Teaching with authority in Christianity and Islam

Bishops and Imams: The Magisterium in Catholic Christianity and Shi’ite Islam

God’s words to His Chosen Peoples are typically double-edged. On the one hand, the believer knows exactly where he or she stands. Give me a place to stand, a Greek once famously said, and I can move the world. Archimedes was talking lever and fulcrum, but God was talking prescription: stand right there, the Bible and the Quran thunder, and, sure enough, the world moved on the fulcrum of the law.

On the other hand –and in these matters there’s going to be another hand– on the other hand, once God does speak, there is no other place to stand than the one He has prescribed. The world moves, moves on, but God’s words, eternal, immutable and peremptory, do not move on with it.

But of course they do. Post-Temple Judaism and post-Apostolic Islam have both been ruled in fact by a numerous lawyerly elite whose power and prestige derive precisely from their ability to move God’s words, without seeming to do so, into new contexts, to produce a kind of situational ethics out of the most intractable of all materials, God’s scripturally canonized and apparently immutable prescriptions. Those acutely trained men we call rabbis and ulama, wielding exegesis in one hand, and in the other –I warned you there is always an other– and in the other a powerful inferential logic, have moved the unmovable, though seeming to have left it exactly where it always was. Ijtihâd, “personal effort,” the Muslims call one aspect, and its sweaty work.

But here it’s not the sweaty mujtâhids that are the concern but rather two instances within the three monotheistic communities where, instead of applying a kind of judo to an already received, canonized and closed Scripture, traditional Christians–those who have not tossed out bishops with the Catholic bath water–as well as Shi’ite Muslims have both managed re-open the sources of revelation, or rather, have contrived an institution and an office that would guarantee what was, in effect, a continuing revelation. I refer to the Christian bishop and the Shi’ite Imam.

Despite some careless Catholic exegesis, Jesus did not ordain the twelve apostles as bishops, to say nothing of naming one of them, Peter, as Pope. It seems highly unlikely that Jesus even heard of Popes –in fact he rather fancied “Abba” over “Papa,” which seems natural enough for someone whose native tongue was Aramaic rather than Latin. We know little enough about those original Twelve –the Gospels seem confused about their exact names– but one thing does appear certain: those twelve males had something to do with Jesus’ eschatological expectations: the Twelve were intended to rule over all twelve of the restored Tribes of Israel in the imminent kingdom.

It did not work out quite that way, and the Twelve went on to other things. Judas seems to have chosen what we might call a leveraged buyout; some dropped into anonymity and some into the rich tradition of legend, or near-legend. Thomas the Twin, for example, shows up everywhere from stardom in the stacks of a Gnostic library im Egypt to spiritually fathering every Christian community from Edessa in Syria to the Malabar Coast. Elsewhere the ground is a little firmer. Peter ended up in Rome, we can be pretty sure, and almost as sure that he died there in 64 A.D. or so; and that he was, while he was still alive, the head of the Christian community, the ekklesia, in the capital of the Roman Empire.

Most of what passes as information about the Twelve, like most of what we know about almost everyone in the ancient world, comes from somebody much later. In this case the much later interested party is Eusebius of Caesarea, Constantine’s court historian, whose Church History opens programmatically with the announced intention of tracing “the lines of succession from the holy apostles.” (HE 1.1). By Eusebius’ day in the beginnings of the fourth century that project had not taken on quite the political urgency that it was later to assume when the jostling among the great sees escalated into a kind of ecclesiastical warfare and the struggle over authentic apostolic origins was a crucial part of the ammunition. For Eusebius, as for a number of earlier bishops, the tracing of the apostolic succession had another, more theological kind of importance. It was the ground of orthodoxy. It was by reason of their apostolic origins, and so their direct connection to Jesus, that the churches could claim that they represented true Christianity.

Eusebius lays out the connections in historical terms –so-and-so succeeds so-and-so in the see of such-and-such– but underlying the narrative is a series of sometimes historical, sometimes theological arguments that had begun to emerge as early as the second century. The first is what is called the Apostolic Tradition, It asserts that Jesus confided the true understanding of his public teaching in a more private fashion to the Twelve. There are good grounds in the Gospel witness for thinking this was so –the special mission of the Twelve, for example, or Jesus’ explicit private explanations of the parables to his inner circle.

What adduced this notion of an Apostolic Tradition was not the Gospel witness, however, but rather, as often in the history of doctrine, to counter an assertion to the contrary. In the second century there was abroad another version of the true teaching, the one we generally label as Gnosticism. It too affirmed the existence of a private understanding of Jesus’ public teaching, a private understanding that ran through channels quite different from that of the church leadership. It was to wrest possession of this privileged understanding from Gnostic hands and to place it firmly in the hands of the official Church that the notion of the Apostolic Tradition emerged.

