Qur'an: The Foundational Document of Shi'i Islam [LECTURE 1]

Empowering Weak & Oppressed

Hamid Algar

Jumada' al-Akhirah 16, 1422 2001-09-04

Occasional Paper

by Hamid Algar


-The relationship between the Qur'an and the Imams [AS]

-The Divine nature of the Qur'an

-The purpose of revelation

-Aspects of the Qur'an that affect Shi'ah Islam

-Mutashabih Verses

-The Process of interpretation of the Qur'an

-Those Verses of the Qur'an that are important for Shi'i Islam

The Qur’an as the foundational document for Shi’i Islam

The Relationship between the Qur'an and the Imams [AS]

The Qur’an plays a similar role for other schools of thought in Islam but in a number of ways the Qur’an is the point of departure. The status of the Imams [AS] – the infallible and divinely appointed successors to the Prophet [sAW] – are his successors but they also have an integral relation to the Qur’an itself. It might even be said that in the first place the status of the Imams [AS] is determined by this particular relationship to the Qur’an and secondarily to the fact that they are chronologically the successors to most of the functions of the Prophet [sAW]. By way of illustration of this contention we can cite one of the well known traditions of the Prophet [sAW] that is found in not only Shi’i but also in Sunni books of tradition. Many of the traditions of the Prophet [sAW] that are found in Shi’i books are also found in Sunni books. The Prophet [sAW] is reported to have said:-

‘I leave among you two precious and weighty trusts The Book of God (Qur’an) and my Progeny, these two legacies will never be separated from one another, if you lay hold of them you will never go astray.’

The Prophet [sAW] before his departure from the world addresses the Muslims and says that he has left two precious items - the Book of God and his Progeny – and he continues to say that these two will not be separated from each other, in other words there is an integral and essential relationship between the Qur’an and the progeny, the family, the descendants of the Prophet [sAW] – they can never be separated from each other. A number of conclusions can be draw from this:-

-The essential error from the point of view of Sunni Muslims in the course of history is to disregard or not to take enough heed of this essential and integral relationship between the Qur’an and the progeny and offspring of the Prophet [sAW]. To bring in a contemporary note – Imam Khomaini in his last will and testament began by mentioning this hadith precisely, and went on to mention that all the disasters and misfortunes that have beset the Muslims have come from ignoring this link between the Book of Allah [sWT] and the family of the Prophet [sAW]. (to ascribe a complex history to a single factor may appear to be questionable). From the Shi’i point of view these two belong together and if a separation occurs then there would be consequences.

This hadith is called ‘hadith thaqalain’ in Arabic the word thaqalain is a dual noun (i.e. ascribed to two things) therefore the meaning being two weighty things. In confirmation of this hadith is another hadith in which the Prophet [sAW] is reported to have said the following:-

‘ ‘Ali [AS] is always with the Qur’an and the Qur’an is always with ‘Ali’

The first hadith (thaqalain) is a general statement concerning the totality of the family of the Prophet [sAW]. The second is a more specific statement denoting the relationship between Imam ‘Ali [AS] and the Qur’an.

The Divine Nature of The Qur'an

From the point of view of Islam the Qur’an is integrally and exclusively the Divine Word, in other words it is not an inspired text the content of which has been infused into the consciousness of the Prophet [sAW] for him then to express with words of his own choosing, rather it is in its entirety – content and form of Divine Origin. The Prophet [sAW] has no share in the Qur’an except its reception, its faithful transmission, its exemplification in his own life, and its interpretation. The words that are used in the Qur’anic texts to describe it are the following two. Firstly the Qur’an is described as ‘tanzil’ which you can translate into English as ‘revelation’ however the imagery used in the two words is different. ‘Revelation’ implies the revelation of something by the seekers of it, whereas ‘tanzil’ implies descending down. The Qur’an is something that is ‘sent down’, and this is referred to in the noun and the verb and recurs frequently in the Qur’an. ‘Sent down’ not in the spacial sense but in the sense of being sent from the Divine to the human plain. It is a book the origins of which lie beyond the human plane and it has been sent down to the human plane. It is the Divine Word – eternal in nature, which has been clothed in the attributes of a human language, the Arabic language, at a certain point in history.

