and narrow view of the word fiqh, we find dereliction in dealing with contemporary issues of muslim communities living in the west.

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[1] Al Mufradat (arabic lexicon of quranic words and their meanings), by Ragheb al-Isfahani, pg 642, under the root word (f q h).

[2] ‘Religion’ or ‘deen’, is quranically defined to mean that way of life that brings mankind happiness in this world with spiritual perfection in the herafter. (for further info see blog posts under ‘Philosophy of Religion’)

[3] One example of a traditional understanding of fiqh can be seen in the words of Imam  al-Ghazali and Sheikh al-Baha’i, who considered this contemporary definition of fiqh to be a new phenomenon unheard of in previous eras of scholarly work. Al Ghazali considered the word fiqh to mean the science of the hereafter and to understand the issues dealing with the soul and those deeds that harm it, and with the ability to understand the material world vis a vis other realms especially the hereafter. He uses the verse of warning (Al Tawbah:122) as evidence in this regard, since warning involves knowledge of those aspects of religion dealing with doctrines in general, and the hereafter in particular. (see Al Mahajah al Baydha’, by Faidh al Kashani, Vol1, pg81).

[4] Usool Al Kafi, Vol1, pg38, H3.

[5] Usool Al Kafi, Vol1, pg46, H5.

The intellectual criteria of a Marja’ – Part 1 – The Quranic meaning of ‘fiqh’

The Shia School prides itself in opening the door for ijtihad from the first days of Islam, but I will not dwell on its importance here and the evidence for its need to keep up with the changing times, since there is no disagreement on this aspect (although there are different views in defining ijtihad [1]). Shaheed Al Sadr says: ‘Ijtihad allows the muslims to apply islamic theory to daily life, since pracitcal application cannot happen until ijtihad defines the theory and its details.’ [2]

The differences in opinion arose with differing views on the role of the mujtahid and the extent of his responsibilities (although the responsibilites are clearly stated in the Quran and narrations as we’ll see below..).

Imam Khomeini’s view on Ijtihad: ‘We have limited ourselves to a small part of juristic laws, and left many aspects untouched and therefore many aspects of ijtihad remain strange to us.’ [3] He saw that the ijtihad being performed at the religious seminaries was not enough to tackle all the issues faced by the muslim nations, due to the wrong understanding of ijtihad and intellectual standstill due to the focus on the individual and not the society as a whole. The solution he proposed was: ‘Islam deals with all aspects of life, and gave corresponding laws for each (aspect).’

This is where the correct understanding of fiqh becomes critical in understanding the correct purpose of ijtihad and the correct role of the mujtahid. And, as always, to establish the correct meaning of any religious concept, we must go to the Quran:

وَمَا كَانَ الْمُؤْمِنُونَ لِيَنفِرُ‌وا كَافَّةً ۚ فَلَوْلَا نَفَرَ‌ مِن كُلِّ فِرْ‌قَةٍ مِّنْهُمْ طَائِفَةٌ لِّيَتَفَقَّهُوا فِي الدِّينِ وَلِيُنذِرُ‌وا قَوْمَهُمْ إِذَا رَ‌جَعُوا إِلَيْهِمْ لَعَلَّهُمْ يَحْذَرُ‌ونَ

‘And it does not beseem the believers that they should go forth all together; why should not then a company from every party from among them go forth that they may apply themselves to obtain understanding in religion, and that they may warn their people when they come back to them that they may be cautious?’ [4]

Before talking about the meaning of the word ‘fiqh’ or ‘tafaquh’ in this verse, another important phrase is ‘why should not’ (فَلَوْلَا), which is used as an exhortation to do a certain thing, in this case: ‘to obtain understanding in religion’, i.e. it is obligatory (for all or some) to obtain religious knowledge.

