Our previous article, here discussed the spiritual functions of the Prophet Muhammad as revealed in the Qur’an, including his role in guiding the Believers on behalf of God, interceding for the Believer’s forgiveness (4:64), accepting offerings from them to purify their souls (9:102-104) on God’s behalf, sending blessings upon them for their tranquillity (9:103), pardoning them for their errors and shortcomings (3:159, 5:13, 7:199), judging between them (4:65), and accepting their obedience on behalf of God (4:64).
This article discusses the concept of Imamat in the Qur’an. In a general sense, the Imamat refers to divinely-appointed leadership in religious matters in a hereditary line of descent from the family of the Prophet. The word imam in Arabic is derived from the Arabic root ammama, which means “to come before”, from which the words umm (mother) and ummah (community) are derived. The meaning of the word imam is “leader”, “guide”, “example”, “model”, or “path” and appears 12 times in the Qur’an. The general meaning of imam is “leader” or “guide” in the sense of the one who comes before the people and leads them. Sometimes the word imam can mean “book” if the said book performs the function of guidance or leadership.
It is important to register that the mission/mandate of Prophets (nabi) and Messengers (rasul) is defined throughout the Qur’an as “conveying news, warning, and delivering a message” (2:213, 18:56, 4:165, 5:99, 5:92); but the mission/mandate of the Imams is to provide continuous leadership, guide human beings by God’s Command, perform good works as inspired by God, pass judgement over the believers, and witness over people’s deeds on the Day of Judgment (21:73, 32:24, 2:124, 38:26, 17:71). Thus, the mission of Prophets/Messengers differs from the mission of the Imams. The mission of the Imam is greater in authority and scope than the mission of Prophets/Messengers.
With respect to the holders of this leadership, the Qur’an describes how God appointed Abraham as the Imam of humankind and promised to continue to appoint Imams from those of his progeny who are free from corruption (2:124). Abraham himself is called an ummah in himself (16:120). The Qur’an further describes how God appointed Abraham’s son and grandson, the Prophets Isaac and Jacob, as “Imams who guide by Our Command (bi-amrina)” whom “We inspired to do good deeds, establish prayer, and give the zakah” (21:73). Similarly, the Qur’an mentions how God appointed Imams among the Children of Israel “who guide by Our Command” (32:24) in addition to the Book (kitab). 1
Apart from actual mention of the word imam, several Qur’anic terms and themes speak to the concept of Imamat in the sense of divinely-appointed leadership in the hereditary line of descent from the family of the Prophet.
The Qur’an speaks of the Ulu’l-Amr (possessors of authority) in 4:59 with the order “O ye who believe: obey God and obey the Messenger and the Ulu’l-Amr amongst you.” Just as the Qur’an uses one command (“obey”) to signify obedience to God, it uses one command (“obey”) to call the believers to obedience to both the Messenger and the Ulu’l-Amr . This demonstrates that the level of authority and degree of obedience due to the Messenger and the Ulu’l-Amr is the same level. The believers are also instructed to refer their disputes and disagreements to the Messenger and the Ulu’l-Amr (4:83). The Qur’anic concept of the Ulu’l-Amr (Possessors of Authority), as evident in the term amr (Command, Authority) also coincides with the “Imams who guide by Our Command” (21:73, 32:24) mentioned above.
One of the most pervasive ideas in the Qur’an is God’s designation of the successors of Prophets from among their family members and descendants. The various terms (al, ahl, dhurriyyah, qurba) used to denote the special status of the Prophets’ families and progeny number to over one hundred in the Qur’an. Adam and Noah are succeeded by the Progeny (al) of Abraham and Imran, all in a single line of descent (3:33-34). God has established the prophet-hood and the Book (kitab) in the descendants (dhurriyyah) of Noah and Abraham (57:26). God has bestowed the Book (kitab), the Wisdom (al-hikmah), and the Great Kingdom (mulk azim) upon the Progeny (al) of Abraham (4:54, 29:27). Abraham’s sons and grandson were appointed as Imams who guide by God’s Command (21:73). God grants the request of Abraham and Ismail for a nation (ummah) among their Descendants (dhurriyyah) which will always be submissive to God (2:127-28), protected from idol worship, and to whom the hearts of people will incline (14:35-37). Joseph was chosen and favored by God like his fathers before him as God’s favour upon the House (al) of Jacob (12:6). God answers Moses’ prayer (20:29) and appoints for him his brother Aaron as a deputy (wazir) from his Family (ahl). God appoints Solomon as David’s heir (warith), and both of them were given knowledge from Him (27:15-16). God answers Zakariyyah’s prayer to appoint John as his heir (warith) and the inheritor of the Family (al) of Jacob (19:6). In general, God has chosen and guided the fathers, descendants, and brethren of the previous Prophets and Messengers to the Straight Path (6:87).
This cursory examination of the concept of Imamat in the Qur’an reveals the following features on the Qur’anic idea of imamah or leadership:
- God appoints and designates Imams to guide by His Command (amr).
- These Imams, identical to the Ulu’l-Amr, command the same authority as the Messenger of God.
- Prior to Prophet Muhammad, God appointed the Imams from the families and descendants of previous Prophets, particularly Abraham.
- God consistently favoured specific descendants of prior Prophets with the Book, the Wisdom, the Inheritance, the Kingdom, and the Guidance.
As we conclude, it should be noted that the Qur’an mentions in a number of places that the method or custom (sunnah) of God is never altered and remains the same from age to age.
Such is the Custom (sunnah) of God concerning those who passed away before, and never shall you find in the Custom of God any change.
Holy Qur’an 33:62
The question that immediately comes to mind is this: if God consistently designated the successors, guides, and Imams from the family descendants of the Prophets before Prophet Muhammad, why would this custom (sunnah) of God suddenly change after Muhammad?
Insofar as the Qur’an expresses the thoughts of Muhammad, it is evident that he could not have considered Abu Bakr his natural successor or have been pleased by his succession… He could not have seen his succession essentially other than in the light of the narrations of the Qur’an about the succession of earlier prophets, just as he saw his own mission as a prophet… These earlier prophets considered it a supreme divine favour to be succeeded by their offspring or close kin for which they implored their Lord… In the Qur’an, the descendants and close kin of the prophets are heirs also in respect of kingship (mulk), rule (hukm), wisdom (hikma), the book and the imamate. The Sunni concept of the true caliphate itself defines it as a succession of the Prophet in every respect except his prophet-hood. Why should Muhammad not be succeeded in it by any of his family like the earlier prophets?… The Qur’an advises the faithful to settle some matters by consultation, but not the succession to prophets. That, according to the Qur’an, is settled by divine election, and God usually chooses their successors, whether they become prophets or not, from their own kin.
Wilferd Madelung, (The Succession to Muhammad, Cambridge University Press, 1997, pp. 16-17)
- The term kitab, often translated as Book, should not be understood as a “text” in the modern sense of the word. The word kitab as used in the Qur’an means God’s “decree” or “guidance” and not a physical text.