Seeking the Forgiveness of the Imam of the Time: A Short Explanation (I)

By Khalil Andani

A quote of an Ismaili pilgrim from “The Ismailis in the Middle Ages” by Shafique N. Virani

One of the most significant practices for the murids of the Isma‘ili Tariqah of Islam is to seek forgiveness from their Murshid – the Imam of the Time. This practice is performed daily in Jamatkhana when the Jamat engages in the tasbihat and also on the Night of the New Moon (chandraat) and the Night of Power (laylat al-qadr) in the course of purification and repentance rituals.

The act of seeking the Imam’s forgiveness is firmly rooted in the history of Isma‘ili Islam. Medieval Isma‘ili texts indicate the practice has in fact existed for many centuries. The practice appears to have existed during the Fatimid period when the Imams also ruled as caliphs over much of the Muslim world. For example, the Fatimid poet, Ibn Hani al-Andalusia, has written:

“We obey an Imam who obeys God and is invested
By Him with the command of what He wills.
The decree forgives those whom he forgives
And death assails those whom he assails.” [1]

The Fatimid jurist, da‘i, and philosopher Qadi Nu’man, in his Code of Conduct for the Followers of the Imam, frequently exhorts the members of the Jamat to approach the Imam of the time and seek his forgiveness in order to receive God’s forgiveness. The Ginans composed by the Nizari Isma‘ili pirs contain numerous verses beseeching the Imam for his forgiveness. The author of the Kalam-i Pir, a treatise written after the fall of Alamut, refers to the Imam of his time as “the one who forgives the sins of mankind.” The Shi‘ite philosopher Nasir al-Din al-Tusi, writing at the time of Imam ‘Ala al-Din Muhammad, refers to the importance of knowing the personal name of the Imam of the time so the believers may address their prayers of forgiveness to him:

“If this kind of knowledge did not exist, when they want to perform prayers, they would not know who is to be named in their prayers (dua) and to whom they should address their prayers for forgiveness and repentance.” [2]

In contemporary times, the practice of seeking the forgiveness of the Imam as well as the Imam’s authority to forgive the sins and errors of his murids has often been the subject of questioning and misunderstanding. The objection often takes the form of questions such as ‘Does the Imam have the authority to forgive sins?’, ‘Why don’t you seek the forgiveness of God directly instead of resorting to an intermediary?’ and ‘God is the only being with the power to forgive sins’. The questioners often quote the verse of the Holy Qur’an which states:

“And those who, having done something to be ashamed of, or wronged their own souls, remember Allah and ask for forgiveness (fa istaghfaroo) for their sins, – and who can forgive (yaghfiru) sins except Allah? -and are never obstinate in persisting knowingly in (the wrong) they have done” – Holy Qur’an 3:135

If this verse was the only one that spoke to the concept of forgiveness, the opposition and the questioning would be somewhat justified – but this is actually not the case. A true understanding of the forgiveness of the Imam requires grasping the full meaning of the status of the Imamat as the succession to the Prophet Muhammad and a familiarity with the verses of the Holy Qur’an. This paper discusses the Isma‘ili practice of seeking and receiving the forgiveness of the Imam of the Time in light of the Holy Qur’an and the prophetic practice of Muhammad.

Firstly, it must be appreciated that the Holy Qur’an employs three different Arabic words which correspond in meaning to the word ‘forgiveness’ in English. These terms are maghfira, ‘afwa, and safaha. The word maghfira appears 28 times in the Holy Qur’an and a related word ghufran appears 1 time. The literal meaning of both words is “covering” or “concealing”. Related to these words are the Divine Names, al-Ghafir, al-Ghaffar, and al-Ghafur – each denoting different degrees of forgiveness but all similar in their root meaning of “covering”. Corresponding to the term maghfira is the verb istighfara which means “to seek forgiveness”. Related to this is the word tawbah which means “returning” and often translated as “repentance” and the corresponding Divine Name al-Tawwab (the One who turns to those who repent). Some examples of these words are shown below:

“If any one does evil or wrongs his own soul (nafsahu) but afterwards seeks Allah’s forgiveness (yastaghfiri Allaha), he will find Allah Oft-forgiving, Most Merciful (ghafooran raheeman).” — Holy Qur’an 4:110

“Celebrate the praises of thy Lord, and pray for His Forgiveness (wa istaghfirhu): For He is Oft-Returning (tawwaban).” – Holy Qur’an 110:3

“To those who believe and do deeds of righteousness hath Allah promised forgiveness (maghfiratun) and a great reward.” — Holy Qur’an 5:9

“But none will keep it in remembrance except as Allah wills: He is the Lord of Righteousness, and the Lord of Forgiveness (ahlu almaghfirati).” – Holy Qur’an 74:56

The Imam and the Forgiveness of God

Generally speaking, forgiveness in the form of magfhira is only attributed to God Himself. However, for the believers, the Qur’an outlines a very specific practice according to which God’s forgiveness (maghfira) must be sought through Prophet Muhammad.

“We sent not a messenger, but to be obeyed, in accordance with the will of Allah. If they had only, when they were unjust to their souls, come unto thee [Muhammad] and asked God’s forgiveness (fa istaghfaroo Allaha), and the Messenger had asked forgiveness for them (wa istaghfara lahumu al-rrasoolu), they would have found Allah indeed Oft-returning, Most Merciful (Allaha tawwaban raheeman)” –  Holy Qur’an 4:64

The role of Muhammad as God’s Messenger in the process of forgiveness is two fold. Firstly, the believers are instructed to go into the presence of Muhammad to ask God’s forgiveness and secondly, Muhammad is commanded to ask forgiveness for the believers –- only then can the believers be recipients of the forgiveness of God, as the verse states –- “they would have found Allah indeed Oft-Returning, Most Merciful”.

Numerous other verses in the Holy Qur’an instruct the Prophet Muhammad to seek forgiveness on behalf of his community –- for the believers (mumineen) specifically. For example, the Prophet is ordered to perform this practice only after the believing women come unto him and give their bay’ah or oath of allegiance:

O Prophet! When believing women come to thee to take the oath of fealty to thee (yu bayi‘anaka), that they will not associate in worship any other thing whatever with Allah, that they will not steal, that they will not commit adultery (or fornication), that they will not kill their children, that they will not utter slander, intentionally forging falsehood, and that they will not disobey thee in any just matter, — then do thou receive their fealty (fa bayi‘ahunna), and ask Allah’s forgiveness for them (wa istaghfir lahunna Allaha): for Allah is Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful (inna Allaha ghafoorun raheemun).” — Holy Qur’an 60:12

The significance of the Prophet’s prayer of forgiveness is underlined by the fact of the bay’ah. The bay’ah between the believer and the Prophet establishes a permanent spiritual bond between their souls. And it is by virtue of this bond that the Prophet is ordered to intercede and seek forgiveness for the believers – such as in the verse shown below:

“Only those are believers, who believe in Allah and His Messenger. When they are with him on a matter requiring collective action, they do not depart until they have asked for his leave; those who ask for thy leave are those who believe in Allah and His Messenger. So when they ask for thy leave, for some business of theirs, give leave to those of them whom thou wilt, and ask Allah’s forgiveness for them (wa istaghfir lahumu Allaha): for Allah is Oft- Forgiving, Most Merciful (inna Allaha ghafoorun raheemun).” — Holy Qur’an 24:62

The verses which specify the role of Muhammad in interceding for the believers to obtain God’s forgiveness also highlight specific Names and Attributes of God, namely, al-Ghafoor, al-Rahim, and al-Tawwab. These Divine Names are usually mentioned after Muhammad is instructed to ask for the believers’ forgiveness. These occurrences are not coincidental but highlight Muhammad’s status as the embodiment and the locus of manifestation of these Divine Names. This is also established by other Qur’anic verses – one of which states that Muhammad is the embodiment of Divine Mercy:

“And We have not sent you (Muhammad) but as a Mercy to the worlds.” — Holy Qur’an 21:107

Another verse is more instructive in establishing the connection between Muhammad and God’s forgiveness and mercy:

“And Allah would not punish them while you are in their midst, and Allah will not punish them while they seek forgiveness (wahum yastaghfiroona).” — Holy Qu’ran 8:33

The verse declares the Divine punishment will be avoided as long as the Prophet Muhammad is physically present amongst the people or if the people seek God’s forgiveness. This clearly equates the physical presence and status of Muhammad with the state of seeking God’s forgiveness. All of this establishes the great reality that Muhammad is the locus of manifestation of God’s Mercy and God’s Forgiveness to His Creatures.

After the death of the Prophet Muhammad, the Imams, beginning with Mawlana ‘Ali, were the successors of his authority and spiritual status. This authority includes the spiritual functions of Muhammad, specifically those dealing with the mediation and intercession of God’s forgiveness for the believers. The Divine Mercy and Forgiveness manifested in the Prophet continues in the institution of Imamat. The proofs of this reality are manifold but some of the authentic traditions (hadith) [3] concerning the spiritual relationship and identity between the Prophet and the first Imam, Mawlana ‘Ali, are enough to serve as an illustration of this continuity:

“Truly, ‘Ali is from me and I am from him (inna ‘Ali minni wa ana minhu), and he is the wali of every believer after me.”

“Ali is from me and I am from him (Ali minni wa ana minhu), and nobody can fulfill my duty but myself and Ali.”

“Ali is as my own soul (ka-nafsi).”

“Whoever obeys ‘Ali obeys me, and whoever disobeys him disobeys me.”

“For whomsoever I am his mawla, ‘Ali is his mawla.”

“O ‘Ali, whoever separates himself from me separates himself from God, and whoever separates himself from you, O ‘Ali, separates himself from me.”

The Prophet in his period and each Imam in his respective age serves as the intercessor between God and the believers and the means of approach (wasilah) of God amongst the faithful. In addition to having a human body, the Prophet and the Imams of his Ahl al-Bayt possess luminous and pure souls by virtue of which they occupy a station of spiritual proximity or nearness to God. This spiritual sanctity of the Imams, called walayah, enables them to serve as intercessors and the mediums by which people may seek the help and blessings of God. With regards to their functions as intercessors, the Imams have referred to the following verse of the Holy Qur’an:

“O you who believe! Be conscious of Allah, and seek the means of approach (al-wasila) to reach Him, and strive hard in His way so that you may be successful.” — Holy Qur’an 5:35

The Qur’anic word wasilah is best translated as ‘means’, ‘means of approach’, or ‘medium’. The above verse orders the believers (mumineen) to seek a medium or means of approach unto God. The wasilah (means, medium) to God, in Shi‘a Islam, are the Imams of the Family of the Prophet. In relation to their status as the wasilah of God for the believers, Qadi al-Numan quotes Imam Ja’far as-Sadiq as declaring:

“We are the Gates of God. We are the medium for His people. He who approaches Him through us is brought near Him. He who seeks our intercession is interceded for. He who seeks His favours through us is favoured by Him. He who turns away from us goes astray.” [4]

Qadi al-Nu’man explains the need for the presence of a medium (wasilah) towards God through which humanity can approach God and seek His Mercy and Forgiveness:

“Had this not been the case, the mercy of God would have been cut off from His people and His forgiveness would have disappeared. The doors of our repentance to Him would have been closed and there would have been no way left open to us for forgiveness. God has not left this world without a medium of approach to Him. Had there been no such medium for us, people would have argued in defense of their wrong doings by saying, ‘There was no one to show us the right path and warn us against the wrong one. There was none to let us know what we did not know, and there was none to whom we could have run for shelter and through whom we could have approached God for forgiveness.’ But God has shut the mouth of these people by leaving the medium on earth.” [5]

Despite the existence of this channel of Divine Mercy and Forgiveness, there are still those who question this practice and claim that they require no medium or ‘middle-man’. The Holy Qur’an refers to such people in the following verse:

“And when it is said to them, “Come, the Messenger of Allah will pray for your forgiveness”, they turn aside their heads, and you will see them turning away their faces in arrogance.” — Holy Qur’an 63:5

In accordance with the position of the Imam of the Time as the successor (wasi) of the Messenger of God and the medium (wasilah) of God amongst the people, the Jamat seeks the forgiveness of God through the Imam. This is sought three times a day in the Holy Du‘a.

In the Isma‘ili Du‘a, the intercession of the Messengers of God and their successors, the Holy Imams, is first sought in the Fourth Part when the murid beseeches God for His Mercy, Sustenance (rizq) and Forgiveness (maghfir).

