The authority of the Imam – an absent authority – is a governance of souls, even of their governmentality but not a government of power politics.
Shiʿi Islam is often considered to be political per se because of its emergence historically as a movement with a strong position on authority and legitimacy in governance. This piece attempts to show how the politics of salvation in the tradition tie together one’s loyalty and devotion to the divine person of the Imam to one’s final destination, and how that relationship is complicated in the physical absence of the Imam. The occultation of the Imam has led to an attenuation of the theory and the rise of republicanism even Shiʿi Islamism which seems anathema to the traditionalist, normative theory because it makes the existence of the Imam an irrelevance. One needs to guard against a sacralisation of everyday politics and recognize that sanctity arises from the person of the Imam and not the office of his delegate. The authority of the Imam – an absent authority – is a governance of souls, even of their governmentality but not a government of power politics. At least that kingdom is deferred to the parousia of the Imam when he returns. Any government in the interim remains provisional and subject to the critique and judgment of political theology.
Shiʿi Islam is a religious tradition in which it is precisely the presence of the divine through the Imam as both vicegerent of God and of the Prophet (cf. Qurʾan 2:30, 35:39) and asdeusrevelatus, intervening and defining human history, the immanence of God in the cosmos, that provides not only the foundations for authority and sovereignty in human communities of belief, but also the path to salvation. The everlasting and indeed ever-revealing countenance of the divine mentioned in the Qurʾan (28:88 inter alia) is glossed in the tradition as the person of the Imam. The Imam is not the defender of the Law; he is the Law – he is not the exegete of scripture, he is revelation itself. One recognises the Imam through their manifestation of divine attributes in their totality, not least in the particular privileging of knowledge, of the unseen, of the true nature of scripture and revelation, of the metaphysical, of how what come to pass and what will be. This ‘gnostic’ and sophiological aspect of the mode in which God presents herself to humans is critical. Through the person of the Imam is that transcendent divine, the origin and the true King, manifest, and through devotion and what the believers owe the Imam that the path to salvation is traversed – in fact, the theme of allegiance, association and dissociation (walāʾ/barāʾ) directly linking one’s communal personality in this world of trials with one’s afterlife seems to have been an early development in Islam. The Imams are witnesses of God over his creation and aware of both those loyal to them and those who reject them. It is because they are witnesses who teach the art of living that encompasses the governance of the self that they must also be martyrs teaching the art of dying. In what believers owe to the Imams encompasses a set of practices from recognition (including processes of anagnoresis as well as visitation and devotion in ziyāra to their persons and thresholds that are in the form of their shrines) all the way through to walking along their path to perfection. The way of imitation of the divine Imam indicates the centrality of theosis, of becoming god-like (al-tashabbuh bi-l-bāriʾ) as the art of living and dying in the Shiʿi tradition.