On the Imamat and Ismailis: By His Highness the Aga Khan, the Ismaili Constitution, Azim Nanji and Abbas Hamdani

Editor’s note: His Highness the Aga Khan is the direct descendant of the Prophet Muhammad (s.a.s) and also the current 49th Imam of the religious office, the Imamat, that he inherited on July 11, 1957. As millions of his followers around the world prepare to celebrate the completion of his 57 year reign, we present in this piece an introduction to the Imamat from his own address to the Canadian Parliament earlier this year, as well as pertinent excerpts on the subject from the Ismaili Constitution and from articles by Professors Azim Nanji and Abbas Hamdani.

A portrait of Mawlana Hazar Imam, His Highness Prince Karim Aga Khan, with a framed portrait of Mawlana Sultan Mahomed Shah in the background. Photo by Philippe Le Tellier/Paris Match via Getty Images. Copyright.

An early portrait of Mawlana Hazar Imam, His Highness Prince Karim Aga Khan, with a framed photo of his grandfather, the 48th Ismaili Imam, Mawlana Sultan Mahomed Shah (1877-1957) in the background. Photo by Philippe Le Tellier/Paris Match via Getty Images. Copyright.


By His Highness the Aga Khan


…I was born into a Muslim family, linked by heredity to the Prophet Muhammad (may peace be upon him and his family). My education blended Islamic and Western traditions, and I was studying at Harvard some 50 years ago (yes 50 years ago — actually 56 years ago!) when I became the 49th hereditary Imam of the Shia Imami Ismaili Muslims.

The Ismaili Imamat is a supra-national entity, representing the succession of Imams since the time of the Prophet. But let me clarify something more about the history of that role, in both the Sunni and Shia interpretations of the Muslim faith. The Sunni position is that the Prophet nominated no successor, and that spiritual-moral authority belongs to those who are learned in matters of religious law. As a result, there are many Sunni imams in a given time and place. But others believed that the Prophet had designated his cousin and son-in-law, Ali, as his successor. From that early division, a host of further distinctions grew up — but the question of rightful leadership remains central. In time, the Shia were also sub-divided over this question, so that today the Ismailis are the only Shia community who, throughout history, have been led by a living, hereditary Imam in direct descent from the Prophet.

An expression of gratitude and humility by His Highness the Aga Khan as he accepts a standing ovation at the Canadian Parliament on Thursday February 24, 2014. Prime Minister Stephen Harper is seen applauding, with Princess Zahra, the daughter of His Highness, and Laureen Harper, the Prime Minister's wife, standing alongside the 49th Ismaili Imam. Photo credit: The Office of the Prime Minister of Canada

An expression of gratitude and humility by His Highness the Aga Khan as he accepts a standing ovation at the Canadian Parliament on Thursday February 27, 2014. Prime Minister Stephen Harper is seen applauding, with Princess Zahra, the daughter of His Highness, and Laureen Ann Harper, the Prime Minister’s wife, standing alongside the 49th Ismaili Imam. Photo credit: The Office of the Prime Minister of Canada

The role of the Ismaili Imam is a spiritual one; his authority is that of religious interpretation. It is not a political role. I do not govern any land. At the same time, Islam believes fundamentally that the spiritual and material worlds are inextricably connected. Faith does not remove Muslims — or their Imams — from daily, practical matters in family life, in business, in community affairs.

Faith, rather, is a force that should deepen our concern for our worldly habitat, for embracing its challenges, and for improving the quality of human life.

This Muslim belief in the fusion of Faith and World is why much of my attention has been committed to the work of the Aga Khan Development Network.



By Azim Nanji


The last in the line of the Abrahamic family of revealed traditions, Islam emerged in the early decades of the seventh century. Its message, addressed in perpetuity, calls upon people to seek in their daily life, in the very diversity of humankind, signs that point to the Creator and Sustainer of all creation. Revealed to Prophet Muhammad in Arabia, Islam’s influence spread rapidly, bringing into its fold, within just over a century of its birth, the inhabitants of the lands stretching from the central regions of Asia to the Iberian Peninsula in Europe.


During his lifetime, Prophet Muhammad was both the recipient and the expounder of Divine revelation. His death marked the conclusion of the line of prophecy, and the beginning of the critical debate on the question of the rightful leadership to continue his mission for the future generations. In essence, the position of the group that eventually coalesced into the majority, the Sunni branch, which comprises several different juridical schools, was that the Prophet had not nominated a successor, as the revelation contained in the Qur’an was sufficient guidance for the community.

