WiIaya of Imam Ali and its Theological-Juridical Implications for the Islamic Political Thought

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WiIaya of Imam Ali and its Theological-Juridical Implications for the Islamic Political Thought


This paper examines the Qur'anic origins of the concept of wilaya in light of its connection with the historical wilaya of Imam Ali. Various explanations of the concept in the Qur'anic exegesis, written by different schools of thought in Islam, have been studied to investigate the theological importance of wilaya to the fundamental doctrine of the leadership (imama) in Islam. The close relationship between the doctrines of divine justice (al-'Adl) and the necessity of the divinely-appointed imam in the Shi'i school of thought underscore the pivotal status of the acceptance of the wilaya of Imam Ali as imperative to the faith of believers. At the same time, recognition of this wilaya of Imam Ali is regarded as a precondition to the establishment of the ideal public order based on the divine scale of justice. Consequently, no ideal public order is conceivable in Islam without the imama being invested in the person in whom this wilaya is validated through a divine designation. This theological relationship between the imama and wilaya through divine designation made it juridically problematic for anyone other than the divinely appointed Imam to assume the absolute wilaya in the Muslim Ummah. This problem of assuming the wilaya by other than the Imam himself was duly treated in the Shi'i jurisprudence, which carefully defined the limits of juridical wilaya in relation to the theological wilaya of the Imam. The paper, thus, demonstrates the significance of the wilaya of Imam Ali in the Qur'anic context of establishing the public order and the necessity of accepting the interdependency between imama and waliya in Islamic leadership while differentiating between theological and juridical forms of wilaya.


'When he (the Prophet) had completed its (Hajj) ceremonies, he left for Medina accompanied by the multitudes previously mentioned. He arrived at the pool of Khum (Ghadir Khum) in al-Juhfa, where the roads of the people of Medina, the people of Egypt and the people of Iraq cross. That was on Thursday, Dhil-Hijjah 18 [when] Jibreel (Gabriel), the faithful, brought down Allah's revelation saying: "0 Messenger! Deliver that which has been sent down to thee from thy Lord" (5:67). And he commanded him to point out Ali to the people and proclaim to them the revelation concerning him about the wilaya and the obligation of obedience upon everyone. Those of the people who were in front were near al-Juhfa. The Prophet of Allah commanded that those who advanced should be halted at that place. He forbade them to sit down under five gum acacia trees (sumurat) which were close to each other. When the summons to prayer was given for the noon prayers, he went towards them (the trees) and prayed at the head of the people under them... When he had completed his prayers, he stood delivering a speech in the middle of the people, on the saddles of the camels. He made them all hear, raising his voice, saying:

"...0 people, the Kind, the Knower, informed me that a Prophet has not lived but half the age of his predecessor and that I am about to be recalled and I responded. I am to be interrogated and you are to be interrogated. What will you say?" The people said, "We bear witness that you have proclaimed the message and that you have given the advice and that you have made the endeavour, may Allah reward you!" He said, "Would you not bear witness that there Is no deity but Allah and that Muhammad is His Servant and His Messenger; that His Garden is true; that His Fire is true; that death is true; that the hour comes of which there is no doubt; and that Allah will resurrect those in the graves?" They said, "Yes. We hear witness to that." Then he said, "0 Allah, bear witness [to that]," [and he continued], "0 people! Do you hear?" They said, "Yes." He said, "I am preceding you to the Pond (al-Hawd) and you will rejoin me at the Pond... See to it how you will look after the Two Treasures (ath-Thaqalayn) after me." A caller called out, "What are the Two Treasures, 0 Messenger of Allah?" He said, "The Bigger Treasure (ath-Thaqlu'l-Akbar) is the Book of Allah, one end of it is in the Hand of Allah and one end is in your hands. If you adhere to it you will not go astray. The Smaller Treasure (ath-Thaqlu'l -Asghar) is my Family ('Itrati). The Kind, the Knower, informed me that they will not separate until they rejoin me at the Pond. I wished that from Allah for them. Do not precede them so that you may not perish. Do not fail to reach them so that you may not succumb." Then he held the hand of Ali and raised it until the white of the armpit could be seen and all the people recognized him. He said, "0 people, who is more worthy ('awla) [in the eyes of] the believers than their own selves?" They said, "Allah and His Messenger know better." He said, "Allah is my Master and I am the master of the believers and I am worthier in their eyes than their own selves. Whoever has me for his master has Ali for his master." He said it thrice, and according to Ahmad, the imam of the Hanbalis, four times."( 1 )

