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The Holders of Authority and Legitimacy in Mahdism Doctrine


In the lights of Mahdism teachings Shia’ Muslims have to fight to the improvement of the world, to bring it closer to that model of perfect society that should bring peace to the world, to prepare the world for the coming of the Mahdi.

The awaiting of the Mahdi’s return is an inspiration to the Shia and concretizes as a doctrine of hope making policy more optimistic, determining the Shia to believe in a better future of humanity, as well as motivating them to help to its construction. The awaited victory of right, virtue, peace, justice, freedom and truth over forces of evil in all its forms, motivates continuously Shia society and will help to its every day improvement.

However, what until the time of reappearance, what should Shia society do, until the time of reappearance? Who should govern the Shia society and through what means of government? Is Wilayat-e-faqih a copy of Mahdism or should the system improve in itself?

Mahdism argues about just government with equal distribution of wealth and property among men, eradication of vices, war and restoration of peace, good governance, friendship cooperation and benevolence. With Mahdism as the central axis of the Shia theology, covering the most important doctrines of Islam, Shia Doctrine assumes a future-oriented history. Shia Doctrine because of Mahdism founds itself in a perpetual state of progressiveness, giving it a built-in mechanism of self-improvement.

A Divine Chain of Leadership

Since the beginning of creation, man becomes a ruler (Khalifa) of God over its creation and throughout its representatives, God rules over whole of its creation. Since the beginning, there was always a mediator between God and its creation. Mediators acted as proofs of God onto the earth as transmitters of divine emanation. They were perfect and infallible men. Through them man was instructed to follow the path of divine realization and the knowledge of God in order to gain deliverance and salvation.

God delivered his message and law through which believers could worship him. He appointed chosen men to guide the human community throughout its existence. They are the vice-regents of God and leaders of the human community. All Abrahamic religions believe in a chain through which God will is revealed and known to humans, through which God guided them towards salvation.

The Shia doctrine, by Mahdism Doctrine is though the only religion that kept such a relationship alive. It looks like a chain of representatives of God links the human community from its beginning until the end of time to God and His will. This holy chain is portraying and guiding men towards worship. Shia Doctrine can be seen in this aspect as a progressive creed, indulged in the belief of continue divine leadership. According to Shia Doctrine, God created man for a noble purpose, which is to worship Him and lead a virtuous life based on His teachings and guidance.

How would man know his role and purpose of his existence unless he received clear and practical instructions of what God wants him to do? Here comes the need of this divine chain. As what else would be the purpose of creation if not worshiping the Creator, knowing the creator and obeying Him? Moreover, how else can this relation been kept alive if not by delivering continuous divine representation? How else can believers obey if not sensing God’s greatness and leadership?

Only by understanding such a continuous relation will we be able to understand the Shia believes, to recognize its progress throughout history and to see its present as a stage in its development. Nevertheless, let us have a historical perspective on this divine chain linking humanity to the Divine, to be able to understand the Shia and Mahdism Doctrine as well as the Iranian Islamism.

1. The Prophets of God- Guidance and Leadership for Humanity

At first, there were the prophets of God. Prophethood is a common belief to heavenly revealed religions, having a special status and significance. Prophethood is God blessing and favor that He may bestow on whom He wills.
Every prophet stated clearly throughout history that what he receives is not of his own, but from God for the well-being of humanity. Prophets confirmed what was revealed before him and what may be revealed after him. A prophet does this to show that he is simply conveying the message that was entrusted to him by the One True God of all people in all ages. Therefore, the message is one in essence and for the same purpose; it should not deviate from what was revealed before him or what might come after him.

Prophets are necessary for conveying God's instructions and guidance to humankind. We have no way of knowing the reason we were created. What will happen to us after death? Is there any life after death? Are we accountable for our actions? In other words, is there any reward or punishment for our deeds in this life? These and so many other questions about God cannot be answered without revelation from the Creator and Knower of the unseen and does it not knowing God, one of the fundamental duty of the believers? Those answers must be authentic and must be brought by individuals whom we trust and respect. That is the reason why messengers are the select of their societies in terms of moral conduct and intellectual ability.

