The Muslim majority maintains that others were more eligible for caliphate than Ameerul Momineen, Ali Ibn Abi Talib (a.s.). In their view Ali (a.s.) was not interested in caliphate, so whether superior or not, due to Ali’s (a.s.) own lack of inclination, Shias cannot object to others being given preference over him in caliphate.
As argument this group advances extracts from sermons of Ameerul Momineen (a.s.) in Nahj al-Balagha:
‘By Allah, I had no liking for the caliphate nor any interest in government, but you yourselves invited me to it and prepared me for it.’ (Sermon 205 of Nahj al-Balagha addressing Talha and Zubair)
‘By Allah, (my worthless shoe) is dearer to me than ruling over you…’ (Sermon 33 of Nahj al-Balagha addressing Abdullah Ibn Abbas)
Caliphate in Shia belief is a divine responsibility to guide the people, this is also called Imamat. Being imposed by Allah, the people have no say in selecting the caliph / Imam, nor does the caliph / Imam have any say in whether he wants to be the Imam over the people.
So, the comments of Ameerul Momineen (a.s.) expressing disregard for caliphate must be understood in context as articulated by him in many sermons and reports i.e. mere or hollow caliphate (which is reduced to rulership or hukumat) had no meaning or worth for him, but given the divine responsibility to guide the people, he saw the rulership as a means to achieve the divine duties imposed on him.
It is important to note that caliphate is wrongly used by the common Muslims. Caliphate is supported by a divine mandate or the Holy Prophet’s (s.a.w.a.) endorsement (nass). Minus a divine mandate or prophetic endorsement, the caliphate is reduced to worldly rulership (hukumat) and the ruler CANNOT be referred to as the caliph. Based on this, the Imams being the divinely appointed caliphs owned the caliphate but because they lacked rulership, the Muslims failed to see them as caliphs, even though the superiority of the Imams is not concealed from anyone.
Among the duties of the divine leader / caliph / Allah’s Proof is to:
Guide the people
Interpret the Quran
Lead the army in Jihad against enemies
Judge between people in their disputes and differences based on Holy Quran and correct Sunnah of Prophet (s.a.w.a.)
Establish the truth and ward off falsehood
Take the right of the oppressor from the oppressed
Many of these duties are subject to rulership – meaning that Allah’s Proof / the Imam can perform them effectively if he rules over the people.
But rulership is subject to certain conditions in the case of the divine Imam. The Imam is like the Holy Kaaba; people must want to be ruled by him. The Imam does not force himself on the people. When Ali (a.s.) saw the people showing lethargy in supporting him, he did not force the issue to avoid factionalism in Islam which would have given the upper hand to the hypocrites. The same concern that stopped Holy Prophet (s.a.w.a.) from punishing the hypocrites on the many occasions when they deserved to be punished.
When Ali (a.s.) says he is not interested in caliphate he is referring to the lack of support for the worldly rulership part of caliphate and not the divine responsibility of being Allah’s Proof who guides the people, interprets Quran and Sunnah, separates truth from falsehood, resolves differences and so on.
Ali (a.s.) repeatedly emphasized his superiority
If Ali (a.s.) was not interested in caliphate as the skeptics claim, he would not have established his superiority to lead the nation at every stage right from the martyrdom of the Holy Prophet (s.a.w.a.) till his last sermon in the Kufa mosque before his martyrdom. Whenever the occasion demanded, he (a.s.) advanced the divine text in his favour from the Holy Quran and the Sunnah of Prophet (s.a.w.a.) like Hadith Ghadeer, Hadith Manzelat and so on.
Ali (a.s.) participated in the Shura council even though he had no interest in (worldly) caliphate because he wanted to expose the contradiction in Umar Ibn Khattab’s previous claim in Saqifah that Prophethood and Imamat cannot coincide in Bani Hashim.
Also, the Shura presented him an opportunity to reinforce his claim as the Prophet’s (s.a.w.a.) heir and successor in all matters with or without rulership. When the Shura was deliberating over the next leader, Ali (a.s.) advanced 100 arguments to prove his superior claim and all the council members acknowledged his superior right on each of the 100 virtues. But once again politics made them abandon Ali (a.s.) and select an undeserving candidate.
Ali’s (a.s.) disregards worldly rulership but not his divine responsibility
As we have seen, worldly rulership is one matter and divine responsibility to guide the people is another matter which takes precedence over worldly rulership.
Whenever Ali (a.s.) has spoken of his disregard for worldly rulership he has immediately spoken of his divine responsibility to guide and if it were not for this responsibility, he would not have undertaken to govern the people.
Ali (a.s.) to Talha and Zubair:
By Allah, I had no liking for the caliphate nor any interest in government, but you yourselves invited me to it and prepared me for it. When the caliphate came to me, I kept the Book of Allah in my view and all that Allah had put therein for us, and all that according to which He has commanded us to take decisions; and I followed it, and also acted on whatever the Prophet – may Allah bless him and his descendants – had laid down as his Sunnah.
Sermon 205 of Nahj al-Balagha
Ali (a.s.) had no interest in (merely) ruling over the people, but people invited him and once he undertook the job, he considered his responsibility to abide by the instructions of Holy Quran and Sunnah and to guide the people according to it. But the people found Ali’s (a.s.) decisions too harsh for their liking even though they were based on Quran and Sunnah and in retaliation they turned against him.