The above proclamation at Ghadir Khum regarding the wilaya of Imam Ali occurred in the last year of the Prophet's life (10 AH/632 AD). Fourteen centuries have passed since then, and looking at the number of books and studies written on the subject of wilaya, both by the proponents as well as opponents, the proclamation at Ghadir Khum proved to be one of the most pivotal events for the determination of the direction of the political-religious history of Islam. Questions about the historicity of that event, whether raised by the Sunni scholars or by their western counterparts, who, more than often, followed the Sunni sources in their conclusions about the early history of Islam, have overlooked the political-religious implications of Ghadir Khum on the subsequent conceptualization of Islamic leadership (imama) among Muslims in general. The event at al-Juhfa, moreover, unfolded the Qur'anic presupposition in the matter of the direction that human society must follow in order to attain the final goal for which it has been created. On studying the Qur'an in its entirety the following general view emerges about human society which directly affects the question of leadership (imama) of that society.

To begin with, the Qur'an states more than once that Islam is not a new religion but the culmination of Allah's spiritual and temporal commands made known throughout human history through the mediatorship of divinely appointed prophets like Ibrahim (Abraham), Musa (Moses), Isa (Jesus), and the other prophets, the last in that line being Muhammad, peace be upon him. Thus, the prophet is the bearer of divine revelation that puts forth the divine commands for the guidance of humanity. This guidance lays the foundation of human social organization by providing a set of laws and rules by which the believers manage their affairs and through which their public order is governed or should govern itself. Accordingly, the divine guidance forms the basis for relations between man and Allah, on the one hand, and, between all people, whether Muslim or non-Muslim, as well as between man and all aspects of the creation, on the other. Furthermore, the divine guidance also contains rational principles which should help human intellect to infer detailed rules to organize the Muslim society and proffer the means to resolve conflicts between individuals and between individuals and the public order which has taken upon itself to implement the essential elements of the divine directives.

It is relevant to point out that unlike any other legal-political-social system, Islamic revelation clearly points toward an integrated concept of life based on the intricate relationship between this world and the hereafter. It regulates the conduct of the public order and of the individual in all aspects of human concern, linking the mundane and transcendental concerns in an inseparable whole. In this linkage, the will of Allah is decisive in guiding the inter-relationship of humans, and of man and his Creator. ( 2 )

The Qur'an regards the knowledge of the All-Knowing and All-Powerful Creator a prior through the precise creation of the innate disposition (fitra) in humanity, which, if it heeds to the call of the divine guidance, would attain 'prosperity' (al-falah).

These preliminary considerations about the Qur'anic view of divine guidance explain the inter-relationship of the Islamic norms provided in the Shari'ah, that divine scale of justice and equity, and the leader (imam) who exercises the divinely invested authority in him to lead the Muslim community to the prescribed goal of creating an ethical order on earth. The Shari'ah norms and the divinely appointed leadership fulfill humanity's need for the authoritative guidance based upon spiritual values giving man the existential meaning of his position in the universal context of Islamic revelation. The interdependency between the divine norms and the divinely appointed authority to attain the Qur'anic prosperity rejects the notion of separation between temporal and spiritual spheres of human activity. Moreover, the connection between divine guidance and the creation of the Islamic world order, as a consequence, marked the inevitable interdependency between the religious and the political in Islam.

