Three Contemporary Approaches to Understanding the Imamah

Translation: Shayan Shirazi

This is a translation of a response by Shaykh Haidar Hobbollah to a question posed to him which can be found in volume 1 of his collection of questions and answers entitled Iḍāʾāt fī al-fikr wa al-dīn wa al-ijtimāʿ. For the original article please click here.

Three Contemporary Approaches to Understanding the Imamah


What is your conception about the idea of Imām al-Mahdī ? Doesn’t the occultation of Imām al-Mahdī give a divine dimension to the character of the Imāms (upon them be peace), in terms of his storage away from, and guardianship over, the people and his authority upon mankind throughout his noble life? That same divine dimension which you seek to deny and show the lack of proof for in your books and articles.


Since long ago – and particularly today – there are three main approaches to be found among the Shīʿa in dealing with the subject of Imāmah, its details, the understanding of it, and its interpretation.

The First Approach:

Those of this approach tend to accept the highest degree and extent for Imāmah. They are those who, in addition to believing in what the second approach say (which will follow), believe that the Imāms are intermediaries of the Divine Emanation (wasāʾi al-fay al-ilāhī); that they are a manifestation of the Divine Names and Attributes; that they have guardianship over the realm of existence, and that they are kings of this realm who administer all of existence. They believe that the Imāms know the unseen (ghayb), know what was and what will be until the Day of Judgement, and have knowledge of all things, including all languages and every small and large thing in this universe. Adherents of this approach believe that the Imāms are independent legislators of Islamic law even after the death of the Prophet; that they are the same as the Qurʿān and nothing else; that they are Muaddathūn[2], and that the angels descend upon them and present the deeds of the servants to them at all times. They believe that Imāmah is a link in the chain of the entire system of existence and that the Imāms were infallible and protected absolutely from all sin, error and forgetfulness. They also believe that the Imāms were created as lights before the creation of the universe, that the Imāms hold the people to account on the Day of Judgement, by the order of God, the Exalted, and that mankind will be returned and resurrected to them. They believe that the lives of the Imāms are, permanently or predominantly, governed by a system of miracles (karāmāt) and unseen activity, and that it is impossible to understand the reality of the Imāms. They also believe that the Companions and the Mothers of the Believers apostatised and disbelieved except a rare few, and that Ahl al-Sunna are disbelievers in reality even if we treat them on the basis of their apparent Islam in this world etc. There are some disagreements between supporters of this group in some of the aforementioned details.

This group relies on a large number of evidences that are sometimes of a philosophical nature and other times of a mystical Ṣūfī nature. Likewise, they rely on a large number of existing aādīth from different sources among the Shīʿa and others. They also have specific interpretations of the Noble Qurʿān which they rely on to prove their claims. And supporters of this group are not from the minor scholars; among them are many of the major scholars, kalām theologians, philosophers, mystics and jurists.

The Second Approach

Those of this approach tend to accept an intermediary and middle degree and extent of Imāmah[3]. They believe that Imāmah is an extension of the Prophetic message, and a protection for it, and a necessary continuation for its project; it is a necessity and not optional. In this view, Imāmah is management of the people’s worldly and religious affairs at the human social level, not at the existential and cosmological level. What is required of us is:

  1. Belief in their Imāmah as designated by God, the Exalted, through revelation to His Messenger and belief in their infallibility and purification from sin – in absolute terms – and from errors in religion.
  2. Considering them as an authoritative source in taking the religion that was sent down to Muḥammad and thus it is necessary for us to refer to their noble Sunna which is an impeccable explanation and elucidation of the Book and the Prophetic Sunna. This is their religious authority (marjaʿīyyat al-ʿilmīyya).
  3. The obligation of obedience to them and belief in their guardianship (wilāya) over the people. For they are the true rulers of the Ummah after the death of the Messenger and the Ummah is obligated to obey them in what they order and forbid. This is their political and administrative authority (marjaʿīyyat al-sīyasīya wa al-idāriya)
  4. The obligation of love and sincere affection for them, in accordance with the Verse of Mawadda[4]; the Ummah must treat them emotionally and lovingly. This is what finds expression in observances (shaʿāʾir) such as ʿĀshūrāʾ and visitation of their shrines and bringing their oppression to light. We can call this their spiritual authority (marjaʿīyyat al-rūīyya)

All of this means that the Prophet had appointed ʿAlī as an Imām followed by eleven Imāms after him, that these Imāms are infallible in conveying the religion and in their ethical conduct, that the Ummah fell short by distancing the Imāms from their religious authority and neglecting to take knowledge from them, and the Imāms are the best explainers of the Qurʿān and Sunna and so on…

  1. Belief that the Imāms are the locus of God’s care and His special grace and that miracles and blessings may sometimes be issued from them. The servants ask God for their needs and invoke Him by the right of the Imāms and all the Prophets. However, the vast majority of the lives of the Imāms take place according to the natural order and do not take place on the basis of laws of the unseen that transcend natural laws. For they are human beings like all of mankind, for them is their virtue, their blessing and their rank with God, the Exalted.

