The Qur’an needs a "Keeper" as sensory organs need a heart

This article was published in Oasis 25. Read the table of contents

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Born in 864 near today’s Teheran and died in Baghdad in 941, al-Kulaynī is the author of the most important collection of Shi‘ite hadīths, entitled al-Kāfī (“The Sufficient Book”). The title is an extremely appropriate one, considering the vastness of this collection that forms the first and most ancient among the “four books” of Twelver hadīths. The pivotal role accorded to the imam already emerges from the choice to include in this compilation not only the traditions ascribed to Muhammad, but also those attributed to his successors, thereby significantly expanding the extension of sacred history. Indeed, if, for the Sunnis, revelation closes in 632 with Muhammad’s death, for the Shi‘ites, the imams continued to exercise their teaching authority at least until the physical disappearance of the last of them in 874.


Not a few of these sayings concern indeed the imam’s function, particularly in the chapter entitled The Book of Proof. As in an ascending journey, this starts off with a discussion on the need for an infallible guide inspired by God. This cannot consist – argues the first hadīth proposed – solely in the Qur’an, because Islam’s holy book has been the object of divergent and conflicting interpretations, as evidenced by the existence of numerous schools of theology and law. Thus the Qur’an – the reasoning concludes – needs a “keeper”, in exactly the same way as sense organs need a heart.



A Superhuman Figure


And yet the traditions preserve two rather different readings of this Imam-Proof. The first is attributed to the eighth imam, ‘Alī al-Ridā (766-819), who essentially understands him to be a guide for the community. The functions he attributes to him are rather similar to those of the Sunni caliph (proof that the two lines of thought developed in close contact with one another), even if the charismatic element appears accentuated. Heir apparent of the Abbasid caliph al-Ma’mūn (813-833), al-Ridā was on the point of actually assuming such functions, in the context of an attempted reconciliation between Muslims. History decided otherwise, however, and al-Ridā died before the Abbasid caliph.


The interpretation advanced by the sixth imam, Ja‘far al-Sādiq (702-765), is much more radical. Al-Sādiq was one of the most prominent figures in early Islamic thought, even outside Shi‘ite circles. As can be inferred from the traditions featuring his name, some of his disciples were inclined to see him as a superhuman figure possessing an esoteric Knowledge passed on to him by the Prophet. The imam and his followers would therefore be the “ulama” par excellence, where the term no longer has the Sunni meaning of “scholars of Law” but rather denotes all those possessing ‘Ilm, the divine Knowledge “that is communicated night and day, day after day and hour after hour.”[i]



The Occultation and the Believer’s Task


The metaphysical prerogatives of the Imam-Proof who, still according to Ja‘far al-Sādiq, “exists before creatures, with creatures and after creatures,” are inferred through an allegorical reading of the Qur’an, a good example of which is the paraphrasing of the famous verse of light (Qur’an 24:35). Indeed, each one of the objects mentioned in the Qur’anic verse is read as being an allusion to a historic figure from the Prophet’s family: Fātima, Muhammad’s daughter and ‘Alī’s wife, Hasan and Husayn, the two grandsons, and Abraham, to whom the imams willingly refer as their authentic offspring. At times, this exegesis goes so far as to modify the text, departing from the Qur’an’s current recension commanded by ‘Uthmān, as in the brief chapter on the difference between prophet, messenger and imam. And in fact another tradition teaches that only ‘Uthmān’s great adversary, ‘Alī, would have collected and memorized the holy book in its entirety. The celebration of the imam’s cosmic role may therefore assume scandalous tones but the last hadīth translated warns believers not to reject even those words “that arouse terror in your hearts.”


The Book of Proof testifies, lastly, to the dejection experienced by the Shi‘ite community on the disappearance of the eleventh imam. The traditions reported in the chapter on the Occultation are some of the first expressions of the doctrine according to which his successor (still a child) would hide from the sight of men “for some years of your time” in order to escape his persecutors. These traditions nevertheless leave open the decisive question over which Shi‘ism was to be divided from that moment onwards, namely, the nature of the believer’s task during the Occultation. Is he called to withdraw from political life, seeking to contemplate the imam’s light in his own heart, whilst awaiting his return as Mahdī at the end of times? Or must he, rather, entrust himself to the ulama – now, the almost exact parallel of the Sunni legal scholars – who would take on the task of guiding the community over time? The dilemma runs through the whole of Shi‘ism’s history. And it still remains unresolved.


The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Oasis International Foundation

[1] See Mohammad Ali Amir-Moezzi, Le guide divin dans le shî‘isme original (Verdier, Lagrasse, 2007 [new edition]), p. 192, note 387, and pp. 334-335.

To cite this article

Printed version:
Martino Diez, “The Twelve “Keepers” of the Qur’an”, Oasis, year XIII, n. 25, July 2017, pp. 90-91.

Online version:
Martino Diez, “The Twelve “Keepers” of the Qur’an”, Oasis [online], published on 1st July 2017, URL: