From imam’s centrality to the jurisconsult’s government

Last update: 2022-04-22 08:57:26

Since its very beginning, Shi‘a Islam was the fruit of a debate on authority and legitimacy. According to Sunni tradition, Prophet Muhammad died without male heirs and without leaving any instructions regarding his succession. Shi‘ites believe Abu Bakr’s election by the community’s notables was the usurpation of an authority that lawfully belonged to ‘Ali, who had been explicitly designated as his legitimate successor by Muhammad. 

Early Shi‘ite historiography poses in contrast the unlawful profane investiture, i.e. election by men who are deaf to the divine will, and sacred investiture, i.e. divine election. In this regard, the Kitab al-Kashf, a tenth century Ismaili work, describes well the Shi‘a feeling: ‘Ali’s enemies “followed the one they designated as imam (meaning Abu Bakr) according to their choice and passion of their souls, regardless of God’s choice and the designation of His Messenger”.1 Refusing to follow ‘Ali ibn Abu Talib was a bold betrayal, especially since it was unmistakably clear that he had been designated by Muhammad (and by God in the original, uncensored Qur’an).2 The opposition between legitimate and illegitimate powers is certainly tinged with dualism and hides another fundamental opposition, i.e. that between esotericism and exotericism,3 since the Imam exposed to Satanic forces is the sole holder of the esoteric interpretation of Qur’anic revelation.

Unlike the Sunnis, for whom the prophecy ended with Prophet’s death, Shi‘ites believe that guidance continues otherwise: the prophetic cycle is followed by a cycle of walaya,4 incarnated by a new line of imams descending from ‘Ali. Certainly, the imams do not have the prophetic power to found a new religion but they do inherit all the other prophetic prerogatives, both political and religious. In principle, Shi‘ites believe that the imam is the only legitimate holder of authority; therefore any power not exercised by the imam is unlawful. But aside from the brief and stormy kingdom of ‘Ali, very much disputed at the time, Shi‘ite imams never had access to power despite numerous Shi‘ite revolts in the early days of Islam and several attempts, all ruthlessly repressed, to bring an imam to supreme office. Starting with the sixth imam Ja‘afar al-Sadiq (d. 765), who rejected the caliphate offered to him by a Shi‘ite rebel, Shi‘a Islam opted for quietism, apparently resigning to a world essentially perceived as unjust and evil. 

According to the American historian Marshall G.S. Hodgson, we owe to Ja‘afar al-Sadiq the constitution of Shi‘a Islam as a separate religious community. At that time, the imam’s authority was based on three main concepts: nass, i.e. explicit and public designation by the imam of his successor; ‘ilm, the knowledge possessed by imams that grants them the exclusive right of interpretation (ta’wil) of the Qur’anic text, that with Ja‘afar acquires “a special sacredness, becoming an exclusive gift inherited from imam to imam”; and finally, what Hodgson calls a “protective discipline” (taqiyya), which consists in the prohibition issued by the imams to their disciples to speak in their name without their permission.5

Much more than a political leader, the imam became first of all the “proof” (hujja) of God on earth, the guarantor and keeper of the Pact between God and men since Adam. This re-orientation was not enough to undermine, in the eyes of the Shi‘ites, the imam’s political legitimacy, or to make them see that political power was ipso facto legitimate, as it is in Sunni Islam, which tends to ground political legitimacy on something already accomplished: the legitimate sovereign is the actual holder of power, provided that he does not openly take anti-Islamic measures. 

Shi‘ite political agitation did not stop with the new direction imposed by Ja‘afar al-Sadiq: it was arguably in reaction to his quietism that a circle of more politicized disciples formed around his son Ism‘ail. A century later, they would be considered predecessors by the Isma‘ilis, before forming the Fatimid Caliphate (909-1171). But for those who followed Ja‘afar’ and his successors, the political question was now in the background, waiting to be postponed within the frame of eschatology.

In 874, the death of the eleventh imam al-Hasan al-‘Askari marked a breaking point. Since apparently he had no children, his disappearance caused confusion among the ranks of the community and caused dozens of schisms. The argument that prevailed was that al-‘Askari had indeed left a son behind, Muhammad, who had concealed himself shortly after the death of his father. Until 940-941, he exchanged letters with the community and kept in touch with it through four successive deputies. The death of the fourth deputy marks the beginning of the Major Occultation: the imam would remain hidden until the End of the Times, when he will return as Mahdi. Then, the problem of a religion based on the doctrine of the imam but missing a physical imamarose, a problem that since 874 brought many disoriented Shi‘ites to adhere to Isma‘ilism,6 which was campaigning for an alive, though hidden, imam. This movement led to the foundation of the Fatimid Caliphate.

