The Sacred Door Project

What exactly do Shi’is believe about the “supernatural” abilities of the Imams (upon them peace)? Hossein Modarressi, in his historical study of the Imams, contends that there is an ongoing debate about the nature of Imamate. He argues that extremists (ghulāt) spread lies regarding some of the supernatural abilities of the Imams, to the point where some believed that God had given them control over aspects of the universe (a doctrine known as tafwīḍ). The earlier Imams condemned this, but as the later Imams were increasingly marginalized from their followers, the extremists were able to capitalize on the situation and promote their teachings. According to Modarressi, this tension still exists in the scholarly circles of Shi’i ulama, and he cites the example of an uproar in 1970s Iran regarding a book about Imam Husayn (upon him peace) that insinuated he did not have supernatural foreknowledge of what was going to happen.[1]
Mohammad Amir-Moezzi, in a different historical study of the Imams, argues that an extreme supernaturalist position was the original Imāmī view. He argues that it was later scholars who tried to make the Imamate more palatable once Shi’i ulama had gained increased social prestige. He accepts the earliest hadith-centric texts on the subject as authentic representations of the views of the Imams themselves.[2]

This divergence of perspectives is confirmed by Ayatollah Fadlallah (d. 1431/2010) who stated, “the term Wilayat Takwiniya means that Allah has given Prophet Muhammad (p.) and his household the mandate to run the universe or at least a part of it. The religious scholars are divided between those who believe in it and those who do not.”[3]
 While these debates may have historically been confined to scholarly circles, the open acknowledgement of this debate on Fadlallah’s website means that now the average Muslim might wonder about the extent of the Imams’ supernatural abilities. Answering such questions involves both a historiographical endeavor (what happened and who said what) and a rational-theological one (what is true and what is right), and it is an ongoing discourse in the 21st century.

Ayatollah Ja‘far Subhani’s book Doctrines of Shi’i Islamic: A Compendium of Imami Beliefs and Practices is a good example for establishing a contemporary sense of how, in Modarressi‘s word, “the absolute majority of the rank and file and many of the scholars stand somewhere between the two trends [regarding supernatural abilities], as was the case during the time of the Imams.”[4]
 Subhani focuses primarily on the concept of succession, and the Imamate of Ali.[5]
He makes the claim for Ali by two primary means. First, he offers what he considers to be historical proofs, and goes through 6 hadith proofs, arguing that they are well-established amongst both Sunni and Shi’i hadith scholars. Subhani sees no problem in quoting hadith from the Sunni tradition to prove his point, and states that both traditions should “be as one as regards to the sacred significance of the ahl al-bayt” due to their overlap in this regard.[6]
Second, he engages in a rational defense of Ali’s Imamate. He states that it is “impossible to accept the proposition that the Prophet departed from this world without having given any instructions regarding the leadership of his community after his death.”[7]
He points out that even though it was an option for him to tell his community that they should elect their own leader, such a possibility is contradicted by the practice of the first two caliphs (and the advice of those who advised them) who made explicit instructions regarding their succession. When elucidating the central tasks of the Imam, he points out that the unique attribute of the Imam is knowledge. In describing this knowledge, he affirms the belief that the Imam is muḥaddath, which he defines as “one who, despite not being a Prophet, is addressed by the angels.”[8]
He makes clear that this inspiration (ilhām) is distinct from knowledge acquired through non-supernatural means, such as study under a previous generation of scholars. It is through this knowledge that the Imam is able to fulfill his unique task which is more than “an ordinary leader who simply has to rule a country and protect its borders.”[9]
 Subhani clearly affirms the relevance of supernatural knowledge in regards to the Imamate, although he does not explicitly address many of the details. Instead, Subhani focuses on establishing with certainty that the Imamate was part of the prophetic teaching.


al-Shaykh al-Mufīd: A Locus Classicus

When Modarressi discusses the controversy regarding the book about Imam Husayn, he states that “the analysis offered in this book was very much in line with that of the early Shī’ite scholars such as Mufīd.”[10]
By this he is referring to Muḥammad b. Muḥammad al-Baghdādī, most widely known as al-Shaykh al-Mufīd (d. 413/1022).[11]
He studied under a variety of teachers in Baghdad,[12]
and his contemporary Ibn al-Nadīm (d. 380/990) acknowledged that he was the pre-eminent intellectual leader of the Shi’is of Baghdad in his lifetime.[13]  Al-Mufīd is known for establishing “the basic parameters of the relationship between Twelver-Shī‘ism and Mu‘tazilism.”[14]
 He played a significant role in the transition from an Imāmī discourse centered on hadith narrations to a more synthetic approach often characterized as rationalist. He authored approximately 172 treatises,[15]
of which Awā’il al-maqālāt is well-known in regards to rational theology. But his most widely-read text is Kitāb al-Irshād, the “most famous and perhaps most important” work on the biographies of the twelve Imams, whose impact “on the genre of collective biographies of the imams can hardly be overstated.”[16]

