Additional Material for
Key Chapters

Chapter 8, Divisions in the umma: Sects, political theory

Persianate views and ideas of kingship:

Note: The Denkart is a late Zoroastrian text; the others are from Muslim sources.

Nor can religion be stable without royalty
Nor can royalty be permanent without religion:
They are two foundations interlaced with one another,
Which intelligence hath combined in one.
(Firdowsi in Martin, V., (1989) Islam and Modernism, London: Tauris, 1989, p. 33)

'The principal characteristic of kings is pleasure . . . pleasure is consonant with kingship provided it is rooted in greatness.  Pleasure rooted in greatness does not pass away.' (Denkart; Zaehner 1961: 299.)

[If the shah rules well ] 'The empire will prosper, the common people will be freed from fear and enjoy a good life, science will advance, culture will be looked after, good manners will be further refined, and men will be generous, just and grateful, many a virtue will they practice and perfect will their goodness be.' (Denkart)
In every age and time God (be He exalted) chooses one member of the human race and, having endowed him with goodly and kingly virtues, entrusts him with the interests of the world and the well-being of His servants; He charges that person to close the doors of corruption, confusion and discord, and He imparts to him such dignity and majesty in the eyes and hearts of men, that under his just rule they may live their lives in constant security and ever wish for his reign to continue. (Nizam al-Mulk, The Book of Government, trans. H. Darke, 9)

A contrasting view from the Iranian revolution:

"The government of the Commander of the Faithful (i.e. Ali) . . . was not a form of monarchy.  In a monarchy the rulers seize the property of their people, . . .   in a monarchy we find palaces, servants  . . . and all sorts of luxuries which are paid for from the national budget.  However, if we consider the form of government which ‘Ali instituted we do not find such things.  The Commander of the Faithful ruled over a vast country which included, among its other provinces, Egypt, Iran and Arabia. Yet he lived as a humble and a simple man . . . .  This man who ruled over a vast land used to wear a torn and timeworn garb." (Ayatollah Montazeri, sermon, 1979)


Al-Ghazali on the Imamate

The following is a translation of the chapter "The Imamate" from The Golden Mean in Belief (Al-Iqtisad fi al-I‘tiqad), a book on kalam. It is one of at least three places where he spells out his view. Another is in his lengthy refutation of the Isma‘ilis, entitled Al-Mustazhiriyya (English translation can be found in Freedom and Fulfillment, trans, R. J. McCarthy, Boston: Twayne, 1980) and the third is found in his opus magnum, Ihya’ ‘Ulum al-Din. Al-Ghazali’s position is described briefly in the textbook on p. 110 [present numbering]. Note that the saying “Religion and government (sultan) are twins” is generally believed to originate in pre-Islamic Iran. The word sultan  originally meant “authority” but by al-Ghazali’s time had come to refer to the holder of authority.

Enquiry into the Imamate is not an important matter [for kalam], nor is it one of the philosophical issues within jurisprudence (fiqh). Moreover, it is apt to stir up partisan passions, so it is safer to avoid discussing it than to plunge into it even if one finds the correct answers, let alone if one errs. But it has become the accepted practice to close doctrinal treatises with it, and so we will follow this customary procedure since people are strongly averse to procedures that contradict what they are used to.  Our treatment of it will be brief, however.  Speculation on this matter involves three points:

THE FIRST POINT: Demonstration of the obligation to appoint an imam.

You must not think that this obligation is derived from reason, for we have already demonstrated that obligations are derived only from revelation (shar‘). To be sure, if one interprets the word "obligation" to mean an action which brings benefit and whose omission causes even the slightest harm, then one would not deny that there is a obligation to appoint an imam [based on reason], since it does provide for worldly benefit and repel worldly harm. We, however, shall prove conclusively that this obligation is based on revelation, and we will not be content to rest the case on the consensus ijma‘ of the umma.  Rather, we shall show what this consensus is based on.

