The Shii Doctrine of Isma
Isma means infallibility and impeccability: to be free from error or sin. Imami (Twelever) and Ismaili (Sevener) Shiis hold that their Imams have isma. The following is based on the notes I used in order to give a short lecture on the topic.
In the earliest Islamic period, the Muslim people had not yet formed clear-cut sects like Sunnism or Shiism. Instead, there were opposing trends, each with tens, sometimes hundreds, of groups under its fold. This was especially true of the Alid, or proto-Shia, movement, which was consisted of hundreds of different groups with highly divergent, even conflicting, beliefs. From this same group, for example, would come the Abbasids who overthrew the Umayyad Caliphate and replaced it, as well as the proto-Shia followers of Jafar al-Sadiq's sons, who would form the Abbasid dynasty's enemies, the Imami (Twelever) and Ismaili (Sevener) Shii sects.
Because of this situation, there were no universally approved leaders of the Alid movement- but there were always certain stars that shined more than the rest. After Imam Ali's two sons from his wife Fatima (al-Hasan and al-Husayn) died, the next most important figure behind whom the Alids flocked was Muhammad ibn al-Hanafiyya. This was a third son of Ali, but from a wife that he took after the passing of Fatima (r.a.).
At the time of Muhammad ibn al-Hanafiyya, Abdullah ibn al-Zubayr had set himself as a counter-caliph to the Umayyads, and had met the approval of all of the Hijaz, reducing the Umayyad control to Syria. Thus the Muslims were divided into three large camps: The Zubayrids, the Umayyads, and the Alids who followed Muhammad ibn al-Hanafiyya. Ibn al-Hanafiyya had so much prestige among the people, and so many followers, that he could have easily taken the Caliphate for himself- but he did not seek it. Whoever he would give allegiance to, would therefore be more likely to win, but he refused to give his allegiance to someone who did not meet the approval of all Muslims.
At that time, all indications pointed toward a Zubayrid victory, except that their constant battles with Kharijites weakened them enough for the Ummayyads to defeat them under the leadership of the infamous al-Hajjaj. When Muhammad ibn al-Hanafiyya saw that the Ummayads won, he gave them his allegiance, in order to preserve the unity of the Muslim ummah, even though he could have revolted against them, even toppled them.
But after Muhammad ibn al-Hanafiyya, the Alids did not have another great leader for a while. They all loved and respected al-Husayn's son Ali Zainul Abidin, but he had no political role. His own son Zaid did not consider his father to be an Imam because he never sought power or held it. The proto-Shiis were again just a large array of different groups with divergent beliefs, united only in their desire to topple the Umayyads and put a Hashemite in power. Back then the movement was called a Hashimiyya movement, because they wanted someone from the Prophet's clan Bani Hashim, a subdivision of Quraysh. Being a descendant of the Prophet (and Ali) was not a prerequisite for all groups, and eventually it was the Abbasids, descendants of the Prophet's uncle al-Abbas, who would come to the forefront of the Hashimiyya movement.
After the passing of Ali Zainul Abidin, more revolts agaisnt the Umayyads ensued. One major revolt was led by Zaid, his son, who fought against the Ummayad caliph Hisham and was defeated. A large section of the Hashimiyya/Alid/proto-Shias had made Zaid their Imam, and these would later become known as the Zaidi Shia- the third largest Shia group still extant today. Other Shia with more extremist beliefs offered him his allegiance on the condition that he denounce the Prophet's companions Abu Bakr and Omar. When he refused to say anything but praise about them, they withdrew their support, and he said, "laqad rafadtumuni" (you have rejected me), after which they became known as Rafida (the rejectors), which is a label still used today to denounce the Shia.
THE EVOLUTION OF THE DOCTRINE
All this historical introduction was important to make two points clear:
1) There was still no clear Imamate among the proto-shiis. Each group had its own leader.
and 2) The Zaydis were the first major sect to form from among the proto-Shia. This happened around the middle of the 8th century (Zayd's revolt took place in December 740). The Zaydis do not believe in the Isma, or infallibility, of Shia imams. This is clear evidence that the idea of the Isma had not yet emerged, or at least, had not taken hold, among the proto-Shia groups.
