The doctrine of Imamat has been central in Shia Islam since the designation by the Prophet Muhammad (s.a.s.) of Hazrat Ali (a.s.) as his successor at Ghadir-Khumm. Among the various interpretations in Shia Islam, the Ismaili Muslims believe in the continuity of the Imamat through a living hereditary Imam descended from Hazrat Ali, through the prophet’s daughter Bibi Fatima (a.s). The current Imam of the Ismailis is His Highness the Aga Khan, who completes his 55th Imamat anniversary as the Ismaili community’s 49th Imam on July 11, 2012. To mark this occasion, we are pleased to provide short selections on the Imamat drawn from numerous writings of historians, theologians, philosophers and poets, Ismailis and non-Ismailis alike.
The Pure Progeny and the Blessed Face of the Imam of the Time
by Al–Mu’ayyad fi’l–Din al–Shirazi
Peace be upon the pure progeny,
and welcome to their resplendent lights.
I begin with peace upon Adam from whom
came all mankind, whether nomadic or sedentary.
Peace be upon the one who with his staff
overpowered the unbelievers of the tyrant Pharaoh.
Peace be upon Jesus, the Holy Spirit,
who by his coming, bestowed honor on Nazareth.
Peace be upon Muhammad, the chosen,
the one who intercedes in the hereafter.
Peace be upon Ali, the beloved,
and those descended from him, the radiant stars.
Peace be upon you, O Sovereign Lord
of Cairo, and all their gain abides with you.
I sacrifice my soul to Mustansir,
who is supported by the legions of heaven.
I bear witness that it is your blessed face
which illumines the faces of your followers.
Spiritual Enlightenment Under the Imam’s Guidance
In the Shia tradition, the teaching of the Imam (also referred to as the Ta’lim of the Imam) lights a Murid’s (an individual who has pledged his allegiance to the Imam of the Time) path to spiritual enlightenment and vision.
The spiritual enlightenment or the elevation of the soul gained by following the Imam’s Ta’lim is described in many works by Shia theologians, and is particularly evident in the Ginans, Qasidas and narrative accounts written by Ismaili scholars, missionaries and Pirs.
The following is a piece by the renowned Fatimid Ismaili Missionary, Dai Muayyad-din-Shirazi.
“Look at the trouble your parents have taken from the days of your childhood in the growth of your bodies and in the improvement of your physical life on earth. But for the interest they took in you, you would not have been what you are.
Your souls are thousand times more important than your bodies. The Imams are your spiritual parents.
Avail yourselves of a few days of life which are at your disposal here and look after your spiritual elevation under the care of your spiritual parents.
Once you miss this opportunity, you will repent forever. You will not be given a second chance to set things right.”
Pir Sadr al-Din on the Beatific Vision of the Imam
The beatific vision is of two kinds: one a physical meeting with the Imam and the other a spiritual recognition of his essence, through which God is recognized.
Speaking of the second of these, Pir Sadr al-Din, in his ginan “Sakhi māhā pad keri vāt koek jānere”, writes:
Friend! None but a few know of the exalted station. Indeed, they alone recognize it who have found the true guide.
Friend! Within the heart, at the confluence of the three spiritual rivers, there is an imperishable light. There – a shimmering effulgence, pearls are showered.
Friend! I completely lost consciousness of my physical self when my meditation mounted the empyrean, bursting forth.
Friend! I beheld the place of the lofty throne, I saw the seven islands, the nine continents.
Friend! The religious scriptures and books cannot fathom this, for there is neither day there, nor night, neither sun, nor shade.
Friend! My Lord is not such that He can be spoken of. He is to be seen – for He is indescribable, and nameless.
Friend! How sweet is that Lord, indescribable, nameless. Says Pir Sadr al-Din, truly, with my own eyes, I have seen Him!”
Adapted from The Ismailis in the Middle Ages: A History of Survival, a Search for Salvation by Shafique N. Virani, Hardcover, May 3, 2007.