The entire question of wilaya and its ramifications for the qualified leadership (imama) to further the divine plan and to enable Allah's religion to succeed must be seen from the perspective of the Islamic promise of the creation of an ethically just order on earth. More importantly, the belief in the wilaya of Imam Ali gave rise to the group of dedicated individuals among the associates of the Prophet who formed the nucleus of the early Shi'a. These early followers of Imam Ali represented the growth of discontent among the Muslims who refused to acknowledge and regard as legitimate the rule of those whom they considered usurpers of a position of leadership that rightfully belonged to Ali ibn Abi Talib and his descendants. The period also caused the predicament of the Muslim community precipitated by the Muslim political power under the khilafah which led to revolutions and rebellions as well as to discussions and deliberations. This is depicted in the early Islamic fiqh (theology cum jurisprudence) ( 3 ) literature that emerged toward the end of the second/eighth century. Early fiqh wove together the various threads of Islamic legal practice with the doctrinal underpinnings of early Muslim groupings. Consequently, the juridical opinions in the early fiqh works were formulated by taking into consideration whether certain legal or political injunctions affected the legitimacy of one or the other leader among the associates of the Prophet favored by each faction. In other words, the legitimacy of a leader allowed him to be used as a valid legal-religious precedent required to establish the authoritativeness of Islamic practices. Thus, even when a particular ruling went against explicitly textual evidence provided by the Qur'an, the overriding consideration for the early Muslim scholars was the preservation and legitimation of the authority in power, a consideration that came to be justified under the rubric of aI-masalih aI-'amma (the general welfare of the Muslim community).

The most important issue throughout Shi'i history has been access to the right guidance as an important consequence of the acknowledgement of the wilaya of Imam Ali. For the Shi'as, the right guidance had continuously been available to the Ummah even though the Imams, except for the short period of Imams Ali and Hasan's khilafah, were not invested with political authority and were living under the political power exercised by the de facto governments. The possession of the wilaya (not- withstanding the Imam's lack of political power, he still had the right to demand obedience from his followers) was clearly seen in the Imam's ability to provide religious leadership by interpreting divine revelation authoritatively. What was decided by him through interpretation and elaboration was binding on the believers.

The interpretation of the divine revelation by the Imam, only because of his position as the wali of Allah, was regarded as the right guidance needed by the people at all times. It was, moreover, the divine guidance that theologically justified the superstructures erected on the two doctrines of Imami Shi'ism: the justice of Allah and the designation of the Imam, free from error and sinful deviations, in order to make Allah's will known to humanity. The belief in divine justice demanded that Allah do what was best for humanity; and the belief in divine truthfulness generated the confidence that Allah's promise would be fulfilled. The proof that Allah was doing what had been promised was provided by the divinely created institutions of the prophethood (nubuwwa) and the imamate (through the wilaya) to guide humanity toward the creation of an ideal public order. In response to the dilemma created by the end of the manifest leadership of the Imams through the occultation of the Twelfth Imam, and the continued need of the community to their guidance, the Shi'i leaders expounded the theological and legal content of the Islamic revelation through meticulous study of the Qur'an and elaborated upon the teachings of the Imams, in which a prominent place was given to the faculty of reasoning (aI-'Aql).

The importance of reason in the exposition of the fundamental tenets of Islam was in accord with the Imami Shi'i rational theology, in which reason was prior to both sources of revelation, the Qur'an and the Sunnah. This does not mean that the revelation was not regarded as all-comprehensive. However, it was reason that acknowledged the comprehensiveness of the revelation by engaging in its interpretation and discovering all the principles that the believers needed to know. In addition, there was recognition of a fundamental need of interpretation of the revelation by reason, all the more so when the authority invested with divine knowledge was in occultation. At any rate, the decisive responsibility to guide the community by interpreting revelation rationally needed authorization from a divine source, a sort of designation to assume the wilaya similar to that which was initiated at Ohadir Khum that could guarantee to Muslims the availability of right guidance based on Islamic revelation.

Ostensibly, only such an authorized person could assume the authority that accrued to the Imam as the rightful successor to the Prophet. Moreover, only the investiture of the wilaya (which reserved the right to demand obedience, depending on legal-rational circumstances) and the assuming of political power (qudra or saltana), which could exact or enforce obedience) could establish the rule of justice and equity on earth, as promised by the Islamic revelation.

