Trial of Ibrahim (a) Verse

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The Ibtilaʾ (Trial) of ʾIbrāhīm (a) Verse (Arabic: آية إبتلاء إبراهيم) is the verse 124 of sura al-Baqara in which God appointed Ibrahim (a) (Abraham) as imam. Referring to this verse, Shi'a believe that imamate is a God-given position and that imam needs to be infallible.



In this verse, three points have drawn the attention of Muslim exegetes and theologians:

  1. What is the meaning of "trying with words", and what are the words with which God tested Ibrahim (a)?
  2. What is the meaning of imamate which God gave Ibrahim (a) after he successfully passed the trials?
  3. What is the mentioned injustice which inhibits one from attaining the position of imamate? In other words, does this verse implies infallibility as the requirement of imamate?

Meaning of "Kalimat" (Words)

There are different views about the meaning of "Kalimat":

  • It is narrated from Imam al-Sadiq (a) that Ibrahim's (s) trial was through his dream in which he saw that he was sacrificing his son, Isma'il (a) (Ishmael). It seems that this narration refers to one of the most important trials of Ibrahim (a), not excluding his trial, in the above verse, to sacrificing his son.
  • About the verse, three interpretations are narrated from Ibn al-'Abbas,
  1. The 10 orders related to the purity of body: Madmada, Istinshaq [inhalation], brushing teeth, circumcision, trimming mustache, etc.
  2. There are 30 Islamic qualities or instructions which are mentioned in the Qur'an, in al-Tawba (9):112, al-Ahzab (33):35 and al-Mu'minun (23):1-9.
  3. Hajj rituals.
  • Al-Hasan al-Basri said that, the "trials" are Ibrahim's (a) debate with the worshipers of stars, the moon and the sun, throwing him into fire, his immigration and sacrificing his son, Isma'il (a).
  • Abu 'Ali al-Juba'i said that, Ibrahim's (a) trial was through intellectual and religious obligations.
  • Al-Mujahid has said, that the intended meaning of "words" was the phrase "He said, 'I am making you the Imam of mankind.'" and its following verses. Accordingly, imamate is a part of Ibrahim's (a) trial, not a position he (a) was given afterwards.

Al-'Allama al-Tabrisi, after mentioning the above opinions, says that the verse reflects them all.

Discussion and Evaluation

Since in the noble Qur'an, "words" do not refer to some parts of the statement, 'Allama Tabataba'i did not consider al-Mujahid's opinion worthy of any attention.

After mentioning above opinions except the first one, al-Tabari says that, it is possible that all or some of the mentioned opinions would be meant, because there is no authentic hadith about this.

Ibn Kathir considered al-Mujahid's idea in conflict with the context of the verse, but said that other opinions would be right.

Al-Qurtubi quoted from Abu Ishaq al-Zajjaj that different opinions are compatible for the interpretation of "words", because Ibrahim (a) was tested with all those.

Even though the meaning of "words" is not mentioned in the Qur'an, but the context of the verse implies that whatever "words" have been, they have been important in proving Ibrahim's (a) competence for the position of imamate.


According to narrations received from the Ahl al-Bayt (a), God gave the position of imamate to Ibrahim (a) after the position of Khulla [friendship].

Position of Khulla is when human being becomes full of God's love and friendship and does not love anything but God and thus he would not save any act of devotion in the way of God.

Accordingly, it can be said that, trials such as throwing onto fire by Nimrod, immigration from his homeland and settling his family in the hot and arid land of Arabia and sacrificing his son were all among the "words" and trials intended by the verse.

Also, this point is clear that the mentioned trials took place during Ibrahim's (a) prophethood before he received his position of imamate.

Ibrahim's (a) Position of Imamate

There are different opinions in this regard as well:

Universal Imamate

First opinion: imamate is quality specific to him. After passing important tests, he (a) was given the imamate of the people of his time and other times, including even the prophets; i.e. everyone followed his monotheistic traditions.

To support this opinion, some evidences are mentioned from the Qur'an, for example, to reject Jews and Christians' claim that they related Ibrahim (a) to their religion at the time of the Prophet (s), the Qur'an mentions that those who are the most worthy to be related with Ibrahim (a), are the Prophet (s), his followers and those who followed Ibrahim (a) before Islam. In another verse, God revealed it to the Prophet (s) that he must follow Ibrahim's (a) religion and in another verse, introduced Islam, the same religion as the religion of Ibrahim (a).

