1. The Patriarchal Period
Many people immediately think of such things as Shi'ite, fundamentalism, fanaticism and even terrorism when they see the word Imamate. The Bible brings to mind Christian or perhaps Jewish faith. Almost everyone might wonder what connection there is between the Imamate and the Bible.
Once we understand what the Imamate and the Bible really are, the connection between the two begins to appear. The Bible is not the exclusive heritage of Christian and Jew. It is a collection of writings from the Middle East produced over many centuries. It should not be surprising that the Bible reflects traditions and practices found in any number of religions native to the area. In fact, the books of Moses are more central to Samaritanism than they are to Christianity, or even Judaism.
This study will show how the Bible has moulded the concept of Imamate as later known in Islam. I shall not examine the historical development of Shi'ism and try to prove that the Imamate developed directly on the basis of the Bible. It is more realistic to think that the Bible reflects concepts current for centuries in the Middle East. These ideas have influenced both the Bible and the appearance of the Imamate. I want to point out some of these ideas as they appear in the Bible.
The concept of Imamate among Muslims relies on Bible stories and characters. There is, for example, a Muslim belief that God revealed the names of the twelve holy Imams to Adam. This, of course, does not appear directly in the story of Adam in the Bible. Nevertheless, the tree of life, the rivers of Eden, and the naming of the animals in the Bible story are all related to Muslim beliefs about the Imamate.
Before going further, we have to make clear what the Imamate is. The twelve historical figures of authority among the Shi'ites represent the Imamate. Muslims believe that the holy prophet Muhammad at the command of God conferred the authority of leadership on his cousin and son in-law All-ibn-Abi-Taleb. Those who believe and accept this authority are called Shiites, or partisans of All. Muslims who do not believe in this God-given government after the prophet, are called Sunnites, because they prefer to restrict themselves to the example or sunna of the prophet alone. The Imamate is God-given authority after the time of the prophet. The word Imam basically means leader.
All's two sons in succession, Hasan and Huseyn, became Imams after him. After that, each Imam conferred the authority on one of his sons until the full number of twelve Imams was completed with Muhammad Al-Mahdi, who is believed to be still alive in occultation or hiding.
The concept of Imamate is based on the idea that there must be a living person who is a divine proof or demonstration of the existence of God and a vehicle of divine guidance or practical means for carrying out God's sovereign will. It fits into the Shiite configuration of basic faith principles. First is the unity of God, followed by belief in divine justice. Prophethood expresses the belief in verbal or written revelation. The next logical step is practical demonstration of that revelation, and this is the Imamate. Finally, the Day of judgement expresses the principle of human responsibility before God.
By now it is clear what we shall look for in the Bible. We shall look for evidence of God-given leadership authority. That authority will focus on human figures whose lives are evidence of the existence of God and who have the authority to interpret and apply the verbal revelation. Factors associated with such leadership will be the symbolic value of the number twelve and the strange experience of occultation or hiding. In summary, our examination of the Bible focuses on the following clues of the Imamate: 1. human witnesses to the unity of God; 2. figures making verdicts on legal application; 3. figures in series of twelve; and 4. occultation.
Genesis 1:26 and one or two other verses in Genesis speak of a man as the image of God. Genesis one gives dominion to the man in God's image. This is just about as close to a definition of the Islamic Imamate as we can find anywhere. This aspect of image and dominion comes clearly through to the modern mind even in the West, even among Christians. It is interesting to note that the only dominion actually defined in Genesis one has to do with the sharing of food. One area is given to humankind and one area to other creatures. Yet there is hardly a commentator in existence who recognises the literal, textual limits of dominion. Nearly everyone jumps to the conclusion of Imamate, that the man has a true leadership role far beyond the boundaries of food.
