(“proof or argument”), a term used as: (1) a line of argument in debate; (2) designation of the Shiʿite Imams;  (3) an epithet of the Twelfth Imam; (4) a high official in the Ismaʿili missionary activities


ḤOJJAT (Ar. ḥojja, “proof or argument”), a term used as: (1) a line of argument in the course of debate; (2) designation of the Shiʿite Imams or their most essential spiritual function as “proofs of God”; (3) an epithet specifically applied to the Twelfth Imam, Ḥażrat-e Hojjat; and (4) a high official in the hierarchy of Ismaʿili missionary activities (daʿwa; see DĀʿI).

Usage in debate. Ḥojja is not necessarily an irrefutable proof or even a correct one, but rather a line of argument used to advance one viewpoint against another in the course of debate. The Arabic term is Koranic in origin and is used to refer both to the false and self-serving arguments the unbelievers may advance against God or his prophets (Koran 42:16, 25), and to the arguments of God or his prophets against such unbelievers (Koran 6:83). The Koran tells us, however, that God’s is the decisive proof or argument (ḥojja bāleḡa) that silences all others (Koran 6:149). This term is also sometimes used in theology (kalām) and philosophy to mean argument or proof, but it does not seem to have a uniform or technical definition in either of these disciplines (Gardet, pp. 543-44).

Usage in Shiʿism. Ḥojjat does possess a specific, technical meaning in the Shiʿite tradition, especially in Imami Shiʿism, where it refers to that single individual in any given era of human history who represents God’s “proof “ to humanity. Such an individual is either a prophet or the imam/legatee of the prophet, and Imami doctrine holds that there is always one such ḥojjat in existence at all times (e.g., Kolayni, I, pp. 232-35). This doctrine demonstrates a unity of function, at a certain level, between the prophets and imams—an idea present in other aspects of Shiʿite thought—and reflected the fundamental Shiʿite principle that the ultimate mediator between God and humanity must be a person, rather than a text. Shiʿites argue that the Koran cannot stand alone as God’s “proof” to mankind, because it is itself “silent” and can offer no decisive resolution to conflicting interpretations of its words (Kolayni, I, pp. 222-27, 301). They further contended that ʿAli was the most authoritative and knowledgeable of all interpreters of the Koran, having learned the interpretation from Moḥammad himself, and that he and his progeny (to whom he entrusted this knowledge) are therefore the true “proofs of God” (Kolayni, I, pp. 304-5).

In Shiʿite Hadithand doctrinal literature, “ḥojjat” is commonly used either as a title for the Shiʿite Imams or as a term designating their most essential spiritual function. The Imams were considered the “proofs of God” in a number of interrelated senses: 1) they made manifest the will of an otherwise unknowable God, and resolved disputes regarding variant interpretations of the Koran and issues of religious law or doctrine; 2) their continuous existence in one form or another meant that human beings could not argue that they had no access to divine guidance, and so they served as God’s decisive argument (ḥojja bāleḡa) against the excuses of the unbelievers; 3) acceptance of their authority and guidance was a decisive criterion or “proof “ of true belief, and in this capacity, the Imams would also serve as “witnesses” against human beings on the Day of Resurrection. The Imam’s status as the very “proof of God to mankind” was also an argument for his supernaturally comprehensive knowledge and infallibility (ʿeṣma).

