Imam is the Threshold through which God and the creatures communicate; Imam is a Cosmic Necessity and the earth cannot be devoid of an Imam - without an Imam the earth and the universe would crumble; The Imam is the Proof, the Manifestation and the Organ of God and he is the Means by which human beings can attain the knowledge of God.
There should always be a common point where inter-communication could exist between man and God. About the past the Holy Qur’an says:
“Lo, Allah preferred Adam and Noah and the family of Abraham and the family of Imran above all creatures. They were descendants one of another.” (Holy Qur’an, 3:33-34)
Allah’s preference in the above verse refers to the Prophethood and Imamat that continued in the families mentioned in the above verses. Regarding the time of Prophet Muhammad (may peace be upon him) and the time after him, the Qur’an says:
“O Mankind! Verily a proof has come to you from your Lord and We have sent unto you a Manifest Light. As for those who believe in Allah, and hold fast unto Him, then He will cause to enter them into His Mercy and Grace, and will guide them unto Him by a straight road.” (Holy Qur’an, 4:175-176)
What is meant in the words ‘to hold fast unto Him?’ The answer to this is found in another piece of advice in the Qur’an which says:
“And hold fast all of you together to the Rope of Allah and do not be separated.” (Holy Qur’an, 3:103)
According to Shia belief, the Rope of Allah refers to the Imam. The Institution of Imamat therefore provides such an intermediary link and one can best understand it and the underlying concept in these terms.
The Holy Qur’an reveals the basic nature of Imamat in terms of Hidayat (Divine Guidance). Furthermore, since the Book of God is the sole criteria upon which we may evaluate the other interpretations of Imamat, we will first examine the Qur’anic conception of Imamat (i.e. Divine Guidance) before we discuss the notion of Imamat in Ismaili Ginanic literature.
2. Imamat in the Holy Qur’an
The Qur’anic conception of Imamat can be summarised as follows:
Man, in this world, is an imperfect being, who is seeking the Perfect Being – God. The limited knowledge that human beings have is shown by the following verse:
“They will ask thee concerning the Spirit. Say: The Spirit is by command of my Lord, and of knowledge ye have been vouchsafed but little.” (Holy Qur’an, 7:85)
Due to this limit, man is not in a position to communicate directly with God and, hence, the need for Divine Guidance. Allah, in His Infinite Mercy, creates the channel of Divine Guidance through which man can reach Him. While the verse “Allah effaceth what He will, and establish (what He will), and with Him is the source of ordinance,” (Holy Qur’an, 13:39) emphasizes Divine Guidance as belonging solely to God, He delegates this authority to His Vicegerents on earth for the salvation of mankind.
Guidance in the form of Vicegerency has been established since the beginning of humanity and there has been no time when the world has been without it. This is clearly expressed in the following verse:
“And there never was a people, without a warner having lived among them.” (Holy Qur’an, 35:24)
Moreover, the Divine Guidance is compared with a Holy Tree (kashajaratin tayyibatin) which is ever-green and ever-fruitful. The Guidance does not fall short of its function because otherwise everything would perish as indicated in the well known hadith of the Holy Prophet Muhammad:
“If the world were to remain without an Imam for one moment, the whole world with everything in it would perish instantaneously.”
The Holy Qur’an has also laid down a pre-condition for man to seek the Divine Channel (wasilah) as a means for his salvation:
“O ye who believe! Be mindful of your duty to Allah, and seek the means of approach (wasilah) unto Him, and strive with might and main in His way in order that ye may succeed.” (Holy Qur’an, 5:35)
Moreover, it is also made obligatory for one to obey the Imam of the time, who is the means of approach (wasilah), for obedience to God is linked with obedience to the Imam of the time (Ulil-Amr).
“O ye who believe! Obey Allah and obey the Apostle and obey those who hold authority from amongst you.” (Holy Qur’an, 4:59)
This obedience results in the better understanding of Divine Knowledge and Mysteries because everything has been vouchsafed in the Imam (Divine Guide):
“And We have vested the Knowledge of everything in the Manifest Imam.” (Holy Qur’an, 36:12)
3. A Very Brief Note on the Ginanic Literature
As we have seen in previous readings (see links at end of article), Ismaili Pirs made use of the local religious terms as conceptual tools to present the teachings of Ismaili Faith. Ismailism was presented in a manner which suited the understanding of the people and that which did not disturb the Islamic Principles at all. In this connection Khawaja Hassan Nizami writes in the Urdu edition of Fatami Da’wate Islam :
“…for preaching of Islam the Ismaili dais kept before them exactly that Hikmat (wisdom),” which is suggested in the Qur’an:
“And call unto the way of thy Lord with wisdom (hikmat) and reason with them in a better way.” (Holy Qur’an, 16:125)
The Concept of Imamat was explained in terms like Purush, Avatar, Nar Naklank, Hazar Jomo, Guru, etc. In addition the Pirs focused on the personal devotional element, which was then current because of the Bakhti movement whose underlying emphasis was for a truer religious attitude.
