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What the Qur’an and the Sunna Say about Imam Ali’s Leadership

If the ḥadīth of Manzila, ḥadīth of Ghadīr and ḥadīth of Badʾ al-Daʿwa point to the political centrality of the Prophet’s Family, there are other traditions which demonstrate their centrality to Islamic thought after the Prophet.

In fact, ʿAlī and some of his descendants (who constitute the major part of the Prophet’s family) enjoyed the same kind of centrality as the Prophet himself did, except for receiving revelation and establishing the religion. What follows is aimed at support the centrality of the Prophet’s family to Islam.

The ḥadīth of Thaqalayn

The first supporting ḥadīth is that of thaqalayn (‘the two weighty things’), which contains some of the Prophet’s important words in the last days of his life:

Oh, people! I am soon to be summoned and I must respond. I have left amongst you two weighty things, one of which is greater than the other; the Book of God and my progeny, so pay attention to how you treat these two after me. They will not part from one another until they return to me at the Pool.’ (Nīsābūrī, 3/103)

The authenticity of this ḥadīth has been so heavily supported that Mīr Hāmid Ḥusayn has compiled a six-volume book, entitled ʿAqabāt al-Anwār, containing the supporting references.

The ḥadīth of the Ark

The second supporting ḥadīth is known as the ḥadīth of the Ark (safīna). In this tradition, the Prophet has compared his family, in terms of their intellectual centrality, to Noah’s ark and has added that whoever travels on board it will be saved and whoever does not will perish: ‘Lo! Verily the likeness of my Household amongst you is that of Noah’s ark; whoever boards it will be saved and whoever holds back from it will drown’ (Nīsābūrī, 3/151). Based on this, Ibn Ḥajar al-Haythamī argues in his Sawa‘iq that whoever loves the Prophet’s Family out of gratitude to God for sending the Prophet to the people and follows their teachings will be saved from darkness, and whoever does not follow them will be drowned in the sea of ingratitude and failure.

The ḥadīth of the Twelve Leaders

Bukhārī’s and Muslim’s ḥadīth collections, which are among the best and most reliable ḥadīth collections of Sunnī Muslims, include a tradition that refers to the rule of twelve leaders (amīr). Bukhārī writes that Jābir b. Samra said: ‘I hear the Prophet say, “There will be twelve leaders.” Then he said something I didn’t hear. I asked my father what he had said and he told me: “They will all be from the Quraysh.”’ (Bukhārī, 9/101, tradition nos. 7222 and 7223).

Meanwhile, Muslim relates from the Prophet: ‘This (Islam) will not be finished until twelve successors come and go after me… they will all be from the Quraysh’ (Muslim 6/3).

Aḥmad b. Ḥanbal narrates that Masrūq, a Successor, said: ‘I was sitting near ʿAbd Allāh b. Masʿūd as he recited the Qur’an, when a man asked him: “Did you ask the Prophet the number of his successors?” ʿAbd Allāh answered: “Nobody has ever asked me this since I entered Iraq. Yes, I asked the Prophet and he replied: ‘They will be twelve, as the leaders of the Israelites were.’”’

Other traditions tell us that the Prophet prefixed his description of the twelve successors with one of the following clauses: ‘Islam will always be mighty so long as…’ ‘Islam will always be victorious so long as…,’ ‘Islam will always be firm so long as…’, and ‘Islam will always be true so long as…’ Thus, the Prophet has connected the greatness, victory, firmness and truth of Islam to the leadership of the Twelve Imams and compared them with the Prophets of the Israelites. These descriptions apply to the Twelve Imams, beginning with Imam ʿAlī, who made many efforts to spread the teachings of Islam and in this way guaranteed the greatness of Islam. Moreover, all Muslims – whether Shīʿī or Sunnī – are in agreement that these the Imams were amongst the most knowledgeable and pious people of their time.

Let us consider this matter from another angle and suppose that the Four Caliphs (i.e. Abū Bakr, ʿUmar, ʿUthmān and ʿAlī. ) were what guaranteed the greatness and victory of Islam. The problem is that their periods of leadership were short and they were only four in number. The Umayyad rulers were tyrants and there were more than twelve of them. The Abbasid rulers were tyrants in a similar fashion, guilty of bloodshed and persecution and, again, there were more than twelve of them.

As far as understanding the Prophet’s words, we should be looking for twelve consecutive leaders whose personalities reflect the descriptions provided by the Prophet. It is very strange that some Sunnī writers have tried prove that the Prophet was actually referring to the four caliphs along with some Umayyad rulers such as Muʿāwiya, Yazīd, ʿAbd al-Malik Marwān and Walīd, some of whom were notorious for murdering the Prophet’s Companions and drinking alcohol in Kaʿba (Suyūṭī, Tārīkh, 250).

The Verse of Wilāya

The Verse of Wilāya is a verse of the Qur’an which the majority interpreters concur was revealed concerning Imam ʿAlī. It reads: ‘Your guardian (walī) is only Allāh, His Messenger, and the faithful who maintain the prayer and give the zakāt while bowing. Whoever takes for his guardians Allāh, His Messenger and the faithful (should know that) the confederates of Allāh are indeed the victorious’ (Q5:55-6).