The weight of hadiths mattered to al-Mufīd. For example, in regards to reports of Imam Ali’s (upon him peace) superiority in knowledge, he states, “examples of such reports are (so many) that the book would become (unduly) long in (reporting) them.”[17]
He discusses numerous events and sayings from the prophetic period to make his case that Imam Ali was the chosen successor of the Prophet Muhammad, blessings and peace be upon him and his family. The significance of these transmissions is due to the fact that they exist in spite of such concerted effort to undermine Ali’s rank. Al-Mufīd considers this a miracle and states

Among the signs and indications of him, peace be on him, by which he was set apart from those who opposed him is the clear appearance of his outstanding qualities to both the Shī‘a (khāṣṣa) and the general populace (‘āmma). (This has been sufficient) to force the people to transmit reports of his merits and qualities endowed by God and for them to be admitted to even by his opponents of the proof that there is in them. It has occurred despite the great number of occasions they have been prompted to suppress his merit and deny his rights. (It has occurred when) the (control of the) world has been in possession of his rivals and has been turned aside from his friends (awliyā’). (Despite this) his opponents who possess authority over the world and the narrators of the people, have not been able to put out his light and to deny his career (amr).[18]


In his theological works, al-Mufīd argues that the Imam is both the political head of the Muslim community and the most authoritative teacher of Islam.[19]
It was rationally possible for the Imams to know the future and read the minds of others, but they did not always have the ability to do so, as it was an occasional gift from God that helped people in “obeying them and adhering to their imamate.”[20]
 What they always know is the Divine law (ḥukm) regarding every situation that they encounter.[21]
 When God permits, they are able to work miracles and be aware of those who address them even though they are not alive in this world.[22]
But this should not be confused with the errors of those who “attribute to them such excellence in religious and secular matters that they overstep proper bounds.”[23]
Al-Mufīd defines tafwīḍ as being “delegated…the creation of the world together with all that is in it,”[24]
and rejects it completely. The Imams are muḥaddath based on hadith proofs, but the revealed knowledge (waḥy) uniquely bestowed upon prophets is barred from the Imams.[25]
 Al-Mufīd also accepts the possibility that the Imams were granted knowledge of all languages, although he is unsure about the probity of the proof-texts for this view.[26]


The Countours of an Internal Shīʿī Discourse

Al-Mufīd’s writings show that he believed supernatural knowledge was bestowed upon the Imams. At the core of this was their knowledge of the ḥukm, the Divine ruling in any given matter, for that was indispensable to their role as Imams. They could be given more than that at times, but only as a bestowal from God for a specific purpose. These supernatural qualities were in no way proofs that the Imams were delegated by God to create and/or manage the creation, a position that he explicitly rejects. Importantly, Amir-Moezzi does not argue that tafwīd was part of the doctrines of the early Imāmīs. Rather, the more extreme supernaturalist positions that al-Mufīd argues against, such as the Imams always knowing the future, are representative of what Amir-Moezzi claims was the doctrine of the Imams. But al-Mufīd does not reject those positions because they are rationally impossible (mustaḥīl).[27]
He rejects them based on the view that there are merely possible (jāʾiz), and therefore require sound textual proofs. For example, when discussing the possibility of the Imam knowing all languages he states:

I say it is neither impossible nor necessary from the standpoint of reason and analogy. Traditions have come from one who must be believed to the effect that the Imams of Muhammad’s family did have that knowledge. If the traditions are well founded, they must be firmly held. However I am not absolutely sure they are well founded. And God is the helper to what is right.[28]


For al-Mufīd, reason and hadith/history exist as two separate but complimentary spheres of  theological investigation.

Modarressi, Amir-Moezzi, Subhani, and al-Mufīd are united in rejecting the possibility that the Imams taught their followers tafwīḍ. Only Modarressi touches on the idea that the Imams never claimed access to supernatural knowledge, yet it is easy to misinterpret his argument. He opens his discussion by denying that the Qur’an bestowed a “supernatural” rank upon the Prophet, blessings and peace be upon him and his family. But what he means by supernatural is not the contemporary English understanding of supernatural, for the idea of revelation is inherently supernatural. What he presumably means is the more extreme positions that al-Mufīd argues against, such as idea that it is necessary for the Imams to know everything about the future. Only God knows everything, as Modarressi states in regards to the Qur’an, and as such there is no need for a human to know everything.[29]
But that does not mean that God does not bestow “supernatural” knowledge upon people, because the Qur’an itself is the highest supernatural knowledge.