Twelver Shi‘a Islam was looking for an indisputable authority in religious affairs. At first what prevailed was the opinion of those who would later be called akhbaris, for whom only the Qur’an and the hadith of the Prophet and the imams were authoritative – something that in time favored the development of a Shi‘ite science of hadith on imitation of Sunnism. However, in the end, the history of Twelver Shi‘a Islam gradually consecrated the victory of their opponents, the usulis, rationalists and supporters of a more or less significant use of reason in religious matters. 

In Sunni Islam, these debates led to the formation of four legal schools, born precisely out from the diverse opinions about the processes that allowed the establishment of a valid religious norm. These processes were primarily analogical reasoning (qiyas), community consensus (ijma‘), personal opinion (ra’y). Initially, Shi‘ites rejected these three processes: consensus of the community or of the scholars could not be valid if it did not include the imam’s opinion, and certainly could not be placed on the same level of the imams’s consensus. As for the other two processes, the degree of truth of their results was in the order of hypothesis, not of certainty, which is why they were also rejected by the Hanbali Sunni school. Ijtihadthe personal reflection effort made to resolve a religious issue, had been accepted by the Sunni for the legal schools’ founders; it was later considered that the essential legal rules had been decided and it was no longer necessary to make use of ijtihad. Muslims had no other choice than to return to imitation (taqlid) of the four schools’ great names. It is what is commonly called “closing the gate of ijtihad”, although this notion must be softened. Twelver Shi‘a Islam lived the reverse evolution: initially hostile to ijtihad, suspected of being fallible and of claiming to compete with the imam’s science, it was gradually integrated to the point of giving it a prominent place.

The eschatological expectation was prolonged, and the prospect of the Mahdi’s return became more and more distant, especially after 940-941. It was therefore necessary to organize the community, to propose a guide, to answer the practical questions posed by the Occultation. How should cases not covered by scriptural sources be judged? Was collective prayer mandatory in the absence of the imam? Were physical punishments envisaged by the Qur’an to be carried out? Was the tax for the imam still due? If so, who was to receive it? Who could legitimately interpret religion, convey exegesis? The transmission process of all these prerogatives from the imam to the Shi‘ite religious scholars lasted several centuries and went through different stages, not without reservations and reticence of the ones who contributed to it. This process was also contested by many other Shi‘ite streams, including the aforementioned akhbaris, the theosophists of the Isfahan school in the seventeenth century, or the shaykhiyya from the nineteenth century to this day.7 Nevertheless, this process led to a situation in which the absence of the imam marked the suspension of his religious and political prerogatives only on a theoretical, fictitious level

The Major Occultation coincided, more or less, with the coming into power of a Shi‘ite Dynasty of Viziers in Baghdad, the Buyids, in 945. Their kingdom favored the emergence of great Shi‘ite theologians who were at the origin of a rationalist turn destined to permanently influence the Twelver Shi‘ite doctrine on several points. Since Shi‘a Islam was the religion of men who ruled over a Sunni majority, Shi‘ite scholars tended to get closer to Sunni positions. Firstly, the esoteric and gnostic hadith of ancient collections that attributed superhuman powers and qualities to imams were progressively censored.8 The notion of ‘aql, frequently used by imams, was interpreted in a strictly rational, no longer spiritual, meaning9; this led to its growing use in religious matters, first of all in the selection of hadith: it is by resorting to reason that al-Mufid (died 1022) justified his choice to discard certain hadith considered to be irrational. While refusing ijtihad, al-Mufid was opening up the possibility of its use by admitting reason as adjuvant. His disciple al-Murtada (1044) integrated the ijtihad, limiting it to cases not dealt with by the Qur’an and the hadiths.10 These two jurists believed that religious scholars were entitled to apply corporal punishment legally prescribed by the Qur’an (hudud).11 These first steps were prone to consequences with respect to the question of legitimacy and authority. While the “traditionalist” school abided by the scriptural sources – Qur’an and hadith of the Prophet and the imams – without claiming to be their interpreter, the “rationalist” school opened the way for the transfer of authority to the figure of the jurisconsult practicing ijtihad, the mujtahid. Politically speaking, Shi‘ite scholars, motivated by the rulers, ambiguously justified their collaboration with power,12 which was considered conditional on the mere recognition by the latter of the authority of the concealed imam.13

