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Book :The Just Ruler in Shia Islam

The book “The Just Ruler in Shia Islam, the Comprehensive Authority of the Jurist in Imamite Jurisprudence was written by Abdulaziz Abdulhussein Sachedina in 1998.

Following the Islamic revolution of 1978-79 in Iran, the new Islamic government justified the rule of the Ayatollah Khomeni, and of the Shi’ite imams in general, on the basis of the doctrine that righteous jurist is best suited to establish the ideal public order. Sachedina shows that this concept has no apparent parallel in Sunni Islam. In this study, he seeks the origins of this concept in the Sunni/Shi’ite schism that took place after the death of the Prophet, and then traces its historical evolution up to the present time.

Introduction of the Book

In the study of Shī‛ite history two doctrines have played an important part in producing a coherent body of political and legal jurisprudence—namely, the justice of God (al-adl) and the leadership of righteous individuals (al-imāma) to uphold and promulgate the rule of justice and equity. In the highly politicized world of early Islam, numerous ideas and conceptions about God’s purpose on earth and leadership of human society floated freely. The swift conquest of vast territories and the ongoing process of supervising the conquests and administering the affairs of the conquered peoples demanded not only strong and astute leadership, but also the creation of a system that would provide stability and prosperity. Central to this social, political, and economic activity was the promise of Islamic revelation: the creation of a just and equitable public order embodying the will of God.

The promise was based on the belief that God is just and truthful. Divine justice demanded that God do what was best for humanity; and divine truthfulness generated the confidence that God’s promise would be fulfilled. The proof that God was doing what had been promised was provided by the sending of the Prophet to guide humanity toward the creation of the Islamic world order. The connection between the 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 result in the intellectual realm was the creation of political jurisprudence (al-fiqh al-siyāsī) guided by the tenets of religious doctrine (alitiqādāt), even when the doctrine was not adequately formulated or clarified, at least in the early stages.

The death of the Prophet marked the first major crisis in the political history of Islam: circumstances demanded that the Muslims explain the situation that seemed to point toward the breach of divine promise. Tension was felt in the awareness of the lack of an objective actualization of the Islamic ideal in the external world. It was precisely at this time that the notion of the Just Ruler (al-sultān al-‛ādil), who would assume political power to bring about the just order, came to be accentuated. The entire question of qualified leadership to further the divine plan and to enable God’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, it was also at this time that the Shā‛a refused to acknowledge and regard as legitimate the rule of those whom they considered usurpers of a position of leadership that rightfully belonged to ‛Alī b. Abi Talib and his descendants.

The period that followed this first crisis and tension between the ideal and the real gradually marked the growth of discontent among the people, which led to revolutions and rebellions as well as to discussions and deliberations. This is reflected in the early Islamic fiqh (theology cum jurisprudence) literature that emerged toward the end of the second/eighth century. This literature wove together the various threads of Islamic belief and practice. No Islamic legal practice, especially in the realm of socio-political interaction, can become comprehensible unless due attention is paid to the doctrinal underpinnings of early Muslim groupings, because the formation of Islamic law took place under religious and ethical ideas.  More significant in the rulings of the early jurists was their consideration of whether legal or political injunctions affected the legitimacy of one or the other leader favored by each faction. Thus, even when a particular ruling went against explicit textual evidence provided by the Qur’ān, the overriding consideration for these early jurists was the preservation and legitimation of the authority in power, a consideration that came to be justified under the rubric of al-masālih al-‛āmma (the general welfare of the Muslim community). The development of the Sunna (the Prophetic customs and practice) in early Islam amply confirms this observation.

By the time of the second crisis, which affected the political jurisprudence of the Shī‛ites—namely, the end of the manifest leadership of the Imams through the occultation of the twelfth Imam—Islamic jurisprudence had separated hands with theology, at least formally, although its underpinnings were still the doctrines of the justice of God and the leadership of the Imams from among the descendants of the Prophet. The most important issue during this period for the Shī‛a was the right guidance that had continuously been available to the community even though the Imams were not invested with political authority and were living under the political power exercised by the de facto governments. This guidance comprised the Sharī‛a, which resulted from the meticulous study of the Qur’ān and from other related material generated by the effort of the scholarly elite of the Shī‛ite community to expound the legal contents of the Qur’ān.

