One of the principles of Muslims (Shia Islam) is Imamate which means leadership and is a universal authority over people’s religious and worldly affairs. Imams are religious experts who are consciously and willingly infallible and perfect leaders who provide believers with Islamic teachings and laws to help them reach prosperity and perfection.
The followings are the differences between Imams and prophets:
The prophets have brought us the religion, its axioms, and God’s commandments using revelation they received from God, whereas Imams protect the religion against any kind of deviation or distortion and are responsible for the performance of God’s commandments.
In other words, prophets show us the right way towards the divine source, i.e., God, but Imams guide us through this path step by step until we reach it. Apart from the necessity that the Prophet’s path should be known, there have to be leaders (Imams) who are perfect themselves and can teach people and stimulate their energy to help them realize their full potential at any time.
The second difference is that prophets had direct communication with God, and God’s commands were revealed to them, but Imams have not been direct receivers of God’s message; rather, they got it from prophets, and at times, they were supposed to interpret and update that message.
However, whatever roles the prophets had, have been all transferred to Imams. Moreover, our major prophets were Imams, too; they were also responsible for the protection of God’s religion as well as performing His orders in the society and had significant roles in guiding people.
As mentioned above, not every prophet was Imam, nor did every one of them have the opportunity to expand and interpret the commandments they received from God. There are two important examples of the greatest prophets that were also Imams; Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and Prophet Abraham.
What the Quran says about Abraham is that he was tried by God with certain commandments which he fulfilled (2:124). His final test was to slay his son - Ishmael- who was born to him when he had reached his old age. After they both submitted to the command of God and Abraham showed his willingness to sacrifice all his belongings for Him, God asked him to stop, for He wanted to see his sheer submission, not sacrificing his son. So Abraham had passed the stages of prophethood and a lot of exams when he reached the status of Imamate and God appointed him as the leader of humanity:
“[Allah] said, I am making you the Imam of mankind ” (2:124).
This dignity was also given to our last prophet -Muhammad (PBUH) - who conveyed the message of God at the beginning of his mission and in the meantime he carried on teaching people and leading them to the right path.
In the religion of Islam, Imamate is a position that is necessary according to the following rationales:
According to Shia viewpoints, Imamate is proved to be the grace of God (Lutf), which is one of His attributes defined as ‘beneficence’ or ‘kindness’ that would help to bring His creatures nearer to His obedience and facilitate their moral rectitude. In fact, that is the grace of God that requires Him to appoint Imams to keep people away from God’s disobedience.
People are different in obtaining awareness; some are capable of finding the right path, some are not; Imams help both groups to find their way through perfection.
23 years of preaching did not give Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) the opportunity to teach people Islamic laws, thoughts, and beliefs completely. So, there had to be perfect people, trained by the prophet to give humans all the Islamic teachings and to guarantee the endurance of religion.
Prophets are necessary to strengthen the rational knowledge of humans by their words. Although people can rationally understand the majority of realities about religious principles, there are still uncertainties in their hearts which can prevent them from carrying out such principles wholeheartedly.
However, when these rational perceptions are strengthened by prophetic words then all of these doubts and distrusts would be obliterated, and humans can approach their sacred goals. There are some affairs whereby the common sense of human beings cannot identify their advantages and disadvantages.
In such cases, people should resort to religious leaders to help them distinguish the good from what is not. Many things can be useful, and some others can be harmful. Before ascertaining which is which, human beings are not able to distinguish between the good and the bad purely by relying on their intellectual power. Consequently, they feel the need for someone who can clarify these qualities, and this is something which is only within the power of religious leaders who are connected to the divine through revelation .
God has a purpose for his actions, and since He is absolute perfection, the ultimate purpose of His divine action is creating the human being, and the aim of human creation is his perfection, the best example of whom are Imams. Furthermore, the human is the noblest of all creatures and Imams are the noblest of them who reach perfection before anyone else on earth. In other words, life, existence, knowledge, power, and beauty cannot be given to or obtained by the other creatures before they are manifested in perfect beings, Imams.