The other word is ‘wahy’ – which you can also translate as revelation in English. ‘wahy’ is the conveyance of each portion of the Qur’anic message to the Prophet [sAW] at a given time, the etymological sense of the word wahy is a secret or hidden communication. Secret and hidden in the sense not that it is being arbitrarily concealed from other than the Prophet [sAW] but simply in the sense that revelation is an experience of its own type which is not capable of being experienced or observed in any way by other than the Prophet [sAW] himself. So we say that the Qur’an is ‘wahy’ and ‘tanzil’ – revelation in these two senses. Given this belief or assertion about the Qur’an a number of other conclusions or assertions or rather essential doctrines about the Qur’an follow:-

-The Qur’an is only the Qur’an in Arabic – there are a number of verses in which the Qur’an has been described as being sent down in a clear Arabic tongue. The purpose of this is not to restrict in any way the scope of the Qur’anic message or the preaching of Islam. On the contrary there are verses that speak of the universal appeal and address of Islam. The mention of Arabic in the Qur’an is exclusively with respect to the language of the text itself. For it follows that if the linguistic container as well as the content are of Divine Origin – once a translation takes place from Arabic into any other language, there is the intervention of a human element (the translation however is not an invalid or a forbidden exercise – from the very earliest times the Qur’an has been translated in whole or in part, it is very probable that the very first translations may have occurred in the life time of the Prophet [sAW] himself). What it does mean however is that translations that lead to understanding, cannot be substitutes for the original, which is in Arabic.

-Another corollary of the integrally Divine nature of the Qur’an is the ‘miraculous inimitability’ i’ijaz – human authors other than the Divine author are incapable of producing the like of the Qur’an either in part or in whole. There are a number of challenges in the Qur’an to those contemporaries of the Prophet [sAW] who rejected the revelation, challenges to them to produce the like of a small part of the Qur’an or even a small number of verses comparable to the Qur’an itself. There are aspects to the ‘i’ijaz’ for example the complete lack of any internal inconsistency or contradiction in the Qur’an. The Qur’an was revealed to the Prophet [sAW] over a period of 23 years, and it is a reasonable assumption that any book of human composition the writing of which stretched out over 23 years would exhibit some evidence of change, inconsistency or contradiction, quite simply because of the mutability of human thought and inclinations, the limitations of human memory, changes of human perspective – all of this will result in the introduction of change and inconsistency into the text in question. Whereas the Qur’an claims in (4:82), that if it (the Qur’an) were from other than Allah [sWT] then men would find in it much inconsistency:-

‘Do they not consider the Qur’an (with care)? Had it been from other than Allah, they would have surely found therein much discrepancy.’ (4:82)

A number of non-Muslim scholars claim that there is inconsistency in the Qur’an. And it is to the resolution of apparent inconsistencies that many of the scholars, commentators (exegetes) of the Qur’an have turned most commonly in the Shi’i tradition. From the point of view of Muslims – shi’ah and Sunni the Qur’an is a seamless and has no contradictions.

The integrity and preservation of the text – not only Sunni and Shi’ah, but various subgroups in Islam have disagreed on a number of subjects and continue to disagree. One of the few matters on which all schools of thought in Islam have agreed is the integrity of the Qur’anic text. We do not have in Islam any problems concerning the authenticity of the Qur’anic text as preserved and transmitted from the earliest period. This is indicated not only by history – or better to say the ‘absence’ of history of the Qur’anic text but also by (15:9) of the Qur’an where Allah [sWT] says:-

‘We have, without doubt, sent down the Message; and We will assuredly guard it (from corruption)’ (15:9)

The integrity of the text of the Qur’an is important because of the finality of the Qur’anic message. If the Qur’an is to be the final revelation – the final scriptural revelation of the Divine Will to mankind, then it follows that it must necessarily be preserved in its integrity. If it were subject to loss or distortion, additions or subtractions being made from it – then its status as a final revelation would suffer, we have the description of the Messenger in (33:40):-

‘Muhammad is not the father of any of your men, but (he is) the Messenger of Allah, and the Seal of the Prophets and Allah has full knowledge of all things’ (33:40)

The Prophet [sAW] is the ‘Messenger’ of Allah [sWT] and the ‘Seal’ of the Prophets. ‘Seal’ in a number of important senses most obviously in that he is the last, chronologically, in a series of messengers who came to mankind. Also in the sense – that he brings to an end and places his seal of authority upon the entire series of Messengers that preceded him.