The verse then defines the role of those who obtained religious knowledge to be ‘that they may warn their people when they come back to them’, correlating understanding in religion with warning, deeming knowledge on its own to be insufficient without spreading it to those who lack it. But what does ‘when they come back to them’ mean? They must have gone somewhere to return to their people. It is evident, then, that migration of those tasked with obtaining knowledge and then returning to their people, having gathered all necessary information and experience, is fundamental to ‘warning’ them and providing themselves and others with the tools to counter any (intellectual) threat they might face.

Allamah al-Tabatabai’s view on the verse: ‘Hence it is clear that the intended meaning of ‘becoming learned’ (tafaquh) is to gain an understanding of all religious sciences, whether the roots of the religion or its branches, and not just the practical laws, which is the formal meaning of fiqh amongst religious people. The proof for this is first, to become learned in religion and second, and to warn their people… because they can only warn their people if they have an understanding of all aspects of the religion, including that which will occasion divine reward or punishment in the Hereafter.’ [5]

Knowledge in religion (tafaquh) in narrations

The narrations dealing with the importance of knowledge and the obligation of its acquisition are numerous, I will mention just one relevant to our discussion above:

Imam al-Sadiq (as) said: ‘Become learned in religion, for those who do not are desert dwellers (i.e. ignorant and lacking knowledge)’ [6]

The term ‘desert dwellers’ should not be taken as an insult, as the Quran has given a clear definition for this group in society:

قَالَتِ الْأَعْرَ‌ابُ آمَنَّا ۖ قُل لَّمْ تُؤْمِنُوا وَلَـٰكِن قُولُوا أَسْلَمْنَا وَلَمَّا يَدْخُلِ الْإِيمَانُ فِي قُلُوبِكُمْ

‘The dwellers of the desert say: We believe. Say: You do not believe but say, We submit; and faith has not yet entered into your hearts..’ [7]

The desert dwellers are far removed from the centres of knowledge and culture, which will have an effect on their spiritual and behavioural conduct.

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[1] See: ‘Ijtihad: its meaning, sources, beginning and practice of ra’y’

[2] Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr: ‘Future directions of the Ijtihad movement’, Al Ghadeer magazine, Dec 1980.

[3] Imam Ruhollah Khomeini, ‘Islamic Government’, pg65.

[4] Al Tawbah:122

[5] Allamah Tabataba’i, Tafsir Al Mizan, Vol9, pg337.

[6] Usul al Kafi, Vol1, pg31, H6.

[7] Al Hujurat:14

The existential/cosmological dimension to the personality of the Imam

In the world of existence,  some things are a cause with specific effects on other things, like water (the cause) to quench the thirst (the effect) of a human being, and we can say that there exists an existential correlation between a cause and its effect. So, when we come to investigate the reality of the existential role of the Imam, we need to first investigate this correlation between causes and their effects, and to differentiate between ‘mentally posited’ (subjective) concepts and ‘existential (objective) ones.

‘Mentally posited’, or subjective, concepts like political leadership, vary with time, place, and human factors like the type of government and political systems in place, since it is the human population that decides who to elect and how. Populations can elect and overthrow a political leader/party/regime at a time (and method) of their choosing. The same applies to the concept of (subjective) ownership of consumer items like cars and private property, which can be transferred from one owner to the next with no limitations. There is no existential connection between the people and their leader, or a person and his house like that between a person and his eye-sight or the ability to move his/her arms. We are able to transplant body parts, but not the senses which utilize these body parts in order to function.

So the question is: has the infallible Imam been given a similar existential role in relation to the world of existence? If the answer is in the affirmative, and we are able to prove this existential dimension to the personality of the Imam, then it becomes self-evident that the political responsibility undertaken by the Imam is secondary to his existential role.

