Imamat literally means leadership. According to the Shiite doctrine, Imamat is a divine leadership for the political and religious affairs of the Islamic Ummah. It is a divine office, for the Imams, similar to the Prophets, are chosen by Allah.
The leadership of the Islamic Ummah after the Prophet of Islam is one of the most important and controversial issues in Islam. The biggest dispute amongst Muslims has been the dispute over the issue of Imamat. In the Shi'a doctrine, Imamat is one of the five fundamental principles of Islam. The Shiites hold that Allah instructed the Prophet of Islam (P) to appoint 12 Imams, beginning with Imam Ali and ending with Imam Mahdi, as his successors.
The Shiites believe the issue of Imamat, like that of the Prophets, is beyond the choice of people. They hold that an Imam is an infallible person appointed by an infallible Prophet to safeguard the mission of the Prophet. According to this doctrine, the Imam is undertaking all the roles of the prophets with the exception of receiving the Divine Message through revelation.
The Roles of the Prophets
On principle, the Holy Prophet had three roles:
The Messenger of Allah to deliver the Divine Message and explain it to them thoroughly.
The Judge to resolve the disputes.
The Political Leader of the Islamic Ummah.
All Muslims of different sects agree upon the above roles of the Prophet. They also agree that all of the above roles were granted to him by Allah and people had no input in that regard.
The Shiites confirm all the above roles are also given by God to the 12 infallible Imams, with the exception of delivering the Message of Allah in the sense of receiving any revelation.
To this end, the Imams are appointed by the Prophet as the true explainers of the Quran, the Judges and the Leaders of the Islamic Ummah.
Did the Prophet Appoint Anyone?
Al-Masoudi, the famous historian, narrated that all the previous Prophets had successors. Seth succeeded Adam, Ishmael succeeded Abraham, Joseph succeeded Jacob, Aaron and then Joshua succeeded Moses. Simon succeeded Jesus. Who succeeded the Prophet Muhammad in the matter of leading and guiding the Ummah after the demise of the Prophet (P)?
It is an indisputable fact that Abu-Bakr appointed Omar to succeed him (Sahih Muslim p.1455) and so did Omar for Othman, although indirectly. Similarly, Mo'awiya appointed his vicious son; Yazid out of his concern for the Ummah of the Prophet (P)! Then is it possible that the Prophet of Islam (P) had no concern about the future of his Ummah?!
Whenever the Prophet (P) left Madina he used to appoint someone to be in charge of the affairs of Muslims. For instance, He appointed Imam Ali (a.s) when he left Madina for the Battle of Tabouk ((Bukhari 4:1602). He was also appointing leaders for different tribes and towns such as Ta'ef, Yemen, etc. Is it possible that he did not appoint any leader for the Ummah to succeed him after his demise?!
Surely, he did appoint a successor and that was none other than Imam Ali (a.s).
The Shia' provide three different proofs for this belief:
The Holy Quran: There are a number of Ayat in the Holy Quran which prove the doctrine of Imamat as a divine selection:
a. “Verily, your guardian is (none else but) God and His Messenger (Muhammad) and those who believe, those who establish Prayers and pay the charity while they be (even) bowing down (in Prayers).” 5: 55
The commentators of the Quran unanimously agreed that the Ayah was revealed to the Prophet regarding Imam Ali, that whilst he was in Prayers, he offered his ring to a beggar.
b. “O Messenger! Proclaim what has been sent to you from your Lord, and if you did not, then (it will be as if)
you would not have fulfilled His message.” 5:67
The Ayah under consideration is one of the most powerful Ayat proving the Imamat of Imam Ali as the successor of the Prophet, and hence, I would like to draw your attention to the following main notes:
Chapter five of the Quran is the last chapter revealed to the Prophet of Islam. Therefore, its rules are not subject to any change or alteration.
The Ayah seems to be regarding the most important issue in Islam, that if not delivered to the people, the whole message of Islam is not delivered.