Later on, al-‘Allama al- Hilli (died 1325), the first scholar to receive the title of ayatollah, imposed the principle of the validity of rational reflection on religious matters. According to Halm, his theory of ijtihad, which germinally contains the developments of the Safavid period, focused in particular on three main aspects. Al-‘Allama admits the fallibility of ijtihad, balancing it with the imams’ infallibility. Such concession is a way of strengthening the legitimacy of the mujtahid and granting him greater freedom of interpretation: if the jurist is fallible by nature, he can make mistakes without them being considered a sin. Also, such fallibility has the advantage of allowing some opinions to be revised and of avoiding to have extremely strict points of view. On the other hand, the expert who can aspire to ijtihad must meet a number of criteria not required of the rest of the believers. It is therefore up to the believer to seek a mujtahid and live according to his imitation (taqlid). Finally, the opinions of a mujtahid, which can be freely chosen, are binding only as long as he is alive.14

In the Safavid era (1501-1736), Shi‘a Islam got closer to power and the jurist’s authority was enhanced. While the founder of the dynasty had initially presented himself as the awaited Mahdi, which should have made his authority indisputable, his successors returned to a more moderate Shi‘a Islam by founding their authority on the status of descendants of the seventh imam, Musa al-Kazim. With the support of Safavid power, the scholar al-Karaki (died 1533) imposed the theological principles of al-‘Allama al-Hilli as the official doctrine – in particular the use of reason as source of religious decisions and the ijtihad-taqlid pair. Shi‘a Islam had accepted as dogma the idea that the imam had no more deputies after the four representatives of the Lesser Occultation period, who were part of a “special representation” (niyaba khassa). Al-Karaki claimed for himself the possibility of a “general representation” (niyaba ‘amma), which allowed him to claim the role of prayer leader in the Friday sessions in the absence of the imam. He also justified the collection of the religious tax in the name of the imam. Despite the Safavid state’s support, such positions were contested. 

They were, however, accepted in the qajar era (1796-1925) when the transformation of the jurists into a clergy and the victory of the “rationalist” school as Shi‘a orthodoxy were completed.15 Among the highlights of this evolution, there is the power that the scholars claimed to have in declaring the holy war (jihad) against Russia during its campaign in the Transcaucasian region (1804-1813), an imam’s prerogative which was never violated up to that point.16 At the same time, the doctrine of marja‘iyya was established, which means that primacy was given to one of the mujtahids, thus becoming marja‘ al-taqlid, the “reference to follow” or “source of imitation”17 to whom the believers would look regarding Islamic law issues. 

The establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran with its system of walayat al-faqih, the jurisconsult’s walaya(an expression that in itself gives a sense of the journey from the time when walaya was only for the imam), is the crowning of the victory of the usuli trend in Twelver Shi‘ism. Not only was the religious stand of the jurists enhanced, but they were endowed with a form of authority that they had never exercised directly although their influence on the political sphere had grown during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The episode of the Tobacco Revolt is an emblematic example: after the shah in 1890 allowed the monopoly of Iranian tobacco culture to a British citizen, the clergy issued a fatwa making its consumption unlawful and this fatwa was absolutely observed. The shah was forced to cancel the concession.18 The role played by the clerics in opposing to the shah during the constitutional conflict of 1905-1906 is another example of its growing political power: by leveraging their power in Iranian society, their role as representative of the hidden imam became official in the appendix of the constitution.19 By consecrating a new social and political force, the organization and hierarchy of the clergy in the eighteenth century naturally opened the way for growing relationships with power, more or less conflicting, and its ultimate access to power with the Iranian revolution. 

If Shi‘a Islam was for a long time reluctant to give so much power to religious scholars, since every step in this direction aroused controversy, it ended up granting them all the prerogatives generally attributable to the imam Mahdi, thus making the history of authority and legitimacy in Shi‘ism the story of this gradual slip.

For further readings

Oasis n. 25, Who Speaks for Muslims?

How the Shi‘ite Clergy Entered Politics, by Rainer Brunner

The translation of some passages from al-Kulaynī, author the most important collection of Shi‘ite hadiths. 


