The Imamate of Ahl al-Bayt (as) – A Source of Protection from Dissension

In her famous sermon known as “Al-Khubah al-Fadakiyah”, the Blessed Lady Fatimah al-Zahra (sa) mentions the philosophies and wisdom behind many of the foundational teachings of Islam. Continuing with the same theme, she reaches a point in her discourse wherein she focuses on the Islamic creed’s three central tenets and principles. As such, Lady Fatimah al-Zahra (sa) states, “…and (God has decreed the establishment of) justice to create perfect harmony amongst human hearts, and (He has commanded the people too) obey us to institute discipline and order within the Muslim nation, and (He has invested) us with the Imamate (or divinely ordained leadership) to protect society from dissension”.

It may be said that this particular section of her sermon is indeed the centrepiece of her entire discussion. She speaks about three specific doctrinal elements that are very different from the various acts of ritual worship and other religious duties mentioned in previous segments of her lecture. These three subjects are directly related to human life’s social and communal dimensions. Lady Fatimah al-Zahra’s underlying purpose in these statements is to draw public attention towards the critical role of the Ahl al-Bayt (as) within Muslim society.

As a preface to her actual goal and objective, she briefly discusses how society is formed. Therefore, to explain the crucial part of the Ahl al-Bayt (as) within society, we must first look at the conditions and prerequisites needed for forming and establishing human communities.

Necessary Prerequisites for the Establishment of Human Society

The following three fundamental conditions must be fulfilled for human beings to come together and form a cohesive and sustainable community.

Aspiring for Justice: the Conjoiner of Human Hearts

Seemingly, God’s divine wisdom dictates that human beings interact with one another and establish communities to live together in social systems based upon mutual reliance. We observe life in both its individual and social forms in the animal kingdom. Some animals live solitary lives, only interacting with their mates on certain occasions, while others live in groups or elaborate social structures. These differing inclinations and lifestyles are caused by differences in animal instincts and natural dispositions. For instance, ants and honey bees start living in communities from the very moment of their birth without making any conscious decisions in this regard. Observing them, it seems as if they have distributed tasks amongst themselves, with each member taking care of a particular aspect of their communal needs and requirements. As far as we know, these creatures do not receive any training before engaging in such behaviour, nor have they designed their social structures and lifestyles by mutually deliberating upon their everyday issues and concerns. Instead, they are bound by the sheer force of their inherent instincts to act in the manner they do. Even their apparent distribution of labour and job specialisation is dictated by how they have been created. Therefore, the queen bee’s essential nature and created character are vastly different from that of worker bees amongst honey bees. Researchers have even stated that their respective manners of nutrition and food consumption also differ significantly. Thus, this social and communal lifestyle is simply a necessary consequence of the intrinsic instincts instilled in them by God Almighty, and they have no choice but to live in this pre-programmed manner.

So, what is the nature of social life amongst human beings? Is it exclusively a result of instinctual predispositions, or do intellectual and emotional factors influence it, or is it a combination of all three elements coming together? Experts have long discussed this question at great lengths, yet they have not been able to form a consensus regarding its answer. In our own culture, it is often said that human beings are naturally inclined towards civic life. We have inherited this idea from classical Greek philosophers[1]. Anyhow, even if we deem this notion to be accurate, it still fails to answer the queries posed above correctly. Simply saying that humans are naturally inclined towards city life is not enough to clarify the issue at hand. We must explore whether this inclination is exclusively rooted in pure instinct or if it involves other factors as well. Nevertheless, this academic problem is of little consequence to our current discussion, and therefore we will suffice with what has already been saying.

Our discourse, which holds importance, is that societal life is beneficial for human beings. It is necessary since we humans cannot realise many of our critical potentials nor achieve the full scope of our existential excellences outside the framework of communal living. It can even be said that human life depends upon human beings living socially with one another. Even though societal life is necessary, each human being bears a distinct and independent identity and is separate from others. All of us feel this particular distinction, and we know that our wants and desires are also different from other individuals. Sometimes, these wants and ambitions openly conflict and collide to the extent that they may ignite wars and lead to bloodshed. Similarly, when we study religious texts, we realise that human beings are ultimately destined to find eternal life in another realm where societal factors have little or no sway. The Holy Quran states, “And each of them will come to Him alone on the Day of Resurrection”[2]. In the world of the Hereafter, even lineage and familial relations will lose all meaning and influence. Thus, the Holy Quran declares, “And when the Trumpet is blown, there will be no ties between them on that day, nor will they ask (about) each other”[3]. Likewise, the Quran informs us that social and communal connections and ranks, like those that exist between worldly rulers and their subjects, will also fade away into nothingness, “When those who were followed will disown the followers, and they will sight the punishment while all their means of recourse will be cut off”[4].