4. Imam as Source of Guidance and Divine Light
According to the Ginans the Imam is the source of Guidance for mankind. He shows them the right path, saves the people from ignorance and acts as a Divine Light in the darkness. In Ginan Satveni Moti by Syed Imam Muhammad Shah, it is said:
Murshid diwa hai joog-ma, jo aan dikhave ser-re;
e baatt bahot rariyamani, jiya(n) chorasi nahi(n) fer-re.
In this world the Master is the Light who enlightens the Spiritual Path;
the Way is most wonderful on which there is no failure.
Pir Sadr al-Din emphasized the same idea in the following verse:
Nish andhari Gur chand-roora huwa;
Jot ahe Gur deevo, ho jire bhai.
In the dark night of ignorance, the Master spreads the Light of Guidance like a moon;
Indeed, O brother! The Master is the Bright Lamp.
The parable of the Holy Tree (kachajaratin tayyibatin) set forth in the Qur’an is expressed in Syed Ahmed Shah’s Si Harfi as follows:
Ohang Nirinjan ek vraksh kita,
Inko dali do-al dita;
Ek Noor Muhammad Mustafa,
Duja Noor Ali Murtaza;
Mai Fatima unke bhere,
Hasan Husayn is Noor mahe khele.
God created a Tree
and gave it two branches:
one was the Light (Noor) of Muhammad the Chosen
and the other was Ali the Favourite;
Bibi Fatima was with the two
and Hasan and Husayn mingled in this Light.
The conception of the Qur’anic Holy Tree has been beautifully expressed in the above verses and linked with the Divine Light of the Imam.
These few verses have shown that the Imam gives Divine Guidance. He is like a Light in the darkness and shows the travellers their way. In this world, it is the Imam who determines for man a way of action for salvation, because man is liable to error and may go astray, confused by the complexities of life and varying conditions.
5. Necessity for Imamat, Imam as Mazhar-e-Allah, and Imam as Knower of Everything
The absolute necessity for the presence of the Imam on this earth is related by Pir Sadr al-Din in the Ginan Girbah Vali:
Purush shan matra pag dharani na dharante,
Sansaar, chandra, suraj na dhrashtante,
Kuchh na dhrashtante,
Bhom kar, megh, dharti na aakaash bhave.
If the Imam did not have his feet on this earth for even a moment,
then the world, moon, sun would vanish
and nothing would exist,
neither the heaven nor the earth.
In this connection we had earlier quoted a Hadith of the Prophet Muhammad. Thus Imamat is a Divine Necessity for the world to exist, and is the source of Divine Guidance.
At the same time, the Imam is referred as the Mazhar-e-Dhat-e-Allah and this is explained by Ismaili Pirs as follows:
Pir Sadr al-Din says:
Noor Khalifa is joog mahe(n) aviya,
Ta(n)ki amar Jot likhani-ji.
O brother! The Vicegerent of God has come in this world
and his Light has been made eternal.
And his son, Pir Hasan Kabirdin, notes:
Qudrat apni zahir kidhi,
Pragatiya deen ka Imam.
God revealed His nature
and with it manifested the Imam of the Faith.
Both these verses refer to the Imam as the Proof (hujjat) of God.
Since Imam is manifest in the world it is necessary that he should be sought out, and here Pir Hassan Shah declares:
Pir Hassan Shah Ginan sunaya,
Jene dhoondiya tene Shah paya.
Pir Hassan Shah says in the Ginan:
‘He who seeks will find the Imam.’
Being a Proof (hujjat) of God, everything (all knowledge) has been vouchsafed in the Imam of the Time. The Quranic declaration “And We have vested the Knowledge of everything in the Manifest Imam” (Holy Qur’an, 36:12) is reiterated in Pir Hasan Kabirdin’s monumental composition, Anant Akhado, where he says:
Aashaji, Patal tani je, soodhaj jane,
Sohi Dhani ya(n) aaya-ji;
Prathavi-na jene bandhaj bandhiya,
Sohi Nar avine betha.
He who knows what is hidden in the depth of the earth,
That (same) Master has come to you;
He who has the control of the world
has come amidst you.
