Ismaili Gnosis Reading: The Imam’s Blessings as Intercessor

The Imams are also intermediaries between man and God. To ask for their succor in life is to appeal to the channel God has placed before men so as to enable man to return to Him. They are, in this sense, the extension of the personality of the Prophet.

– Seyyed Hossein Nasr, (Ideals and Realities of Islam, 163)

Reading: The Imam’s Blessings as Intercessor
Author: Ismaili Gnosis

Reading: The Imam's Blessings as Intercessor

This short reading will shed light on what it means for the Imam of the Time to be an intercessor or means of access (wasilah) to God’s blessings – a belief shared by all Shi‘a Muslims and expressed when they greet one another with “Ya ‘Ali Madad”. An intercessor in the context of Islam is a person or thing or practice which mediates and serves as a means by which human beings access God and His blessings. But today many people continue to ask why an intercessor is necessary in the first place and why that intercessor is the Imam of the Time.

Firstly, the Qur’an establishes that God Himself makes use of intermediaries (wasilah) and intercessors for specific purposes. For example, the Qur’an refers to all things in the physical world as the Signs (ayat) of God; therefore, God reveals Himself through intermediaries. God also reveals His Guidance (hidayah) and Command (amr) through angels and through human beings such as the Prophets and Imams (see 21:73). God’s inspiration (wahy) to human beings is also through the mediation of the Holy Spirit and the angels. Thus, from a purely logical point of view, if God communicates to human beings through various intermediaries – Nature, angels, the Holy Spirit, Prophets, Imams, etc. – then it is quite appropriate for human beings to attain communion with God through these very same intermediaries in accordance with the custom of God (sunnat Allah).

All monotheistic traditions including Hinduism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam acknowledge the absolute oneness of God. One of the logical consequences of God’s oneness is that God is beyond time and space. He is timeless and therefore eternal and unchanging. If God was not timeless, then He would be subject to change and evolution and His nature would no longer be one, but would instead be made up of parts  – changing parts and unchanging parts. But anything composed of parts is itself caused and created by the union of those parts. So a changing God cannot truly be God. The logical conclusion is that God is eternal. Eternal here does not merely mean an infinite length of time; eternal means beyond all time and change altogether.

He alone is eternally in one state and He is the first, before every thing and the last, ever and evermore. His attributes and His names do not undergo any change as they do in the case of others.

– Imam Ja‘far al-Sadiq,
(Al-Kulayni, Usul al-Kafi, Kitab al-Tawhid, Hadith No. 313, tr. Sayyid Muhammad Hasan Rizvi)

God being one, eternal, timeless and changeless means that God is eternally and continuously creating the Cosmos and always nourishing and sustaining all creatures in a single eternal act. Once again, the absolute oneness of God makes it logically impossible for God to send forth multiple acts – “from the One only one comes forth”. Logically speaking, there is no change in God’s activity – such that He is merciful and forgiving in one moment and then withholding His mercy and favours the next moment. On the contrary, God eternally bestows His infinite compassion, blessings, and sustenance upon His creatures without end and without restriction. On the matter of the process of creation and sustenance being eternal and continuous, our forty-eight Imam, Mawlana Sultan Muhammad Shah (peace be upon him), writes:

Reading: The Imam’s Blessings as Intercessor

The creation according to Islam is not a unique act in a given time but a perpetual and constant event; and God supports and sustains all existence at every moment by His will and His thought. Outside His will, outside His thought, all is nothing, even the things which seem to us absolutely self-evident such as space and time. Allah alone wishes: the Universe exists; and all manifestations are as a witness of the Divine Will.

Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah Aga Khan III,
(Memoirs of the Aga Khan: World Enough and Time, Chapter 2)

Understanding the oneness and eternity of God and His bountiful act changes the way we conceive the purpose and effect of prayer. The average person prays to God and believes that God can somehow be convinced to do something different – such as send more of His blessings – if one prays hard enough. But God is eternal and unchanging, so causing a change in God’s act is impossible. Cauisng or convincing God to somehow change what He always does cannot be the purpose of prayer. The purpose of prayer – which ultimately consists of the human soul remembering God –  is not to change God but to transform and change the very soul of the one who prays. The purpose of prayer is to bring the human soul into harmony with God. As Mawlana Sultan Muhammad Shah says: “Are you in harmony with God? If you are, then you are happy.”

When the human soul is in harmony with God, it is able to receive more of God blessings and partake in more of the favours that God is always and already sending upon His creatures. God is always and endlessly radiating His blessings upon all creatures just as the Sun is constantly shining its light upon the earth.

