The Quran Challenge, Part III


  • Introduction

In this article, we examine every single time the word “imam” is used in the Quran. A central tenet of Shi’ism is to follow the twelve Infallible Imams; to the Shia, it is one of the Usool-e-Deen (Fundamentals of Religion). If this concept of Imamah were truly a fundamental of Islam and if it really were as important as the Shia claim, then surely this concept should be mentioned in the Quran. However, we find that the Quran does not mention the Infallible Imams of the Shia in any way, shape, or form.

The Arabic word “imam” appears seven times in the Quran, and its plural form (a’immah) appears another five times. One of the interesting things about Arabic is the manner in which one word is used in so many different ways all with the same basic root meaning. In regards to the word “imam”, it means “a thing which is followed.” This thing which is followed can be a person, place, or thing. For example, in the Quran, the word “imam” is used to refer to a leader (who is followed), a road (which is followed), and a book (which is followed). In the Quran, the word “imam” is used five times to refer to a thing (i.e. inanimate non-human object), whereas it is used to refer to a person the other seven times. Of these seven times, the word “imam” is never used to refer to the Infallible Imams of the Shia.

  • Imam = road

The word “imam” translates to “road” in verse 15:79 of the Quran.

1. Quran, 15:79: “So we took vengeance on them; And verily, the two (cities) are on a clear road (imam).”

For Shia Tafseer of verse 15:79 along with an in-depth analysis, please click here.

  • Imam = book

Another four times that the word “imam” is used, it translates to “book” or “record.”

2. Quran, 46:12: “And before this (Quran), there was the book (imam) of Musa, an example and a mercy; and this (Quran) is a confirming book in the Arabic language, that it may warn those who do wrong and bring good tidings for the righteous.”

3. Quran, 11:17: “…And before it was the book (imam) of Musa, a guide and a mercy…”

For Shia Tafseer of verses 46:12 and 11:17 along with an in-depth analysis, please click here.

4. Quran, 36:12: “Verily, We will restore the dead to life, and We write that which they sent forth, and that which they left behind; and everything We have recorded in a clear book (imam).”

5. Quran, 17:71-72: “One day We shall call together all human beings with their respective record book (imam): those who are given their record in their right hand will read it (with pleasure), and they will not be dealt with unjustly in the least. But those who were blind in this world, will be blind in the hereafter, and most stray from the Path.”

For a critical analysis of verses 36:12 and 17:71-72, please click here.

  • Other Seven Instances

As we have seen, the word “imam” has been used for inanimate objects five of the times it is used in the Quran, and thus these five verses cannot fulfill The Quran Challenge (i.e. providing proof of the Infallible Imamah from the Quran). The other seven times the Quran mentions the word “imam”, it actually does refer to a person and thus translates to “leader.” However, none of these eight instances refer to the Infallible Imam of the Shia.

The word “imam” is used in the Arabic language to describe any leader. The leader of the prayers would be called “imam”, the leader of the football team would be called the “imam” of his team, and the leader of an army would also be referred to as the “imam” of his troop. Thus, it should be noted that there is a monumental difference between using this word “imam” to describe a leader of a certain group and when we use it to denote the twelve Infallible Imams of the Shia. The Ahlus Sunnah refers to its own prayer and mosque leaders as “imams”; the Shia as well will refer to their political and religious leaders as “imams”, and we commonly hear phrases such as “Imam Khomeini” and “Imam Majlisi”, neither of whom were part of the twelve Infallible Imams of the Shia.

So now the question is: the other seven instances that the word “imam” is used in the Quran, are these verses relating specifically to the twelve Infallible Imams of the Shia, or are they rather referring to “leaders” in general? The answer is clearly the latter: the term “imam” is used to refer to “leader” in the generic sense like the word “leader” is used in the English language.