The other main figure that emerged at that time was Zaid's brother, Muhammad al-Baqir. Those who did not follow Zaid flocked around Muhammad, and when Zaid died he became the major figure among the proto-Shia.
This time, the time of Muhammad al-Baqir, is a major turning point for these Alid movements. The reason is that at this time, Muhammad al-Baqir was the only heavyweight figure, and most, if not all, Alid groups considered him as their imam. It was at this time that the idea of a single imam who is divinely guided and immune from sin or error, in other words, ma'sum, really emerged and began to gain widespread acceptance among the proto-Shia. Muhammad al-Baqir and his descendants did not seem to have openly claimed this idea but did not criticize it either, allowing this idea to spread and take hold.
The first clear doctrine of isma is that of the early theologian Hisham b. al-Hakam. He said that Prophets may disobey God but then be reproached by the Qur'an. The Imams, however, could never err, sin, or disobey God in anyway (presumably because there could be no new revelation to reproach them). Obviously this doctrine in which Imams seemed better than Prophets will be changed with time.
Muhammad al-Baqir was succeeded by his son Jaafar al-Sadiq, who also gained the unanimous support of the Alids. Thus began to emerge the idea of a succession of Imams, and idea that was not present before, and does not exist in Zaidi thought. But for non-Zaidi Alids, this belief that the imams are divinely appointed, and that it is transferred from father to son, became the accepted doctrine.
These divinely-appointed imams were thought to have inherited all the knowledge of the Prophet, and thus to be identical with him in knowledge and wisdom.
They developed the doctrine that out of God’s divine kindness and grace, there has to be at all times a guide to whom people can turn for certitude in religious matters and who can settle all problems with perfect justice. At first there were prophets, and them Imams. They argued that due to God's grace, it was impossible for the world to ever lack such a perfect living Guide. The isma of the Prophets and Imams thus became an early cardinal dogma.
Because of their belief that there will always be a living Imam ma'sum to guide them, the majority of the proto-Shia developed the following belief: That rational methods of deducing religious law, like individual reasoning, analogy, or transmission of hadith all corrupted the religious law. Reasoning is faulty and hadith might be false or inaccurate- only mass-transmitted hadiths are acceptable. Only an Imam ma'sum can protect the law from corruption. This meant a clear condemnation of the entire science of usul al-fiqh and of the reliance on singly-transmitted traditions (hadiths).
[When their line of Imams unexpectedly came to an end after Jaafar al-Sadiq's 5th descendant, they had to reverse their entire doctrine regarding jurisprudence and hadith, in order to fit the reality of them lacking a living imam. However all their previous doctrines still exist in their oldest books.]
This, however, was only the majority of opinion. Many companions of the Imams themselves considered them to be pious learned men, whose authority based purely on a scholarly basis. Many companions of the Imams believed that the Imams used analogical reasoning or independent judgment in legal opinions, and would thus question them on basis of their rulings, argue with them, and even outright disagree with them.
One of Jaafar al-Sadiq's most competent companions was known Abu Basir. He was highly praised by the Imams and is considered one of the four elite scholars of the Shia religion. He did not accept the legal opinions of Jaafar's son and successor Musa al-Kazim and thought that he had not yet acquired an adequate knowledge of law. This goes against the belief, held by the majority, that upon the Imam's death, all of his knowledge is transferred to son.
At this point there was a major split in the Shia community. Jaafar al-Sadiq had first appointed his son Ismail as his successor, and a large portion of the community started looking to him for guidance, because they believed that the Imamate is transferred at the time of appointment. However Ismail died, while his father was still alive, and so Jaafar appointed his son Musa al-Kazim as successor. This created a split between those who chose to follow Ismail's son Muhammad (the Ismaili or Sevener Shiis), and those who chose to follow Musa al-Kazim (later to become the Imami or Twelever Shiis). Ismail's infant son Muhammad disappeared, and the Ismailis held that he had gone into occultation, and that he will come back at the end of times as the Mahdi.
