Does Ulul-Amr Mean Muslim Rulers?
Many of our Sunni brothers tend to interpret "Ulul-Amr Minkum" as the rulers from among yourselves, i.e., Muslims rulers. This interpretation is not based on any logical/Quranic reasoning; it is solely based on the twists of history. The majority of the Muslims have remained as a vassal of the monarchs and rulers, interpreting and reinterpreting Islam and the Quran to strengthen their own kingdom.
The history of Muslims (like any other nations) is replete with the names of rulers whose injustice, debauchery and tyranny have tarnished the name of Islam. Such rulers have always been and will be. And we are told that they are the Ulul-Amr mentioned in this verse!
If Allah were to order us to obey such kings and rulers, an impossible situation would be created for Muslims. The wretched followers would be condemned to the displeasure of Allah, no matter what they do. If they obey these rulers, they have disobeyed the Command of Allah: "Do not obey a sinner" (Quran 76:24). And if they disobey such rulers, they have again disobeyed the Command of Allah: "Obey the Muslim rulers" (if it would mean so). Therefore if we accept this interpretation, Muslims are condemned to eternal disgrace whether they obey or disobey their fallible (sinful) Muslim rulers.
Also, there are Muslim rulers of different schools and persuasions. There are Shafi'is, Hanbalis, Malikis, Hanafis, as well as the Shi'a and Ibadis. Now, according to this interpretation the Sunnis residing under an Ibadi king (like in Amman) should follow Ibadi tenets; and those residing under a Shi'a ruler (like in Iran) should follow the Shi'a beliefs. Do these people have the conviction of courage to follow their professed interpretation to its logical end?
The famous Sunni scholar, Fakhr al-Razi, concluded in his Tafsir al-Kabir that this verse proves that Ulul-Amr must be infallible (Ma'sum). He argues that Allah has commanded people to obey Ulul-Amr unconditionally; therefore, it is essential for the Ulul-Amr to be infallible; because if there is any possibility of their committing sin (and sin is forbidden), it means that one has to obey them and also disobey them in that very action, and this is impossible! However, in order to dissuade his readers from the Ahlul-Bait, Fakhr al-Razi invented the theory that the Muslim community as a whole is infallible!!! (Tafsir al-Kabir, by Fakhruddin Muhammad Ibn Umar al-Razi, v10, p144)
This interpretation is unique, and no Muslim scholar ever subscribed to this theory and it is not based on any tradition. It is quite surprising that Fakhr al-Razi accepts that each individual of the Muslim nation is fallible, yet claims that their sum total is infallible. Even a primary school student knows that 200 cows plus 200 cows makes 400 cows and not one horse. But Fakhr al-Razi says that 70 million fallible people plus 70 million fallible people will make one infallible! Does he want us to believe that if all the patients of a mental hospital join together they would be equal to one sane person?
Obviously, with his knowledge of Quran, he was able to conclude that Ulul-Amr must be infallible; yet he did not pause to see that the verse contains the word "minkum" (from among you) which shows that Ulul-Amr should be part of Muslim community, not the whole Muslim nation. Moreover, if the whole Muslim nation is to be obeyed, then who is there left to obey?
Moreover, the whole community have never had a single voice. Then who should we follow among them? Also, the opinion of majority is not a good criteria to distinguish the false from the truth. Looking at the Quran, one could see that Quran severely denounces the majority of by frequently saying that "the majority do not understand," "the majority do not use their logic," "the majority follow their whims"... since the vision of the majority of people is always impaired due to their tendencies.( see e.g. 6:116, 5:49, 10:92, 30:8)
The Real Meaning of Ulul-Amr
We now turn to the correct interpretation of the above verse, that is the interpretation of the verse by Ahlul-Bait. Imam Ja'far al-Sadiq (the 6th Imam) said that this verse was revealed about Ali, al-Hasan and al-Husain, peace be upon them. Upon hearing this, someone asked the Imam: "People say, why did Allah not mention the name of Ali and his family in His Book?" Imam answered: "Tell them that there came the command of Salat (prayer), but Allah did not mention whether three or four units to be performed; it was the Messenger of Allah who explained all the details. And (the command of) Zakat (religious tax) was revealed, but Allah did not say that it is one in every forty Dirhams; it was the Messenger of Allah who explained it; and Hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca) was ordered but Allah did not say to perform Tawaf (turning around Ka'ba) seven times; it was the Messenger of Allah who explained it. Likewise, the verse was revealed: Obey Allah, and obey the Messenger and those vested with authority from among you, and it was revealed about Ali and al-Hasan and al-Husain (who were the only living Imams at the time of the Prophet)."
It is quite obvious that if Allah would have ever mentioned the name of Imam Ali (AS) in Quran explicitly, those who bore mountains of hatred against him would have attempted to alter the Quran. Thus this was the Grace of Allah that He codified all the branches of knowledge of religion in Quran to be understood ONLY by the processors of the understanding mind. And in this way, Allah kept Quran intact.
On the commentary of the verse 4:59 of Quran in which Allah orders us to obey Ulul-Amr, al-Khazzaz in his book, Kifayatul Athar, gives a tradition on the authority of the well-known companion of the Prophet (PBUH&HF), Jabir Ibn Abdillah al-Ansari (RA):
When the verse (4:59) was revealed, Jabir asked the Prophet (PBUH&HF): "We know Allah and the Prophet, but who are those vested with authority whose obedience has been conjoined to that of Allah and yourself?"
The Prophet (PBUH&HF) said: "They are my Caliphs and the Imams of Muslims after me. The first of them is Ali; then al-Hasan; then al-Husain; then Ali son of al-Husain; then Muhammad son of Ali who has been mentioned 'al-Baqir' in the Torah (the old testament). O Jabir! You will meet him. When you see him, convey my greetings to him. He will be succeeded by his son, Ja'far al-Sadiq (the Truthful); then Musa son of Ja'far; then Ali son of Musa; then Muhammad son of Ali; then Ali son of Muhammad; then al-Hasan son of Ali. He will be followed by his son whose name and nick name will be the same as mine. He will be Proof of Allah (Hujjatullah) on the earth, and the one spared by Allah (Baqiyyatullah) to maintain the cause of faith among mankind. He shall conquer the whole world from the east to the west. So long will he remain hidden from the eyes of his followers and friends that the belief in his leadership will remain only in those hearts which have been tested by Allah for faith."
Jabir said: "O Messenger of Allah! Will his followers benefit from his seclusion?" The Prophet said: "Yes! by Him who sent me with prophethood! They will be guided by his light, and benefit from his leadership during his seclusion, just as people benefit from the sun even though it is hidden in the clouds. O Jabir! This is from the hidden secrets of Allah and the treasured knowledge of Allah. So guard it except from the people who deserve to know." (Kifayatul Athar, by al-Khazzaz, p53).
Now that we know who "those vested with authority" are, it is evident that the question of obeying tyrant and unjust rulers does not rise at all. Muslims are not required by the above verse to obey rulers who may be unjust, tyrannical, ignorant, selfish and sunk in debauchery. They are, in fact, ordered to obey the specified Twelve Imams, all of whom were sinless and free from evil thoughts and deeds. Obeying them has no risks whatsoever. Nay, it protects from all risks; because they will never give an order against the order of Allah and will treat all human beings with love, justice, and equity