Imamat in Shia Ismaili Islam: A Brief Introduction to the Concept


“Because we have the knowledge that Islam is Allah’s final message to mankind, the Holy Qur’an His final Book, and Muhammad, may peace be upon him, His last and final Prophet.These are the fundamental principles of faith enshrined in the Shahada (La ilaha illallah Muhammadur Rasulullah)  and the Tawhid therein, which bind the Ummah in an eternal bond of unity. With other Muslims, they are continuously reaffirmed by the Shia Ismaili Muslims of whom I am the 49th hereditary Imam in direct lineal descent from the first Shia Imam, Hazrat Ali ibn Abi Talib through his marriage to Bibi Fatimat-az-Zahra, our beloved Prophet’s daughter.”

-Imam Shah Karim al-Husayni Aga Khan IV,
(Letter to International Islamic Conference, Amman, July 2005)


The word ‘Imam’ in Arabic means a leader. In general Islamic terminology, it refers to any person who leads others in prayer. According to the early Sunnite theologians, an Imam is the one who leads the Islamic community and his function is to enforce Islamic law; if we consider this term as such, it simply equates to the position of an Imam to the function of a caliph. For Sunnites, this term also refers to any one of the founders of schools of law, such as Imam Shafi – the founder of the Shafi school of law.


The Prophet himself performed three basic functions in his lifetime. Firstly, he acted as a mediator by whom Quran was revealed to mankind. Secondly, he acted as a ruler of the early Islamic community. Finally, he was the possessor of the spiritual illumination and vision enabling him to reach the real (haqiqi) meaning of the revelation and guide his followers towards the ascending stages of the path of spiritual perfection. According to the majority of Muslims, the Sunnis, the successor to the prophet should fulfill only one of these functions, i.e he should enforce Shariah and lead the Muslim community as a ruler. It is a matter of fact that the earthly existence of Islam mainly depended on this function but, later on, Sunnis maintained that the Prophet had not appointed any successor to him so it was unto them to choose the one. For Sunni Muslims, the religious authority goes to Ulema and fuqaha, and the spiritual authority (for the followers of Sufism), however, goes to the pirs and murshids.

There is, however, a basic difference in understanding the function of an Imam in Shia Islam. The Shi’ites (the Partisans of Ali), have always maintained that the successor to the Prophet should not only enforce Shariah but also act as a spiritual guide for them to teach the esoteric meanings of the Quran and should possess spiritually illumined wisdom to guide incomplete wisdom of his followers to reach perfection. Since the later function is bestowed by God and cannot be judged by mankind, so he must be divinely appointed. Shi’ites thus maintain, through referring to various traditions of the Prophet, various verses in the Quran, and many historical events, that the Prophet himself, in his lifetime, had appointed Ali (his first cousin) to succeed him as a spiritual guide for the Muslim community.

 “The Shia school of thought maintains that although direct Divine inspiration ceased at the Prophet’s death, the need of Divine guidance continued and this could not be left merely to millions of mortal men, subject to the whims and gusts of passion and material necessity, capable of being momentarily but tragically misled by greed, by oratory, or by the sudden desire for material advantage.”

-Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah Aga Khan III,

Shia Imami Ismaili tradition is the only tradition within Islam which holds doctrine that a living Imam should always be physically present in the world at all times. The Quranic background on this doctrine is as follows:

“And we have vested (knowledge and authority) of everything in Manifest Imam (Imamim Mubeen)” 36:12
“O you who have believed ,obey Allah and obey the Messenger and those in authority among you” (4:59)
“The Day We will call forth every people with their Imams”  (17:71)

“You (o Prophet) are only a warner, and there is a guide for every people.” (13:7)

“Certainly there has come to you a light from Allah, and a manifest Book.” (5:15)

“Among those We have created are a nation who guide by the truth and do justice thereby.”(7:181)

“The day We raise in every nation a witness(an Imam) against them from among themselves, We shall bring you(o Prophet) as a witness against these.” (16:89)

“And hold fast to the rope of Allah all together and do not become divided.” (3:103)

In all the above quoted verses from the Quran, words ‘ulil Amr’, ‘Imamim -Mubeen’, ‘Imam’, ‘Hadi’, ‘Nur’ and ‘Jabal Allah (Rope of God)’, according to Shi’ite traditions, refer to the Imams from the Prophet’s progeny.

” 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)..”
(The Preamble to Ismaili Constitution)

In the light of above facts, the fundamental beliefs of Ismaili Muslims are shaped as follows:

  • Shia Imami Ismaili Muslims do firmly hold and declare Shahadah, La ilaha illallah Muhammadur Rasulullah, that there is no god but Allah and Prophet Muhammad (may God’s peace be upon him and his family) was His last prophet.
  • With Prophet Muhammad (may God’s peace be upon him and his family) being last in the chain of prophets, the revelations in the form of Divine scriptures also came to an end, so holy Qur’an is the last and final scripture revealed by Almighty Allah through Prophet Muhammad (may God’s peace be upon him and his family). All the teachings and message within the Quran, without any doubt, is pure and hold truth.