This being said, there will exist specific congregations in the Hereafter, but such gatherings will not be based upon hollow worldly distinctions like race, caste, language or heredity. Assemblies in the Hereafter will be formed according to sincere faith and belief. People who are close to one another in pious faith and conviction will be grouped in the celestial realm. Various Quranic verses show that congregations will be held in Paradise where devout believers will come to know one another and benefit from each other’s merits and virtues. As such, the Holy Quran says, “We will remove whatever rancour there is in their breasts; (intimate like) brothers, (they will be reclining) on couches, facing one another”[5].

Human beings have an essential need to live together in societies and communities. However, this need conflicts directly with their core nature since they all possess independent and individual identities that differentiate them from one another while also harbouring unique and mutually contradictory wants and desires. Given these competing inclinations, what are the criteria and principles for humans to successfully form sustainable societies?

Historically speaking, natural or physical factors played the primary and most critical role in creating human communities. Secondary factors such as language, dialect etc., were also somewhat influential. However, neither may be deemed a criterion for establishing a society that may benefit human beings. Two people can be of the same colour, ethnicity and language while being utterly different in their respective lifestyles, temperaments and behaviours. This is especially true if the two individuals in question follow different religions or ideologies. One will ultimately go to Paradise despite their similarities and differences, while the other will be doomed to Hell. Therefore, any resemblance in terms of skin pigmentation, genetics, language, geography etc., is of no consequence for a person’s result hereafter. Similarly, factors such as these cannot connect one individual’s outcome to another. At most, the utility and effect of these elements are confined within the limited sphere of material and worldly linkages and relationships. Therefore, other factors must exist that allow the creation of significant connections between the people of a particular society, allowing them to utilise their mutual communality better to attain true and holistic prosperity. Within the parameters of our knowledge and understanding, no natural or physical factor can fulfil such a requirement.

The first step needed for forming a society and creating social unity is establishing mutual affinity amongst people while washing away any hatred and spite they might harbour for one another. If two brothers live in the same house, with one of them continuously thinking that the other wishes to usurp him of his rights and rob him of his properties, then this physical proximity will never translate into relational closeness and intimacy. The brother in question will always foster suspicion and distrust within his heart. He will always remain vigilant and defensive to prevent his sibling from harming him or his interests. The prevalence of hatred, mistrust, fear and estrangement amongst members of a community or society may be caused by various psychological factors. However, one common factor in developing all these negative traits is a sense of suspicion, whereby they believe each other harbours malicious intentions. Thus, the infrequency and rarity of oppressive and unjust attitudes and malevolent designs constitute the first and foremost precondition for establishing healthy and friendly connections between people in a particular society. Indeed, individuals within a community need to perceive each other as content in having a fair and rightful share. Although, from an ideological perspective, a model society is one where people perceive each other as compassionate and generous, with everyone selflessly sacrificing their rights and pleasures to help their fellow community members.

Anyhow, being content with one’s rightful share demonstrates one’s approval and willingness to establish justice. If justice becomes the governing power within a society, the rights and privileges of all people will be protected guaranteed, with no one being allowed to transgress against others. This, in turn, will lead to a creation of affinity and friendship amongst individuals, bringing their hearts closer to one another. Therefore, justice is the first and most essential prerequisite for achieving societal unity. Common rationality dictates that all human beings and schools of ethical thought acknowledge this principle. Even if a person is a tyrant, he cannot deny in principle that justice constitutes a fundamental virtue and merit. The general meaning of justice is to “freely give every individual whatever they rightfully deserve”. This matter is so self-evident and clear that it is often invoked as a proverbial example for absolute principles that tolerate no exceptions. The ethical rule in question forms the universal precept in practical rationality. Maybe this is why Lady Fatimah al-Zahra (sa) chose justice as the first amongst the three social concepts mentioned in her sermon. As such, we find her saying, “…and (God has decreed the establishment of) justice to create perfect harmony amongst human hearts…” The Arabic term used within this statement is “Tansīq”, which means “to build harmony while preventing chaos and division”[6].

Thus, we can conclude that mutual accord, kinship, and harmony are the initial conditions required to form a desirable society. This condition cannot be fulfilled if injustice exists and the members of a given society are continuously worried about becoming victims of each other’s tyranny and transgression.