The principle of God-given leadership is so logical to the human mind that in such circumstances it is able to jump over so many steps of logic to reach it. Nevertheless the reality of God-given leadership is extremely repugnant in human experience. Of the five principles of Islamic belief, the Imamate is the most difficult for people to grasp and adhere to. That is because people like to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. In Genesis two and three the very first story about human beings is of their succumbing to the desire to decide for themselves what is right and wrong, for that is literally what eating from the tree signifies. People prefer to decide for themselves what is right and wrong rather than relying on the whole chain of divine revelation. The verbal revelation is subject to interpretation and leaves loopholes for personal decisions about right and wrong. Verbal revelation lets you talk yourself into almost anything. Confrontation with a living authority does not.
The book of Genesis does not make an overt issue of such authority. It presents the thing as a matter of course. Noah is one of the greatest examples Muslims refer to in presenting the Imamate. Anyone who followed the verbal revelation meticulously, yet failed to enter the ark, was destroyed along with the sinners. This telling argument summarises the Bible teaching of the Imamate.
There is, however, in the story of Noah a detail much overlooked. How did Noah determine which animals were clean and which were unclean? Up to that point the dominion of food permitted only fruits, grains and nuts for human consumption. Animals are mentioned only in terms of skins and burnt offerings.
Most Christians are unwilling to postulate a verbal revelation of divine legislation. Most people want to relegate the ten commandments to the time of Moses. Yet even if we presuppose a detailed divine legislation before the time of Noah, there are still always points of practice in determining clean and unclean that require on the spot evaluation. That on the spot evaluation is what most clearly shows Noah to be an Imam or leader by divine authority.
There is an even clearer example in the case of Abraham. Some might suggest that the distinction between clean and unclean we find with Noah, goes back only to Moses. Hardly anyone will want to maintain that lying was forbidden only from the time of Moses. When to hide the truth and when to tell all is precisely a question that verbal revelation can never cover completely. On the spot evaluation is essential. Yet we find both Abraham and Isaac telling their wives to lie about their marriage under certain circumstances. This is called taqiyyah in Imamic practice.
The Imam may grant permission to hide the truth or even lie in order to save life. In Genesis 12:11-13 and again in 20:11 Abraham is allowed to make such a fatwah or verdict. He could only do this if he had God-given authority to do so.
These two great examples from the book of Genesis are details often missed by the Christian commentator and even the Jewish one. Judaism has replaced the Biblical Imamate with rabbinical method, which is epitomised in the Talmud. The question of the Imamate is precisely, as we shall see, what separated early Christianity from Judaism. At the time of Jesus, rabbinical method was taking over Judaism. Jesus represented the earlier Imamic thought. He claimed to have God-given authority which could override verdicts obtained through scholarly application of the law, and even in a sense the law itself. Nearly every confrontation between Jesus and the people of his day turned on the question of divine authority or rabbinical method. First-century messianism continued better in medieval Islam than in medieval Christianity. Still, the idea of divinely appointed authority comes through in the concept of the bishop of Rome as vicar of the `Son of God'.
So far we have examined legal verdicts that presuppose divine authority. Let us turn to the greater issue of bearing witness to the unity of God. This was the central theme of the experience of Abraham. There are many references in the latter part of the book of Genesis to the `God of the fathers'. This could be interpreted in terms of a totemistic ancestor cult. There is one event in the life of Abraham that prevents such an interpretation. That is the meeting with Melchizedek in Genesis 14:18-24. Melchizedek was not a part of Abraham's family cult. He was economically and politically viable in himself. He worshipped God under a different name than did Abraham. Up to this point the God of Abraham is called YHWH in the book of Genesis. The God of Melchizedek is called El-Elyon. In verse nineteen Melchizedek recognises Abraham as a worshiper of the same God, whom he defines as possessor of heaven and earth. Here is the idea of a universal God. Abraham in verse twenty-two refers to his own God by the name YHWH, to which he adds significantly, the term of Melchizedek, El Elyon. In so doing Abraham establishes himself as divine proof. This is the best example in the book of Genesis of witness to the one, universal God. The whole book, as we shall see later, nevertheless focuses on the issue of the unity of God.
