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Summary of question
Please explain the features the Quran mentions for an Imam.
question
Please explain the features the Quran mentions for an Imam.
Concise answer

There are two types of Imamate (leadership of a society) mentioned in the Quran; First: “The Imams of light” who are the pious and righteous leaders and second: “The Imams of fire” who are the heads of Kufr (disbelief) and deviation. Many features have been mentioned for the “Imams of light” in the Quran, such as infallibility, guiding, being guided, devotion, being worshippers, being steadfast and firm, enlightening others, making effort and doing jihad in the way of Allah, being foremost in good deeds, being the balance (mizan), a star, well rooted in knowledge, being truthful, knowledgeable, pure and pious, being a thinker, the heirs of the earth, God wary, forgiving, mu’min (believer), the best of people, Allah’s grace, Allah’s mercy, pious, Allah’s light. The most prominent feature is that the Imamate of an Imam must be divine and it should be granted to him by Allah. The features of the Imams of fire are rebellion, corruption, destruction, deviation, leading to the hell fire, oppression, arrogance, causing division, humiliation and trickery.

Detailed Answer

Imamate literally means leadership and Imam means anything that is followed, whether it is human or not and whether it leads to good or evil, in other words, it generally refers to any leadership. But in theology Imamate means the leadership of the Islamic society after the prophet of Islam.

From Shia theologians’ point of view Imamate is, similar to prophethood, one of the Usul al-Din (Fundamental beliefs) and is a divinely ordained status. An Imam assumes all the responsibilities of a prophet with the exception of Nubuwwah (receiving revelation).

Being appointed by Allah, infallibility and being the greatest individual of his time are the three key factors in Imamate. There are many narrative evidences and logical reasons that support this viewpoint.

The comprehensive and precise definition of Imamate would be: “الا‌مامة قیادة عامة الهیة فی امور الدین و الدنیا لشخص کامل من الا‌نسان‌ فی کل عصر، خلا‌فةً عن ‌الرسول (ص)” which means: Imamate is the exhaustive, comprehensive and holy leadership in all spiritual and worldly issues that is granted to perfect humans during different times as the successors of the prophet of Islam.

Imamate in the Quran:

We must examine the following issues in this regard:

A: The meaning of Imamate in the Quran: The meaning of Imamate in the Quran is as same as its literal meaning which is general leadership, and an Imam means a leader and one who is followed.

B: The verses of Imamate: There are twelve verses in the Quran that relate to Imamate in which the words “Imam” and “Ai’ma” have been used. The meanings in which the word Imam has been used are different. In eight verses the word Imam refers to a human, in two it refers to a book, in one verse to the ‘Protected Tablet’ (al-Lawḥ al-Maḥfūdh) and in another to a path and way.

C: The different types of Imamate (Leadership of society) in the Quran:

There are two types of Imamate mentioned in the Quran: First “The Imams of light” who are the pious and righteous leaders and second “The Imams of fire” who are the heads of Kufr and deviation.

D: The features of the Imams of light in the Quran:

The verses related to the features of pious Imams fall into four categories; First: verses in which the features of the Imam are clearly mentioned Second: verses that are allusive and explain features of pious imams when examined along with the ahadith of the Ahlul-Bayt Third: verses that exclusively point out the virtues of Imam Ali Fourth: verses that specifically allude to the virtues of Imam Mahdi.

First group of verses: We will mention a few examples for this group of verses (verses in which features of an Imam are clearly mentioned):

1- “وَ إِذِ ابْتَلىَ إِبْرَاهِمَ رَبُّهُ بِکلَِمَاتٍ فَأَتَمَّهُنَّ قَالَ إِنىّ‏ِ جَاعِلُکَ لِلنَّاسِ إِمَامًا قَالَ وَ مِن ذُرِّیَّتىِ قَالَ لَا یَنَالُ عَهْدِى الظَّالِمِینَ

When his Lord tested Abraham by means of [certain] words, and he fulfilled them, He said:" I am going to make you into a leader for mankind." He said:" What about my offspring (Will there be leaders from among them)?" He said:" My pledge does not apply to evildoers.(Only those of your children will be leaders that are pious and infallible)."[1]

