One of the key factors separating the Muslims is in the selection of guides (Imams). The majority believes that people have the capacity, as also the authority, to select an Imam / caliph for their guidance. The minority as represented by the Shia Imamiyyah maintain that selection of Imams is a divine responsibility and beyond the capacity and realm of mortals.

Which view is correct?

An eye-opening debate

Saad Ibn Abdillah al-Ashari al-Qummi had the unique opportunity to meet Imam Hasan Askari (a.s.) and Imam Mahdi (a.t.f.s.) in Samarra, alongside Ahmed Ibn Ishaaq al-Qummi (r.a.), the representative of Imam Hasan Askari (a.s.).

Saad posed many questions to Imam Mahdi (a.t.f.s.). One of the questions was about selection of the Imam, as this conversation reveals:

Then I (Saad) asked: O my master, why is it so that people cannot select the Imam for themselves?

Imam (a.t.f.s.) replied: Righteous or a corrupt Imam?

I said: Righteous.

He (a.t.f.s.) said: Is there a possibility that they may choose a transgressor while they are not aware of what goes on in his mind, whether he is righteous or corrupt?

I said: Yes

He (a.t.f.s.) said: That is the reason. I will explain to you with a rational argument.

I said: Please do.

He (a.t.f.s.) said: Let us consider the prophets that Allah has appointed, on whom He revealed heavenly scriptures and supported them with revelation and infallibility. They were the leaders of nations, like Moosa (a.s.) and Isa (a.s.), and most guided in terms of selecting (accurately). Is it possible that notwithstanding their abundant intellects and perfect knowledge they end up selecting hypocrites while considering them to be righteous?

I replied: No (they will always select the righteous).

Imam (a.t.f.s.) retorted: We have Moosa Kalimullah (a.s.) with his abundant intellect and perfect knowledge and backed by revelation, who chose seventy persons from the select ones of the community and those in the forefront of his army, regarding whose faith and sincerity he entertained no doubt. Nonetheless he ended up selecting hypocrites.

Allah says:

وَاخْتَارَ مُوسَى قَوْمَهُ سَبْعِينَ رَجُلاً لِّمِيقَاتِنَا

‘And Moosa chose out of his people seventy men for Our appointment…’ (Surah Aaraaf (7):155)

And He says:

وَإِذْ قُلْتُمْ يَا مُوسَى لَن نُّؤْمِنَ لَكَ حَتَّى نَرَى اللَّهَ جَهْرَةً فَأَخَذَتْكُمُ الصَّاعِقَةُ وَأَنتُمْ تَنظُرُونَ

‘And when you said: O Moosa! We will not believe in you until we see Allah manifestly, so the punishment overtook you while you looked on.’ (Surah Baqarah (2): 55)

Imam (a.t.f.s.): When we find those chosen for prophethood selecting the most corrupt, deeming them to be most righteous, we realize that it is not possible to select (Imams) except for the one who is aware of what is concealed in the hearts, hidden in the conscience, acted upon by the secrets.

Imam (a.t.f.s.): Then there is no significance in the selection (of Abu Bakr) by the Muhajir and Ansar after the incidence of the chosen prophets selecting the corrupt ones when they intended to choose the righteous ones.

  • Kamal al-Deen v 2 p 461-462
  • Dalail al-Imamah p- 514-515
  • Al-Ehtejaaj v 2 p 464: 234
  • Tafseer al-Safi v 2 p 234 under Surah Aaraaf (7):143, v 4 p 100 under Surah Qasas (28): 68
  • Surah Burhan v 2 p 591 under Surah Aaraaf (7):143
  • Madinah al-Maajiz v 8 p 59
  • Behaar al-Anwaar v 23 p 69, v 52 p 77

Selecting an Imam / caliph for guidance is beyond the people. When people are incapable of selecting a sincere leader (President / Prime Minister) for their worldly affairs, where is the question of selecting a suitable guide for the hereafter! Even the select Ulul Azm prophets were found incapable of this exercise! Hence selection of the so-called caliph after the Prophet’s (s.a.w.a.) martyrdom was truly invalid and rightly described as a ‘hasty decision’ –

إِنَّ بَيْعَةَ أَبِي بَكْرٍ كَانَتْ فَلْتَة