In light of the above, the central position of the event at Ghadir Khum for Islam becomes evident. The proclamation by the Prophet on that occasion gave rise to the tension between the ideal leadership promoted through the wilaya of Ali ibn Abi Talib and the real one precipitated by human forces to suppress the purposes of Allah on earth. The acknowledgement of the validity of the declaration about the wilaya at Ghadir Khum, in some sense, became the yardstick for measuring the true faith in the divine promise for humanity. Consequently, the entire theological question of qualified leadership to further the divine plan and to enable Allah's religion to succeed must be seen from the perspective of the Islamic promise of the creation of an ethically just order on earth by the rightful possessor of the wilaya. The relationship of the leadership (imama) and the possession of the wilaya make it impossible to conceive an ideal public order in Islam without this leadership being invested in the person in whom the wilaya functions as a divine designation.

It was for this reason that in Imami Shi'ism the concept of wilaya assumed a pivotal status as a precondition to the establishment of the ideal public order based on the divine scale of justice. However, it was important for the Imami theologians to secure the Qur'anic origins of the doctrine of wilaya and connect it with the notion of human obligation, the fulfillment of which was regarded as necessary to attain prosperity in this and the next world. At this point, let us turn our attention to the tradition that was to become the cornerstone of the Imami theory of political authority.


( 1 ) Abd al-Husayn Ahmad  al-Amini  al-Najafi, Al-Ghadir fi al-Kitab wa al-Sunna wa al-Adab, vol 1, Beirut, 1967, P 9-11, and all the Sunni and Shi'i sources cited therein.

( 2 ) This is the meaning of the word the Qur'an applies so often to  indicate the divine purpose in endowing humanity with guidance,  namely, al-falah. Usually translated as 'prosperity,' falah signifies  the good of both this and the next world for those who have responded to the divine guidance.

( 3 ) fiqh in its early usage was not limited to legal jurisprudence.  It dealt with doctrinal and credal matters connected with basic Islamic beliefs, including the subject of Muslim authority after  the Prophet's death. This early trend in fiqh writing continued much later as is evidenced in many works of fiqh that were written in the sixth/twelfth-thirteenth century which began with a prologue on the main tenets of Islam. See article, Fiqh in  Encyclopaedia of Islam, 2nd edition; also Introduction to my  work: The Just Ruler in Shi'ite Islam: The Comprehensive Authority of the Jurist in Imamite Jurisprudence, New York:  Oxford University Press, 1988.

Wilaya as the Moral Vision of Islamic Revelation

The cornerstone of the Imami theory of political authority is the existence of an Imam from among the progeny of Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, clearly designated by the latter to assume the leadership of the Muslim Ummah. Acknowledgement of the authority of the Imam falls within the category of the religious obligations (al-Takalif al-Shar'iyya) imposed on the adherents of the Imam. In Imami Shi'ism, the government belonged to the Imam alone, for he was equally entitled to political leadership and religious authority. However, even though the Imam was entitled to both the political and religious leadership, his imama was not contingent upon his being invested as the ruler of the Ummah. The religious leadership empowered the Imam to interpret Islamic revelation and elaborate on it without committing an error. In this respect, the Imam was like the Prophet, who was endowed with special knowledge and had inherited the knowledge of divine revelation through his designation in the wilaya. The Imam is, thus, the link with the way of guidance, and without acknowledging his wilaya no person seeking guidance can attain it. This wilaya (the spiritual authority with the right to demand obedience), according to the Imami teaching, was not contingent upon the Imam's being invested as the ruling authority (sultan, who could and did exact or enforce obedience) of the community. As such, the spiritual authority resided in Imam Ali from the day the Prophet died, for he became the wali aI-'amr (the executor of the Prophet's spiritual function) through the Prophet's designation on the occasion of Ghadir Khum. This leadership would continue to be available in the line of the Imams, explicitly designated by the preceding Imams. It was in this latter sense that the imama of the Ummah came to be conceptualized. Therefore, religiously spealling, to ignore the wilaya and disobey these Imams was tantamount to disbelief in Allah's promise that He would provide the necessary guidance to lead humanity toward the creation of an ideal world order.

