What Have We Learned from Ghadir and Wilayat

By Muḥammad Sorūsh Maḥallātī – one of the few jurists in Qom who has been giving advance classes on Islamic politics and governance for a number of years. Recently he published a book on the concept of Wilāyah titled, Wilāyat – Dar Mughālateh wa Muṣādareh.

In our communities today, there are two perspectives taken by two different groups regarding Ghadīr:

The first group are those who consider Ghadīr to be the basis for contemporary political discourse so that by it the foundations of governance in the age of occultation can be established. They wish to show that governance is a divine ordinance and people’s opinions does not play any role in its legitimacy, hence the appointment of a Walī Faqīh in this day and age is like the appointment of Amīr al-Mu’minīn at the time of the Prophet – the essence and scope of Wilāyat is exactly the same. An example of this approach can be seen in the works of Āyatullah Mu’min, for example when he discusses the notion of controlling a group of people, he cites “Whosoever I am his master, then Ali is his master” as a premise for the ability of an Imām to enter into these affairs and in light of that establishes the rights for a Walī Faqīh. In essence, the meaning of a Faqīh having Wilāyat is the same as the Prophetic statement “Do I not have more right over you than you yourselves?” So, the anniversary of Ghadīr is used to strengthen the system and displays that the very position is also present today.

The second group are those who use Ghadīr to continue with their theological debates and consider being religious without Wilayāt tantamount to disbelief (kufr). Yūsuf Baḥrāni in his al-Ḥadāiq writes: ‘Al-Wilāyah was revealed in the last days of his (p) life in Ghadīr Khumm and opposing it necessitates disbelief for the opponent.’ In their argument, Wilāyat is the foundation of Islam and anyone who opposes it is, in reality, a disbeliever, even though they may apparently be a Muslim. In the words of Sayyid Khū’ī ‘Islām is built upon al-Wilāyah, and with the absence of Wilāyah, Islam disappears in reality’.1 So, the anniversary of Ghadīr tells us who the real disbelievers are so that we may recognize them and that we do not become heedless of them.

Analyzing both these perspectives requires a much lengthier discussion, but it can be said that many researchers are against both of these interpretations. According to them, Wilāyah is a much broader concept and a Faqīh cannot be an instance of [33:6] The Prophet has a greater right (or a greater authority) over the faithful than they have over their own selves and his (p) sermon ‘Do I not have more right over you than you yourselves?’ As per Āyatullah Ḥāirī – the founder of the Ḥawzah of Qom: “There is no doubt that the Wilāyah in the meaning that has been established for the Imāms such that they have more right over the believers than the believers themselves is not established for a Faqīh.”

Likewise, these researchers say that Wilāyat plays no role in the reality and definition of Islam, therefore those who reject it are in reality Muslims.

If we look at the words of Imām ‘Alī (a) directly, it seems it would lead us to a different understanding of caliphate, despite accepting the explicit designation for his Imāmah, the two perspectives mentioned above cannot be accepted.

After the establishment of the caliphate, the Imām was inquired by his own companions as to what happened after the Prophet (p). The Imām eventually responds to them:

When the Prophet expired, the Muslims quarrelled about power after him. By Allah, it never occurred to me, and I never imagined, that after the Prophet the Arabs would snatch away the caliphate from his Ahl al-Bayt, nor that they would take it away from me after him, but I suddenly noticed people surrounding the man to swear him allegiance.

I therefore withheld my hand till I saw that many people were reverting from Islam and trying to destroy the religion of Muhammad (p). I then feared that if I did not protect Islam and its people and there occurred in it a breach or destruction, it would mean a greater blow to me than the loss of authority (wilāyah) over you which was, in any case, a commodity that was to last for a few days of which everything would pass away as the mirage passes away, or as the cloud scuds away. Therefore, in these happenings I rose till wrong was destroyed and disappeared, and religion attained peace and safety.

These words of the Imām, besides letter #62 of Nahj al-Balāghah, also exist in other reliable works such as al-Ghārāt of Thaqafī, al-Rasāil of al-Kulaynī as well as other sources and has always been deemed an accepted tradition. However, the content of this tradition is very different than what we understand about the caliphate today:

  • Imām ‘Alī (a) did not give the possibility of deviation on the matter of caliphate. In other words, he did not think this was a pre-planned plot
  • This change and deviation took place with the assistance of the general populous
  • The allegiance of the caliph took place with the approval of the people
  • In order to dispel any harm from the religion of Islām, the Imām began to work along with the caliphate
  • The Imām refers to “Wilāyah” as a commodity that was to last for a few days
  • Islām without Wilāyah must also be safeguarded and defended, even if it is to the extent of working alongside a caliph who is a usurper
  • Any calamity on Islām – even without Wilāyah – is more severe and detrimental than a calamity on Wilāyah. The second calamity can at times be endured for so that the first calamity does not take place

Ghadīr is a day where we must look at religion and Wilāyah from the lens of Amīr al-Mu’minīn – however, is our perception of Wilāyah in line with the teachings of the Imām himself?


  1. Many jurists believe that the non-Twelver Shī’a Muslims are essentially disbelievers due to their rejection of Wilāyah even if apparently we must treat them as Muslims. Shaykh Yūsuf Baḥrānī – the last of the major Akhbārī scholars – even went as far as to say that they are not only disbelievers internally, but rather even apparently. Hence according to him, they are to be deemed essentially impure and rules of najāsah apply upon them like they do on the rest of the disbelievers. These opinions make complete sense in a certain framework where religious exclusivism is inherent in one’s epistemology and subsequent theology. This theological view impacts various rulings as well such as the permissibility of backbiting the non-Twelver Shī’a Muslims, obligation or recommendation of cursing them in the fourth qunūt if performing the funeral prayers upon them, in some cases a testimony of an Ahl al-Kitāb is preferred over the testimony of a non-Twelver Shī’a Muslim and so on.

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