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al-Ḥillī on the Imamate (c. 1300)

By:
ʿAllāmah ibnal-Muṭahhar Ḥillī
Document type:
Nonfiction Book/Scholarly Work

    al-Ḥillī on the Imamate (c. 1300)

    Commentary

    ʿAllāmah ibnal-Muahhar Ḥillī (1250–1325) grew up during the occupation of Baghdad by Mongol forces. While this period witnessed incredible violence, it also opened up new avenues of trade and cultural exchange that shaped al-Ḥillī’s intellectual life. Indeed, he would later travel to the Mongol court in Iran, where he employed his extensive knowledge of theology and jurisprudence to convert the ruler there to Shi’i Islam. In the excerpt below from his major work The Eleventh Chapter (or The Eleventh Hour), al-Ḥillī discusses the Shi’i concept of the term imam, which literally means “one who stands in front.” While Sunnis typically use this term for someone who leads the group prayers in a mosque, Shi’i Muslims use it to refer to the leaders who are descended from the fourth Caliph, Ali ibn Abi Talib, the son-in-law of the Prophet. In the Shi’i tradition, this leader is chosen by God, and therefore must be regarded as free from corruption and sin. al-Ḥillī mentions also the Twelfth Imam, Muhamad ibn Hasan al-Mahdi al-Muntanzir, who disappeared in the late ninth century. The passage here ends with al-Ḥillī praying for the return of the imam, through whom God will establish a new era of peace and justice.

    He who is worthy of the Imamate is a person appointed and specified by God and His Prophet, not any chance person; it is not possible that here be more than one person at any one period who is worthy of it. . . . Whoever has known dark experiences and has examined political principles knows of necessity that whenever men have among them a chief and a guide whom they obey, who restrains the oppressor from his oppression and the unjust man from his injustice and along with that leads them to rational principles and religious duties, and restrains them from corruptions which cause the destruction of order in their worldly affairs, and from the evils which result in wretchedness in the world to come, so that every individual might fear that punishment, then because of this they will draw near to the soundness and depart from corruption. . . .

    [There are] those who hold that it is incumbent upon men to appoint a ruler to guard their persons from harm. And we say that we have no quarrel with them as to the Imamate’s being a protection from harm. But our quarrel is about their saying that [the act of appointing an Imam] has been bestowed upon men, for in this case there would be an actual conflict between God and men regarding the appointment of Imams, and it would result in harm, whereas what is sought is the decrease of harm.

    It is necessary that the Imam be immune to sin and that is impossible. And also if he committed sin, he would lose his place in men’s hearts, and the value of his appointment would be nullified. And because he is a guardian of the law, in which case he must be immune to sin . . . which no one perceives but God the most high. Hence . . . the Imam must be appointed by God, not by the people. Agreement has been reached that in appointing the Imam the specification can be made by God and His Prophet, or by a previous Imam in an independent way (without the voice of the people). . . . He who knows the unseen make[s] it known. And that comes about in two ways: (1) by making it known to someone immune to sin, such as the Prophet, and then he tells them of the Imam’s immunity to sin and of his appointment; (2) by the appearance of miracles wrought by his hand to prove his veracity in claiming the Imamate. Sunnis say that whenever the people acknowledge any person as chief, and [give the baya or allegiance, they] are convinced of his ability and his power increases, he becomes the Imam.

    The Imam [must] be absolutely the best of the people of his age, because he takes precedence over all. And if there were among them one better than he then the worse would have to take precedence over the better, and that would be evil.

    The Imam after the Messenger of God is ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib. And he is the best for two reasons: (1) he is equal to the Prophet. And the Prophet is the best, hence his equal is also the best; (2) the Prophet had need of him, and of no one else of the Companions and kindred, in his prayer. And he who is needed is better than anyone else. . . . [T]he word of the Prophet regarding him [was], “Ali is the best judge of you all.” He is the most ascetic of men after the Prophet of God. Hence it comes about that he is the Imam, for the most ascetic is the best.

    A matter of importance—the Twelfth Imam is alive and the thought that it is unlikely that anyone like him should remain alive is false. And the cause of his being hidden is either some advantage which God has kept to Himself, or else the number of his enemies and the paucity of helpers.

    O God, hasten his joy, and cause us to behold his victory and make us his helpers, and his followers, and sustain us with his obedience and his good pleasure, and protect us from his opposition and his anger.

    Al-Hilli. The Eleventh Chapter. William McElwee Miller, tr. London: The Royal Asian Society, 1928.

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