Why is the Imam of the Time called Speaking Qur'an or Speaking Book (Kitab) of God?
"Indeed, I am leaving among you, that which if you hold fast to them, you shall not go astray after. One of them is greater than the other: The Kitab of God is a rope extended from the sky to the earth, and my Family ('itrati) - the people of my house (Ahl al-Bayti) - and they shall not separate until they meet at the Paradiscal Pool, so be mindful how you are with them."
- Prophet Muhammad (Sahih Tirmidhi, Book 49, Hadith 4155 &4157: Online)
Summary: When the Prophet Muhammad told the Community to hold fast to "the Kitab of God" and his Ahl al-Bayt and proclaimed that the Kitab of God and his Ahl al-Bayt shall "never separate from each other" - he was not telling the Community to follow both the Qur'anic Text and his Progeny as two separate things; nor was the Prophet saying that his Progeny will always keep a copy of the Qur'anic text with them. The Qur'anic Text did not exist when the Prophet made this statement. In fact, the word "Kitab Allah" in the Qur'an means the "Decree of God" (see 2:101, 3:23, 4:24, 5:44, 8:75, 9:36, 18:27, 30:56, 33:6, 35:26). In reality, the Prophet is declaring that God's Kitab - meaning continuous guidance, knowledge and authority (all indicated by the term "Kitab Allah") will always remain fused with his Ahl al-Bayt and Progeny on earth until the end of the world. Even though the Prophethood and Qur'anic revelation have ended, the Progeny of Muhammad and his Ahl al-Bayt remain in the world as the "possessors" of God's Kitab (guidance, authority) and through them, the Community of Muhammad will have continuous access to the single eternal Kitab of God until the end of time.
What is Prophet Muhammad referring to when he says he is leaving behind "the Kitab of God" and his "Progeny" (itrat) or Ahl al-Bayt? The meaning of the Progeny/Ahl al-Bayt is a bit more obvious - considering that various Sunni and Shia sources report that the Ahl al-Bayt of the Prophet are exclusively Imam Ali, Hazrat Fatimah, Imam Hasan and Imam Husayn. For example, the Sunni Hadith book Jami' al-Tirmidhi reports that the Prophet recited Qur'an 33:33 - "And God only wishes to keep away from you all impurity, O Ahl al-Bayt, and purify you with a thorough purification":
The Prophet placed a cloak (kissa’) over al-Hasan, al-Husayn, 'Ali and Fatimah, then he said: 'O God, these are my Ahl al-Bayt and the close ones, so remove the impurities (rijs) from them and purify them thoroughly." So Umm Salamah said: 'And am I with them, O Messenger of Allah?' He said: "You are fine in your place. (Sahih al-Tirmidhi, Book 49, Hadith 4245: Read Online)
The Prophet said to hold fast to the Kitab of God and that this Kitab always remains with the Ahl al-Bayt. So what does the term "Kitab of God" (Kitab Allah) mean here?
Most people believe that the Kitab Allah means the Qur'anic Text in the form of a "book". However, the Prophet recited the Qur'an as purely oral recitations during his 23-year mission and there was no book-text compilation of the Qur'an when Muhammad was alive. There was no need for any Qur'an Text for anyone to possess because Prophet Muhammad himself was the expounder of the Qur'anic Recitations in every matter:
"The Prophet functioned as the projection of the divine message embodied in the Qur’an. He was the living commentary of the Qur’an, inextricably related to the revelatory text. Without the Prophet the Qur’an was incomprehensible, just as without the Qur’an the Prophet was no prophet at all."
- Abdul Aziz Sachedina, (“Scriptural Reasoning in Islam”, Journal of Scriptural Reasoning, 5/1 (2005); cited in Adis Duderija, The Hermeneutical Importance of Qur’anic Assumptions in the Development of a Values Based and Purpose Oriented Qur’an Sunna Hermeneutic)
Prophet Muhammad never gathered the Qur'anic recitations into a "book" during his lifetime and he left no such "book" when he died. The Qur'an actually refuses to behave as a "book in writing" in several verses like the one below:
And even if We had sent down to you, [O Muhammad], a written scripture on a page and they touched it with their hands, the disbelievers would say, “This is not but obvious magic.”
