Upon the death of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) a fundamental debate arose as to who was his rightful successor as leader of the nascent Muslim community. The debate is so fundamental that it is at the root of the Shia/Sunni difference of Islam and it has simmered continuously in the subsequent 1,400 years, at times boiling over with rage.
Over the centuries much has been written by both Shia and Sunni to “prove” their respective positions correct. On the one hand Shia theologians, philosophers, scholars, clergy and lay people have all sought to validate the Shia Imamat while on the other, their Sunni counterparts attempt to make the converse case. What is particularly perplexing and vexing to outside observers is both parties make their case from the same evidence — marshalling quotes from the Qur’an and Hadith (anecdotes about, and sayings of, the Prophet), key historical records as well as relying on rational or “common sense” arguments.
The paradox arises because there is no unanimous agreement over which historical records are accurate, which Hadith are authentic, and then even when there is agreement, disagreement arises over their interpretation. The dilemma is not improved, but rather compounded, when evidence from the Qur’an is relied upon simply because the Qur’an itself admits, in verse 3:7, to its own partial ambiguity thereby rendering those parts open to individual interpretation….
So does this Gordian Knot have a solution or are we of modern and later times hamstrung with the vexing task of trying to tease out the truth from an incomplete historical record 1,400 years after the fact? And, must those of us not versed in Arabic relegate our faith, and thus perhaps our salvation, to guessing which of several duelling Arabic linguists’ arguments seem most credible to us, even though we have neither the knowledge nor the qualifications to assess the merits of their arguments? In other words, is religion for us reduced to blind faith in an arbitrary choice? And if Prophet Muhammad was indeed the last Prophet, then did Allah really leave us in such an unsettled, ambiguous, final state (at least until End Times), a state which cannot but breed more and more doubt, while simultaneously Hazrat Ali, first Shia Imam, informs us that, on the contrary, “sleeping with certainty is better than praying with doubt”
Or, alternatively can we divine the truth from the Qur’an with a new approach, assuming good faith in translations? For is not truth blind to specific languages or the fallibility of man to record history and instead able to shine its essential light regardless, just as scientific discoveries are not limited to the language or writings of the discoverer, but have an essential light to them? After all Imam Jafar al-Sadiq informs us that “intellect is that by which Allah is worshipped and a place in Paradise earned” (5) and so relegating my faith to blindly following an arbitrarily chosen opinion of another person — a linguist or historian — is not only irredeemably unsatisfying both spiritually and intellectually, but in complete contradiction to both my understanding of what Imam al-Sadiq advises as well as my firm conviction that faith must and should be verifiable, for all the reasons explained in my article Why Faith Must be Validated with Reason and Knowledge. And thus, for me, finding a way to untie this Gordian Knot around the Shia Imamat was an intellectual and spiritual necessity irrespective of, but also especially because of, my being Ismaili.
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About the author
Mohib Ebrahim is the Editor and Publisher of the NanoWisdoms Archive of Imamat Speeches, Interviews and Writings. An honours graduate of Simon Fraser University in Computer Science and Mathematics, Mohib has been involved in software development and the IT industry since the ’80s. His religious interests lie in understanding the intersection of faith and reason: validation of faith and the nature of truth.
Image: Mawlana Hazar Imam, theismaili.org (Permitted use) (Bill C-11, Section 29.21 http://bit.ly/1yRu6UZ)