This is the other reason for Ali’s (a.s.) disregard for worldly caliphate because he (a.s.) knew people were not ready to be judged by the Quran and Sunnah in a strict and uncompromising manner especially since they did not see this kind of governance from the previous rulers. But Ali (a.s.) was more concerned about Allah and the Prophet (s.a.w.a.) and his own hereafter and not whether people would laud him as their caliph.
Ali (a.s.) to Abdullah Ibn Abbas:
Abdullah ibn Abbas says that when Ali (a.s.) set out for war with the people of Basrah he came to him (a.s.) and saw that he (a.s.) was stitching his shoe.
Then Ali (a.s.) said to me: What is the price of this shoe?
I said: It has no value now.
He said: By Allah, it is more valuable to me than ruling over you but for the fact that I may establish right and ward off wrong…
By Allah, surely, I was in the lead (in the time of Prophet (s.a.w.a.) in giving shape to his mission. I did not show weakness or cowardice. My existing march (against rebels of Basrah) is also like that. I shall certainly pierce the wrong till right comes out of its side.
Sermon 33 of Nahj al-Balagha
Again, in this sermon, Ali (a.s.) makes it clear that merely ruling over the people is worthless to him like a worn-out shoe, except that it gives him an opportunity to establish right and ward off wrong, a divine responsibility.
Ali’s (a.s.) view on caliphate in Sermon of Shiqshiqiyya
In the famous Sermon of Shiqshiqiyyah, Ali (a.s.) makes clear what he thinks about caliphate in context of his divine responsibility to guide people.
Behold, by Him who split the grain (to grow) and created living beings, if people had not come to me and supporters had not exhausted the argument and if there had been no pledge of Allah with the learned to the effect that they should not acquiesce in the gluttony of the oppressor and the hunger of the oppressed I would have cast the rope of Caliphate on its own shoulders, and would have given the last one the same treatment as to the first one. Then you would have seen that in my view this world of yours is no better than the sneezing of a goat.
Sermon of Shiqshiqiyyah, Sermon No. 3 of Nahj al-Balagha
Clearly, Ali (a.s.) did not wish for merely ruling over the people, a meaningless caliphate that he has always disregarded and would have rejected it after Usman’s death. But the divine pledge to guide the people and establish justice between the oppressor and oppressed made him accept the caliphate.
Imam Hasan’s (a.s.) peace treaty with Muawiya
Muslims make the same assumption (wittingly or unwittingly) with regards Imam Hasan (a.s.) peace treaty with Muawiyah. They believe that like his father Ali (a.s.), Imam Hasan (a.s.) was not interested in (or unfit for) rulership.
But the truth is that Imam Hasan (a.s.) only handed over the worldly rulership to Muwaiya (again due to lack of support), which did not impact his position as the divine leader and superiority to Muawiya in anyway. As Imam (a.s.) says from the pulpit in an assembly of Muawiya and the Muslims after concluding the peace treaty:
O People! It is Muawiya’s false assumption that I am considering him eligible for caliphate and preferred him over myself. He has lied. Based on categorical verses of the Holy Quran and the narrations of the Noble Prophet (s.a.w.a.), I am superior and worthier than all the people for caliphate.
Behar al-Anwar v 44 p 19 from Al-Ehtejaj, v 2 p 289
This shows that handing over caliphate in Imam Hasan’s (a.s.) views was a loss of meaningless and hollow rulership but he remained the divinely appointed Imam in which he had no rival, least of all Muawiyah.
Imam Husain (a.s.) had the same view of caliphate
Although the Muslim majority believe or are made to believe (by their scholars, historians) that Imam Husain (a.s.) came out against Yazid to contend for caliphate, this notion is as erroneous as Imam Husain (a.s.) treated worldly rulership in the same manner Imam Ali (a.s.) and Imam Hasan (a.s.) before him.
Imam Husain (a.s.) in his will to his brother Muhammad Ibn Hanafiyyah says:
….certainly I do not rise (against Yazid) in wickedness, nor arrogance, nor sedition, nor oppression. I have only risen to seek reformation in the nation of my grandfather (s.a.w.a.). I wish to enjoin good and prohibit evil and to tread on the path of my grandfather (s.a.w.a.) and my father Ali Ibn Abi Talib (a.s.)…
Behar al-Anwar v 44 p 329-330
Again, Imam Husain (a.s.) refers to his divine responsibility to enjoin good and prohibit evil and reformation of religion as the reasons for challenging Yazid. Imam (a.s.) saw Yazid as a mere ruler while he was the caliph based on divine text (nass), so where was the question of a caliph (from a higher position) challenging a ruler (who is at a lower position) for caliphate, which was already his, to begin with. In fact, Yazid, a ruler by succession, was challenging Imam Husain (a.s.) for his caliphate with or without the realization that what Imam Husain (a.s.) had could not be snatched away from him.
The Muslim majority gives more importance to worldly rulership in establishing the credentials of the contender and hence consider Abu Bakr, Umar and Usman superior to Ali (a.s.) because they preceded him (a.s.) in rulership and likewise they consider Muawiyah better than Imam Hasan (a.s.) and Yazid superior to Imam Husain (a.s.) due to their positions as rulers.
While the Shias believe that superiority is based on eligibility to guide the people, interpret the Quran, judge between people in their disputes and differences based on Quran and correct Sunnah of Prophet (s.a.w.a.), establish truth and ward off falsehood and this is not possible for anyone except the divinely mandated Imam who may or may not rule over the people. This chain of leadership / Imamat was already well-explained to the Muslims in Ghadeer as documented by a large group of Muslim scholars.