1 Ja‘far b. Mansur al-Yaman, Kitab al-Kashf, Rudolf Strothmann (ed.), (Geoffrey Cumberlege-Oxford University Press, London-New York-Bombay, 1952), p. 157. On the Kitab al-Kashf see Fârès Gillon, “Aperçus sur les origines de l’ismaélisme à travers le Kitāb al-Kašf, attribué au dāʿī Ǧaʿfar b. Ḥawšab Manṣūr al-Yaman”, Ishraq4, 2013, pp. 90-111.
2 On the ancient and progressively abandoned doctrine of the falsified Qu’ran, purged of the passages concerning ‘Ali, see Mohammad Ali Amir-Moezzi, Le Coran silencieux et le Coran parlant, (CNRS éditions, Paris, 2011), pp. 63-100; Etan Kohlberg and Mohammad Ali Amir-Moezzi, Revelation and Falsfication. The Kitāb al-Qirā’āt of Aḥmad b. Muḥammad al-Sayyārī, (Brill, Leiden-Boston, 2009).
3 Mohammad Ali Amir-Moezzi and Christian Jambet, Qu’est-ce que le shî‘isme ? , (Fayard, Paris, 2004), pp. 31-40.
4 This complex term, central to Shi‘a Islam, can be translated as “friendship”, “proximity”, and it indicates the privileged relationship of the imam with God as well as that of the faithful with his imam. On this subject, see Mohammad Ali Amir-Moezzi, La Religion discrète, (Vrin, Paris, 2006), pp. 177-207.
5 Marshall G.S. Hodgson, “How did the Early Shî‘a become Sectarian?”, Journal of the American Oriental Society 75, 1955, pp. 1-13 ; recalled in Etan Kohlberg (ed.), Shī‘ism, (Ashgate, Aldershot, 2003), pp. 3-15.
6 It is the case of Ibn Hawshab Mansūr al-Yaman, who conquered Yemen on behalf of future Fatimids; see Heinz Halm, “Die Sīrat Ibn Ḥaušab: die ismailitische daʿwa im Jemen und die Fatimiden”, Die Welt des Orients 12, 1981, 109-110.
7 The latter believe that “Occultation made the imamate doctrine an individual spirituality in which not only many collective canonical duties are impractical due to the absence of the imam, but any claim of religious power in the world can be nothing but an heresy” see Mohammad Ali Amir-Moezzi, La Religion discrète, p. 346.
8 See especially Mohammad Ali Amir-Moezzi, Le Guide divin dans le shî‘isme originel, (Verdier, Paris, 1992), p. 33-48.
9 Ibid, pp. 15-33, where the author translates the ancient sense of ‘aql with «hierarchical intelligence (hiéro-intelligence)» in contrast with the rationalist meaning attributed to this term by the jurists-theologians of the Buyid dynasty period. 
10 Mohammad Ali Amir-Moezzi, “Remarques sur les critères d’authenticité du hadîth et l’autorité du juriste dans le shi’isme imâmite”, Studia Islamica 82, 1997, pp. 17-20.
11 Wilferd Madelung, Authority in Twelver Shiism in the Absence of the Imam, in G. Makdisi, D. Sourdel and J. Sourdel-Thomine (eds), La notion d’autorité au Moyen Âge. Islam, Byzance, Occident, (PUF, Paris, 1982), p. 166.
12 This contradicted openly different hadiths which warned against any political activity and the claim to gain access to power before Mahdi’s return. See Mohammad Ali Amir-Moezzi, Le Guide divin dans le shî‘isme origin, pp. 169-173.
13 Heinz Halm, Le chiisme, (translated by H. Hougue), (PUF, Paris, 1995), pp. 65-67.
14 Ibid, pp. 79-82.
15 Ibid, p. 120.
16 For a summary of the imam’s prerogatives transferred to religious scholars (the application of legal sanctions, the abolition of religious tax, leading the collective prayer, the declaration of jihad and the definition of orthodoxy and excommunication (takfir) see Heinz Halm, Le chiisme, pp. 123-127; Mohammad Ali Amir-Moezzi and Christian Jambet, Qu'est-ce que le shî‘isme ? , pp. 208-220.
17 Sabrina Mervin, “Les autorités religieuses dans le chiisme duodécimain contemporain”, Archives de sciences sociales des religions 125, 2004, 66 and ff.
18 See for example Pierre-Jean Luizard, Histoire politique du clergé chiite. XVIIIème-XXIème siècles, (Fayard, Paris, 2014), pp.77-87.
19 Ibid, pp. 89-110.