One of the most central and important concepts of Islam and of our very existence is that of Walayah. Walayah is one of the pillars or foundations of Islam and is in fact the most central of the foundations.
Imam Muhammad al-Baqir (peace be upon him) described the foundations of Islam as follows: "Islam is built upon five foundations: communion (Salat), pruning of wealth (Zakat), fasting (Sawm), pilgrimage (Hajj), and dynamic loving (Walayah). And nothing has been called to the way dynamic loving (Walayah) has been called to."
Most people are more familiar with another tradition that relates the fifth foundation or pillar as the witnessing (Shahadah) that there is no God but Allah, and that Muhammad (peace be upon him and his progeny) is His servant and messenger.
Of the five activities that form the foundation, Walayah is the first and foremost foundation. While the more often heard narration mentions the foremost as the Shahadah, there is not really a conflict between these two traditions, but this shall be explained later.
First, let us understand what Walayah is. Walayah denotes the activity of coming or working to be in the closest possible proximity to something. If one has Walayah with another, then the two things are so close as to be almost inseparable.
Walayah really denotes two activities that take place due to this relationship of being so close. The first activity is that of pure loving, affection, attachment, and intimacy. This kind of love can be between two people, such as parent and child or husband and wife. The second activity is that of comforting – providing aid, assistance, guidance, and support. This activity can also between two people, but at an uneven level. For example, a parent may provide comfort aid, assistance, guardianship and guidance as love to a child, but the child can respond lovingly, but not equally, and not with the same kind of activity. Instead, the child who responds positively does so with loyalty, allegiance, devotion and obedience.
God gives Walayah to those who would receive it. For example, He says in the Qu'ran, "Allah is the Comforter (doer or giver of Walayah) of those who are dynamically faithful (receivers and responders of Walayah – believers); He extracts them from all manner of darkness into light" (2:257).
Someone who does Walayah is called a Wali. Wali Allah is a phrase that describes a devotee, intimate follower, and lover of Allah. People who are such lovers of God are mentioned in the Qur'an also: "Indeed! The devotees of Allah (Wali Allah) will have no fear upon them nor will they grieve" (10:62).
So, the reason why there is no real conflict between the two different forms of the tradition is that the Shahadah is a manifestation and application of Walayah. When someone bears witness that God is their Wali, that person is acknowledging his or her role in the relationship to respond with allegiance and obedience. In the Shahadah, we witness that God is the ultimate source of love, comfort, guardianship, and authority and is deserving of allegiance, service, and adoration. He is the ultimate and true Wali of us all. At the same time, one is pledging one's love, allegiance, loyalty, and obedience to this ultimate source of true love. One also acknowledges that Muhammad is the perfect Wali (adorer/servant) of God and is pledging love, allegiance, and loyalty to him as well due to his relationship with God.
All love – all Walayah – ultimately comes from and is due to God. The Qur'an says: "Say O Prophet: My Comforter (Wali) is Allah, who gradually sent down the Book; He receives the dynamic love (Walayah) of the righteous" (7:196). God both gives and receives Walayah, this dynamic love. God loves us, and we respond, either positively or negatively. The positive response to the love of God, the Walayah of God, is the fundamental activity of Islam and the distinguishing characteristic of a believer. The positive response is the return of love, obedience, loyalty, allegiance, etc. It is what Islam is all about and what our lives are ultimately all about. The one who becomes a true Wali or devotee of Allah (Wali Allah) achieves a state of righteousness. Allah loves as the Comforter, then the righteous person responds with love as the Devotee, and then Allah responds with a deepening of Walayah toward the Devotee, and it can be an ever-deepening cycle. So it all comes from Allah and continues to grow and deepen as far as the recipient of God's love responds. It is only the limit of our response to God's Walayah that limits the depth of return of God's Walayah, which is nevertheless ever-present.
The means to achieving this ever-deepening cycle is also explained to us in the Qur'an: "O you who are dynamically faithful (doers of Walayah)! Obey Allah and His Messenger. And do not let yourselves be oriented to a Walayah other than this (or be turned away from him)" (8:20). "Whoever obeys the Prophet has definitely obeyed Allah. And as for whoever lets himself be oriented towards another Walayah, then Allah has not made you (the Prophet) their keeper" (4:80). Thus, the Qur'an tells us that the method of obeying and doing Walayah with Allah is through following and obeying His Prophet.
This is further explained in the traditions. Truly, Islam is the way of love. Imam al-Baqir related a tradition as follows: A man was traveling to visit the Imam, and the travel caused his legs and feet to become blistered and chapped. He told the Imam, "Nothing brought me here from whence I came, except the love of you, the Family of the Prophet." Imam al-Baqir replied, "By Allah! Even if a stone were to love us, He would gather it up with us (on the Judgment Day). Is the Deen (of Islam) anything but loving? Surely Allah says, 'Say: If you have come to love Allah, then follow me! He will love you'" (3:31). Then the Imam said, "He loves whomsoever migrates to them (Ahlul Bayt). Is the Deen anything but loving?" Thus, Islam is all about the giving and receiving Walayah relationship between Allah and us, and we respond to His love by loving those who are closest to Him, the Prophet and his Progeny, and in turn Allah responds with even-deeper Walayah.
Further, a positive response to God's Walayah for us is to be just. "O you who are dynamically faithful! Be those who stand for manifest justice, witnesses to Allah, even if it be against yourselves, your parents, or those who are close to you; even if it be against someone poor or rich, for Allah has more Walayah than anyone else with both of them (the poor and rich). And do not follow your personal whims and desires and let them prevent you from being just. And if you deviate or turn away from justice, then surely Allah is well-informed of all that you do" (4:135).
In the Qur'an, Muslims are not addressed directly, but believers who return Walayah to God are, for the Qur'an and God make distinctions between Muslims and Believers. Believers are the "dynamically faithful", the positive responders of Walayah. Muslims are those who submit in body or word but not necessarily in this dynamic loving with God. "The desert Arabs say: We believe (are doers or positive receivers of Walayah with God)! Say to them, You have not yet believed, but rather say, We have submitted (become Muslims). For faith has not yet entered into your hearts. And if you obey Allah and His Messenger, He will not let your good deeds go to waste. Truly Allah is Ever Forgiving, Singularly Compassionate. The true believers are only those who believe (and are dynamically loving with) Allah and His Messenger, then do not doubt, but strive with their wealth and their beings in the Way of Allah. Those are the truthful ones" (49:14-15).
God loves and is merciful to all of creation. The mercy He shows to all creation is denoted by His name Rahman. He cares for and provides for all. But there is a special mercy for those who respond positively, and that special mercy is denoted in His name Raheem. When we turn to God, God turns to us. The means of developing an ever-closer relationship with God is ultimately what Islam is all about. Every aspect of Islam is to guide us as to how to achieve greater closeness, to deepen our Walayah with God. The remaining four foundations of Islam – the prayer, the fasting, the pilgrimage, and the alms, are all means of deepening Walayah with God, as are all other aspects of Islam. But, as the Qur'an has distinguished for us, it is possible to do all these things in word and deed without the benefit of deepening relationship with God. That is, we can be Muslims without yet being Believers. The keys to being Believers are the acceptance of God's love and the response in heart with devotion, obedience and love, not only to Allah but to those closest in Walayah to Him – the Prophet and his Holy Progeny.
Reference: Islam Dynamic: The Cosmology, Spirituality and Practice of Walayah by Dr. Idris Samawi Hamid