Event of Ghadir-Khumm marks “The Day of Great Feast” for Shia Muslims

Eid-e Ghadir commemorates the anniversary of the event when Prophet Muhammad (may peace e upon him and his progeny) is said to have appointed Imam Ali ibn Abi Talib as his successor. According to the hadith literature, it has been named as Eid Ashraf al-A’yaad (i.e. the supreme Feast).

“The Shia school of thought maintains that although direct Divine inspiration ceased at the Prophet’s death, the need of Divine guidance continued and this could not be left merely to millions of mortal men, subject to the whims and gusts of passion and material necessity, capable of being momentarily but tragically misled by greed, by oratory, or by the sudden desire for material advantage.”-

Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah Aga Khan III, The Religion of My Ancestors (The Memoirs of Aga Khan III)

For the Shia, the appointment of Ali b. Abi Talib and that of Imams that follow in his lineage bear the force of Divine sanction. Shia have always maintained from the beginning that when the Prophet appointed Ali b. Abi Talib as his successor at the pool of Ghadir-i Khum, the appointment was made through Divine decree, an opposition of which is to rebel against the wishes of the Prophet and God.

The origins of Sunnism and Shi‘ism may be traced to the crisis of succession in the Islamic community, and then centered in Medina, following the death of the Prophet Muhammad. According to the message of Islam, Prophet Muhammad was the Seal of the Prophets (khatim al-anbiya), and he could not be succeeded by another prophet. However, a successor was needed to assume Prophet Muhammad’s functions as leader of the Islamic community and state, ensuring the continued unity of the Muslims under a single leader.

Farhad Daftary, Diversity in Islam: Communities of Interpretation.

The normative Sunni-centric approach understands guidance of the community after Prophet to be vouchsafed in the Quran, the Sunna and the authoritative religious-legal consensus of the religious experts called ulema and fuqaha. Broadly speaking, the division between the Shia and Sunni traces its origin back to the crisis of succession to the Prophet. The Prophet had performed during his lifetime functions that widely included his religious as well as political roles. Since, it was evident through the message of Islam that Prophet Muhammad (may God’s peace be upon him and his family) was the ‘Seal to the Prophets’ (khatim al-anbiya), so successor to him could not be a prophet. However, a successor was needed to lead the nascent Muslim community and state to ensure continued unity among the Muslims under a single leader. So the question of time was: who would succeed the Prophet after his demise? The range of opinion falls into two camps:

According to the Sunni view, since the Prophet had not left any instruction either verbal or written, it was up-to the community to select a leader among themselves, and that, when and where possible, that person should be most excellent and eminent in those virtues of righteousness that belonged to the Holy Prophet. The choice was fallen on the first four rightly guided caliphs- the immediate successors of the Prophet. In the immediate aftermath of Prophet’s death, admist much ensuing debate, this choice was resolved by a group of Muslim notables who elected Hazrat Abu Bakr, a trusted Companion of the Prophet, as successor to the Messenger of God (Khalifat rusul Allah), a title which was soon simplified to the word Khalifa. A distinctive institution of caliphate was thus founded by the nascent Muslim community. Abu Bakr and the later three caliphs together are called “Rightly Guided Caliphs of Islam”. It was only the fourth caliph Imam Ali b. Abi Talib who was closely related to the Prophet being his cousin and son-in-law, and the only one of the Rightly Guided Caliphs who belonged to the clan of Banu Hashim within Quraish.

The Shia have always maintained that the Prophet had designated Ali b. Abi Talib to succeed him to lead the Muslim community after his death. The designation was made at the time of Ghadir-i Khum and instituted by the Prophet himself through Divine Command. This was the basis that subsequently framed and extended the religious doctrine of Imamat of Shia Muslims of later periods.

The Quran declares appointment of Imams is through Divine Decree:

The prerogative of authority  conferred by God to Imam lies at the heart of the Quranic teachings. Several verses from the Quran declare that God appoints Imams for the guidance of the community of believers.

And when his Lord tried Ibrahim with commands, he fulfilled them. He said: Surely I will make you an Imam for mankind. (Ibrahim) said: And of my offspring (will there be leaders)? He said, my covenant does not include the unjust. (2:124)

And we made of them Imams to guide by our command for they were patient, and they were certain of our clear signs. (32:24)

The Day We will call forth every people with their Imams (17:17)

You (o Prophet) are only a warner, and there is a guide for every people.(13:7)

Among those We have created are a nation who guide by the truth and do justice thereby.(7:181)

The day We raise in every nation a witness (an Imam) against them from among themselves, We shall bring you (o Prophet) as a witness against these.(16:89)

The Shia have always held the conception that the Message of Islam contains inner truths, which are not accessible with individual endeavor of the community and as such beyond limits of comprehension through human reason. In order to understand the true meaning of the Islamic revelation, there was need, therefore, for a religiously authoritative teacher and guide, the Imam, which Shia considered was to be appointed through Divine decree and will. Neither individuals nor Umma at large have authority to sanction independent judgments in the matters of faith. It is only prerogative of Imam of Time who interprets faith and guide community according to changing times.

