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Last Updated: 2012/04/14
Summary of question
In light of the various (and sometimes contradictory) meanings which have been listed for the term Wilāyat (guardianship), please detail the actual meaning behind the word.
In light of the various (and sometimes contradictory) meanings which have been listed for the term Wilāyat (guardianship), please detail the actual meaning behind the word.
Concise answer

The word Wilāyat comes from the word Walī; various meanings have been listed for this word. The lexical meaning of this word is complete guardianship or ownership over a matter or object. Its more general meaning pertains to the guardianship of the perfect human beings (Insān Kāmil) over the rest of humanity in all of its various aspects. These aspects include the individual and the societal, the religious and the worldly, the apparent and the concealed, both in thoughts and intentions. This guardianship is designed to take human beings towards ultimate success, both in this world as well as in the next, and it is itself a means of such success.

Detailed Answer

The words Wilāyat and Mawlā are taken from the word Walī and the grammarians have listed various meanings for it. Amongst these meanings are the following: owner, slave, an individual who has freed someone, an individual who has been freed, owner, relative, neighbor, son, uncle, lord, helper, giver, partner, the son of one’s sister, lover, follower, groom, and one who, from certain perspectives, has precedence in the personal affairs of another, more than that person himself.[1]

In typical usage, the word Wilāyat means to have the right to intervene in the affairs of others in different respects, without them losing their right of choice or ownership.

The Imamate of the Infallible Imams (a) over the Islamic society is the manifestation and application of this Wilāyat over the social and political matters of the society and the guidance of the people towards a truly Islamic community and in answer of their needs; both religious and judicial. If humanity accepts this guardianship and makes the Walī’s way of life and demeanor a source of learning and education, they will reach material and spiritual felicity both in this world and the next. On the flipside, if they do not submit to this authority and system of guardianship, they will only suffer loss. This is while whether or not the people know it or not, the Imam (a) is aware of the external and internal affairs of everyone, and can intervene in them at will. He can also have takwini (having to do with creation) intervention; for example, he can change a brick to gold or grant life to a picture on the wall, or cure incurable diseases or solve other impossible problems and help those who cling to their intercession. However, the Walī never uses these abilities in vain, without wisdom and in an uncommon manner. Therefore, the term ‘Wilāyat ’ that Shia scholars use, should not be considered as an equivalent of Imamate; rather, Wilāyat should be taken as the prerequisite to Imamate. In other words, it is one of the important conditions of the Imamate, and while the Guardian is available and present, it is impermissible for anyone else to lead the Muslim nation and have them pursue his goals and intentions! The reason being that it is a logically sound precept and very obvious that with the existence of one who is more superior and qualified for a position, no one else should assume it; the only exception would be if someone was allowed to take over this position by the direct permission of the supreme Walī himself. An example of this would be the guardianship of the jurist during the occultation of the 12th Imam (a). In such cases where there is permission by the Imam himself, the power of such an individual is limited to that which has been allocated to them and he cannot cross that line. It can be concluded from this that the rank of ‘Divine Guardianship’ that is attributed to the infallible prophet (s) and imams (a), is actually the rank of ‘Divine Vicegerency’ which is the aim of the creation of man; a rank which was the reason for the angels’ prostration to him. If there is to be a time where there is no Imam, the world will swallow its inhabitants.[2]

As to other forms of Wilāyat  that others also possess, they are merely the right to intervention in the affairs of whom they have guardianship over. For example, a father has guardianship over his children, but his power is limited if we were to compare it to the power of a religious ruler over society.

To put it in other terms, the Wilāyat of God, the Prophet (ṣ) and the Imams (a) are all fundamental and essential, stemming from their capabilities and necessitated by their essences, while the Wilāyat of the rest of the people is a sort of unessential Wilāyat that depends on the legislation and allotment of the Divine Legislator. At the same time, the realization and actualization of the Wilāyat  of the prophet (s) and imams (a) in society, depends on the reception and obedience and submission of the people towards them and their interventions and commands and prohibitions, and their satisfaction of their (the infallibles’) judgments and decrees.