“The Shia Imami Ismaili Muslims affirm the shahādah lā ilāha illa-llāh, Muhammadur rasulu-llāh, the Tawhid therein and that the Holy Prophet Muhammad (s.a.s.) is the last and final Prophet of Allah. Islam, as revealed in the Holy Quran, is the final message of Allah to mankind, and is universal and eternal. The Holy Prophet (s.a.s.) through the divine revelation from Allah prescribed rules governing spiritual and temporal matters.”

(The Preamble to Ismaili Constitution)

  • According to the Shia tradition of Islam, with Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) being the last in the chain prophets sent by God, a lineage of Imams starts with Ali ibn Abi Talib appearing as the first Imam and as a spiritual successor of the Prophet (PBUH). Appointment of Mowlana Ali as  the first Imam was done by the Prophet himself on many occasions and publicly at the event of  Ghadir-e-Khum.

“Truly, ‘Ali is from me and I am from him (inna ʿAlī minnī wa anā minhu), and he is the walī (patron/spiritual master) of every believer after me.”

-Prophet Muhammad,
(Click Here to read hadith references in Sunnite literature on the appointment of Mowlana Ali as Imam.)

  • Imamat is a hereditary office which is transferred from one Imam to the next  through ‘Nas’ . This office is continued till today in an unbroken chain of Imams. Today, this office of Imamat is held by  Imam Shah Karim al-Hussaini, the Aga khan IV, who is the 49th hereditary Imam of Shia Ismaili Muslims and a direct descendant of Prophet Muhammad (may God’s peace be upon him and his family). It is also a matter of fact that, in today’s time in the Muslim world, it are only Shia Imami Ismaili Muslims who are being led by a living Imam.

“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.”

His Highness the Aga Khan IV,Address to both Houses of Parliament, Ottawa,on February 27, 2014.

   Merits for an Imam:

  • An Imam can only be from the family of the Prophet Muhammad (Ahl-e-Bait).
  • He must be infallible like a Prophet, that is, he is divinely bestowed with freedom from error and sin of any sort. As has been mentioned in the Quran about purity of Ahl-e-Bait:

“And Allah only wishes to remove all abomination from you, ye members of the Family, and to make you pure and spotless.” Quran (33:33)

  • In Ismaili tradition, Imam must be Hazar – he must be present physically in this world at all times to guide his murids. In the other words, he cannot be in occultation (or ghaibat), as there is no difference between being in occultation or absence of an  Imam all-together nor are the results any  different between the two conditions. However, an Imam can live in a period of anonymity or seclusion (dawr-e-satr). But this again implies that due to unfavorable circumstances and situations, when there is danger to Imam’s life from his enemies, he  does not let his presence known to people other than his family or trusted dais of him. In that case also his physical presence in the world is certainly necessary.
  • An Imam can only be appointed by the previous Imam through his authority of ‘Nas’. In the Shi’ite traditionit is not up to desire of people to decide and appoint their Imam on their own will. It is also not possible, at the same time, for a murid to reach the status of an Imam through his personal endeavor and knowledge. Designation of an Imam is through Divine decree. As Quran (2:124) says, the making of a rightful Imam is not the function of ordinary human beings, but is prerogative only of Allah, this very verse categorically declares: “Verily, I (Allah) make you an Imam.” The same idea is expressed in other verses like in 21:73, where it says: “We made them Imams” and in 32:24, where it says: “We made Imams from amongst them.” All these verses clearly indicate that Imams are Divinely designated.

“And your Lord creates and chooses whom he pleases,to choose is not theirs”


So, in Shia tradition, there is no room for Qyas (analogy) or Istishab (association) for murids to decide who can be their Imam. Only an Imam has authority, that has been bestowed to him by God, to decide who can be the Imam next to him.

Authority of an Imam:

  • An Imam is the hereditary successor of the spiritual and religious authority of Prophet Muhammad (may God’s peace be upon him and his family); the only difference between authority of an Imam and that of a Prophet is that an Imam cannot reveal a new scripture but can only carry out interpretation of what has already been revealed through the Prophet in the form of a revealed scripture which, in today’s time, is the holy book of Quran. Only Imam holds authority for the interpretation of the Quran and Shariah, and to guide his mureeds in the matters of faith after Prophet’s death.
  • Thus, only Imam holds sole authority of ta’lim and ta’wil (esoteric interpretation) of Quran and shariah, according to changing times, through his words and action; it is, however, not necessary that Imam should give tawil of Quran in any written form.
  • An Imam possesses spiritual inspiration from the light of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH)  and this position is not held by any common man, as the Prophet (PBUH) himself had said ”I and Ali are from the same light (Ana wa Ali min Nur-e-Wahid).”