Al-Mufīd’s doctrine that the Imams always knew the ḥukm is the central point. Modarressi agrees (as do Subhani and Amir-Moezzi) when he states that even those who questioned the possibility of supernatural knowledge believed that

“the Prophet…instructed the people to follow them as the true interpreters of the Book of God and heirs to the prophetic knowledge. This doctrine of the necessity of absolute obedience to the Imām distinguished the supporters of this Shī‘ite trend from the many Sunnites of the time who also favored those Imāms whose authority was widely accepted, such as Muḥammad al-Bāqir and Ja‘far al-Ṣādiq. Those Sunnites attended the circles of the Imams, studied with them, cared about their opinions on various legal questions and transmitted ḥadīth from them but only as some of the many religious authorities of the time, or even as some of the most, or the most, learned among them. Unlike the Shī‘ites, those Sunnites, however, did not consider the following the Imāms to be religiously binding by Prophetic designation.”[30]


Modarressi has recently produced the most detailed study of the life and jurisprudence (fiqh) of Imām Jaʿfar al-Ṣādiq (upon him peace) in the English language, and anyone interested in understanding how the his legal teachings both conform to and diverge from the proto-Sunnī views of the 8th century is encouraged to study the text closely.[31]
Debate about the nature of the Imams‘ knowledge is best understood as an ongoing and nuanced debate internal to the Shī‘ī Muslim community, which is united on the understanding that “following the Imāms [is] religiously binding by Prophetic designation, and rooted first and foremost in their knowledge of the correct rulings of the shari’ah. In this regard, the lives and statements of the Imams are often understood by contemporary Jaʿfarī jurists as a commentary on and reaction to the teachings of other well-known scholars of early Islam who did not prioritize the teachings of the Ahl al-Bayt.[32]


Tomb of al-Shaykh al-Mufīd in Baghdad

The Sacred Door Project


[1]Hossein Modarressi,Crisis and Consolidation in the Formative Period of Shi’ite Islam: Abū Ja‘far ibn Qiba al-Rāzī and His Contribution to Imāmite Shī‘ite Thought (Princeton: Darwin Press, 1993) 19-51.
[2] Mohammad Ali Amir-Moezzi, The Divine Guide in Early Shi’ism: The Sources of Esotericism in Islam, trans. D. Streight (Albany: SUNY Press, 1994).
[3] “Wilayah Takwiniya,” English Bayynat, accessed May 18, 2021, The term wilāyat takwīnīya includes discussion of tafwīḍ, but is not limited to it.
[4] Modarressi; Crisis and
Ayatollah Ja’far Sobhani, Doctrines of Shi’i Islam: A Compendium of Imami Beliefs and Practices, trans. and ed. by R. Shah-Kazemi (Qom: Imam Sadeq Institute, 2003) 101-11.
[6]Sobhani, Doctrines of Shi’i Islam, 103.
[7]Sobhani, Doctrines of Shi’i Islam, 100.
[8]Sobhani, Doctrines of Shi’i Islam, 180.
[9]Sobhani, Doctrines of Shi’i Islam, 110-1.
[10]Modarressi, Crisis and Consolidation, 50.
[11]Tamima Bayhom-Daou, Shaykh Mufid (Oxford: Oneworld, 2005) vii.
[12]Martin J. McDermott, The Theology of al-Shaikh al-Mufīd (d. 413/1022) (Beirut: Dar el-Machreq, 1978) 9-13.
[13]McDermott, The Theology of al-Shaikh al-Mufīd, 8.
[14]Najam Haider, Shī‘ī Islam: An Introduction (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014), 149.
[15]McDermott, The Theology of al-Shaikh al-Mufīd, 25-40.
[16]Matthew Pierce, Twelve Infallible Men: The Imams and the Making of Shi’ism (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2016) p. 29.
[17]Shaykh Al-Mufid, Kitāb Al-Irshād: The Book of Guidance into the Lives of the Twelve Imams, trans. I. K. A. Howard (Qum: Ansariyan Publications, 2004), 22.
[18]Al-Mufīd, Kitāb al-Irshād, 232.
[19]McDermott; The Theology of al-Shaikh al-Mufīd, 105.
[20]McDermott, The Theology of al-Shaikh al-Mufīd, 108.
[21]McDermott, The Theology of al-Shaikh al-Mufīd, 109.
[22]McDermott, The Theology of al-Shaikh al-Mufīd, 112-3.
[23]McDermott, The Theology of al-Shaikh al-Mufīd, 114.
[24]McDermott, The Theology of al-Shaikh al-Mufīd, 114.
[25]McDermott, The Theology of al-Shaikh al-Mufīd, 111.
[26]McDermott, The Theology of al-Shaikh al-Mufīd,  110.
[27]For more insights into Islamic conceptions of rational possibilities/impossibilities, see John Walbridge, God and Logic in Islam: The Caliphate of Reason (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011).
[28]McDermott, The Theology of al-Shaikh al-Mufīd, 110.
[29]Modarressi, Crisis and Consolidation, 19.
[30]Modarressi; Crisis and Consolidation, 29-30
[31]Hossein Modarressi, Text and Interpretation: Imam Jaʿfar al-Ṣādiq and His Legacy in Islamic Law (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2022).
[32]“Ayatollah Sistani’s Doctrine Differs from Ayatollah Khoei’s One,” Ijtihad Network, September 26, 2020,