Citation for Walāyah

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Wadūd-Muh.sin, Āmina . "Walāyah." In The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World. Oxford Islamic Studies Online. May 19, 2022. <>.


Wadūd-Muh.sin, Āmina . "Walāyah." In The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World. Oxford Islamic Studies Online, (accessed May 19, 2022).


Sometimes translated “sainthood,” walāyah is the term denoting the characteristics required for succession in Shiism. Shīʿīs do not believe that the Prophet Muḥammad died without appointing a successor—as was his custom even for a short absence. That successor is said to have been ʿAlī ibn Abī Ṭālib, a cousin of the Prophet and the earliest male convert to Islam.

While returning from his farewell pilgrimage, the Prophet gave a speech at the oasis of Ghadīr Khumm, saying, “For whomever I am the master (mawlā) and authority whom he obeys, ʿAlī will be his master.” The Feast of Ghadīr celebrates the formal transfer of political power from the Prophet to ʿAlī. The Qurʿānic passage, “Your walī can only be Allāh, and His messenger and those who believe, who establish worship while paying the poor due” (5:58), is said to be further evidence of the Prophet's preference for ʿAlī as the walī or guardian of believers. The term walāyah originates with ʿAlī, and the line of succession continues through those appointed based on their esoteric knowledge. Such successors must also trace their ancestry to the Prophet's household in order to fulfill Muḥammad's deathbed statement, “I leave two great and precious things among you: the Book of Allāh and my household.” The descendants of the Prophet's daughter Fāṭimah, the wife of ʿAlī, thus become the rightful guardians of the pure tradition of Islam.

Their guardianship requires not only political leadership and active involvement in upholding religious law, but also special knowledge of the esoteric dimension of Qurʿānic revelation. Such a rightful imam leads in both external action and inward or esoteric guidance. In both Sunnī and Shīʿī Islam the imam is the one who leads the prayer. In Shiism the imam is also seen as the rightful inheritor of esoteric leadership. Shīʿīs believe that the imperfection of men is reflected in their political system, and the perfect government is that of the imam. The imam's duty is to fulfill the function of walāyah, and thus the walī and the imam are one and the same.

When the cycle of prophecy (dāʿirat al-nubūwah) ended with seal of the prophets, Muḥammad, the cycle of initiation (dāʿirat al-walāyah) began. This is a chain of authority in esoteric interpretation extending directly from the Prophet, which will continue until the day of judgment. The prophet brings the divine laws, then leaves; but the imam is always present, even if hidden or unknown. Like the Prophet, the imam also has ʿiṣmah (inerrancy in religious and spiritual matters) because he carries al-nūr al- Muḥammadī (the Muḥammadan light). He is also an intermediary between man and God.

God chooses the person who bears the duty of interpreting the inner meaning of revelation to men and of preserving the link between humankind and divine revelation. He is the walī of Allāh, the friend of God. He is given divine protection against error, like the prophets, in order to preserve God's religion intact.



  • Dakake, Maria Massi. The Charismatic Community: Shiʿite Identity in Early Islam. Albany, N.Y., 2007.
  • Nasr, Seyyed Hossein. Ideals and Realities of Islam. Boston, 1975. Provides a brief overview of key concepts in Islamic thought, including the distinctive Shīʿī understanding of some concepts.
  • Tabāṭabāʿī, Muḥammad Ḥusayn. Shiʿite Islam. 2d ed.Translated and edited by Seyyed Hossein Nasr. Albany, N.Y., 1977. Comprehensive overview of the history, doctrine, and ideology of Shiism and Shīʿī perspectives on issues of shared concern between Shīʿī and Sunnī Muslims.

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