This confidence in the proclamation of Ghadir Khum regarding the future leadership was directly responsible for generating a threefold religious experience of the Shi'i community which became the decisive sources of the subsequent Imami political attitude. These were martyrdom (shahada), occultation (ghayba) and precautionary dissimulation (taqiyya). What made the Shi'as responsive to their religious leaders has in large measure to do with this threefold religious experience which conditions their political attitudes and inspires their willingness to strive to preserve their religious identity in the context of the larger Muslim community.

Martyrdom (shahada) has been sustained as a religious ordeal in Shi'i political history by the conviction that Allah is just and commands human society to pursue justice in accord with the guidance provided by divine revelation to the Prophet. The divinely inspired guidance also requires obedience to the Prophet in his capacity as the head of the Islamic polity which would exist for the implementation of justice. The Imam, who is regarded as the rightful successor of the Prophet, must also be upheld as the true leader of the community to whom obedience is due in his capacity as the wali aI-'amr of the Muslim Ummah. When the Shi'i Imam, following the death of the Prophet, was denied his right to assume the temporal authority invested in him by divine designation, as the Shi'as believe, direct political action was regarded as justified to establish the rule of justice-- to replace a usurpatory rule by a just and legitimate one. The ensuing struggle to install a legitimate political authority resulted in the murder of several Shi'i leaders. In light of the above conviction, these violent deaths were regarded as martyrdom suffered in order to defeat the forces of oppression and falsehood.

The most powerful symbol of this religious experience has without question been the Third Imam of the Shi'as, Husayn ibn Ali (d 61 AH/680 AD), the grandson of the Prophet, whose martyrdom is annually commemorated with solemnity through- out the Shi'i world. The importance attached to the commemor- ation of Imam Husayn's martyrdom has provided the shi'i community with a religious paradigm that is traced with remarkable enthusiasm by the community. The commemoration went beyond its basic purpose of recounting the tragedy that befell the family of the Prophet. It provided a platform that was used to communicate the Shi'i teachings to the populace which had little or no academic preparation to utilize written sources on the subject. Indeed, these important gatherings have served as the principal platform of communication with the Shi'i public.

Recognizing the low level of religious education among the lay believers, the Shi'i leaders used the commemorative gatherings as a forum by which to awaken their followers to the injustices of the socio-political realities of their times. With the increase of religious awareness among the Shi'as came the demand for some detailed information on topics that were touched upon in these commemorative gatherings. Subsequently, the mourning gatherings were utilized to disseminate religious knowledge which, among other things, included information on both quietist and activist postures of the Shi'i ideology, depending upon the socio-political climate at the time. The religious experience of martyrdom in Shi'ism thus became a formidable channel for mobilizing the Shi'i populace.

The second religious experience, namely, occultation (the absence of the Twelfth Imam from the temporal sphere), signified the postponement of the establishment of a just Islamic order, pending the return of the last Imam. Religiously speaking, the doctrine of occultation connoted some sort of divine intervention in saving the life of the Imam, the only awaited Just Ruler, by moving him from the realm of the visible to invisible existence, and conveyed the idea that the situation was beyond the control of those who proposed to overthrow tyrannical rulers in order to establish the Islamic rule of justice. Furthermore, the occultation of the last Imam and his eventual return as the Mahdi of the Muslim Ummah at a favourable time helped the Shi'as to persevere under difficult circumstances. This hope in the future necessarily implied postponement of the establishment of the thoroughly just Islamic order pending the reappearance of the last Imam, who alone could be invested with the wilaya - the Muslim political authority.

Consequently, religious experience derived as a result of belief in the occultation has, on the one hand, raised questions about creating a thoroughly Islamic public order during the absence of the Twelfth Imam; and on the other, it demanded that the entire Shi'i community provide means for its religious, social, and political survival pending the final return of the Imam.