6. The Importance of Obedience to the Imam
After the recognition of the Imam, obedience to him but follows naturally. This cardinal principle of Islam laid down in the Qur’anic verse (4:59) quoted earlier, is emphasised by Pir Sadr al-Din in the Buj Niranjan:
Eji karo jo Gur farmave,
Ta thi darshan Piya ka paave.
Do whatever the Master commands,
so that you could be blessed with the vision of your Beloved.
And by Syed Imam Shah in the following verse:
Eji Partak Patra-ne parkhi-ne,
Preme poojo ne pai,
Chaoud bhavan-no e dhani
Parghat chhe joog ma(n)he.
Recognise and obey him who is the Bearer of Divine Light.
Love and submit yourself to him
who is manifest on this earth
and who is the Sovereign of seven heavens and seven worlds.
It is because of the obedience to the Imam that one may achieve salvation. One who obeys devotedly succeeds in reaching the Divine, and the one who turns away from the Imam goes astray. Pir Sadr al-Din explains this in the following verse:
Hazar Jomo chhe jiwo no datar
Tene tamey sahi kari man jo nar ne naar;
E Nur dekhi bhulshe je;
Ghor andhari ma(n) pursey te
The Imam is the Giver of salvation to the souls
so have true faith in him, 0 men and women!
He who turns away from His Light knowingly,
will find himself in total darkness.
Thus, Imam is the source of guidance for mankind and people should seek to recognise him and obey him to achieve salvation.
We have seen in the introduction that the Qur’an is the source which provides the doctrinal nature of Imamat (Divine Guidance). The above discussion shows that the basic element of Guidance as found in the Qur’an is present also in the Ginans.
Where the Qur’anic symbolism uses the allegory of the Holy Tree (kashajaratin tayyibatin) for Divine Guidance, the same simili is used in the Ginans to indicate the spiritual aspect of Imamat (Divine Guidance). Similarly, where the Qur’an refers to the essential function of Imamat as Guidance, the Ginans also refer to this by comparing it with the Eternal Lamp of Light, which enlightens humanity. According to the Qur’an, since Guidance is an eternal necessity, Imamat is made the Divine Ground in the world upon which it rests and the same idea appears in the Ginans.
Further analysis show that the Qur’an asks us to seek the means (wasilah) and similarly the Ginans also direct us to search for the Imam.
People should obey the Imam (Ulil Amr), says the Qur’an, for the Vision of Reality. The Ginans make it a necessary condition that one should obey the Imam of the time and submit to him completely. The concept that obedience results in the better understanding of Divine Knowledge and Mysteries found in the Ginans is expressed differently in the Qur’an, but with the same insight within the words:
“And We have vested the Knowledge of everything in the Manifest Imam.” (Holy Qur’an, 36:12)
With Imam being the Mazhar of Allah, it implies that whatever Imam says is the True Guidance of God. Therefore salvation lies in the hands of Imam. Hence Imam and his descendants (ahle-bait - people of the House of Imam to whom allegiance is due, i.e. the succeeding Imams) have been allegorically described as the Ark of Nuh (Noah) as in the following Hadith:
The People of my family
are like Noah’s Ark;
Whoever boards the Ark is saved,
Whoever stays away is carried off by the waves.*
It was this Ark which saved those who took shelter in it and destroyed those who did not board it. Pirs have asserted the same idea by saying that Imam is the True Guide, and whoever turns his face away from him is ignorant and misguided.
From the similarities which we have found in the Qur’an and the Ginans with regard to the Concept of Imamat, we may conclude that the primary ‘form’ of the Concept of Imamat in the Ginans has been taken from the Qur’an and there is no difference between them. However, in the Ginans, some of the elements of this concept have been explained in the context of pre-established culture whose influence prevailed during the time when our Pirs carried out their da’wa (invitation to Faith) in the sub-continent.
Reading adapted from Imamat – A Ginanic Perspective by Hakimali V. Surani, published in Ilm, Volume 7, Number 3, December 1981 – February 1982, (Ismailia Association for the United Kingdom, now known as the Shia Imami Ismaili Tariqah and Religious Education Board).
Ginan Reference Texts and Other Notes:
1. Satveni Moti, Syed Muhammad Shah, published by Ismailia Association for India, 1949.
2. Pir Sadardin-na Ginano-no Sangrah, published by Ismailia Association for India, 1952.
3. Pir Hasan Kabirdin-na Ginano-no Sangrah, published by Ismailia Association for India.
4. Syed Imam Shah-na Ginano-no Sangrah, published by Ismailia Association for India.
* This well known hadith is quoted on page 125 of “The Divine Guide in Early Shi’ism”, translated by David Streight (Publisher: State University of New York Press, 1994).
Other Ginan readings on this web site: