How to Validate the Shia Imamat from the Holy Qur’an

By Mohib Ebrahim

Editor’s Note: On August 5th, 1923, a young 16 year old boy — the youngest honorary missionary and member of the Bombay Recreation Club, now the Ismaili Tariqah and Religious Education Board (ITREB) — delivered a two hour lecture to “prove the significance and the need of Imamat from the Holy Qur’an and the Hadith.” That boy was Rai. A. M. Sadaruddin, who went on to devote the rest of his life in service to the Imamat and to Ismaili studies and history, culminating in his appointment, personally by Mawlana Hazar Imam, as a member of the first Review Board of the Institute of Ismaili Studies. Learn more about that 1923 event here.

Ninety years later, to the month, we are pleased to bring to you a groundbreaking and compelling piece by Rai Sadaruddin’s grandson, Mohib Ebrahim (founder and publisher of the NanoWisdoms Archive of Imamat Speeches, Interviews and Writings), in which he, following in his grandfather’s footsteps, also validates Manifest Imamat and its necessity but this time from the Holy Qur’an alone. Remarkably, his fresh perspective and innovative method avoids the usual technical debates over the Arabic language and the historical record which this subject never fails to instigate.

imamat-quranic-threads-graphic-w716

Note: Excerpts from his article appear below, however the actual presentation and validation appears in the document linked at the end.

Introduction

Upon the death of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) a fundamental debate arose as to who was his rightful successor as leader of the nascent Muslim community. The debate is so fundamental that it is at the root of the Shia/Sunni difference of Islam and it has simmered continuously in the subsequent 1,400 years, at times boiling over with rage.

Over the centuries much has been written by both Shia and Sunni to “prove” their respective positions correct. On the one hand Shia theologians, philosophers, scholars, clergy and lay people have all sought to validate the Shia Imamat while on the other, their Sunni counterparts attempt to make the converse case. What is particularly perplexing and vexing to outside observers is both parties make their case from the same evidence — marshalling quotes from the Qur’an and Hadith (anecdotes about, and sayings of, the Prophet), key historical records as well as relying on rational or “common sense” arguments.

The paradox arises because there is no unanimous agreement over which historical records are accurate, which Hadith are authentic, and then even when there is agreement, disagreement arises over their interpretation. The dilemma is not improved, but rather compounded, when evidence from the Qur’an is relied upon simply because the Qur’an itself admits, in verse 3:7, to its own partial ambiguity thereby rendering those parts open to individual interpretation.

Disagreement over the historical record

To appreciate the depth of the quagmire over historical records, it would be instructive to review one particularly important example relevant to the Shia/Sunni disagreement over the Shia Imamat.

Consider the official position of the Ismailis — who are also the only branch of Islam, Shia or Sunni, which have “a living Imam who traces his family back to Hazrat Ali” (1). They state, as do all Shia, that:

[The Shia’s] espousal of the right of Ali and that of his descendants, through Fatima, to the leadership of the community was rooted, above all, in their understanding of the Qur’an and its concept of qualified and rightly guided leadership, as reinforced by Prophetic traditions. The most prominent among the latter were part of the Prophet’s sermon at a place called Ghadir Khumm, following his farewell pilgrimage, designating Ali as his successor, and his testament that he was leaving behind him ‘the two weighty things’, namely the Qur’an and his progeny, for the future guidance of his community. (2)

In addition, all Shia maintain that the Prophet also said at Ghadir Khumm, as quoted by Mir Ahmed Ali:

To whomsoever I am the Maula (the Lord – the Master), Ali is his Maula (the Lord – the Master). O God! Be Thou a friend to him who is a friend to him (Ali). (Be Thou) an enemy to him who is enemy to him (i.e. Ali). Help one who helps him (i.e. Ali). Foresake one who foresaketh him (i.e. Ali). (3)

Finally, Mir Ahmed Ali also notes:

[Upon] descending from the pulpit [after appointing Ali as Maula], the Holy Prophet commanded everyone of the huge gathering to pay his “Baiyat” or homage or allegiance to Ali. The first one to pay the baiyat was Omar ibne Khuttab (who later became the 2nd Khalif)…. Hearing the words with which Omar felicitated Ali, the Holy Prophet commanded Omar not to address Ali as son of Abu Taleb, but as ‘Amirul-Momineen’, i.e. the Lord Commander of the Faithful…. Like his other titles … the title of ‘Amirul-Momineen’ was also bestowed upon Ali exclusively for him by the Prophet himself for none else held any of the titles during his lifetime of the Holy Prophet, particularly ‘Amirul-Momineen’. (3)

The question is then of course: what is the Sunni position over Ghadir Khumm? Mir Ahmed Ali lists some 80 of the most respected Sunni authorities and books which have “reported this event in all its details.” (3) He also adds that the number of authorities who have “relayed this event with its true significance” (3) is such that there is “not a single event of the Islamic history nor any other Qur’anic Verses which has earned so much unanimous, universal, unquestionable and doubtless attention from such great authorities in such a huge number” (3).