  • Evil Leaders

It becomes abundantly clear that the Quran is using the term “imam” to denote “leader” rather than the Infallible Imam of the Shia. Irrefutable proof of this lies in the following two verses in the Quran:

6. Quran, 9:12: “Fight the leaders (imams) of kufr.”

7. Quran, 28:41: “And We made them leaders (imams) who call towards the Fire.”

It could be argued that these two verses are referring to the Shia Infallible Imams, warning us to fight them because they call us towards Hell-Fire. To such an accusation, the Shia would quickly respond that the word “imam” is used in these two verses not to refer to their Infallible Imams, but rather that the word is being used in the generic sense of “leader”.

We wonder then why the Shia apply a double-standard and apply a different meaning to the verses in the Quran which use the word “imam” in a positive sense? Surely, it would be more consistent and honest to say that the Quran universally uses the word “imam” in the generic sense and that it never refers to the twelve Infallible Imams of the Shia.

The above two verses cannot possibly be in relation to any divinely appointed persons since the persons in question are evil and wicked. Again, the conclusion to be reached is that the Quran uses the word “imam” to denote a leader in the general sense of the word, and has absolutely nothing to do with the Infallible Imams.

  • Israelites

Allah says in the Quran:

8. Quran, 32:23-25: “We made it a guide for the children of Israel. And We made of them leaders (imams) to guide by Our command so long as they persevered with patience and continued to have faith in Our communications. Verily your Lord will judge between them on the Day of Judgment, in the matters wherein they differ (among themselves).

9. Quran, 28:4-5: “Lo! Pharaoh exalted himself in the earth and made its people castes. A tribe among them he oppressed, killing their sons and sparing their women. Lo! he was of those who work corruption. And We desired to show favor unto those who were oppressed in the earth, and to make them leaders (imams) and to make them the inheritors.”

These two verses cannot possibly be in relation to any Infallible Imams, since all of the Israelites are promised to become leaders if they persevere with patience and had faith in Allah’s communications. The verse relates to all of the Israelites, and surely all of them were not Infallible Imams. Even Allah says in the same verse that “your Lord will judge between them on the Day of Judgment, in the matters wherein they differ.” This makes it clear that the context is in regards to all of the Israelites who differed amongst each other.

A very convincing argument is found in the book “Imaamah and the Quran: An Objective Perspective”:

The Ayah clearly states that the Bani Israel as a whole were made “Imaams” on Earth. Thus, the entire tribe is given the position of Imaamah in this verse. Comparing it with other Quranic Ayahs about the Children of Israel, we see that it closely resembles Verses such as this one:

“They [the Children of Israel] said: ‘We suffered hurt before you came to us, and since you have come to us.’ He [Musa] said: ‘It may be that your Lord is going to destroy your adversary and make you viceroys in the earth, that He may see how you behave.’” (Quran 7:129)

We see that the position of vicegerency and dominion does not refer in here to a perfect infallible leadership, but rather a leadership where the people are judged for their actions; hence the statement: “that He (Allah) may see how ye behave.”

Thus, the placement of “Imaamah” in the hands of the Children of Israel in this Verse is similar to the dominion and leadership that Allah may bestow upon any people after rescuing them from their oppressors. It cannot refer to a special form of Imaamah simply because the population as a whole is granted this Imaamah, and they are responsible for the good and bad actions they commit once they are placed under this position.

Source: “Imaamah and the Quran: An Objective Perspective”, authored by Sidi Abu Salih. This book is endorsed by the Ahlel Bayt website and can be downloaded here.
Furthermore, the Israelites were promised leadership so long as they perservered with patience and had faith in Allah’s communications. Thus, their leadership was contingent on fulfilling these two things. According to the Shia, Imamah is a title given to a person at birth and it is not a position that is earned by doing good deeds or showing patience. So why would Allah make the leadership contingent on the behavior of these individuals? Clearly these two verses do not conform to the Shia doctrine of Imamah, and the authentic Shia Tafseer do not attempt to use these verses to refer to the doctrine of Infallible Imamah.

