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Islam, Infallibles

What are the principals of Islam?

The five individual Pillars of Religion (Usul al-Din) depicted as Pillars holding up the structure of Islam.

Islam is based on three interconnected dimensions;

  1. The Unity of God, Divine Justice, Prophethood, Imamate, Resurrection.
  2. The teachings and commands outlining the ethical conduct between fellow believers.
  3. The legal obligation to conduct oneself in accordance with the Ahkam, or Islamic laws.

The traditions that deal with the beliefs of Islam contain five fundamental articles known as Usul al-Din (Principles of the Religion). They are rooted in the Qur’an as well as the hadith corpus of Prophet Muhammad (s.a.w) and the Ahlulbayt.


The Five Principles of Religion are as follows:

1. Divine Unity - al-Tawhid

Divine Unity is the foundation of Islam. The Qur’an is clear on Al-Tawhid, referring to God (Allah) as the One and only God who has no peers, no equal, and no partners. He is Eternal, the First and the Last.

2. Divine Justice – al-Adl

Our belief in Divine Justice is that God the Almighty does not oppress human beings, and this is a logical conclusion.

3. Prophethood – al-Nubuwah

The role of Prophets and messengers is to convey the Divine message and guide the believers. Shi’a theologians in the past articulated arguments stating that the medium between God and the believers (i.e. a prophet or a messenger) are carriers of an Infallible message and they too must be Infallible in order to preserve the Infallible message. We belief that the last prophet sent to guide mankind was Prophet Muhammad (s.a.w).

The Qur’an also makes a strong statement about the need for an unquestionable, or an Infallible messenger who carries the message of God:

’O Prophet!  Truly we have sent thee as a Witness, a Bearer of Glad Tidings, and Warner [33:45]’’

4. Imams - Imamah

Our belief is that Imamah is a necessary belief for Shi’a Muslims and the Imams are Divinely chosen by God. In fact at all times and at every era there has to be an Infallible Imam present to guide the believers. 

5. Resurrection – al-Ma'ad

Belief in resurrection after death, including the day of judgement, is considered mandatory to define one’s status as a Muslim. The Qur’an makes it undoubtedly clear that resurrection will be of both body and soul:

‘’Does man think that we shall not gather his bones? Yea! We are able to make complete his very fingertips (75:3-4).

Seeking rational proof is the most important tool to reach conviction in beliefs. Based on narrations from the Imams, the Shi'a believe that it is not acceptable to emulate others in principles of belief. Each person must independently arrive at conviction and not rely on jurists and scholars. 

The Qur’an provides the first challenge for believers of Islam to consider and deliberate the Pillars of Faith (Usul al-Din), or the principal articles of faith that distinguish belief from disbelief, Islam from Kufr.

The practice of theological debate in all of its forms developed into a sophisticated science, known as ilm al-Kalam (Science of Dialectical Speech) and ilm Usul al-Din (Science of the Principles of Religion) in the second/eighth century, almost two centuries after the death of Prophet Muhammad (s.a.w).

Words and Their Meaning

The word "usul" means “principle,” “fundamental” or “pillar”. In Twelver Shi’a Islam, theological debate is underpinned by dialectical arguments that are rooted in the twin poles of scripturalism al-maʼarif al-naqliyyah and rationalism (al-maʼarif al-ʼaqliyyah).

Traditional Twelver Shi’a Islam theological epistles and creeds list five usul, commonly known as 'Usul al-Din al-khamsa' (The Five Principles of Religion), which serve as the basis for Furuʼal-Din, the Branches of Religion.


The early theological deliberations of what later became Twelver Shi’a Islam, from the time of Imam Ali (a.s) (40AH/661AD) to the occultation of the twelfth Shiʼa Imam, represent the formative period of Twelver theology that saw the development of early confessional creed which was later to become the standard five pillars of religion, Usul al-Din. The earliest theological deliberations in the Shi'a circles focused on the narratives from the Shiʼa Imams on the nature of Imamate and its existing dimensions such as Infallibility, knowledge of the unseen (ʼilm al-ghayb), and designation of Imamate.

According to the fourth/tenth century Baghdad-based Shi'a bibliographer and author of "Kitab al-fihrest, Ibn al-Nadim," the first Shi’a figure to articulate a Kalam (theological) argument in favour of the Imamate was ʼ‘Ali b. Ismaʼil b. Maytham al-Tayyar [sic] who wrote a Kitab defending the theological basis for Imamate. It is worth noting that the former was a contemporary of and debated with leading figureheads from the Muʼtazila Abu al-Huthayl al-ʼAllaf (226AH/841AD) and AbuIshaq al-Nazzam (231AH/845AD).

An increasing number of theological adversaries, using a variety of traditional and rational modes of enquiry, questioned deliberations pertinent in Twelver Shi’a Islam. Usul al-Din thrived mainly in Islamic heartlands of Iraq, primarily in the cities of Baghdad and Kufa. A class of theologians emerged, all of whom were companions of the Shiʼa Imams in the aforementioned cities, and began to shape Twelver Usul al-Din in an unprecedented manner under the supervision of the Imams.

