Among the objections of the skeptics is that an Imam is one who leads the people. So how can Shias consider their leaders as Imams when they never led the Muslims in a formal government.
This and other objections against Imamate are answered by Imam Ali Reza (a.s.) in an interesting debate with the leading Ahle Tasannun authority of the time – Yahya Ibn Zahhak al-Samarqandi.
Mamoon Abbasi wished in his heart that Imam Ali Reza (a.s.) would fail in the arguments and be overpowered by his opponents. However, Mamoon acted differently on the surface and pretended to be a supporter of Imam Reza (a.s.) and a defender of Ahle Bait (a.s.), so that he could cement his rulership and gain the support of Shias who historically were opposed to the ruler of the day.
Mamoon gathered the jurisprudents and the masters of eloquent speech, and privately told them to argue with the Imam (a.s.) about Imamate / divine leadership.
Imam Reza (a.s.) told them: Please choose one person from among yourselves to argue with me on your behalf. Then whatever becomes imperative for him is going to be imperative for all of you.
Then they chose a man known as Yahya Ibn Zahhak al-Samarqandi for whom there was no equal in Khorasan (Iran).
Imam Reza (a.s.): O Yahya! Ask me about anything you wish.
Yahya: I will ask about Imamate. How do you claim one to be an Imam (divine leader) who did not lead the people (perhaps he was referring to Imam Ali (a.s.)), and abandon one who has led the people and the people are content with his Imamate?
Imam Reza (a.s.): O Yahya! Tell me, which of the following two people are right: One who acknowledges a person who condemns himself, and one who acknowledges a person who considers himself to be honest! Which of the two are right, and which one is wrong?
Yahya fell silent.
Mamoon ordered him: Answer him.
Yahya: Please excuse me from answering.
Mamoon to Imam Reza (a.s.): We understand your intentions behind asking this question.
Imam (a.s.): Now Yahya must inform us about which of his leaders have condemned themselves and which ones have acknowledged themselves. If he thinks that they have condemned themselves, then they do not deserve to be divine leaders. And if he thinks that they have acknowledged themselves, then the first one said, ‘I have attained authority over you, but I am not the best of you.’
And the one who followed him declared, ‘It was a mistake to pledge allegiance to the first one. Kill anyone who does this again.’ Then, by Allah, the second one was not pleased with anything but killing those who repeated this blunder.
Then when someone is not the best of the people – given that to be the best is only possible by having such characteristics as knowledge, struggling in the way of Allah, and possessing other virtues – none of which he possessed; then how can the pledge of allegiance to someone be correct if the pledge of allegiance to one has made such a mistake which deserves that anyone doing such an act (pledge of allegiance) be killed. How can his leadership be acceptable for others while he is as such?
Moreover, he himself said the following from the pulpit: Indeed, there is a Satan within me which may overcome me. Please direct me to the straight path whenever he (the Satan within me) leads me astray. And please advise me whenever I make a mistake.’
Therefore, they themselves declare that they are not divine leaders whether they are telling the truth or lying.
Yahya was tongue-tied.
Mamoon while astonished with Imam’s (a.s.) arguments, declared: O Abal Hasan! There is no one else on earth who can debate like that, except you.
- Oyoon al-Akhbar v 2 p 231-232
- Al-Ehtejaj v 2 p 438-440
- Behar al-Anwar v 27 p 318-319
Clearly, as proved by Imam Reza (a.s.) an Imamate is claimed based on some definite virtues like knowledge, struggling in the way of Allah and other virtues and not merely by making a claim to Imamate. This is like godhood / prophethood wherein a mere claim (by likes of Firaun, Namrood, Musailamah Kazzab, among others) does not qualify for godhood / prophethood.
And Imamate is not proved merely by ruling over the people in the absence of these key virtues and nobility as Imam (a.s.) proves. The infallible Imams (a.s.) possessed all these qualities and even claimed Imamate for themselves based on these virtues, as also the divine endorsement (nass) in Hadith al-Ghadeer and other reports and Quranic verses.