What remained was to connect those original Twelve with contemporary bishops. This latter, what is called the Apostolic Succession, was Eusebius’ own project in the Church History. He pursues it in a rather straightforward historical way, as I have remarked, but the argument is far more complex. It requires us to think, in the first place, that the Twelve and the rest of the Christian community had a sense that the Apostles were the unique repositories of the gnosis, the understanding of Jesus’ teachings –one has only to think of Paul to realize how unlikely that was– and, second, that they passed on this unique understanding to the men who succeeded them as heads of the ever-increasing numbers of Christian communities. In the fully formulated version of this latter position, the heads of those communities were episkopoi, overseers, the bishops.

The office of “overseer” itself seems old, and may in fact have Jewish origins, but what concerns us here is what the office became. Already in the second century the bishop, who before his enthronement need not have possessed any remarkable gifts of understanding or intuition, was in possession of a full-throated magisterium and spoke to the Christian faithful under his jurisdiction with an unmistakable authority. Did he speak infallibly as well? The issue of infallibility is a rather late one on the Christian agenda, provoked, for the most part, by the claims of the bishop of Rome to a primacy among his fellow bishops. But within his see each bishop spoke with authority –the Apostolic Succession assured that; where the problem of errancy arose was out of the notion of a catholic, that is, a universal church, populated in fact by bishops who often spoke at cross-purposes, if not in open contradiction. The problem was solved, at least for a restricted local area, by a synodical approach. Provincial bishops had already sorted themselves into a hierarchy modeled on the Roman administrative organization, and they met periodically under the presidency of the metropolitan to decide upon, in effect, to define, matters of doctrine and discipline. There was no metropolitan for the Great Church of course, but Constantine nicely filled the empty space at the top of the pile, at least until the bishop of Rome got his own pyramid up and running. What was infallible, it turned out, were the bishops in concert, in concerti da camera in the provinces or in great ecumenical symphonies of the tota ecclesia.

Shi‘ism is one of the end-products of a debate that occurred in the early days of Islam. It concerned the nature of the leadership of the community, whether it was a purely political, or, to put it another way, a historically conditioned institution, which we shall call, in a shorthand fashion, the Caliphate; or whether, as the Shi‘ites maintained, it was –or rather, it claimed to be– a charismatic, divinely appointed and divinely endowed institution we shall call the Imamate. The argument was not about Muhammad or the nature of his prophetic calling; it was about the succession. It is a problem familiar to our analyses: who or what follows a prophet? The Sunnis wanted to go down the historical path and attempt to institutionalize the charisma; the Shi’ites preferred to redefine prophecy and extend and redirect it through somewhat different channels.

The Shi‘ites stand somewhat disguised in English. Shi‘ite is short for Shi‘at ‘Ali, the “party of Ali,” the latter the cousin and son-in-law of Muhammad, and one of the first, if not the very first, male believer. Put in that fashion, the Shi‘ite solution to the leadership crisis provoked by the death of Muhammad looks like a purely political one: the Imamate belongs in Muhammad’s family, and, failing a direct male heir, in the hands of Ali and Fatima and their descendents. But in the decades around 750 A.D. the Shi‘at ‘Ali had something more far-reaching in mind.

It is possible to sketch the developed Shi‘ite position on the Imamate, which I shall do shortly, out of reports and tracts that Shicite authors began to produce in the ninth and tenth centuries. What is more difficult to ascertain is how they came by these ideas, many of them as seemingly remote from the Quran’s horizons as the Zohar’s are from the Bible. But between the Zohar and the Bible, Kabbala and Genesis, stretch many centuries of assimilation and evolution, while Shicite theology surfaces in all its gorgeous and quite un-Quranic finery only a century or so after the death of the Prophet. Sometime in the lifetime of the sixth Shi‘ite Imam, Ja‘far al-Sadiq (d. 765), that is, the sixth in putative succession to Ali –putative because actual political power rested in other hands– members of his circle began discussing some rather peculiar ideas: tanâsukh, the transmigration of souls, ghayba, occultation or concealment, and hulûl, divine infusion into mortals. There was a name for the exponents of such ideas, “extremists,” but extreme or not, they found their way into Shi‘ite theology, where they remain to this day.

What is the Shi’ite view of the Imamate? The Imam is first and foremost the divinely ordained leader of the community of Muslims. Ali was appointed by God, the Shi‘ites maintain, publicly announced as such by Muhammad, and even so declared in the Quran in passages which were, again according to the Shi‘ites, long since removed from the standard received text. Thus, unlike the case of the bishop, there is a formal political element in the Imamate –all Muslims owe the Imam their political allegiance– and, let it be noted, there was but one Imam at a time, one for the entire Muslim community, while bishops are essentially site-tied: every bishop is the bishop of a place, and his jurisdiction extends no farther than the boundaries of that place.

