Completion of Religion & Teachings of the Imams

Back in my mid-to-late teenage years, a question would often boggle my mind. If the religion of Islam was completed on the day of Ghadīr, as the verse of the Quran also indicates, then how was it that the traditions of the Imams (a) were seemingly teaching us rulings that were not taught by the Prophet (p)? If no new law was to be revealed after the Prophet (p), then how do we explain narrations informing us of the legal recommendation of the recitation of some of the prescribed supplications for certain nights of the year, or certain fasts during certain months, or the prohibition of certain foods that Muslims were not even aware of in the Arabian Peninsula during the time of the Prophet (p), etc.? Though I did pose the question to some speakers and students of knowledge during those days, it was not until later that I was equipped with enough tools to read on the matter myself. I discovered that this was indeed an issue some Shī‘ī scholars had tried to wrap their minds around and address.

In fact, I came to the realization that there were a number of other important discussions also connected to this seemingly simple question. Discussions related to the Prophet (p) and the Imams’ (a) legislative authority (al-wilāyah al-tashrī‘īyyah), or the extensive discussions around the principle of “It is not permissible to delay the conveying of a matter past the time of its need” (lā yajūz ta’khīr al-bayān ‘an waqt al-ḥājah)1 are a couple issues closely interconnected with this question.

In this post I will try to shed some light on this question very briefly and list a few theories posed to resolve the matter. To begin with, it is important to look at the definition of a prophet. Fāḍil Miqdād Suyūrī al-Ḥillī (d. 826/1423) in his Irshād al-Tālibīn ila Nahj al-Mustarshidīn2 explains the definition of a prophet as follows:

هو الانسان المخبر عن اللّه تعالى بغير واسطة أحد من البشر

A human who brings a report from Allah without the medium of any other human.

A “human who brings a report” excludes angels, since angels also bring reports from Allah. The phrase “without the medium of any other human”, excludes all of us, since we can also say, “Allah has said so and so”, but we attain our knowledge through other humans, like a Prophet. In other words, there is a barrier between us and Allah. Note that this definition also excludes Imams and as well as other scholars. Given this is the definition of a Prophet, how did Shī‘ī theologians define an Imam? Fāḍil Miqdād explains3 the definition of the Imam as follows:

الامامة رئاسة عامة لشخص من الاشخاص في أمور الدين و الدنيا

Leadership (Imāmah) is the general rulership of a person from amongst the people, in matters of religion and the world.

The phrase “general leadership” excludes those who have specific leadership, such as a governor who rules over a town or a city. The term “of a person” implies that there can only be one Imam with general rulership at a time, not two or more. This leadership of a single person is in matters that pertain to religion or the world. This is a definition that has been accepted even by many non-Shi’a scholars, however, the difference is that the Imami Shī‘a believed just like a Prophet had to be appointed by Allah (swt), the Imam also had to be appointed by Allah. This appointment was done by the final Messenger in the case of Imam ‘Ali (a) and was finalized on the day of Ghadīr as mentioned in the Quran [5:3]:

الْيَوْمَ أَكْمَلْتُ لَكُمْ دِينَكُمْ وَأَتْمَمْتُ عَلَيْكُمْ نِعْمَتِي وَرَضِيتُ لَكُمُ الْإِسْلَامَ دِينًا

Today I have perfected your faith for you, completed My favour upon you, and chosen Islam as your way.

If the Prophet (p) was responsible for conveying the teachings of religion to people, and this religion was perfected and completed as per the verse of the Quran, it is then understood that there are no new laws and regulations being delivered after the Prophet (p). The Imams (a) do not bring a new religion, nor do they add or remove anything to the religion of Islam, which was not taught by the Prophet (p) already. If this was not the case, it would necessarily imply that the Imams (a) brought, added, or removed certain things from religion, essentially creating a “new” religion, or at the very least innovating in it. The question then remains, on the one hand, the religion was completed and perfected, but on the other hand, when we look at the Shī‘ī tradition, we see teachings pertaining to religion that we know – or seemingly known – that were not subject of discussion during the time of the Prophet (p), nor did he teach these matters to his (p) companions. If that is the case, on what basis can later Imams (a) declare something obligatory, prohibited, recommended, or detested if the Prophet (p) himself did not teach those matters?