“Allahum-maghfir lana dhunubana
w’arzuqna, wa rahmna,
bi-haqqi rusulika’l-muqarrabin,
wa a’immatika’l-mutahharin,
wa bi-haqqi mawlana wa imamina,
Shah Karim al-Husayni”

Translation:

“O Allah, forgive us our sins,
And give us our bread, and have mercy upon us,
By the right of Thy closest Messengers
And Thy pure Imams,
And by the right of our lord and our Imam,
Shah Karim al-Husayni”

The supplication is a direct plea to God Himself for His Forgiveness (maghfir). However, the Messengers, the Imams, and the Imam of the Time are invoked by the phrase bi-haqqi – which can be interpreted and translated in several forms such as “by the right of”, “in the name of”, or “for the sake of”. The term haqq means “truth” or “reality” and is one of the Names of God. However, haqq also means “right” in the legal sense of the word and therefore, the most literal translation of bi-haqqi would read “by the right of”. In other words, the supplicant beseeches God “by the right of” His closest Messengers, His pure Imams, and the present lord (mawla) and imam, Shah Karim al-Husayni – the Imam of the Time. Seyyed Hossein Nasr, in explaining the relationship between God, Truth, and Justice, writes the following about the word haqq (right):

“This metaphysical doctrine can be brought home thorugh the analysis of the word al-haqq in Arabic. To pay each thing its due (al-haqq) is identified with justice, and the rights of various beings whether human or otherwise, which have to be respected if there is to be justice is also called al-haqq (pl. huquq).” [6]

The term haqq refers to the rights (huquq) which God has bestowed upon His creatures. The above supplication is an affirmation of the right (haqq) of intercession or mediation which God has granted to the Messengers and the Imams as His wasilah (medium) to the mankind. Henry Corbin, one of the great scholars of Shi‘a Islam, explains how the souls of the Imams are in a state of “walayah” (closeness, proximity) due to which God granted them a special kind of “right” (haqq) – when He created their luminous souls before the creation of the world:

“This walayah has its source in God Himself in that He reveals Himself in those who are the object of His love. At the same time, because they are the object of this love, they are granted a “right” that was invoked before “their time” in this world…Thus at the origin, through this predilection, God confers a kind of right to Himself upon those who are the pre-eternal objects of this predilection: Hence that formula of invocation, frequent in Shi’i prayers, which sounds forth like a supreme conjuration, as if by invoking this “right to Himself” conferred by God upon His Friends, the prayer formulated by their friends bore in itself the force of an accomplishment. The Imams themselves preferred the formula bi-haqqina, which can be translated “by our right” or “in the name of our cause”.” [7]

The practice of supplicating God using the phrase bi-haqqi is also present in a hadith quoted in Sunni sources where Adam seeks the forgiveness of God through the intercession of Prophet Muhammad.

The Prophet said on the authority of `Umar:

When Adam committed his mistake he said: “O my Lord, I am asking you to forgive me for by the right of Muhammad (bi-haqqi Muhammad)” God said: “O Adam, and how do you know about Muhammad whom I have not yet created?” Adam replied, “O my Lord, after You created me with your hand and breathed into me of Your Spirit, I raised my head and saw written on the heights of the Throne: La ilaha illa Allah Muhammad-ur Rasulillah. I understood that You would not place next to Your Name but the Most Beloved One of Your creation.” God said: “O Adam, I have forgiven you, and were it not for Muhammad I would not have created you.[8]

The phrasing of Adam’s dua and the Isma‘ili Du‘a is remarkably similar. The Isma‘ili Du‘a invokes God by the right of (bi-haqqi) the Messengers of God who are described as al-muqarrabin (those who are brought near to God), by the right of the Imams who are described as al-mutahharin (the pure ones) – a term which relates to the Verse of Purity (33:33) where the Ahl al-Bayt are declared to have been purified by God with a thorough purification – and by the right of the Imam of the Time who is the legatee (wasi) of the Messengers of God and the previous Imams.

The right (haqq) of the Prophet and the Imams of his Ahl al-Bayt is also invoked in the Sixth Part where the supplicant beseeches God for His Mercy (rahma) and Forgiveness (maghfira).

