The Hidden Imam
The principal factions of Islam appear to be Sunni (85%) and Shiite (10%). The role of the Imam is much more significant, religiously, in the Shiite communities. I will attempt to explain.
(For more of a breakdown on all Islamic sects visit the following website [A Guide to Islamic Sects]: http://www.rickross.com/reference/islamic/islamic27.html)
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Sunni – The Imam is a leader in the Mosque. He conducts the congregants in prayer. So it is akin to a Rabbi, Minister, or Priest, but lesser, more a cleric or simply a worship leader. They would give the Friday sermon in a Sunni mosque. They are educated in the faith and considered scholars of Islam – part of the Ulama.
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Shiite – The Imam is the one capable of interpreting God’s words, his intentions. Educated and appointed, Shi’ah believes that these Imams are chosen by God to be perfect examples for the faithful and to lead all humanity in all aspects of life. They also believe that all the Imams chosen are free from committing any sin, infallibility which is called ismah. It is a divinely inspired role. Mysteries in the Quran to the layman believer can be seen, understood and explained by the Imam. The Imam idea emanated from the death in battle of a descendent of Ali (Ali ibn Abu Talib), the son-in-law of Muhammad, married to Fatima. Husayn died fighting the Umayyad Dynasty (Syria). Overpowered on the field of battle (at Karbala, around 680) Husayn (grandson of Muhammad) valiantly fought, but his forces were overcome by thirst due to the opposition cutting off their water supply and a last gasp effort to kill as many of the enemy as possible. He was beheaded and the battle lost. He became a martyr, dying for his objective of preserving the lineage of Islam directly to Muhammad. Through him, the tradition that followed, Salvation is possible. Replicate his act of bravery, shed tears, bleed for him, not an act of self-flagellation but of compassion, and it will be as atonement for ones sins leading to a life eternal. Ali, the fourth Caliph, is seen as the rightful successor of Muhammad, and the Shi’ah claim was the first Imam. However the first Imam is also considered to be Adam.
It was the events at Karbala that led to this distinction. Karbala is important. Death to a member of the Ummah, the family, of the Messenger of Allah, must have divine implications. Four years after Husayn’s death a group gathered at the site to mourn, called ‘Penitents’, an homage to Husayn – in effect atoning for their failure to aid in Husayn’s defense against the Umayyad army. This act of grief became a ritual, a reminder to the link to Muhammad’s family; it also became the symbol of Shi’ism.
In the book, No god but God, by Reza Aslan, he clarifies Shi’ism as, “a religion founded on the ideal of the righteous believer who, following the footsteps of the martyrs of Karbala, willingly sacrifices himself in the struggle for justice against oppression.” From an ideological viewpoint we witness then, in Aslan’s words, “Ritual, rather than myth, can fashion a faith.” It took a few hundred years for it to become foundational in forming the Shiite community. Aslan again saying, “Karbala became Shi’ism’s Garden of Eden.”
To connect it to the Bible – the story of Abraham and the sacrifice of his son, Isaac, but for Muslims it was Abraham’s firstborn, Ismail, this near-sacrifice was only interrupted and fulfilled at Husayn’s martyrdom. Abraham initiated the religion that Muhammad revealed – so the story goes.
For the Shiites, salvation requires (from Reza Aslan) “the intercession of Muhammad … and the rest of the Prophets legitimate successors, the Imams.” The Imam’s guard and preserve Muhammad’s divine message, his spiritual authority, designated by God.
More has evolved from the status of the Imam in the Shiite Ummah to that of the Mahdi. The Madhi is the restorer of the faith after Judgment Day. Of the faction within Shi’ah of the Imam Ismail (the 7th Imam), who went into hiding in the other world, he did not die; they believe he will return at end times. Muhammad was a Mahdi.
The Sufi’s, both Sunni and Shiite, adherents of Sufism or taṣawwuf (Arabic: تصوّف) are defined by their understanding and application of the inner, mystical dimension of Islam. This is an aside, but an important one. For Sufis, Islam, according to Aslan, “is neither law nor theology, neither creed nor ritual. Islam…is merely the means through which the believer can destroy his ego so as to become one with the creator of the heavens and the earth.” This is, as I see it, neither ideological nor political. It is individual. The spirit of the Lord dictates, not man.
As you may sense by now the Shiite has a much stronger spiritual connection to God thru the Imam than the Sunni. Yet the Sunni is the largest Ummah. Such differences suggest peace within the Muslim world as a whole will be difficult unless all orders of Islam can unite. Which is the correct path to God; or which is the Ideology that best serves those who are the political commanders of their Ummah’s?
We are all familiar with the person called the Ayatollah. This is again Shiite. This position has come about as I can tell in the 20th century. When the Shah of Iran (of the Pahlavi family) was overthrown by another figure, the Ayatollah Khomeini came to the fore. Born in a family of Shiite clerics he studied law and theology in the best of education centers to become at a young age a leader in rational judgment, independent reasoning used to determine truth (ijtihad). This learned man was a mujtahid. Mujtahid (Arabic) is a Muslim jurist who is qualified to interpret the law and thus to generate Ijtihad. For the Shiite, law combines both reason and religion. Proficiency in Sharia Law is critical. The apex of such leadership is the Ayatollahs. The disciples of the Ayatollah’s are bound by their decisions.