Imam Mustansir bi’llah on the Importance of Zaheri and Batini Aspects of Didar
Pandiyat-i- Jawanmardi or Counsels of Chivalry is a compilation of the guidance of the 32nd Ismaili Imam, Mustansir bi’llah, who lived in the 15th century. This book contains exhortations to the faithful on the necessity of recognising and obeying the current Imam and on how to live a truly ethical life. The circumstances that led to the compilation of the work are intriguing, and are alluded to in many of the manuscripts copies as follows:
When Pir Taj al-Din passed away, a number of people from the Sindhi Ismaili Community went to the Imam. Upon arrival they pleaded: “Our Pir Taj al-Din has passed away. Now we are in need of a Pir.” The Imam then had the Counsels of Chivalry compiled and gave it to them saying: “This is your Pir. Act according to its dictates.”
In one of the chapters, the Imam enumerates the importance of both the Zaheri and Batini aspects of the Imam’s Didar. He recognizes and acknowledges the sacrificing spirit of the Jamat, in serving him and in observing religious duties.
“They ( the Jamat) have given up their property, and even their lives. All of them have faithfully submitted their religious dues. Others have travelled long distances through arduous conditions by land and sea, braving storms and incurring great expense.
Some attend religious assemblies to increase their knowledge while others, without any worldly motive, perform acts of charity to benefit the poor.
Some have acted with noble actions in the cause of faith, including special devotions, worship and especially remembrance (Zikr), continually invoking the Lord throughout the night, never neglecting God for even a moment, and worshipping him out of passionate devotion.
All believers are urged to come into the presence of the Imam and to see him with their own eyes.
Thus, the esoteric (batini) vision, realized through pious works and the constant remembrance of God during the nightly vigil, as well as the exoteric (zaheri) vision, achieved by travelling to the Imam’s residence and beholding the gateway of God’s mercy, become the ultimate purpose of human life.
Piety should be for the purpose of recognizing and beholding God, which is achieved through the recognition and vision of the Imam of one’s time.”
Reading adapted from The Ismailis in the Middle Ages, by Shafique N. Virani, and Pandiyat-i Jawanmardi, translated by Professor Vladimir Ivanow.
Imam as the Source of Salvation
The notion of the Imam of the time (Hazar Imam) as the source of human salvation was underscored by Nizar Quhistani, in the following verses:
“Salvation is to be found in the Imam of the Time. I found the essence of faith in obedience to the command of his representative. I have given up everything except that contained in the Qur’anic verse ‘offspring, one of the other’. Ever since I found the Imamate, permanently in human form, I have known no other guide than the living, everlasting Imam, For in his command, I have found peace in both the worlds.”
The necessity of a living Imam in every age according to the changing needs and circumstances of people is echoed in the following lines:
“My lover appears in different forms, Because for each period there comes a new guidance; One after the other, there follows another Qaim Imam Ali.”
Adapted from The Ismailis in the Middle Ages: A History of Survival, a Search for Salvation by Shafique N. Virani, Hardcover, May 3, 2007.
By Nasir Khusraw
He brings souls out of their darkness
and draws out fruit from their outer skin
You see him as the rising sun of clarity
and as the river of abundant bounty.
By his brilliant wisdom, hearts are cured,
and by his copious mercy, they are revived
He manifests himself in every age
and creatures are not guided except by him
His mission is established in the world
exalted with sings clear and recognizable
He certainly is Mustansir, the triumphant
the one by whom everything became prosperous
He is the best of Fatima’s progeny
the scion of Zahir and the grandson of Hakim
He is God’s mercy on his servants
and the mine of provisions in the hereafter
I have composed a poem about him
like a necklace of pearls and gems strung together
The Historical Roots of Imamat
In “History in Quotations”, which reflects five thousand years of World History, the authors M. J. Cohen and John Major write as follows:
“Muhammad said: ‘He of whom I am the Mawla (patron), Ali is his Mawla. O God, be the friend of him who is his friend and be the enemy of his enemy.’
This became the proof text for the Shia claim that Ali, the Prophet’s cousin and son-in-law, was the Prophet’s rightful successor after the Prophet’s death in 632. The meaning of Mawla here probably implies the role of patron, lord or protector.”
The authors sum up by stating that through the use of the term Mawla, Muhammad was giving Ali the parity with himself in this function.