Of the favours of thy Lord We bestow freely on all – These as well as those: The bounties of thy Lord are not withheld.
– Holy Quran 17:20

Thus, the act of prayer can make a difference in one’s happiness at the level of one’s own soul and not at the level of God who is changeless and timeless. In a famous hadith, the Prophet Muhammad says: Your Lord has gifts of mercy for you throughout the days of your life; so expose yourselves to them’ This idea is also confirmed in the Qur’an which says:

Indeed, God does not change the condition of a people until they change what is in their own souls.

– Holy Qur’an 13:11

This is where the figure of the intercessor in Islam becomes important. You have the option of praying only to God – in which case your soul is being affected and changed by your individual prayers alone – or, in addition to your own prayers to God, you can also seek the blessings and prayers of an intercessor, a spiritually elevated person whose soul is closest to God and already in harmony with God. Such an intercessor according to Shi‘a Islam is the Prophet Muhammad and the hereditary Imams of his Ahl al-Bayt who have been appointed by God and the Prophet to be the spiritual Guides of the believers and the intercessors between humanity and God. The Imams of the Ahl al-Bayt are the recipients of continous blessings from God and their souls have been purified by God (as per Qur’an 33:33).

The Qur’an commands and encourages all believers to seek the intercession, prayers and blessings of the Prophet Muhammad. In verse 4:64, the Qur’an states emphatically that those believers who have committed sins and want to obtain God’s forgiveness must first approach the Prophet Muhammad, ask for forgiveness in front of the Prophet and only if the Prophet prays to God for their forgiveness will the believers “find God Accepting and Merciful” (la-wajada Allah al-Tawwab al-Rahim) toward their prayers.”

And if, when they wronged their souls, they had come to you, [O Muḥammad], and asked forgiveness of God and the Messenger had asked forgiveness for them, they would have found God Forgiving and Merciful.
– Holy Qur’an 4:64

The above verse clearly guides the believers of all times who seek the forgiveness of God:

a) The believers must “come to” the Prophet Muhammad in person.
b) The believers are to seek God’s forgiveness while standing before the Prophet
c) The Prophet Muhammad is to pray to God and ask for His forgiveness for them
d) As a result, the believers will “find” God to be Forgiving and Merciful to them

The verse does not say that God was initially not forgiving and that the Prophet convinced Him to become forgiving. God remains eternal and timeless and beyond change. The verse actually says that if the Prophet prays for the believers, then “they [the believers] would find Allah Accepting and Merciful.” This means that the prayers and blessings of the Prophet Muhammad caused a change in the souls and hearts of the believers – a change which enables them receive and perceive God’s forgiveness and mercy. The prayers of Muhammad are akin to the Prophet opening the eyes of the believers so they become more conscious and aware of God granting them forgiveness and compassion.

The second set of verses to consider are in Qur’an 9:102-104:

And (there are) others who have acknowledged their faults. They mixed a righteous action with another that was bad. It may be that God will relent toward them. Lo! God is Forgiving, Merciful. Take (khud) offerings (ṣadaqah) from their wealth (amwālihum), and purify and sanctify them by means of it. And pray (send blessings) over them. Verily, your prayer (blessing) is a source of peace (sakan) for them. And God is the Hearing, the Knowing. Do they not know that it is God who accepts repentance from His servants and takes the offerings (ya’khudu al-ṣadaqāt) and that it is God who is the Accepting of repentance, the Merciful?
– Holy Qur’an 9:102-104

According to both Sunni and Shi‘i commentaries (tafsir), this verse was revealed when some believers among the community of the Prophet Muhammad sought to repent for certain wrongful actions which they had committed. This verse guided the Prophet Muhammad to perform the following actions to facilitate the repentance of these believers:

a) The believers submit offerings (sadaqah) from their wealth to the Prophet Muhammad
b) The Prophet Muhammad accepts their offerings.
c) The Prophet Muhammad purifies and sanctifies the souls of the believers
c) The Prophet Muhammad prays (sends blessings) over the believers
d) The Prophet Muhammad’s prayer brings inner peace (sakan) to the souls of the believers
e) The Prophet’s act of receiving the believer’s offerings and repentance represents and signifies God’s acceptance of their offerings and repentance.

When one interprets this verse in light of the metaphysics and theology of classical theism according to which God is beyond all change and alteration, one must logically conclude that the Prophet Muhammad’s act of accepting offerings, purifying the believes, and praying for them is what brings about the fulfillment of their prayers for God’s forgiveness and acceptance of their repentance. Without the Prophet’s prayers, blessings and purification, the believers would not obtain the forgiveness of God. This is not because God is not forgiving and must be convinced to forgive them; but rather, because the believers in their state of sinfulness are simply unable to accept and receive God’s mercy and forgiveness that He is always bestowing upon them.