2- “وَ جَعَلْنَاهُمْ أَئمَّةً یَهْدُونَ بِأَمْرِنَا وَ أَوْحَیْنَا إِلَیْهِمْ فِعْلَ الْخَیرَْاتِ وَ إِقَامَ الصَّلَوةِ وَ إِیتَاءَ الزَّکَوةِ وَ کاَنُواْ لَنَا عَبِدِینَ

We made them leaders who guided (others) by Our command and We inspired them to perform good deeds, keep up prayer, and pay the welfare tax. They have been serving Us.[2]

3- “وَ جَعَلْنَا مِنهُْمْ أَئمَّةً یهَْدُونَ بِأَمْرِنَا لَمَّا صَبرَُواْ وَ کَانُواْ بَِایَاتِنَا یُوقِنُونَ

We even set some of them up as leaders to guide [people] at Our command, once they were patient and convinced about Our sign.[3]

4- “قُلْ هَلْ مِن شُرَکاَئکمُ مَّن یهَْدِى إِلىَ الْحَقّ‏ِ قُلِ اللَّهُ یهَْدِى لِلْحَقّ‏ِ أَ فَمَن یهَْدِى إِلىَ الْحَقّ‏ِ أَحَقُّ أَن یُتَّبَعَ أَمَّن لَّا یهَِدِّى إِلَّا أَن یهُْدَى‏ فَمَا لَکمُ‏ْ کَیْفَ تحَْکُمُون‏

Say:" Does any of your partners guide one to Truth?" Say: “God guides to Truth. So is someone who guides to Truth worthier to be followed than someone who does not guide unless he himself is guided? What is the matter with you? How do you decide things?”[4]

Taking these and other verses of the Quran into consideration, the following features are understood for the pious and spiritual imams:

1- Being appointed by Allah; because in all of these verses appointing the Imam has been attributed to Allah and in the verse of Ibtilā’ (the first verse mentioned) the Almighty has considered Imamate a holy and godly pledge and covenant. Therefore, it is Allah who is the other side of the covenant and should appoint the individual that assumes this responsibility. Also, according to these verses, the Imam must be infallible and he must be the greatest and highest individual among all people of his time. Obviously, no one other than Allah can know about these innate and inner virtues and excellences. Therefore, the Imam should be appointed by Allah. The purpose behind appointing pious Imams by Allah is for them to guide and lead society.

2- Infallibility of an Imam; because the verses indicate that an Imam should be pure and protected from all sins, mistakes, faults, forgetfulness and any other negative features.

3- Being the greatest individual; because according to the second and third verses, an Imam guides towards truth by the command of Allah, and one who guides to the truth must be greater than everyone else. Therefore, an Imam should be the greatest individual of his time in terms of knowledge, religion, belief, piety and all human virtues and values.

4- Being guided: One of the Imams’ features is that they are guided.[5]

5- Divine guiding: One feature of an Imam is that he guides people through divine light and guidance.[6]

6- Having belief: Having strong and firm belief is another feature of the Imams that is mentioned in the Quran.[7]

7- Patience[8]

8- Praising and worshipping Allah[9]

Second group of verses

The verses that are allusive to a feature of the pious Imams when examined along with the ahadith of the Ahlul-Bayt. There is a great number of these ahadith, therefore, we will suffice to mentioning a few of them:

الصراط المستقیم” (al-Ṣirāt al-Mustaqīm): al-Ṣirāt al-Mustaqīm or the straight path means the path that one can rely on and will lead man to his intended destination. The Quran says: “اهدنا الصراط المستقیم[10]“Guide us to the straight path”. When interpreting this verse, Imam Sadiq says: “والله نحن الصراط المستقیم[11] “By Allah we (the Ahlul-Bayt) are the straight path.”