The importance of Imamate is clearly stated in this verse of the Quran:
“Today I have perfected your religion for you, and I have completed My blessing upon you, and I have approved Islam as your religion” (5:3).
Complete vs. Perfect
According to this verse, Imamate is what through which God has perfected His religion and completed His favor. Here we need to see the difference between perfect and complete:
The religion is considered complete only if it includes all the necessary constituent parts. Perfect versus incomplete, however, has a different meaning. A complete compound object can potentially turn to something it is capable of; that is one can change and pass through the stages of perfection until they reach it and as long as they have not attained that very last stage, they are still incomplete.
The religion of Islam gets completed when God’s commandments (favors) like praying (Salat), fasting (Sawm), Zakat, Khums, etc. are all sent to us. Imamate completes the religion, for it is the last favor sent to human.
The perfection of Islam, though, concerns the truth of this religion, not the exoteric laws and commands. One cannot fully understand the reality of Islamic doctrines, i.e., monotheism (Tawhid), prophethood (Nubuwwah), the afterlife (Ma’ad), alone without Imams. Therefore, Imamate, the last stage of human evolution, improves the quality of faith without which the religion cannot reach its perfection.
As mentioned before, Imamate is the last grace of God upon us which has to exist so as to prove God’s perfection. This cannot be endowed unless Imams are infallible and therefore this status of them needs to be text-oriented; that is their selection by God is stated in Quran and Hadith and asserted by Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and each of his twelve successors:
God has never left the earth devoid of an Imam; Imam Mahdi is our current Imam and the ultimate savior of humankind who has been living in occultation since 874 AD and will return with Christ to fill the earth with peace and justice.
So the concept of Imamate, rooted in the revelation of God, is approved in important verses of the Quran, and what’s more, it is rationally based on the reasons mentioned above. God has created humans to give them the opportunity to go through the right path to attain eternal bliss and perfection. That is why He has appointed for us infallible Imams as successors of the last prophet -Muhammad (PBUH) - to help us achieve this purpose.
The foundation of each person’s life is the faith they have in what they believe. Like other belief systems, there are some “ Islamic axioms”- basic principles or self-evident truths- whose acceptance is regarded as the leading entry to this religion.
Unlike Saint Augustine’s [i] claim that says: “I believe in order to understand,” which shows a lack of reason in at least some sects of Christianity, in Islamic reasoning, rational thinking is a priori and prerequisite for the realization of faith.
In Islam, faith is nothing beyond human’s reason and understanding; in other words, the axioms of this religion are the fundamental principles that are rational by themselves and can be ascertained by people’s common sense. So stepping into the stage of this faith depends on the submission that is gained through preliminary investigation of its axioms.
Additionally, faith is not accepted in Islam unless these doctrines are freely investigated and understood by every individual either commonsensically or intellectually, so Imitation is not permitted at this stage. Consequently, the basic principles or doctrines of Islam are defined as axioms that have to be testified on the verge of converting to Islam.
One might wonder what these axioms are. The most certain and evident of them are monotheism (Tawhid), prophethood (Nubuwwah) and the afterlife (Ma'ad), which are innate in human’s nature separately. ‘Tawhid’ or monotheism is the most fundamental religious knowledge that holds God exists, is The Only One and independent of the entire creation. It declares the unity and uniqueness of God as the only creator and sustainer of the universe.
The realization of this concept (the existence and oneness of God) is before the other two (prophethood and afterlife), that is its acceptance leads to the affirmation of them rationally.
Prophethood is God's blessing and favor that is bestowed on an individual chosen by Him to convey His message. Every prophet states that all he receives is from Allah and for the well-being of humanity. He confirms what was revealed before him and what may be revealed by a future prophet.
Thus the revealed message is always the same in essence and purpose, and it cannot deviate from prior or future revelations. Prophets are needed for conveying God's instructions and guidance to humankind. Without this knowledge, we would be unable to answer the fundamental questions of our existence either here in this world or the world that is to come.
