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Superiority of the Imams over the Prophets

In this post I wish to share some opinions of the scholars on this subject, namely the classical scholars, and to present some evidences.

Shaykh al-Saduq

 ويجب أن تعتقد أنّ الله تعالى لم يخلق خلقاً أفضل من محمّد والائمّة، وأنّهم أحب الخلق إلى الله وأكرمهم عليه

It is necessary to believe that Allah the Mighty and Glorious did not create any created thing more excellent than Muhammad and the Imams, peace on them, that they are the most loved of creatures in the eyes of Allah, and the most noble and the foremost among them, on account of their acceptance of Him (as their Lord).

Al i’tiqadat, pg 106-107

Shaykh al-Mufeed

قد قطع قوم من أهل الإمامة بفضل الأئمة عليهم السلام من آل محمد صلى الله عليه وآله على سائر من تقدم من الرسل والأنبياء سوى نبينا محمد صلى الله عليه وآله، وأوجب فريق منهم لهم الفضل على جميع الأنبياء سوى أولي العزم منهم عليهم السلام، وأبى القولين فريق منهم آخر وقطعوا بفضل الأنبياء كلهم على سائر الأئمة عليهم السلام، وهذا باب ليس للعقول في إيجابه والمنع منه مجال ولا على أحد الأقوال فيه إجماع، وقد جاءت آثار عن النبي عليهم السلام في أمير المؤمنين عليه السلام وذريته من الأئمة، والأخبار عن الأئمة الصادقين أيضا من بعد، وفي القرآن مواضع تقوي العزم على ما قاله الفريق الأول في هذا المعنى، وأنا ناظر
فيه وبالله اعتصم من الضلال.

A group of the shia have agreed on preferring the Imams (as) from the family of Muhammad (s), over all of the messengers and prophets except our Prophet Muhammad (s), and a group agreed that they are preferred to all the prophets except the Ulil Azm [Nuh, Ibrahim,Musa,’Isa (as) and Muhammad (s)]. And the last group agreed on preferring all the prophets over the other Imams (as), this is an issue the intellects don’t have an answer for and none of the opinions have consensus, and there are reports that have reached us from the Prophets peace be upon them about the Prince of the Believers [Imam Ali] (as) and his descendants of the Imams, and the reports from the truthful Imams also, and in the Qur’an there are positions that strengthen what is said by the first group, and I have looked at it (?) and in God I seek refuge from error.

Awail al-Maqalat, pg 70-71

Shaykh al-Tusi

عن قوله في التفاضل بين اولى العزم من الرسل وبين ائمتنا عليهم السلام أجمعين، فإني وجدت أقوال أصحابنا في ذلك مختلفة. الجواب: هذه المسائل فيها خلاف بين أصحابنا، منهم من يفضل الائمة على جميع الانبياء عليهم السلام، ومنهم من يفضل عليهم اولو العزم، ومنهم من يفضلهم عليهم، والاخبار مختلفة والعقل لا يدل على شئ منه، وينبغي أن نتوقف في ذلك، ونجوز جميع ذلك.

About what is said in the preference between the Ulil Azm and our Imams, peace be upon them all, I found the words of our companions about this differing. The answer: These issues have disagreement among our companions, some of them prefer the Imams over all prophets, peace be upon them, and some of them prefer the Ulil Azm over them, and some of them prefer them [the Prophets] over them [the Imams], and the reports differ and the intellect does not indicate anything of it, and we should do tawaquf in it, and all options are possible.

Al Rasail Al ‘Ashr, pg 328

Quranic argument

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

Al-Quran, 2:124


This Quranic verse has been used as evidence to establish the preference of an Imam over a Prophet, here is an excerpt from some tafaseer:

Moreover, the words, “And (remember) when his Lord tried Ibrãhīm with certain words, then he fulfilled them. He said:‘Surely I am going to make you an Imãm for men’“, show that his Imãmah was bestowed to him after Allãh had tried him with certain trials. These consisted of various sufferings and tests which Ibrãhīm (a.s.) underwent in his life. And according to the Qur’ãn, the clearest and hardest of all was the trial of the sacrifice of Ismã‘īl.