For example, consider the Imams (a) telling their companions that it is recommended to go for the ziyārat of Imam al-Ḥusayn (a) or prostrate on clay taken from the gravesite of the Imam (a) – in fact, jurists will derive rulings from these very reports and present it as verdicts in their jurisprudential works, attributing these laws to Allah (swt). But, did the Prophet (p) ever teach these rulings to people over the span of two decades? Did the Muslim community know of such rulings?

What about the many specific rulings on the Ahl al-Dhimma and non-Muslims that only appeared decades after the demise of the Prophet (p)? What about rulings on many different animals that were made prohibited, especially those that Muslims only came to know of once they expanded into Iraq and Iran? On what basis would the Imams (a) say that catfish – for example – is prohibited, if the Prophet (p) never conveyed this ruling? Were the Imams (a) legislating law and essentially expanding the religion? If one says that they received this knowledge from angels, that would imply that the definition of a Prophet is also true for them. That would further imply that the sharī‘ah continues to expand and new rules continue to be revealed. However, this conflicts with the verse of Ghadīr saying that the religion was perfected and completed already.

How can we reconcile these two matters? Scholars knew of this issue and they offered a few possible explanations. I will summarize four reconciliations offered for this issue:

First Reconciliation: Some scholars4 argued that itmām al-dīn (completion of the religion) happened with the divine authority of Imam ‘Ali (a), and what that means is that whatever the Imam (a) says is not separate from the Quran, rather it is part of the Quran, part of the verse of Surah Mā’idah. In other words, when Allah (swt) said, today I have perfected your religion, it says, all later religious rulings that will be conveyed through the Imams (a) are already implied and contained in this single verse. They also used certain narrations which say that the 12th Imam (a) will bring a new religion, or that some matters of religion will be exposed and expressed at the time of his (a) reappearance to show that not all of the sharī‘ah was revealed yet and that there is still a gradual revelation occurring through the Imams (a).

It was this specific interpretation that led some Ahl al-Sunnah scholars to accuse the Shī‘a of believing that there is no difference between the Prophet (p) and the Imams (a). This is because this reconciliation suggests the Imams (a) were doing exactly the same thing as the Prophet (p), and the sharī‘ah would continue to be revealed even beyond the Prophet (p).

Critique: When you look at the prima-facie of the Quranic verse, it appears to say that ‘today, the very purpose and objective of religion, which were the teachings of Islam and the sharī‘ah, the risālah; they have all been completed and perfected.’ The verse is not saying, ‘today the religion has been completed, but have patience because there are still many more rules and laws that will be revealed over the next 250 years that I have not revealed yet – and in fact, some of these rules will be revealed in the time of the reappearance of the 12th Imam!’

If this was the case, how can Allah (swt) say He has completed the religion? With the divine authority, the Imam (a) can use those completed teachings to guide the Ummah, but not that the Imam (a) should be able to reveal new religious rules that the Prophet (a) never taught nor mentioned.

Second Reconciliation: Some scholars said that the meaning of itmām al-dīn, the completion of religion, occurred in the Preserved Tablet (al-lawḥ al-maḥfūẓ), not in the apparent world. In other words, we have the al-lawḥ al-maḥfūẓ, where teachings of the religion are written and preserved, and those teachings were then revealed by the Prophet (p) over the course of two decades. As such, this verse is telling us that the religion was perfected and completed in the Preserved Tablet, but not necessarily in the apparent world. This means the Imams (a) can later come and get access to the Preserved Tablet and continue to deliver knowledge of religion to people which had not been revealed to the final Prophet (p) or at the very least conveyed by him (p). In other words, the Prophet (p) did not reveal all the teachings of Islam, rather Allah is speaking of how the Tablet is complete.

Critique: This is a very absurd explanation because the verse is saying today We have perfected your religion “for you” and We completed our blessing “upon you“, meaning all of us. How can Allah (swt) say, I have perfected your religion for you, but then if we were to ask Allah (swt), where is this perfect religion that you have completed for us, He (swt) would respond by saying, ‘I have not given it to you, rather it is with me in the Preserved Tablet.’