‘Al-Ghadir’, written by the Late Amini, is a masterpiece in 11 volumes which deals thoroughly with the above Ayah. The author has collected the quotation of more than 100 companions of the Prophet testifying that the Ayah had been revealed on the occasion of Ghadir during which the Prophet appointed Imam Ali as his Successor.
2. The Hadith: Hadith, or the words of the Prophet, is the second proof of Shiites that Imamat is a divine appointment and not an election. There are so many Hadiths from which the leadership of Imam Ali as appointed by the Prophet can be proven. The following are a few of many:
a. Hadith of Welayat: Abu-Es-Haq in his Commentary of the Quran quoted from Abu-Dhar that:
“One day a poor person came to the Mosque asking for help. Nobody helped him except Ali Ibn Abu Talib. Although he was praying, he did not hesitate to help the poor person. He pointed at his ring offering it to the poor man. The man accepted the ring and pulled it off of Ali’s finger. Upon that, the Prophet raised up his hands and said: ‘O my Lord! Increase my tolerance, ease my task for me... and give me a Minister from my family, Ali, my brother.’ ” As soon as the Prophet finished his supplication, the angel Gabriel descended to the Prophet with Ayah 55 of Chapter 5 of the Quran as mentioned above.
b. Hadith of Ghadir: The Hadith is related to the second Ayah mentioned above. The Aya was revealed on the 18th of Thil-Hajjah in a place called Ghadir of Khom.
The Prophet performed his pilgrimage to Hajj which happened to be his final Hajj performance in the year 9 AH. On the way back from Mecca, whilst being followed by hundreds of Muslim pilgrims, Gabriel came to him with Ayah 67 of Chapter 5.
Upon the revelation, the Prophet ordered the caravans to stop around a pool named Ghadir of Khom. It was announced that the Prophet had a very important message to deliver. The crowd surrounded the Prophet and prepared to listen to his sermon.
The Messenger of God delivered a sermon pointing out many important issues.
When the sermon was nearly over he asked people if the Prophet’s guardianship on them is more than that of themselves? “Of course”, cried the crowd. Then the Prophet raised up the hand of Ali Ibn Abu Talib saying: “Whoever I am his/her master, this Ali is his/her master. O God! Love those who love him, and have enmity on those who have enmity on him. Help those who will help him and leave alone those who will leave him alone..”
After the sermon was over, the Prophet asked people to come and greet Imam Ali as ‘The Commander of the Believers’. Abu Bakr and Omar were among the first who came to Ali and greeted him saying: ‘Congratulations Ali! You’ve become our Master and the Master of the Believers’.
Unique Qualifications of the Imams
Surely, when Allah selects one of His devotees as a Prophet or the successor of a Prophet, He only so chooses because of their unique qualifications. " (Allah) said: My Covenant includes not the Zalimeen." [2:124] No one in the world could be compared with the unique qualifications that God bestowed upon the pure Family of the Prophet. The following are some examples of the precedence of Imam Ali (a.s) over all other companions of the Prophet (P):
Faith: "Is then he who is a believer like him who is a Fasiq (disbeliever)? Not equal are they." [32:18]
Imam Ali (a.s) never prostrated before any idol whilst other prominent companions indisputably have been all worshipping idols sometimes in their lives.
2. Knowledge: "Say: Are those who know equal to those who know not?"[39:9]
Imam Ali (a.s) was the Gate of the City of the Prophetic knowledge. Other companions would often make mistakes when it came to Islamic rulings, or did not know the meaning of Qur'anic terminology.
3. Jihad: "Allah has preferred in grades those who strive hard and fight with their wealth and their lives above those who sit." [4:95]
Indisputably again, Imam Ali (a.s) was the bravest knight of Islam in all the battles. Imam Ali (a.s) was the one "who would sell his life seeking the Pleasure of God" [2:207] by sleeping in the bed of the Prophet (P). During the battle of Ohod, Imam Ali (a.s) was among the very few people who stood fast around the Prophet (P) whilst other prominent companions fled the battlefield. The successful combat of Imam Ali (a.s) against Amr in the battle of Ahzab was equal to the worshipping of mankind and the jinn.
