Shia Islam(2): The position and responsibilities of the Prophet’s successor

History and Doctrines / Ayatullāh Jaʿfar Subḥānī

Chapter 2: The position and responsibilities of the Prophet’s successor

During his lifetime, the Prophet fulfilled a number of key roles and responsibilities that could only be accomplished by a divinely-inspired person such as himself, and not just any ordinary man, no matter how intelligent they might be.

One of these duties was to explain the Qur’an, its implicit and hidden meanings; another was making decisions about legal issues for which laws had not already been laid down in the Qur’an. A third responsibility was to prevent any conflict between the Muslims and prevent any intellectual or religious deviations in the Muslims’ minds. This is why the Prophet’s sunna (meaning his words, deeds, and approval) represents a perfect exemplar of conduct for Muslims.

Although prophethood (nubuwwa) and divine revelation (waḥī) ended with the death of the Prophet, the aforementioned roles still needed someone to carry them out in Muslim society; they had to be fulfilled, whether by an individual or a group of people who enjoyed the same spiritual qualities as the Prophet and shared his God-given knowledge because no amount of ordinary education would be sufficient for them to carry out such important tasks.

With all of this in mind, we will now consider the consequences of not having a divinely-appointed successor to the Prophet. We will begin by looking at the Prophet’s role as an explainer of the Qur’an in the light of two of its verses. The first verse reads: ‘We have sent down the reminder to you so that you may clarify for the people that which has been sent down to them, so that they may reflect’ (Q16:44). Here, God says ‘clarify’ (tubayyin) rather than ‘recite’ (taqraʾ) because the Prophet was not only supposed to recite the Qur’an to people but also to explain its meanings to them. In the second verse, God says to His Prophet: ‘We did not send down the Book to you except (for the purpose) that you may clarify for them what they differ about’ (Q16:64).

Now, even though the Qur’an consists of more than six thousand verses, there are not many authentic traditions attributed to the Prophet on the subject of Qur’anic interpretation. In his ʾItqān, Suyūṭī claims to have collected around 13,000 musnad and mursal traditions in his Tarjumān al-Qurʾān (4/193). However, most of these aḥādīth, technically speaking, lack complete chains of narration going back to the Prophet (i.e. they are mursal), which means they are the words of the Prophet’s Companions or their successors. Only a few of the traditions he records are musnad – with complete chains going back to the Prophet. Suyūṭī adds that the traditions attributed to the Prophet on the subject of Qur’anic interpretation are often unreliable. He also quotes Aḥmad b. Ḥanbal as saying that narrations on the interpretation of the Qur’an, the battles of the Prophet (ghazwa) and his superhuman knowledge of the Unseen are not to be trusted (ʾItqān, 4/180). According to Suyūṭī, the number of traditions reliably attributed to the Prophet on Qur’anic interpretation is not much more than 114, which is the number of chapters in the Qur’an (4/214–57)!

Thus, the duty of explaining the Qur’an should be shouldered by someone with divine and superhuman knowledge just like Moses’s teacher, khidr, who, though not a prophet in the conventional sense, was nonetheless endowed with knowledge by God: ‘…and whom We had taught knowledge from Our own Presence’ (Q18:65).

The history of Islam records many controversies regarding the interpretation of Qur’anic verses. For example, about the proper way to understand the verse instructing Muslims to take ritual ablution (wuḍūʾ>ʾ), which involves washing parts of the body before offering prayers (Q5:6). Another controversy concerns interpretations of the verse on the punishment of thieves, as to which parts of their hand must be cut off (Q5:38). A third instance is a disagreement surrounding the proper interpretation of verses 12 and 176 of Sūrat al-Nisāʾ, which some say contain contradictory injunctions regarding inheritance, and which have thus remained highly contentious.

New issues

In the course of their conquests, Muslims would be confronted with new legal issues and cases whose explanation could not be found in the Qur’an. Since there are a limited number of verses in the Qur’an regarding secondary issues and no more than 500 aḥādīth about religious practices, it is easy to see how problems would accumulate after the Prophet’s death (Muḥammad Rashīd and Khalīlī, 212).