The Party of Ali

The Shi‘at ‘Ali or the ‘party’ of ‘Ali, already in existence during the lifetime of Prophet Muhammad, maintained that while the revelation ceased at his death, the need for spiritual and moral guidance of the community, through an ongoing interpretation of the Islamic message, continued. For them, the legacy of Prophet Muhammad could only be entrusted to a member of his own family, in whom the Prophet had invested his authority through designation. That person was ‘Ali, the Prophet’s cousin, and the husband of his daughter and only surviving child, Fatima. ‘Ali was also the Prophet’s first supporter who devoutly championed the cause of Islam.

The Ismailis

In common with all major Shi‘a groups, the Ismailis believe that the Imamate is a divinely sanctioned and guided institution, through whose agency Muslims are enabled to contextualize the practice of their faith and to understand fully the exoteric and esoteric dimensions of the Qur’an. The Imamate exists to complement prophethood and to ensure that the divine purpose is fulfilled on earth at all times and in all places.



December 13, 1986, Geneva: On his 50th birthday, His Highness the Aga Khan is seen ordaining a new constitution for the worldwide Ismaili community.

December 13, 1986, Geneva: On his 50th birthday, His Highness the Aga Khan is seen ordaining a new constitution for the worldwide Ismaili community.

Excerpts from the Ismaili Constitution

Hazrat Ali’s Designation

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).


Succession of Imamat is by way of Nass [designation], it being the absolute prerogative of the Imam of the time to appoint his successor from amongst any of his male descendants whether they be sons or remoter issue.


The authority of the Imam in the Ismaili Tariqah is testified by Bay‘ah [allegiance] by the murid [follower] to the Imam which is the act of acceptance by the murid of the permanent spiritual bond between the Imam and the murid. This allegiance unites all Ismaili Muslims worldwide in their loyalty, devotion and obedience to the Imam within the Islamic concept of universal brotherhood. It is distinct from the allegiance of the individual murid to his land of abode.


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….By virtue of his office and in accordance with the faith and belief of the Ismaili Muslims, the Imam enjoys full authority of governance over and in respect of all religious and Jamati matters of the Ismaili Muslims.

Mawlana Hazar Imam

Mawlana Hazar Imam Shah Karim al Hussaini, His Highness Prince Aga Khan, in direct lineal descent from the Holy Prophet (s.a.s.) through Hazrat Mawlana Ali (a.s.) and Hazrat Bibi Fatima (a.s), is the Forty-Ninth Imam of the Ismaili Muslims.



By Abbas Hamdani

The central doctrine of the Ismaili community has always been the doctrine of Imamat because around it are built all the goals of the community and the roles of the dais [missionaries], but this doctrine is also not rigid, it has been evolving, particularly in the writings and preachings of the dais. When we admit change in the concept of Imamat it does not mean that our central institution is changeable; it only means that our way of looking at it changes from time to time. If we think about the Universe, it does not mean that before our thought the Universe did not exist and then began to exist only as we thought about it. The objects of concepts are constant, but the concepts themselves change. The Imamat for us is constant, but our way of looking at it has been subject to a historical evolution.

Having made these introductory remarks, I would like to describe the evolution of our concept of Imamat. At the time when our Dawa (propagation) really began, that is the time of the Imam Muhammad al-Baqir, we had already inherited certain concepts from Shiite history.

Concept of Imam Mansus

The first of these was the concept of Imam Mansus, that is the Imam on whom nass (designation) has been made. He is a leader by virtue of the fact that a designation has been made on him by a previous Imam, going back to the first Imam, Mawlana Ali ibn Talib (peace be upon him), who in turn received his designation from the Prophet Muhammad (May peace be upon him) himself at Ghadir al-Khumm. The nass can only be made in the family of the Prophet and Hazrat Ali, that is in the progeny of Fatima, daughter of the Prophet and wife of Ali. This also involves our concept of the Ahl al-bayt (the household of the Prophet). Ahl al-bayt is the holy family, and Imamat through nass becomes sacred.

Imam as Redeemer and the Mahdi

Next, after the Battle of Karbala, a new concept was introduced, that of the Imam Redeemer. Imam Husayn, to us, accepted martyrdom because he believed that through his struggle, his community would be redeemed from tyranny and oppression.

After this came a third concept of Imam as the  Mahdi. When a Shiite leader Mukhtar was fighting against the Umayyad Caliph Abd al-Malik, he declared that his Imam, Muhammad b. al-Hanafiyya (a son of Hazrat Ali but not of Fatima) who had died, would return and when he returned he would be Mahdi who will “fill the world with equity and justice as it is filled today with tyranny and oppression.”