– Holy Qur’an 6:7
Even further, the term "kitab" as it appears and is used in the Qur'an does not simply mean "the Qur'an" or the Qur'an compiled as a codex called mushaf. The word "Kitab Allah" in the Qur'an usuallly means the "Decree of God" (see 2:101, 3:23, 4:24, 5:44, 8:75, 9:36, 18:27, 30:56, 33:6, 35:26). Several Qur'anic verses make a careful difference between "al-kitab" and "al-qur'an" (the recitation) or "quranun" (a recitation). The Qur'an uses the term "al-kitab" to refer to multiple realities including:
1) The Divine Guidance revealed to all prophets including Muhammad;
2) the celestial heavenly Kitab in which all things are recorded by God;
3) specific legal injunctions concerning things like inheritance, marriage, commerce.
None of the above meanings of kitab as used in the Qur'an mean "physical text' or "physical book." According to a thorough semantic analysis of the Qur’an carried out by non-Muslim Qur’anic studies scholars J. Fiegenbaum, Daniel A. Madigan, and Nicolai Sinai, the Qur’anic word kitab in the context of divine revelation stands for “Divinely-authorized guidance” and not a “physical book.” This is proven by how the verb kataba, which means “to write”, is used in the Qur’an: whenever God is the agent of the verb kataba (to write), the meaning of the verb is always “to prescribe” or “to decree” or “to determine” and never to physically write anything (see Qur’an: 2:216, 9:51, 13:39, 6:54, 6:73, 19:35, 40:68, 68:47, 2:187, 9:51, 5:32, 58:21, 6:12, 58:22, 7:156, 15:4, 2:180, 49:3, 5:45, 6:12, 7:156, 2:79).
Thus, the word kitab as used in the Qur’an is very expansive and broad; kitab properly means “divine authoritative command” or “divine guidance”, regardless of how this guidance is recorded or stored. One scholar of Qur'anic Studies, Daniel Madigan, concludes the following about the meaning of "kitab" in the Qur'an:
“The Qur’an’s very claim to authority rests on there being a single, univocal, and integral kitab, manifested in the past and now manifest once more through the mission of the Prophet…The logic of the Qur’an’s approach demonstrates the impossibility of understanding al-kitab as a fixed text, a book. More than one group of people has been given al-kitab; if it were a fixed text, then each group would have the same text…The claim that something is kitab is a claim to authority and knowledge, not a statement about the form in which it is kept.”
- Daniel A. Madigan, ( The Qur’an’s Self-Image, 178-179)
Overall, the term "kitab" as is used in the Qur'an does not mean physical "book" or "text". The Kitab Allah refers to God's knowledge, authority, and guidance by which He guides human beings according to changing situations and events - just as the Qur'an's own verses were revealed to respond to the community's needs.
"In this respect, the Qurʾān does not present the kitāb as a closed and definable corpus of text, but rather as an ongoing relationship of guidance...So when the Qurʾān speaks of itself as kitāb, it seems to be talking not about the form in which it is sent down but rather about the authority it carries as a manifestation of the knowledge and command of God."
- Daniel A. Madigan, (“Kitab”, in Encyclopedia of the Qur’an 2013, Read Online)
The Custom ( sunnah) of God according to the Qur'an is to continue giving Kitab or divine guidance to the communities through the direct descendants of the Prophets. This is supported by specific Qur'an verses that tell us God bestowed the Kitab to specific descendants of the previous Prophets:
"We sent Noah and Abraham and placed prophethood and the Kitab among their progeny."
– Holy Qur'an 57:26
“And We bestowed on him (Abraham) Isaac and Jacob, and We established the Prophethood and the Kitab among his progeny, and We gave him his reward in the world, and lo! in the Hereafter he verily is among the righteous.”
– Holy Qur'an 29:27
"Or are they jealous of mankind because of that which Allah of His bounty hath bestowed upon them? For We had already given the progeny of Abraham the Kitab and wisdom and conferred upon them a great kingdom."