  1. A Single and Universally Applicable System of Laws

In the above discussion, it became clear that justice is necessary for creating social cohesion and unity within society. Our discourse therein focused on preventing tyrannical attitudes from becoming commonplace and predominant within human communities. However, no mention has been made of law or how it plays a role in establishing ideas until this point.

The sublime idea of having a society may be that all individuals consider themselves morally and religiously duty-bound not to transgress upon others. However, even if such a lofty ideal were to be completely realised, it would not be enough to establish perfect social unity. Indeed, other factors may act as or lead to the emergence of various obstacles and problems. For instance, people may fail to accurately discern what constitutes or does not constitute a virtue or a vice, leading to disagreements and conflicts. In such a circumstance, even though all parties involved harbour only the best and purest intentions, they would still find themselves at odds with one another as their respective ideas, methods and preferences fail to match. Consequently, if differences like these become agitated to such a degree that they end up causing widespread disparity in people’s thoughts and actions, individuals in the said society will no longer enjoy close friendly relations with one another.  Therefore, we require an additional element to establish unity and cohesiveness in human society. That element is none other than a single and universally applicable legal system. Such a legal system can potentially prevent the disintegration of society brought about by the prevalence of divergent manners of thinking amongst people. Indeed, how can we expect a community to come together in peaceful co-existence without the presence of a central and unanimously acknowledged criterion allowing them to resolve all instances of mutual discord? If no such reference point exists, chaos will naturally ensue. If one person deems a particular transaction valid while another holds it to be void, or if an individual considers a given deed legal while someone else believes it to be criminal, it would not take long for the spectre of conflict to raise its ugly head. Neither harmony nor unity would ever prevail. Any society that wishes to establish sustainable and steadfast solidarity amongst its people must abide by a single, sovereign and universally applicable law system. In the Quranic and classical Arabic terminology, this single and coherent creed is called a “millah”.

The term “millah”, as used in the Arabic language, is quite different from how it is commonly employed in languages such as Farsi (or Urdu). In these other cultures, the word “millah” (or “millet”) means the same as the English word “nation” and signifies a group of people who share common roots in terms of ethnicity, language and geography etc. The term “nation” is used in sociology and political science studies. In Arabic, however, the word “millah” denotes a system of life, practices, behaviours, etiquettes and traditions that rule over a given society[7]. This meaning is very similar to the meaning of the Arabic word “dīn” (or religion), with the solitary difference being that the term “millah” typically signifies practical matters alone, whereas “dīn” encompasses both practical issues as well as intellectual ones such as beliefs and other fundamental ideas[8].

The Quran has placed particular emphasis upon the “millah” (or “creed”) of Prophet Ibrāhīm (a). While addressing His Sacred Messenger (s) in the Holy Quran, God Almighty commands, “Say: Indeed my Lord has guided me to a straight path, the upright religion, the creed of Abraham, a Hanif, and he was not one of the polytheists”[9].

Suppose various divergent creeds and value systems become predominant in society. In that case, individuals in the said society will not be able to forge strong and lasting ties amongst themselves, nor will they establish a single harmonious union. Therefore, a crucial element must exist that effectively nullify all differences of thought and inclination that may lead to practical contention and conflict between people. A point of universal reference must be present to resolve all differences of opinion regarding what does or does not constitute virtue and vice. As such, all civil societies typically strive to enshrine a single set of universally applicable laws that all people must abide by.

Single and Unified Management

Apart from the two elements mentioned above, another critical and final element is required in order to achieve unity within human society. This crucial element relates to the issue of management and execution. A single executive authority is necessary for a unified value system to be implemented in society. Once these three fundamental pillars come together, a united and rational society may be formed, where people willingly help each other achieve holistic prosperity in this world and the hereafter. This third and final element is called “imamate” or “leadership”.

In summary, forming a united and cohesive society depends upon three essential factors. Firstly, it requires the existence of a spirit of mutual accord, kinship and harmony amongst people, and such fraternal harmony can only prevail if justice reigns supreme. Secondly, it demands the presence of a unified value system that all people must refer to for the resolution of their mutual disagreements and conflicts. Thirdly, a single executive mechanism must be present to guarantee the practical implementation of all such matters. If these three cornerstones are successfully established, society will realise unity.