The theological scholars of the Sunni school, however, reduced the Imam’s responsibility to a single dimension, political leadership in the earthly realm (as mentioned in previous posts). This was the cause for the ‘frustration’ with their Shi’a counterparts with respect to this on-going dispute (the concept of Imamah), and that it (Imamah defined as political leadership) is out-of-date and debating it is a pointless exercise. Since the (Twelver Shi’a) 12th Imam is in occultation and therefore plays no role in people’s lives, so what’s the point in believing in his existence or his occultation if he cannot rule as leader of the Islamic nation? (We have refuted this fallacy in previous posts, and the refutation should be further clarified once the existential dimension of the Imam is demonstrated).

The theory behind the existential role of the Imam

Before we delve into this fascinating theory, we require some introductory points:

1) Mankind was created in this world for a reason and has itself a goal:

وَمَا خَلَقْتُ الْجِنَّ وَالْإِنسَ إِلَّا لِيَعْبُدُونِ

And I have not created the jinn and the men except that they should serve Me.                (Al Dhariyat:56)

which is to become servants of God through acts of worship. However, this goal is an intermediary station to the final one, which is to reach a state of ‘certainty’:

وَاعْبُدْ رَ‌بَّكَ حَتَّىٰ يَأْتِيَكَ الْيَقِينُ

And serve your Lord until there comes to you that which is certain. (Al Hijr:99)

This (certainty) is the most honourable goal a human being could attain, as is stated in the description of Prophet Ibrahim’s path to spiritual perfection:

وَكَذَٰلِكَ نُرِ‌ي إِبْرَ‌اهِيمَ مَلَكُوتَ السَّمَاوَاتِ وَالْأَرْ‌ضِ وَلِيَكُونَ مِنَ الْمُوقِنِينَ

And thus did We show Ibrahim the kingdom of the heavens and the earth and that he might be of those who are certain.(Al An’am:75)

And the goal of certainty is to reach nearness to Allah (swt) and the return to Him:

أَفَحَسِبْتُمْ أَنَّمَا خَلَقْنَاكُمْ عَبَثًا وَأَنَّكُمْ إِلَيْنَا لَا تُرْ‌جَعُونَ

What! did you then think that We had created you in vain and that you shall not be returned to Us? (Al Mu’minun:115)

يَا أَيُّهَا الْإِنسَانُ إِنَّكَ كَادِحٌ إِلَىٰ رَ‌بِّكَ كَدْحًا فَمُلَاقِيهِ

O man! surely you must strive (to attain) to your Lord, a hard striving until you meet Him. (Al Inshiqaq:6)

2) Mankind is not able to identify what perfections it needs to seek and attain solely relying on its senses and intellect, for both its worldly and other-worldly happiness. Nor what the shortest way to reach these perfections could be. This is where the role of the divine religions comes into play, which show us which perfections to follow (certainty in their belief in God through reaching nearness to Him), and the quickest and shortest routes to attain them (‘the straight path’). And since mankind is unable to establish these two requirements by itself, it is in need of divine guidance, in its different forms:

a. The first is the innate disposition, which every human being is born with (fitrah):

فَأَقِمْ وَجْهَكَ لِلدِّينِ حَنِيفًا ۚ فِطْرَ‌تَ اللَّـهِ الَّتِي فَطَرَ‌ النَّاسَ عَلَيْهَا ۚ لَا تَبْدِيلَ لِخَلْقِ اللَّـهِ ۚ ذَٰلِكَ الدِّينُ الْقَيِّمُ وَلَـٰكِنَّ أَكْثَرَ‌ النَّاسِ لَا يَعْلَمُونَ

Then set your face upright for religion in the right state- the nature (fitrah) made by Allah in which He has made men; there is no altering of Allah’s creation; that is the right religion, but most people do not know. (Al Rum:30)

and is a fixed divine reality:

سُنَّةَ اللَّـهِ فِي الَّذِينَ خَلَوْا مِن قَبْلُ ۖ وَلَن تَجِدَ لِسُنَّةِ اللَّـهِ تَبْدِيلًا

(Such has been) the course of Allah with respect to those who have gone before; and you shall not find any change in the course of Allah. (Al Ahzab:62)

