1. The Role of an Imam:
The role of the Imam is to carry on the Prophet’s task, including the carrying out of Divine Justice, writes a scholar from Imam Rassi Society:
“As human beings, the prophets are bound by the finality of death. This means that the prophet must be succeeded by either another prophet, or a leader who subsequently protects and carries out the dictates of Divine Justice. Otherwise, the prophetic mission will be null and void with the death of the prophet…..
The reality of Divine Judgment must be propagated; al-Mi’ād. All of this must be accomplished by means of a deputy charged with the message; an-Nubūwa. Divine justice must be carried out after the demise of the deputy; al-Imāma.”
He adds: “Historical examples of effective Zaydi imamates so far include those of Moulay Idris in Morocco, Imam al-Hadi ila al-Haqq in Yemen, and the Zaydi imamates in Persia.”
Regarding the Imam’s role, Abdullah Hamidaddin adds:
“The role of the imam in Zaidi literature is sometimes depicted spiritually which brings it closer to conventional Shii understandings of Imamah; but most depictions are political and pragmatic which brings it closer to Mu’tazili depictions of Imamah. The latter are closer to the culture of Imamah as it developed, where the Imam is a normal person; with no super-human capacities; even from a scholarly perspective his opinions are not considered special or unique. He is a scholar among scholars. A man among other men. Reverence to the Imam had to do with the convergence of reverence to rulers with reverence to Seyyids… both of which are external to the concept of the imamah.”
2. The Zaidi Criteria for being an Imam:
Here is a description of the traits needed to be an Imam, on top of the requirement of being descended from the Prophet’s grandsons:
“All of the following are the traits of Imamate: expansive knowledge, evident virtue, courage, generosity, excellence in opinionated thought without dissimulation, ability to carry out commands, and manifest religious scrupulousness.”
(Amir al Hussein bin BadrulDeen, died 662 AH)
These traits are found in many people. Competition usually determines who is finally chosen to be Imam.
3. How should a new Imam be selected?
The ideal scenario according to traditional Zaidism is that a board of scholars and dignitaries select the imam and keep him in check; he is obliged act according to the said criteria or else he can be deposed. The above mentioned board of scholars and diginitaries is normally responsible for ensuring a smooth and peaceful transition between Imams.
The dignitaries are an informal group of people created and sustained through a social system, and like all groups they can be abused and/or manipulated.
4. The Yemeni example:
During the history of the various Zaidi Hashemite Imamates in Yemen, which ruled for the most part of a thousand years (till 1962), the important role of the Selection Panel was downplayed, resulting in the following scenarios:
(a)The Imam’s oldest son automatically becoming Imam upon his father’s death, or another member of the same family if the older son was unsuitable.
In most cases he would be already considered eligible in terms of traits plus support.
In some cases, the Imamate may have been known as a Kingdom rather than an Imamate.
(b) Inter-clan rivalry. Regarding the Yemeni example, Abdullah Hamidaddin writes:
“ Imams from rival clans sometimes competed for the leadership role. When they did, no one really had a clear cut proof that he deserved it. In the end what really made a difference is that the traits required of the Imam meant that ultimately he who ruled did fairly well. Justice was a prime trait and most Imams stuck to it, even those who snatched it from another ruling family.”
(c) The Imam being overthrown by revolutionaries, and not replaced by another Imam at all. Regarding the Yemeni example,, Abdullah Hamidaddin writes:
“In the 1950’s and 60’s there was a revolutionary fervor in many Arab countries, so some of the elites in Yemen wanted to change the system. A new world order was being created. At that time internal solidarity was key. Yet there was a lot of internal struggle amongst various factions in Yemen from within the ruling circle as well as those opposing. The Imamah in Yemen wasn’t living up to its responsibilities after Imam Yahya’s assassination. With the help of Egyptian soldiers the rebels succeeded. It was the Egyptian army that made the coup successful. Yemen is considered Egypt’s Vietnam. They lost their best forces there. In 1967 the defeat against Israel is attributed to the fact that the best of the best were either killed injured or stuck in Yemen. Had the Egyptian army not intervened, maybe things would have improved. But we can never know.”
To read more details of how thw Imamate system worked in Yemeni history, click on the following link:
The republic which was formed continues to the present day. In recent times, there are many who remember the past nostalgically, regretting that they supported the anti-Hashemite rebellion. Some Zaidis have recently thrown their support behind a particular Hashemite family (al Houthis), while others, who prefer a political solution, support the Al Haq political party which is in opposition to the ruling party, (its leader recently survived an assassination attempt).
5. Critics of the Yemeni example:
Critics of the Zaidi leadership system (i.e. 12 Imamers) have tried to fault the system by pointing to Yemen’s failure to sustain an unbroken line of Imams. They claim that their system (an unbroken line of supposedly “divinely appointed” Imams, the 12th of whom is in “occultation”) is far superior. (see Shia-chat comments by MacIsaac for example). But Zaidi scholars point out that, if the dictates of a system are not implemented correctly in every case, this does not mean that the system itself is invalid.
Can democracy and Zaidi leadership selection work in unison?
Yemen’s Zaidi democrats look to democratic solutions which incorporate the Zaidi ideals of a just society. This raises the possibility of the Imam being elected democratically rather than by a council of the elite. Perhaps this could work rather like the Presidential elections in USA, i.e. the Imam being elected in a separate election from the Parliamentary one.
It is debatable, however, whether having a Hashemite elite with the exclusive privilege of eligibility for leadership is compatible with the egalitarian nature of democracy. Then there is the issue of females being eligible to become Imams; a democracy usually implies equal opportunity for women. (There have been successful female leaders in Yemen in the past, e.g. the legendary Queen Arwa, who successfully ruled over an Ismaili state, and a Zaidi woman ruler who is less famous than Arwa.) The possibilities are yet to be fully explored.