We begin by stating that the proper ordering of the religious life was unquestionably a goal of the Prophet, upon him be peace; this is a premiss which is certain and about which no dispute is conceivable. To this we add another premiss, viz., that the proper ordering of religious life can be achieved only be means of a leader (imam) who commands obedience.  From the two premisses there follows the truth of what was originally asserted, viz. that it is obligatory to appoint an imam.

An objector may say that second premiss, viz. that the right ordering of the religious life can be achieved only by means of an imam who commands obedience, cannot be granted without demonstration. We would then say that the proof is that the right ordering of religious life can be achieved only by the right ordering of worldly life, and the right ordering of worldly life is achieved only by means of a leader (imam) who commands obedience.  Can there be any debate about either of these two premises?

It may also be asked why we say that the right ordering of religious life can be achieved only by means of the right ordering of worldly life, when in fact it is achieved only at the expense of worldly life, for religious life and worldly life are incompatible, since to promote one of them is to destroy the other.

Our answer would be that these are the words of one who does not understand what we mean here by "worldly life", for it is an ambiguous term which may be used in the sense of excessive enjoyment and pleasure and of unnecessary luxury but also may be used in the sense of everything a person needs before death. One of these is contrary to religious life, but the other is a necessary condition for it.  So it is that one errs if one does not distinguish between the different meanings of ambiguous words.  So we say that the right ordering of religious life depends on knowledge and worship and these are achieved only with bodily health, preservation of life, the basic necessities of food, shelter and clothing, and security against disaster. I swear that whoever has become secure in his mind, healthy in his body, and has his daily food, it is as if he had obtained the whole of worldly life. A person's spirit, body, possessions, home and food, however, are secure only under some conditions, not all, and religious life can be properly ordered only when these important necessities have become secure. Otherwise, the person will have to spend all his time protecting himself from the swords of oppressors or seeking his daily bread from usurpers and will have no time free for learning or right endeavour, which are the means to blessedness in the future life. Therefore it is evident that the right ordering of worldly life, to the extent of basic necessities, is a necessary condition for the right ordering of religious life. 

As for the second premise, viz. that worldly life and security of person and property can be rightly ordered only by means of a ruler (sultan) who commands obedience, the evidence for it can be seen in the times of civil strife following the deaths of rulers and imams. If such times lasted very long and were not ended by the appointment of another ruler who commanded obedience, the disorder would continue, fighting would spread, people would be in want, livestock would perish, industry would cease and the strong would plunder at will. Those who survived would have no time for worship or learning, while the majority would perish by the edge of the sword. Therefore it is said: "Religion and government (sultan) are twins", and "Religion is a foundation and government (sultan) is a guard; whatever has no foundation is demolished and whatever has no guard is lost." In general, no rational person can dispute the point that humans, given their social differences, the diversity of their desires and the wide disparity of their opinions, would perish to the last person if they were abandoned to their own devices and were not united in obedience to a single opinion. This is an illness which has no cure except a strong ruler (sultan) who commands obedience and imposes unity on the diversity of opinions. So it is clear that a ruler is necessary for the right ordering of worldly life, the right ordering of world life is necessary for the right ordering of religious life, and the right ordering of religious life is necessary for achieving blessedness in the future life, and this is the definitive aim of the prophets.  Therefore, the obligation to appoint an imam is a necessity based on revelation and one which may not be neglected.

THE SECOND POINT: Explaining who is to be singled out from among the rest of humankind to be appointed imam.

We say that it is clear that an imam cannot be designated arbitrarily and that he must be distinguished by characteristics that mark him off from the rest of humankind, some of these being characteristics found in him personally and some characteristics involving other people. As for those found in him personally, they are as follows: that he be capable of administering the people's affairs and leading them along the right paths, something which demands competence, learning and scrupulous piety. In brief, the characteristics required of judges are required of him, and then in addition he must descended from the Quraysh.  This fourth condition is known by authoritative tradition, since the Prophet, God bless him and grant him peace, said, "The imams are from the Quraysh." This distinguishes him from most of humankind; but it may be that there are found among the Quraysh a number of people with the above mentioned characteristics, so there is need for yet another characteristic to distinguish him and that can only be appointment or authorization by one or more others, for he is singled out for the imamate when he in particular is appointed, to the exclusion of anyone else. 