God Himself, transcending time and change, is not affected or altered by the prayers of the Prophet or the believers; the Prophet transforms the souls of the believers through purifying them and making them more receptive to what God bestows upon them of His mercy and blessings, such that they are able to receive and accept His forgiveness. This is demonstrated by the Qur’an’s use of the words “purify them and sanctify them”: these purifying acts by the Prophet remove the sins, impurities and other barriers in the souls of the believers which are impeding and blocking their reception of God’s blessings. The verse also states unequivocally that the Prophet’s prayer and blessing brings sakan – an Arabic word which means “peace”, “stillness” or “rest” – to those whom he prays for. In a very real sense, the Prophet Muhammad’s prayers and blessings are the direct cause of the believer’s attaining God’s forgiveness while God remains as the ultimate agent of forgiveness.

While Muhammad was the last of the Prophets, he was by no means the last human being to have spiritual closeness and sanctity (walayah) with God. While prophecy ends with Muhammad, the walayah continues through his successors and inheritors, namely, the Shi‘i Imams. The Qur’an commands all believers to seek God through such a means of approach (wasilah) in all times. Therefore, this function of being a wasilah logically continues in the spiritual inheritors of the Prophet Muhammad who are the Shi‘i Imams of his Ahl al-Bayt.

O ye who have faith! Be mindful of God, and seek the means of approach (al-wasila) unto Him, and strive with might and main in his cause: that ye may prosper.
– Holy Quran 5:35

The Qur’an would not command all believers in every age to seek the means of access (wasilah) to God if such a wasilah no longer exists after the Prophet. Thus, all the spiritual functions of the Prophet Muhammad, with the exception of revelation, continue through his spiritual successors beginning with Imam ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib and his designated descendants, the Shi‘i Isma‘ili Imams up to Imam Shah Karim al-Husayni Aga Khan IV – the Imam of the time.  he Shi‘i Ismaili Imams, as the inheritors of the Prophet, continue the spiritual functions of the Prophet Muhammad. Each Imam in his own time is the wasilah (means of access) to God for his disciples. This concretely means that the Imam of every time and age prays to God on behalf of all the believers for their forgiveness just as the Prophet himself did (per Qur’an 4:64); the Imam of the time receives the believers’ offerings (sadaqah) and zakat and purifies their souls as Muhammad had done in his own lifetime (per Qur’an 9:103); the Imam mercifully pardons and forgives the believers’ sins and shortcomings as the Prophet had done (per Qur’an 3:59); and the Imam bestows his blessings and prayers upon the souls of the believers, for their prosperity, resolution of difficulties and inner peace (sakan) just as Muhammad had done so (per Qur’an 9:103). In light of the Imam’s spiritual functions, it is customary for the followers of the Imams to appeal to their help and assistance as intermediaries between God and humankind.

The Imams are also intermediaries between man and God. To ask for their succor in life is to appeal to the channel God has placed before men so as to enable man to return to Him. They are, in this sense, the extension of the personality of the Prophet.

Seyyed Hossein Nasr, (Ideals and Realities of Islam, 163)

This is why the contemporary Nizari Isma‘ili Du‘a calls upon all believers to seek God’s help and assistance through the living Imam, Shah Karim al-Husayni Aga Khan IV, who is the wasilah (means of access) to God:

Tawassalu indal-masa‘ib bi-mawlakum al-hadir al-mawjud Shah Karim al-Husayni
In the time of difficulties, seek help through your present and living mawla Shah Karim al-Husayni

Nizari Isma‘ili Du‘a’, Part III

The word tawassalu comes from wasilah (means of access) mentioned in Qur’an 5:35 (“Be mindful of God and seek the wasilah unto Him”) and evokes the living Imam (bi-mawlakum) as the wasilah to God. From a metaphysical perspective, the souls of the Isma‘ili Imams including the living Imam, Shah Karim al-Husayni Aga Khan IV, are of the greatest level of spiritual purity and have the highest degree preparedness and receptivity to God’s blessings and favours.

While God constantly bestows His blessings and favours upon all created beings, most human souls lack the capacity to fully receive them. When anyone prays for the fulfillment specific wishes and needs, he is essentially seeking a greater share of God’s blessings and favours; one way to bring this about is through one’s own individual prayers and supplications to God directly, without any intermediaries: but such a prayer does not change God in any way and hopefully alters one’s soul enough to bring about a greater receptivity to receive God’s blessings.

Since the purpose of one’s prayers is to affect one’s own soul, it is far more effective and logical for the believer to seek the assistance (tawassul) of the Prophets, the Imams and the Imam of the Time. While one’s individual prayers can only have so much of an effect on one’s soul, the prayers and blessings of the Imam of the Time can deeply affect the souls of the believers. As the Qur’an shows for the Prophet, the Imam’s blessings and prayers purify the souls of the believers, bringing them inner peace (sakan) and transforming them to be more receptive to God’s blessings. Thus, the prayers and blessings of the Imam of the Time actually help the believers find the fulfillment of their prayers and requests. When believers seek the help of the Imam, by invoking phrases like Ya ‘Ali, Ya ‘Ali Madad, or Ya Hazar Imam, it is precisely the blessings of the Imam that are being sought.