Supported by God and instructed divinely prophets affirmed and delivered from the beginning of creation a continuous message. They presented clear concept of God, His attributes, His creation and the unseen. They delivered the reason of creation, rewards and punishments to humanity for obeying or disobeying God. However, most important for the purpose of my thesis, they showed humanity how to run their societies according to His testament. That is, clear instructions and laws that, when applied correctly and honestly, will result in an ideal society.

The Quran mentions the names of 25 prophets and indicates that there have been others that are not mentioned to Prophet Mohammed (PBUH). These 25 include Noah, Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad (PBUT), who are the greatest among God's messengers.

"Say (oh, Muslims) we believe in God and that which is revealed to us and that which was revealed to Abraham and Ishmael, and Isaac and Jacob, and their children, and that which Moses and Jesus received and that the prophets received from their Lord. We make no distinction between any of them and unto Him we have surrendered.”

The last prophet in the chain of God was Muhammad (PBUH). He was born in Arabia in the sixth century C.E. He descends from the lineal chain of Abraham and his son Ishmael, being a member of Banu Hashim family, who were the holders of Mecca. People knew him as a man of excellent character, cultured manners, and called him “the trustworthy”, even before his delegation as a prophet. His revelation by God, claims to be the book of guidance for the whole humanity for all times, and mentions Muhammad as the last Prophet of God- The seal of Prophets. Once he died, Prophethood ended but not the divine guidance and leadership of humanity that continued in the mind of the Shia.

2. Imamate

The Shia believes that humanity is in need of sustained spiritual guidance, provided by the Imam, who is the guardian and guide of all Muslims politically and spiritually. They hold that Muhammad explicitly designated his cousin and son-in-law Ali as his Khalifa (Successor). Thus, Shia believes Muhammad designated Ali and his direct descendants to serve as the Imams (wali-leaders) of the Muslim community. This assertion implies that, while the cycle of Prophethood ended with Muhammad, the cycle of Imamate began with Ali and continues amongst his direct descendants. For Shia Muslims, an Imam is a leader (wali), whose guidance extends to spiritual and temporal matters. In other words, an Imam can sanction new laws because he has direct contact with God. This direct contact makes an Imam infallible and invests in him the prerogative of interpreting the Quran, thereby gradually revealing its esoteric meaning. On the ground of Ghadir Khumm, Muhammad declared "To whomsoever I am Master, Ali is his Master” and following this principle is one of the fundamentals of Shia Doctrine, therefore, they believe that Ali ibn Abu Talib is the 1st Imam to teach the correct interpretation of Islam, the successor of Muhammad.

The Imam is the leader and example „from whose intellectual power and insight, those traveling toward God benefit, whose conduct and mode of life they imitate, and to whose commands they submit.” In a very large and comprehensive sense, Imamate includes both intellectual authority and political leadership.

„After the death of the Prophet, the Imam was entrusted with the guardianship of his accomplishments and the continuation of his leadership, in order to teach men the truths of the Quran and religion and ordinances concerning society; in short, he was to guide them in all dimensions of their existence...” “The true and veritable Imam is that exalted person, who combines in himself intellectual authority and political leadership.” He is the one “who stands at the head of Islamic society, being enabled thereby both of convey to men the divine laws that exist in every sphere and to implement them; and who preserves the collective identity and the human dignity of the Muslims from decline and corruption.”

The community saw itself well organized under the leadership of the Prophet (PBUH) and when he was gone, it was due for someone to replace him in the same position and authority. Imam Ali was the Imam from the day the Prophet Muhammad closed his eyes as he appointed him rightfully. He continues the divine light of guidance, regardless whether he became a Khalifa or not. The imam is the person who has comprehensive leadership in religious as well as worldly matters as the successor of the Prophet.” The Imam was therefore the universal authority entrusted divinely on both of the mentioned aspects.

Based on the succession of the Prophet, Imamate does not only reflect the spiritual guidance and leadership, it includes the social and political leadership also. Imamate is a position that combines the spiritual and religious leadership as well as the socio-political and worldly leadership. For the Shia, Ali is the first imam as well as the first Khalifa of the Prophet. Therefore, we cannot consider rationally that Ali is the first Imam but not the immediate successor of the Prophet. The difference between Shia and Sunnis is not about the spiritual leadership; it is on the socio-political leadership immediately after the death of the Holy Prophet.