The attitude of tenacity in this religious experience is derived from the belief that the establishment of an Islamic order without divine intervention through the return of the infallible Imam is impossible. The theological problem for anyone to assume the authority accruing to the Imam as the rightful successor of the Prophet, in whom the wilaya resembling that of Imam Ali is invested, is in its implications for the universalistic authority of the Imam whose political authority cannot be delegated to any Shi'a however qualified.

On the other hand, the attitude of responsibility of the community in this religious experience is derived from a rational interpretation of the Qur'anic obligation imposed collectively on the community to undertake the duty of supervising its own affairs under the religious and moral injunction of 'enjoining the good and forbidding the evil,' even when the Imam is absent. By this interpretation, some religious leaders delegated the Imam's wilaya, political as well as juridical, to a qualified member of the Shi'i community, who, in his capacity as the trustee responsible for directing the community, would be willing to shoulder the obligation of 'enjoining the good and forbidding the evil.'

The third religious experience stemming from the practice of shielding the true intent of the faithful in the community from unbelievers and outsiders through precautionary dissimulation (taqiyya) determined the political direction of all the Imams and their followers. The Imams encouraged taqiyya and even declared it to be a duty incumbent upon their followers, so as to avoid pressing for the establishment of the ideal rule and overthrow of the wrongful authority of the de facto governments. In a sense, taqiyya signified the will of the Shi'i community to continue to strive for the realization of the ideal Islamic polity, if not by launching the revolution contingent upon the appearance of the Twelfth Imam and his consolidation as the leader of the community, then at least by preparing the way for such a revolution in the future. In the meantime, the Shi'as had to avoid expressing their true opinions publicly about the short-comings evident in the various de facto Muslim governments, regardless whether Shi'i or Sunni, in such a way as to cause disunity and enmity. Consequently, the practice of taqiyya was determined by the conditions of the Shi'as as a minority group living under adverse settings; here again, the religious leadership determined the appropriate time for the community to abandon quietist passivity and engage in activism.

These three religious experiences of the Shi'as during the first three centuries of Islamic history shaped the political outlook of the Imami scholars whenever they were faced with a new political situation. Rulings on such a situation could be traced back to precedents set by the Imams. But the question of the legitimacy of a political rule established by a professing Imami Shi'a during the absence of the political discretion of the actual wali al-'amr, the Twelfth Imam, was an issue that had no precedent set during the lifetime of the Imams. Imami jurists could not give a legal opinion based on a precedent set by the theory of Imamate of the infallible Imams. As a result, they had to guide the community by issuing a legal opinion based on their extrapolation in the terms of the documentation provided by the communications transmitted on the authority of the Imams regarding the nature of Imami political authority during the occultation.

The main concern of the Imami scholars was to provide the Shi'i community with practical guidance relevant to their survival under de facto political authorities. None of the classical theological texts on the fundamental principles (usul al-din) of the Imami school deal with the possibility, not even as a fail accompli of temporal Imami authority invested with the wilaya of the Imam during the occultation. Such a discussion would necessarily have involved tampering with the terms of the doctrine of the imama, which was absolutely ruled out because of the absence of any directly designated deputy of the Twelfth Imam. The 'special deputyship,' during the short occultation (873-94l A.D.), was seen as the ongoing guidance available to the community through the Imam's explicit deputization. With the occurrence of the complete occultation (from 941 AD), the ongoing guidance through deputization of a specific person was terminated.

However, the question of the leadership of the Shi'as in the absence of the Imam was a crucial one. A sense of urgency is reflected in the Imami jurisprudence whenever the question of exercising the Imam's authority without a specifically designated deputy comes up in the treatment of religious obligations requiring the presence of either the Imam or his appointed deputy for that purpose. It was under these circumstances that the Imami jurists had to deal with the issue of the 'general' deputyship of the Imam, which was vested in them as the custodians of Imami teachings. Nevertheless, the Imami jurists who addressed the question of the deputyship of the 'general' deputy of the Twelfth Imam were very conscious of the theoretical position of the Imam as the absolute wielder of the wilaya.


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