Marja’iyya… Is it relevant today?
The relevance of the Marja’iyya was the topic of two lectures delivered at the Islamic Centre of England on the occasion of the martyrdom anniversary of Imam Jafar Al-Sadiq(a) last July. Guest speakers for this occasion were Hujjatul-Islam Dr Mohammad Ali Shomali and Hujjatul-Islam Mohammad Ali Ismail. Both speakers addressed the subject from two different prospectives. Focusing more on the legalistic aspect of why the institution of marja’iyya is as important today as it was when it was first established, Sheikh Ismail provided some rational and logical explanation to put across his points. He explained why it is necessary to follow an Islamic scholar as a source of emulation. He argued that it is from such scholars that we derive knowledge and guidance for the performance of our religious practices. A layperson is obliged to make use of this kind of in-depth knowledge which is based on years of study and investigation of the original Islamic sources. Sheikh Ismail indirectly warned people not to think that one can acquire an understanding of Islamic rulings just by reading or accessing some texts. He explained that the process of extrapolating rulings from the sources requires years of experience and the study of a body of knowledge accumulated over 1400 years. Guidance provided by the great Marja taqlid (scholars whose rulings we are allowed and obliged to follow) is based on such knowledge and emulating them will help us justify our actions on the day when we will be questioned by God. Focusing on the position of the ulama (Islamic scholars), Dr Shomali reminded the audience that both Imam Baqer(a) and Imam Jafar Al-Sadeq(a) encouraged their followers to seek knowledge and despite the fact that their favourite activity was to worship God they imparted knowledge whenever they had the possibility to do so. Dr Shomali explained how starting from within the mosque of Madinah these Imams provided a fountain of knowledge for the public but also trained special individuals in a number of different sciences including medicine and chemistry. Dr Shomali’s answer as to why knowledge is important was that there is nothing more that could make an individual, a community or humanity closer to God than knowledge. He reminded the audience that one of God’s attributes is ‘The
Knowledgeable’ and that having or acquiring knowledge is one of the best ways to resemble His attribute. He further stressed the point that all ranks of perfection and nearness to God are based on knowledge. He said: “ranks are given by God based on iman (faith), and iman without knowledge does not work”. Those who are given the highest ranks are those who have acquired knowledge and use it in the service of people. True knowledge comes from iman and taqwa (piety through awareness of God’s power) and those who have both are the best individuals. The Imams of Ahl ul Bayt(a) always encouraged their followers to follow people who have both knowledge and taqwa, added Dr Shomali. He explained that the Imams trained their followers and encouraged them to do their best in acquiring knowledge laying the foundation of the institution of marja’iyya (the highest religious position in Shi ‘ a Islam). The position of marja’ (high religious scholar) is reserved for scholars who have both knowledge and taqwa. Dr Shomali further elaborated on the institution of the marja’iyya, explaining how a marja’ is bound by his own founding in the field of knowledge as he knows that he has made his best effort to obtain a sound ruling. “The position marja’ comes with its own attributes and a well-defined feature that goes beyond the personality of the specific individual”; said Dr Shomali. He termed the marja’iyya a sacred institution that needs our respect. Dr Shomali also touched upon the downfall of previous religious communities who allowed individuals lacking a depth of knowledge and piety to guide them with disastrous consequences. He referred to a tradition from Imam Jafar Al-Sadeq(a) that describes the relationship between the Shi ‘a scholars and their followers and makes them unlike previous communities. In conclusion, Dr Shomali explained that the Imams exhorted the community not to follow an individual that does not have the qualities mentioned above and that the risk of going astray is also present among the Shi‘a if they fail to follow qualified scholars.. He reaffirmed that the institution of the marja’iyya