According to the beliefs of the Shia, submission to the Walī of God and his commands and prohibitions, judgments and decrees, is something religiously obligatory upon all, and in the case that someone does not submit to this, they have not in reality submitted to the oneness of God (Tawḥīd) and prophethood. In other words, if one is to accept the existence of God and Tawhid and God’s justice (adl), he must accept prophethood, and one who accepts Tawhid and prophethood, must accept the guardianship of the Walī. This issue is derived from the verses 3 of Surah Māʾidah which mentions the proclamation of the Walī as being the equivalent of proclaiming and communicating the message (risālat) and the oneness of God (tawḥīd), and verse 59 of Surah Nisāʾ, which establishes the obedience towards the Ulul Amr (those vested with authority) as being obedience towards God and his Messenger (s), and the tradition of Thaqalayn, which establishes the Itrat (family) as being next to (Qarīn) the Holy Quran.[3] According to another tradition by the Prophet (s), anyone who dies without knowing the Imam of his time has died the death of Jahilīyah (the pre Islamic times of ignorance).[4] Without a doubt, acceptance of Wilāyat results in the security of the family and the society, as well as the improvement of religious, cultural, and economic issues of a community, and if it is done with the intention of obeying God and seeking His satisfaction, it will be rewarded as well. As a matter of fact, as is apparent from many traditions, no worship or action is accepted without that individual accepting the guardianship of the ‘Walī Allah’. For example, Imam Riḍā (a) has narrated the following tradition which is a Qudsi tradition (something God has said, but isn't a Quranic verse): ‘The word of La Ilaha Illallah is my (God’s) impenetrable fortress and whoever enters it is safe from my punishment’. After a few moments of silence, Imam Riḍā (a) continued and said: [Of course], when the conditions of La Ilaha Illallah are met, and I [accepting my guardianship and authority] is one of those conditions.”[5]

Another tradition from Imam Bāqir (a) has stated the following: “Islam was firmly established on five things: prayer, charity (zakat), fasting, Ḥajj, and Wilāyat, and none of these is as important as Wilāyat.”[6] This is because “Wilāyat plays a pivotal role amongst the foundations of Islam and the Imam (a) is the guide of religion.”[7]

It is befitting to remind that one’s journey towards Allah and achieving the rank of ‘Divine Vicegerency’, is a never ending one; it has many stations and is a very long path. In every time and era, only one person is at the peak of this pinnacle and is unmatched by his contemporaries. It is he who will have Wilāyat  over the rest, no matter how close to him the rest might be in rank. For example, during the time of the Prophet (s), no one (not even Imam Ali (a) or the Lady Fatima (a) could reach him in rank and they were all under his Wilayat. After the passing of the Prophet (s), both Imam Hasan (a) and Imam Husayn (a) were under the guardianship of Imam Ali (a). Likewise, during the time when Imam Hasan (a) was the Imam, Imam Husayn (a) was under his Wilayat. Furthermore, when Imam Husayn (a) became the Imam, he held the peace treaty between Imam Hasan (a) and Muawiyah to be valid until the passing of Muawiyah and he didn’t initiate direct hostilities with him due to this reason. Each time period has one Imam (a) and this applies whether the people are aware of it or not, or know that he is watching or not. In this day and age, the Shia hold the only one bearing the flag of Divine Vicegerency to be none other than the twelfth imam, Imam Mahdi, Hujjat ibn al-Hasan al-Askari.

Also, since this path is never ending, and the aim of the creation of all people is to make this journey – as he says: “إنا للَّه و انّا إليه راجعون” (We are from Him and unto Him is our return)[8] – if the rest of the people desire to also enjoy the many stations of this path, they have no choice but to accept the Wilāyat  of the Walī of Allah and follow him in his every footstep; this way they too will be able to swiftly cover this path and reach their perfection of humanity.[9]

Those with some literacy who had embraced Islam, tried to explain the verses and traditions that stated Imam Ali’s appointment by Allah and the prophet to Imamate and Wilāyat over the people, in a way contradictory to what Allah and the prophet had really meant.

