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The Political Method of the Selection of the Caliph by Vote and Its Disagreement with the Shi'ite View (Part 1)

imam ali (a.s)

Shi'ism believes that the Divine Law of Islam (Shari'ah), whose substance is found in the Book of God and in the tradition (Sunnah) [1] of the Holy Prophet, will remain valid to the Day of Judgment and can never, nor will ever, be altered. A government which is really Islamic cannot under any pretext refuse completely to carry out the Shari'ah's injunctions. [2] The only duty of an Islamic government is to make decisions by consultation within the limits set by the Shari'ah and in accordance with the demands of the moment.

The vow of allegiance to Abu Bakr at Saqifah, which was motivated at least in part by political considerations, and the incident described in the hadith of "ink and paper,"[3] which occurred during the last days of the illness of the Holy Prophet, reveal the fact that those who directed and backed the movement to choose the caliph through the process of election believed that the Book of God should be preserved in the form of a constitution. They emphasized the Holy Book and paid much less attention to the words of the Holy Prophet as an immutable source of the teachings of Islam. They seem to have accepted the modification of certain aspects of Islamic teachings concerning government to suit the conditions of the moment and for the sake of the general welfare.

    This tendency to emphasize only certain principles of the Divine Law is confirmed by many sayings that were later transmitted concerning the companions of the Holy Prophet. For example, the companions were considered to be independent authorities in matters of the Divine Law (mujtahid),[4] being able to exercise independent judgment (ijtihad) in public affairs. It was also believed that if they succeeded in their task they would be rewarded by God and if they failed they would be forgiven by Him since they were among the companions. This view was widely held during the early years following the death of the Holy Prophet. Shi'ism takes a stricter stand and believes that the actions of the companions, as of all other Muslims, should be judged strictly according to the teachings of the Shari'ah. For example, there was the complicated incident involving the famous general Khalid ibn Walid in the house of one of the prominent Muslims of the day, Malik ibn Nuwajrah, which led to the death of the latter. The fact that Khalid was not at all taken to task for this incident because of his being an outstanding military leader [5] shows in the eyes of Shi'ism an undue lenience toward some of the actions of the companions which were below the norm of perfect piety and righteousness set by the actions of the spiritual elite among the companions.

Another practice of the early years which is criticized by Shi'ism is the cutting off of the khums[6] from the members of the Household of the Prophet and from the Holy Prophet's relatives.[ 7] Likewise, because of the emphasis laid by Shi'ism on the sayings and the Sunnah of the Holy Prophet it is difficult for it to understand why the writing down of the text of hadith was completely banned and why, if a written hadith were found, it would be burned. [8] We know that this ban continued through the caliphate of the khulafa' rashidun [9] into the Umayyad period and did not cease until the period of Umar ibn 'Abd al-'Aziz, who ruled from A.H. 99/A.D. 717 to A.H. 1O1/A.D. 719. [10]

During the period of the second caliph (13/634-25/644) there was a continuation of the policy of emphasizing certain aspects of the Shari'ah and of putting aside some of the practices which the Shi'ites believe the Holy Prophet taught and practiced. Some practices were forbidden, some were omitted, and some were added. For instance, the pilgrimage of tamattu' (a kind of pilgrimage in which the 'umrah ceremony is utilized in place of the hajj ceremony) was banned by Umar during his caliphate, with the decree that transgressors would be stoned; this in spite of the fact that during his final pilgrimage the Holy Prophet-peace be upon him-instituted, as in Qur’an, Surah II, 196, a special form for the pilgrimage ceremonies that might be performed by pilgrims coming from far away. And even though during the life of the Holy Prophet it was the practice to recite in the call to prayers, "Hurry to the best act" (hayya 'ala khayr el-'amal), Umar ordered that it be omitted because he said it would prevent people from participating in holy war, jihad. (It is still recited in the Shi'ite call to prayers, but not in the Sunni call.) There were also additions to the Shari'ah: during the time of the Prophet a divorce was valid only if the three declarations of divorce ("I divorce thee") were made on three different occasions, but Umar allowed the triple divorce declaration to be made at one time.