The Imam – A Cosmic Necessity
“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”….Hadith
“The Imam-Proof existed before the creatures, he exists with them, and he will exist after them.” The Imam, the Divine Guide, in both his cosmic, ontological aspect and his historical aspect, dominates and determines the Imamite* “world vision.” Here, religious conscience perceives creation through the “filter” that the Imam is, in a dizzying vision that goes from a cosmogonic pre-existence to an eschatological superexistence. Without the Imam, the universe would crumble, since he is the Proof, the Manifestation, and the Organ of God, and he is the Means by which human beings can attain, if not knowledge of God, at least what is knowable in God. Without the Perfect Man, without a Sacred Guide the world could only be engulfed in darkness. The Imam is the Threshold through which God and the creatures communicate. He is thus a cosmic necessity, the key and the center of the universal economy of the sacred: “The earth cannot be devoid of an imam; without him, it could not last an hour. If there were only two men left in the world, one of them would be the imam.” The universal Order is maintained through the presence of the divine Man: “It is because of us,” say the imams, “that the heavens and the earth are maintained”; it is because of the imams “that God keeps the sky from crashing into the earth, and the earth from shaking up its inhabitants.” Without an Imam, there is no religion; without esotericism, exotericism loses its direction, its purpose, its goal, as well as its meaning…
Source: The above excerpt including the tradition of the Prophet Muhammad (sas) cited at the top is from the chapter “Conclusions” (pp. 125-131) of “The Divine Guide in Early Shi’ism” by Mohamad Ali Amir-Moezzi, published by the State University of New York, 1994.
Forms Change but the Essence of Imam Remains the Same
An Ode by Imam ‘Abd al-Salam
There is an ode of Imam ‘Abd al-Salam in which he says that the talisman (anything that has magical powers) that can open the treasure trove of spiritual meaning of the Holy Quran is the Imam. This ode is lucidly explained by Dr. Shafique Virani in his book “The Ismailis in the Middle Ages”.
In the ode the Imam observes that the true essence of the Imam cannot be recognized with earthly, fleshly eyes, for these can only see his physical form, perishing like all else with the passage of time. His true face is to be perceived with the eyes of the heart. He has thousands of physical habitations, but his true home is traceless; he has had a thousand names, but all of them refer to one reality.
The Imam continues to say that today he is known as ‘Abd al-Salam, but tomorrow the physical body will be gone and the name will change, yet the essence will remain in the next Imam of the lineage. Those who look at the Imam as they squint will consider him like any other human being, but as soon as the eyes of the heart perceive correctly, his true status is discovered.
In form the Imams change, but in meaning and substance they are changeless. Human language cannot attain to the majesty of the Imams.
The Imam is the most precious ingredient in the supreme elixir (miraculous substance) of eternal life-red sulfur. He is not simply a pearl, but the ocean that gives birth to pearls.
The existence of the Imam, who leads humankind to a recognition of God, is the very pinnacle of creation.
Qadi No’man on Obedience to the Imam
In the intellectual life of the Fatimid Period, the contributions of Qadi No’man are regarded as extremely significant. He played a great part in enriching the Fatimid period with his intellectual wealth and exerted enormous influence on his contemporaries and later writers. Qadi No’man wrote extensively on Fatimid Doctrines and Jurisprudence. In 952 CE when the Fatimid Caliph-Imam Al-Moiz ascended the throne, Qadi No’man rose to the height of his influence. He became a constant companion of the Imam. There are many instances which indicate that No’man, before he wrote any book, got the necessary instructions and inspiration from Imam Al-Moiz. Before he showed his works to the public, he always referred to the Imam for his approval. In the following extract, No’man states that obedience to Imam is akin to obedience to Allah:
“Those who know the proper position of the Imams should fear them as much as they fear God and respect them as much as they respect God. For God has linked our obedience to them with our obedience to Him and has made them a medium between Him and the people. They have been appointed by Him to scrutinize our actions and certify them before Him. Their pleasure is the pleasure of God and their displeasure is the displeasure of God. We shall be rewarded or punished through them.
“Imam Jafar Sadiq (peace be on him), says: ‘God is worshipped through us and is obeyed and disobeyed through us. He who obeys us, obeys God and he who disobeys us, disobeys God. We are the gate of God. We are His ‘hujjats’. We are the guardians over His people and the guardians of His mysteries. We are the depositories of His knowledge’.”
The Imam, Manifest in the World
by Fida’i Khurasani
He is always present
a witness with his followers;
but who has seen his beauty
except the blessed?