If it was completed in the Preserved Tablet, why is that even relevant for people? Allah already had knowledge of all the rules and teachings of the religion, the completion of them or being preserved in the Tablet means nothing for us. The whole point was for the Prophet (p) to get those teachings down to the people and spread them. If that did not happen, then it is not considered complete.

Third Reconciliation: Some scholars said this verse cannot be speaking about the perfection of religion in its entirety because after this verse in this chapter, there are some verses that are revealed which legislate new rules and laws. Thus, how could this verse mean the perfection of religion, but some rules were still being revealed after that for a few months?

Critique: Firstly, if there are any narrations that say certain rulings were legislated after the revelation of Surah Māi’dah, then usually narrations dealing with when specific verses were revealed are very weak, and in fact, this verse would be the best evidence to consider those narrations false.

Secondly, just because there are verses after this in Surah Mā’dah that speak of new teachings, does not mean anything, because the ordering of verses was done by the Prophet (p) and it is well established that not only are chapters in the Quran not in order of revelation, but for lengthier chapters, even verses are not all placed in chronological order. Some chapters were revealed over a span of a few years and the Prophet (p) – based on his knowledge from God – placed verses in specific places. This same chapter contains verse 67, which is the verse of iblāgh, which according to the Shī‘a was revealed before [5:3].

Fourth Reconciliation: Some said5 that ikmāl may mean stability because in Arabic, the verb kamala/kamila/kamula can be used in this meaning. Imagine a king is fighting off some rebels who have taken over his territory. He fights them till the last borders and eventually kicks them out. Day by day he was regaining his land, but the day that the recapture was complete, he could say “Today our dominion is complete”, meaning there are no more enemies on the land and they can do us no harm.

Likewise, this verse is saying, today the religion is complete, meaning Islam’s dominion is complete and enemies of Islam cannot do anything about it. They will be in a state of despair after their defeat. This despair is actualized through the divine appointment of Imam ‘Ali (a) as that is what completed the dominion of the Prophet (p) and he (p) no longer has anything to fear. The sharī‘ah can also continue to exist and expand after him, as the verse does not have anything to do with that with his interpretation.

Critique: The example of stability makes sense if it was a physical land or kingdom that was being spoken about, but that is not what is being completed in the verse. The religion is being completed, and religion is nothing but its teachings. Even the implementation of religious law is not called religion, because when things are not being implemented, we do not say the religion is incomplete or deficient, rather we say the religion and its teachings exist, but people are not adhering to it. Thus, when the verse says, today the religion has been completed, it means the gradual delivery of it has come to an end.

Conclusion: The verse of Ghadīr means that the religion was completed, meaning all of the sharī‘ah, its teachings, anything that was required for us to get closer to Allah (swt) was taught, and anything that takes us away from Allah (swt) was taught. A narration in al-Kāfī also suggests the following:

خَطَبَ رَسُولُ الله (صَلَّى اللهُ عَلَيْهِ وآلِه) فِي حَجَّةِ الْوَدَاعِ فَقَالَ يَا أَيُّهَا النَّاسُ وَالله مَا مِنْ شَيْ‏ءٍ يُقَرِّبُكُمْ مِنَ الْجَنَّةِ وَيُبَاعِدُكُمْ مِنَ النَّارِ إِلا وَقَدْ أَمَرْتُكُمْ بِهِ وَمَا مِنْ شَيْ‏ءٍ يُقَرِّبُكُمْ مِنَ النَّارِ وَيُبَاعِدُكُمْ مِنَ الْجَنَّةِ إِلا وَقَدْ نَهَيْتُكُمْ عَنْهُ

The Messenger of Allah addressed the people during his farewell pilgrimage to Makkah, ‘O people, I swear by Allah, everything that can take you closer to paradise and farther away from hell I have commanded you all to follow. Everything that may take you closer to hell and farther away from paradise I have prohibited you to do.6

The Imams (a) are meant to use those teachings to guide the Muslim Ummah. How then do we explain seemingly new legal teachings that are attributed to the Imams (a)? How can we explain what the Imams (a) were doing?7

A More Plausible Reconciliation:

The Imams (a) do not bring a new sharī‘ah, but they do have complete knowledge of it. There were times the Prophet (p) may have said something to some people, but others were not present, or he (p) may have said something in some city or region, but others were not present. The Imams (a) had knowledge of all these different occasions put together and as well as all the sayings and actions of the Prophet (p). This is an important theological premise to note.