Thus far we have looked at examples of two Imamic criteria in the book of Genesis. Two criteria remain, `twelve' symbolism and occultation. It so happens that the first example of Bible occultation occurs in the book of Genesis. In Genesis 5:24 we read that 'Enoch walked with God: and he was not; for God took him'. The two figures in the Hebrew Scriptures, Enoch and Elijah, are known in Islamic tradition as Idris and Ilyas or together under the epithet Khidr, the evergreen one. Occultation as an alternative to death is specifically related to Imamic experience in the Bible.
The final point is `twelve' symbolism. This is obvious in the book of Genesis for the sons of Jacob. Christians will perhaps remember that Ishmael also had twelve sons. The twelve sons of Ishmael are the point of departure for `twelve' symbolism. All other series of twelve that come after them are dependent on them. The long description of the births of the sons of Jacob and the significance of their names are an attempt at imitating the list of Ishmael's sons, whose names are also significant. Strangely enough, the Bible does not carry through consistently on giving the names of the twelve sons of Jacob wider significance. The meanings of these names relate to the story of their own lives and not to a greater, spiritual truth.
Liberal researchers will find another difficulty with the names of the tribes. There are in fact thirteen tribes rather than twelve. The Bible uses two means to resolve this. The first is by dropping a name, that is Levi. The other is by relegating two names, Ephraim and Manasseh, back to an original father, Joseph. Because Ishmael had twelve sons whose names had spiritual significance, Jacob had to have twelve sons too. Because the Ishmaelites were divided into twelve tribes, the Israelites had to have twelve tribes too. They skewed reality to make it work, and by so doing reaffirmed the significance of the number twelve in connection with God-given authority.
Here are the Bible texts for each version of the twelve tribes of Israel. One group contains the names Levi and Joseph: Genesis 35:23-26; 49:3-28; Deuteronomy 27:1213; 1 Chronicles 2:1-2; Ezekiel 48:30-34; Revelation 7:5-8. The other group contains instead the names Ephraim and Manasseh: Numbers 1:5-16; 19-44; 2:1-34; 7; 10:14-28; 13:4-15; 34:17-29. All thirteen tribes are mentioned in Numbers 26:5-62.
The Islamic Imams have reigns somewhat like a line of kings. That is, the term of an Imamate runs from the death of the preceding Imam. The book of Genesis runs through twenty-one generations of patriarchs from Adam to the sons of Jacob. The fact that there twenty-one generations obscures the fact that there are precisely twelve periods of the Imamate from Adam to Jacob. A table of birth and death dates for the first twenty generations will show this.
I do not mean to imply anything about the historical accuracy of these dates. I merely point out that, as they are presented in the book of Genesis (chapter five and following), they express twelve succeeding periods of Imamates running from expressed death date to expressed death date. The symbolic number twelve is thus embedded in the Genesis story.
The list of names in the first column goes from father to son with the exception of Ishmael and Isaac, who are both sons of Abraham. A number of interesting issues appear from the death dates. The first six generations are clear. These are Adam, Seth, Enos, Cainan, Mahalaleel, and Jared. Each succeeding generation outlives the earlier and there is no break in the Imamate. The problem with the seventh generation is interesting. It is interesting first of all because the number seven is also a sacred number. This appears already in Genesis four which focuses on Lamech, the seventh generation. It appears even earlier in the seven days of the creation story. The seventh Shiite Imam is the one giving most problems as well. The majority accept twelve Imams including Musa al-Kadhim as the seventh. The Ismailis retain his elder brother, who died before his father, as the seventh and final Imam. The problem with Enoch in the seventh generation is that he was occulted during the Imamate of Seth, nearly five hundred years before he might have been eligible for the Imamate himself. The Imamate passes on to Methuselah, the eighth generation and the seventh Imam. Since he outlives his son, the Imamate passes to his grandson Noah in 1656, the year of the Flood. So in the first ten generations there are only eight Imamic reigns. Another interesting fact is that the lifetimes overlap to the extent that Adam, who died in 930, could have been personally known to Lamech, who was born in 874. Noah is the first generation not to have the possibility of having known Adam. Noah was born in the second Imamate, that of Seth.
