Leadership (Imamate)

What does Imamate Mean?

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 Difference between Imams and Prophets

The followings are the differences between Imams and prophets:

  1. The prophets have brought us the religion, its axioms and God’s commandments by the means of revelation they received from God, whereas Imams protect the religion against any kind of deviation or distortion and are responsible for 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.
  2. 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.

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The Status of Imamate

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 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.

The Necessity of Imamate

In the religion of Islam, Imamate is a position that is necessary according to the following rationales:

  • The Grace of God

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.

  • Protection of the Religion against Distortion
  • Training Talented Human Souls

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.

  • Continuity of the Religion

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.

  • Being Living Role Models for People to Follow
  • Strengthening the Rational Laws

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 [1].

  • Divine Wisdom    

God has a purpose for his actions and since He is absolute perfection, the ultimate purpose of His divine action is creating human being and the aim of human creation is his perfection, the best example of whom are Imams. Furthermore, human is the most noble of all creatures and Imams are the most noble 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.

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Imamate in Quran

The importance of Imamate is clearly stated in this verse of 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 Completion of the Religion

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 the Religion

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), 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.

Who are Imams?

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:

(1) 'Ali ibn Abi Talib;

(2) Hasan ibn 'Ali;

(3) Husayn ibn 'Ali;

(4) 'Ali ibn Husayn;

(5) Muhammad ibn 'Ali;

(6) Ja'far ibn Muhammad;

(7) Musa ibn Ja'far;

(8) 'Ali ibn Musa;

(9) Muhammad ibn 'Ali;

(10) 'Ali ibn Muhammad;

(11) Hasan ibn 'Ali; and

(12) al-Mahdi.

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.

Conclusion

So the concept of Imamate, rooted in the revelation of God, is approved in important verses of Quran, and what’s more it is rational 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.

 

References:

[1]. http://islamquest.net/en/archive/question/7913.