Among them were: Hisham b. al-Hakam (179AH/796AD), who wrote a number of works on Usul al-DIn covering issues such as Imamate, Predestination, and al-Tawhid. Meantime, Mu’min al-Taq, who, like his contemporary al-Hakam, wrote a number of works on Usul al-Din as well as critiquing theological debate about Imamate by the Muʼtazilites, which he deemed inaccurate. 

Another contemporary of Hisham b. al-Hakam was a Shiʼa theologian by the name of al-Shakkal, who is believed to have written a theological treatise on Imamate arguing in favour of designation of the Imams (al-na). Moreover, other learned companions of the sixth, seventh, and eighth Imams continued to contribute to widespread theological adversaries in the Islamic heartlands on issues such as Prophecy (al-nubuwah), Imamate, and the end of the world (al mabdaʼ wa’lmaʼad). These included companions such as Mohammed b. AbiʼUmayr, Yunus b. ʼAbd al-Rahman, and Fadl b. Shadhan, who was a renowned Faqih (Jurist), muhaddith (narrator), and mutakallim (theologian).

Towards the end of the formative period of early Imami deliberations and articulations in Usul al-Din, Shiʼa scholars of pre-eminience such as Abu Sahl al-Nawbakhti (311AH/923AD) together with his nephew, Abu Mohammed al-Hassan b. Musa al-Nawbakhti (author of the famous work Firaq al-Shiʼa), began to lay the groundwork for later systemisations of Twelver Shiʼa Usul al-Din. Abu Sahl al-Nawbakhti wrote important works on Imamate, Prophecy, Ijtihad, Divine Unity, whilst his nephew, Abu Mohammed, wrote equally important works on Divine Unity, Divine Justice, Imamate, and perhaps the first to do so, works on Falsafa (Philosophy).

The occultation of the Twelfth Imam al-Mahdi in the fourth/tenth century triggered a wave of scholarly initiatives by Imami scholars to further examine the doctrines of faith based on the narratives of the Imams. The codification of the Twelver Shi’a Islam tradition of narrations within the Four Books (al-kutub al-’arbaʼa) was concurrent with the systemisation of theology. In fact the latter two of these hadith compilations were collected and organised by an important figurehead and expert in post-Ghayba Shiʼa thought, including Usul al-Din and hadith sciences, al-Shaykh al-Tusi (460AH/1067AD).

Al-Shaykh al-Tusi’s efforts to standardise the Shiʼa theological creed followed earlier efforts by his predecessors and main teachers, al-Shaykh al-Mufid (413AH/1022AD) and al-Shaykh al-Saduq (326AH/991AD), author of a number of important works in Shi’a thought, including the famous creed ‘Completion of Faith’ (Kamal al-Din); and Ibn Qiba al-Razi, who had been a Mu’tazilite before he became a Twelver.

Al-Mufid’s main contributions came in the form arguments against Mu’tazilite theology that promoted unaided reason (‘aql), over reports (hadiths) which made followers reject distinctively Twelver Shi'a doctrines such as Rajʼa (the return to life of the pious).

Al-Mufid’s theological statements were strongly rational and he defended certain standpoints associated with the traditionalists such as Intercession of the Imams. This was contrary to accusations of Muʼtazilite tendencies.

The third phase of Twelver Shi’a theology arose around the seventh/thirteenth century, and has continued to the modern period. Theological discussions on Usul al-Din incorporated greater philosophical themes underpinned by naturally occurring patterns.

The proofs for the Necessary Existent, or God, took central stage in later creed works such as Nasir al-Din al-Tusi’s (672AH/1274AD) Epitome of Doctrine (Tajrid al-i’tiqad), which had a profound impact on systematic theology in other schools of Islam. Al-Tusi’s Shi'a successors, namely Ibn Mutahhar al-Hilli (725AH/1325AD) and Maytham al-Bahrani (699AH/1300AD), and al-Miqdad al-Suyuri (826AH/1423AD), wrote seminal works in Twelver Systematic Theology that had a profound lasting effect on the teachings of Usul al-Din in Shi'a centres of learning.

These schools continue to this day to instruct students in the works of, for example, al-Hilli’s The Eleventh Chapter (al-Bab al-hadi’ ashar) and his important commentary on the Epitome of Doctrine, kashf al-murad fī sharh tajrid al-i’tiqad (Unveiling the Desired from the Epitome of Doctrine).

Main Debates

The main debates and arguments, including internal and external challenges, encountered by the ShI’a scholarly community before and after the period of the Ghayba have centred around the Five Principles of Religion, namely:

1-    Divine Unity: al-Tawhid

Al-Tawhid has various types and levels:

- Al-Tawhid al-dhati(Unity of the Essence)

- Al-Tawhid al-sifati(Unity of Attributes)

- Al-Tawhid al-afʼali (Unity of Acts)

- Al-Tawhid al-’ibadi (Unity in Worship)

The main debates and challenges Shi'a theologians had to contend with related to the nature of divine attributes such as Life, Knowledge, Power, Will, Perception, Hearing, Vision, etc. and whether they are separate, in reality, from Allah’s essence.