  • Leaders of the Pious

There are only two verses left which the Shia use to respond to The Quran Challenge and which they base their entire theology upon:

10. Quran, 2:124: “And (remember) when his Lord tried Ibrahim with (His) commands, and he fulfilled them, He said: ‘Lo! I have appointed you a leader (imam) for mankind.’ (Ibrahim) said: ‘And of my offspring (will there be leaders)?’ He said: ‘My covenant includes not Zalimoon (wrong-doers).’”

11. Quran, 21:72-73: “And We gave him Ishaq and Yaqoub, a son’s son, and We made (them) all good. And We made them leaders (imams) who guided (people) by Our command, and We revealed to them the doing of good and the keeping up of prayer and the giving of the alms, and Us (alone) did they serve.”

Now the question is: is the word “imam” being used to denote a leader in the generic sense, or are we referring to the Infallible Imams of the Shia? The Shia will adamantly claim that this refers to their Infallible Imams, and yet they will conveniently ignore the following verse in the Quran which also uses the word “imam” in a similar context:

12. Quran, 25:71-74: “And whoever repents and does good has truly turned to Allah with an (acceptable) conversion; Those who witness no falsehood, and, if they pass by futility, they pass by it with honorable (avoidance); Those who, when they are admonished with the Signs of their Lord, droop not down at them as if they were deaf or blind; Those who say: ‘Our Lord, grant us the coolness of our eyes in our wives and children, and make us leaders (imams) of the pious.’”

In this verse, Allah Almighty is talking about who are the righteous believers. This verse speaks of normal people who do not belong to a special class like the Prophets, asking Allah to make them leaders, in the sense of paragons of virtue, whose example others would strive to emulate. It is very obvious that it cannot refer to a group of “divinely appointed Imams.” The verse clearly mentions that whoever fulfills those conditions (i.e. repents, does good, etc.) should invoke Allah to make them paragons of virtue (i.e. leaders of the pious).

In the verses we discussed previously, we have seen that the word “imam” was used to denote an evil leader in the general sense of the word; over here, we see that the word is used to denote a good leader in the general sense of the word. This is not referring to any Infallible Imam of the Shia. It is telling normal people to invoke Allah to make them leaders. The Infallible Imams are, according to Shia belief, appointed Imams at birth and this position of infallibility is not something that a person can pray for or get simply by doing good deeds.

The Shia will continually try pushing the verse in relation to Prophet Ibrahim (عليه السلام) to prove their doctrine of Imamah. They will state that the verse clearly declares that the Imams will be infallible because in it Allah says: “My covenant includes not Zalimoon (wrong-doers, unjust, etc).” This argument is quickly rejected because the opposite of Zalimoon (wrong-doers) is not Infallible but rather it is Mu’min (good-doer) or ‘Adl (just). Allah promised to make the righteous to be leaders of the world, but His promise would not extend to those who were Zalimoon.

Indeed, a person who is fallible is not necessarily one of the Zalimoon. If that were the case, are we going to argue that Ayatollah Khomeini is one of the Zalimoon? Or what about the Prophets who were not raised to the level of Imams; are they Zalimoon? What about Salman Al-Farsi (رضّى الله عنه) who is fallible but still revered by the Shia? Or the other great heroes of Islam? How can the pious Muslims be Zalimoon when Allah orders them to fight the Zalimoon? This would be a logical inconsistency. As can be seen, the opposite of Zalimoon is not infallible; otherwise, this would be declaring all of these pious personalities to be Zaalim!

The verse in the Quran regarding Prophet Ibrahim (عليه السلام) simply states that Allah’s covenant does not extend to the unjust, so what is the opposite of unjust? The following response can be found in the book “Imaamah and the Quran: An Objective Perspective”:

Who is a just person?

The immediate word that would come to our minds when thinking of the opposite of “unjust” is “just”. It is not “perfect” or “Infallible”. This is obvious, and does not need much elucidation. Thus, the qualities of a just person in general is what the reader should strive to look for. The answer is found from the answers given by the office of Grand Ayatullah Ali al-Sistani:

Question: Who is a just person?

Answer : A person is said to be just when he performs all those acts which are obligatory upon him, and refrains from all those things which are forbidden to him. And the sign of being just is that one is apparently of a good character, so that if enquiries are made about him from the people of his locality, or from his neighbours, or from those persons with whom he lives, they would confirm his good conduct.