Allahuma bi-haqqi Muhammadin al-Mustafa
Wa Aliyyin al-Murtada, wa Fatima’z-Zahra
Wa’l-Hasani wa’l-Husayn
Allahuma bi-haqqi, Mawlana Ali, Mawlana Husayn…

(Recitation of the Names of the Imams)

…Mawlana Sultan Muhammad Shah

Wa bi-haqqi mawlana wa imamina’l-hadir al-mawjud
Shah Karim al-Husayni,
Rhamna w’aghfirlana.
Inna ka ‘ala kulli shayin qadir
wa’l-hamdu’lillahi Rabb al-Alamin

Translation:

O God, by the right of Muhammad the Chosen
And Ali the Favourite
And Fatima the Radiant
And Hasan and Husayn
O God, by the right of our lord Ali, our lord Husayn…

(Recitation of the Names of the Imams)

…our lord Sultan Muhammad Shah

And by the right of our lord and our present living Imam
Shah Karim al-Husayni.
Have mercy upon us and forgive us.
Verily Thou art Powerful over all things
And all praise is due to God, the Lord of the Worlds.

In a similar fashion as in the Fourth Part, the murid seeks God’s Mercy and Forgiveness and invokes the right (haqq) of the historical Ahl al-Bayt known as the Pantjan Pak (Pure Five) and each of the 49 Imams up to and including the Imam of the Time.

The explanation put forth in the previous paragraphs regarding the role of the Prophet/Imam as the intercessor and medium (wasilah) for God’s Forgiveness (maghfira) does not exhaust the entire matter. It may be pointed out that in the certain rituals of the Isma‘ili Tariqah, specifically the Du ‘a Karavi ceremony, the Chanta ceremony and the various tasbihat, the exact words (i.e. “May Mawlana Hazar Imam forgive all of your sins”, etc.) indicate that the Jamat is seeking the Imam’s forgiveness (as opposed to God Himself) and that it is the Imam himself who actually grants this forgiveness. This concept will be explored in the next section, The Forgiveness of the Imam.

Publication date: Saturday, August 20, 2011

Please continue to part II: Seeking the Forgiveness of the Imam of the Time: A Short Explanation (II)

Copyright: Simerg.com and Khalil Andani

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Notes:

[1] Those Who Have Lost Their Way, published in The Shimmering Light: An Anthology of Ismaili Poetry, pp. 34
[2] The Paradise of Submission, pp. 127
[3] The hadiths are fully referenced from Sunni Muslim sources in Reza Shah-Kazemi, Justice and Remembrance: Introducing the Spirituality of Imam ‘Ali, Chapter 1, Institute of Ismaili Studies 2006
[4] Qadi al-Numan, Code of Conduct for the Followers of the Imam, transl. Jawad al-Muscati, A.M. Moulvi, pp. 42
[5] ibid, Majlis #6, pp. 14
[6] Introduction to The Sacred Foundations of Justice in Islam, ed. M. Ali Lakhani, xii
[7] Henry Corbin, Shi’ism: Doctrines, Thought, and Spirituality, ed. Nasr, p. 173
[8] al-Hakim al-Nisaburi, al-Mustadrak ala’l-sahihayn, 2:651

Underlined text in the article is the author’s emphasis…ed.

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 kandani@gmail.com.

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Please also click The Noble Qur’an –  An Inexhaustible Well-Spring of Inspiration and Knowledge by His Highness the Aga Khan (published for Lailat al-Qadr, 2011)

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11 thoughts on “Seeking the Forgiveness of the Imam of the Time: A Short Explanation (I)

  1. Thank you kiya-Khalil!
    You write :-” Ahl al-Bayt known as the Pantjan Pak (Pure Five) and each of the 49 Imams up to and including the Imam of the Time.” which needs to be corrected to: “Panj tane pak” (from persian “پنج تن پاک”).

  2. Khalil Andani is brilliant in his research, and his ability to articulate complex theology concepts in everyday language, is a blessing, to all who are his devoted fans.

  3. The knowledge shared in your paper addresses some of the core questions we encounter by the generation today, as well as questions that originate in our own personal/spiritual search. Thank you for sharing and enlightening us, Khalil.

    Masha’Allah!!

  4. An excellent article, reinforces the belief and supports the concept of the Imam as a direct link between the believers and the Divine. Mansur

  5. Beautifully written article. I believe this article answers a very predominant question about why we seek forgiveness from the Imam of the time and should benefit those who are not clear on this topic, or who have any doubts. Thank you for your excellent paper.

    Nurjehan

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