Nevertheless, despite such an agreed upon record of what took place at Ghadir Khumm, the Prophet’s words were still parsed and dissected by, what appear to the uninitiated, hair-splitting arguments over Arabic and its grammar, that in all likelihood the matter will never be settled. For example, the word Maula is taken to mean “friend” and not “Lord” or “Master.” Such is the state of affairs, that, in concluding his lengthy commentary about the event, Mir Ahmed Ali wrote out of frustration:

[I]n spite of so much of the doubtless and the unchallengable acknowledgement of the facts [over Ghadir Khumm] it is only a wonder how man could ever insist upon his own fanciful notions and hold himself fast to them, unless his conscience and reasoning cease to work or he does not want to be corrected. (3)

Disagreement over Qur’anic interpretations

Given the disagreement about a historical event despite overwhelming agreement on its record by both sides, one can only imagine the disagreement over arguments relying on the Qur’an, given its admitted ambiguity. Perusing, for example, Chapter 4, “Al-Baqir’s Views on the Imamate,” of Arzina Lalani’s “Early Shi’i Thought: The Teachings of Imam Muhammad al-Baqir” offers a flavour of this, vis a vis the Imamat. In it, she discusses some of the Qur’anic verses — including 5:55, 5:67, 5:3, 4:59, 4:83, 4:51, 4:53, 4:54, 4:58, 9:119, 9:105, 2:143, 3:5 [sic, 3:7], 35:32, 42:22 [sic, 42:23], 64:8, 57:28, 6:122, 33:6, 43:28, 33:33, 17:71 — cited and interpreted by the 4th/5th Imam (i) revered by all Shia, Imam Muhammad al-Baqir, in his defence of the Imamat. Needless to say, the Sunni have their own interpretations for each of these verses.

While some of the Sunni interpretations appear strained to Shia ears, the Shia interpretation of others can only be understood as referring to the Imamat when explained by the Imams themselves, giving rise to suggestions of self-serving interpretations. Other verses, like the historical record, have been subjected to similar hair-splitting debates over the Arabic and its grammar, perhaps none more so than 3:7 where the debate quite literally rages over the placement of a full stop.

Setting the ground rules for a new approach

Leaving aside those ambiguous verses that require the Imamat to explain they refer to the Imamat, past attempts to validate the Imamat from the Qur’an were, in general, based on arguing a specific interpretation of what were, hopefully, “smoking gun” verses that one could then point to and proclaim, “Here, clear verses where Allah ordained the Imamat.” However, the fact is that such “smoking gun” verses are few and far between — if they are to be found at all, given the disagreements over interpretation, as explained above. Furthermore, even if they are very clear when read in a certain light, it is precisely because they need to be read in that certain light and then argued in isolation, that they do not, in my opinion, provide substantive, let alone conclusive, evidence.

Consequently, inspired by the Ismaili position mentioned above, it began to dawn on me that perhaps there was an alternative approach — at least for me — to resolve the dual quagmires of contradictory historical records and Qur’anic interpretations. However, several severe constraints were first needed. The “Ground Rules” as it were.

Surely it is self-evident that answers must be found in the “plain verses,” and not the ambiguous ones, for otherwise we would have an unresolvable paradox where the instructions on how we are to acquire the correct meaning of the Qur’an’s ambiguous verses, were themselves cloaked in ambiguity.

Qur’anic Threads: Taking up the invitation of verse 4:82

The problem, however, is that the unambiguous verses do not come specially identified. And, since merely quoting a verse from the Qur’an implies interpretation, the first question which arises about a verse is whether or not it is one of the ambiguous verses. If the verse is not sufficiently clear by itself to be excluded from the ambiguous verses, then — rather than trying to justify the interpretation semantically, parsing words or Arabic, or resorting to the historical context of the verse — perhaps other verses can be brought to bear and corroborate the interpretation offered and thereby settle issue with evidence. In fact the verse:

Will they not then ponder on the Qur’an? If it had been from other than Allah they would have found therein much incongruity. (Qur’an 4:82)

invites us to validate our interpretations by reconciling them with other parts of the Qur’an to and iron out any “apparent” inconsistencies our (mis)understandings create. Therefore, rather than trying to find and interpret a single “smoking gun” verse, argued and relied on in isolation, to justify Imamat, I use what I call Qur’anic Threads.

