The cornerstone of the Imami theory of political authority is the existence of an Imam from among the progeny of Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, clearly designated by the latter to assume the leadership of the Muslim Ummah. Acknowledgement of the authority of the Imam falls within the category of the religious obligations (al-Takalif al-Shar`iyya) imposed on the adherents of the Imam. In Imami Shilsm, the government belonged to the Imam alone, for he was equally entitled to political leadership and religious authority. However, even though the Imam was entitled to both the political and religious leadership, his imama was not contingent upon his being invested as the ruler of the Ummah. The religious leadership empowered the Imam to interpret Islamic revelation and elaborate on it without committing an error. In this respect, the Imam was like the Prophet, who was endowed with special knowledge and had inherited the knowledge of divine revelation through his designation in the wilaya. The Imam is, thus, the link with the way of guidance, and without acknowledging his wilaya no person seeking guidance can attain it. This wilaya (the
spiritual authority with the right to demand obedience), according to the Imami teaching, was not contingent upon the Imam's being invested as the ruling authority (sultan, who could and did exact or enforce obedience) of the community. As such, the spiritual authority resided in Imam Ali from the day the Prophet died, for he became the wall al-`amr (the executor of the Prophet's spiritual function) through the Prophet's designation on the occasion of Ghadir Khum. This leadership would continue to be available in the line of the Imams, explicitly designated by the preceding Imams. It was in this latter sense that the imama of the Ummah came to be conceptualized. Therefore, religiously speaking, to ignore the wilaya and disobey these Imams was tantamount to disbelief in Allah's promise that He would provide the necessary guidance to lead humanity toward the creation of an ideal world order.
This confidence in the proclamation of Ghadir Khum regarding the future leadership was directly responsible for generating a threefold religious experience of the Shill community which became the decisive sources of the subsequent Imami political attitude. These were martyrdom (shahada), occultation (ghayba) and precautionary dissimulation (taqiyya). What made the Shi`as responsive to their religious leaders has in large measure to do with this threefold religious experience which conditions their political attitudes and inspires their willingness to strive to preserve their religious identity in the context of the larger Muslim community.
Martyrdom (shahada) has been sustained as a religious ordeal in Shia political history by the conviction that Allah is just and commands human society to pursue justice in accord with the guidance provided by divine revelation to the Prophet. The divinely inspired guidance also requires obedience to the Prophet in his capacity as the head of the Islamic polity which would exist for the implementation of justice. The Imam, who is regarded as the rightful successor of the Prophet, must also be upheld as the true leader of the community to whom obedience
is due in his capacity as the wall al-`amr of the Muslim Ummah. When the Shi`i Imam, following the death of the Prophet, was denied his right to assume the temporal authority invested in him by divine designation, as the Shi'as believe, direct political action was regarded as justified to establish the rule of justice -to replace a usurpatory rule by a just and legitimate one. The ensuing struggle to install a legitimate political authority resulted in the murder of several Shi`i leaders. In light of the above conviction, these violent deaths were regarded as martyrdom suffered in order to defeat the forces of oppression and falsehood.
The most powerful symbol of this religious experience has without question been the Third Imam of the Shi'as, Husayn ibn Ali (d 61 AH/680 AD), the grandson of the Prophet, whose martyrdom is annually commemorated with solemnity throughout the Shi`i world. The importance attached to the commemoration of Imam Husayn's martyrdom has provided the Shi`i community with a religious paradigm that is traced with remarkable enthusiasm by the community. The commemoration went beyond its basic purpose of recounting the tragedy that befell the family of the Prophet. It provided a platform that was used to communicate the Shi`i teachings to the populace which had little or no academic preparation to utilize written sources on the subject. Indeed, these important gatherings have served as the principal platform of communication with the Shi`i public.
Recognizing the low level of religious education among the lay believers, the Shi`i leaders used the commemorative gatherings as a forum by which to awaken their followers to the injustices of the socio-political realities of their times. With the increase of religious awareness among the Shi'as came the demand for some detailed information on topics that were touched upon in these commemorative gatherings. Subsequently, the mourning gatherings were utilized to disseminate religious knowledge which, among other things, included information on both quietist and activist postures of the Shi'i ideology, depending
upon the socio-political climate at the time. The religious experience of martyrdom in Shi`ism thus became a formidable channel for mobilizing the Shia populace.