الشاهد” (Shāhid): Shāhidor the witness is one of the features Allah has mentioned for the Imams. The status of witnessing is a very lofty and great one, because the inevitable result of having the status of being a witness is for one to witness the acts, deeds and conduct of Allah’s servants. Therefore, the Imams oversee the deeds of Allah’s servants and observe them. The Quran says: [12]کَذلِکَ جَعَلْناکُمْ أُمَّةً وَسَطاً لِتَکُونُوا شُهَداءَ عَلَى النَّاسِ وَ یَکُونَ الرَّسُولُ عَلَیْکُمْ شَهیداً” “Thus We have made you a middle nation that you may be witnesses to the people, and that the Apostle may be a witness to you”. Imam Sadiq stated: [13]“...نحن شهدا الله علی خلقه...” “We are Allah’s witnesses over his servants.”

باب الله” (Bābullāh): Another feature of the Imams is that they are the doors (pathways) to Allah, meaning that whoever wants to benefit from Allah’s beneficence must enter from its doors and the Imams are the doors to Allah’s mercy and beneficence. The Quran says in this regard: “وَ لَیْسَ الْبرُِّ بِأَن تَأْتُواْ الْبُیُوتَ مِن ظُهُورِهَا وَ لَاکِنَّ الْبرَِّ مَنِ اتَّقَى‏ وَ أْتُواْ الْبُیُوتَ مِنْ أَبْوَابِهَا وَ اتَّقُواْ اللَّهَ لَعَلَّکُمْ تُفْلِحُون[14]

It is not piety that you come into houses from their rear; rather piety is [personified by] one who is God wary, and come into houses from their doors, and be wary of Allah, so that you may be felicitous. Imam Baqir stated: “...آل محمد ابواب الله و سبیله...”[15] “The household of Muhammad are the doors to Allah and his path...”

السابق” (Sābiq): This word is used for those who precede others in terms of belief and good deeds. The Quran says: “و منهم سابق بالخیرات......”[16] “and some of them are those who take the lead in all the good works.” Imam Ridha explained: “السابق بالخیرات، الامام[17] “It is the Imam who takes the lead in good deeds”.

المیزان” (Mīzān): The Mizan or balance of deeds which is the touchstone by which people’s deeds are evaluated. The Quran says: “و نضع الموازین القسط لیوم القیٰمه فلا تظلم نفس شیئاً[18] “We shall set up the scales of justice on the Day of Resurrection, and no soul will be wronged in the least.” Imam Sadiq says: “الموازین الانبیاء و الاوصیاء[19] “The scales of justice are the prophets and their successors.”

النجم” (Najm): Najm or Star which refers to the state of illumination and enlightenment is one of the features of an Imam. The Quran says: “و هو الذی جعل لکم النجوم لتهتدوا بها فی الظلمات البّر[20] “It is He who made the stars for you, so that you may be guided by them in the darkness of land and sea.” It is mentioned in the Tafsir of Ali Bin Ibrahim that: the “Stars” are the household of the prophet.[21]

الصادق” (Ṣādiq): Truthful. The Quran says: “یا ایهّا الذین آمنوا اتقوا الله و کونوا مع الصادقین[22] “O you who have faith! Be wary of Allah, and be with the Truthful.” Imam Baqir says: “ایانا عنا[23] “Allah is referring to us in this verse”

Being firmly grounded in knowledge: Some verses point out the depth of an Imam’s knowledge, such as this verse: “و مایعلم تأویله الّا الله و الراسخون فی العلم[24] “But no one knows its interpretation except Allah and those firmly grounded in knowledge.”

Therefore, a firmly rooted individual in knowledge is one who has dwelled in the seas of knowledge and has tasted the sweetness of it.

Imam Sadiq says: “The Firmly rooted in knowledge are Imam Ali and the Imams after him.”[25]

Other verses indicate the massiveness of their knowledge, such as this verse: “قل کفی بالله شهیداً بینی و بینکم و من عنده علم الکتاب[26] “Say," Allah suffices as a witness between me and you, and he who possesses the knowledge of the Book.” Imam Baqir says: “ایانا عنی و علی اولنا و افضلنا وخیرنا بعد النبی[27] “The verse is referring to us and the best and foremost and highest of us after the prophet is Imam Ali.”