Qur’anic Threads propose a conclusion that arises from a set of mutually supportive, interlocking Observations related to a single concept with each Observation substantiated from a set of verses. It seems self-evident that if the Qur’an has no discrepancies, per 4:82 above, then surely it must neither have discrepancies at the micro (verse) level nor at macro (conceptual or “thread”) level. Therefore, if the thesis behind a thread is valid, threads will give interpretations credence, objectivity, coherence, resilience and stability because well formed threads are internally consistent from several perspectives and thus threads provide robust, perhaps even conclusive, lines of evidence and argument which are able to better withstand challenge as compared to individual, “smoking gun” verses argued in isolation.

Inspiration for a fresh perspective and a corresponding new approach

Although the aforementioned constraints prevents the demonstration from getting mired once again in the quicksands of parsing Arabic, personal interpretations of allegorical verses and conflicting historical records, they appear, superficially, to be unreasonably severe rendering it all but impossible to accomplish anything. Hope, however, lies in precise notions articulated in the Ismaili explanation of the Shia position, highlighted below:

[T]he Shia’s espousal of the right of Ali and that of his descendants, through Fatima, to the leadership of the community was rooted, above all, in their understanding of the Qur’an and its concept of qualified and rightly guided leadership, as reinforced by Prophetic traditions. [Emphasis added] (2)

Namely, that the Qur’an sets out two criteria for valid leadership: qualified and rightly guided. Here now were precise, specific criteria that could be tested objectively — as opposed to the subjective duels of linguists and historians — exactly as verse 4:82 proposes in the same spirit of scientific inquiry. Perhaps this is why Imam Jafar al-Sadiq said “Intellect (‘aql) is that by which Allah is worshipped and a place in Paradise earned” (5) and the Holy Prophet said:

To listen to the words of the learned and to instil into others the lessons of science is better than religious exercises. (8)

The Ismaili explanation of the Shia position and these two criteria beg the question: Does the Qur’an indeed declare a notion of “qualified and rightly guided leadership?” And if it does, then it prompts several fundamental questions:

  1. What qualifications make one “qualified and rightly guided” to lead?
  2. Who are the “qualified” to lead and who are “the rightly guided?”
  3. And most importantly, can they be identified?

Individually, each answer would be of immense value. Collectively, however, the conclusion they offer may well be unassailable. Surprisingly the answers are neither as obscure nor as surprising as one might imagine.

To investigate the Qur’anic position on the previous questions, three Threads (corresponding roughly to each question) were developed. Each thread is depicted in single page chart, which can be read independently of the commentary which follows each.

Continued in the document linked below …

Click on any thumbnail to download the full article, the 3 thread charts and their related commentary

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About the author:

Mohib Ebrahim is the Editor and Publisher of the NanoWisdoms Archive of Imamat Speeches, Interviews and Writings. Launched several years ago, in 2011, upon receiving special permission from Aiglemont to publish His Highness the Aga Khan’s speeches, the NanoWisdoms Archive is a unique website dedicated solely to the Ismaili Imamat’s speeches, interviews and writings. With over 500 readings — from akdn.org, iis.ac.uk, theismaili.org, aku.edu, archnet.org, pluralism.ca, printed materials, media Web sites and other sources — and thousands of quotes, the Archive is the most comprehensive, public collection of Ismaili Imamat knowledge available today.

An honours graduate of Simon Fraser University in Computer Science and Mathematics, Mohib has been involved in software development and the IT industry since the ’80s. His current project, MasterFile, is a state-of-the-art evidence system for academic researchers, investigators, and litigators. Mohib has also been a keen amateur astronomer for almost 40 years and his religious interests lie in the reconciliation of faith and reason.

Other articles by the author

6 thoughts on “How to Validate the Shia Imamat from the Holy Qur’an

  1. Congratulation Mohib Bhai,
    It is really a groundbreaking and compelling piece of documentation, which all the Ismailis can use as proof of foundation of our Tariqa.
    Thanks also to Ismaili Gnostic to publishing this great document.
    May God Bless you both
    PBSJ Blog

  2. Thank you very much for sharing this article. I am very happy to learn that you are related to Rai A. M. Saduruddin. I used to read all his articles in Africa Ismaili.
    Best Wishes and Prayers for Success in all your endeavors, ameen.

  3. Pingback: Validating the Shia Imamat Part 1: The Qur’an on the Holders of Authority | Ismaili Gnosis

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