Tafsir al-Mizan, Allamah Tabataba’i

In this light it is easy to see that the phrase, “when his Lord tried Ibrãhīm with certain words”, refers to the difficult situations he had to face, and the Divine covenants he had entered into, for example, his conflict with his people regarding the stars and the idols, his test by fire and emigration, his supreme trial of sacrificing his son, and other such things. Allãh has not specified which tests those “certain words” refer to, because this information had nothing to do with the theme of the verse. But one thing is certain: As it was only after the fulfillment of those words that Allãh said to him, “Surely I am going to make you an Imãm for men”, the words must have been such as to prove his capability for the status of the Imãmah.

Tafsir al-Mizan, Allamah Tabataba’i

QUR’ÃN: “Surely I am going to make you an Imãm for men”:

That is, I am going to make you a leader for men; they will adhere to you and follow in your footsteps, in words and deeds. al-Imãm ( = leader) is the one whom the people follow. That is why many exegetes have said that al-Imãmah ( = leadership) in this verse means prophethood, because a prophet is followed and obeyed by his ummah in their religion; Allãh has said: And We did not send any apostle but that he should be obeyed by Allãh’s permission (4:64) . But this interpretation has no leg to stand upon. Because:

First: The word Imãman ( = Imãm, leader) is the second accusative of the causative jã‘iluka ( = literally, maker of you; translated here as “going to make you”), which is a nomen agentis; and a nomen agentis is never used in place of a past tense; if used in place of a verb it always gives the meaning of present or future tense. When Allãh used these words in His talk with Ibrãhīm (a.s.), He in effect gave him a promise to make him an Imãm in future – in other words, to give him a status which he did not have at that time. And Ibrãhīm (a.s.) was already a prophet: Remember that this talk itself was a revelation sent to him in his capacity as a prophet. He was a prophet long before he was given the status of the Imãmah. There-fore, the Imãmah in this verse cannot mean prophethood. (This reply is given by another exegete.)

Second: We have described earlier that Ibrãhīm (a.s.) was given the Imãmah in his later days after setting the good news that he would be given offspring, Ishãq and Ismã‘īl; and the angels had given him that news while they were on their way to destroy the ummah of Lilt; and Ibrãhīm at that time was a prophet and an apostle. He was a prophet and apostle before he got the Imãmah; therefore, his Imãmah was different from his prophethood and apostleship. Why are such interpretations offered by exegetes from time to time? The reason lies in the banality – because of repeated use during all these centuries – which has degraded the sublime meanings of the Qur’ãnic words in people’s minds. The word, Imãmah, has been debased in similar way. Some people say that it means prophethood, precedence, being in authority; others interpret it as al-khilãfah ( = successorship), al-wisãyah ( = regency) or headship in spiritual and temporal affairs. But all this is wrong. “Prophethood” means receiving news from Allãh; “messengership” means conveying that message

Tafsir al-Mizan, Allamah Tabataba’i

In short the information that one may draw is that; the position of Imamate is higher in rank than that of Prophethood, Prophet Ibrahim (as) went through certain trials to be raised to the rank of Imam.

But there is one problem with using this verse as a proof to establish the preference of the Imams over the Prophets (peace be upon them all);

If the rank of Imamate is higher, and Prophet Ibrahim (as) enjoys both Prophethood AND Imamate, this would put Prophet Ibrahim (as) over the Imams, which is in disagreement with what proponents of this view believe.

So if this tafseer is accepted it still requires additional proof.


Here are some narrations that could be interpreted to confirm the preference of the Prophets over the Imams (peace be upon them all).

أبي جعفر عليه‌ السلام قال: أشد الناس بلاء الأنبياء ثم الأوصياء ثم الأماثل فالأماثل.

Abi Ja’far (as) has said the following: “People who are put to the most severe trials and sufferings are the prophets, then the successors (Awsiya) of Prophets and then those similar to the last group in position and so forth.”

