“Imamate” enjoys a high and unique status in the eyes of Muslims, especially the Shi’a, and that is why, during the history, some fake claimants have tried to, through claiming to be the Imam, attract the attention of some ignorant laymen and gain some wealth and positions.
For this reason, on the one hand, the infallible Imams (AS) always tried to guide their followers by clarifying the criteria and signs through which a true Imam can be distinguished from the fake claimants. On the other hand, the Shi’a, by asking about the signs of an Imam and the ways to recognize the false claimants, asked the infallible leaders for help and guidance. Therefore, in Shi’a collections of hadith, there are many narrations in this regard.
One of the signs to recognize the Imam is his knowledge. The infallible Imams have used different terms including:
A. Knowledge in an absolute form
«عَنِ الْحَارِثِ بْنِ الْمُغِيرَةِ النَّضْرِيِّ قَالَ قُلْتُ لِأَبِي عَبْدِ اللَّهِ ع بِمَا يُعْرَفُ صَاحِبُ هَذَا الْأَمْر؟ قَالَ بِالسَّكِينَةِ وَ الْوَقَارِ وَ الْعِلْمِ وَ الْوَصِيَّةِ»
“Harith ibn al-Mughayra al-Nazri says: I asked Imam al-Ṣādiq (AS) that how the owner of this status (i.e. Imamate) is recognized. He said: with calmness and gravity and knowledge and will”.
B. The ability to answer questions
According to some narrations, the sign of Imamate is that the Imam is able to answer all the questions, such as:
«عَنْ أَبِي الْجَارُودِ عَنْ أَبِي جَعْفَرٍ ع قَالَ قُلْتُ لَهُ جُعِلْتُ فِدَاكَ إِذَا مَضَى عَالِمُكُمْ أَهْلَ الْبَيْتِ فَبِأَيِّ شَيْءٍ يَعْرِفُونَ مَنْ يَجِيءُ بَعْدَه؟ ُ قَالَ … وَ لَا يُسْأَلُ عَنْ شَيْءٍ مِمَّا بَيْنَ صَدَفَيْهَا إِلَّا أَجَابَ فِيهِ»
“Abi al-Jarud narrates that: I asked Imam al-Bāqir (AS): May I be ransom for you! When the knowledgeable of you, the people of the household, (i.e. the Imam) passes away, how the next one is known? He said: … and that he will not be asked about anything in the east or the west unless he will give the right answer.”
C. Accurate answers
According to some narrations, the sign of Imamate is that there is no mistake in his answers:
«عَنِ الصَّادِقِ ع قَالَ قَالَ أَمِيرُ الْمُؤْمِنِينَ ع وَ الْإِمَامُ الْمُسْتَحِقُّ لِلْإِمَامَةِ لَهُ عَلَامَاتٌ فَمِنْهَا أَنْ … لَا يَزِلُّ فِي الْفُتْيَا وَ لَا يُخْطِئُ فِي الْجَوَاب …»
“Imam al-Ṣādiq (AS) quotes Imam ̔Ali (AS) as saying: the Imam who deserves Imamate has some signs, including … he does not err in his verdict and does not make a mistake in his answers …”
D. The superiority of the knowledge of the Imam over that of all other humans
Based on some narrations, the Imam is introduced as the one whose knowledge excels that of other people:
«عَنْ أَبِي الْحَسَنِ عَلِيِّ بْنِ مُوسَى الرِّضَا ع قَالَ لِلْإِمَامِ عَلَامَاتٌ يَكُونُ أَعْلَمَ النَّاسِ …»
“Imam al-Riḍā (AS) said: The Imam has some signs; he is the most knowledgeable person …”
The fact that unlimited knowledge is one of the signs of the Imam and through that, a true Imam can be distinguished from a false claimant seems to have been taken for granted by the Shi’a in the history. That is why, based on available reports, one of the ways Shi’a used to recognize the Imam was to raise some questions before the claimants. What follows is a report in this regard:
“Muḥammad ibn Yahya has narrated from Ahmad ibn Muḥammad ibn ‘Isa from Abu Yahya al-Wasiti from Hisham ibn Salim who has said the following: “We were in Medina after Abu ‘Abd Allah, left this world. People had gathered around ‘Abd Allah ibn Ja’far. They thought he was the person in charge of this task (Leadership with Divine Authority) after his father. Sahib al-Taq and I went to see him while people were around him because of a Hadith, they narrated from Abu ‘Abd Allah, that said, ‘The one in charge of the task (Leadership with Divine Authority) will be the eldest son, if he did not suffer any defects.’ We went to see and ask him what we used to ask his father. We asked him about Zakat to find out on how much property it becomes due. He said, ‘It is five on every two hundred.’ We asked, ‘What if it (the property) was one hundred?’ He said, ‘It (rate of tax) is two and a half.’ We then said, ‘By Allah, al-Murji‘a sect does not say so.’ “The narrator has said that he (‘Abd Allah ibn Ja’far) then raised hands to the sky and said, ‘By Allah, I do not know what al-Murji‘a group says.’ The narrator has said that we then left him with a feeling of loss and did not know where to go. Abu Ja’far al-Ahwal and I were together. We sat down on a street corner of the city of Medina weeping and confused and did not know where and to whom should we go, asking each other, ‘Where do we go now? Should we go to al-Murji‘a, al-Qadria (believers in predestination), to al-Zaydiaya sect, al-Mu‘tazila, or the al-Khawarij sect?’ At this time, I saw a gentleman whom I did not know, gesture toward me with his hand. I became afraid and thought he might be a spy of the spies of Abu Ja’far al-Mansur (‘Abbassid ruler). He had his spies in Medina to see whom the Shi‘a followed after Ja’far, and then they would cut his neck off. I was afraid, thinking that he might be one of them. I then said to al-Ahwal, ‘Get away from here; I am afraid for both of us. He only wants me and not you. Move away from me and from destruction. I do not want to become an instrument against you. He moved a little away, and I followed the gentleman. I did so, thinking that I would not be able to set myself free from him. I continued following him. I had become certain of dying until we reached the door of Abu al-Ḥasan. He then left me there and went away. At that time, the servant came out of the house and said, ‘Come inside. May Allah grant you blessings.’ I went in and found Abu al-Ḥasan, Mūsā, therein. He began talking to me saying: ‘(you do not have to go to anyone) not to al-Murji‘a, or al-Qadria, or al-Zaydiya nor to al-Mu‘tazila or al-Khariji group, come to me, come to me.’ I then said, ‘May Allah keep my soul in service for your cause, has your father left this world?’ He said, ‘Yes, he has passed away.’ I then asked, ‘Did he die a natural death?’ He said, ‘Yes, he did so.’ I then asked, ‘Who will be for us after him?’ He said, ‘If Allah wills to guide you, He will do so.’ I then asked, ‘May Allah keep my soul in service for your cause, ‘Abd Allah thinks that he is the one after his father.’ He said, ‘Abd Allah wants people not to worship Allah.’ I then asked, ‘May Allah keep my soul in service for your cause, who will be for us after him?’ He said, ‘If Allah wills to guide you, He will do so.’ I then said, ‘May Allah keep my soul in service for your cause, is that you?’ He said, ‘No, I do not say that to you.’ “He (the narrator) has said that I then said to myself, ‘Perhaps I could not ask in the right way.’ Then I asked, ‘May Allah keep my soul in service for your cause, is there any Imam above you?’ He said, ‘No, there is no Imam above me.’ He has said that then something struck my mind in a way that no one could know except Allah, the Most Majestic, the Most Gracious. It was a feeling of his greatness and awe greater than what I would feel in the presence of his father. Then I said, ‘May Allah keep my soul in service for your cause, may I ask what I used to ask your father?’ He said, ‘Ask, you will have the answers but do not make them public. If you did so, it would be slaughtering.’ I asked him and found him to be like an ocean of knowledge that does not diminish.”
The article was written by Hujjat al-Islam Sayyid Mostafa Daryabari and Dr. Morteza Karimi.
Al-Kāfi, vol. 1, p. 285.
Al-Khisal, vol. 1, p. 200
Bihar al-Anwar, vol. 25, p.264
Bihar al-Anwar, vol. 25, p. 116
Al-Kāfi, vol. 1, pp. 351-352.