God appointed Prophet Muhammad as to be the leader of the community, a community being religious, as well as social and political. It was a civil and a moral community that God entrusted to him, so he had a comprehensive authority and leadership. The appointment of a successor had to mean that Imams would benefit with the same authority and leadership.
Assuming that because imams did not historically exercise their political authority and leadership, they do not have this authority and leadership designated to them is a false supposition that cannot stand for itself. Not exercising one’s role and function does not prove the non -existence of the authority as is obvious.

“The twelve Imams themselves, and above all, the present twelfth or hidden Imam, were held to be necessary to the constitution of the Universe and of true religion. The Imam is God’s proof, he is the pillar of the Universe, the ‘gate’ through whom God is approached.”

The Imams are considered to be the successors of the Prophet (PBUH) and therefore the right holders of his authority, not because they are from his family but because they possessed the qualities of being pious, obedient to Allah and because they embody characteristics that are pre-required for this level of religious-political leadership”.

The Shia considers Imamate, like Prophethood, to be a fundamental belief, and obedience to the authority of their Imam, a religious obligation. Other than receiving divine revelation, which is specifically for the prophets, the Imams have all the qualities, duties and authority of the Prophet (PBUH); in consequence, they have the political and social as well as religious authority.

Political and religious guidance emanate from them and they are guardians over the believers, as God is the guardian of believers and as God delegated this guardianship to the Prophet, his authority is rooted in the mentioned Divine authority. As the authority of imams is rooted in the divine, why should not be the same applied to the deputies of Imam during the time of occultation?

Guardianship of the Prophet was originally established and legitimized by God’s appointment. Following this interpretation, the followers of the imams provide a large number of traditions and historical evidence that confirm the delegation of the imams, by God, through the Prophet, as “guardians of the believers” (wali).

3. The holders of authority during the age of occultation of Imam Mahdi

After the death of Prophet Mohammad, Ali and his descendents exercised God vice regency on earth. This authority and governance in both religious and political matters was to remain theirs until the end of time. What can we say about authority and legitimacy in the time of occultation of the Mahdi, a time we are now experiencing according to Shia Doctrine?

We are currently living in the age of the Twelve Imam, the Mahdi. He is found in a state of occultation. Does it mean that being in this state of occultation he does not govern the Shia society? Occultation of the Imam is divided according to Shia in the minor and major occultation. During the time of minor occultation, the Mahdi had appointed public deputies to guide the Shia in his absence. What does Shia Doctrine say about the Great Occultation? Has the deputation stop in the time the Shia community is currently experiencing?

According to Shia political doctrine, authority bestows upon a deputy by the infallible Imam and we can observe there is an important distinction between the specific designation of a deputy, and the ‘general’ designation of a number of deputies.

As while, there was an explicit nomination for each of the Imams to undertake leadership, and for the vice regency of the four deputies during the minor absence, the guardianship of the jurists during the greater absence is a ‘general’ designation. This means that no one is exclusively appointed as leader and deputy. Therefore, jurists who are just and qualified in Islamic jurisprudence have the right to exercise the Imam’s authority as his deputies.

Regarding the leadership of the Islamic community during the period of greater occultation, the authority as well as leadership is entrusted to the just and capable scholar, who acts as a deputy to the absent Imam, through a system of vice regency. So the guardianship of a jurist is legitimized and his authority is related to the original and absolute authority of God. In plus the jurist must be accepted by believers. As I mentioned above, a clear distinction should be drawn, however, between the authority of an imam and the guardianship of the scholars.

The Imams, whose authority is established upon their explicit designation by the Prophet, delegate and entrust a degree of their authority to those who possess specific qualities (such as justice and jurisprudence in the case of the scholar). Therefore, whereas the Imams were specifically appointed as guardians of legitimate authority, the jurists are not explicitly selected by name, but rather implicitly chosen as those who possess the correct qualities for leadership.

God has appointed prophets to run humanity in spiritual as well as in social and political matters. The last prophet appointed imams as legitimate holders of authority in religious as well as in political and social matters. Therefore, it is only logic to assume that in an era of occultation, the present Imam appointed his deputies to order in matters religious as well as political and social.