الطیب (Ṭayyib): The word Tayyib can have many meanings such as: pleasurable, what Allah has considered permissible, what is clean and pure or what doesn’t bother one’s body or soul.[28]

And when it comes to an Imam, all of these meanings can be intended. The Quran says: “...الم تر کیف ضرب الله مثلاً کلمة طیبة[29] “Have you not regarded how Allah has drawn a parable? A good word is like a good tree”. Imam Sadiq stated: “The roots of the tree are the prophet, its body is Imam Ali and its branches are the rest of the Imams.”[30]

الحکیم (Ḥakīm): Knowledgeable and wise; the Quran says: “أَمْ یَحْسُدُونَ النَّاسَ عَلى‏ ما آتاهُمُ اللَّهُ مِنْ فَضْلِهِ فَقَدْ آتَیْنا آلَ إِبْراهیمَ الْکِتابَ وَ الْحِکْمَةَ وَ آتَیْناهُمْ مُلْکاً عَظیما[31] “Or do they envy the people for what Allah has given them out of His grace? We have certainly given the progeny of Abraham the Book and wisdom, and We have given them a great sovereignty.” Imam Sadiq said: “By Allah we are the ones who are envied.”[32]

الوارث (Wārith): The Quran says: “ان الارض لله یورثها من یشاء من عباده و العاقبة للمتقین[33] “The earth indeed belongs to Allah, and He gives its inheritance to whomever He wishes of His servants, and the outcome will be in favor of the God wary.” Imam Baqir said: “We are the heirs of the earth and we are the God wary.”[34]

The third group of verses which are the ones that point out the features of Imam Ali:

الشجاعه (Shujāʻah): Shujāʻah, i.e., courage, is one of the features of the Imam. The Quran says: “و من الناس من یشری نفسه ابتغاء مرضات الله و الله رؤف بالعباد[35] “And among the people is he who sells his soul seeking the pleasure of Allah, and Allah is most kind to [His] servants.” Imam Sajjad says: “This verse was revealed when he (Imam Ali) slept in the prophet’s place instead of him.”

المنفق (Munfiq): Giver or donator; the Quran says: “انما ولیکم الله و رسوله و الذین آمنوا الذین یقیمون الصلوة و یؤتون الزکاة و هم راکعون[36] “Your guardian is only Allah, His Apostle, and the faithful who maintain the prayer and give zakat while bowing down.” The prophet stated: “Ali is the person that prayed and gave zakat while he was performing ruku’.”[37]

ایمان و جهاد (Iman and Jihad): Believing in Allah and carrying out Jihad in the path of Allah is one of the Imam’s features. “اجعلتم سقایة الحاج و عمارة المسجد الحرام کمن آمن بالله و الیوم الاخر و جاهد فی سبیل الله[38] “Do you regard the providing of water to hajj pilgrims and the maintenance of the Holy Mosque as similar [in worth] to someone who has faith in Allah and [believes in] the Last Day and wages jihad in the way of Allah?” The Shia Quranic commentators and narrators have mentioned many ahadith that prove that this verse was revealed in regard to Imam Ali.[39]

From among Sunni scholars, Tabari, Tha’labi, Tafsir Khazin, Wahedi in Asbab al-Nuzul, Allamah Baghawi in Ma’alim, Maghazili in Manaqib, Ibn Asir in Jami’ al-Usul and Fakhr Razi in his tafsir as well as his other books have mentioned the same thing.[40]

خیر البریة(Khayr al-Bariyyah): The best of all creation; The Quran says: “ان الذین آمنوا و عملوا الصالحات هم خیر البریه[41] “Indeed those who have faith and do righteous deeds it is they who are the best of creatures.” Imam Baqir narrates from the prophet that he addressed Imam Ali saying: “Verily these individuals are you and your followers.”[42]

رحمة الله (Raḥmatullah): Allah’s mercy; “قُلْ بِفَضْلِ اللَّهِ وَ بِرَحْمَتِهِ فَبِذَالِکَ فَلْیَفْرَحُواْ هُوَ خَیرٌْ مِّمَّا یجَْمَعُون[43] “Say," In Allah's grace and His mercy let them rejoice in that! It is better than what they amass.” Imam Baqir said: “Allah’s grace is his prophet and Allah’s mercy is Ali Bin Abi Taleb.”[44]