Imam ʿAlī, Ibn ʿAbbās, ʿAmmār, Jābir, Abū Rāfiʿ, Anas b. Mālik and ʿAbd Allāh b. Salām relate the same story about the context of verse 5:55 (Hindī, tradition no. 6137; al-Fakhr al-Rāzī 12/26 and Nīsābūrī, Tafsīr, 6/154): Namely that on one occasion a beggar came to the mosque and asked for people’s help, but nobody gave him anything. It was at this moment that Imam ʿAlī, who was bowing in prayer, signalled for the beggar to take the ring from his finger. The man took the ring and went away. When the Prophet heard about this, he asked God: ‘Appoint an assistant for me from my Family, just as you did for Moses!’ Gabriel came to reveal the above verse (5/55) to the Prophet as a response to his request.

The renowned poet of the Prophet’s day, Ḥasan b. Thābit, has composed the following lines in praise of Imam ʿAlī:

Who gave his ring in charity while bowing / and whose soul is filled with secrets?

Who slept in Muḥammad’s bed while he travelled by night on the Day of the Cave?

Who has been named faithful in nine frequently recited verses?’ (Ibn al-Jawzī, 18)

The word ‘walī’ in the verse denotes ‘guardian’ or ‘someone with authority’ rather than ‘friend’ because describing Imam ʿAlī as a friend of the Muslims would not single him out for mention. The Qur’an calls all Muslims friends of one another: ‘The believers, men and women, are friends (awliyāʾ) of one another’ (Q9/71). Thus, the only reasonable meaning of ‘walī’ in this context would be ‘guardian,’ ‘leader’ or ‘authority.’ The term ‘walī’ in Arabic denotes ‘guardian’ as in the Prophet’s ḥadīth: ‘If a woman marries without the consent of her guardian (walī), her marriage would be invalid’ (Ibn Ḥanbal, 6/66). This is also the meaning intended by the verse, which mentions three guardians for the Muslims: Allāh, His Messenger and ‘the faithful.’ The latter term have been further specified as ‘who maintain the prayer and give the zakāt while bowing ‘(Q5:55). As we can see, the third guardian is none other than Imam ʿAlī, who gave zakāt while bowing in prayer. Furthermore, if the word ‘walī’ meant ‘friend’ or another similar word, it would have been meaningless to restrict its meaning by talking about maintaining prayers and paying zakāt because Muslims are all friends with each other. As we can see, the above verse adds the condition of paying zakāt while bowing in prayer to the condition of belief in God and offering prayers. By doing so, it restricts the possible referents of the verse to the point that, as far as history can show, there will be only one guardian that could be considered as the referent of the verse; Imam ʿAlī.

A question answered

One might ask why the verse says: ‘the faithful’ (plural) not ‘the faithful man’ (singular) if it only refers to ʿAlī. The simple answer is that in Arabic sometimes the plural is used instead of singular to pay special respect to someone or something, as when God says: ‘We have indeed sent it down in the Night of Power’ (Q97:1). Zamakhsharī argues in his Kashshāf that the plural is used here in order to encourage people to act in a similar way, namely, to know the value of such good deeds and to be so generous as to pay zakāt to the poor even before their prayers are finished (1/468).

Responding to Rāzī’s objections

Al-Fakhr al-Rāzī, known as the ‘Leader of the Skeptics’, has raised doubts that the wilāya mentioned in this verse refers to ʿAlī. Fortunately, he wrote his will in 606/1209, two years before his death, explaining his doubts: ‘Know that I loved knowledge and wrote on many subjects while I was not fully aware of their nature and did not care much whether my writings were right or wrong, worthy or worthless’ )Farīd Wajdī, 4/148).

We will now consider some of Rāzī’s comments regarding the Verse of Wilāya and its relationship to Imam ʿAlī. One of Rāzī’s arguments is that ‘walī’ in Arabic means ‘friend,’ as in: ‘the believers are friends (awliyāʾ) of one another’ (Q9:71). The plural form ‘awliyāʾ’ is also used in the verse ‘O you who have faith! Do not take the Jews and the Christians for allies: they are allies of each other. Any of you who allies with them is indeed one of them. Indeed Allāh does not guide the wrongdoing lot’ (Q5:51). Below this verse, God says: ‘O you who have faith! Do not take those who take your religion in derision and play, from among those who were given the Book before you, and the infidels, as friends, and be wary of Allāh, should you be faithful.’ (Q5:57). If we accepted the meaning of ‘friends’ for ‘awliyāʾ’ in Q5:51 and Q5:57, we would have to admit the same meaning for the word in Verse of Wilāya, Rāzī argues.