The Imam’s authority (notwithstanding his lack of political power, he still had the right to demand obedience from his followers) in Shī‛īsm was clearly seen in his ability to interpret divine revelation authoritatively. What was decided by him through interpretation and elaboration was binding on believers. These rulings formed part of the obligations (al-takālīf al-shariyya) imposed on believers. The interpretation of the divine revelation by the Imam, which in Shī‛īsm came to be considered part of the revelation, was regarded as the right guidance needed by the people at all times. It was, moreover, the divine guidance that theologically justified the superstructure erected on the two doctrines of Imāmī Shī‛īsm: the justice of God and the designation of the Imam, free from error and sinful deviations, in order to make God’s will known to humanity. In response to the crisis created by the occultation of the Imam, the Shī‛ītes developed their own legal and political jurisprudence in which a prominent place was given to the faculty of reasoning (al-aql).

In the jurisprudence of the Imamites the priority of reason was in accord with their rational theology, in which reason was prior to both sources of revelation, the Qur’ān and the Sunna. This does not mean that the revelation was not regarded as all-comprehensive; on the contrary, there was recognition of the fact that it was reason that acknowledged the comprehensiveness of the revelation by engaging in its interpretation and discovering all the principles that Imamites 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. However, it was not for just anyone to undertake the decisive responsibility to guide the community by interpreting the revelation rationally. It certainly needed authorization from a divine source, a sort of designation that could guarantee to Muslims the availability of right guidance based on Islamic revelation. Only such an authorized person could, in the absence of the Imam, assume the authority that accrued to the Imam as the rightful ruler (al-sultān al‛ādil) in Islam. But in view of the prolonged occultation of the Imam and the absence of a special designation during this period, no realization of just rulership was possible. This was reflected in the political jurisprudence of the Imamites, where the recognition of the lack of specific designation by the Imam reemphasized the separation between power (qudra or saltana, which could exact or enforce obedience) and authority (wilāya, which reserved the right to demand obedience, depending on legal-rational circumstances) that had existed even during the lifetime of the Imams. Only the investiture of authority and the assuming of political power could establish the rule of justice and equity.

However, delegation of the Imam’s authority to an individual who could assume both the authority and the power of the Imam when there was no Imam to monitor the exercise of that authority was dangerous. This danger was perceived by the jurists, who took upon themselves to produce a coherent response to this situation in their works of jurisprudence in which the Imamite doctrine that the Imam is the only Just Ruler was reasserted. Pending the return of the Hidden Imam, the possibility of absolute claim to political power (qudra) and authority (wilāya) resembling that of the Imam himself was ruled out. Nevertheless, the rational need to exercise authority in order to manage the affairs of the community was recognized and authoritatively legalized. The establishment of the Shī‛ī dynasties during the occultation did not change the basic doctrine of the Imamite leadership. But it made it possible to conceive, however temporary and fallible it might be, a just Shī‛ī authority on the basis of rational and traditional argument, grounded in the basic Islamic principle of creating a public order that would “enjoin good and forbid evil.” In this acceptance of the historical reality and its gradual legalization, one can discern the efforts of Imamite jurists in response to the oft-repeated question of the Shī‛ites: When would the Imam come forward to establish justice and equity on earth, as promised in Islamic revelation?

It is important to bear in mind that Imamite jurists were responding to this question individually in their works on jurisprudence, and there was a lack of any definite organization or a strict uniformity of responsa among them. The Imamite jurists continued to be private individuals, like their Sunnī counterparts. Because of their peity and learning, they were accorded reverence by the people and recognition as leaders in guiding the Imamite community. Imamite juridical writings reflect the jurists’ individual and independent exertion of reasoning to formulate appropriate responses to the socio-political realities of the Islamic public order. Moreover, these works reflect the tensions within the Imamite school created not only by the occultation of the Imam, but also by intellectual interaction between Imamite and Sunnī scholars. The occultation of the Imam made it possible for them to be pragmatic and realistic in their contacts with contemporaneous de facto governments and in the formulation of their opinions about them, more so if the de facto rulers happened to be professing Imamites. And their intellectual contacts with Sunnī scholars, especially during the formative period of Imamite jurisprudence, made it imperative for them to equip themselves with methodological terminology to rationalize the concrete situation in which the Shī‛ites found themselves.