Al-Kafi, vol 2, pg 253

like Sahih – (Allamah Majlisi, Mir’at al-’Uqul, Vol 9, pg 326)

أبي عبد الله عليه‌السلام قال إن أشد الناس بلاء الأنبياء ثم الذين يلونهم ثم الأمثل فالأمثل.

Abi ‘Abdallah (as) has said the following: “The trial (suffering hardships in life) of the prophets is the most difficult then is that for those next to the prophets in a (spiritual) position and thereafter those similar to the previous group and so forth.”

Al-Kafi, vol 2, pg 252

Hasan like Sahih – (Allamah Majlisi, Mir’at al-’Uqul, Vol 9, pg 321)

عبد الرحمن بن الحجاج قال ذكر عند أبي عبد الله عليه‌ السلام البلاء وما يخص الله عز وجل به المؤمن فقال سئل رسول الله صلى‌ الله‌ عليه‌ وآله من أشد الناس بلاء في الدنيا فقال النبيون ثم الأمثل فالأمثل ويبتلى المؤمن بعد على قدر إيمانه وحسن أعماله فمن صح إيمانه وحسن عمله اشتد بلاؤه ومن سخف إيمانه وضعف عمله قل بلاؤه.

‘Abd al-Rahman ibn al-Hajjaj has said the following: “Once, trials and misfortunes and things that Allah, the Majestic, the Glorious, has specially set for the believers were mentioned in the presence of Abi ‘Abdallah (as), and the qualities of the believer. The Imam said, ‘The Messenger of Allah was asked, ‘Who suffers the most in this world?’ The Messenger of Allah (s) said, ‘The prophets suffer the most and thereafter people similar to them and then those similar in position to the second group and so forth. A believer suffers proportionate to his belief and good deeds; thus, whoever’s belief is more correct as well as deeds their trails and suffering are more intense, and whoever’s belief comes from a weak power of reason and whose deeds are weak their trials and suffering are less intense.’”

Al-Kafi, vol 2, pg 252

Sahih – (Allamah Majlisi, Mir’at al-’Uqul, Vol 9, pg 326)

زرارة قال: سألت أبا جعفر عليه السلام عن قول الله عز وجل: ” وكان رسولا نبيا ” ما الرسول وما النبي؟ قال: النبي الذي يرى في منامه ويسمع الصوت ولا يعاين الملك، والرسول الذي يسمع الصوت ويرى في المنام ويعاين الملك، قلت: الامام ما منزلته؟ قال: يسمع الصوت ولا يرى ولا يعاين الملك، ثم تلا هذه الآية:
وما أرسلنا من قبلك من رسول ولا نبي ولا محدث

Zurarah has said the following: “Once I asked Aba Ja’far (as) about the words of Allah, the Most Holy, the Most High, {‘He was a messenger, a prophet’} (19:51) what is a messenger and what is a prophet? The Imam said, ‘A prophet is one who sees things (matters of Divine guidance) in his dreams and hears the voice but does not see the angel. The messenger is one who hears the voice, in his dreams sees things (of matters of Divine guidance) and sees the angel.’ I then said, ‘What is the position of the Imam?’ The Imam said, ‘He hears the voice but does not see and observe the angel.’ Then he recited the following verse of the Holy Quran. ‘Satan would try to tamper with the desires of every Prophet or Messenger [or Muhaddath] whom We sent . . .’” (22:52) (The Imam included the word Muhaddath in the above verse as his commentary) 

Al-Kafi, vol 1, pg 176

Sahih – (Allamah Majlisi, Mir’at al-’Uqul, Vol 2, pg 287)

Contemporary opinion

The popular opinion among the majority of the scholars nowadays is the preference of the Imams over the Prophets (peace be upon them all).

But the other interpretations are still valid/acceptable as can be seen by the statements of Shaykh al-Mufeed and Shaykh al-Tusi.

Some contemporary scholars who hold one of the alternative opinions:

Grand Ayatollah Shaykh Muhammad Ishaq al-Fayadh

He believes the preference of the Ulil Azm Prophets over the Imams.

Grand Ayatollah Sayed Muhammed Hussein Fadhlallah

He believes in the preference of all the Prophets over the Imams

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