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Lesson One The Place of Leadership* in Islam

The Imam is, with respect to the masses composing the ummali,
the leader and exemplar from whose intellectual power and
insight those travelling toward God benefit, whose conduct
and mode of life they imitate, and to whose commands they
Imamate has a broad and comprehensive sense that
includes both intellectual authority and political leadership.
After the death of the Prophet, the Imam was entrusted with
the guardianship of his accomplishments and the continuation
of his leadership, in order to teach men the truths of the
Qur’an and religion and ordinances concerning society; in
short, he was to guide them in all dimensions of their existence.
Such leadership, exercised in its true and proper form, is
nothing other than the realization of the goals of Islam and the
implementation of its precepts, precepts established by the
Messenger of God; it bestows objective existence on the ideal
of forming a community and codifying a law for its gover-
nance. Imamate and leadership are sometimes understood
in a restricted sense to refer to the person who is entrusted
with exclusively social or political leadership. However, the
spiritual dimension of man is connected intimately with the
mission of religion, and the true and veritable Imam is that
exalted person who combines in himself intellectual authority
and political leadership; who stands at the head of Islamic
society, being enabled thereby both of convey to men the
divine laws that exist in every sphere and to implement them;
and who preserves the collective identity and the human
dignity of the Muslims from decline and corruption. In
addition, the Imam is one whose personality, already in this
world, has a divine aspect; his dealings with God and man, his
implementation of all the devotional, ethical and social
precepts of God’s religion, furnish a complete pattern and
model for imitation. It is the Imam who guides the movement
of men toward perfection. It is therefore incumbent on all
believers to follow him in all matters, for lie is a living exemplar
for the development of the self and of society, and his mode of
life is the best specimen of virtue for the Islamic community.
Most Sunni scholars are of the opinion that Caliphate
(khilafah) and Imamate (imamah) are synonymous, both
signifying the heavy social and political responsibility
bestowed on the caliph, who attains his position of
guardianship for the affairs of the Muslims by election. The
caliph both solves the religious problems of the people and
assures public security and guards the frontiers of the country
through the exercise of military power. The caliph (or Imam) is
therefore at one and the same time a leader of conventional
type and a ruler concerned with the welfare of society, whose
ultimate aim is the establishment of justice and guarding the
frontiers of the country, it is for the sake of these aims that he is
According to this concept, the qualifications for leadership
are governmental competence and capacity for rule. On the one
hand, the leader must punish errant and corrupt individuals by
implementing the penalties God has decreed; hold in check
those who would transgress against the rights of others; and
repress rebellious and anarchic ruffians. On the other hand, by
acquiring the necessary military equipment and organizing a
powerful army, he must both protect the frontiers of the Islamic
state against all aggression, and also confront, with jihad and
armed struggle, various forms of shirk and corruption and
factors of ignorance and unbelief if they prevent the progress
or the implementation of true religion and the dissemination of
tawhid by way of propagation and guidance powers proves
In this view of things, it does not present a major problem
if the leader or ruler has no background of erudition with
respect to God’s ordinances, or even if he has strayed beyond
the boundaries of piety and polluted himself with sin. Anyone
can lay claim to the title of successor (khalifah) to the Prophet
who undertakes the tasks he used to fulfil. It is not offensive if
some oppressive tyrant establishes his dominance over Islamic
society by trampling the rights of the people, shedding their
blood and exercising military force, calling himself the leader of
the Muslims; or if some two-faced politician assumes the office
of successor to the Prophet, and then proceeds to rule over
people, despite his lack of spiritual and moral qualities,
cancelling all notion of justice and equity. Indeed, not only is it
impermissible to oppose him; it is necessary to obey him.
It is on the basis of this view of the matter that one of the
great Sunni scholars expressed himself as follows concerning
the caliph:
“The caliph cannot be removed from office on account of
contravening God’s laws and commands, transgressing against
the property of individuals or killing them, or suspending the
laws God has decreed. In such a case, it is the duty of the
Islamic community to set his misdeeds aright and to draw him
onto the path of true guidance.”
