The Forgiveness of the Imam
By Khalil Andani
Editor’s note: While it is often thought that “only God alone can forgive sins,” the Qur’an also uses a second term to denote forgiveness – ‘afwa – and attributes this act of forgiveness to both God and the Prophet Muhammad. Following from Part I, this concluding piece demonstrates how contemporary Isma’ili Muslim supplications for the Imam’s forgiveness are rooted in the Holy Qur’an and how Mawlana Hazar Imam does indeed have the right and prerogative to forgive the sins of his murids. To read Part I, please click Seeking the Forgiveness of the Imam of the Time: A Short Explanation (I).
The second Qur’anic term used to denote forgiveness is ‘afwa which appears 33 times in the Holy Qur’an under its various forms. Its root meaning is ‘nullifying, canceling or blotting out’ and is, in a sense, more effective than maghfira – which only signifies the ‘covering’ sins. Some examples of the word’s occurrences are shown below:
“For these, there is hope that Allah will forgive (ya‘afuwa): For Allah doth blot out (‘afuwwan) and forgive again and again.” — Holy Qur’an 4:99
“Whether ye publish a good deed or conceal it or cover evil with pardon (ta‘afoo), verily Allah doth blot out (‘afuwwan) and hath power.” — Holy Qur’an 4:149
“He can cause them to perish because of the (evil) which (the men) have earned; but much doth He forgive (wa ya‘afoo ‘an katheerin).” — Holy Qur’an 42:34
“Whatever misfortune happens to you, is because on the things your hands have wrought, and for much He grants forgiveness (wa ya‘afoo ‘an katheerin).” — Holy Qur’an 42:30
The Qur’an uses the term ‘afwa to denote the forgiveness of God on several occasions. But most interestingly, the word ‘afwa is also used several times in reference to the forgiveness granted by the Prophet Muhammad himself. Unlike maghfira, which is the right of only God Himself (albeit mediated by the Prophets and Imams), the right of ‘afwa belongs to both God and the Prophet (and by extension, the Imams). The Holy Qur’an endows Muhammad himself with the right to “forgive” or “blot out” (in the form of ‘afwa) the sins and shortcomings of his followers. A couple of these verses are as follows:
“And, it is by the Mercy of Allah (rahmatin mina Allahi) that you [Muhammad] were gentle with them, for if you had been stern and fierce of heart they would have dispersed from around about you. So forgive them (fa o‘afoo ‘aanhum) and ask forgiveness for them (wa istaghfir lahum) and consult with them upon the conduct of affairs. And when you are resolved, then put your trust in Allah. Surely, Allah loves those who trust.” — Holy Qur’an 3:159
“Hold to the forgiveness (khuthi al-‘afwa); command what is right; But turn away from the ignorant.” — Holy Qur’an 7:199
These verses, particularly 3:159, refer to the duty of Muhammad over the believers and close followers. He is commanded by God to both “forgive them” and “ask forgiveness for them”. The first command relates to the ‘afwa or forgiveness of the Prophet and the second command pertains to the maghfira or forgiveness of God which the Prophet seeks on behalf of his followers as their intercessor and wasilah. But it should be noted that the Prophet must forgive the believers himself through his ‘afwa just as he intercedes for God to forgive them. The first words of the verse place these functions of Muhammad as expressions of the Mercy of God (rahmatin mina Allah) as he is the embodiment of Divine Mercy and the locus of manifestation of God’s Merciful Names such as al-Rahman, al-Rahim, and al-Ghafur. Another Qur’anic verse describes the forgiveness of the Prophet in exactly the same words as the verses earlier which discuss the forgiveness (‘afwa) of God Himself.
“Whatever misfortune happens to you, is because on the things your hands have wrought, and for much He grants forgiveness (wa ya‘afoo ‘an katheerin).” — Holy Qur’an 42:30
“O People of the Book! Now hath Our Messenger come unto you, expounding unto you much of that which ye used to hide in the Book, and forgiving much (wa ya‘afoo‘an katheerin). Now hath come unto you Light from Allah and a Manifest Book.” — Holy Qur’an 5:15
Both God Himself (verse 42:34) and the Prophet (verse 5:15) are described as “forgiving abundantly” (ya‘afoo‘an katheerin) where the wording in these verses is amazingly identical.
The word ‘afwa also appears in several other verses alongside a third term, safaha, which the Qur’an also uses to signify forgiveness. The meaning of safaha is to “overlook” or “turn away” and gives the sense of excusing one’s sins or errors. This type of forgiveness is attributed specifically to the Prophet:
“We created not the heavens, the earth, and all between them, but through the Truth. And the Hour is surely coming. So forgive with beautiful forgiveness (fa-isfahi al-ssafha al-jameela). — Holy Qur’an 15:85
There are also verses where the Prophet and his followers are commanded to forgive people in the forms of both ‘afwa and safaha, as shown below:
“Quite a number of the People of the Book wish they could turn you back to infidelity after ye have believed, from selfish envy, after the Truth hath become Manifest unto them: But forgive (fa o‘afoo) and overlook (wa isfahoo), Till Allah accomplish His purpose; for Allah Hath power over all things.” — Holy Qur’an 2:109
“But because of their breach of their covenant, We cursed them, and made their hearts grow hard; they change the words from their (right) places and forget a good part of the message that was sent them, nor wilt thou cease to find them- barring a few – ever bent on (new) deceits: but forgive them (fa o‘afoo ‘aanhum), and overlook (wa isfah): for Allah loveth those who are kind.” — Holy Qur’an 5:13
The Prophet’s prerogative to forgive the sins of his followers is also found in Gospel of Mark in which the Prophet Jesus proclaims that as the Son of Man, God has given him the authority to forgive sins –- despite the objections of the Pharisees, who, like many critics today, incessantly argue that only God alone can forgive sins:
“When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” Now some teachers of the law were sitting there, thinking to themselves, “Why does this fellow talk like that? He’s blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” Immediately Jesus knew in his spirit that this was what they were thinking in their hearts, and he said to them, “Why are you thinking these things? Which is easier: to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up, take your mat and walk’? But this is so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins…” — Gospel of Mark 2:5-10, Holy Bible
These all-important acts of forgiveness continue to be performed by the Isma‘ili Imams from the Ahl al-Bayt of the Prophet Muhammad. A clear example is found when Jamat recites the following prayer imploring the Imam for his forgiveness in the giriyazari tasbih:
Ya Ali, Tu Gat Jamat Mathe Rahem Kari,
Ghat Jamatja Kul Gunah Ma‘af Kari
O ‘Ali, may you have mercy upon the Jamat,
May you forgive all the sins of the Jamat.
The above tasbih uses the word ma‘af to signify the forgiveness of the Imam. Ma‘af is an Urdu word meaning forgiveness and is actually derived from the same Arabic word ‘afwa. Thus, the very use of the term ma‘af in this Isma‘ili tasbih is a reference to the concept of ‘afwa in the Holy Qur’an. It means that the Jamat is imploring the Imam to blot out or annul its sins – in very much the same way that the Qur’an describes the act of Prophet Muhammad as shown earlier. In other words, the entire Isma‘ili practice of seeking forgiveness (ma‘af) from the Imam of the Time is firmly rooted in the Holy Qur’an!
The Du‘a Karavi practice is one where the murid approaches the Mukhisaheb and seeks the Imam’s forgiveness. This practice is also a symbolic enactment of the Qur’anic verse 4:64 which commands the believers to go into the physical presence of the Prophet Muhammad to seek forgiveness. The Imam of the Time occupies the station of the Prophet in this regard and the Mukhi/Kamadia represents the Imam of the Time in Jamatkhana. The monetary exchange that takes place is a symbolic offering (sadaqa) which is actually mandated in the Holy Qur’an as follows:
“O ye who believe! When you hold private conversation (najaytumu) with the Messenger, offer something in charity (sadaqatan) before your private consultation (najwakum). That will be best (khayrun) for you, and most conducive to purity (wa atharu). But if ye find not (the wherewithal), Allah is Oft- Forgiving, Most Merciful.” — Holy Qur’an 58:12
In the Du’a Karavi ceremony, the Mukhi announces that “Mawlana Hazar Imam Kull Gunah Ma‘af Kar” (May Mawlana Hazar Imam forgive all your sins) – where once again the word ma‘af is derived from the Qur’anic term ‘afwa which is the ‘forgiveness’ or ‘blotting out’ of one’s sins that is performed by the Prophet himself. Once again this practice is also directly rooted in the Holy Qur’an.
In summary, it is simply inaccurate to maintain that ‘only God alone can forgive sins’ because the Holy Qur’an actually specifies three different forms of forgiveness signified by three distinct Arabic words. The first term, mafghira, signifies the covering and concealing of one’s sins and is an act of God Himself but in which the Prophet or Imam of the Time intercede and mediate for the believers by virtue of their status as God’s medium (wasilah) and intercessors on earth. The second term, ‘afwa, means annulling or canceling the sins and is an act of both God and the Prophet or Imam of the Time. The third term, safaha, is to overlook the sins entirely and is also an act of the Prophet or Imam of the Time.
