On many occasions, many verses and traditions reminded the Muslims that Imam Ali (as) was their master after the Holy Prophet. One of the most important verses is as follows:
Verily, your Master is only Allah and His Apostle and those who believe, those who establish prayers, and pay the zakat while bowed (in worship) (5:55).
The Muslim scholars, Sunni and Shi'ah alike, agree that this verse was revealed in honor of Imam Ali (as). It clearly shows that there are only three masters of the believers. Firstly, Allah secondly, His Prophet and thirdly, Ali (with the eleven succeeding Imams).
Abu Dharr al-Ghifari says that one day he was praying with the Prophet when a beggar came to the Prophet's mosque. No one responded to his pleas. The beggar raised his hands towards heavens and said, "Allah! Be a witness that I came to Thy Prophet's mosque and no one gave me anything". Imam Ali (as) was bowing in Ruku at that time. He pointed his little finger, on which was a ring, towards the beggar who came forward and took away the ring. This incident occurred in the Prophet's presence who raised his face towards heaven and prayed: "O Lord! my brother Musa had begged of Thee to open his breast and to make his work easy for him, to loose the knot of his tongue so that people might understand him, and to appoint from among his relations his brother, as his vizier, and to strengthen his back with Harun and to make Harun his partner in his work. O Allah! Thou said to Musa, 'We will strengthen thy arm with thy brother. No one will now have an access to either of you!' O Allah! I am Muhammad and Thou hast given me distinction. Open my breast for me, make my work easy for me, and from my family appoint my brother Ali as my vizier. Strengthen my back with him". The Prophet had not yet finished his prayers when Jibril brought the above quoted verse.
Here is not the place to give all the references of this hadith. (They run in the hundreds.) This verse and the prayer of the Prophet jointly and separately show that Ali (as) was designated to be the Master of the Muslims after the Holy Prophet.
Ulu'l-Amr: Does it mean Muslim rulers?
Allah says in the Qur'an: O ye who believe! Obey Allah and obey the Apostle and those vested with authority from among you; then if you quarrel about anything, refer it to Allah and the Apostle, if you believe in Allah and the last day; this is better and very good in the end (4:59).
This verse obliges the Muslims to two obedience's: First, the obedience of Allah; second, the obedience of the Apostle and 'those vested with authority from among you' (uli'l-amri minkum). The arrangement of the words shows that the obedience of Ulu 'l-amr is as much obligatory as is the obedience of the Apostle. Naturally, it means that Ulu 'l-amr should be of the same caliber as the Apostle; otherwise Allah would not have joined them together in this verse.
Many of our Sunni brethren tend to interpret "Ulu 'l-amr" as 'the rulers from among yourselves', i.e., Muslims rulers. This interpretation is not based on any logical reasoning; it is solely based on twists of history. The majority of the Muslims have remained as a vassal of the monarchs and rulers, interpreting and reinterpreting Islam and the Qur'an to please the powers to be.
The history of the Muslims (like any other nation) is replete with the names of rulers whose injustice, debauchery and tyranny have tarnished the name of Islam. Such rulers have always been and will always be. And we are told that they are the Ulu 'l-amr mentioned in this verse.
If Allah were to order us to obey such kings and rulers, an impossible situation would be created for the Muslims. The wretched followers would be condemned to the displeasure of Allah, no matter what they did. If they obeyed these rulers, they disobeyed the Command of Allah: "Do not obey a sinner." And if they disobeyed such rulers, they again disobeyed the Command of Allah to "obey the Muslim rulers". So, if we accept this interpretation, the Muslims are condemned to eternal disgrace whether they obey or disobey their non-ma'sum Muslim rulers.
Also, there are Muslim rulers of different beliefs and persuasions. There are Shafi'is, Wahhabis, Malikis, Hanafis, as well as Shi'ahs and Ibadis. Now, according to this interpretation the Sunnis residing under an Ibadi Sultan (like in Oman) should follow Ibadi tenants; and those residing under a Shi'ah ruler (like in Iran) should follow Shi'ah beliefs. Do these people have the conviction of courage to follow their professed interpretation to its logical end?
The famous Sunni commentator, Fakhru 'd-Din ar-Razi, concluded in his Tafsiru'l Kabir that this verse proves that Ulu 'l-amr must be ma'sum. He argues that Allah has commanded the people to obey Ulu 'l-amr unconditionally; therefore, it is essential for the Ulu 'l-amr to be ma'sum. Because if there is any possibility of their committing sin (and sin is forbidden), it will mean that one has to obey them and also disobey them in that very action. And this is impossible! Then to dissuade his readers from the Ahlu 'l-bayt, he invented the theory that the Muslim ummah as a whole is ma'sum.
This interpretation is unique, as no Muslim scholar ever subscribed to this theory and it is not based on any tradition. It is quite surprising that ar-Razi accepts that each individual of the Muslim nation is non-ma'sum, yet still claims that their sum-total is ma'sum. Even a primary school student knows that 200 cows plus 200 cows makes 400 cows and not one horse.
But ar-Razi says that 70 million non ma'sum plus 70 million non-ma'sum will make one ma'sum! Does he want us to believe that if all the patients of a mental hospital joined together they would be equal to one sane person?
The poet of the Orient, Iqbal, has said: The minds of two hundred donkeys cannot produce the thoughts of one man.
Obviously, with his great knowledge he was able to conclude that Ulu 'l-amr must be ma'sum; but it was his prejudice which compelled him to say that the Islamic ummah as a whole is ma'sum.
Also, he did not pause to see that the verse contains the word "minkum" ("from among you") which shows that the said Ulu 'l-amr shall be part of the Muslim ummah, not the whole Muslim nation. And if the whole Muslim nation is to be obeyed, then who is there left to obey?