With this theological assumption, we say that the Prophet (p) had indeed spoken about certain matters in his lifetime, or at least it is not far-fetched for him (p) to have conveyed some of these teachings to the companions. However, since some topics may not have been practically relevant at the time, they did not become widespread belief amongst the Muslims. Later, once the caliphate was usurped, people forgot these rulings, or hid them, or altered them, but the reason why we ought to go to the Imams (a) is for this very reason – that they preserved the knowledge and teachings of the Prophet (p) and were able to convey them accurately. Sayyid Sīstānī discusses this idea in length and the English translation of that discussion can be read here.

However, the Imams do have certain rights in the way they deliver or deal with the religious teachings that were completed:

a) The Imams can identify situations where a certain shar‘ī rule has to be abandoned or it should be made mandatory, based on secondary principles. For example, in today’s day and age, some jurists will say the act of blood-letting is prohibited because it creates a bad image for Muslims. This is a secondary principle that dictates that engaging in something which harms the image of Islam is prohibited. We can observe Shi’i communities arguing over whether this secondary principle is applicable or not, but at the end of the day if an Imam (a) were to come and identify the applicability of a secondary principle and make something temporarily prohibited or obligatory, this is not considered a new sharī‘ah, rather simply a secondary ruling. These secondary rulings are temporary and are subject to change with time and place.

b) The Imams have full authority to legislate political laws and to oversee the Islamic society, but these laws do not constitute as the sharī‘ah. For example, an Imam can come and say that from tomorrow the timings of the marketplace will be from 10 am to 4 pm, and no one is allowed to enter the market before or after this time.

Such a ruling is not a new shar‘ī ruling, rather it is a political rule that is legislated to govern a city, its citizens, for their safety and protection. Or the Imam can say we will go to war with a certain country or a group of people, or we will free all prisoners on Eid, etc. these are political decisions, they are not against any specific shar‘ī, but they themselves also are not considered shar‘ī rulings.

c) The Imams (a) have the right to change the way in which they teach and convey the sharī‘ah. For example, the Prophet (p) may have said, the ziyārah of Imam al-Ḥusayn (a) will have certain rewards; two days later the Prophet (p) may have said, the ziyārah of Imam al-Ḥusayn (a) will wipe away your sins etc. The Imams (a) can take these multiple narrations, and present them as one by saying: “Whoever does the ziyārah of Imam al-Ḥusayn (a) will get the reward of Ḥajj and their sins will be cleansed.”

d) The Imams have a right of how they distribute spoils of war, khumus, zakat, jizya, land tax etc.

The wilāyah and the imāmate of the Imams (a) mean they are not bringing a new shari‘ah, rather they are reiterating the teachings of the perfect and complete religion. They are able to use their political authority to guide and issue political verdicts, they are able to tell people which shar‘ī ruling is applicable at what time and when it can be temporarily abandoned. They have the authority to oversee the movement and guidance of the Muslim Ummah. All of this is done but with the main factor being that there is guaranteed protection from error in it, as opposed to any other leader that may come and also decide to do the same.

Narrations that say the Imams (a) were also inspired by knowledge, or that angels conversed with them, do not mean the Imams (a) were bringing a new shari‘ah. There is no conflict between the angels being able to converse with the Imams, or Allah inspiring them with knowledge and assuming that this did not mean a continuation or extension of a shari‘ah.

There is more that I wish to add to this discussion by expanding on a few other dimensions as well, but this should suffice as food for thought for the interested reader.


  1. This principle is discussed in numerous Shī‘ī works of legal theory, from al-‘Uddah of Shaykh Ṭūsī to al-Rasā’il of Shaykh Anṣārī.
  2. Pg. 295
  3. Pg. 325
  4. See for example: Tafsīr al-Aṣfa of Fayḍ Kāshānī, vol. 1, pg. 261
  5. See for example: al-Tibyān, vol. 3, pg. 435.
  6. Vol. 2, pg. 74 –
  7. These four reconciliation attempts were summarized from the book Ḥujjīyyah al-Sunnah fī Fikr al-Islāmī, pgs. 518-523.