As the Qur’anic verse 5:13 demonstrates, it is incumbent upon the true believers to seek both the forgiveness (‘afwa) of the Prophet or Imam himself and the forgiveness (maghfira) of God through the Prophet/Imam’s intercession and prayers. Therefore, the Isma‘ili Du‘a invokes the right (haqq) of the Prophets and the Imams in seeking God’s maghfira while the Isma‘ili Tasbihat and superogatory practices such as Du‘a Karavi and Chanta plead for the Imam’s ‘afwa by asking for his ma‘af (forgiveness) of one’s sins. The Isma‘ili Muslim practices of repentance, forgiveness and spiritual purification are therefore firmly rooted in the Holy Qur’an which clearly stipulates that it is the Holy Prophet’s responsibility to accept offerings from his murids in order for him to sanctify, purify and shower his blessings upon them:
“Of their wealth, take offerings (sadaqa), that so you [Muhammad] may purify and sanctify them; And send blessings upon them; indeed your prayer is a source of peace for them.” — Holy Qur’an 9:103
Given all this, it may be asked – why is it even necessary to seek the Imam’s forgiveness of one’s sins? It is because each Isma‘ili murid has given bay’ah – has entered into a spiritual contract with the Imam and in doing so, the murid has promised never to disobey the commands (faramin) of the Imam. If one has disobeyed the Imam, then one has committed a breach of the bay’ah and it is necessary to seek forgiveness –- both of God and of the Imam. It is necessary in one’s everyday life to seek forgiveness from any person one has wronged. Therefore, it is even more necessary for murids to repent and seek the forgiveness from their Imam when they have disobeyed his guidance or instructions. Thus in this regard Qadi al-Nu’man writes in Kitab al-Himma (Code of Conduct):
“Hence, it is necessary for you that you should remind yourselves of the covenants that you have made with the Imam and the terms of the covenant that you have taken upon yourselves to fulfill. If you ignore inadvertently or forget or treat lightly any of those terms, then the moment you realize your mistake you must atone for it by repentance and do what you have omitted to do. If you have forgotten the terms or some part of it then renew them by reviving the terms of the covenant. Admit your guilt and repent to God and to the Imam.”
It is in light of these principles that Isma‘ili Muslim communities all over the world regularly supplicate and seek the forgiveness of the Imam of the Time in their daily prayers and religious practices. One striking example of this practice is found in an Isma‘ili pilgrim from Khurasan who journeyed to Anjudan to see the Imam Shah Gharib Mirza who had recently succeeded to the throne of Imamat. The pilgrim composed a poem addressed to the Imam in which he appears to represent all the murids of his region. In these verses, the murid earnestly pleads and beseeches the Imam to forgive all the sins and transgressions of the murids – reflecting the Qur’anic principles of forgiveness which the Imam of the Time continues to grant today.
“Greetings! O Emperor of the realm of faith and world; I come from Khurasan to behold your face. No worship accompanies me as a companion that I may be worthy of pardon. All I have is a soul imperfect, sins and transgressions galore. Despite such worthless goods, I long for your grace, hoping that through me you may forgive the trespasses of your servants — one and all. As you are the sovereign and governor of all creation, this being testified to by the Quran itself, your proper name has been made manifest to all the faithful. You are Shah Gharib and Mustansir, the inheritor of Shah Salam!” – The Ismailis in the Middles Ages, by Shafique Virani, p. 175.
Date article posted: Friday, September 2, 2011
Copyright: Simerg.com and Khalil Andani
About the Author: Khalil Andani is a young Isma‘ili Muslim professional from Toronto. He is a Chartered Accountant (CA) and graduated with Bachelors of Math (BMath) and Masters of Accounting (MAcc) degrees from the University of Waterloo in 2008. Khalil is a contemporary Isma’ili Muslim thinker whose areas of focus include theology, philosophy, metaphysics, hermeneutics (ta’wil), comparative studies and the Perennial Philosophy (sophia perennis). He also writes and delivers presentations on Isma’ili philosophy, doctrine and practice in the modern age. Through his literary and intellectual activities, Khalil seeks to revitalize the Shi‘a Muslim intellectual tradition of philosophy and esoteric thought and unveil the common ground between Islam and other faiths. He can be contacted at email@example.com. He welcomes questions and feedback and they may be submitted to him directly.
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