It remains now to consider the characteristics of the one who appoints, for that cannot be left to just anyone but demands particular characteristics. Appointment can take one of three forms: either designation by the Prophet, may God bless him and grant him peace, or designation by the current imam when he chooses as his heir apparent a particular person from among his children or other members of the Quraysh, or by authorization by a military leader who has the power to compel the others to accept his decision and give prompt allegiance to the person so authorized. In some ages authorization may be carried out by one person who is highly regarded, has a strong following, and is in control of things generally. It is sufficient for him to make the authorization and give the oath of allegiance even if others do not participate in the authorization process, since the aim is to unite a diversity of people under one person who commands obedience, and this happens when the imam receives obedience by virtue of receiving the oath of allegiance from someone else who commands obedience [i.e. the sultan]. Sometimes the necessary power may not be in the hands of one person but of two or more persons, so that it is necessary for them to come together and agree on the authorization and give the oath of allegiance so that the imam will receive full obedience.  I will go further and say that if after the death of the imam there was only one member of the Quraysh who commanded obedience and had a following and this person took over the imamate, appointed himself as the successor, and effectively carried out its functions, and if he made the rest of the people follow him by virtue of his power and competence, while possessing the [other] characteristics appropriate to imams, then his imamate would be valid and obedience to him would be obligatory. He would have been singled out by virtue of his power and his competence, and opposing him would mean stirring up civil strife.  In fact, though, such a person would be strong enough to exact the oath of allegiance from the magnates and authorities of the time, and that would make his position less open to question. Therefore, such a person usually takes power only after being authorized [by others] and receiving the oath of allegiance.

Someone may say: Assuming that the goal is to have a person of sound views who commands obedience and who can impose his authority on the diversity of opinions and keep the people from warring and fighting and procure their material and eternal well-being, let us suppose that someone took control who fulfilled all the conditions except those of judges [i.e. competence, learning and piety] but, in place of these, was willing to consult the scholars and act according to their dictates, what would be your opinion?  Would it be obligatory to oppose him and remove him or would it be obligatory to obey him?

Our categorical reply would be that it would be obligatory to remove him if he could be replaced by someone fulfilling all the conditions without stirring up civil disorder and provoking fighting. But if this could not be done without causing fighting, it would be obligatory to obey him and recognise his imamate as legitimate, for what we would lose by the fact that he depends on the advice of others rather than being himself learned is less than what we would lose by appointing the more qualified one if this meant we had go through a civil war whose consequences we could not foresee, but which would probably lead to considerable loss of life and property.  The requirement of learning is added only to provide for improving and perfecting the wellbeing of society, but it is not permissible to destroy the basis of society's wellbeing out of a desire to improve and perfect it. These are juristic matters which can lead some to absurdities and contradictions, but let them leave such excesses since the matter is easier than they think. We have given a full and complete analysis of this matter in the book entitled "Al-Mustazhiri", composed to refute the Isma‘ilis.

Someone may say: You have relaxed the requirement of learning in the imam, so you must also relax the requirement for justice and other traits.

