“Outline of Heirs of the Prophet"


Liyakat Takim

The Heirs of the Prophet: Charisma and Religious Authority in Shi‘ite  Islam. ISBN: 0791467384

“The scholars are heirs to the prophets” is a famous tradition that has been reported from the Prophet Muhammad. When I examined the provenance and deployment of this tradition in the classical period of Islam (570 – 1258 C.E.), I realized that the title “heirs of the Prophet” was more than an honorific epithet. As scholars belonging to different factions contested the right to assume the title, it was obvious that the exclusivist claims to be the heirs of the Prophet reflected a wider struggle within the Muslim community to wield prophetic prestige through demonstrations of authority, which were based on the Prophet’s legacy.
The “heirs tradition” as it was called, also became a polemical tool that could be and was used by its bearers to wrestle authority from competing factions. The deployment of the “heirs tradition” extended beyond excluding scholars, who belonged to other factions, from legitimating and exercising authority in the Muslim community. It also was used to impose authoritative and exclusivist rendition of texts, beliefs, and religious practices.
This study explores how different religious factions within the Muslim community competed to be the heirs of the Prophet, and demonstrates the interplay between power and knowledge and the ensuing tensions among these factions. My exploration of the classical texts seeks to uncover and elaborate the methods and strategies employed by the learned class, as well as other groups, to wield and legitimize authority on behalf of the Prophet.
My investigation into the different groups’ self-understanding of post-Muhammadan authority and the struggle for legitimacy is predicated on a textual, phenomenological, and chronological approach to the study and interpretation of juridical, biographical, heresiographical, hagiographical, exegetical, and polemical texts. I also examine how various groups made use of hermeneutical tools in constructing authority and vindicating their claims to be the exclusive heirs of the Prophet.
A number of recent studies have tackled the question of authority in Islam. For instance, Hamid Dabashi has written on the general notion of authority in Islam while Sa‘id Arjomand and Abdulaziz Sachedina have focused on the authority of the jurists in the post-ghayba (940 C.E.) period in Shi‘i Islam. The works of Patricia Crone, Martin Hinds, and Muhammad Qasim Zaman examine the struggle for authority between the caliphs and Sunni scholars. My study goes beyond their work in that it fills the lacuna of inquiry into the struggle for authority between and within the disparate groups that claimed to be the heirs of the Prophet. The project also treads new ground by examining the impact of the juxtaposition of different genres of authority in the Shi‘i community during the times of the imams.
My discussion of how the “heirs tradition” shaped and molded leadership and other related institutional structures in the classical period of Islam is couched within the framework of the models of charismatic leadership postulated by Max Weber (1862-1920). In attempting to locate an Islamic equivalent of Weber’s tripartite typology of the modes of authority (rational-legal, traditional, and charismatic), in chapter one I discuss Weber’s characterization of charismatic authority, and contrast this with the genres of authority dominant in pre-Islamic Arabia. I then examine the exercise of authority in the post-Muhammadan era by deploying Weber’s typology of the routinization of charismatic leadership in the establishment of the charisma of office.
After the death of Muhammad, the discussion of authority was soon cast under the designation “heirs of the Prophet.” The first chapter of this study goes on to, therefore, examine the ramifications of claiming to be the “heirs of the Prophet,” the emergence of the scholarly elite as the sole careers of religious knowledge, and the struggle for authority that ensued among scholars and their followers in different groups. While examining the competition for Muhammad’s charismatic authority after his death, I investigate the Shi‘i self-understanding of authority and argue that this was an important factor in the formulation of a distinct Shi‘i leadership founded upon its legal system.
Using the conceptual framework postulated by Rudolf Otto, I trace the emergence of the holy man in Islam and the type of authority that he wielded in the Muslim community in the second chapter. This chapter also contrasts Sufi and Shi‘i variations in the conceptualization of the holy men and examines the methods through which the holy men validated their claims to spiritual authority. I also compare and contrast the authority wielded by the jurists and holy men. Whether it is acquired or inherited, the charisma of the holy man is in contradistinction to the charisma of office as defined by the jurists.