Although we do not believe in the Imamat of Muhammad b. al-Hanafiyya, we accepted the concept of the Mahdi and applied it to our Imams. Particularly later in the Dawr al-satr (the period of concealed Imams) it was a doctrine that kept the Ismaili  hopes alive for the final establishment of the Fatimid Caliphate beginning with Mawlana Imam Mahdi in 297 H./909 AC.

Cyclical Stages of Divine Creation and Divine Guidance, and the Divine Light

During the times of  Imams Muhammad al-Baqir and Jafar al-Sadiq, the Ismaili dais, having inherited the Perso-Indian philosophic concept of Divine Light and the Greek neo-platonic world view of the evolution of the world through several stages of divine creation, built an ideology in which Imamat has a special place.

Let me describe very briefly this ideology.

We begin with God, who is called the Mubda that is the Creator, the Initiator of the Universe. He sets into motion the First Intelligence and then the Universal Soul. From them develop the nine other Intelligences identified with heavenly bodies and planets. The Tenth Intelligence is followed by the creation of the Earth, which itself evolves from its mineral existence to the plant, then the animal and finally to the human existence. With the appearance of the first human being who is Adam begins a chain of Prophets and their ages (cycles).

A human being becomes a Prophet in several stages. The first stage is called the Khayal (vision) which connotes an extraordinary sense perception. Higher than that is Fath (Opening) which is knowledge in communication with a higher being. Above that is Jadd, a prophetic knowledge beyond senses. This leads to Wahy (revelation) or marifa (gnosis) making its possessor a Natiq (Prophet – the Lawgiver).

Ismailism then identified the six messengers of the Qur’an, namely Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, Jesus and Muhammad as the six Natiqs, each having a revealed law (Kitab). The seventh Natiq would come on the Day of Judgement; so Muhammad is the last Prophet of our age.

Ismaili ideology then followed this process into Imamat. Every cycle of Prophet had a Wasi (inheritor). Moses had Aaron; so Muhammad had Ali. Here is also  involved the concept of nass (designation). The Wasi Ali of Prophet Muhammad initiates a line of Imams, for every age must have an Imam, the Sahib az-zaman. He is Samit, not Natiq, that is he does not give a new Sharia (revealed law) but interprets it. He is the supreme interpreter in his time, and the community can only understand the Sharia (law) through his guidance (firmans).

Here came in the doctrine of zahir and batin. The Prophetic law is exoteric (zahir). But it is necessary to get to its meaning and motivation (batin) by a process of tawil (esoteric interpretation). On behalf of the Imam, the Ismaili dais did tawil and through it developed our ideology (Haqaiq – Truths – Philosophy).

But in all the work of the dais, the final interpreter and arbiter of law and doctrine remains the Imam. He ensures the continuity and progress in our thought, life, law and history. It is his greatest role for mankind, that is to keep the Sharia abreast of social change. The Imam is the symbol of change and development.

Going back to the theory of Divine Light (nur llahi) the Ismailis believed that it passed from God (Mubdi) through the Intelligences and Universal evolution to the human beings who became Prophets and Imams, coming right down to the Imam of the time (Imam al-Zaman) who by virtue of this Divine Light becomes Imam Masum, the Infallible Imam.

Finally starts the journey of a human being back to his Creator by the spiritual guidance (tayid) of the Imam. As our life has a beginning (Mabda) in God, it also has its end in God (Maad). This is the substance of the Ismaili theory of Mabda wal-Maad. Reward and punishment to us are in proportion to spiritual guidance we have received.

This ideology which began to be formulated during the time of Imams Muhammad al-Baqir and Jafar al-Sadiq and through the period of satr (concealed Imams) and zuhur (Fatimid Caliphate) reached its climax in the time of the Fatimid Caliph Mawlana Imam al-Hakim bi Amr Allah and was embodied in the works of our dai Kirmani at the beginning of the fifth century Hijra. The most beautiful feature of this ideology is the dynamic, changing, evolutionary, progressive view of life and history and of the existence of Universe, Imam, human being and our destiny.

Date posted: Monday, July 7, 2014.



Reading 1: Please click In a Dynamic and Stirring Address to Members of the Canadian Parliament, His Highness the Aga Khan Shares His Faith Perspectives on the Imamat, Collaboration with Canada, the Muslim World Community (the Ummah), the Nurturing of Civil Society, Early Childhood Education, Voluntary Work, and the Unity of the Human Race

Reading 2: Please see “The Imamat in Ismailism” and “What is Shia Islam?” by Dr. Azim Nanji at Lifelong Learning Articles at the Institute of Ismaili Studies

Reading 3: Please click The Preamble Of “The Constitution of the Shia Imami Ismaili Muslims”

Reading 4: Complete text of Abbas Hamdani’s article at Literary Reading: Doctrine of Imamat During the Fatimid Period


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