Sunni’s have their mujtahid too.
To follow all the steps of persons, ideas, desires, and claims can only add to your confusion. It is difficult to boil this entire lineage of religious interpreters down into a simple picture. The Shiite is more complex than the Sunni and much can be researched on the Internet – which I encourage you to do.
Most Shiites belong to the Twelver tradition and the rest are divided between several other groups. They follow Imam Musa (2nd son of Ja’far – the 6th Imam and the Karbala ritual promoter as well as the one who established the Shi’ism’s law school principles; Ismail was Ja’fer’s 1st son, but died before his father). They follow Musa’s line, instead of Ismail’s (both referred to as the 7th Imam, depending on whom people chose to follow), which is said to end at #12, and the last Imam. This then created the mystery of the ‘Hidden Imam.’ This Imam is in the other world to return on Judgment Day and restore order and justice to the world. Confused yet?
There is no mention of Mahdi in the Quran. And today there is dispute as to the Mahdi being part of the Quraysh Tribe (the initial Ummah into which Muhammad was born) or the direct lineage of Muhammad by way of Husayn (Ali’s first son-in-law). Jesus fits in somewhere also, as he will precede the coming of the Mahdi, or arrive with him. The Imam was no longer present on earth, hidden.
As Shi’ites transgressed from the Imam to the Ayatollah and to the Mahdi, the Sunni’s stuck with the Imam – the Sunni’s critical of the political changes to theological ideas. Ideology was at odds with theology. Theology, to be critical (for which I must apologize), was evolving, changing with the culture and prominent personalities.
Under the influence of the Ayatollah (1902-1989) came Khomeinism. Reza Aslan states, “Khomeini’s genius, both as a politician and a religious leader, was his recognition that in a country (Iran) steeped in the faith and culture if Shi’ism, only the symbols and metaphors of Shi’ite Islam could provide a common language with which to mobilize the masses.” Infallible and divine Khomeini’s directives were like the Prophet and the 12 Imams, hidden or otherwise. He was one of the representatives of the Ulama, but as the Supreme Court all in one – the judge and jury. He was the Mahdi on earth, his spokesperson.
From an Irani newspaper (Payvand Iran News … 01/06/10) By Shayan Ghajar, insideIRAN.org:
“In a country as spiritual as Iran, it is impossible to separate religious and political issues. Any political movement or faction must substantiate its views and stances with religious rationale based on the rulings of a qualified Shi’ah scholar (today: Ayatollah Saanei), or risk appearing marginalized.”
To me this is all most interesting. This religion, this faith, Islam, is evolving, but more on a political front with religious implications than on a religious front with compelling foundational issues that are without question. The entire concept of the spiritual leader being infallible makes me think of Pope Pius the IX. Such self-declared postures make the positions of these world leaders less than credible. I question Muhammad also, as his Revelations changed with his situation and location. [Might this suggest that the Quran is changeable, or can be adapted to current day?] Was it for convenience and having the ear of those most faithful to him that he needed to find statements and make claims that were worthy of his leadership, position and ideals? After his death his daughter Fatima carried on his tradition, having Revelations of her own.
How were ideals changed, influenced? Take Yemen. Before Muhammad there was a growing Christian community in the capital city, Sana. A massive church had been constructed there. It was a focus for religious people making pilgrimages and competed with Mecca as a center for worship. This was in the 6th Century. The city of Najran was a center for Arab Christianity. A Christian Abbyssinian ruler, history related, attacked Mecca in 570 with a herd of elephants. Destruction of the Ka’ba a goal, and establishment of Sana as the focus for pilgrimages the objective. They lost. But a new calendar was begun, as Muhammad was born that year. But for convenience some historians relate the event, the Year of the Elephant, happening in the year 552. So was this re-dating for political importance, to establish an ideological frame of reference? The victors, it is said, can write their own history.
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The education and Understanding of Islam continues.
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May God’s mercy and grace fall upon all those Christians that died in the recent attack on their church in Bagdad. A totally barbaric and unnecessary act of terrorism and violence; the taking of lives of many innocent victims occurred. These were people, those that died, more worthy of the blessings of the Lord than any one of the perpetrators. May the warriors for Islam all dwell in Hades, despite what they think and believe to be true. The Day of Judgment will clarify the truth and make those that know the Lord totally free and enriched with the glory of the eternal kingdom. God never intended the sword to be used as Al Qaeda suggests to all extremist who follow. The Bible is the book that reveals God. By it may your life be enlightened, enriched and your faith enlivened.
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In Islam humans are judged incapable of attaining the knowledge of God on their own, the Imam is essential, the spiritual authority, able to elucidate the divine message as well as preserve it and renew it as called for.
From Aslan’s book some useful definitions:
Prophet – (a claim of the Shi’ah) – someone who has, by the divine will, become conscious of God’s eternal message, which forever envelops creation like numinous ether we cannot escape.
Imam – someone who can explain that message for those who possess neither the prophetic consciousness necessary to recognize it not the power of reason to understand it.
“The prophet transmits the Message of God, while the Imam translates it for human beings.”
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Grace and Peace,