The first beings that  God created were Muhammad and his family, the rightly guided ones and the guides; they were phantoms of light before God…-Shadows of light, luminous bodies without spirits; they were strengthened by the Holy Spirit, through which Muhammad and his family worshiped God. For that reason He created them forbearing , learned , endowed with filial piety, and pure; they worship God through prayer, fasting, prostrating themselves enumerating His names, pronouncing ‘Allah u Akbar'(God is great)

-Imam Muhammad al-Baqir, (Early Shii thought, 80)

As has been mentioned earlier, today, Imam Shah Karim al-Hussaini the Aga khan IV, being the direct lineal  descendant of Prophet Muhammad through his daughter Bibi Fatima and cousin and son-in-law Mowlana Ali, is the 49th Imam of Shia Imami Ismaili Muslims. By virtue of his office and in accordance with the faith and belief of the Ismaili Muslims, he has full authority of governance over all religious and Jamati matters of the Ismaili Muslims. This is how Ismaili Imam explains his role as an Imam:

I, as Imam of the Ismailis, have responsibility for and supreme authority over the community. This means taking the lead in the practice of the religion but also engaging in ongoing activities to improve the Ismailis’ quality of life and to help “every Ismaili in the world who is in difficulties”. It is true that today the role of the Aga Khan, 49th hereditary Imam of the Shia Ismaili Muslims, is to interpret Islam.

– Imam Shah Karim al-Husayni Aga Khan IV
(Paris Match Interview, Caroline Pigozzi, ‘The Confessions of the Aga Khan’,

“I have the great privilege of representing the Ismaili Imamat — this institution which has stretched beyond borders for more than 1400 years and which defines itself and is recognised by an increasingly large number of states, as the succession of Shia Imami Ismaili Imams….The Ismaili Imamat is a supra-national entity, representing the succession of Imams since the time of the Prophet[…] 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. 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.”

-Imam Shah Karim al-Husayni Aga Khan IV 
(Address to Both Houses of Canadian Parliament and Senate, February 27, 2014)

The Ismaili Imamat’s mandate, thus, also includes uplifting the quality of life of all the people among whom the Ismaili Muslims live, and this is explained by present Ismaili Imam in these words:

“The ethics of Islam bridge the realms of faith on the one hand and practical life on the other -what we call Din and Dunya.  Accordingly, my spiritual responsibilities for interpreting the faith are accompanied by a strong engagement in issues relating to the quality of life and wellbeing. This latter commitment extends not only to the Ismaili community but also to those with whom they share their lives locally, nationally and internationally”

-Imam Shah Karim al-Husayni Aga Khan IV 

(Address at the Graduation ceremony at the Institut d’Etudes Politiques de Paris, June 15, 2007)

This is fulfilled through the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN) – a collection of development agencies whose mandate includes:

  • to help people move beyond dependency and become self-reliant.
  • improvement of the Quality of Life (QoL), which encompasses improvements in material standards of living, health and education and a set of values and norms   which include pluralism and cultural tolerance, gender and social equity, civil society organisation and good governance.
  • supporting robust civil society institutions founded on the ethics and values that drive progress and positive change of education, health, science and research, and culture that harness the private energies of citizens committed to the public good.
  • bringing together a number of activities designed to address the problems of human habitat and climate adaptation, including  safe housing design and earthquake-resistant construction, village planning and natural hazard mitigation, water supply and sanitation, and improved indoor living conditions, mainly in rural communities.
  •  building the capacities of individuals, groups, educational institutions and governments to promote indigenous approaches to pluralism in their own countries and communities.


Visit AKDN’s Official website to learn more

The present Imam of Ismaili Muslims has been widely recognized for his service to humanity. He has received 28 Title & State Decorations, 21 honorary degrees, 16 civic honours, and has delivered over 70 high-profile keynote addresses including a recent speech to the Parliament of Canada. (Read data courtesy of Ismailimail)

Very recently, His Highness the Aga Khan has been awarded the Global Citizenship Award by the former Governor General of Canada, Adrienne Clarkson, who has admired him with these words:

“Through his words, through his actions, and through the results obtained by the institutions that he has founded and encouraged and nourished, he has become a light in much of the world’s conflicting darkness.”

-The Right Honourable Adrienne Clarkson

Author: Sujjawal Ahmad

Sujjawal is an invited blog author at Ismailimail. He finds it extremely exciting to develop a deep love of cultures around the world. The stories that are about humanity, emotion, that compel us as individuals, connect our hearts and minds are the kinds of stories Sujjawal has always gravitated to, and the kinds he tells. He can be reached at:

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