Information about the afterlife, as the third fundamental axiom in Islamic teaching, is provided by the prophets whose truth we have testified. They have told us to have faith in the continued existence of human beings after death and that there will be a day of judgment when all humans will be held accountable for their actions and divided between the eternal destinations of Paradise and Hell.
In brief, Islam is the religion of rational thinking that encourages its followers to individually investigate and question the truth of its doctrines before accepting them, to reach firm belief through common sense or intellect; this makes them submit to God’s commands willingly and contently.
[i]. An early Christian theologian and philosopher.
Now that we have gone through the axiom of monotheism and accepted it as a logical and rational principle, we should note that this belief is much more complicated than it seems. In order to reach a firm belief in the existence of God and His Oneness, one has to follow each of its stages.
These degrees include “unity of the essence of Allah”, “unity of the attributes of Allah”, “unity in what Allah does” and “unity in worship”. The first three of these belong to the realm of theoretical monotheism, while the last one is among practical monotheism. Here we will have a brief look at each of these steps.
This stage of monotheism is defined as believing that God is One and Unique in His essence. The very first thing that one assumes regarding Allah is that of His Self-dependence; He is a being who is not dependent on any other beings in any way, while everything depends on Him and seeks His help.
Secondly, one has to believe in His Creatorship; that He is the creator and the ultimate source of all the existing things, all things are from Him, and He is not from anything. Accordingly, He is called the First Cause. The unity of essence, thus, means that this being is not multiplicable, and there is nothing like it. Since the self-existing truth is one, then this world has only one source and one end; it has neither originated from various sources nor will return to various ones, the whole universe has one center, one pole, and orbit.
It is defined as the recognition that the essence and the attributes of Allah are identical and that His various attributes are not separate from each other. While the Unity, in essence, refers to God’s Oneness, denying the existence of any peer or like for Him, the Unity in attributes means the negation of any kind of multiplicity or plurality within His essence.
All the attributes implying perfection and beauty belong to Him, and they are not at all separate from Him. The separation of the essence from the attributes and their separation from each other are the characteristics of a limited being, while God is infinite and such characteristics cannot be ascribed to Him. Accordingly, Allah has attributes which are unlimited – like His own self – and identical with His essence.
The Unity of His work is to recognize that the world with all its systems is the work of Allah alone and has originated from His will only. Nothing in this world has occurred on its account and independent from God; every agent, cause or power owes its existence and effect to Him.
As He has no partner in His essence, He has no peer in what He does either. While human beings, as one of these agents and causes, have control over their own actions and can influence their destiny, they are not at all out of God’s will and supervision; otherwise, we should consider them as God’s partners, which will ultimately deny God’s unity in essence.
Reaching this stage is when one only worships God and has prepared himself for praying Allah, the One. Based on Islamic doctrine, the act of worship has its own degrees, the clearest of which is the performance of the rites for Allah’s glorification and exaltation.
According to Holy Quran, worship is not limited to the actual performance of prayer but includes any form of spiritual orientation and idealization; the person whose purpose and motivation in life only satisfies his own whim has, in fact, led his spiritual direction toward it and thus worshiped it instead of God. So, the unity in worship is to see Allah as the only one who is fit to be worshiped and obeyed unconditionally and regard Him as the only purpose and direction of one’s conduct.
The first three degrees are all theoretical and a matter of creed - they should be recognized and acknowledged, and require rational thinking- while the fourth one is practical and a necessity for all of our actions.
Moreover, theoretical monotheism gives an insight to perfection while practical monotheism is the actual movement toward it; it is only seeing God’s Oneness and finding knowledge about it while practical monotheism is experiencing and feeling these beliefs tangibly in all walks of life.
In other words, theoretical monotheism provides the basis and foundation of practical monotheism; on the other hand, without bringing those beliefs into action, they would become deficient and imperfect.