It seems that owing to his theological bias, Rāzī has, on the basis of a limited sample of verses (Q5:51 and 57), concluded that the words ‘awliyāʾ’ and ‘walī’ imply ‘friendship’ and ‘love,’ and therefore, the Verse of Wilāya speaks about love of God, His Messenger and other believers. But the point is that the friendship between believers and God and His Messenger was obvious and did not need to be stressed in this verse. Therefore, the word ‘walī’ should mean something different here; something that applies to the three distinct entities in the verse. A glance at the other verses of Sūrat al-Māʾida (namely verses 42–70) reveals that the word ‘walī’ signifies people who may rule, and have authority over, the society of Muslims:

‘And how should they make you a judge, while with them is the Torah, in which is Allāh’s judgement? Yet in spite of that they turn their backs (on Him) and they are not believers.’ (Q5:43)

‘Let the people of the Evangel judge by what Allāh has sent down in it. Those who do not judge by what Allāh has sent down – it is they who are the transgressors.’ (Q5:47)

‘Judge between them by what Allāh has sent down, and do not follow their desires. Beware of them lest they should beguile you from part of what Allāh has sent down to you. But if they turn their backs (on you), then know that Allāh desires to punish them for some of their sins, and indeed many of the people are transgressors.’ (Q5:49)

‘Do they seek the judgement of (pagan) ignorance? But who is better than Allāh in judgement for a people who have certainty?’ (5: 50)

After all of these verses, which concern matters of leading the believers and judging between them, the Qur’an presents the verse referred to by Rāzī: ‘O you who have faith! Do not take the Jews and the Christians for allies: they are allies of each other. Any of you who allies with them is indeed one of them. Indeed Allāh does not guide the wrongdoing lot’ (Q5:51). Considering the preceding verses, it is clear that verse 51 cannot be simply talking about friendship with the Jews and Christians, but rejecting the authority of these people over Muslims, an authority which could be the source all evil in the Muslim society. Likewise, it becomes clear that verse 57, is also not speaking about friendly relations with Jews and Christians but warning against accepting their judgments and their authority in issuing religious decrees.

In view of the above points, the content of the Verse of Wilāya could be more clearly understood. God identifies three referents for walī because the groups previously mentioned had not accepted the authority of Allāh and had not implemented his orders. This is why God warns these groups in the previous verses.

There are other verses in the Qur’an which further demonstrate that the word ‘walī’ (or ‘awliyāʾ’) cannot be read as meaning friend (or friends), but ‘authority’ or ‘guardian.’ Q5:51, which forms the basis of Rāzī’s argument is very similar to Q9:23, which reads: ‘O you who have faith! Do not take your fathers and brothers as awliyāʾ if they prefer faithlessness to faith. Those of you who befriend them – it is they who are the wrongdoers.’ What could be the meaning of this verse which warns the believers of taking their parents and brothers as their ‘awliyāʾ’ if they prefer infidelity to faith? Does this refer to the filial love between parents and their children? Clearly not! This is a very natural kind of love which cannot be easily stopped. Rather, the verse refers to a kind of relationship in which someone’s life is controlled and led by another person.

Q5:51 contains the following divine judgment: ‘Any of you who allies with them (i.e. the Jews and the Christians) is indeed one of them.’ Could we conclude that friendship with Jews and Christians makes a Muslim believer into a Jew or Christian? Again, it may be seen that the word ‘walī’ is a reference to accepting someone’s authority. As all the above discussion can show, it is impossible for anyone to claim that the word ‘walī’ or ‘awliyāʾ’ concerns friendship!

Rāzī has a further objection to the Shīʿa interpretation of the Verse of Wilāya, too. Supposing that verse Q5:55 refers to Imam ʿAlī, Rāzī argues, we should also believe that the leadership of ʿAlī is not restricted to the post-Prophet era but is also applicable during the Prophet’s lifetime (Rāzī, Tafsīr 12/28)!

However, Rāzī has not paid due attention to the fact that while ʿAlī’s leadership might apply during the Prophet’s lifetime too, the implementation of such leadership would normally happen in the absence of the Prophet – that is, after his death. Politicians normally appoint an acting deputy who is not in charge of the affairs unless the politician goes away and there is a need for someone to carry out his or her duties.

Studying the verses about Imam ʿAlī, we may see that God actively directs the Muslim community towards the Prophet’s Family. For example, He makes the love of the Prophet’s Household the reward for the Prophet’s mission (Q42:23); He refers to ʿAlī as the self (nafs) of the Prophet, and his sons as the Prophet’s own sons (Q3:61); He says that the houses of the Prophet’s Family (including that of Fāṭima) have been ‘raised to honour’ (Q24:36). Acording to Suyūṭī, when this verse was revealed to the Prophet, Abū Bakr asked him while pointing to ʿAlī and Fāṭima’s house, ‘Is this one of those houses?’ and the Prophet replied, ‘Yes, that is one of the best houses’ (Durr al-Manthūr 5: 50). If we take these verses into consideration, we can easily see that the Prophet has made a decision about his successor and appointed him before his death.

The selection taken from “Shia Islam: History and Doctrines” by Ayatollah Jafar Sobhani.

About Ali Teymoori

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