فَلَن تَجِدَ لِسُنَّتِ اللَّـهِ تَبْدِيلًا ۖ وَلَن تَجِدَ لِسُنَّتِ اللَّـهِ تَحْوِيلًا

For you shall not find any alteration in the course of Allah; and you shall not find any change in the course of Allah. (Fatir:43)

However, this innate guidance does neither specify the perfections, nor the path to attain them. It gives mankind the desire and motivation to attain limitless degrees of virtues and knowledge.

b. The second is the legislative guidance, embodied by prophets and messengers carrying divine messages to show mankind the path towards their intended goals and happiness (nearness to God).

c. The third is existential guidance, which can be also defined to be ‘aiding the traveller towards his goal’, whereas the second type of guidance (showing the path), does not guarantee the traveller to reach his goal. This type of guidance does not allow for deviation, since there is a guarantee that the one guiding the individual will take him to his intended goal.

3) Everything has been created for mankind’s utilization:

اللَّـهُ الَّذِي خَلَقَ السَّمَاوَاتِ وَالْأَرْ‌ضَ وَأَنزَلَ مِنَ السَّمَاءِ مَاءً فَأَخْرَ‌جَ بِهِ مِنَ الثَّمَرَ‌اتِ رِ‌زْقًا لَّكُمْ ۖ وَسَخَّرَ‌ لَكُمُ الْفُلْكَ لِتَجْرِ‌يَ فِي الْبَحْرِ‌ بِأَمْرِ‌هِ ۖ وَسَخَّرَ‌ لَكُمُ الْأَنْهَارَ‌

Allah is He Who created the heavens and the earth and sent down water from the clouds, then brought forth with it fruits as a sustenance for you, and He has made the ships subservient to you, that they might run their course in the sea by His command, and He has made the rivers subservient to you.(Ibrahim:32)

وَسَخَّرَ‌ لَكُم مَّا فِي السَّمَاوَاتِ وَمَا فِي الْأَرْ‌ضِ جَمِيعًا مِّنْهُ ۚ إِنَّ فِي ذَٰلِكَ لَآيَاتٍ لِّقَوْمٍ يَتَفَكَّرُ‌ونَ

And He has made subservient to you whatsoever is in the heavens and whatsoever is in the earth, all, from Himself; most surely there are signs in this for a people who reflect.     (Al Jathiyah:13)

Some people think that this ‘gift to utilize’ is a privilege to humanity which they can exploit how they pleased. In fact, humanity’s abilities and intellect are the gifts given to them to utilise everything else that has been created in an intelligent and just manner. Therefore, the world is a responsibility on mankinds shoulders. We find in narrations that each part in our body has a right on us to treat it in the way God intended. So every blessing and gift given to us, has a corresponding responsibility attached to it. [1]

This is where the Quranic idea of ‘divine vicegerency’ becomes clear, since it means that mankind, as God’s representatives on Earth, have a divine responsibility towards all the things that have been created for them. Yet, they are able to refuse this responsibility as a result of their power of free will, and instead utilise these gifts in the path of evil and corruption instead of good and justice.

So, the Quranic system has promised the third type of (existential) guidance exclusively to the Imam. And the role of mankind is to follow in the footsteps of these 3 guidances towards divine closeness and its intended goal and perfection.

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[1] Wasa’el Al Shi’a, Vol. 15, Book of Jihad of the soul, pg.172; or the Book of Rights, by Imam Zain-ul Abideen (as).

The correct understanding of the Imam’s role

The Imam’s role, as laid out by the Quran, can be summed as follows:

1) To possess the religious authority and source of emulation, and the juristic dimension of clarifying the religious concepts like doctrines, ethics and laws. From this follows that he should be the only one to be obeyed and followed, and therefore his words and actions are on par with the words and actions of the Holy Prophet (s). [1]

2) It is evident that this role requires the Imam to be infallible to the same extent as the Holy Prophet (s) was (i.e. any speech or action that goes against the position of servitude towards God). So the requirement of infallibility is for conveying the religious concepts, and not to prove his ability to lead the people and manage their affairs, as the Sunni school (mis)understood.

