The concept of Imamology and Infallibility (Ismah) in light Shi'a perspectives

24th Sept 2016

A central tenet of the Shia belief is that of Imama – that after the death of the Prophet there us a divinely appointed Imam always guiding the community. The Twelver Shia (Ithna-Asheri) take their name from the belief in Twelve divinely appointed Imams starting with Ali the son-in law of the Prophet, ending with Mahdi – the divine saviour. Also integral to the Shia mainstream belief is that the Imam is infallible (ma’sumi.e. free from sin. CIMS saw a presentation by Muhaqqiq Damad and Syed Fatimi on the topic.
Necessity of Imama

Muhaqqiq Damad’s main argument for the necessity of an Imam was premised primarily on a mystical reading of Shia Islam[1]. This view holds that there is a need for a divine connection between God and Man which is fulfilled by the perfect man (al-insan al-kamil) which in this case is the Imam. Regarding the infallibility of the Imam, Sayed Fatimi outlined the Imami theologians view of it stemming from divine grace (lutf). This need of the Imam to be free from making mistakes or sin is argued by Shia theologians as necessary due to the Imam being a guide, and that guide needs to be trusted, which would not be possible if they erred [2].

Muhaqqiq’s detailed discussion revolved around the Qur’anic verse 2:30 “When your Lord said to the angels, ‘Indeed I am going to set a viceroy (khalifa) on the earth”[3]. The verse uses the term ‘Ja’il’ translated as ‘going to set’, however the Arabic verb is in its continuous present tense indicative of an everlasting act i.e., God will always set up an Imam. 
Furthermore, the verse continuing from it evidences the superiority of this viceroy based on knowledge and not shedding bled, something characteristic of the perfect man or Imam in this case. Furthermore, the verse 2:124 where Prophet Ibrahim is told ‘I am making you the Imam of mankind’ alludes to a dual responsibility of Prophets – one of conveying the message (risala) and one of Imama. For the Shia whilst the message is completed with the final Prophet, there still is a link between the Divine and creation via means of the Imam.
Infallibility of Imam
Sayed Fatimi outlined the mainstream Shia belief of isma according to classical theologians as being the Prophet & Imams being protected from mistakes, sins, or anything that would make them be worthy of blame. 
Amongst the different opinions amongst Shia theologians, Sayed pointed that a minority believe the Prophet (and by priority the Imams) having the possibility of forgetting[4]. He then went on to highlight the arguments used by the Shia theologians; that if the Imam is not infallible it would result in infinite regress[5]
This is because if the Imam is not infallible the follower would have to find someone else who doesn’t make mistakes in religious affairs to be a point of emulation. This would continue until infinity or it would need to stop somewhere – and for the Shia it is the Imam who is the perfect guide and free from mistakes and sin (at the very least in terms of religious affairs). The Sayed also went on to briefly explain his own understanding of the scope of isma
Of the various points raised, was the implication of the Shia belief in isma is the raising the Imam’s isma above that of the Prophet. This is because if the Prophet were to make a mistake he would be guided by revelation, whereas the Imam would be guided without revelation, elevating the imams status above the Prophet. The scholars present echoed the Shia belief that the final Prophet is of the highest standard, in both the worship and in isma

[1] Although the non-Mystical reading within Shia Islam builds on similar premises and indeed shares in the outcome – the Mystical outlook is heavily influenced by an Akbarian world view in defining ‘The Perfect man’.

[2] [Ref to Shaykh Mufid, allama Hilli) This qualification by the Shia theologian may seem contradictory at first sight, however it is an important one – that the Imam still has the free will to carry out the sin – else the Imam would lose the free will and the theologian would fall into an Ash’ari jabriyya stance.

[3] Although the term Khalifa is used in the verse, the presenter considers it to be synonymous with the term Imam.

[4] Shaykh Saduq is of this opinion and indeed considers the non-belief in this as being something that would take one into the folds of exaggeration (ghuluw)

[5] Tusi, Allamah Tajrid