However, if such an atmosphere predominates in the
institution of the caliphate, with the caliph having no sense of
responsibility, based on his own religiosity, toward Muslim
society, how can those who wish to reform the situation
constantly watch over the deeds of a corrupt leadership, evince
the appropriate reaction on every occasion, and purge Islam of
deviation? Can rulers be persuaded by mere advice to change
their ways?
If God had wished to entrust the destinies of the
community to unworthy rulers, to impious and selfish
oppressors, it would not have been necessary for him to bestow
messenger hood on the Prophet or to reveal the ordinances
needed for the stability of society. Did those caring,
self-sacrificing and noble souls who throughout the centuries
rebelled against evil and oppressive rulers act contrary to God’s
Dr. ‘Abd al-‘Aziz al-Duri, a Sunni scholar, writes as
“At the time the sovereignty of the caliphate was being
established, the political theory of the Sunnis with respect to
this institution was not based simply on Qur’an and hadith.
Rather it rested on the principle that Qur’an and hadith must
be understood and explicated in accordance with whatever
events subsequently occurred. Thus every generation left its
mark on the theory of the caliphate, because that theory
assumed a new shape with each new occurrence and was
colored by it. An obvious example is the case of Qadi Abu
‘l-Hasan al-Mawardi, who served as chief judge under the
caliph. When writing his book al-Ahkam al-Sultaniyyah he kept
the concerns of the caliph in mind, at a time when the caliphate
was at its most degenerate. He employed all his mental powers
to reconcile the views of earlier jurists with the situation
existing in his own time and the developments that were
occurring then. His sole talent was in eschewing any kind of
free and original thought. He wrote:
“‘It is permissible for an unfit individual to be the leader
even if a fit individual is also to be found. Once someone has
been chosen, he cannot be removed simply because there is
someone better and more fitted available.’
“He admits and vindicates this principle in order to justify
rule by numerous unfit caliphs. It is possible, too, that he
wished to refute Sh-1’i views on the subject. The theological
and credal view he puts forth serves no other purpose for the
Sunnis but to justify the political developments of the day. The
only aim was to justify whatever might be grouped under the
heading of ijma’ (consensus).”
Such are the intellectual foundations of those who regard
themselves as followers of the Sunnah of the Prophet and the
guardians of religion and the shari’ah. They denounce as
rejecters and traitors to the Sun nah of God’s Messenger a whole
host of Islamic thinkers and social reformers, followers of the
Imams of justice, the proofs of God and the guides of mankind.
If rulers who are strangers to the spirit of Islam and
trample underfoot the laws of God, have the right to rule over
the believers; and if the ummah of Islam is obliged to obey such
rulers, being forbidden to take them to task in order to reform
the caliphate or to disobey their orders – what then becomes of
the religion of God?
Can the Islamic conscience accept this as a proper form of
loyalty to the shari’ah of the Prophet? Is not the inevitable
result of this mode of thought the granting of unlimited rights
to the powerful and oppressive tyrants that have ruled
throughout history?
By contrast, the Imamate in the view of the Shi’ah is a
form of divine governance, an office depending on
appointment just like prophethood, something God bestows on
exalted persons. The difference is that the Prophet is the
founder of the religion and the school of thought that proceeds
from it, whereas the Imam has the function of guarding and
protecting God’s religion, in the sense that people have the
duty of following in all dimensions of their life the spiritual
values and mode of conduct of the Imams.
After the Messenger of God, the Islamic ummah stood in
need of a worthy personage who would be endowed with the
knowledge derived from revelation, exempt from sin and
impurity, and capable of perpetuating the path of the founder
of the shari’ah. Only such a personage would be able not only
to watch over the political developments of the time and to
protect society from its deviant elements, but also to provide
people with the extensive religious knowledge which spring
from the fountainhead of revelation and derive from the
general principles of the shari’ah. The laws derived from
revelation would thus be preserved, and the torch of truth and
justice held high.