The second religious experience, namely, occultation (the absence of the Twelfth Imam from the temporal sphere), signified the postponement of the establishment of a just Islamic order, pending the return of the last Imam. Religiously speaking, the doctrine of occultation connoted some sort of divine intervention in saving the life of the Imam, the only awaited Just Ruler, by moving him from the realm of the visible to invisible existence, and conveyed the idea that the situation was beyond the control of those who proposed to overthrow tyrannical rulers in order to establish the Islamic rule of justice. Furthermore, the occultation of the last Imam and his eventual return as the Mandy of the Muslim Ummah at a favourable time helped the Shi`as to persevere under difficult circumstances. This hope in the future necessarily implied postponement of the establishment of the thoroughly just Islamic order pending the reappearance of the last Imam, who alone could be invested with the wilaya - the Muslim political authority.
Consequently, religious experience derived as a result of belief in the occultation has, on the one hand, raised questions about creating a thoroughly Islamic public order during the absence of the Twelfth Imam; and on the other, it demanded that the entire Shi`i community provide means for its religious, social, and political survival pending the final return of the Imam.
The attitude of tenacity in this religious experience is derived from the belief that the establishment of an Islamic order without divine intervention through the return of the infallible Imam is impossible. The theological problem for anyone to assume the authority accruing to the Imam as the rightful successor of the Prophet, in whom the wilaya resembling that of Imam Ali is invested, is in its implications for the universalistic authority of the Imam whose political authority cannot be delegated to any Shi`a however qualified.
On the other hand, the attitude of responsibility of the community in this religious experience is derived from a rational interpretation of the Qur'anic obligation imposed collectively on the community to undertake the duty of supervising its own affairs under the religious and moral injunction of 'enjoining the good and forbidding the evil,' even when the Imam is absent. By this interpretation, some religious leaders delegated the Imam's wilaya, political as well as juridical, to a qualified member of the Shia community, who, in his capacity as the trustee responsible for directing the community, would be willing to shoulder the obligation of 'enjoining the good and forbidding the evil.'
The third religious experience stemming from the practice of shielding the true intent of the faithful in the community from unbelievers and outsiders through precautionary dissimulation (taqiyya) determined the political direction of all the Imams and their followers. The Imams encouraged taqiyya and even declared it to be a duty incumbent upon their followers, so as to avoid pressing for the establishment of the ideal rule and overthrow of the wrongful authority of the de facto governments. In a sense, taqiyya signified the will of the Shia community to continue to strive for the realization of the ideal Islamic polity, if not by launching the revolution contingent upon the appearance of the Twelfth Imam and his consolidation as the leader of the community, then at least by preparing the way for such a revolution in the future. In the meantime, the Shi`as had to avoid expressing their true opinions publicly about the shortcomings evident in the various de facto Muslim governments, regardless whether Shi`i or Sunni, in such a way as to cause disunity and enmity. Consequently, the practice of taqiyya was determined by the conditions of the Shi`as as a minority group living under adverse settings; here again, the religious leadership determined the appropriate time for the community to abandon quietist passivity and engage in activism.
These three religious experiences of the Shi`as during the first three centuries of Islamic history shaped the political outlook of the Imami scholars whenever they were faced with a new
political situation. Rulings on such a situation could be traced back to precedents set by the Imams. But the question of the legitimacy of a political rule established by a professing Imami Shia during the absence of the political discretion of the actual wali al-`amr, the Twelfth Imam, was an issue that had no precedent set during the lifetime of the Imams. Imami jurists could not give a legal opinion based on a precedent set by the theory of Imamate of the infallible Imams. As a result, they had to guide the community by issuing a legal opinion based on their extrapolation in the terms of the documentation provided by the communications transmitted on the authority of the Imams regarding the nature of Imami political authority during the occultation.
The main concern of the Imami scholars was to provide the Shia community with practical guidance relevant to their survival under de facto political authorities. None of the classical theological texts on the fundamental principles (usul al-din) of the Imami school deal with the possibility, not even as a fait accompli of temporal Imami authority invested with the wilaya of the Imam during the occultation. Such a discussion would necessarily have involved tampering with the terms of the doctrine of the imama, which was absolutely ruled out because of the absence of any directly designated deputy of the Twelfth Imam. The 'special deputyship,' during the short occultation (873-941 A.D.), was seen as the ongoing guidance available to the community through the Imam's explicit deputization. With the occurrence of the complete occultation (from 941 AD), the ongoing guidance through deputization of a specific person was terminated.
However, the question of the leadership of the Shi'as in the absence of the Imam was a crucial one. A sense of urgency is reflected in the Imami jurisprudence whenever the question of exercising the Imam's authority without a specifically designated deputy comes up in the treatment of religious obligations requiring the presence of either the Imam or his appointed
deputy for that purpose. It was under these circumstances that the Imami jurists had to deal with the issue of the 'general' deputyship of the Imam, which was vested in them as the custodians of Imami teachings. Nevertheless, the Imami jurists who addressed the question of the deputyship of the 'general' deputy of the Twelfth Imam were very conscious of the theoretical position of the Imam as the absolute wielder of the wilaya.