The Purpose of Revelation

The purpose of revelation – the Qur’an and the revelations that preceded it. There are a number of key words that you can take from the Qur’an itself – first of all the word of ‘guidance’. Guidance is on of the important semantic components of the Qur’an – the word ‘guidance’ and the nouns and verbs derived from it. An example is (17:9):-

‘Verily this Qur’an doth guide to that which it most right (or stable) and giveth the glad tidings to the Believers who work deeds of righteousness, that they shall have a magnificent reward.’ (17:9)

The Qur’an is a guide to the ‘straight path’. The ‘straight path’ may varyingly be understood as the path of moral rectitude which leads to man’s happiness in this world and the hereafter. At a different level it can be thought of as a path which leads to a direct perception of the Divine Presence or to put it somewhat differently it is the path which leads to the fulfilment of man’s ultimate purpose which is the knowledge of his Creator. In order to understand the term in a little greater detail or profundity we can refer to another verse (20:50)

‘He said: ‘Our Lord is He Who gave to each (created) thing its form and nature, and further, gave (it) guidance.’ (20:50)

The giving of guidance is not exclusive to man, indeed man receives guidance through for example the scriptural revelations given to mankind. But all things (kulli Shayy) receive a form of Divine Guidance, they receive a physical form which sets them apart from other things, and they also receive a kind of guidance. That guidance does not necessarily involve moral choice but an inherent direction towards the purpose for which they were created. Inanimate objects are also guided, that is that they have inherent in them supplementing their material shape and form, guidance which guides them towards the purpose for which they were created.

Also important in the conceptual world of the Qur’an is the concept of reminder/remembrance. The Qur’an describes itself in (68:52) as a reminder for all the worlds:-

‘But it is nothing less that a Message to all the worlds.’ (68:52)

The word used is dhikr – the Qur’an is in itself a reminder, aswell as encouraging men, impelling them to remember. What is implied here? In the same way that man without guidance would be in a state of misguidance, without remembrance he would necessarily be in a state of forgetfulness. One may deduce from the verses in which ‘dhikr’ is mentioned is that man were it not for the revelation of the Qur’an and the practices and beliefs that spring from the Qur’an, man would be in a state of forgetfulness. The Qur’an is a guidance to rescue man from a state of wandering and to orient him towards his true purpose, likewise the Qur’an is that which rescues him from a state or forgetfulness and induces in him a state of remembrance. Remembrance and forgetfulness of what? Primarily of the reality of his Lord and his Creator of his own origins and his destiny in the Hereafter to which he will be directed. From these two terms we may deduce some of the essential purposes of the Qur’an (guidance and remembrance). Each in turn has a number of further implications. We can say for example that the very fundamental rite of Islam – the daily prayer embodies both of these. It is guidance in the sense that it orients man clearly and repeatedly in the direction of His Lord, it is also a reminder and removes him from that state of forgetfulness in which his worldly existence otherwise plunges him.

Aspects of the Qur’an that affect Shi’i Islam

The Qur’an is in its very nature a Divine book – it can be regarded in some sense as a confluence of the Divine and the human, it is Divine Word expressed in a human language. And precisely by it’s being caused to descend from a higher to a lower plane, from the Divine to the human, then necessarily this must be, for it to be understood, it must be a book that is capable of being understood. A Divine revelation that resists and forbids understanding is in the nature of things a contradiction in terms. Allah [sWT] has no need for His revelation, it is humans that stand in need of the revelation and therefore once that revelation is made it must be made comprehensible to humans. The question that arises is the mode of understanding the revelation – what is involved in understanding and interpreting the revelation? Here a number of points are to be made.

The primary instructor in the understanding of the Qur’an, the first authority or aid is the Prophet [sAW] himself. In (62:2) Allah [sWT] says:-

‘It is He Who has sent amongst the Unlettered (those who had not previously received revelation) a messenger from among themselves, to rehearse to them His Signs, to sanctify them, and to instruct them in Scripture and Wisdom – although they had been, before in manifest error –‘ (62:2)

The operative phrase here is ‘teaches them the book’, ‘yu ‘allimuhum al-kitab’. The Prophet does not simply convey to them the book, he is the primary teacher and instructor of the Qur’an. From the point of view of Shi’i Islam one of the functions of the Prophet that is inherited or perpetuated in the persons of the Imams is precisely this, ‘to teach them the book’. They have as suggested by the hadith quoted at the outset a particular relationship with the book. It is they who are inseparably joined to the book, therefore the understanding of the Qur’an by the Imams, from among the descendants of the Prophet [sAW], has a degree of authority comparable to the authority of the Prophet [sAW] himself with respect to the understanding of the book. This does not mean to say that there is no possible understanding of the Qur’an in any respect without reference to the Imams [AS] of Shi’i belief. It does however mean that they have a certain position of primacy with respect to other potential sources of knowledge. This is a matter of general principle, how does this work out in practise? And what are those matters which in particular require the attention of interpreters? After all the Qur’an describes itself as a clear book (kitab al-Mubin).

