We have already discussed the word ‘Caliph’ in the article ‘The Concept of Caliph and Caliphate in Islam’. Thus, whatever is applicable to the ‘Caliph’ is also applicable for the word ‘Imam’ and ‘Master’ (ولي), particularly the latter when it is used for other than Allah, the High. So, an Imam implies the owner of an elevated position appointed by Allah, the High, whether he is a Prophet or the successor of a Prophet.

This implication by no means contradicts the literal meaning of the word Imam because literally, the word ‘Imam’ is used for anybody who is followed in knowledge, ethics or in any field of art and technology. For example, it is said Khalil Ibn Ahmad is an Imam in literature, Kulaini (r.a.) is an Imam in traditions, Shaykh Tusi (r.a.) is is an Imam in exegesis, traditions, jurisprudence and principles of jurisprudence, and Abu Ali Seena is an Imam in philosophy and medicine. All these applications do not contradict the usage of the word ‘Imam’ by Allah, the Holy Quran and the traditions, for the one whom Allah has appointed as an Imam, made them standard for His servants, the minaret in His cities, the one who is to be followed by all and sundry.

Thus, the word ‘Imam’ is normally used for the one who is followed as a leader due to excessive usage in the Holy Quran and the traditions and refers to this specially appointed person. Hence, whenever the word ‘Imam’ is used independently, and the context does not indicate otherwise, it automatically implies the representative of Allah.

Due to this very special application of the word ‘Imam’ for Allah’s proof and His appointee, a number of holy personalities refused to attach this title (Imam) before their names despite being apparently worthy of it in at least one context or more.

It is worth mentioning that the term ‘Imam’, notwithstanding its numerous imports, is applicable only for the Messenger of Allah (s.a.w.a.) and his (s.a.w.a.) successors designated by Allah, the High. But it appears that the excessive use of the word for the holy and infallible Imams of the Ahle Bait (a.s.) in the traditions has led to its application in the second meaning i.e. for the leaders in other fields.

If someone refers to the Holy Quran and the traditions, he will find plenty of testimonies endorsing the above theory.

For example, the Holy Quran says,

وَإِذِ ابْتَلَى إِبْرَاهِيمَ رَبُْهُ بِكَلِمَاتٍ فَأَتَمَْهُنَْ قَالَ إِنِْي جَاعِلُكَ لِلنَْاسِ إِمَامًا قَالَ وَمِن ذُرِْيَْتِي قَالَ لاَ يَنَالُ عَهْدِي الظَْالِمِينَ

And when his Lord tried Ibrahim with certain words, he fulfilled them. He said: Surely I will make you an Imam for the men. He (Ibrahim) asked: And of my offspring? He (Allah) said: My covenant does not include the unjust.[1]

The above verse clearly indicates that Imamat is a covenant of Allah, which does not reach to the unjust and the oppressors. Moreover, it is an appointment from the side of Allah. It is absolutely clear that the appointment of Imam for the people is invalid and incorrect except from the side of Allah, the High.

Some more verses of the Holy Quran that prove our point are cited hereunder.

وَجَعَلْنَاهُمْ أَئِمَْةً يَهْدُونَ بِأَمْرِنَا وَأَوْحَيْنَا إِلَيْهِمْ فِعْلَ الْخَيْرَاتِ

And We made them Imams who guided (people) by Our command, and We revealed to them the doing of good[2]

وَنُرِيدُ أَن نَْمُنَْ عَلَى الَْذِينَ اسْتُضْعِفُوا فِي الْأَرْضِ وَنَجْعَلَهُمْ أَئِمَْةً

And We desired to bestow a favor upon those who were deemed weak in the land, and to make them the Imams[3]

وَجَعَلْنَا مِنْهُمْ أَئِمَْةً يَهْدُونَ بِأَمْرِنَا لَمَْا صَبَرُوا

And We made of them Imams to guide by Our command when they were patient.[4]

There are a plenty of traditions that also support this argument. While talking about his successors and the necessity of their recognition, the Messenger of Allah (s.a.w.a.) declared,

من مات ولم يعرف إمام زمانه فليمت إن شاء يهوديًا و إن شاء نصرانياً

One who dies without recognizing the Imam of his time then he can die as he wishes, either as a Jew or a Christian.[5]

Ameerul Momineen (a.s.) says,

بنا يستعطى الهدى و يستجلى العمى إنْ الأئمة من قريش غرسوا في هذا البطن من هاشم لا تصلح على سواهم و لا تصلح الولاة من غيرهم

‘Through us, guidance is granted and darkness is dispelled. Surely the Imams from the Quraish are planted from the Hashemite wombs. None is worthy of it (Imamat) but them and none is eligible for being the masters except them.’[6]

In another place he (a.s.) says,

و إنما الائمة قوام الله على خلقه و عرفاؤه على عباده و لا يدخل الجنْة إلاْ من عرفهم و عرفوه و لا يدخل النار إلاْ من أنكرهم و أنكروه

Certainly the Imams are the vicegerents of Allah over His creatures and His cognizant over His servants. None will enter Paradise except he who knows them and they know him, and none will enter Hell except he who denies them and they deny him.[7].

Therefore, there are numerous reliable and consecutive traditions in the books of both Shias and Sunnis, specially the former, that suggest the holy implication of the word Imam and its divine essence. Also, whenever it is used independently, it is done in this very meaning, unless the context indicates otherwise. This was regarding the word ‘Imam’.

(Abridged from the English translation of the book ‘Muntakhab al-Asar’, vol. 1, (published by Naba Publications, Tehran, Islamic Republic of Iran) by Ayatollah Lotfollah Saafi Golpaygani (may Allah prolong his life))!


[1] Surah Baqarah (2): Verse 124.

[2] Surah Anbiya (21): Verse 73.

[3] Surah Qasas (28): Verse 5.

[4] Surah Sajdah (32): Verse 24.

[5] Al-Masaael al-Khamsoon by Fakhruddin al-Raazi, Masalah No. 47. This article was published in the year 1328 A.H. in Egypt along with other articles. Its publisher had named it, ‘Majmooah al-Rasaael’. This tradition can be found on pg. 348.

[6] Nahj al-Balagah, Sermon 142.

[7] Nahj al-Balagah, Sermon 150.