It is seen from the Ayatullah’s answer that under normal circumstances the definition of “just” is not at all connected with divine protection from sin, but rather concerns the overall good conduct and piety of a person. It struck me as strange as to how this can suddenly change for one Verse of the Quran, without any unbiased reason provided from the Shia side.

Source: “Imaamah and the Quran: An Objective Perspective”, authored by Sidi Abu Salih. This book is endorsed by the Ahlel Bayt website and can be downloaded here.
The unbiased person could not justify the concept of Imamah simply from a couple verses in the Quran which refer to Prophets as leaders of the pious. The term “imam” is used in the generic sense of “leader” and it would take a wild imagination to say that it refers to some distinct position or rank (i.e. the Infallible Imamah). The Prophet (صلّى الله عليه وآله وسلّم)was referred to as a “noor” (light) and “bashar” (human being) but do we say that these are two distinct positions and ranks? Of course not! Any sane person would agree that these words are used in there general sense. It would be preposterous to say that the Prophet was given the rank of Noor and that there are other people who also reach this position of Noor. Likewise, the Quran uses the common Arabic word “imam” and it is an injustice of the Shia to mangle it to create a specific position or rank based around it. The evidence that the word “imam” is used in the general sense can be seen quite clearly when the Quran refers to “leaders (imam) of Kufr” or the other verses in the Quran that we have examined which show that either a whole group of people were made into “leaders (imam) of the pious” or that they prayed to be so.

  • Conclusion

We find that the Quran does not contain the Shia doctrine of Imamah. The Shia believe that after the Prophet (صلّى الله عليه وآله وسلّم), there were twelve Infallible Imams and that it was the fundamental of faith to follow them and adhere to them. Where then are these twelve Infallible Imams in the Quran? Can the Shia even provide one verse in the Quran which says something to the effect of “there will be twelve Infallible Imams after the Prophet Muhammad (صلّى الله عليه وآله وسلّم), and you must follow them”? Instead of finding a verse even vaguely similar to this, the Shia will be forced to mangle a handful of verses in the Quran just to prove that even one single Imam is mentioned in the Quran.

Indeed, the true question is this: if the Quran can use the word “imam” to mean a book, a road, and leaders of kufr…then why cannot the Quran also mention the twelve Infallible Imams? The twelve Infallible Imams are the core belief of the Shia, so then why are they not mentioned in the Quran? Surely, the only logical conclusion is that the doctrine of the twelve Infallible Imams is an innovation and deviation from the Islam of the Quran, otherwise Allah would have mentioned it in the Quran. And because Imamah is absent from the Quran, the Shia will be forced to toy around with a handful of verses that use the word “imam” albeit in a completely different context than intended by the Shia.

It is not a small part of faith to pledge allegiance to a divinely appointed leader. So surely it should be mentioned in the Quran! It is an oddity that such an important command such as to follow Imams after Prophet Muhammad (صلّى الله عليه وآله وسلّم) is not worthy of being mentioned in the Quran. Indeed, this is what led some classical Shia scholars to say that the Quran has been tampered with. This is the only logical conclusion that could be made, but today you will not find any Shia who will claim this publically.

The question remains: why is there no verse in the Quran about the institution of the twelve Infallible Imams? We find Shia literature replete with references to the Imams. Indeed, the Shia have elevated the status of the Imam to monumental proportions, exhorting him as a creature that possesses more knowledge than the angels, prophets, and creation. Then how come the Quran just doesn’t say it?

Article Edited By: Ibn al-Hashimi,

Special thanks to Abu Salih and Owais Muhammad from whom much of this article was lovingly stolen from. The book “Imaamah and the Quran: An Objective Perspective”, authored by Abu Salih, is endorsed by the Ahlel Bayt website and can be downloaded here. It was instrumental in the publication of this article and is a valuable guide for those who want a more in-depth discussion of the topic. | Email : ahlelbayt[a] | English Version