It is for this reason that each work of jurisprudence is abundantly documented by quotations from the Qur’ān and the Prophetic practice as well as critical evaluation of the opinions of those jurists who preceded them in their formulation of a particular legal decision. However, in this process of discussing the documentation for a ruling, the concrete case in point, which may have initially prompted such an investigation, became concealed. In order to reconstruct a concrete case from the evidence provided in a ruling, one has to labor through the normative jurisprudence as a source for the study of the concrete situations in the Muslim polity at a given time in history when the source was actually produced.

The present study deals with the concept of the Just Ruler in Twelver Shī‛īsm in the light of the political and legal jurisprudence worked out by Imamite scholars from the early days of the Shī‛ī Imams to the present time. It deals with the development of the authority of Imamite jurists, who were also thoroughly grounded in Imamite theology.

The study was inspired by the Islamic revolution of 1978-79 in Iran, where the historical idea of the authority of a jurist in matters of jurisprudence attained full- fledged political realization. In the 1980s, several works, most of them written by social scientists, have treated the concept of the “guardianship of the jurisconsult,” largely in the light of the present-day political experience of the Shī‛a in Iran.  In these works, scholars have provided students of modern Iran with a wealth of material dealing with the complex socio-economic history, on the one hand, and the intricate realtionship between the Iranian state and society, on the other. Of particular relevance to this study is Said Amir Arjomand’s work, The Shadow of God and the Hidden Imam. The author has not limited himself to the socio-political factors that had relevance to the 1978-79 events in Iran; he has also provided us, to some extent, with important analyses of religious factors that culminated in the legitimation of the power of the temporal as well as the religious authorities in premodern Iranian history.

In the present work I have filled a crucial gap in the existing literature on the development of the Shī‛ī juridical authority as it emerges from the study of the political jurisprudence produced during the different periods of the Twelver Imamite history. The concept of “guardianship” (wilāya) in general, and the “guardianship” of a jurist (wilāyat al-faqīh) in particular, has its genesis in the early history of Imamite jurisprudence. The second element in the concept is, furthermore, peculiar to Shī‛ī Imamite jurisprudence, because it is only this school of Shī‛ī thought that maintains belief in the Hidden Imam who continues to guide his community through his “generally” designated deputies. Careful analysis of Imamite juridical texts, then, becomes indispensable for understanding the authority that was regarded by the Shī‛ites as delegated to qualified jurists among the Shī‛a. The complexity of the material and the interrelationship of different parts of the juridical topics becomes evident when one considers the fact that the guardian- ship of the jurist was not discussed only in the sections of such works as the Book of Trade (Kitāb al-tijāra or al-makāsib), where the question of discretionary control of the jurist over properties and persons logically came up; the authority of the jurist was also discussed in the chapters on zakāt (alms), al-khums (the fifth), al-qadā’ (administration of justice), al-hudūd (administration of legal penalties), al-nikāh (marriage), al-amr bi-al-marūf wa al-nahyan-al-munkar (enjoining the good and forbidding the evil), al-jihād, and so on. Thus, an investigator has to go through all the chapters of applied jurisprudence to find references to the authority of the jurist.

An adequate understanding of the fiqh works is dependent on two other Islamic sciences on which the demonstrative jurisprudence of the Imamites has been based. The Imamites have relied on reasoning in the form of ijtihād, which established the intrinsicality of a ruling derived from the authority of revelation in that derived from the authority of reasoning because the point is that rational ruling is intrinsic in revelation ruling (not additional to it). The procedure that reasoning must follow to establish this intrinsicality is the subject matter of usūl al-fiqh (theoretical basis of Islamic law). Usūl al-fiqh, on the one hand, defines and discusses the extent of revelation and the categories of the injunctions that can be derived from it; on the other hand, it sets forth the theory of juristic practice to deduce further laws that cannot be derived explicitly from revelation. In addition, usūl al-fiqh shows the way in which jurists asserted their authority as the interpreters of the will of the Imam by exerting their rational faculty in creating exegetical and terminological devices to deduce appropriate responsa. It is probably valid to maintain that, had it not been for the usūl methodological devices, the jurists would not have emerged as the “general” deputies of the Hidden Imam merely on the basis of some documentation provided in the communications of the Imams, because the terminology there had to be extrapolated through exegetical method to infer theologico- political implications for the juridical authority in Shī‛īsm. Thus, without a correct understanding of the way the jurists apply the usūl to deductively infer laws, it is impossible to determine the exact nature of ijtihād in particular judicial decisions that affected political jurisprudence at a particular time.