The Imam becomes such by virtue of two acts. Like the bishop, he must be formally “ordained” –the Arabic term is “designation” (nass)— by a competent authority: in the case of a bishop, by three validly ordained bishops; in the case of the Imam, by the hand of his father and predecessor. Here we stand at a great divide. The Imamate is essentially and unmistakably a hereditary office, passing from father to son in a direct and unique line from Ali and Fatima to their sons, thence from the younger of the two, the martyred and canonized Husayn –whose ghost still haunts the towns and cities of Iran and the memories of many Americans– down to the seventh in the series according to one group of Shicites, and the twelfth according to others.

Our concern here is not the precise number of Imams but the quality of the office. The Imam is not a prophet, not at least in the sense of the “great prophets” like Moses, Jesus and Muhammad, but the Shicites grant him, if not prophecy, then at least inspiration. The Holy Spirit speaks to the Muslim community through the inerrant, the infallible Imam. Sunni Islam allows itself to be governed by Prophetic traditions handed down on the authority of the Companions of the Prophet, the generation around Muhammad. The Shicites eschew those Companions of the Prophet –the apostolic generation in Christian terms ; their traditions, more authoritative and as equally binding as the Sunni hadîth, are uniquely those handed down from the Imams, speaking as it were ex cathedra for the tota ecclesia of Islam.

The Imamate is, then, like the Christian episcopate, a form of authoritative, ongoing revelation, invoked in the Muslim instance by a minority to validate its dissidence, and in the Christian one by the majority to protect itself from a subversive minority. For both it is the voice of the Holy Spirit channeled through a human agent for the guidance of the community. So much is true, but two final points, one historical and one metaphysical, serve to underline equally profound differences. In the first place, the Shi‘ite theory of the Imamate had, almost from its origins –this is likely a part of its early “extremist” heritage– a cosmological dimension entirely absent not only from the Christian episcopate but from any of the authority figures of Judaism or Christianity save Jesus himself, the preexistent Jesus of the highest of high Christologies. Muhammad, Fatima, Ali and the rest of the Imams are all conceived in their mystical dimension as being a light that God created before the creation of the material world. This light then became the cause and instrument of all the rest of creation. This report in circulation among the Shi‘ites goes back to Ali himself, and merely echoes words put in Muhammad’s own mouth:

God is one; He was alone in His singleness and so He spoke one word and it became a light and He created from that light Muhammad and He created me and my descendants [i.e. the other Imams], then He spoke another word and it became a Spirit and He caused it to settle upon that light and He caused it to settle on our bodies.  And so we are the Spirit of God and His Word…and this was before He created the Creation.

Not even the bishop of Rome dreamed of such grandeur!

On the historical level, the Christian episcopate still functions in some form resembling the earlier second century model. The Reformation has in many instances turned the Guide into a counselor or simply discarded the office, but in more traditional venues east and west bishops still pronounce in the name of the Church. The Imam, on the other hand, is no longer with us, save in spirit. The twelfth –or for others the seventh– Imam dropped from human sight and mortal time in the ninth century and rests in “concealment” until the End of Days. This is by all accounts an extraordinary event, this mysterious desertion of history for eschatology, but what concerns us here is its effect on the notion of an ongoing revelation. The voice of the Imam was not entirely still by his occultation, but is shattered into tiny particles, uncertainly refracted amidst a host of surrogates, spokesmen and claimants to the mantle of inspiration last worn by the Hidden Imam. And in the end the Shi’ites too are reduced to the same toilsome ijtihâd as their Sunni brethren.

But whereas in Sunni Islam ijtihâd was the result of training and skill in jurisprudence, in Shi‘ism the mujtâhid’s authority was eventually linked to the infallible authority of the Imam, from whom the mujtâhid enjoyed his power of “general representation,”  that is, he might serve as a spokesman to the community of the Imam’s will; the community, for its part, had to follow without question. Thus the Shi‘ite mujtâhid became an “exemplar for emulation”  (marja‘ al-taqlîd).

There was always more than one of these authoritative teachers in Shi‘ite Islam, but as their numbers crept slowly upward—there were only three or four at the beginning of the nineteenth century—a degree of hierarchization inevitably set in. The chief mujtâhids began to be designated as Hujjat al-islâm or “Proof of Islam.”  The creation of the title, rather than checking the inflation of “exemplars,” seems instead to have enhanced it, and by the beginning of this century there were enough “Proofs” in the community that some began to be designated by the now familiar Ayatollah (âyat Allâh, “Divine Sign.”). Where the process appears to be heading is to a type of “Romanization,” to the acknowledgement of a single mujtâhid mutlaq, a kind of “prima mulla assoluta”  with infallible and unquestioned authority, a post and a role not too different, one may think, from those of the bishop of Rome.

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