He who is the cupbearer of
the fount of paradise
is aware altogether of
the hearts of his followers
He is the Imam of the time
the guide and comforter
the protector of his followers
whether young or old
Like the sun in the sky
he is manifest in the world
but the blind bat cannot see
his luminous face
Poem from Shimmering Light: An Anthology of Ismaili Poems, ed. Faquir M. Hunzai and Kutub Kassam, pub. I. B. Tauris in association with The Institute of Ismaili Studies, 1997. Note: The poem appears under the title “Recognition of the Imam” in the Anthology.
The Ships of Salvation
The following poem is a composition by Shaykh Khudr of Syria. He was a contemporary of the fortieth Ismaili Imam, Nizar. In his adult life he visited Persia for an audience with the Imam, and was appointed to a senior position in the Syrian Ismaili community. Shaykh Khudr lived for seventy years.
The people of the house of Prophethood
are the manifestations of light;
They are that which exists forever
and in what has already elapsed;
They are the ships of salvation for those
who come running to them with hope;
They are the rain abundant in moisture
and their grace is the best of springs;
The essence of their souls is knowledge
from a world beyond the intellects;
Indeed, it is their invitation which
rescues souls from the pit of destruction.
Poem from Shimmering Light: An Anthology of Ismaili Poems, ed. Faquir M. Hunzai and Kutub Kassam, pub. I. B. Tauris in association with The Institute of Ismaili Studies, 1997.
The Nur (Light) of Imamat
While this reading is primarily aimed at the younger readership, we think everyone can benefit from it.
The sun is extremely important for all life on earth. It gives us light, warmth and energy. The sun however is not the final source of life. It is Allah who gives life to all living things. It is God who has created the sun and the stars and everything that is in the universe.
The Quran teaches that Allah is the Light of the Heavens and the Earth. Allah guides mankind towards Him through His light. While Allah has created the physical light, He has also provided mankind another kind of light.
Allah says in the Quran:
“O Mankind! Truly there has come to you a proof from your Lord, and We have sent down to you a clear Light.” (Chapter 4, Verse 174)
What is this special light that Allah refers to, which guides and makes things clear? For Shia Muslims, this light is the Light of Imamat. The Shias refer to it as the Nur of Imamat. Nur means light. The Nur of Imamat is a spiritual light.
This spiritual light is with the Ahl al-bayt, the Imams from the Prophet Muhammad’s family. This light was with the first Shia Imam, Hazrat Murtaza Ali and, for Shia Imami Ismailis, it is now with their present 49th Imam, Shah Karim al-Husayni, His Highness the Aga Khan IV. The Imam guides his murids (followers) with his Nur.
The Imam’s Nur is not like ordinary light. It is a different light altogether. It is a spiritual light. Physical light, such as sunlight, helps everyone see things in the physical world. The Imam’s Nur guides his murids both in the spiritual and worldly aspects of their lives. Above all, the Imam’s Nur leads his followers towards inner peace and happiness.
Ever since the time of Hazrat Ali, the Ismaili Imams have guided their followers in succession, one after after another. There have been forty nine Imams up to the present time, but the Nur of Imamat is one, and it remains the same.
The Nur of Imamat is always there to guide through the physical presence of the Imam. The Imam holds his followers hands and leads them through both difficult and good times. He gives them guidance about how they should live in a particular time and place.
Just as the water of a river continues to flow, the line of Imamat never stops. That is, the Nur of Imamat is there to stay eternally.
One of the goals of the murid of the Imam should be to strive to come closer to the spiritual light of the Imam. This, one can do by fulfilling one’s material and spiritual responsibilities to the best of one’s ability. Praying regularly, living by the ethics of Islam, following the Imam’s guidance and thinking about Allah constantly can bring us closer and closer to the Nur of Imamat.
Source: Article adapted from multiple literary sources including the Ta’lim curriculum published by Islamic Publications, London.
Foundations of the Faith of Muhammad
By Nasir Khusraw
The Qur’an and the pure
sword of Haydar – these are
the two foundations of
the faith of Muhammad.
For he, ‘Ali, stood with
his sword Dhu’l-faqar*,
drawn in every battle on the
right hand of Muhammad.
Ali’s rank in the faith
was like Aaron to Moses,
for he was both the peer
and companion of Muhammad.
On the Day of Resurrection
Aaron and Moses will kiss
the mantle of ‘Ali and
the sleeve of Muhammad.
