The difference between Prophet and Imam
The previous argument about reception of Divine injunctions and laws by the prophets only proves the basis of prophecy, namely the receiving of Divine injunctions. The argument does not prove the persistence and continuity of prophecy, even though the very fact that these prophetic injunctions have been preserved naturally raises the idea of persistence and continuity. That is why it is not necessary for a prophet (nabi) always to be present among mankind, but the existence of the Imam, who is the guarding of Divine religion, is on the contrary a continuous necessity for human society. Human society can never be without the figure whom Shi’ism calls the Imam whether or not he is recognized and known.
God the Most Exalted, has said in His Book: “So if these disbelieve in it, We have already entrusted it to a people [i.e., the Imams] who do not disbelieve in it”. As mentioned above, the functions of prophecy and imamate may be joined in one person who is then appointed to the functions of both prophet and Imam, or to both the reception of the Divine law and its preservation and explanation.
And sometimes they can be separated, such as in periods during which there is no prophet living but when there is a true Imam living among men. It is obvious that the number of God’s prophets is limited and the prophets have not been present in every period and age.
It is also of significance to not that in God’s Book some of the prophets have been introduced as Imams such as the Prophet Abraham, about whom is said, ” And (remember) when his Lord tried Abraham with (His) commands, and he fulfilled them, He said: Lo! I have appointed thee a leader [imam] for mankind. (Abraham) said: And of my offspring (will there be leaders)? He said: My covenant includeth not wrongdoers”. And by Our command…”.
The Imamate and Its Role in the Esoteric Dimension of Religion
In the same way that Imam is the guide and leader of men in their external actions so does he possess the function of inward and esoteric leadership and guidance. He is the quid of the caravan of humanity which is moving inwardly and esoterically toward God. In order to elucidate this truth it is necessary to turn to the following two introductory comments.
First of all, without any doubt, according to Islam as well as other Divine religions the sole means of attaining real and eternal happiness or misery, felicity or wretchedness, is by means of good or evil actions which man comes to recognize through the instruction of Divine religion as well as through his own primordial and God-given nature and intelligence. Second, through the means of revelation and prophecy God has praised or condemned man’s action according to the language of human beings and the society in which live.
He has promised those who do good and obey and accept the teachings of revelation a happy eternal life in which are fulfilled all desires that accord with human perfection. And to the evildoers and the iniquitous He has given warning of a bitter perpetual life in which is experienced every form of misery and disappointment. Without any doubt God, who stands in every way above all that we can imaging, does not, as we do, possess “thought” molded by a particular social structure.
The relations of master and servant, ruler and ruled, command and prohibition, reward and punishment, do not exist outside our social life. The Divine Order is the system of creation itself, in which the existence and appearance of everything is related solely to its creation God according to real relations and to that alone. Furthermore, as has been mentioned in the Holy Quran and prophetic hadith, religion contains truths and verities above the common comprehension of man, which God has revealed to us in a language we can comprehend on the level of our understanding.
It can thus be concluded that there is a real relationship between good and evil actions and the kind of life that is prepared for man in eternity, a relation that determines the happiness or misery of the future life according to the Divine Will simpler words it can be said that each good or evil action brings into being a real effect within the soul of man which determines the character of his future life. Whether he understands it or not, man is like a child who is being trained. From the instructions of the teacher, the child hears nothing but do’s and don’ts but does not understand the meaning of the actions he performs.
Yet, when he grows up, as a result of virtuous mental and spiritual habits attained in wardly during the period of training, he is able to have a happy social lift. If, however, he refuses to submit to the instructions of the teacher he will undergo nothing but misery and unhappiness. Or he is like a sick person who, when in the care of a physician, takes medicine, food and special exercises as directed by the physician and who has no other duty than to obey the instructions of his doctor.
The result of this submission to his orders is the creation of harmony in his constitution which is the source of health as well as every form of physical enjoyment and pleasure, to summarize, we can say that within his outward life man possesses an inner life, a spiritual life, which is related to his deeds and actions and develops in relation to them, and that his happiness or misery in the hereafter is completely dependent upon this inner life. The Holy Quran also confirms this explanation. In many verses it affirms the existence of another life and another spirit for the virtuous and the faithful, a life higher than this life and a spirit more illuminated than the spirit of man as we know it here and now. It asserts that man’s acts have inner effects upon his soul that remain always with him. In prophetic sayings there are also many references to this point.
For example, in the Hadith-i mi’raj (hadith of the nocturnal ascension) God addresses the Prophet in these words: “He who wishes to act according to My satisfaction must possess three qualities: he must exhibit a thankfulness that is not mixed with ignorance, a remembrance upon which the dust of forgetfulness will not settle, and a love in which he does not prefer the love of creatures rather. than My love.
If he loves Me, I love him, I will open the eye of his heart with the sight of My majesty and will not hide from him the elites of My creatures. I will confide in him in the darkness of the night and the light of the day until conversation and intercourse with creatures terminates. I will make him hear My word and the word of My angels. I will reveal to him the secret which I have veiled from My creatures. I will dress him with the robe of modesty until the creatures feel ashamed before him. He will walk upon the earth having been forgiven. I will make his heart possess consciousness and vision and I will not hide from him anything in Paradise or in the Fire. I will make known to him whoever people experience on the Day of Judgment in the way of terror and calamity.”
Abu Abdallah-may peace be upon him-has recounted that the Prophet of Goodman peace and blessing be upon him received Harithah ibn Malik ibn al-Nu’man and asked him, “How art thou, Oh Harithah?” He said, “Oh Prophet of God, I live as a true believer.” The Prophet of God said to him, “Each thing possesses its own truth. What is the truth of thy world:” He said, “Oh Prophet of God! My soul has turned away from the world. My nights are spent in a state of awakens and my days in a state of thirst. It seems as if I am gazing at the Throne of my Lord and the account has been settled, and as if I am gazing at the people of paradise who are visiting each other in heaven, and as if I hear the cry of the people of hell in the fire.”
Then the Prophet of God said, “This is a servant whose heart God has illuminated.” It must also be remembered that often one of us guides another in a good or evil matter without himself carrying out his own words. In the case of the prophets and Imams, however, whose guidance and leadership is through Divine Command, such a situation never occurs. They themselves practice the religion whose leadership they have undertaken. The spiritual life toward which they guide mankind is their own spiritual life, for God will not place the guidance of others in someone’s hand unless He has guided him Himself. Special Divine guidance can never be violated or infringed upon.
The following conclusions can be reached from this discussion:
- In each religious community the prophets and Imams are the foremost in the perfection and realization of the spiritual and religious life they preach, for they must and do practice their own teachings and participate in the spiritual life they profess.
- Since they are first among men and the leaders and guides of the community, they are the most virtuous and perfect of men.
- The person upon whose shoulders lies the responsibility for the guidance of a community through Divine Command, in the same way that he is the guide of man’s external life and acts, is also the guide for the spiritual life, and the inner dimension of human life and religious practice depends upon his guidance.
The Imams and Leaders of Islam
The previous discussions lead us to the conclusion that in Islam after the death of the Holy Prophet, there has continuously existed and will continue to exist within the Islamic community (ummah), an Imam (a leader chosen by God). Numerous prophetic hadiths have been transmitted in Shi’ism concerning the description of the Imams, their number, the fact that they are all of the Quraysh and of the Household of the Prophet, and the fact that the promised Mahdi is among them and the last of them. Also, there are definitive words of the Prophet concerning the imamate of Ali and his being the first Imam and also definitive utterances of the Prophet and Ali concerning the imamate of the Second Imam. In the same way the Imams before have left definitive statements concerning the imamate of those who were to come after them.