O you who believe! obey Allah and obey the Messenger and those in authority from among you; then if you quarrel about anything, refer it to Allah and the Messenger, if you believe in Allah and the last day; this is better and very good in the end. (4:59)
According to al-Mizan, the significance of the above verse is that it leads to reinforcing the foundation of the Islamic society because the verse contains the most fundamental aspect of religious good, a factor which the equilibrium of the Islamic society could not be maintained. The verse also urges the believers to preserve their unity and to remove any discord by referring it to God and His Messenger.
But who are the ulu’l‐amr? According to the verse, they are those who have been vested with authority from among the believers and their obedience has been joined with that of the Messenger by the conjunction and. This proves that the ulu’l‐amr cannot be ordinary believers but a special group of believers whose decision and opinion would always conform with that of the Messenger. The fact that the verse commands the unconditional obedience of the Messenger and those vested with authority is enough proof to show that their opinion have to be free from mistakes and errors and therefore they have to be sinless just like the Messenger.
Interestingly, the word "obey" was not repeated (in the verse) in the case of the ulu’l‐amr but their obedience has been simply joined to that of the Messenger because unlike the Messenger, those vested with authority, do not have the legislative authority that the Messenger was given by God. In other words, the ulu’l‐amr do not have the privilege of revelation; they decide and act according to what is right in their opinion; and their opinion and order must be obeyed just like the prophet’s opinion and order.
The above corresponds with what has been narrated from the Imams of ahlul‐Bayt that they are the ulu’l‐amr. The verse proves the sinlessness of the ulu’l‐amr and none of the groups (of believers) other than the ahlul‐Bayt are sinless. The verses of Guardianship, Purity and others clearly talk about such a group of believers and the traditions like that of the Ark (The parable of my Ahlu l‐bayt is like the parable of Noah's Ark; whoever boarded it was saved, and whoever stayed away from it was drowned); and that of the Two Precious Things (Surely I am leaving among you two precious [or weighty] things, the Book of God and my offspring who are my Ahlu l‐bayt; as long as you would hold fast to both of them you would never go astray after me.). There are also traditions about the ulu’l‐amr, narrated through Shia and Sunni chains that clearly identify them to be from the progeny of the Messenger.
Some commentators have suggested that the ulu’l‐amr are the (first three) rightly guided caliphs. If the ulu’l‐amr are the first three rightly guided caliphs, then their decisions have to be free from mistakes and errors based on the unconditional nature of the verse. This means that the cause of their perfect decisions have to be something supernatural or miraculous other than the normal causes. In short, such a cause would be a divinely given miracle. In that case, God would have mentioned it as one of the special graces and He should have explained to these caliphs their responsibilities. Likewise, the Prophet should have given detail instructions to his ummah regarding these caliphs and the Prophet should have explained about the nature of their authority, etc.
Sayyid Maududi, the author of “Understanding the meanings of the Qur’an” and regarded by many in the Sunni world as a great exegete, says that the verse (4:59) is the cornerstone of the entire religious, social and political structure of Islam and that those vested with authority (ulu’l‐amr) are those who are entrusted in matters of common concern and he includes intellectuals as well as political leaders, judges, officials, etc. He goes on to say that their obedience however is contingent on conditions that these men should be believers and that they themselves should be obedient to God and His Messenger. First of all, the conditions that Maududi mentions are obvious because the verse addresses the believers and therefore the clause “the ulu’l‐amr from among you” implies that they have to be believers who are already obedient to God and His Messenger. Where Maududi has gone wrong is when he refers to these obvious conditions as the basis of making their obedience conditional. Secondly, we can see clearly from the verse that God has not attached any conditions in making their obedience obligatory upon us. In short, we have been commanded and obliged by God to obey them unconditionally because of their state of being pure or rather sinless.
Further, if the term ulu’l-amr refers to leaders in the community and the likes of political leaders, judges, etc, obviously there will be situations when such leaders will fail to offer specific instructions or opinions to safeguard the interests of the people unless they have been endowed with knowledge and wisdom. Maududi calls such a situation as “the silence of the law”. He explains that the silence of the law indicates that God has deliberately granted man the freedom to make his own decisions and therefore, when no specific guidance is available, a Muslim should feel free to exercise his own discretion. This is totally unacceptable because first it clearly contradicts the wordings of the verse and second, the unconditional order to obey the ulu’l‐amr is a proof in itself that guidance is available in all affairs of the believers at all times and in every community as long as the believers refer to such authority. Further, Maududi’s mention about the ‘silence of the law’ is a contradiction of his own statements at the beginning of his commentary of this verse which we mentioned above. If the verse is the cornerstone of the entire religious, social and political structure of Islam, and the very first clause of the constitution of an Islamic state, as Maududi states, how can he entertain a situation like the “silence of the law”?
Poser: If the ulu’l‐amr have a special distinction such that their obedience is the same as that of the Messenger, then why are they not mentioned in the next sentence when God orders the believers to refer their disputes to Him and the Messenger?
Reply: This is one of the objections against the belief that the ulu’l‐amr are the sinless Imams. To reiterate, those vested with authority, do not have the privilege of revelation; they decide and act according to what is right in their opinion; and their opinion and order must be obeyed just like the prophet’s opinion. This shows that the people with authority have no right to legislate a new law or to abrogate a rule established by the Qur’an or the sunnah. Otherwise, it would serve no purpose to order people to refer their dispute to the Qur’an and the sunnah, to God and the Messenger, as may be inferred from the verse 33:36: And it is not for a believing man or a believing woman to have any choice in their affair when Allah and His Messenger have decided a matter; and whoever disobeys Allah and His Messenger, he surely strays off a manifest straying. This is the reason why they are not mentioned in the next sentence.