Real Meaning of Ulu 'l-Amr:
Now we return to the correct interpretation of the above verse.
al-Imam Ja'far as-Sadiq (as) said that this verse was revealed about Ali ibn Abi Talib, Hasan and Husayn (as). Upon hearing this, someone asked the Imam: "People say, 'Why did Allah not mention the names of Ali and his family in His Book?'"
The Imam answered: "Tell them that there came the command of salat (prayer), but Allah did not mention whether three or four raka'at (units) (to be performed); it was the Apostle of Allah who explained all the details. And (the command of ) zakat was revealed, but Allah did not say that it is one in every forty dirham; it was the Apostle of Allah who explained it; and hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca) was ordered but Allah did not say to perform tawaf ( circumambulation of the Ka'bah) seven times the Apostle of Allah explained it. Likewise, the verse was revealed: Obey Allah, and obey the Apostle and those vested with authority from among you, and it was revealed about Ali and Hasan and Husayn (as).
In Kifayatu 'l-athar, there is a tradition from Jabir ibn Abdillah al-Ansari, in explanation of this verse. When it was revealed, Jabir said to the Prophet: "We know Allah and the Prophet, but who are those vested with authority whose obedience has been conjoined to that of Allah and yourself?" The Prophet said: "They are my caliphs and the Imams of the Muslims after me. The first of them is Ali, then Hasan, then Husayn, then Ali, son of Husayn; then Muhammad, son of Ali, who has been mentioned as al-Baqir in the Torah. O Jabir! You will meet him. When you see him, convey my salam (greetings) to him. He will be succeeded by his son Ja'far as-Sadiq (the Truthful); then Musa, son of Ja'far; then Ali, son of Musa; then Muhammad, son of Ali; then Ali, son of Muhammad; then Hasan, son of Ali.
"He will be followed by his son whose name and patronymic (kunyah) will be the same as mine. He will be Hujjatullah (Proof of Allah) on the earth and Baqiyyatullah (the one spared by Allah to maintain the cause of faith) among mankind. He will conquer the whole world from east to west. So long will he remain hidden from the eyes of his followers and friends that the belief in his imamah will remain only in those hearts which have been tested by Allah for faith."
Jabir said: "O Messenger of Allah! Will his followers benefit from his seclusion?
The Prophet said "Yes! By Him Who sent me with prophethood! They will be guided by his light, and benefit from his wilaayah (love; authority) during his seclusions just as people benefit from the sun even when-it is hidden in a cloud. O Jabir! This is from the hidden secrets of Allah and the treasured knowledge of Allah. So guard it except from the people (who deserve to know)."
This hadith has been quoted from Shi'ah sources. Sunni traditions do not provide as much detail; still there are many Sunni traditions which refer to the Twelve Imams.
Now that we know who "those vested with Authority" are, it is evident that the question of obeying tyrant and unjust rulers does not arise at all. Muslims are not required by this verse to obey rulers who may be unjust, tyrannical, ignorant, selfish and sunk in debauchery. They are in fact ordered to obey the specified Twelve Imams, all of whom were sinless and free from evil thoughts and deeds. Obeying them has no risks whatsoever. Nay, it protects from all risks; because they will never give an order against the Will of Allah and will treat all human beings with love, justice and equity.
Twelve Caliphs or Imams:
Now it is advisable to refer to several parts of the 77th chapter of Yanabi ul-mawaddah of al-Hafiz Sulayman ibn Ibrahim al-Qunduzi al-Hanafi.
A well known hadith has been quoted that: "There will be twelve caliphs, all from the Quraysh", in many books including those of al-Bukhari, Muslim, Abu Dawud and at-Tirmidhi.
The author quotes many traditions to the effect that the Holy Prophet said: "I, Ali, Hasan, Husayn and nine of the descendants of Husayn are pure and sinless."
"He also quotes that the Holy Prophet told al-Imam Husayn: You are a chief, brother of a chief; you are an Imam, son of an Imam, brother of an Imam; you are Proof (of Allah), son of a Proof (of Allah), brother of a Proof (of Allah), and father of nine Proofs (of Allah), the ninth of whom will be al-Mahdi."
After quoting many such traditions, he writes: Some scholars have said that the traditions (which show that the caliphs after the Holy Prophet would be twelve) are well known, from many asnad. Now, with the passage of time and through historical events, we know that in this hadith the Holy Prophet has referred to the Twelve Imams from his Ahlu 'l-bayt and descendants, because:
This hadith cannot apply to the four al-khulafa'ur-Rashidun from among his Companions, as they were less than twelve.
And it cannot apply to the caliphs from the tribe of Umayyad, because (a) they were more than twelve; (b) all of them were tyrants and unjust (except Umar ibn Abdi'l-Aziz); and (c) they were not from the Banu Hashim and the Holy Prophet had said in a hadith that: 'all of them will be from the Banu Hashim.'
And it cannot apply to the caliphs from the Banu Abbas, because: (a) they were more than twelve; and (b) they did not comply with (the demands of) the verse: Say. 'I do not ask of you any recompense for it except the love for (my) near relatives' (42:23), nor with the Tradition of the Mantle (Hadithu'l-Kisa); (i.e., they persecuted the descendants of the Prophet).
"Therefore, the only way to interpret this hadith is to accept that it refers to the Twelve Imams from the Holy Prophet's Ahlu'l-bayt and descendants, because they were, in their times, the most knowledgeable, the most illustrious, the most God-fearing, the most pious, the highest in their family lineage, the best in personal virtues, and the most honored before Allah; and their knowledge was derived from their ancestor ( the Prophet ) through their fathers, and by inheritance and by direct teachings from Allah."