Ahl al-Bayt (a); the Intellectual and Executive Authority for Society

The moral value of justice is self-evident to the human intellect and cannot be disputed. However, having established this fact, two critical questions remain to be answered: who has the authority to ascertain a value system and create laws for any given society? And who should be the leader and chief administrator of the same? It is within this context that the Blessed Lady Fatimah al-Zahra (sa) speaks about the issue of “obedience towards the Holy Prophet’s sacred progeny (a) and their imamate (or divinely ordained leadership)”. Lady Fatimah (sa) is narrated to have said that to establish a single and universal system of laws and values within society; all people must obey the Ahl al-Bayt (a) and must refer to them for judgement whenever disagreements or differences emerge. Subsequently, regarding the next and final stage of this discussion which concerns societal management, she speaks about the issue of imamate (or divinely ordained leadership). She states, “God Almighty has invested us with the Imamate (or divinely ordained leadership) to protect society from discord”. Within the framework of our culture, the best word that comprehensively describes the leadership and management of an entire society is the term “imamate”.

Amongst the people present in the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina during the sermon delivered by Lady Fatimah al-Zahra (sa), there were undoubtedly those who outrightly opposed and rejected what she had to say. They had no faith, confidence or trust in the last two pieces of Lady Fatimah’s (sa) message. As far as they were concerned, obedience to the Holy Prophet’s progeny (a) played no role in establishing a single and effective system of values and laws within Muslim society, nor was such pious submission required to eliminate the roots of disunity and discord from within this community of believers. They probably remained silent simply out of respect for the daughter of the recently deceased Prophet of Islam (s). Regardless of this fact, the Blessed Lady Fatimah al-Zahra (sa) delivered her crucial message in the most explicit and steadfast of terms. These precious and invaluable words were a prelude for subjects that Lady Fatimah (sa) wanted to present later in her sermon.

The imamate (or divinely ordained leadership) of Prophet Muhammad’s sacred progeny (a) and the status of this doctrine within Islamic teachings is a matter of contention between the Shi’ah and other Muslim schools of thought. Among these other schools, certain groups acknowledge the theoretical authority and centrality of the Ahl al-Bayt (a) to provide society with a correct and authentic system of values. They believe that after the demise of the Holy Prophet (s), people are obligated to refer to the Ahl al-Bayt (a) to learn and understand Islam’s proper system of thought. Several Sunni denominations accept and admit that the Holy Prophet (s) declared that after him, authority over the Islamic nation rests with twelve individuals from amongst the Quraysh, all of whom hail from his sacred household (a). They believe that authority related to intellectual matters and religious knowledge rests exclusively with the Ahl al-Bayt (a). Others, who are more impartial, actively argue that even the early caliphs ascribed to this idea and thus continuously sought the Commander of the Faithful ‘Ali ibn Abīṭālib’s (a) counsel in numerous matters and followed his advice diligently. Sunni scholars have narrated many traditions from the early caliphs, especially from the second one, that bear witness to this fact. On numerous occasions, the second caliph was reported to have declared, “May Allah never inflict me with a problem without Abūl-Ḥasan (i.e. Imam ‘Ali) being there to resolve it”[10]. Likewise, he is narrated to have repeated this sentence over seventy times in public: “If ‘Ali (a) were not present, I would have been destroyed!”[11]

Some Sunni religious groups point towards these very narrations, citing them as evidence that the first and second caliphs only sought to claim political authority and never made any claims concerning the intellectual or academic leadership of the Muslim nation. As such, they always turned to the Ahl al-Bayt (a) when faced with problems of an intellectual or academic nature.

Therefore, one key issue is the intellectual authority of the Ahl al-Bayt (a). We observe Lady Fatimah al-Zahra (sa) speaking about this when she says, “… and (Allah has commanded the people) to obey us to institute discipline and order (through the establishment a single and unified system of values) within the Muslim nation”. Acceptance of this doctrine naturally paves the way for any audience to acknowledge the subsequent issue raised by Lady Fatimah (sa) in her famous sermon, namely the dire need to obey the Ahl al-Bayt (a) for any such system to come into existence and be practically implemented within society.

