Imamate in the Quranic Verse of Ibtila 1

The Quranic Verse of Ibtila

وَ إِذِ ابْتَلى إِبْراهِيمَ رَبُّهُ بِكَلِماتٍ فَأَتَمَّهُنَّ قالَ إِنِّي جاعِلُكَ لِلنَّاسِ إِماماً قالَ وَ مِنْ ذُرِّيَّتِي قالَ لا يَنالُ عَهْدِي الظَّالِمِينَ

“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”. (1)

The verse illustrates two points:

1. The position of Imamate is higher in rank than that of Prophet Hood.

2. Imamate (religious leadership) does not include the unjust.

The following section is divided into three parts, each one focuses on one of the following topics:

1. The prominent status of Imamate

2. The (position of) Imamate does not include the unjust

3. The (status of) Imamate in the words of the Imams themselves

Part One: The Prominent Status of Imamate

The above mentioned Quranic verse refers to the tests to which Allah exposed the Prophet Ibrahim many years after his prophet hood at the end of his life. Having successfully passed the divine tests and patiently withstood the great hardships, he was granted the position of Imamate.

In order to elucidate the above Quranic words, it is necessary to explain some basic questions such as:

1. What relationship was there between the series of trying to which the Prophet Ibrahim was exposed and granting him the position of Imamate?

2. What are the kinds of test to which the verse refers?

3. Can one say that the Imamate bestowed on the Prophet Ibrahim is equal to his Prophetic mission?

4. What idea does the above–mentioned Imamate convey?

We will now go through the above questions one by one.

The Relationship between Trying and the Position of Imamate

Question: In the Quranic verse

And when his Lord tried Ibrahim by means (of certain) words, he fulfilled them. He said: Surely I will make you an Imam for mankind…,”

The word “when” which is an adverb of time, requires an adjunct. The question is: What is its adjunct? The first supposition is that the word “when” requires the adjunct remember, which has not been stated explicitly. Thus, the verse reads

“O Prophet! Remember the time when his Lord tried Ibrahim by means (of certain) words…”

An assumption like this is open to criticisms, like:

1) This supposition entails deleting something or refraining from stating it explicitly which is contrary to basic rule (of rhetoric).

2) Without a conjunction “and” the clause “Surely I will make you an Imam for mankind”, is separated from the previous one.

Apparently, the context of the clause “I will make you an Imam” is not disconnected from the previous one but it is semantically and syntactically dependent on it. Since there is no conjunction “and” to join the two parts, it seems that when this part comes with the preceding part it forms a whole.

The relation between these two parts is an outcome of the dependence of “when” or “He said”. Thus the meaning will be like this: “When his Lord had tested Ibrahim, He said to him ‘I will make you an Imam’”.

Accordingly, tests prepared the ground for granting Imamate to Prophet Ibrahim. Another solid evidence is the Quranic verse wherein the relationship between the “patience” and “Imamate” of prophets is clearly explained:

And we made of them Imams to guide by our command for they were patient, and they were certain of our clear signs”.(2)

The above verse mentions that it is due to the prophets’ “patience” and “certainty” that they were granted Imamate, and this clearly shows that there is a connection between the tests to which the Prophet Ibrahim was exposed and the rank of Imamate to which the stated verse refers.

Ibrahim’s Tests and Trials

What were the tests that made the Prophet Ibrahim worthy of holding the position of Imamate?
The Qur’anic verse states that Ibrahim was tested through “words”, and he brilliantly succeeded in the test. The words were apparently particular commands by means of which he was tested.

What the noble Qur’an means by “manifest trial”(3) which the Prophet Ibrahim faced in his life is his determination to offer his son as a sacrifice; an act which confirms Ibrahim’s boundless generosity and complete submission to Almighty God.

It should be noted here that the Prophet Ibrahim was put to test when he was very old, many years after he had been made a prophet and was given a son, Ismail, when aged.

Does Imamate to which this Qur’anic verse refers mean the same as Prophet Ibrahim’s prophethood?

Some commentators maintain that the Imamate given to the Prophet Ibrahim is identical to his divine mission and prophet hood but as previously stated Imamate is different from prophet hood for two reasons:

(a) The Qur’anic verse clearly states that this Imamate was granted to the Prophet Ibrahim after many trials, one of which is the offering of his son as a sacrifice, long after he had been made a prophet.

(b) The expression ja’iloka (I am assigning you) derived from the verb ja’l (make) is a present participle and its objective complement, imaman اماماً  that has nunation (tanween) does not refer to the past it refers to the present or future.

Therefore, (contrary to the claim of some commentators,) the present participle “assigning” does not apply to the past and so it cannot indicate that the divine mission and prophet hood are the same as Imamate.

What does Imamate mean?

From the Qur’anic verse we learn that Imamate or religious leadership is different from nubuwwat (prophet hood). An Imam is a leader, definitely appointed by God, to be a guide and an example for people to follow in all aspects.

1. That the position of Imamate was granted to Ibrahim years after his being messenger and after he had successfully passed the great divine trials, clearly shows that Imamate is not on the same plane as prophet hood, but enjoys a higher status.

2. Now that Imamate has been proved to have a higher status than prophet hood, and according to immutable reasons a prophet must be divinely protected against any error and sin, it follows that inerrancy is inseparably linked to the position that is loftier than prophet hood.


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1. The Quran 2:124

2. The Quran 32:24

3. The Quran 37:106