Mutashabih (allegorical) Verses

A great deal of the Qur’an is immediately comprehensible without external exegetical effort. What are those matters where exegetical views are required, and the authoritative views of the Imams [AS] as perpetuators of this particular teaching function of the Prophet [sAW] becomes necessary? Here we can refer to the following, those verses of the Qur’an which are not immediately accessible to understanding, verses that are referred to in the Qur’an as Mutashabih. It is difficult to translate this satisfactorily as a one word translation in English, sometimes you find the word ‘allegorical’ put forward. Allegorical implies the lack of an essential relationship between these verses and the proposed meaning. However the verses have an immediately accessible meaning, therefore the word allegorical does not do justice to this. For example:-

‘(Allah) Most Gracious is firmly established on the throne (of authority),’ (20:5)

If we want to say that this verse is ‘allegorical’ this might imply that the statement is a symbolic statement of the inner truth, we have to solve almost like a riddle the meaning of the verse to arrive at the meaning. This is not the solution, the solution is to assert that the verse is true, i.e. if Allah [sWT] says that he is ‘firmly established on the throne’ then indeed He is. However the words clearly cannot be understood in terms of human experience, in other words it is not possible to ascribe to Allah [sWT] motion, and ‘reposing’ and ‘seating’ implies motion. Motion implies the movement of a body that is limited and finite from one place to another, that motion must take place in time. Therefore a literal understanding from human experience would be to impute to Allah [sWT] temporality and spaciality neither of which is clearly acceptable. The meaning of the verse while guarding against any kind of allegorical dissolution of precise and specific language is an understanding that goes beyond the immediate and apparent meaning, the immediate understanding implied by the verse.

The counterpart to ‘mutashabih’ verses are ‘muhkam’ verses which translate as ‘firm’ in the sense of being obvious in meaning, therefore they do not need to be referred to by exegetical understanding to reach the meaning of the verse. For example the legislative verses of the Qur’an. Verses which lead to legal ordinance with respect to the devotional life of a Muslims or the social interaction of a Muslim, or economic activities. The two categories of verses are juxtaposed in (3:7) of the Qur’an:-

‘He it is Who sent down to thee the Book; in it are verses basic or fundamental (of established meaning); they are the foundation of the Book: others are not of well-established meaning. But those in whose heart is perversity follow the part thereof that is not of well-established meaning. Seeking discord, and searching for its hidden meanings, but no-one knows its true meanings except Allah. And those who are firmly grounded in knowledge say: ‘We believe in the Book; the whole of it is from our Lord:’ And none will grasp the Message except men of understanding.’ (3:7)

Literally the muhkam verses are referred to as the ‘mother of the book’, umm al-kitab in other words the essence or core of the book. ‘But no-one knows its true meanings…’ this refers to the mutashabih verses, there is a difference of opinion here about this verse amongst various commentators as to where the sentence is broken. Is ‘those firmly rooted in knowledge’ the second subject of the verse ‘knows’? Or is it on the contrary the subject of the following verb ‘We believe in the book…’. Among Sunni commentators there is a difference of opinion. Among Shi’i commentators those who are ‘firmly rooted in knowledge’ is regarded as the second subject of the verb, ‘know’, so Allah [sWT] and these people know the interpretation of these verses.

The muhkam verses are the core of the book – because they contain the legislative verses, those verses which establish Islam as a reality in the life of the individual and the community. The other category is mutashabih, the conventional meaning of these verses is not enough to establish their intent. The knowledge and interpretation of these mutashabih verses as agreed by Shi’i commentators and a larger proportion of Sunni commentators is known only to Allah [sWT] and those firmly rooted in knowledge. ‘Those firmly rooted in knowledge’ from the Shi’i point of view are the Imams [AS], who have this attribute of being such, what is meant by firmly rooted in knowledge? It does not simply mean a high degree of erudition, being rooted in knowledge implies that ones whole being grows out of the soil of knowledge, these are the Imams whose knowledge is conveyed to them and reinforced in them by Allah [sWT].

