Imam of the Time: “The Straight Path”

by Abdulaziz Shamsuddin

The word Imama, from its Arabic root I-m-m (lit: leader, to be in front of), is normally used for the ‘supreme leadership’ of the Muslim community after the death of Prophet Muhammad (SAWS). [1]

According to the Islamic concept of Divine Guidance and Mediation, man is created in the best form and is given intellect. This is attested to in the Qur’anic verse (95:4), “Surely we created Man of best stature.” This, however, does not mean that he is infallible, perfect. As a matter of fact, in spite of his rationality he has all the possibilities of going astray and being misled. Thus, to save Man from wandering away and falling into error, Divine guidance takes place through Prophets and Messengers who are entrusted with the dual role to guide the believers in their material and also in their spiritual lives by making them aware of the deeper meaning and purposes of life. In other words, they guide the believers to something beyond the transitory and changing phenomena of the material world, that is to something permanent and immutable. Through them, the direct experience of the Truth is made possible.

For Muslims, both the roles were combined in the example of Prophet Muhammad. As the recipient of the Holy Qur’an, Allah’s final message for mankind, the Prophet was the Spiritual Master on the one hand and a social reformer, a military commander and a political leader on the other. Thus, the person to succeed the Prophet as an Imam was to play the same  spiritual and temporal roles. He, the Imam, was to carry the responsibilities of interpreting the Holy Qur’an to the faithful and guiding them in their worldly and spiritual matters.

B. In accordance with Shia doctrine, tradition, and interpretation of history, the Holy Prophet (s.a.s.) designated and appointed his cousin and son-in-law Hazrat Mawlana Ali Amiru-l-Mu’minin (a.s), to be the first Imam to continue the Ta’wīl and Ta‘līm of Allah’s final message and to guide the murids, and proclaimed that the Imamat should continue by heredity through Hazrat Mawlana Ali (a.s) and his daughter Hazrat Bibi Fatimat-az-Zahra, Khātun-i-Jannat (a.s)….Preamble, Ismaili Constitution

According to the Sh’ia belief Hazrat Ali (a.s.) was the first to succeed the Holy Prophet to the seat of Imamah, that is “he was to be both Amir-al-Mu’minin” or “commander of the true believers” and “Imam-al-Muslimin” or “spiritual chief of the devout.” [2] The Shi’a further believe that the institution of Imamah is not established on the basis of the socio-political needs of the Muslim society and also not on the principle of janbhur (election). It is, in fact, an expression of Divine Will for the fulfilment of material and spiritual needs of human beings.

In Shi’a theology two principles were developed concerning Imamah. One was the principle of nass, according to which Imamah is a prerogative bestowed by God upon the chosen person from the family of the Prophet [3] and each Imam, before his death, passes this authority to his successor. The second was the principle of ‘Ilm (knowledge) according to which an Imam is Divinely inspired, and his wisdom and knowledge guide his followers in both the worldly and spiritual matters. Thus Imam, by virtue of these principles, is the rightful authority to interpret religion and the Book of Divine Revelations, the Holy Qur’an.

C. Succession of Imamat is by way of Nass, it being the absolute prerogative of the Imam of the time to appoint his successor from amongst any of his male descendents whether they be sons or remoter issue….Preamble, Ismaili Constitution

Qadi al-Nu’man, a Fatimid jurist and theologian, explaining the status of the Imam states that the Imams see through the Light of Allah: they assist (believers) with His assistance and they guide people through His guidance. [4] In a more esoteric sense, the Imam assumes the position of the locus of all creative spiritual efforts of the believers. Through him their aims and goals in the physical world and spiritual attainment are defined and achieved. Al-Nu’man quoting Imam Ja’far al-Sadiq tells us that to achieve all these objectives, obedience and love for the Imam of the time are necessary prerequisites and considers the Imam of the time as the only existing link between God and Man. Imam Ja’far al-Sadiq says:

“Whosoever obeys us, verily he obeys God and whosoever disobeys us, disobeys God. We are the door towards God and His proof and trustee…We are the depository of His secrets and knowIedge.” [5]

From the Nizari-lsma’ili point of view, the Imam is not only hadir (present), but he is also maujud (existing), that is, he is physically existing. By virtue of his physical presence in every period and time, his guidance changes according to the time. This implies a world view which is not static and also indicates a social philosophy which is dynamic. In this sense, the Nizari-lsma’ili concept of Imamah embodies the dynamic spirit of Islam which was vitally present in the life-time of Prophet Muhammad.