– Holy Qur'an 4:54
"With some of their forefathers and their offspring and their brethren; and We chose them and guided them unto a straight path. That is the guidance of Allah wherewith He guideth whom He will of His bondmen.Those are the ones to whom We gave the Kitab and Authority and Prophethood. But if the disbelievers deny it, then We have entrusted it to a people who are not therein disbelievers."
– Holy Qur'an 6:89
And We certainly gave Moses the Kitab, so do not be in doubt over his meeting. And we made it guidance for the Children of Israel. And We appointed from among them Imams guiding by Our Command when they were patient and [when] they were certain of Our signs.
- Holy Qur’an 32:23-24
In all of the above verses, God gave the Kitab to the direct descendants of previous Prophets including Noah, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Therefore, it is logical that the Kitab of God also continues with the direct descendants of the last prophet - Prophet Muhammad. As such, when the Prophet Muhammad told the Community to hold fast to "the Kitab of God" and his Ahl al-Bayt and proclaimed that the Kitab of God and his Ahl al-Bayt shall "never separate from each other" - he was not telling the Community to follow both the Qur'anic Text and his Progeny as two separate things; nor was the Prophet saying that his Progeny will always keep a copy of the Qur'anic text with them. The Qur'anic Text did not exist when the Prophet made this statement. As shown above, the word "Kitab Allah" in the Qur'an means the "Decree of God" (see 2:101, 3:23, 4:24, 5:44, 8:75, 9:36, 18:27, 30:56, 33:6, 35:26). In reality, the Prophet is declaring that God's Kitab - meaning continuous guidance, knowledge and authority (all indicated by the term "Kitab Allah") will always remain fused with his Ahl al-Bayt and Progeny on earth until the end of the world. Even though the Prophethood and Qur'anic revelation have ended, the Progeny of Muhammad and his Ahl al-Bayt remain in the world as the "possessors" of God's Kitab (guidance, authority) and through them, the Community of Muhammad will have continuous access to the single eternal Kitab of God until the end of time.
Thus, the Imam of the Prophet's Ahl al-Bayt in every time and age is the bearer of the Kitab Allah - which he carries in his heart and soul, not in the form of a written scripture. The Qur'an even says that the Kitab which God reveals to the Prophet also exists in the hearts of a special possessors of knowledge:
And thus We have sent down to you the Kitab. And those to whom We gave the Kitab believe in it. And among these [people of Makkah] are those who believe in it. And none reject Our signs except the disbelievers. And you did not recite from a Kitab before it, nor did you inscribe one with your right hand. Otherwise the falsifiers would have had [cause for] doubt. Rather, it [the Kitab] is clear signs within the breasts of those who have been given knowledge. And none reject Our signs except the wrongdoers.
- Holy Qur’an 29:47-49
Imam Muhammad al-Baqir recited this verse (29:49): “Nay, rather it [the Kitab] is Clear Signs (ayat) in the breasts of those who are given knowledge (alladhi utu al-‘ilm).” Then he said: ‘Take note… He [God] does not say that it [the Kitab] is “between the two covers of the written text (mushaf)].” He said: “in the breasts of those who are given knowledge.” Who can they be apart from us? They are specifically the Imams.’
(Usul al-Kafi, Kitab al-Hujjah, Chapter 23, Hadith No. 23-4)
The Shi‘i Imams therefore possess the spiritual meaning (al-batin) and the esoteric interpretation (ta’wil) of the Kitab Allah in their hearts in the form of pure knowledge (al-‘ilm al-mahd) and not in the form of bookish erudition that ordinary people require to be learned. This is the meaning of the prophetic hadith that says: “‘Ali is with the Qur’an and the Qur’an is with ‘Ali. They shall never separate until they return to me in Paradise.” This is why the Imam of the Time is called the Speaking Qur'an and the Speaking Kitab of God.
"Harken ye who quest for union, who boasts that he seeks. Heed my words for I am the Book of God (Kitab Allah) that speaks!"
- Imam 'Abd al-Salaam, (Ode to the Seekers of Union, tr. Virani, The Ismailis in the Middle Ages)
‘‘The meaning of the Kitab of God is not the text, it is the man who guides. He is the Kitab of God; he is its verses; he is scripture.’’
– Hazrat Shams-i Tabrizi, (Shafique Virani, The Ismailis in the Middle Ages, 93)