3) And once their infallibility is proven, the philosophy of selection/appointment becomes clear, since it (infallibility) is a hidden quality and cannot be established through election and choice of the people, but through divine selection and appointment.

4) The above points do not remove the fact that the divine scripture and narrations indeed have given the political leadership to the Imam as well. [2]

5) The continuity of Imamah will become clear when I address the existential dimension of the Imam in later posts.

So the framework for these posts should be clear with respect to the role of Imamah to consist:

1) The existential role (takweeni)

2) The juristic/religious role (tashree’i)

3) The political leadership

4) The best moral/ethical example

Also, the fundamental aspects of Imamah can be summarised to be:

+ Infallibility

+ Divine selection/appointment

+ Continuity

+ Special knowledge acquired through non-conventional means

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[1] See Surah Al-Hashr:7 – وَمَا آتَاكُمُ الرَّ‌سُولُ فَخُذُوهُ وَمَا نَهَاكُمْ عَنْهُ فَانتَهُوا  – ‘And whatever the Messenger has given you – take; and what he has forbidden you – refrain from.’

[2] See Al-Ma’idah:3, 55 & 67 – 

الْيَوْمَ أَكْمَلْتُ لَكُمْ دِينَكُمْ وَأَتْمَمْتُ عَلَيْكُمْ نِعْمَتِي وَرَ‌ضِيتُ لَكُمُ الْإِسْلَامَ دِينًا – ‘This day I have perfected for you your religion and completed My favor upon you and have approved for you Islam as religion.’

إِنَّمَا وَلِيُّكُمُ اللَّـهُ وَرَ‌سُولُهُ وَالَّذِينَ آمَنُوا الَّذِينَ يُقِيمُونَ الصَّلَاةَ وَيُؤْتُونَ الزَّكَاةَ وَهُمْ رَ‌اكِعُونَ – ‘Only Allah is your Vali and His Apostle and those who believe, those who keep up prayers and pay the poor-rate while they bow.’

يَا أَيُّهَا الرَّ‌سُولُ بَلِّغْ مَا أُنزِلَ إِلَيْكَ مِن رَّ‌بِّكَ ۖ وَإِن لَّمْ تَفْعَلْ فَمَا بَلَّغْتَ رِ‌سَالَتَهُ – ‘O Apostle! deliver what has been revealed to you from your Lord; and if you do it not, then you have not delivered His message’

 

Imamah – Clarifying the source of dispute

The Sunni school of thought’s starting point for understanding the concept of Imamah is to give the title of Imam or Khalifah (Caliph, Viceroy) to the elected political leader of the Islamic state, whose responsibility lies in managing various aspects of the affairs of the Muslim populace. They arrived at this conclusion after (claiming) to have referred to the Quran and Hadith/Sunnah (Prophetic narrations), without having found a clear and explicit statement defining the role of the successor of the Holy Prophet (s) (we will not judge or challenge the truth of their claim here), the method of his election/appointment, and his characteristics.

Therefore, the logical step (in their view) was to refer to actual events in the post-Prophetic era on the method of electing a leader (after arriving to the conclusion that a political vacuum is detrimental to the unity and strength of the young Islamic state). Hence, Shura council was adopted as one method, then, the first incumbent (who was elected), nominated and appointed his own successor. In the third instance, the second incumbent (who was nominated), appointed a committee of six men and charged them with the duty of selecting one out of themselves as the future leader of the Muslim community.