Metaphysically speaking, the believer receives God’s favours through the Imam of the Time, by means of the Imam’s prayers and blessings. God’s blessings reach the souls of the believers by means of the Imam’s pure soul – which has already received these blessings due to the Imam’s spiritual receptivity. In this respect, the Imam Ja‘far al-Sadiq has encouraged his follows to seek God’s help and blessings through the Imams:

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.

Imam Ja‘far al-Sadiq,
(Qadi al-Numan, Kitab al-Himma, trans. Jawad al-Muscati, A.M. Moulvi, 42)

The very idea of seeking God’s blessings through an intermediary, and specifically requesting help from the intermediary – whether it is a Prophet or an Imam – is patently Qur’anic. We have already seen how the Prophet Muhammad’s blessings and prayers cause a dramatic change in the souls of the believers and allow them to “find” and receive God’s mercy and forgiveness (4:64, 9:103). The Qur’an also provides other examples of people seeking the help and prayers of the Prophets: Moses’ companion sought help from him (Qur’an 28:15); the family of Prophet Yusuf asked him to pray to God for their forgiveness (12:97-98); the Children of Israel asked Moses for water and Moses prayed to God and then fulfilled their request by producing twelve springs of water (2:60, 7:160).

And We inspired to Moses when his people implored him for water (istasqahu), “Strike with your staff the stone,” and there gushed forth from it twelve springs. Every people knew its watering place.
– Holy Qur’an 7:160

There are two important points in the above verse:

a) The people addressed their request for water to Moses (istasqahu = they asked him for water)
b) Moses, under God’s inspiration, answered their prayer and fulfilled their request by producing twelve springs of water

Thus, the Children of Israel were justified in requesting water from Moses and God answered their prayer and fulfilled their request through Moses. In this case, both the Children of Israel and God Himself make us of Moses as their wasilah (means of access). The believers are completely justified in addressing the their needs and requests to the Prophet or Imam himself – calling out “Ya Ali Madad”, “Ya Ali”, “Ya Muhammad”, “Ya Mawla”, or “Ya Hazar Imam” followed by a specific request. This practice of actually calling upon the name of the wasilah – whether a Prophet or Imam – is confirmed in the Qur’anic narrative of how the Children of Israel asked Moses for water.

In the final analysis, the act of seeking help and blessings from the Prophet Muhammad, the Imams, and the Imam of the Time ultimately equates to seeking help from God and is a confirmation of both the transcendence and immanence of God. The Qur’an says in the Surah Fatihah – “Thee alone we worship and from Thee alone we seek help.” This Qur’anic verse is not a command about how to pray or what names to call upon, but rather, it is an ontological fact about the nature of all help and assistance. It means that all instances where human beings seek and receive help – whether from a friend, family member, a doctor, or a teacher in worldly matters (dunya) or from the Prophets, Imams, or awliya’, etc. in spiritual matters (din) – all help that one seeks and receives ultimately comes from God Himself. The Qur’an thus says:

Every single favour you have is from God.

– Holy Qur’an 16:53

Whatever good comes to you is from God and whatever evil comes to you is from your own soul.

– Holy Qur’an 4:79

The blessings and favours of the Prophets and Imams are nothing else but the blessings of God which flows through their transparent souls upon the rest of created beings. The pure souls of the Prophets and Imams are nothing more than the reflective mirrors, or mazhars, of God’s Light. To seek the help of the Prophet, the Imams, and the Imam of the Time is actually the foremost expression of tawhid as Reza Shah-Kazemi explains:

When assistance is sought from the Prophets, the Imams and the saints, one is seeking assistance from them as so many manifestations of God, so many mazahir, or loci, of the zuhur (manifestation) of al-Zahir (the Outwardly Manifest). Therefore, the means as well as the end is divine: it is not a question of seeking human means for the sake of attaining a divine end, for one sees through the human form to the divine substance of the mazhar. This is a radical mode of tawhid, a more penetrating application of the principle: From Thee alone we seek help.

– Reza Shah-Kazemi,
(Spiritual Question: Reflections on Qur’anic Prayer according to the Teachings of Imam ‘Ali, 34)

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Author: ismailimail

Independent, civil society media featuring Ismaili Muslim community, inter and intra faith endeavors, achievements and humanitarian works.

3 thoughts

  1. Many doubts cleared, many questions answered! A perfectly rational,logical article for the need of the Imam of Time.


  2. Superb and appealing explanation of the position of prophets of all times and of the imams after the last prophet as ‘wasilah’ for all prayers. It also conveys how meaningful it is to have the mention of the name of imam-e-zaman Shah Karim Al Hussaini in the Ismaili Dua. Beautiful!!


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