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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