Therefore, adherents of this approach do not believe in the Ahl al-Bayt’s existential guardianship (wilāyat al-takwīnīya), nor in their knowledge of the unseen, nor that they are lights, nor that they have absolute knowledge, nor that they hold mankind to account or that they punish and reward, nor that they are a manifestation of the Divine Names and Attributes, nor that they are those to whom supplications of the believers are directed – rather, supplication (duʿāʾ) is for God alone – and other things that the first approach believes in.

  1. Believing that what occurred after the death of the Prophet was a usurpation of the Caliphate. However, the important thing today is focusing on and emphasising the spiritual and religious authority of the Ahl al-Bayt in the Ummah, abstaining from discussing history and being preoccupied in it (except in the domain of specialised research), not entering into sectarian disputes, and not insulting or cursing anyone from the past, but rather they say that “That is a community that has passed away. Theirs is what they earned and yours is what you earned”[5] (2:134). And we disassociate from them by disregarding them, not taking from their actions and not following their example in what they have done…

Like the first approach, the supporters of the second approach also disagree and differ on some of the details here and there. In their claims, they rely on many texts from the Qurʿān and the aādīth which they deem in their favour. In their perspective, the aādīth which are in the favour of the first approach are either made up, weak in chain or conflicting with the Qurʿān and history.

The Third Approach:

Those of this approach believe that the Ahl al-Bayt are nothing more than righteous scholars (ʿulamāʾ abrār); that they are authorities that provide guidance, however they are not designated by name, nor are they infallible, nor anything else from what the first approach say.

Facing these three approaches, we find that the first group accuse the second and third group of shortcoming (taqīr) in the right of the Ahl al-Bayt, and of rejection of the divine dimension in their character, and of being influenced by Ahl al-Sunna and the Salafi school in particular. According to some supporters of the second group and all supporters of the third group, the first group is excessive and exaggerates in the right of the Ahl al-Bayt, and that the Ahl al-Bayt fought this ghulūw[6] and that the ghulūw which they fought was not the deification of the Ahl al-Bayt as God, since no one has said that in history, but rather it is that which the first group claim. In fact, you may find statements here and there from some supporters of the second and third group considering some of what the first group do and say to be shirk. And the second group deems the third approach to be wrong in their denial of the divine designation (naṣṣ) of the Ahl al-Bayt and their infallibility, which they believe to be true and existent in the heritage, history and the aādīth. According to the first group, the third group is fundamentally not from the Shīʿa because anyone who denies the Ahl al-Bayt’s divine designation and infallibility cannot be Imāmī at all.

Based on all of this, we must understand the approaches and the intellectual premises for each group, especially the first and the second. We must know that many of these discussions are not self-evident or obvious, as someone here or someone else there wants to portray for us. Therefore, it is necessary that we do not rush in judgement over people as if matters are clear and evident. These issues have been and are the subject of dispute among the scholars since the days of old – and I do not have the time to examine the different views of the Imāmī scholars in many of these details – despite their virtual agreement on the fundamentals that the second group presented herein. And these details – if we exclude the third group – should not be considered as the basis upon which people are falsely accused for their religiosity and belief. For everyone is entitled to their kalāmī ijtihād, others have the right to criticise it and they have the right to defend themselves – all in an academic and peaceful ethical manner.


[1] Haidar, Hobbollah, Iāʾāt fī al-fikr wa al-dīn wa al-ijtimāʿ, vol. 1, pp.44-49.

[2] Meaning that they can hear the angels.

[3] Of course, this description is relative.

[4] ‘Say, “I ask not of you any reward for it, save affection among kinsfolk.”’; The Noble Qurʿān, 42:23

[5] The Noble Qurʿān, 2:134

[6] Exaggeration or religious extremism. See Heinz Halm, “ḠOLĀT”, Encyclopædia Iranica, XI/1, pp. 62-64