Due to this reason, the word Wilāyat was taken to mean friend or helper by certain people in the ‘Verse of Wilāyat’: "انما وليكم اللَّه..."[10], the ‘Verse of Obedience’: "اطيعوا الله و اطیعوا الرسول و اولى الامر منكم"[11], and the famous tradition of Ghadīr: "من كنت مولاه فهذا على مولاه". This is while this particular meaning of Wilāyat does not fit with the context (the exclusivist clause of “Innamā” – meaning ‘only – and the fact that the verses are counting Allah and the prophet and those vested with authority at the same level, and this cannot mean that anyone with authority is at the same level of Allah and the prophet) or the circumstances of revelation for these verses and the traditions that explain these verses and identify them with Imam Ali (as). Also, such a meaning for the term Walī in these traditions and verses cannot be true, for it does not make sense for the prophet to hold all the pilgrims in the desert of Ghadir Khum and to get them to testify to Tawhid and his prophethood, and get their allegiance for Imam Ali (as), and yet all that he means by the term Walī when he is introducing Imam Ali (as), is ‘friend’. It would be illogical to assume that the Prophet (s) stopped such a large number of people in the middle of the desert simply to mention that Imam Ali (a) was his friend and the friend of the Muslims.

Therefore, although such altered meanings for the term Walī in these verses and traditions may be correct lexically, but they certainly don’t read with their contexts and circumstances; this is something the unbiased, truth seeking mind admits to; it sees them to be strong and undisputable evidence and proof for the immediate Wilāyat  of Imam Ali (as) after the prophet (s).

It is also noteworthy that the rest of the imams can also be identified and proven through prophetic traditions and the appointment of every imam, the imam to be, in addition to each and every one of them bearing the signs of Wilāyat  (miracles, intervention in takwini (related to creation) matters, knowing others’ intentions, their great amount of knowledge of the unseen and their infallibility).


1- A group of writers, Maʿārif Islāmī, vol. 1 and 2, a discussion on the Imamate.

2- Jawādī Āmulī, ‘Abdullah, ʿĪd Wilāyat, p. 61-70.

3- Jawādī Āmulī, ʿAbdullah, Wilāyat in the Quran.

4- Jawādī Āmulī, ʿAbdullah, Wilāyat ʿAlawī, p. 28-55, 117.

5- Ḥalabī, Taqī al-Dīn Abū al-Ṣilāḥ, p. 127-133.

6- Saʿīdī Mehr, Muḥammad, Kalām Islāmī, vol. 2, p. 130-200.

7- Muṭṭaharī Murtaḍā, Imamate and Leadership, p. 43-95, 161-169.

8- Muṭṭaharī Murtaḍā, The Perfect Human Being.

9- Hādavī Tehrānī, Mahdī, Wilāyat va Dīyānat, p. 64-66.


[1] FiruzAbadi, Al-Qamus al-Muhit; Sa’idi Mehr, Muhammad,‌ Kalām Islāmī, vol. 2, p. 168.

[2] Muṭṭaharī Murtaḍā, Imamate and Leadership, pp. 46-76.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Biḥār al-Anwār, vol. 3, p. 8.

[6] Biḥār al-Anwār, vol. 65, p. 329-333.

[7] Jawadi Amoli, Abdullah, ʿĪd Wilāyat, pp. 62-64.

[8] Surah Baqarah, Verse 156; Surah Inshiqāq, Verse 6.

[9] Refer to: Questions 314 and 315; Muṭṭaharī Murtaḍā, The Perfect Human.

[10] Surah Māʾidah, Verse 55.

[11] Surah Nisā, Verse 59.


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