Criticisms and Evaluation

This theory cannot be acceptable due to the following reasons:

  • Musa (a) (Moses), 'Isa (a) (Jesus) and the Prophet (s) of Islam, each had an independent religion and since every religion abrogates the religion previous to it, so it could not be said that these prophets (a) have been following Ibrahim's (a) religion. Accordingly, the intended meaning of the mentioned verses is the heart of Ibrahim's (a) religion which is monotheism and submission against divine orders and prohibitions, as it is mentioned in the Qur'an that, "Indeed, with Allah the religion is Islam." (3:19)
  • The noble Qur'an regards Ibrahim (a) as the follower of Nuh (a) (Noah) , and it is not meant that Ibrahim (a) was following the religion of Nuh (a); however, it means that Ibrahim (a) followed Nuh's (a) approach in the way of monotheism and fighting with polytheism and ignorance and thus following Ibrahim (a) by the prophets (s) after him, is the same.
  • Ibrahim (a) asked God to grant imamate to his descendants and God gave it to the pure ones among his descendants, as in the Qur'an mentioned about Ibrahim (a), Ishaq (a) (Isaac) and Ya'qub (a) (Jacob) that, "We made them imams, guiding by Our command." (21:73)

Therefore, imamate cannot be regarded among Ibrahim's (a) specific qualities.


Second opinion: some scholars have interpreted the imamate in this verse as the prophethood. Fakhr al-Din al-Razi approves this view and says:

"Firstly, from the phrase 'the Imam of the mankind', it can be understood that Ibrahim (a) was the imam of all people and that is a quality of the prophets (s) who brought a new religion; since otherwise, he would be a follower of another prophet which disagrees with the fact that he was "the Imam of the mankind".
Secondly, the prophets, whether those who brought a religion or others, had the position of imamate, since following them was obligatory upon people.
Thirdly, imamate in this verse is mentioned as a divine grace upon Ibrahim (a); therefore, imamate is the greatest divine blessing which is the prophethood."

Criticism and Evaluation

In al-Razi's viewpoint, the two statements mentioned firstly and secondly are not compatible with each other, because in the first statement, imamate of Ibrahim (a) has been regarded as the prophethood of those prophets who brought new religions and in the second statement, it is regarded as the prophethood in its general sense.

Also, the third statement does not prove his claim, since to consider imamate as an act of grace is not compatible with considering imamate as prophethood.

Moreover, undoubtedly, all or some of the trials Ibrahim (a) passed and made him worthy of the position of imamate, happened during his prophethood and thus it is impossible to interpret imamate as prophethood.

Another point which rejects al-Razi's view is that when Ibrahim (a) received the position of imamate from God, he asked it for his children as well and this shows that Ibrahim (a) either had children then or at least was sure to have one, because he would not ask his request provided that he would have any children.

Also we know that Ibrahim (a) had no children until he (a) was old and he (a) was disappointed to have any child in a natural way and when angels gave him the good news that he (a) would have children, "He said, 'Do you give me good news though old age has befallen me? What is the good news that you bring me?'" (15:54) Thus, he (a) received the position of imamate at the end of his prophethood, after he (a) received the good news of having children.

A Perfect Exemplar

Third opinion: imamate in this verse refers to Ibrahim's (a) quality of being a perfect exemplar. The condition of reaching this position is that the person reaches a level of spiritual perfection that he (a) does not even commit a "Tark al-Awla" [priority failure]. Even though the prophets (s) before Ibrahim (a) were infallible, but according to the Qur'an, they sometimes committed something, abandoning which was preferred. These prophets (s) did not reach such a position as of Ibrahim (a) and their speech and actions cannot be regarded as the perfect example for mankind for all ages, but after passing difficult trials, Ibrahim (a) reached a position which is considered a perfect exemplar for all the mankind.