In response we will say that our relaxation is not by choice, but necessity makes forbidden things permissible (mubah).  For example, we know that it is forbidden to eat carrion, but to let oneself die of hunger is even worse.  Now I really wonder who would refuse to support our position and would declare that the imamate in our age is invalid because it does not fulfil all the conditions, when he cannot replace the one who is currently carrying out that role or even find anyone who does fulfil the conditions.  Which option is better: that he declare all the judges deposed, all public authority invalid, all marriages anulled and the actions of all governors in the various parts of the world void, and, indeed, everything that everyone is doing forbidden, or that he declare the imamate valid, by virtue of circumstance and necessity, and thus the governing authorities and actions of the governors legitimate?  Now, he has three choices: (1) he can prevent people from marrying or taking other actions which require the authorization of the judges, something which is impossible since it would paralyze all gainful activity, result in anarchy and cause the people to perish, or (2) he can say that they are marrying and doing the other things and in so doing they are engaging in forbidden actions, but they will not judged immoral or sinful because of the overriding necessity in the situation, or (3) he can take our position and declare that the imamate is valid even though not all the conditions for it are fulfilled because of the overriding necessity in the situation. It is well known that something unacceptable becomes acceptable when it is compared with something even less acceptable, and the lesser of two evils is a relative good which the rational person must choose. Now, this completes the argument of this section and the intelligent person will not need a lengthier discussion.  He who does not quickly understand the true nature and cause of something but requires a long time to comprehend will always reject what contradicts his ingrained ways of thinking. Weaning the weak-minded from their habitual ways of thinking is an arduous task which even the prophets have been unable to accomplish, so what can be expected of others? 

Someone may ask: Why don't you say that designation by the Prophet or his successor (caliph) is obligatory, in order to cut the root of disagreement, as some of the Twelver Shi‘Is (Imamis) assert?  

Our answer is that if it were obligatory the Prophet, God bless him and grant him peace, would have stipulated it, but he did not do so, nor did Umar.  Rather, the imamates of the Abu Bakr, Uthman and Ali, may God be pleased with them, stood firm on the basis of authorization. Pay no attention to the willful ignorance of those who allege that the Prophet, may God bless him and grant him peace, designated Ali so as to end disputes but that the Companions haughtily opposed the designation and suppressed knowledge of it.  One could counter this in similar terms by claiming that the Prophet designated Abu Bakr and the Companions unanimously agreed (i.e. ijma‘)  that he was suitable for this designation and followed him. This claim would be more credible than the claim that they haughtily opposed the designation and suppressed it.  Furthermore, one could only imagine that such a designation was obligatory because it was difficult to eliminate dissension, but it is no excuse since the oath of allegiance itself eliminates the basis of dissension, as is proven by the lack of dissension in the time of Abu Bakr and Uthman (sic) may God be pleased with them, even though they had taken office by this oath, while dissension became prevalent in the time of Ali, may God be pleased with him, even though according to the Shi‘is he took office on the basis of designation.

THE THIRD POINT: Explanation of the doctrine of the People of the True Path (ahl al-sunna, i.e. Sunnis) on the Companions and the Rightly Guided Caliphs.