The doctrine of “guidance of the jurisprudent”( wilayat-e-faqih) forms the central axis of contemporary Shia political thought, advocating a guardianship based political system, which relies upon a just and capable jurist to assume the leadership of the government in the absence of an infallible Imam.

Today, in a time of the Hidden Imam, the guidance of the jurisprudent is the authority designated to learned jurist so that they may direct and advise the Muslim community in the absence of an infallible Imam. This authority derives from the Imam; therefore, the believers have the religious duty to obey their commands as the only legitimate authority. The concept of leadership encompasses many degrees of authority, summing up to the total scope of the scholar’s vice regency in the absence of an infallible Imam.

Some erroneously assume that it is something new and in essence distinguishable from the traditional status of marjayat. This misunderstanding is caused by a lack of attention to the definitions of and the relationship between ‘wilayat’ and ‘marjayat’ and the distinction between ‘fatwa’ and ‘hukm’ (the commands of faqih as wali, leader).

This misunderstanding comes from the wrong conception that the role of a marja’a taqlid is solely a juridical authority to whom the Muslim community may refer to in the case of religious questions and commandments concerning the practical and personal side of Islam. However, this definition is not comprehensives as it concentrates itself exclusively on one of the legitimized functions of a jurist, while overlooking the others. He is an expert in Islamic Law, a guide and proof of God’s existence, a model to follow and a leader as the deputy of the imam. He is wali (leader) when he acts as a leader of someone and a marja’a taqlid when he is referred to in religious matters.

Wilayat al-faqih refers to the all-comprehensive authority of the jurist (faqih) in the absence of the twelfth Imam. “Wilayat al-faqih” may include functions like wilayat al-nizam (the authority to manage public order), wilayat al-qada (the authority to administer justice), wilayat al-siyasa (the authority to administer a government and hold political office and wilayat al-tasarruf (authority for the jurist to act in a way that he judges to be the best in the interest of the community). A corollary to the wilayat al-faqih may include the duty to declare a jihad. It is to be noted that not all mujtahids accept the concept of the all-embracing and comprehensive view of wilayat al-faqih.

Marja al-taqlid refers to the role of a mujtahid who is competent to derive juridical rulings from the Quran and hadith literature and is able to arrive at solutions that are not explicitly stated in the sources, by having recourse to the principles as stated in usul al-fiqh. Such a mujtahid is qualified to issue juridical verdicts (or fatwa) and is a source of reference for followers, who pursue him by doing his taqlid (which literally means to imitate his acts).

Thus, it is possible for a person to be a marja al-taqlid without occupying the position of wilayat al-faqih. In addition, the other way around in also accepted, since in the Iranian constitution the leader is not obligatory a marja, and can be a simple mujtahid having leadership and managerial abilities.
Wilayat is a part of marjayat in the culture of the Shia.

The great marjas not only guided people with respect to the divine Law, but they also led people in the particular problems of society, for example when judging between people in particular matters and domestic disputes. The reason that the jurisprudent is an authority in matters of the law is because of his specialization in jurisprudence and his power to derive the rules of God from their sources. The reason aside from the above-mentioned qualities, for a jurisprudent to become a leader depends on his ability to manage society according to the principles and values of Islam.

It is because of this that it becomes possible for a person to be chosen as a leader due not so much to his aptitude in jurisprudence as much as to his better management skills. The separation of the offices of the marja and the leader becomes a reasonable, and in some instances, a necessary expedient. In principle, leadership is confined to a single person, whereas the marjayat is applicable to numerous individuals, just as does the possibility that the two offices to be combined in a single individual.

Since following the orders of the leader is obligatory upon all people, including other jurisprudents, and it is forbidden to disobey his orders, hence it is not possible for people to follow other than the leader in matters related to the social order and the running of society.

What was said above regarding the authority of the jurisprudent was in reference to the individual order and to matters of a personal nature; it is in these matters that people can follow other than the leader.

When the jurisprudent refers to the religious sources in order to obtain the general rule of God regarding a certain problem and uses the special techniques that exist for obtaining the rules of the Law, it is called giving an edict or “fatwa”. When the leader pays attention to the general rules of God, the various systems in Islam, and the conditions of the time, and according to these delineates a person’s or a specific group’s responsibility with regards to a certain matter, this is called giving an order or a “hukm”.