The notion of the Imam as “ḥojjat Allāh” seems to have assumed particular importance after the disappearance or occultation (ḡayba) of the Twelfth Imam. The eleventh Imam in Imami tradition, Imam Ḥasan Askari, died in 260/873 without the majority of his followers being aware that he had any offspring. Imami Shiʿite doctrine came to hold that al-ʿAskari had indeed fathered a son, but that this son was placed in hiding immediately after his birth to protect him from his many enemies, and that he would return at some point in the future. This explanation was greeted with profound skepticism by leading figures both within and outside of the Imami com-munity, and Imami scholars were called upon to defend this belief against numerous and varied opponents. The Shiʿite principle that the world is never without a “Proof of God” to mankind became an essential premise of their argument for the existence of the hidden Imam. An early Shiʿite heresiographical work written during the minor occultation, for example, lists thirteen different views regarding the existence and identification of a twelfth Imam, six of them citing traditions about the necessary presence of a ḥojjat Allāh at all times as a basis for their particular position (Nawbaḵti, pp. 79-93). The Shiʿite traditionist Kolayni, compiling his canonical collection of Imami Hadith at the end of the minor occultation, entitled his section on the imamate the “Ketāb al-hojja,” and opens it with an account of a theological debate regarding the necessity of the Imam as the “proof of God” (Kolayni, I, pp. 221-28). Traditions about the necessity of a continual ḥojjat also figure prominently in a num-ber of theological treatises written by Imami authorities in the early period of the major occultation (see Ebn Bābawayh; Ebn Abu Zaynab; Mofid; and Ṭusi).

The epithet of the Twelfth Imam. The title “ḥojjat” came also to be an epithet specifically applied to the Twelfth Imam (see MAHDI; Kolayni, I, pp. 391-92). Although the Twelfth Imam was to remain the Ḥojjat-Allāh throughout the period of occultation, there is a tradition attributed to him in which he instructs the community to seek religious guidance from the transmitters of Shiʿite Hadith, identifying them as the collective ḥojjat for the Shiʿite community, while he (the Imam) remains the ḥojjat for these scholars (Ebn Bābawayh, p. 451; Ṭusi, p. 245). In the absence of the Imam, this tradition was an important basis for the religious authority of Shiʿite scholars, who were considered ḥojjat in the limited sense of being competent legal authorities, qualified to render judgements regarding the interpretation and application of the teachings of the Imams to new situations; and in the 19th century, the title “Ḥojjat al-Eslām” (q.v.) began to be ascribed to certain prominent Shiʿite jurists (see Matini, p. 576). In the late 18th and 19th centuries, a more comprehensive view of the powers delegated to the Imami Shiʿite scholars by the Twelfth Imam was favored by some jurists, and the tradition designating Shiʿite Hadith transmitters as a ḥojjat for the community was cited by Ayatollah Khomeini in defense of his notion of the comprehensive (religious and political) authority of the jurist (welāyat-e faqih; see Ḵomeyni, tr., pp. 27-266). On the contrary, another charismatic Shiʿite scholar, Shaikh Maḥmud Ḥalabi (q.v.) who founded the Ḥojjatiya Association (q.v.) in the mid-20th century, strongly opposed the assumption of political power by Imami Shiʿite scholars on religious grounds. It should be noted that the quietist interpretation of Ḥojjatiya is akin to the pre-millenarian world-view, whereas the revolutionary activism of Khomeini is based on post-millenarian ideas (see ḤOJJATIYA).

In Ismaʿili tradition. Ḥojjat is also an important technical term in the Ismaʿili Shiʿite tradition, where it most commonly referred to a group of individuals (usually said to be 12 in number) who oversaw the Ismaʿili propaganda campaign (daʿwa) in the various regions of the Islamic world. The ḥojjat was a high official in the hierarchy of Ismāʿili missionary activities (daʿwa), with knowledge of the esoteric teachings of the movement and the authority to instruct others in these areas. He supervised the large network of dāʿis (propagandists) and reported directly to the Imam himself, or to a higher official known as the bāb (gate). At the famous Ismāʿili stronghold of Alamut in northwestern Iran, Ḥasan Ṣabbāh (q.v.) claimed the title of ḥojjat for himself, imbuing it with greater authority than it had in other branches of Ismaʿilism, and turning it into a synonym for the very manifestation of the hidden (Ismaʿili) Imam, himself.



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(Maria Dakake)

Originally Published: December 15, 2004

Last Updated: March 23, 2012

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Vol. XII, Fasc. 4, pp. 424-426