The Process of Interpretation of Verses

The process of interpretation, the word used is ta’wil, can be roughly translated as interpretation. Sometimes it is used as any type of interpretation of verses not necessarily for the category of mutashabih verses, it can be used for the clarification of obscure words, unusual grammatical instructions, allusion to certain historical events, the clarification of all of these is sometimes regarded as ta’wil. However, the essence of ta’wil is somewhat different, if one looks at the root of the word ta’wil, one sees that it comes from the root ‘a wa la’ meaning ‘to be first’. Ta’wil is therefore a process of moving back as it were to that which is primary in each of the verses of the Qur’an, moving back in the direction of that which is primary in the Qur’an itself. To put it differently, from that which is most immediately accessible, the outer sense towards that is less easily accessible, the inner sentence – which lies at the core of the verse, and which is most primary to it. Ta’wil in this sense is the uncovering of that which is most primary – the innermost sense of each verse.

There is also the ‘outer’ and ‘inner’ meaning of the Qur’an, there is a statement ascribed to the Prophet [sAW], that:-

‘The Qur’an has an outer dimension and an inner dimension. And that inner dimension in turn has seven inner dimensions’

In addition to this saying one can deduce from another verse of the Qur’an, the fact that it contains an inner and outer dimension:-

‘Do ye not see that Allah has subjected to your (use) all things in the heavens and on earth, and has made His bounties flow to you in exceeding measure, (both) seen and unseen? Yet there are among men those who dispute about Allah without knowledge and without guidance, and without a Book to enlighten them!’ (31:20)

Here the bounties are many and are not restricted exclusively to the Qur’an, but as a matter of general principle, this verse establishes that the bounties of Allah [sWT] have an inner and an outer dimension and this general principle must apply to the Qur’an also. The ta’wil is that which operates not only with respect to the Muhkam and Mutashabih but also with respect to the outer and inner. This is confirmed by Imam Jaffer Sadiq [AS]. According to Imam Jaffer Sadiq [AS] each verse of the Qur’an has four aspects:-

‘ ‘Ibarah, ‘Isharah, latifah, haqiqah’

The ‘Ibarah is the wording of each verse –the obvious meaning that can be drawn from the wording which constitutes each verse, accessible to anyone with a correct knowledge of the Arabic language – the plain literal meaning.

‘Isharah – the meaning which is indicated by but not explicitly conveyed by the wording.

Latifah – translated literally as the subtlety, that which is contained within the verse, but which is not so easily derived at as the ‘Isharah. It is more subtle and elusive, and requires a greater effort or a greater predisposition in order to gain access to it.

Haqiqah – translated as truth or reality. It means the ultimate truth enshrined within each verse of the Qur’an. It is said in explanation of this category of Quranic meaning that it is only accessible to the Prophet [sAW] and the Imams [AS], in the sense that they alone have access to this portion of Quranic meaning.

The Quran was revealed to the whole of humanity and this is who it addresses, it does not mean that a portion of the Qur’an is held in reserve for an elite category, however as a matter of precise reality –there are those whose capacity of understanding varies. Therefore the ‘Ibarah is accessible to anyone who knows Arabic or learns. The ‘Isharah is not within the reach of everyone however with appropriate effort and predisposition and talent, it is still accessible. The latifah is accessible to an even smaller group of people and finally, the haqiqah is only restricted to the ma’sumin, those who possess the attribute of inerrancy. In connection with haqiqah we can cite 56:79:-

‘Which none shall touch but those who are clean’ (56:79)

Of course this verse furnishes among other things the origin for the ordinance that one should not touch the Qur’an while one is in a state of ritual impurity, however, there is an meaning here that is stated by numerous commentators that what is meant here by touching is not simply the tactile experience of laying one’s hands on the book but rather gaining access to its innermost secrets and meanings and this is only accessible to those who are utterly purified, ‘mutahharun’ not simply in the ritual sense, but inwardly purified aswell. This understanding of the word ‘purified’ ties in with another key verse from the point of view of Shi’i doctrine (33:33), where the people of the Prophet’s household are described as being utterly purified.