A new and interesting problem arises after Noah. Noah had an immense choice in successors. According to the text, Noah in fact outlived Peleg, his great-great-great-grandson, and even Nahor, the great-grandson of Peleg and grandfather of Abraham. When Noah died, Abraham was 58 years old. The other aspect of the problem is that the direct following of generations in the Imamic reigns would pass over Abraham. In 2006 Shem would normally become Imam. Since Shem died in 2158, the oldest living in line would be Eber, who died in 2187, after the death of both Abraham and Ishmael. The Imamate should then have gone to Ishmael's oldest son. The reason for the inclusion of such an extensive story of Abraham in the book of Genesis must partially at least be in explanation of why the Imamate went to Isaac instead of Nebajoth, the eldest son of Ishmael.
We are thus faced with alternate and perhaps rival lines of the Imamate after Noah. In one we have Noah, Shem, Eber, and Nebajoth. In the other line we postulate that Noah overrode the other generations and chose Abraham as his successor. This would explain why Abraham acts as an Imam. It would also explain the rivalry between Ishmael and Isaac, if such in fact actually existed. In that case Isaac may have taken the Imamate after the death of Ishmael. The line would thus be Noah, Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, Jacob, a total of twelve Imams in all. The rivalry would thus be between the Shem-Eber line on one hand and the Abraham-Ishmael on the other.
The call of Abraham could very well fit into a rivalry between Abraham and Shem. The flight into Palestine made the dual reign possible. It in turn provided a good reason for Abraham to leave his own country. The dialogue between Abraham and God could very well fit into God's answer to Abraham's prayer that Ishmael be considered in the Imamate after him. God's emphasis of Isaac could very well be prophetic of the reconciliation between the two lines if Eber chose the docile Isaac over Ishmael's line. Isaac was after all married to a woman from a family which would presumably have followed Shem and Eber. The whole problem arose because of the many generations covered by the Imamate of Noah, and the fact even that some generations died before Noah himself.
The rivalry between Jacob and Esau also has Imamic ramifications. Of course Esau as the elder had pretensions to the Imamate. Their reconciliation took place before Jacob actually stepped into the Imamate. In Genesis 28:9 we find that Esau married the sister of Nebajoth, who also had pretensions to the Imamate. This was in the backlash that took place when Esau noticed that Isaac intended to give the Imamate to Jacob even though he had sought the blessing through deceit. The connection of Esau with the Ishmaelite line might indicate that Rebecca represented the earlier Mesopotamian claims. Rebecca would thus be expected to prefer an Ishmaelite to Isaac as her husband. The intricate marriage consultation in Genesis twenty-four may be in view of convincing the family of Rebecca that Isaac was the valid Imam rather than Nebajoth. So the claims of Ishmael and Abraham may have been the root of the contention between Jacob and Esau. Esau would have fallen back on the original loyalty of his mother's family in order to gain status.
A final point remains unmentioned in Genesis. That is the matter of Nebajoth and Kedar, the second son of Ishmael. There is little evidence that Nebajoth or Kedar ever contended for the Imamate. Other portions of the Hebrew Scriptures, however, suggest that the Ishmaelite line may have continued through Kedar as well. Kedar and not Nebajoth is the forebear of the prophet Muhammad.
Kedar especially appears again and again. They are both praised most highly: Isaiah 42:11; 60:7. Kedar is faithful to God even when Israel has completely forsaken the faith. Jeremiah 2:10. Finally, Kedar will be a witness against Tyre in the Day of Judgement. Ezekiel 27:21.
The Imamic concern clarifies the Genesis narratives. The marriage of Isaac is a case in point. One of the longer chapters in the Bible, Genesis 24, is reserved to describe the event. Why is the marriage of Isaac so important? The reason is that it joins and reconciles the two rival Imamic lines. Every detail of Eliezer's journey confirms this. Point after point is made to convince the family of Rebecca that the marriage is the will of God. No other family in Genesis required such proofs. There was something at stake far beyond a mere marriage. It was the Imamate.
The lifetime disagreement between Rebecca and Isaac confirms this. But the story of Jacob reveals a new aspect. The Imamate has already been separated from an automatic descent through the eldest son. Now the moral aspect of the Imamate appears in the history of the lives of Jacob's sons. The elder sons fail to exhibit Imamic character. Simeon and Levi break a sworn agreement. Judah messes up his family life and has a son with his son's wife. Reuben sleeps with his father's wife. Whether or not we accept the historicity of these stories, their purpose is to show that these men, although the elder brothers, were inferior to Joseph. Joseph's morality is tested and shown to be perfect. The Imamate is based not only on lineage, but on moral perfection.
The family of Jacob finally gives a reason why Noah might have overlooked Shem and made Abraham his successor in the Imamate. The family of Laban, which presumably represented the Imamates of Shem and Eber, was polytheistic. Laban was the brother of Rebecca and the father of Leah and Rachel, Jacob's wives. This polytheism is evident in Rachel's stealing of the images (Genesis 31:32). The text shows clearly that polytheism was kept secret from Jacob, which in turn shows that Jacob was adamantly monotheistic.
The polytheism of Laban may well have begun very early on, even during the time of Shem. Polytheism would have been a very good reason for Noah choosing Abraham, the monotheist, as his Imamic heir. The holy Qur'an in fact gives this as the reason. Abraham's flight from Mesopotamia was the direct result of the conflict between faith in one God and polytheism.
In summary, the twenty generations mentioned in Genesis represent twelve Imamic periods. The stories that follow seem to centre on rival Imamic claims. These rival claims appear in the case of Abraham and Ishmael, but seem to be reconciled in Isaac because of his position in the lineage, his docility, and his marriage to Rebecca. Moral perfection replaces the role of lineage in the Imamic concern in the story of Jacob's sons.
We have outlined the essentials of what can be gleaned from the book of Genesis in reference to the Imamate using a scholarly methodology that is acceptable in Western circles. This is not to say that the details of possible rivalry are demonstrated with any certainty. At this point, however, I shall turn to a Hurufi methodology. I shall examine the meaning of the names of Ishmael's sons. Then I shall step further into the methodology and faith of the past by examining a text from a Hurufi point of view.
In order, the names mean as follows: Ishmael = God hears, Nebajoth brought forth, fruitfulness; Kedar = ash coloured, dark; Adbeel = disciplined of God; Mibsam = fragrant; Mishma = hearing; Dumah = silence; Massa = burden, tribute; Hadar = majesty; Tema = sunburnt; Jetur = encircled, enclosed; Naphish = breathed, refreshed; Kedema precedence, help. The faith of the patriarchs is defined in contrast to the faith of Cain's civilisation in Genesis 4:26 as calling on the name of the Lord, or dhikr as it is known in Islamic practice. This most primitive religious practice gives rise to the name Ishmael, God hears (our calling on his name). God's hearing our call results in a twelve-step spiritual development.
The first step is fruitfulness, the immediate stimulation of the spiritual practice. This soon subsides into the real work of dhikr. The first symbol of this is darkness, then discipline. After this trial the soul is rewarded with more substantial progress in fragrance. Fragrance is followed by the experiences of hearing and silence, tribute and majesty. The second cycle of discipline finds a symbol in the sunburnt arid seclusion. This is followed by the second reward in refreshment and help. These four alternating cycles of discipline and reward correspond to the mystical four gates and the four elements, earth, water, fire and air.
There is an Islamic story about Adam. When Adam ate of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, his skin became discoloured. Then God gave him the names of the twelve holy Imams. After reciting these for some time, his skin regained its natural colour. The Bible refers to this discoloration as nakedness.
The tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil represent two different ways of achieving a verdict. The tree of the knowledge of good and evil represents the desire to be able to distinguish right from wrong for oneself. Such independence is the root of all false religions ancient and modern. The tree of life represents reliance on divine authority and setting aside one's own ideas of right and wrong. The tree of life represents the Imamate or divinely established authority.
In Genesis 2:9 the tree of life is mentioned for the first time. It is called `eets hakhayyim in the original Hebrew. The phrase `tree of life' in Hebrew contains seven letters. These seven letters are remarkable from a Hurufi point of view. They are in order: `ayin, tsade, he, khet, yod, and mem. The yod is repeated, so there are seven letters in all, the number of perfection.
Although there are twelve Imams, there are only six names, three of which are used more than once. Four of the Imams are named Ali, two are named Hasan, and three are named Muhammad. The names Huseyn, Ja'fer and Musa are each used once. The letter that begins the names Hasan and Huseyn does not occur in Hebrew. In Hebrew he and khet are used instead. So the two letters he and khet can account for the initial letters of Hasan and Huseyn. The name All begins with 'ayan. The names Musa and Muhammad begin with mem.
There is only one name left, Ja'fer. The cognate letter in Hebrew for the initial of this name is gimel, which does not occur in this phrase. Ja'fer, however, is commonly known by the epithet Sadiq. The word Sadiq, truthful, begins with tsade in Hebrew. A Shiite will immediately see the significance of this name being the hidden one, since this particular Imam is of strategic importance in the historical development of Imamic practice. So the initials of the names of the twelve holy Imams are hidden in the phrase `tree of life'.
The initials of these six names spell out the words `tree of life.' The order is not chronological, however. The first word `tree' is made up of the initials of All and Sadiq. All is the first Imam and Sadiq the central Imam in regard to practice. The second word, `life', begins with the letters of Hasan and Huseyn, who represent the two sides of righteous life, reconciliation and revolt against oppression. The seventh and final letter, mem, is the initial of both Muhammad and Musa. Musa is the seventh Imam. Muhammad is the name of the last Imam. So the positions of the letters are logical. When the initials of the names of the twelve holy Imams are set out in a sense logical rather than chronological pattern, they spell the Hebrew words `tree of life'.
Two letters remain unmentioned. These are the two yod in the middle of the word `life'. Two yod are used in Hebrew as the abbreviation for the name of God.
The tree of life appears throughout the Bible as a symbol of the Imamate. It is the introductory figure of the Zabur or Book of Psalms. Psalm one describes the perfect man, the one who puts into practice the verbal revelation. Verse three refers to him as the tree of life, the tree whose leaves do not wither.
The Imamate appears in Jesus' sermon on the mount. Jesus refers to the prophet to follow after him as the tree of life. Jesus offers the fruit of this tree as evidence that he is a true prophet. `Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves. Ye shall know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles? Even so every good tree bringeth forth good fruit.' Matthew 7:15-17. Revelation 22:2 tells us how many fruits there are on the tree of life. `In the midst of the street of it, and on either side of the river, was there the tree of life, which bare twelve manner of fruits.' So we find that the prophet to come after Jesus is known by the twelve fruits which he produced, the twelve holy Imams.
The story of the Patriarchs in the Bible is largely the story of divine proof and divine guidance. As we dig under the surface of these stories, we find more and more details which suggest that a fundamental concern of these people was the Imamic progression. This concern translated itself into the keeping of genealogies, the transmission of stories about early divine guidance, and the gathering of evidence of authority as conflicting claims arose. Without the concern for Imamic authority, the story of Abraham might not have been preserved.