How the Shi'ah Arrived at the Infallibility of the Imamate

بِسۡمِ ٱللهِ ٱلرَّحۡمَـٰنِ ٱلرَّحِيمِ

Considering the Imamate according to Shi’ism, lexically, the word, “Shi’ah” means, “adherent,” “answer”, such that the related word, “partisanship,” “tashayyu’”, denotes the victory of one over another, “al-intiswar”.  Historically, the word, “Shi’ah” refers to the supporters of ‘Ali ibn Abi Thalib (k.w.).  The term refers to the explicit conviction that the right to the caliphate fell only to ‘Ali (k.w.) and his children.  They differed amongst themselves, thereafter, as to which among his descendants had priority: the Zaydis asserted the Imamate through the third-generation descendent, Imam Zayd ibn ‘Ali ibn al-Husayn (q.s.); the Isma’ilis asserted the Imamate through the seventh-generation descendent, Imam Isma’il ibn Ja’far asw-Swadiq (q.s.) and the Twelver, Itsna ‘Ashari, Shi’ites asserted the Imamate through Imam Muhammad ibn al-Hasan al-‘Askari (q.s.).

The Twelver Shi’ites hold that the authority of the Imamate is one of the fundamental principles of religion that do not admit rational interpretation and, therefore, is not subject to independent judgement, ijtihad.  Nor are ancillary matters related to it subject to such independent judgement, although they may admit rational interpretation.  That is, choosing the leader, imam, is not achieved by election through the pledged allegiance, bay’ah, of the community as the Ahl as-Sunnah wa al-Jama’ah hold, but rather through Divine Appointment and textual designation, from proof-texts drawn from the Qur’an and sunnah.  The pledged allegiance is subsequent to and dependent on this Divine Appointment.  Shi’ites narrate various textual proofs for this position, among them the hadits of the pond of Khumm: “Whosoever I am his master, so too ‘Ali is his master.”  Likewise, they advance rational proofs, including that the orthodox community, being comprised merely of a multitude of fallible individuals, is not immune from mistakes, and that mistakes in this matter of choosing the leader yield nothing less than chaos and social disintegration.  For these reasons, among others, this matter must be effected through Divine Appointment and thereby secured against the fallibility of the populace.

Given that they were Divinely Appointed, the a’immah are understood to be Protected from error.  Shi’ites adduce both textual and rational proofs for this doctrine, including respectively Allah’s (s.w.t.) Address to Abraham (a.s.):

And remember that Abraham was Tried by his Lord with certain Commands, which he fulfilled; He Said, “I will Make thee an imam to the nations.”  He pleaded, “And also (a’immah) from my offspring!”  He Answered, “But My Promise is not within the reach of evil-doers.” (Surah al-Baqarah:124)

Allah (s.w.t.) is Very Clear that His Covenant does not include wrongdoers and the argument that the infallibility of the a’immah interrupts the infinite regress of moral culpability that otherwise obtains.


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