2-    Divine Justice: Al-'Adl

The important features of scholarly and theological debate concerning Divine Justice relate to whether Allah is ‘capable’ of ‘evil’ deeds, or to express it differently, Does Allah force any human to commit evil actions? Shi'a theologians, such as the important fifth/eleventh century figurehead of al-Mufid argued:

“Allah is just, gracious. He created men to worship Him and forbade them to disobey Him. He did not charge anyone with any obligation beyond their ability. His creation is far from frivolity and His action is free from impropriety. He has remained above sharing his servant’s actions and rose above coercing them to do any deed. He does not chastise anyone except when they have sinned and does not chide any bondsman or bondswoman except when they do a horrid deed. He does not do injustice, not even an atom’s weight.”

3-    Prophethood: al-Nubawah

Twelver Shi'a theologians responded to claims made by early Muslim philosophers such as Ibn Sina who argued that the necessity of sending prophets comes from Divine Providence (Inayat).

The alternative position, set forth by Twelver Shi'a theologians in the post-Ghayba period expressed greater inclination for the principle of facilitating divine grace (lutf), an argument which is distinctly Shi'a in its full form.The theologians argued that it is incumbent on God, Allah, out of His mercy and benevolence, to send a Messenger and an Imam to guide mankind. Moreover, Shi'a theologians argued that Messengers and Imams sent by God to guide mankind must be innocent and immune from all types of sins and reprehensible acts because it makes illogical sense for God to send an infallible message through a fallible medium.

4-    Imamate

The number of works about the theory of Imamate indicates its centrality to theological debate. During the late periods there were many books analysing its generalities and particularities. The earliest surviving theological works have significant sections devoted to the theory of Imamate and its general and particular features such as whether Imamate is obligatory, or whether an Imam is designated by Allah or selected by consensus. The most definitive defence of Imamate can be found in the writings of al-Shaykh al-Mufid who said:

 “The Imamate is a divine position, for the spiritual and temporal leadership of the Muslims. It is a grace from Allah bestowed on His bondsmen, making it second to Prophethood. The Imam is appointed by Allah through the prophet. He must be inerrant [ma’um] with respect to grave wrongdoings and petty misdemeanours. There must be, at all times, an impeccable Imam who is the proof [hujjah] of Allah to mankind. His presence is the safeguard of complete religious interests. He must be knowledgeable in all religious sciences. The appointment of the Imam by Allah is an act of grace [luṭf] from Him towards His bondsmen. And the graciousness of sending the prophet and appointing the Imam are incumbent upon Allah. The Imamites [i.e. Twelver Shi'a] are of the view that the inerrant Imams are best among their contemporaries of different times and in all fields, in knowledge and intellectual capacity. They do not know the unseen, but they know the intentions of people through a process of inspiration imbued by Allah.”

5-    Resurrection: al-Ma’ad

The main debate surrounding the issue of resurrection, a theme which dominates the Divine scripture and hadith corpus, is primarily concerned with the mode and type of resurrection that is often mentioned in the Qur’an. Early Muslim philosophical views seemed to directly challenge the traditional accounts and the end of humankind narratives in the Qur’an which advocate bodily resurrection in the literal sense. The Shi'a theologians reached a consensus claiming assertively that resurrection on the day of reckoning is of both body and soul.

Contemporary Relevance

The rise of modernity and post-modernity in Europe presented faith communities around the world with a monumental challenge.  Those effects continue to resonate today as believers from various denominational backgrounds consider contemporary issues such human rights, freedom, liberal democracies, liberal politicisation, ethical and moral re-conceptualisations, the rise of militant atheism and increasing secularisation. Reviving a set of moral and ethical ideals and establishing a spiritual awareness not just for one’s self but for the wider community and society at large is a worthy pursuit that must be grounded in and inspired by doctrine or principles of traditional Islamic values. Attention and adherence to the Usul al-Din is therefore, essential to all seekers of truth and groups who wish to re-awaken dormant ethical and moral ideals that are, by and large, absent from human affairs today.   


Early Creed works and Theological Treatises

Al-Mufid, Mohammed b. al-Nu’man, Tashih al-i’tiqad (Tabriz, 1951)

Al-Mufid, Mohammed b. al-Nu’mān, Awa’il al-maqalat (Tehran, 1993)

Al-HillI, Hassan b. al-Mutahhar, kashdf al-murad fi sharh tajrid al-i’tiqad (Qum, 2004)

Al-HillI, Hassan b. al-Mutahhar, al-bab al-hadi’ashar (Tehran, 2006)

Bibliography and Further Reading

Nasr, Seyyed Hossein, and Leaman, Oliver (eds.), History of Islamic Philosophy, 2 vols. (London: Routledge, 1996)

Al-Shubbar, ʼAbd Allah, haqq al-yaqin fi ma’rifat usul al-Din (Beirut, 1983)

Al-Mudhaffar, Mohammed Rida, ‘aqa’id al-imamiyyah (Beirut, 1994)


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