The more important matter, however, pertains to the second of these questions: Should the executor of any such system of values and laws, and indeed the government that rules over Muslim society, be exclusively from amongst the Ahl al-Bayt (a), or should it be someone elected by people in general? This critical query regarding the “imamate” forms the crucial doctrinal schism between the Shi’ah and other Muslim schools of thought. For the Shi’ah, it is abundantly evident that the verses of the Holy Quran, the narrated traditions, and even traditions reported by the Sunni schools of thought unmistakably bear witness to the integrity and accuracy of their stance[12]. However, in our current discourse, we do not intend to dwell on the many proofs regarding this matter. Our intention, herein, is to focus upon the sermon of the Blessed Lady Fatimah al-Zahra (sa) and emphasise the fact that according to her luminescent words, there is no doubt that the Ahl al-Bayt (a) hold complete and exclusive authority in both intellectual matters as well as those concerning rulership and governance over the Islamic nation. Indeed, God Almighty has granted them divine knowledge and has chosen them to supervise the affairs of all believers. However, this does not mean that the Immaculate Imam (a) needs to be personally present in every nook and cranny of the Muslim world, running and micromanaging every aspect of every city, town, and village directly. Indeed, such an idea is impossible, given the natural restrictions of the physical universe. Instead, the Immaculate Imam (a) designates qualified individuals to act as his deputies to rule as appointed central government representatives in all areas where Muslims may reside. One can witness various instances of such an arrangement during the short period in which the Commander of the Faithful, ‘Ali ibn Abīṭālib (a), reigned as the leader of the Muslim nation. He dispatched his nominated representatives as governors or administrators to various cities. Some of them successfully reached their respective destinations and served the people for a particular time. In contrast, others like Mālik al-Ashtar were martyred before they could even begin[13].

From our discussion thus far, two fundamental points can be understood. Firstly, the Blessed Lady Fatimah al-Zahra (sa) placed the abovementioned issues squarely amongst the most irrefutable teachings of Islam. On the one hand, she spoke of alāt (ritual worship), awm (ritual fasting) and the ajj (ritual pilgrimage to Mecca), while simultaneously speaking about Jihād (holy struggle) and Amr bi al-Ma’rūf (enjoining virtue), all of which constitute indisputable instances of Islam’s most sacred laws and tenets. Indeed, this ingenious arrangement is a masterpiece devised by Lady Fatimah al-Zahra (sa) to prepare the people to listen to and fully comprehend the critical issue of the “imamate”. By doing so, she strived to impress upon her audience that their most essential and foremost duty was to obey the Ahl al-Bayt (a) and to submit whole-heartedly to their divinely ordained authority. Secondly, a society invariably requires a single and unified management and governance system to remain immune to all forms of discord and disunity. This management system is known as the “imamate”, and God Almighty, in His infinite wisdom, has bestowed this authority exclusively upon the Ahl al-Bayt (a). They are the sacred and immaculate progeny of His Last and Final Messenger (s).


[1] Aristotle, Politics (translated into Farsi by Ḥamīd ‘Ināyat)

[2] The Holy Qurān, Surah Maryam, Verse 95

[3] The Holy Qurān, Surah al-Mu’minūn, Verse 101

[4] The Holy Qurān, Surah al-Baqarah, Verse 166

[5] The Holy Qurān, Surah al-Ḥijr, Verse 47

[6] Muhammad ibn Mukarram ibn Manẓūr, Lisān al-‘Arab, under the root entry “na-sa-qa

[7] Ibn Manẓūr writes, “Abū Isḥāq has said: al-millah, in the Arabic lexicon, means the traditions and ways of life of a certain people” (Muhammad ibn Mukarram ibn Manẓūr, Lisān al-‘Arab, under the root entry “ma-la-la”)

[8] Rāghib states, “The word al-dīn is similar to al-millah, however, it is employed while taking into consideration a person’s obedience and belief-based submission to religious law” (Muhammad Ḥusayn Rāghib Iṣfahānī, Al-Mufradāt fī Gharīb al-Qurān, under the root entry “da-ya-na”)

[9] The Holy Qurān, Surah al-An’ām, verse 161

[10] Aḥmad ibn Yaḥyā Balādhurī, Ansāb al-Ashrāf, vol. 2, pg. 99

[11] Yūsuf ibn’Abdullah ibn ‘Abd al-Barr, Al-Istī’āb fī Ma’rafat al-Aṣḥāb, vol. 3, pg. 1103; ‘Abd al-Ḥamīd ibn Abī al-Ḥadīd, Sharḥ Nahj al-Balāghah, vol. 1, pg. 18

[12] For further information, please refer to: Muhammad Tijānī Samāwī, Then I was Guided; Sulṭān al-Wā’iẓīn Shīrāzī, Peshawar Nights; Sayyid ‘Abd al-Ḥusayn Sharafuddīn, Al-Murāji’āt; ‘Abd al-Ḥusayn Amīnī, Al-Ghadīr

[13] For more information, please refer to: ‘Alī Akbar Dhākirī, Sīmāye Kārguzārān-e ‘Alī ibn Abīṭālib Amīr al-Muminīn

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