الصالح (Ṣāliḥ): The Quran says: “و لقد کتبنا فی الزبور من بعد الذکر ان الارض یرثها عبادی الصالحون[45] “Certainly We wrote in the Psalms, after the Torah:" Indeed My righteous servants shall inherit the earth.” Imam Baqir narrates from the prophet that he stated: “Allah will choose a righteous servant from among my household that will fill the earth of justice as it is full of injustice and oppression.”[46]

واسطة النور (Wāsiṭah al-Nūr): “و اشرقت الارض به نور ربها....[47] “And the earth will glow with the light of her Lord”. Imam Sadiq says: “When our ‘standing one’ [Imam Mahdi (aj)] rises, he will spread the light of Allah and people will no longer be in need of the sun’s light.”[48]

The Imams of fire

Taking what was said about the Imams of fire into consideration, one can conclude that they are leaders that pay no attention to Allah and his commands and act according to their pulse and desire. They are the foremost in Kufr and deviation and have reached the furthest degree in this regard and can be considered as Imams and leaders in this path. This is why Allah has considered them the leaders of Kufr, deviation and sinning. Examples of the Imams of fire mentioned in the Quran would be the Pharaoh, his people and heads of Arab polytheists.

The features of the Imams of fire are as follows: rebellion, causing corruption and destruction, deviation, leading to the Hellfire, oppression, arrogance, causing division, humiliation and trickery.

The corrupted Imams’ reaction to the holy prophets was mockery, accusation, threatening and denying them and breach of practs.



[1] Baqarah:124.

[2] Sajdah:24.

[3] Anbiya’:73.

[4] Yunus:35.

[5] Yunus:35.

[6] Anbiya’:73.

[7] Sajdah:24.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Anbiya’:73.

[10] Hamd:7.

[11] Nur al-Thaqalain, vol. 1, pg. 21.

[12] Baqarah:143.

[13] Nur al-Thaqalain, vol. 1, pg. 134.

[14] Baqarah:189.

[15] Nur al-Thaqalain, vol. 1, pg. 177.

[16] Fatir:32.

[17] Nur al-Thaqalain, vol. 4, pg. 361.

[18] Anbiya’:47.

[19] Nur al-Thaqalain, vol. 3, pg. 430.

[20] An’am:97.

[21] Nur al-Thaqalain, vol. 1, pg. 75.

[22] Tawbah:119.

[23] Nur al-Thaqalain, vol. 2, pg. 280.

[24] Al Imran:7.

[25] Usul al-Kāfī, vol. 1, pg. 213.

[26] Ra’d:43.

[27] Nur al-Thaqalain, vol. 2, pg. 522.

[28] Majma’ al-Bahrain, vol. 2, p. 111, Nur al-Hidayah Software.

[29] Ibrahim:24.

[30] Nur al-Thaqalain, vol. 2, pg. 535.

[31] Nisa:54.

[32] Nur al-Thaqalain, vol. 1, pg. 491.

[33] A’raf:127

[34] Nur al-Thaqalain, vol. 2 pg. 56.

[35] Baqarah:207.

[36] Nur al-Thaqalain, vol. 1, pg. 204.

[37] Nur al-Thaqalain, vol. 1, pg. 644.

[38] Tawbah:19.

[39] al-Burhan fi Tafsir al-Quran, vol. 2, pg. 748.

[40] See: Tafsir Nemooneh, vol. 7, pg. 322; Kitab Ihqaq al-Haqq, vol. 3, pp. 122-127.

[41] Bayyinah:7.

[42] Nur al-Thaqalain, vol. 5, pg. 645.

[43] Yunus:58.

[44] Nur al-Thaqalain, vol. 2, pg. 307.

[45] Anbiya’:105.

[46] Majma’ al-Bayan, vol. 7, pg. 106.

[47] Zumar:69.

[48] Nur al-Thaqalain, vol. 4, pg. 504. Adopted from the book Yeksado Panjah Mozu az Qurane Karim, Dehqan, Akbar, The Cultural Center of Lessons of the Quran, second edition, 1998, printed by Mehr Press, Qum.

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