Interpreting the Qur'an from the Qur'an

Now, it might appear to be contradictory now that we have laid heavy stress on the authority of the Imams as interpreters of the Qur’an to draw attention to the fact that one of the primary methods to the understanding of the Qur’an according to precisely the Imams [AS] is the Qur’an itself. There is a statement that one portion of the Qur’an interprets another, and one portion of the Qur’an clarifies another. In other words although the Prophet [sAW] and Imams [AS] are instructors and teachers of the Qur’an, the Qur’an itself is a guidance and an understanding. How do we understand this statement and reconcile it with what has been said about the Prophet [sAW] and the Imams [AS] as exegetes. We understand it in the following sense that if one takes as true the fundamental Islamic belief that the Qur’an lacks any contradiction, and internal inconsistency, if it constitutes a whole and complete universe then it follows that it is in all of its parts mutually compatible, verses can complement and explain each other. Therefore in order to understand one part or verse of the Qur’an, one needs to take into consideration all verses of the Qur’an dealing with the same topic, containing the same wording. On the other hand that the Prophets and Imams are instructors in the Qur’an, precisely in this role they draw attention to the interconnectedness of all parts of the Qur’an with each other. If one looks at many traditions on the Imams [AS] in explication of the Qur’an precisely what they do is to draw attention to relevant portions of the Qur’an, to draw together and synthesise the meaning of the verses and remove thereby any appearance of inconsistency or contrast.

Those verses of the Qur’an which are important for Shi’i Islam

The Qur’an lays heavy stress on matters of succession in the Divine Guidance of man by Prophets. For example:-

‘An remember that Abraham was tried by His Lord with certain Commands which he fulfilled: He said: ‘I will make thee an Imam to the nations.’ He pleaded: ‘And also Imams from my offspring!’ He answered: ‘But my promise is not with the reach of evil doers.’ (2:124)

Imam – is that title which is most commonly awarded to the Divinely appointed, authoritative descendents of the Prophet [sAW]. In this verse this is not what is at issue because Ibrahim [AS] is a Prophet and not a descendent of a Prophet [sAW] (similar to the Imams), but from the conclusion of this verse it has been drawn that the function of an Imam/Imamate is in the sense contained within the function of Prophethood. The question arises why is Ibrahim addressed by Allah [sWT] saying that I will make you an Imam rather than as a Prophet of the people? Because Shi’i commentators say that the essential functions of an Imam are also found in a Prophet. Ibrahim in response to this Divine promise asks, shall my offspring be the same? The answer is, ‘My covenant shall not embrace the wrong doers.’ In other words your offspring will be given the attribute of Imamate, they will made leaders unless they transgress, not in the specific Shi’i sense here but in that they will be made Divine guides. The word Imam is also used for two other Prophets before Prophet Muhammad [AS] Ishaq and Ya’qub:

‘And We bestowed on him Isaac and, as an additional gift, (A grandson), Jacob, and we made righteous men of every one (of them).’

‘And We made them leaders, guiding (men) by Our command, and we sent them inspiration to do good deeds, to establish regular prayers, and to practise regular charity: and they constantly served Us (and Us only).’ (21:72-73)

Here also the word Imam is used but of course they are Prophets, so there are indications from the pre-Muhammadan history of Islam of the close relationship between Imamate and Prophethood. As far as the hereditary transmission of Divine Guidance is concerned we can refer to:-

‘And Solomon was David’s heir. He said: ‘O ye people! We have been taught the speech of birds, and on us has been bestowed (a little) of all things: This is indeed Grace manifest (from Allah)’ (27:16)

If then the lineage of Ibrahim in the Qur’an is established as having Divine Guidance and Leadership then the conclusion may be drawn that the lineage of the Prophet [sAW] should have the same dignity vested in it – the dignity of Divinely appointed leadership in guidance of humanity. All of these considerations concerning the previous prophets the establishment of the Divinely sanctioned hereditary pattern among them is only secondary to the establishment of the Imamate:-

‘Your (real) guardians are (No less than) Allah, His Messenger, and those believers who perform prayer and give alms whilst prostrating’ (5:55)

Protector or guardian (wali) – the word Wali has a whole range of meanings and a part of the reason for the inability for Sunni and Shi’i scholars to agree is the numerous shades of meaning contained within this word. The last part of the verse ‘…and give alms whilst prostrating’ is seen by many Sunni and all Shi’i commentators as referring to Imam ‘Ali [AS]. How is this possible when we have a plural i.e. ‘those believers who perform prayer’, this is one of the peculiarities of the Quranic style that for a single believer by way of honouring that believer a plural may be used, there is a particular incident to which this verse is attributed, there is an anecdote to the effect that someone asked for alms whilst Imam [AS] was performing prayer, and that Imam ‘Ali [AS] gave an indication during prayer that alms were to be given by himself, here there is an indication that the person at issue in the verse is Imam ‘Ali [AS], he comes in a series in which the first two are God and his Messenger. The verse says that your true protector or guardian is in the first place God, then the Messenger [sAW] and then Imam ‘Ali [AS].

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