Muhammad’s religion was
like a dense forest;
‘Ali was the lion in
the forest of Muhammad.
Source: Shimmering Light: An Anthology of Ismaili Poems, ed. Faquir M. Hunzai and Kutub Kassam, pub. I. B. Tauris in association with The Institute of Ismaili Studies, 1997. Note: The poem is titled “The Sword of Ali” in the Anthology.
*The sword of the first Shia Imam, Hazrat ‘Ali. The name is also commonly transliterated as Dhu al-Fiqar, Dhulfiqar, Zulfiqar etc. The scimitar is one of the oldest and best known symbols of Islam, and is particularly important to the Shī‘a, Alevis and Sufis.
By most accounts, Muhammad presented Zulfiqar to a young ‘Alī at the Battle of Uhud. During the battle, ‘Alī struck one of the fiercest adversaries, breaking both his helmet and his shield. Seeing this, Muhammad was reported to have said “La fata illa Ali, la saif illa Zulfiqar” (“There is no hero but ‘Ali and no sword except Zukfiqar”).
Munajat (Supplication) – Ya Ali Khuba Mijalas
Celebrating the ascension to the throne of Imamat
Ya Ali Khuba Mijalas Zinat Karake
Farasha Bichhai Gali,
Aan Baithe Hay Takht-Ke Upar
Shah Karim Shah Vali
Aaj Raj Mubarak Hove,
Noor Ain Alikun Raj Mubarak Hove,
Shah Aal-e Nabi Kun Raaj Mubarak Hove,
Hove Hove Aaj Raj Mubarak Hove.
O Ali! In the fair assembly,
gloriously adorned with carpets spread on the floor,
Our Lord Shah Karim sits on the takht,
our Lord Shah Karim our Guardian.
Today blessed be your rule
Oh the light of Ali’s eye,
Blessed be your rule
Shah, the descendant of the Holy Prophet,
Blessed be your rule today
Blessed be your rule today.
Ya Ali Tera Nasiba Roje Awal-Se,
Deta Haire Kamali,
Shah Sultan Shah Ke Mukhamen Se Nikala,
Shah Karim Shah Vali….Aaj
O Ali! Your fortune from the very first day (right from the beginning)
has bestowed perfection upon you,
Hazrat Imam Shah Sultan Muhammad Shah declared that
Mawlana Shah Karim is the Lord and the Guardian.
Ya Ali Shah Kahun To Tujakun Baja Hay,
Bakhta Bulanda Peshani,
Chhoti Umarmen Aali Marataba,
Taluki Hay Nishani….Aaj
O Ali! To call you Lord is your due.
Your fortune and greatness is evident on your forehead.
Your exalted status at the young age
is a sign of greatness.
Ya Ali Takht ne Chhatra sunake tere
Falakase Barase Nooran,
Moti Tabaka Hathunmen Lekar,
Shah KunVadhave Huran….Aaj
O Ali! At the news of your Takht Nashini (Takhta ne Chhatra)
the heavens shower Light,
with trays of pearls in their hands,
the houris (chaste heavenly maidens) greet the Lord.
Ya Ali Maheman Khanemen Momankun Jab
La-i ‘Id Musal-le
Shamsi Jo Salavat Pada Kar
In the guest-house when the celebration of your Takht Nashini takes place,
the momins celebrate like ‘Id.
They recite the Shamsi prayer, the salwat,
and they experience the ecstasy of spiritual enlightenment.
Ya Ali Teri Mubarak Badike Khatar,
Sayyad Karte Munajat,
Shah Najaf Tere Pushta Panah
Tere Dushman Hove Fanah….Aaj
O Ali! To offer greetings,
the Sayyads make their humble supplication (munajat)
O Ali, the Lord of Najaf, may your progeny be protected
and your enemies be destroyed.
Note: Complete article with introduction and glossary of key words at: Literary Reading: The Munajat – Ya Ali Khuba Mijalas
We welcome feedback/letters from our readers. Please use the LEAVE A REPLY box which appears below. Your feedback may be edited for length and brevity, and is subject to moderation. We are unable to acknowledge unpublished letters. Share this article with others via the share option below. Please visit the Simerg Home page for links to articles posted most recently. For links to articles posted on this Web site since its launch in March 2009, please click What’s New. Sign-up for blog subscription at top right of this page.