As for those who followed Musa, the proto-Twlevers, their line of imams continued. In the year 874, the 4th Imam to lead the proto-Twelevers after Musa (considered the 11th imam in general by the Shia), died. With him ended the line of living Imams. His followers resorted to the belief that he had given birth to a son, the 12th imam, who had been concealed from the community and will emerge from his occultation at the end of time as a full-grown man, and as the Mahdi. As you can see, this idea of occultation was not new. In fact it was first held by some extremists regarding Ali when he died, and later Muhammad ibn al-Hanafiyya, and then Ibn al-Hanafiyya's son, then the Ismailis, and now it was taken up by the proto-Twelvers. As mentioned above, this suddenly brought about the very situation that the proto-Shia had been claiming, in their debates with Sunnis, was impossible: that the world could exist without a living, present, infallible Imam, who will solve any religious problem and ensure justice. In fact that had earlier held that only an infallible Imam could execute hudud punishments (severe punishments for adultery, theft, murder, etc).
Because of this sudden reversal, the Shia had to abandon their earlier doctrine and borrow Mutazili beliefs, which placed a high emphasis on mental reasoning. These were the very beliefs they had attacked for centuries, when they did not expect their line of imams to die.
But as we said before, there was always the minority view that the Imams were not infallible and that they were scholars who exercised reasoning and mental judgment. This view was held, as mentioned, by close companions to the Imams, and was now upheld by some of the later theologians. One prominent example is Muhammad b. Qiba al-Razi, one of the leaders of the Shia community in the tenth century, and highly respected by later scholars. He said that the Imams were only pious scholars who had comprehensive knowledge of the Quran and Tradition. Some of the traditionists of Qum, who at that time became the very backbone of Shia thought, held the same opinion.
In 945, an unprecedented event took place: A Zaydi Shia dynasty known as the Buwayhids conquered Baghdad, and turned the Sunni Caliph into a puppet figure. The Buywahids (aka Buyids), allowed Shia thought to flourish in the Caliphal capital, Baghdad. It was at this point that the proto-Twelver community began developing a clear-cut doctrine, and became what is now known as Imami or Twelver Shi'is. The Twlever Shia doctrine began to spread, and it was strengthened by a re-writing of the past, so that it appeared as though there was a continuous line of Imams, by succession, from the time of Ali until the twelfth Imam. Many traditions were invented and sayings ascribed to earlier Imams. The Buywahids later generations of Buwayhid rulers eventually became Twelver Shii's themselves. But they kept the Abbasid Caliphate in place, and their political enemy was in fact the Ismaili Shia Caliphate in Egypt.
At this period, known as "The Shia Century", the doctrine of the Isma developed as follows:
* Ibn Babuya (d. 991), held that Imams and Prophets were immune from both error and sin. However, the Imams were not immune from sahw (inadvertence: to make an oversight, an unintentional mistake, or a careless omission). He argued they did such mistakes to remind people that they were only human.
* Shaykh al-Mufid (d. 1022), held that Imams and Prophets were immune from inadvertence, forgetfulness, and major sins. However, they were capable of committing minor since before their prophethood or imamate, as long as they were not disgraceful.
* Sharif al-Murtada (d. 1044), who held that they were immune from any error or sin, both before and during their prophecy or imamate. This is the accepted belief today.
All information about the actual doctrines on Isma and the beliefs of the imams and their companions comes from Shia sources. They can be found in:
- Modarressi, Hossein. Introduction to Shii Law: A Bibliographical Study. London: Ithaca Press 1994.
- Encyclopedia of Islam 2: Isma
- Madelung, Wilferd, "Authority in Twelver Shiism in the absence of the Imam", La notion d'autorite au Moyen Age: Islam, Byzance, Occident. Presses Universitaire de France, Paris 1982, pp. 163-74.
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