It was also during the period of the rule of the second caliph that new social and economic forces led to the uneven distribution of the public treasury (bayt al-mal) among the people, [11] an act which was later the cause of bewildering class differences and frightful and bloody struggles among Muslims. At this time Mu'awiyah was ruling in Damascus in the style of the Persian and Byzantine kings and was even given-the title of the "Khusraw of the Arabs" (a Persian title of the highest imperial power), but no serious protest was made against him for his worldly type of rule. [12]


1. Tarikh-i Ya'qubi, pp.111, 126 and 129.

2. Editor’s note:' The traditions of the Prophet as contained in his sayings are called hadith, while his actions, deeds, words and all that made up the life which has become an example to all Muslims is called sunnah.

3. God says in His Word: "For lo! it is an unassailable Scripture. Falsehood cannot come at it from before it or behind it." (Qur’an, XLI, 41-42) And He says, "The decision is for Allah only" (Qur’an, VI, 57, also XII, 40 and 67), meaning the only shari'ah is the Shari'ah and laws of God which must reach man through prophecy. And He says. "But he [Muhammad] is the messenger of Allah and the Seal of the Prophets." (Qur’an. XXXIII,40) And He says, "Whoso judgeth not by that which Allah hath revealed: such are the disbelievers." (Qur’an, V, 44)

4. Editor's note: According to Shi'ite sources after the death of the Prophet people gathered in the "covered porch" (saqifah) of Bani Sa'idah and swore allegiance to Abu Bakr as caliph. As for the hadith of "ink and paper" it refers to the Iast moments in the life of the Prophet as related above in Note 11.

5. Editor's note: The mujtahid is one who through mastery of the religious sciences and the possession of moral qualities has the right to practice ijtihad or the giving of fresh opinion on matters pertaining to the Shari'ah. The right of exercising one's independent judgment based on the principles of the Law. Or ijtihad has ceased in Sunni Islam since the 3rd/9th century whereas the "gate of ijtihad has been always open in Shi'ite Islam. The leading authorities in the Divine Law are called in Shi'ism mujtahids.

6. Tarikh-i Ya'qubi vol.ll. p.110; Tarikh-i Abi'l Fida', vol. I, p. 158.

7. Editor's note: A religious tax paid to the family of the Prophet which was discontinued in Sunni Islam after his death but continues in Shi'ite Islam to this day.

8. al-Durr al-mathur. vol.lll, p.186; Tarikh-i Ya'qubi, vol.lll. p.48. Besides these, the necessity of the khums has been mentioned in the Holy Qur’an: "And know that whatever ye take of spoils of war, Io! A fifth (khumus) thereof is for Allah, and for the messenger and for kinsmen (Qur’an, VIII, 41).

9. During his caliphate Abu Bakr collected five hundred hadiths. A'ishah recounts: One night I saw my father disturbed until morning. In the morning he told me: 'Bring the hadiths.' Then he set them all on fire." (Kanz a1-'ummal of 'Ala' al-Din Mutttaqi. Hyderahad. 1364-75, vol. V, p. 237.) Umar wrote to all cities stating 'that whosoever had a hadith should destroy it. (Kanz al-'ummal, vol. V. p.237.) Muhammad ibn Abi Bakr says: "During the time of Umar hadiths increased. When they were brought to him he ordered them to be burned." (Tabaqat Ibn Sa'd, Beirut, 1376, vol. V, p.140.)

10. Tarikh-i Abi'l-Fida', vol.l, p.151, and other similar sources.

11. Editor's note: For the benefit of non-Muslim readers, all dates will be given in both A.H. (Islamic, lunar calendar dating from the Hijrah) and the corresponding A.D. years (13/634-25/644); when a reference is made to a century, we have given first the Islamic century and then the corresponding Christian century: (4th/lOth century).

12. Tarikh-i Ya'qubi, vol.ll, p.131; Tarikh-i Abi'l-Fida', vol.l, p.160.

Taken from the book: SHI'A

By Allamah Seyyed Muhammad Hussein Tabatabai

Other links:

Scholastic Study of Imamate: Definition of Imamate

Rational Argument of the Shi’ah: Imamate is the Basis of Islam

Imam Means an Expert in Religious Matters

Divine Designation

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