F. Historically and in accordance with Ismaili tradition, the Imam of the time is concerned with spiritual advancement as well as improvement of the quality of life of his murids. The imam’s ta‘lim lights the murid’s path to spiritual enlightenment and vision. In temporal matters, the Imam guides the murids, and motivates them to develop their potential…Preamble, Ismaili Constitution

Al-Mu’ayyad fi al-Din al-Shirazi, an Isma’ili thinker of the Fatimid period, states that Imam of the time is Sirat al-Mustaqim (the Straight Path). He says: “The Prophet in his time is the ‘Straight Path’ and his wasi (successor) after him, and every succeeding Imam is the ‘straight path’.” [6]

The Imam’s identification with the ‘Straight Path’ points to his most important role which is to guide believers on the spiritual path. According to Isma’ili gnostic teachings, the human soul is in its eternal quest to return to its origin. It has an intense longing to achieve that goal. History then is the record of the soul’s quest for this unachieved perfection. [7]

However, this goal and fulfilment of the soul’s longing cannot be achieved through human efforts alone. Ismaili thinkers argue that even to acquire worldly knowledge, instruction (ta’lim) is necessary. Thus, to recognise God and acquire spiritual knowledge (ma ‘rifa, gnosis), one also needs a teacher;  [8] and Imam is the Teacher, Spirit Master par excellence whose guidance can lead to the ma’rifa (gnosis) of God.  Al-Mu’ayyad states that the Master of the faithfuls, the Imam, is the door of salvation. [9]

In Ismaili gnosis, the Imam initiates believers into the esoteric dimension of the faith, and the believers, through the practice of prayer and meditation actualize their inner potentialities which ultimately make the vision of the Divine Light possible for them. The Divine Grace, received through the Imam, helps the human soul to achieve eternal bliss.

Date article posted on Simerg: January 7, 2011


Editor’s Note: The article has been adapted from “The Concept and Role of Imam” by Abdulaziz Shamsuddin, which first appeared in Ilm, Volume 10, Number 2, July 1986, published by the Ismaili Tariqah and Religious Education Board for the United Kingdom. Excerpts from the preamable of the Ismaili Constitution have been added as supplementary material to the article. Please read the preamble at The Ismaili Constitution.


[1]. Madelung, Imama in Encyclopaedia Islam 2, p. 1163

[2]. The Memoirs of Aga Khan, p. 178

[3]. The Holy Qu’ran speaks about the appointment of the Imam by the Will of Allah and their guidance as being from Allah: “We have appointed them Imams and they guide by Our Command.” 32:24. See also ayat 21:73. For various translations, please visit

[4]. Qadi al-Nu’man, Kitab al-Himmah fi adab itba’a al-a’immah ed. by Mustafa Ghalib, Beirut, 1979p.58.

[5]. ibid, p.78-79.

[6]. al-Majalis al-Mustansiriya, ed. by Kamil Hussein, Cairo. 1947, p. 169-170.

[7]. Paul Walker, “Eternal Cosmos and The Womb of History; Time in Early Ismaili Thought,” International Journal of Middle East Studies (IJMES), (1978), p.364.

[8]. Nasiruddin Tusi, Mutlub al-Muminin ed. by W. Ivanow, Bombay, 1933, p. 46-47.

[9]. ibid


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6 thoughts on “Imam of the Time: “The Straight Path”

  1. Imamat is based on nass or the hereditary principle and it is the most crucial one in Shia Muslims. It provides the continuity via a Living Imam who gives Guidance to all Murids to follow the Straight Path of Sirat-al Mustaqeem.

  2. Thanks for a very informative and enlightening article. Most misgivings and wrong information some people have about the Imamat are well responded. Excellent foundation for the younger generation.


  3. Very informative and instrutive and readable. It is always a pleasure to read such well written articles because they impart knowledge and understanding of our faith

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