Criticism and Evaluation

As mentioned before, imamate has been given to pure ones in the progeny of Ibrahim (a) such as Ishaq (a) [Isaac] and Ya'qub (a) [Jacob], and undoubtedly the spiritual perfection and position of "Ulu al-'Azm" prophets such as Nuh (a) [Noah], Musa (a) [Moses] and 'Isa (a) [Jesus] have been greater than those ones in the children of Ibrahim (a) and that Ulu al-'Azm prophets have been given the position of imamate; therefore, Ibrahim (a) alone cannot be regarded as the perfect exemplar of the mankind.

Political Leadership and Wilayah

Fourth opinion: some exegetes have interpreted imamate in this verse as political leadership and Wilayah.

The justification for such an interpretation is that political leadership and Wilayah is not a part of prophethood and its relation with prophethood is partial in subject and aspect; i.e. some prophets have had political leadership and Wilayah in addition to their position of prophethood and many others have not had such a position, like Imams (a) had political leadership and Wilayah but they were not prophets.

Al-Shaykh al-Tusi has mentioned this opinion in al-Tibyan. In a treatise, he wrote about this issue, he says,

"The word 'imam' is used in two cases, one who is the leader of others in actions and speeches and another who rises as apolitical leader to manage the society.
In the first usage, a prophet and an imam are the same, because every prophet is an exemplar for others in actions and speeches; but, in the second usage it is not the same. Since there are prophets who are sent only to deliver divine orders to people, but they were not missioned to take the political leadership of the society."

Then, al-Shaykh al-Tusi has given reasons to distinguish the meaning of prophethood from imamate in its meaning of political leadership:

  1. from the verse about Talut's ruling, it can be understood that the prophet was not having imamate and ruling together at that time; since, if it was so, people would not ask him to appoint a ruler for them. Also, if he was in position of ruling, people would not say that, "we are more competent to rule than Talut", but they would say that, "you are more competent to rule than Talut."
  2. Harun (a) (Aaron) was a partner of Musa (a) in his prophethood, but he did not have the position of imamate as managing social affairs, because when Musa wanted to go to Miqat, he (a) appointed Harun (a) his deputy, so if Harun (a) had the position of imamate, he did not need to be appointed as the deputy.
  3. God gave the position of imamate to Ibrahim (a) after prophethood and after he (a) successfully passed divine trials; therefore, the prophethood of Ibrahim (a) was not at the same time with his imamate. Amin al-Islam al-Tabrisi approved this viewpoint.

Criticism and Evaluation

The noble Qur'an considers judgment in arguments as one of the purposes of prophethood and states, "… then Allah sent the prophets as bearers of good news and as warners, and He sent down with them the Book with the truth, that it may judge between the people concerning that about which they differed, …" (2:213)

The issues that al-Shaykh al-Tusi mentions for distinguishing between prophethood and imamate do not prove his claim.

About the prophet of Banu Israel at the time of Talut, that people asked the prophet (s) to appoint a ruler for their war with the enemies is an obvious reason for the fact that they regarded commanding the army among the duties of the prophet (s) and also the prophet (s) did not reject their request and did not say that it is not among the duties of prophethood. But, that people thought themselves more competent for ruling than Talut was because they judged about that based on wealth and popularity. That was why the prophet (s) described Talut's physical and intellectual competences and rejected people's judgments.

Harun (a), even though had the merits of imamate, but with the presence of Musa (a) who was an Ulu al-'Azm prophet and had the political leadership of the society, there was no grounds for Harun (a) to exert political imamate; and thus everything had to be carried out following Musa's order.

Also, if Ibrahim's (a) imamate meant to be political leadership, it did not need such grave trials. In political leadership, more than spiritual merits, competence and wisdom in social leadership are required and prophets (s), as the best of people of their times, had such qualities, especially that they were infallible in knowledge and action.

Spiritual Guidance

Fifth opinion: from 'Allama Tabataba'i's viewpoint, imamate in this verse is spiritual guidance; which is not of the nature of guiding the way, but it is of the nature of reaching the desired and bringing one to the desired.