This (‘Ali) is my brother, my executor, and my successor among you. Hearken to him and obey him.’  Prophet Muhammad (Ibn Ishaq, Sirat Rasul Allah, tr. A Guilaume, The Life of Muhammad, 118)

Shia believe that the Prophet himself appointed Imam Ali as his successor, and that the appointment was declared on many occasions. The verse ‘This day I have perfected for you your religion and completed My favor upon you and have approved for you Islam as religion.‘ QQ 5:3, is reported in Shia tradition to have been revealed to the Prophet after he declared Imam Ali as his successor.  For Shia Muslims the same verse is inseparable from the accompanying events of Ghadir-i Khum, where the Prophet is reported to have designated Ali-b Abi Tālib as his rightful successor.

Qur’an 5 (al-Mā’ida), verse 67 says:

‘O Messenger. Proclaim the (message) which hath been sent to thee from thy Lord. If thou didst not, thou wouldst not have fulfilled and proclaimed His mission.’

According to Ibn Abbas: ‘This was revealed concerning Imam ‘Alī. Indeed, the Prophet received the order to declare ‘Ali [his successor]. Various variants of the words of the Prophet at the declaration of Ghadir-i Khum have been given in similar versions by different standard Sunni and Shia hadith collections. Following passages from Ibne Maja (from chapter fadail-al asbab), for example, are quoted here:

‘Then he took ‘Alī’s hand and said:  “Am I not closer (awla) to the faithful than their own souls?”“ Yes!,” They declared. He said: “Am I not worthier of each one of them than their own soul?”“ Yes!,” They responded. He said: “Then this is the friend/ protector (wali) of each person for whom I am their wali. O my God, protect whomever he protects(wali man wālāhu)! O my God, be the enemy of whoever is an enemy to him!”

Another traditionalist ‘Abd Allah b. ‘Atā quotes Imam Muhammad al-Bāqir: ‘God revealed to his Messenger: “Say to the people: ‘Of whoever I am the master, ‘Alī is his master. ” But the Prophet, afraid of the people, did not say this. Therefore, God revealed to him: “O Messenger, proclaim the (message which hath been sent to thee from thy Lord. If thou didst not, thou wouldst not have fulfilled and proclaimed His mission.” It was then that the Messenger of God took the hand of ‘Alī, on the day of Ghadīr Khumm, and said: Of whosoever I am the master, ‘Ali is his master”.(1)

“Among Ismaili groups that give allegiance to a living Imam, the Imam’s presence is considered necessary to contextualise Islam in changing times and circumstances and his teachings and interpretation continue to guide followers in their material as well as spiritual lives. An example is the role of the current Imam of the Nizari Ismailis, the Aga Khan who leads a worldwide community…..Among the Shi’a continuity with Muslim tradition and values thus remains tied to the continuing spiritual authority vested in the Imam or his representatives.”

Azim Nanji, Islamic Ethics

During lifetime of the Prophet, the Prophet himself provided an existential and spiritual map that provided lucid means to the Muslims to achieve highest goals of engaged surrender to God.

Since with time context changes as historical and cultural location of the believers changes, there is thus a compelling need to reinterpret the existential vision in an innovative way that responds approximately to the changing historical, cultural and social horizons. Sunni Muslims sought solution to this in the form of Ijtehād and Ijmā. But for Shia Muslims since Imam is the temporal and spiritual successor of Prophet Muhammad, he holds absolute interpretative authority (ta’lim) and exegetical-hermeneutical authority (tawil) to define the fundamental principles of Islam and adjust its traditions to conform to principles according to the changing contexts and needs of Jamat.

Today, Imam Shah Karim al-Hussaini the Aga khan IV, being the direct lineal descendant of Prophet Muhammad through his daughter Bibi Fatima and cousin and son-in-law Mowlana Ali, is the 49th Imam of Shia Imami Ismaili Muslims.

“I am the 49th hereditary Imam in direct lineal descent from the first Shia Imam, Hazrat ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib through his marriage to Bibi Fatimat-az-Zahra, our beloved Prophet’s daughter”.

– Imam Shah Karim al-Husayni Aga Khan IV,
(Letter to International Islamic Conference, Amman, July 2005)

By virtue of his office and in accordance with the faith and belief of the Ismaili Muslims, he has full authority of governance over all religious and Jamati matters of the Ismaili Muslims. ( Ismaili Constitution Preamble, Clause G).

Foot notes:

(1) The Tafsir of al-Hibarī (d. 286/899): Qur’anic Exegesis and Early Shi‘i Esoterism. Muhammad Ali Amir -Moezzi, The Sudy of Shia Islam, History, Theology and law, Edited by Farhad Daftary and Gulfarid Miskinzoda.

Author: Sujjawal Ahmad

Sujjawal is an invited blog author from Pakistan. He finds it extremely exciting to develop a deep love of cultures around the world. The stories that are about humanity, and emotion, that compel us as individuals, and connect our hearts and minds are the kinds of stories Sujjawal has always gravitated to, and the kinds he tells. He can be reached at: sujjawalahmed@gmail.com

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