Al-Fakhr al-Rāzī believes that only a small number of legal injunctions could be found in the Qur’an and the Prophet’s Sunna. One of the unexplained issues, for instance, was the problem of ʿawl, which refers to a situation in which an inheritance is not mathematically divisible between the inheritors; for instance, the inheritors of a deceased man might include his father, mother, wife, and two daughters. According to the usual prescriptions, his wife would receive one-eighth, the parents would receive one-third, and the daughters two-thirds of the inherited property. However, this amounts to nine-eighths, which cannot be divided amongst the inheritors! This problem occurred during the caliphate of ʿUmar, who swore by God that he did not know what to do with it but ultimately decided to divide the amount equally amongst the inheritors (Muḥammad Rashīd and Khalīlī 212). Another unusual legal case pertains to a man who had twice divorced his wife while being a disbeliever and once after converting to Islam. The question was whether or not he was allowed to marry the woman a fourth time (Al-Hindī, 5/161).

The Muslims were confused as to how they should deal with such problems in the absence of clear scriptural prescriptions and could only guess at the proper solution, which would eventually be endorsed as the right decision in similar situations. Of course, had there been a knowledgeable man endowed with divine wisdom amongst them at that time, he would have solved the problems in the best possible way by following the true tenets and rules of Islam.

The duty to protect the Muslims from deviation

One of the roles an infallible Imam plays in Muslim society is to prevent possible deviations or distortions in the religion by offering the final word on contentious issues. As there have been many disagreements over religious decrees in different situations since the Prophet’s death, a pious leader endowed with divine knowledge could have led the Muslims to a much better situation. After the Prophet’s death, some deceitful Jews and Christians took their chances to disseminate false ideas by fabricating false aḥādīth which came to be called isrāʾīliyyātmasīḥiyyāt and majuṣiyyāt. The number of aḥādīth fabricated in this manner may have exceeded one million, which is why Bukhārī selected his own collection of out of 600,000 available aḥādīth (al-Fatḥ al-BārīMuqaddima, 54) and Aḥmad b. Ḥanbal compiled his out of 750,000 while he had memorized – by some counts – a million (Dhahabi, 9/17).

It is certainly impossible to ascribe so many aḥādīth to the Prophet, who was highly restricted during the first 13 years of his prophethood in Mecca, so much so that he could rarely ever teach the Qur’an, let alone aḥādīth, to the people. Furthermore, he was very busy when he established the community in Medina; amongst other things, he was responsible for organizing military campaigns, missionary activity, diplomatic relations, legal arbitration, reciting the Qur’an to the people and explaining it, expounding religious verdicts and answering related questions, debates with the followers of other religions, taking care of the social, political and economic affairs of society, writing to tribal leaders and the kings and governors of other countries, and fighting the hypocrites (who, as we have already seen, were mentioned in a large number of Qur’anic verses). Considering all these duties, it would have been impossible for the Prophet to produce so many aḥādīth about such a diverse range of subjects. However, in such a situation, an infallible Imam would be in a perfect position to prevent any distortions from creeping into the religion and could become a touchstone or criterion for people to distinguish truth from falsehood. A fallible Caliph, even one who was popularly elected, could at the very best declare (as Abū Bakr did after being elected at Saqīfa): ‘I have been elected your leader while I was not the best of you. If I take the right path, help me and if I go astray, take me back to the right path!’ (Ibn Ḥajar al-Ḥaythami, 11). Such a person, to be sure, could not always distinguish between right and wrong, and this would lead to more and more distortions and deviations in the religion.

The Iranian philosopher Avicenna supports the notion of a divinely-appointed successor in the following way:

‘It is not possible to have a prophet at all times because only a few people possess the capability of accomplishing the Prophetic mission. Thus, in order to keep and protect the laws and rules beneficial to the good of humanity, the Prophet ought to have successors, and if such successors were appointed by the Prophet himself, it would be better for Muslim society and would prevent conflicts, revolts, and corruption. (Shifāʾ 2/13 and Ilāhiyyāt, 558–564).’