Such a guidance requires the having a special spiritual perfection and position which is achieved after great struggles. To prove this opinion, 'Allama refers to some verses of the Qur'an:

  • Verses which mention prophet's guiding after mentioning their position of imamate such as, "And amongst them We appointed imams to guide [the people] by Our command, when they had been patient and had conviction in Our signs." (32:24)
  • Verses which explain divine order, "All His command, when He wills something, is to say to it 'Be,' and it is. (82) So immaculate is He in whose hand is the dominion of all things and to whom you shall be brought back." (36:82-83)
  • Verses which state that perfect knowledge and true certainty requires that people go beyond the appearance of the world to see the heart of things, as the Qur'an mentions about Ibrahim (a) that, "Thus did We show Ibrahim the dominions of the heavens and the earth, that he might be of those who possess certitude." (6:75)

From these verses, the following points are understood:

  1. Imamate and guidance are together; i.e. guidance is the special feature of imamate and its introducing sign; thus imamate without guidance and guidance without imamate is impossible to imagine. The mentioned guidance is happened by the will of God.
  2. Achieving the position of imamate and guidance can be achieved by divine will through patience in the way of God and certitude in the signs of God. Since, patience is mentioned unconditionally, it includes any patience in the way of God, bearing hardships and steadfastness in divine trials. This patience is the fruit of the perfect knowledge and certitude in the signs of God.
  3. Divine will is actually the spiritual aspect of things and every creature connects with God from its spiritual aspect. Therefore, an imam must be one of the people of certitude, meaning that they see the spiritual aspect of universe and using such a knowledge he can enter competent hearts through their spiritual dimension and guide them towards God.

Therefore, journey of people towards God and their achievement to the desired perfection can happen through imam's inner and spiritual influence, the same as during the apparent life of imam, when he shows the way of happiness to human beings. Thus, imam's guidance has two apparent and spiritual aspects.

Spiritual Guidance has Levels

According to verses 72 and 73 of Sura al-Anbiya' which shows the imamate of Ishaq (a) and Ya'qub (a) and their lack of any special privileges over other prophets regarding imamate and definiteness of the imamate of Ulu al-'Azm prophets, the commonness of imamate for divine prophets cannot be rejected. However, imamate as spiritually guiding and reaching the desired has different levels relative to every prophet's capacity, but all of them have the position of imamate.

Proofs for the Infallibility of Imams

Fakhr al-Din al-Razi's Reasoning

From the phrase "I am making you the Imam of mankind.", Fakhr al-Din al-Razi infers Ibrahim's (a) infallibility so that imam is one who is followed, if he commits a sin, following him in that sin becomes obligatory, but it is wrong; since, an action a sin if it is forbidden and since following an imam is obligatory, therefore, following that action becomes obligatory; while an action cannot be obligatory and forbidden at the same time.

Twelver Shi'a Reasoning

Twelver Shi'a theologians and exegetes refer to the phrase "My pledge does not extend to the unjust." and say that, one who commits a sin, has done injustice, because he has broken the rules of God and according to the Qur'an, "…and whoever transgresses the bounds of Allah —it is they who are the wrongdoers." (2:229) and also God says "My pledge does not extend to the unjust." where the pledge refers to imamate, since the phrase "I am making you the Imam of mankind." has come before that. Also Ibrahim (a) asked God to give imamate to his children and God answered, "My pledge does not extend to the unjust."; therefore, if the pledge here does not mean as imamate, then the answer would be irrelevant to the request.

Question and Answer

It is said that Zalim [the unjust] is one who firstly, commits a great sin; and secondly, does not Tawba (repent) of his sin. But, a sinner who does repent is not called a Zalim [the unjust].

The answer is that the negation in the phrase "My pledge does not extend to the unjust." is absolute and means that anyone who can be called an unjust person at any moment of his life, would not receive imamate and conditioning this phrase needs a reason which is non-existent.

Second Answer: Here, regarding the existence of a definite evidence, those who commit a sin and then repent would not receive the pledge of imamate, as Ibrahim's (a) children can be categorized into four groups:

  1. Those who were unjust at the beginning, but then repented and were on the right path the rest of their lives;
  2. Those who were not unjust at the beginning, but became unjust later and were the same until the end of their lives;
  3. Those who were unjust from the beginning until the end of their lives;
  4. Those who could never be called unjust.

Undoubtedly, Ibrahim (a) did not ask God to give imamate to the second and third groups among his children. Only the first and fourth groups could be the ones he (a) asked God to give imamate to. On the other hand, the phrase "My pledge does not extend to the unjust." implies that the first group could not receive imamate; therefore, only the fourth group could receive imamate; i.e. those who never committed any action which could be an example of injustice.