Know that on the subject of the Companions and the Caliphs, people go to great extremes. Some praise them exaggeratedly, even to the point of alleging that the imams are infallible, while others attack and slanderously censure the Companions.  Don't be in either group, but follow the path of the golden mean in belief. Know that the Book of God contains praise for the Emigrants and the Helpers and there are unquestionably sound (mutawatir) reports in which the Prophet, may God bless him and grant him peace, attests their good character in various words, such as his statements, "My Companions are like the stars, whichever you follow you will be rightly guided," and, "The best people are my generation, then those who follow them." There is not one of them who has not somewhere been singled out for praise, but it would take too long to present all this. So you must adopt this belief concerning them, and in connection with the accounts of their disagreements, you must not think badly of them but give them the benefit of the doubt. For most of what is transmitted about them is the invention of partisan fanaticism with no basis in fact. What is not invention is open to interpretation, and it is not permissible to accept reports of errors or oversights by them which one cannot reasonably find a way to excuse and interpret as being motivated by good intentions even though they turned out to be wrong.  In the famous case of the fight between Mu‘awiya and Ali, and the journey of ‘A’isha, may God be pleased with them, to Basra, we must suppose that ‘A’isha was trying to stop the civil war but that matters got out of control, so that the end result was not what she had originally intended but quite different (so-called “Battle of the Camel”).  Concerning Mu‘awiya we must suppose that he had his own interpretations and suppositions about what he was doing. Whatever else is said about this comes from isolated (not mutawatir) reports and is a mixture of truth and error. Most of the differences result from the inventions of the Shi‘is or the Kharijis, or by  meddlesome people who delve excessively into these matters. So you must stick to the practice of rejecting reports that are not proven and discovering a suitable interpretation for ones that are proven, and if that is too difficult, then say that perhaps there is an interpetation or an excuse that you are not aware of.  Know that in this situation you are faced with two possibilities: one is that you form a bad opinion of a Muslim and tell slanderous lies about him, and the other is that you mistakenly form a good opinion of him and refrain from criticizing him. It is safer erroneously to hold a good opinion about a Muslim than to defame him with accurate criticisms.  For if a person during his whole life refrained, for example, from cursing the devil, or Abu Jahl or Abu Lahab or another evil person, his silence would not harm him, but if he made a single error in accusing a Muslim of something of which he is innocent in God's sight, he would expose himself to perdition. In fact, it is not licit to speak of most of what one knows about people because of the great importance that the Divine Law (shar‘) gives to preventing slander even when the allegations made are true.  So whoever pays attention to these points and is not meddlesome will prefer to keep silence and maintain a good opinion of all Muslims and to employ his tongue in the praise all the Righteous Forefathers. This then is the proper attitude to the Companions generally.  As for the Rightly Guided Caliphs, they are more virtuous than the others and their rank in virtue, in the view of the People of the True Path, is the same as the order in which they took up the imamate. When we say, however, that someone is more virtuous than someone else, this must not be taken to mean that he occupies a higher position with God in the afterlife. This is one of the secrets known only to God, and to His Messenger if He has informed him of it, and we cannot adduce any decisive and unquestionably authentic (mutawatir) texts from the Prophet that compel us to rank them in this order.  Rather, what is transmitted is praise of them all, and to come to a judgment as to their relative virtue on the basis of the details of the Prophet's praise of them is to aim in the dark and meddle rashly in the affairs of others, something which God has saved us from having to do. To try to discern someone's virtue in God's sight from his actions is problematic and produces no more than a guess. How many persons there are who outwardly do forbidden things and yet hold a place in God's sight of which even they are not aware and have hidden inward virtues! And how many are adorned with the outward acts of worship, and yet are the objects of God's wrath because of vices nestled within them. For God alone knows the secrets of people's hearts.  But now, it is undoubtedly the case that someone's true virtue can be known only by revelation, and one can know what the Prophet reported only by dependable transmission, and furthermore those whose transmission is most dependable in matters that indicate the differing degrees of virtue [of the early caliphs] are those Companions who were constantly with the Prophet - may God bless him and grant him peace - and best knew about his spiritual experiences. They agreed on the priority of Abu Bakr, and that Abu Bakr then designated Umar and that after him they agreed on Uthman and then on Ali, may God be pleased with them. Since it cannot be supposed that they would betray the religion of God for any motive, their agreement (ijma‘) is the best evidence concerning the relative virtues of these caliphs. Therefore, the Sunnis accepted this ranking in virtue and then investigated the reports and found them to support the Companions and the people of consensus (ijma‘) in this ranking.

Now this is the brief presentation that we wanted to make of the rules and judgments concerning the imamate, and God knows best and makes the best judgments.


Ibn Khaldūn (there is a brief reference to Ibn Khaldun on p. 189 of Introducing Islam but here is a bit more information that is relevant to the last section of this chapter.)

A thinker who drew on the philosophical tradition and on the tradition of historiography that had developed among Muslims, but added a distinctive approach of his own, was Ibn Khaldūn (1332-1406). In the Introduction (Muqaddima) to his massive universal history he seeks to show the pattern underlying political and social events. A state or dynasty is based on the ‘aṣabiyya, group feeling or solidarity, of the ruling group. A group with strong ‘asabiyya will establish state but then, in a process that includes the absolutism of the ruler and the enjoyment of luxury by the ruling class, its ‘asabiyya decreases and it is eventually defeated and replaced by another group. This is the “natural” pattern. If a state is based on a shari‘a bought by a prophet it will be stronger – this is the best kind state – but it still needs ‘asabiyya and is still subject to its laws. Ibn Khaldun has been considered by many to be one of the founders of modern social science.

© William Shepard

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