Therefore, whether or not the Prophet actually appointed a successor, had the Prophet appointed one this would have safeguarded Islam’s wellbeing in a way that the people electing his successor could not.

Conventions of succession in the Prophet’s day

The above discussions show that, as far as the Prophet’s triple-duty is concerned, the best mode of succession was for him to appoint a successor rather than the people electing one through a council. Incidentally, the Prophet’s Companions also suggested appointment through the preceding Caliph rather than a council, which, in fact, happened only once (in the case of Abū Bakr), while other caliphs either were appointed by the previous Caliph or inherited the position.

Let us now attend to some historical facts which show that the leaders of the Prophet’s day did not believe in electing caliphs via councils. The first example here concerns when the Prophet introduced his religion to the Banū ʿĀmir tribe. The tribe’s leader asked the Prophet, ‘Suppose we swear allegiance to you. Would you share the power with us once you were victorious over your enemies?’ The Prophet answered, ‘God will decide about this. He will put this on the shoulders of whosoever he chooses’ (Ibn Hishām, 2/424). If succession were a matter for the people or a council to decide, the Prophet would not have said it was in God’s hands.

The Prophet was clearly not alone in this view of succession because all the following cases of succession were also decided by appointment rather than by election, even though this process was sometimes disguised in the form of a council. ʿUmar b. Khaṭṭāb, for instance, was appointed by Abū Bakr. When he was lying on the deathbed, Abū Bakr called ʿUthmān b. ʿAffān and told him to write down his will. ʿUthmān took a pen and wrote: ‘In the Name of God.’ Then Abū Bakr dictated his will in the following way: ‘This is the will of Abū Bakr b. Abī Qaḥḥāfa dictated in the last days of his life in this world and the first days of his life in the Next World. I appoint ʿUmar b. Khaṭṭāb as my successor…’ (Ibn Saʿd 3/200)

The succession of ʿUthmān was similarly a matter of appointment, even though it outwardly took the form of an election because he was chosen by a council of six who were expected to choose nobody else. In fact, of the six people ʿUmar appointed to the council, only two were in favor of ʿAlī. The council consisted of ʿAlī b. Abī Ṭālib, ʿUthmān b. ʿAffān, Ṭalḥa b. ʿAbd Allāh, Zubayr b. ʿAwām, Saʿd b. Abī Waqqāṣ and ʿAbd al-Raḥmān b. ʿAwf. If they had intended to make a real council, the members would have been elected by the people of both Mecca and Medina or by an adjudicating body, not by the Caliph. Thus, the case of ʿUthmān was one of appointment in spirit rather than election.

When ʿUmar felt the approaching death, he sent his son ʿAbd Allāh to ʿĀʾisha’s house to ask her permission that he be buried next to the Prophet. ʿĀʾisha agreed to that and said to ʿAbd Allāh: ‘Give my regards to your father and tell him not to leave Muḥammad’s flock without a shepherd, or else I fear they will succumb to sedition’ (Ibn Qutayba, 1/32).

According to Abū Naʿīm al-Iṣfahānī, when ʿUmar was in deathbed, his son, ʿAbd Allāh, told him: ‘People say things and I would like to tell you what they say. They think you are not going to appoint any successor. Would you not scold a shepherd who abandoned his flock? Likewise, you should show concern for the people and appoint a leader for them’ (Ḥilyat al-Awliyāʾ, 1/44). In a similar fashion, when Muʿāwiya was criticized for coming to Medina to extract a pledge of allegiance from the people for his son in the year 56/676, he replied: ‘I was worried that I might die and leave Muḥammad’s flock without a shepherd’ (Ibn Qutayba, 1/168). Therefore, it is clear that people in the Prophet’s time and shortly thereafter did not believe in appointing councils or holding elections for matters of succession. The fact that later scholars have resorted to such notions is only in order to provide a theological justification for the de facto way in which the Caliphs obtained power. There was no case of popular appointment to the position of Caliph except in that of ʿAlī b. Abī Ṭālib, otherwise it was appointment or inheritance that determined the issue of succession.

Shia Islam(3) : What the Qur’an and the Prophet’s tradition say about succession

Shīʿa Islam: History and Doctrines (1)

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