In doing this, he not only pays attention to the general rules of Islam and the lofty aspirations of the religion, but also to the specific conditions that exist in that time. The rules of God and the edicts of the jurisprudent who has all the necessary qualifications are mandatory, just like the rulings of the leader, but with this difference that the jurisprudents rulings are mandatory to him and his followers only, while everyone must follow the orders of the leader.

According to the logic of the “leadership of the jurisprudent” and its proofs, the jurisprudent takes upon himself the management of society and in accordance with the values of Islam, he takes on the responsibility of leadership. Nevertheless, marjayat means simply to issue an edict and is a completely different matter. The reason that the jurisprudent is an authority in matters of the law is because of his specialization in jurisprudence and his power to derive the rules of God from their sources. On the other hand, the reason that a leader is what he is is because aside from the aforementioned qualities, he has the ability to manage society according to the principles and values of Islam.

It is because of this that it becomes possible for a person to be chosen as a leader due not so much to his aptitude in jurisprudence as much as to his better management skills. It is possible that there be numerous specialists in society. Moreover, this is something that is to be sought after, so that everyone can refer to them with ease and obtain their rulings.

A multiplicity of centers of decision-making would cause disturbance so, it is imperative for the Shia that the leader to be one. It is not however necessary that various jurisprudents issue one edict in order that society remains undisturbed. Leadership is confined to a single person, whereas the marjayat is applicable to numerous individuals.

That the office of Wali-e faqih and the Marja do not have to be one and the same according to the Iranian Islamic Republic, Constitution as I mentioned above. It could be or it could be not. It depends on the person who assumes that position. When it is one and the same, he should be considered a marja when issuing a fatwa and a wali when issuing orders in political as social matters.

The beginning of Islam is not separate from the beginning of the Shia as it started with the Prophet Muhammad (PUBH), and has been preserved in its original form by the succession of Imams.

Prophet Mohammad had the duty to propagate God’s message, to teach the laws of religion and guidance, to judge between people and to lead and manage the society. These qualities and functions existed for the imams and exist for the jurisprudents in the time of the occultation of the Last Imam. They too have three functions, to act as judges, to give edicts in law and to expound the general rules of the Divine law for the people and to lead.

A system of government by the jurist is therefore understandable for the Shia. Its legitimacy comes from God himself, throughout history. It is a chain through legitimacy transmits itself. Prophets, then imams, managed God’s rule on earth at first and today, the jurist manages it. Jurists are divinely legitimated and are accepted by believers.
Understanding this governance of the jurisprudent as well as the general guidance of a marja is of high importance in understanding the legitimacy of the jurisprudent today when guiding the Shia Community.

This chain of guidance and legitimacy, as well as of authority is confined in the Mahdism Doctrine. Without the believe in the Mahdi’s return at the end of time to establish equity and justice, without the believe that during his absence the believer must await positively, by acting rightfully and establishing a close to perfection society, the chain would have been cut dramatically.
While studying in one of the numerous seminaries in Qom, I had the opportunity to ask a great scholar about Mahdism and the guidance of the jurisprudent. His answer…though simple and concise was that Wilayat-e- faqih is an exact replica of Mahdism.


• Ahmad Waezi, Shia Political Thought, Islamic Center of England, London, 2004
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• Allamah Sayyid Muhammad Husayn Tabataba'i, A Shi'ite Anthology, Translated by William C. Chittick , www.al-islam.com
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Hamid Algar, Islamic Education Center, Potomac
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Ayatullah Murtada Mutahhari, Master and Mastership, Islamic Seminary Publications
• Sayyid Muhammad Rizvi, Shi'ism: Imamate and Wilayat, Al-Ma'arif Books, Ontario,1999
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• *** La Tradizione di Ghadir, Manifesta documentazione della Wilayah,la Guida Islamica, A cura del Gruppo Culturale e di Ricerca Islamica della Santa città di Qom , "Islam Shi°ita",Associazione Islamica "Imam Mahdi(aj)"
• *** A Brief History of the Fourteen Infallibles, Ansariyan Publications, Qom, 2007


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