A largely unexplored dimension of religious authority in Islam is the routinization of charismatic authority in Shi‘ism during the presence of the imams. In my discussion on post-Muhammadan authority, I argue that Shi‘ism in the eighth century manifests a major variation from the traditionally accepted, Weberian understanding of the rise of routinized charisma. In chapters three and four, I extend my discussion of authority and the “heirs traditions” to include the deputies of the Shi‘i imams.
My interest in the disciples of the imams, the rijal, was initially kindled during my study in Qum, Iran, in 1983-85. I heard then that a prominent scholar, Ja‘far al-Subhani, had been delivering lectures on the study of the biographical profiles of the rijal. When I attended his lectures, I realized not only the depth of the subject but also the paucity of research on the rijal among contemporary western scholars.
Chapter three contends that the delegation of the imams’ authority to their close associates was an important landmark in Shi‘i history insofar as it signified a transition from the centralized, universal, charismatic authority of the imams to a more structured and regionalized charismatic office of the rijal. In the process of divesting their authority to their close disciples, the imams were routinizing their charismatic authority and diffusing their charisma into a newly emerging symbiotic structure. I examine how the affirmation of the charismatic office of the imams’ prominent disciples and “heirs” to their knowledge interacted with and often militated against the absolute nature of the imam’s charismatic authority.
In the fourth chapter, I examine how the authority of the disciples of the imams evolved and was enhanced in the very functions they performed. The chapter delineates the various activities of the rijal, and contends that these were highly significant in asserting a divergent concept of religious authority in the Muslim community. I also argue that, by performing various activities in the office of charisma, the rijal constructed a normative basis or a “sectarian syndrome” through which “orthodox” views and beliefs could be distilled and differentiated from those espoused by their opponents. An important consequence of this process of establishing “orthodoxy” was the accentuation of the authority of the rijal and the construction of boundaries of identity and exclusion.
The chapter goes on to demonstrate that, as agents of the imams, the rijal also established paradigmatic precedents in various fields, which subsequent Shi‘is could emulate. The “living sunna,” which was generated by the paradigmatic activities of the rijal, was incorporated into the Shi‘i canonical tradition that crystallized in the ninth and tenth centuries.
The fifth and final chapter explains how later biographers, faced with contradictory appraisals of important personages, on the one hand, and the need to depict an idealized image of them, on the other, encountered, grappled, and finally shaped the authoritative images of those individuals. I demonstrate that Shi‘i biographers were engaged in hermeneutical activity and a textual enterprise that evolved into an increasingly restrictive interpretation and canonical evaluation of the disciples of the imams. The appraisals of the biographers laid claim to an exclusivist hermeneutic and became sufficiently entrenched to impose an authoritarian evaluation on those they profiled. The chapter also offers evidence of a different and radical form of idealization in later Shi‘i biographical literature.
In the second section of this chapter, I compare and contrast Sunni and Shi‘i profiles of two important Shi‘i disciples of the imams, demonstrating the tussle for authority and the struggle for legitimacy that is evinced in the biographical texts. By comparing Sunni and Shi‘i biographical literature, my book adds a new dimension to the questions of textual authority and hermeneutical enterprises in Islamic biographical dictionaries. Such an approach should lead scholars to consider new ways of understanding the function of sacred texts within the communities that engage and appropriate them for developing a charismatic authority and a sense of loyalty to it.


The Heirs of the Prophet: Charisma and Religious Authority in Shi‘ite  Islam. ISBN: 0791467384



Dr. Liyakat Takim
Sharjah Chair in Global Islam
McMaster University, Religious Studies
University Hall, Room 116
1280 Main Street West
Hamilton, Ontario
Canada, L8S 4K1

Telephone: 905-525-9140 ext 20521
Fax: (905) 525-8161