Secondly, since political leadersip is a ‘matter of the people’, it becomes logical that the people elect their leader and manage its own affairs (it’s human nature to reject the idea of a leader being appointed without them having a say in the matter). They usually point to this Quranic verse as evidence to their logic: ‘… and their rule is to take counsel among themselves, … ‘ (al-Shura:38). This in turn leads to the temporary nature of such an Imamah, since the arrival of the Imam to power relies on his election by the people (their pledge of allegiance to him, in the old terminology), if they chose to do so.

Thirdly, when the scholars of that school came to establish the necessary characteristics of the Imam, they did not find any need for infallibility, and settled for the virtue of justice in the fiqhi (juristic) sense. And with respect to his knowledge, it would suffice for him to possess knowledge that will allow him to perform his political duties.   

So we end up with the following aspects of the Sunni theory of Imamah:

1) it is a worldly matter of political leadership

2) it achieved through popular election or through a council of a few men

3) it is not continuous and is only established if the populace chooses to do so

4) it only requires the individual to possess the commonly understood virtue of justice, and not infallibility.

The consequences of this understanding of Imamah

We find that the theological method in the Shia school has not, in the most case, attempted to resolve the point of contention with the Sunni school on the concept of Imamah. Instead, it allowed itself to get dragged into a never-ending argument and counter-argument dispute, with the Shi’a scholars doing most of the counter-arguing.

Some see this as a normal debate between schools of thought, each with their own opinion on a fundamental religious matter. However, it soon dawned on them that the responsibilities of the Imam as a political leader, are not in harmony with the conditions and characteristics assigned to him by the Shi’a school, considering these conditions to be far wider in scope than required by a political leadership.

This has led to thinkers and some scholars to reject the theory of selection in Imamah. Others started to limit infallibility to a limited sphere, and unnecessary beyond it. Another group rejected infallibility in its entirety, arguing that those who advocate such a theory abandoned it during the greater occultation, allowing fallible leaders to take charge as Imams of the Muslim nation. They consider justice to be a sufficient personal quality for the Imam to do his job as required by Islamic law (some have dropped this requirement as well..).

Others consider this dispute of leadership after the death of the Prophet to be a pointless historic dispute. And finally, we need to address those who question the value of a hidden Imam, who is not able to guide and lead his followers.

The reader needs to bear in mind at all times when dealing with the above criticisms, that they come as a direct consequence of the Sunni understanding of Imamah, which is limited to political leadership.

An alternative approach

When one studies the Quran and the undisputed narrations of the Holy Prophet (s) and his Pure Progeny (as), it becomes evident that the concept of Imamah, as understood by the Shi’a school, differs fundamentally and essentially to the Sunni understanding. The school of Ahlul Bayt (as) believes that the Quranic understanding of this concept gives the Imam roles that are far more important and requiring more stringent conditions, taking it out of the fold of branches of religion (politics, the social sciences and management of the affairs of the people, etc), and into the fundamental doctrines of faith. The Shi’a school considers Imamah to have two dimensions: the first being the juristic role (tashree’i), which necessitates infallibility, and the second being the existential (takweeni) role, or ‘wilayah’ (i.e. authority over the world of existence), which necessitates special knowledge not acquired through conventional means. And this is what martyr Mutahhari calls ‘the height of Shi’a understanding’ of the concept of Imamah. [1]

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[1] Imamah, by Martyr Murtadha Mutahhari, pg 44-50.

Imamah in the Quran – A New Approach

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.

 

Imamah in the Quran

I will be posting a series of lectures related to Imamah (divine vicegerency, also known as the Ibrahamic Imamah) as defined in the Holy Quran. These will be mainly translations from the following sources:

1) Al Mizan fi Tafsir al Quran, by Allamah Tabataba’i (qs)

2) Hawza seminary lecture series of Imamah, by Seyyed Kamal Al Haydari

3) Al ‘Isma (Infallibility), by Seyyed Kamal Al Haydari

4) ‘Ilm al Imam (Knowledge of the Imam), by Seyyed Kamal Al Haydari