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IMAMAH. The meaning of imamah (“religious-political leadership”) of the Muslim community was the most practical question dominating Muslim minds following the Prophet’s death in 632. Theological and juridical aspects of the imamate have engaged Muslim intellectual activity for many centuries and continue to do so as part of the community’s accommodation to the realities of power. The major dispute concerning the imamate surrounded the question of investiture to exercise the Prophet’s comprehensive authority (wildyah `ammah) as the temporal and spiritual leader of the ummah (community).

There were at least two main opinions on this matter. The view prevalent among the early Muslims headed by Abu Bakr and his associates regarded the imamate to be the right of the Meccan companions of the Prophet, belonging to the tribe of Quraysh. This was a reassertion of leadership that was in line with the tribal culture of seventh-century Hejaz. It was also an implicit rejection of the other major opinion that maintained that leadership was passed on through a special designation. This view was held by the Prophet’s family (ahl al-bayt), mainly the Hashemites, which regarded the imamate divinely invested in `All ibn Abi Talib, the Prophet’s cousin and son-in-law.

The dispute over the leadership, although arising immediately following the Prophet’s death, did not find theoretical expression until the eruption of the civil strife connected with the caliphate of `Uthman. `Uthman’s corrupt leadership raised the question about the qualification of the person holding the office and also the moral-religious obligation of the community when faced with a fait accompli in this regard. The murder of `Uthman assumed paradigmatic proportion in setting the precedent for dealing with unjust leadership. Although the debate over the rightness of the murder has continued to the present time, the majoritarian opinion, as it was subsequently formulated, upheld the legitimacy of `Uthman’s leadership, making him one of the four “rightly guided” caliphs. This was the Sunni conception of the imamate, which had the sole function of preserving the sense of the ummah under the historical caliphate against the counterclaims of the oppositional groups such as the Shi-`ah and Khawarij. However, a distinction was made between those imams who fulfilled all the conditions of the imamate like the Rashidun, and hence, regarded as the “successors” of the Prophet, and those who fell short and were considered merely as kings. This distinction was necessary for the development of the juridical theory in which the sunnah (the prophetic paradigm), as the second most important source for religious prescriptions, included the actions and legal decisions of the Rashidun. Consequently, in the Sunni juridical theory, the imamate of the Rashidun formed part of the prophetic precedent and was accorded an equally authoritative status for deriving the Muslim religious practice. The latter development is today being examined by some Sunni intellectuals, both traditional as well as modern, who question the adequacy and relevance of those precedents in formulating practical rules for contemporary Muslims. (Several Egyptian scholars, including the Azhari Muhammad alGhazall, have undertaken critical assessment of these early prescriptive precedents and have challenged their authoritativeness merely on the basis of their being included as part of the Prophetic paradigm.)

The Khawarij, who had seceded from ‘Ali’s camp during the Battle of Siffin (657), formulated their own version of the imamate, making it obligatory among believers to proclaim illegitimate and to depose the leader who had strayed from the right path. However, they too rejected the notion of imamate through special designation. They maintained that any believer with good standing in religion, whose character was beyond reproach, and who was proclaimed by the community as an imam was a legitimate leader, regardless of his being a non-Quraysh or even a non-Arab. Hence, they acknowledged `Uthman as legitimate only during the first six years of his imamate and `All until the Battle of Siffin. This general conception of political authority has survived among the Ibadlyah, the surviving moderate wing of the Khawarij, to the present day. [See Khawarij; Ibadlyah]

The Shi’is, who included a spectrum of the radical to moderate subdivisions, such as the Isma’illyah, the Twelvers, and the Zaydiyah, shared their recognition of any member of the ahl al-bayt who claimed the imamate. The Zaydlyah differed with the Twelvers in some essential points. They did not regard the imamate to be limited in the particular line of ‘Ali’s descendants through his son al-Husayn, as the Twelvers had maintained. They acknowledged the imamate of any member of the ahl al-bayt who rose against the illegitimate rulers. They also rejected the Twelver tenet which had required the repudiation of the first three caliphs as illegitimate and the law handed down by them as vitiated. However, the Twelver rejection of the early caliphate and its role in the legal formulations of Islam came to prevail in the later Zaydism where the descendants of ‘Ali and Fatimah, regardless of whether they were imams or not, became the source for the Zaydi legal school. The Zaydi imamate shared the ShYi insistence that the imam’s religious knowledge be connected with the aims of sham`ah (divine law) and its application in human society, in addition to the imam having impeccable character.

The Twelver doctrine was firmly based on the rational need for an infallible leader and authoritative teacher to guide humanity to the prosperous life. The imam was regarded as hujjah (a competent authority) to execute the divine purposes by assuming the Prophet’s comprehensive authority in both the temporal and the religious spheres of human activity. Consequently, disregarding and disobeying the rightfully appointed imam was equal to disobeying the Prophet. Although the imam was entitled to political authority, his imamate, contrary to the Zaydi requirement, was not dependent on it. Rather, the imam’s role was seen as the infallible interpreter of the prophetic revelation. His existence, even under the requirement of tagiyah (prudential dissimulation), was regarded as necessary for the religious well-being of his followers. The circumstantial depoliticization of the imamate culminated in the concept of the “hidden” (mastur, ghayb) imam, which was common among several Shl’! subdivisions, including the Fatimid Isma’xliyah. During the tenure of the hidden imams, the juridical and administrative functions of the imams were assumed by the prominent members of the Shi’l community. They were proclaimed as the na’ib (“deputy”) or dd’f (“guide”) on behalf of the actual imams. The religious scholars (mujtahid and ayatollah) and guides functioning as imams have provided the community with tangible religious leadership that has survived among the Twelver Shi`is and the Tayyibi branch of Fatimid Isma’Ilism. The only Shl’! sect that still recognizes a manifest imam is the Nizari branch of the Isma’i1iyah.

[See also Ahl al-Bayt; Isma’iliyah; Ithna `Ashafiyah.]


Madelung, Wilferd. “Immma.” In Encyclopaedia of Islam, new ed., vol. 3, pp. 1163-1169. Leiden, I960-.

Madelung, Wilferd. “IsmM1iliyya.” In Encyclopaedia of Islam, new ed., vol. 4, pp. 198-ao6. Leiden, I9690-.

Nawbakhu, Al-Hasan ibn Musa al-. Firaq al-Shi ah. Istanbul, 1931. Sachedina, A. A. Islamic Messianism: The Idea of Mahdi in Twelver Shi`ism. Albany, N.Y., 198i.

Sachedina, A. A. The Just Ruler (al-Sultan al-`Adil) in Sha`ite Islam. New York, 1988.


Azhar Niaz Article's Source: http://islamicus.org/imamah/

  • writerPosted On: April 21, 2014
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