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The Imams Who Make the Book Speak

It is a fundamental principle of Shi‘ite exegesis that the imam is the only person who may legitimately interpret the sacred Text, having been chosen and inspired by God for this purpose. Indeed, according to a saying attributed to ‘Alī, the Qur’an “does not speak in a language; it needs its own interpreter.” The latter can only be an infallible imam, just as the Prophet was. At the purely literal level, without the imam’s hermeneutics, the Book does not mean anything; it is a “mute Qur’an.” It is the imam who renders it intelligible and it is for this reason that he is called the “speaking Qur’an.

The youngest of the great religions of the Book, Islam attributes the utmost sacredness to its own Scripture. In Sunnism, the Qur’an’s sacralisation has often led to a closing of the doors as much in the field of historical criticism as in that of spiritual hermeneutics. This is not, however, the case in Shi‘a Islam, which not only calls itself a religion of the Book but also – and this right from its origins – a religion of the Book’s interpretation. This definition holds good for its two main historical forms, Twelver Imamism (based on the twelve imams) and Ismailism.



In the Shi‘ite vision of the world, each thing possesses both a manifest (or exoteric) exterior aspect (zāhir) and a hidden (or esoteric) interior content (bātin). This is true, above all, of God who is, according to the Qur’an, “the Outward and the Inward” (57:3). As a consequence, it is also true of the divine revelations bestowed during the course of history. Since the letter of a sacred Scripture always carries a hidden meaning that constitutes the latter’s spirit, the coming of a prophet with a literal revelation (tanzīl) cannot do without a series of imams who have the task of producing its spiritual exegesis (ta’wīl). According to the Shi‘ite conception of holy history, just as Moses had Aaron as his first imam, and Jesus had the apostle Simon, so the prophet Muhammad had, as his first imam, his young cousin, ‘Alī b. Abī Tālib, husband of his daughter Fatima and father of his only male line of descendants. If prophecy comes to an end with Muhammad, then the last cycle of the divine alliance (walāya), entrusted to the imams, opens with ‘Alī. Shi‘ite prophetology is inseparable from an imamology and the latter is inseparable from a hermeneutic of the Book.



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