Imamate and caliphate are inseparable, in lust the same
way that the governmental functions of the Messenger of God
cannot be separated from his prophetic office. Spiritual Islam
and political Islam are two parts of a single whole. However, in
the course of Islamic history, political power did become
separated from the spiritual Imamate, and the political
dimension of religion was separated from its spiritual
If Islamic society is not headed by a worthy, lust,
God fearing person, one unsullied by moral impurity, whose
deeds and words serve as a model for people; if, on the
contrary, the ruler of society himself violates the law and turns
his back on the principles of justice – there will be no
environment capable of receiving justice, and it will not be
possible neither for virtue and piety to grow and ascend, nor
for the aim of Islamic government to be accomplished, which is
none other than orienting men to the Supreme Principle and
creating a sound environment for the dissemination of spiritual
values and the implementation of a law based on divine
revelation. The moral conduct of the ruler and the role of
government have so profound and powerful an effect on
society that ‘Ali, the Commander of the Faithful, peace be
upon him, regarded it as more influential than the educative
role of the father within the household. He thus said: “With
respect to their morals, people resemble their rulers more than
they resemble their fathers.”
Since there is a particular connection and affinity between
the aims of a given government and the attributes and
characteristics of its leader, attaining the ideals of Islamic
government is dependent on the existence of a leader in whom
are crystallized the special qualities of a perfected human
In addition, the need of a society moving forward toward
its own perfection for leadership and governance is a natural
and innate need, and in just the same way that Islam has made
provision for the individual and collective needs of man,
material and moral, by codifying and ordering a coherent
system of law, it must also pay heed to the natural need for
leadership in a fashion that accords with man’s essential
God has provided every existent being with all the tools
and instruments it needs to transcend the limitations of
weakness and lack and advance toward its own perfection. Is it
then possible that man who is also nurtured in the embrace of
nature would somehow be excepted from the operation of this
inviolable rule and be deprived of the means of spiritual ascent?
Could it be said that a Creator Who has lavished
generosity on man for the sake of his bodily development
might deprive him of the most basic means needed for his
spiritual elevation, that He might grudge him this bounty?
At the time of the death of the Messenger of God, the
Islamic nation had not reached the cultural or intellectual level
that would have permitted it do continue its development
toward perfection without guardianship and oversight. The
program that Islam had established for the development and
elevation of man would have remained soulless and incomplete
unless the principle of Imamate had been joined to it; Islam
would have been unable to play its precious role in the
liberation of man and the blossoming of his talents.
Fundamental Islamic texts proclaim that if the principle of
Imam ate is subtracted from Islam, the spirit of the laws of Islam
and the progressive, monothe’ishc society based on them would
be lost; nothing would remain but a lifeless form.
The Prophet of Islam, peace and blessings be upon him
and his family, said: “Whosoever dies without recognizing the
Imam of his time dies the death of the Jahiliyyah.”
The reason for this is that during the Jahiliyyah –
pre-Islamic era of ignorance – the people were polytheists;
they knew nothing of either monotheism or of prophethood.
This categorical declaration by the Prophet, peace and blessings
be upon him and his family, shows the importance that he
assigned to the Imamate, to the degree that if someone fails to
place his spiritual life beneath the protective cover of a
perfected ruler he is equivalent to one whose whole life was
spent in the Jahiliyyah and then went unredeemed to his death.

* By ‘leadership’ here is implied the conception of Imamate. An Imam is an
infallible person designated by the Prophet as his successor by God’s command.

1 al-Baqillani, al-Tamhid, p.186.
2 al-Dun, al-Nuzum al-Islamiyyah, Vol.1, pp. 72-84.
3 al-Majlisi, Bihar al-Anwar, Vol, XVII, p.129.
4 Ahmad b. Hanbal, al-Musnad, p.96.

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