The Main Shi'a Beliefs in Imamat
1. The Twelve Imams
Shi'a believe the true successors of Prophet Muhammad (P) are twelve Imams of Ahlul-Bayt (a.s). They are: Imam Ali, Imam Hasan, Imam Husain, Imam Sajjad, Imam Baqir, Imam Sadiq, Imam Kadhem, Imam Redha, Imam Jawad, Imam Hadi, Imam Askari and Imam Mahdi (a.s).
In about 270 Hadith from the Shi'a and Sunni sources it is narrated from the Prophet of Islam (P) to have said: "The Imams will be twelve according to the number of the Twelve Leaders of Bani-Israel."
For instance, Salman al-Farsi (r) narrated from the Prophet (P): "The Imams after me are according to the number of the Princes of Israelites and they were twelve." Then the Prophet (P) put his hand on Husain (a.s) and said: "There will be nine from his offspring and the ninth is their Mahdi who will spread justice on earth as it is filled up with injustice and oppression, so vow to their enemies." [al-Majlesi, Beharul-Anwaar, vol. 36 p.290]
2. Infallibility of the Twelve Imams and Fatima (a.s)
The Shi'a believe in 14 infallible people, i.e. Prophet Muhammad (P), Fatima al-Zahra, his daughter, and the twelve Imams. One of the proofs for their infallibility is Ayah 33 of Surah al-Ahzab (33).
Most Sunni scholars by contrast suggest that the Ayah includes the wives of the Prophet as part of the 'Family of the House.' Their main reasons are firstly the fact that the Ayah under consideration is amidst the Ayah that is dealing with the wives of the Prophet (P), and secondly, they rely on a Hadith that is allegedly narrated from Ekrema saying: "It is meant for the wives of the Prophet (P)."
Ekrema was inclined towards al-Khawarej; a fanatic military group opposing Imam Ali (a.s). The experts in narratology have also regarded him as a "liar".
Moreover, Muslim in his Sahih [vol4. p.1873, 1874] has excluded the wives of the Prophet (P). Even the wives of the Prophet (P) themselves have confessed in many narrations that they were not included in that special meaning of the 'Family of the Household'.
Believing in al-Mahdi as the last saviour from the offspring of the Prophet (P) is quite unanimously accepted by all Muslims. There are about 400 Hadith in the Sunni books of Hadith confirming the coming of al-Mahdi. The main difference between the Sunni and the Shi'a about Mahdi is that the Shi'a, unlike the Sunnis, believe that Imam Mahdi is -by the Leave of God - alive. He was born in the year 255 AH and his father was the eleventh Imam; Imam Askari. This concept is compatible with the concept of the Twelve Imams as well as the unanimously accepted Hadith "Whoever dies not knowing the Imam of his/her time has died the death of Jahiliyah (polytheism)."
4. Seeking Help (al-Tawassul) and Intercession (al-Shafa'a)
Al-Tawassul, or seeking help, means to seek the help of God through the means He has introduced and allowed us to utilize. Allah; the Almighty states in the Quran: "O you who believe! Be pious and ask the means of approach to Him." [5:35]
Al-Shafa'a, or intercession, also means to seek the intercession of those to whom Allah - due to their exalted status - has granted the power to intercede; such as the Prophet of Islam (P) and his infallible successors. The Holy Quran, whilst rejecting the intercession of the idols, confirms the intercession of those whom Allah has allowed them to intercede: "On that Day no intercession shall avail, except the one for whom the Most Gracious (Allah) has given permission and whose word is acceptable to Him." [20:109]
Apart from the Wahabi sect, the absolute majority of Muslims believe in the concept of al-Tawassul and al-Shafa'a.