Because documentation is of utmost importance in issuing a judicial decision, jurists have paid much attention to the ‛ilm al-hadīth and the related religious science of rijāl. ‛Ilm al-hadīth is the religious science that studies Prophetic communications transmitted by the close associates of the Prophet and the Imams, in order to determine their authenticity or inauthenticity with a view to their use in giving legal decisions. ‛Ilm al-rijāl deals with the chronological study of the transmitters who figure in the chains of transmissions appended to hadīth reports. Biographical information on each informant of a tradition was studied to gain insight into his “reliability” or “weakness,” and so on. Both kinds of work have been consulted in this study, so as to get better insight into the reasons for certain rulings based on usūl al-fiqh.

In addition to the above technical considerations in the examination of the juridical sources, another important consideration is the period when a particular work came into being. The historical perspective was extremely important for such research, because, as far as possible, the reason for examining the primary material was to allow the source to speak for itself, rather than to impose or to verify an investigator’s preconceived notions or thesis in them. It was, therefore, necessary to proceed chronologically, from period to period of the Imamite jurisprudence, to trace the development of the notion of the Just Ruler. Rather than placing the Imamite jurists and their works under the dynasties, like those of the Būyids or the Ilkhānids, and so on, I have tried to establish master-disciple connections between them.

As pointed out above, jurists were responding to the real situation individually within the Imamite school. It is for this reason that we find significant differences not only between jurists who were contemporaries and had studied under the same teacher, but between successive views of a single scholar during different periods of his life. This fact necessitates careful study of a given scholar’s judicial decisions, taking into consideration the chronology of his works. This is not always possible and any attempt to do so, especially in the absence of such information from the author himself, can lead to the attribution of views that a jurist might have held at one point in his career, but later revised or abandoned. Furthermore, there exists a body of nonjuridical sources in the form of political tracts written by some of the prominent disciples of these teachers during the premodern and modern eras of Imamite history. They treat the question of political authority under the influence of diverse concrete situations. These tracts, however, were not accorded the status of juridically derived opinions in the area of the ongoing debate on the nature of juridical authority in jurisprudence; rather, they were treated as works of the members of the Imamite community maintaining different views and interests regarding the prevailing political situation and its rationalization. It is for this reason that in this study I have not taken into account a given scholar’s thought if it was neither discussed by major figures nor made part of the recognized rubrics in the juridical tradition of the Imamite school. In addition to this formalized characteristic of Imamite juridical sources, one must keep in mind the hostility between scholars belonging to the Imāmiyya. Examples would be the thinly disguised criticisms and mutual refutations in the sources, particularly on the issue of wielding authority and assuming the constitutional right of the Hidden Imam. Imamite scholars were also engaged in preparing individuals who would continue their special interests. In many cases the disciples of an eminent jurist were inclined to disturb practice as little as possible; but when it came to theoretical considerations, they sometimes departed drastically from their teacher on principles and methods, which necessarily caused variations in rulings on the same subject.

The Shī‛ī dynasties, notwithstanding their favorable attitudes toward the Shī‛a, did not, in my opinion, spark the production of Shī‛ite political and legal jurisprudence that reflected an a priori idealized world dominated by the Shī‛ī doctrines of the justice of God and the Imamate. The concealed concrete situation, as I have pointed out earlier, had to be meticulously reconstructed by reading between the lines of particular sections of political jurisprudence. Wherever relevant, especially in the later period under the Safavids and the Qājārs, I point out the socio-political background of jurists, which might have influenced particular rulings under consideration.

Table of Contents

  1. The Deputyship of the Shī‛ite Imams,
  2. The Imamite Jurists, Leaders of the imāmiyya
  3. The Imamite Theory of Political Authority
  4. The Deputyship of Jurists in wilāyat al-qadā’ (Administration of Juridical Authority),
  5. The Comprehensive wilāya of the Jurists
  6. Conclusion

Appendix: The Imam’s Share in the Fifth (al-khums) during the Occultation

Bibliographic Information

Title: The Just Ruler in Shia Islam

Author: Abdulaziz Abdulhussein Sachedina

Publisher: Oxford University Press (October 8, 1998)

Language: English

Length: 296 pages

ISBN: 978-0195119152

Pub. Date: October 8, 1998

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