“God created my spirit and the spirit of ‘Alī ibn Abī Ṭālib two thousand years before He created humankind. He sent ‘Alī secretly with every prophet and openly with me.”
- Prophet Muhammad
The Imāmat is the office of spiritual and religious leadership recognized in Shī‘ī Islam according to which the Imām is the spiritual and religious successor (waṣī) of the Prophet Muḥammad. While prophetic revelation ended with the Prophet Muḥammad, divine inspiration, spiritual authority, religious guidance, and mystical gnosis continued in the institution of Imāmat.
Today, the Shī‘ī Ismā‘īlī Muslims recognize 49 designated hereditary Imāms from the progeny and family (Ahl al-Bayt) of the Prophet Muḥammad in direct lineal descent from Imām ‘Alī ibn Abī Ṭālib who was designated by the Prophet. The present (ḥaḍir) and 49th hereditary Imām is Mawlānā Shāh Karīm al-Ḥusayni Āga Khān IV – known to his disciples (murīds) as Mawlānā Haḍir Imām. (For more details on the history of this succession, see the article Light upon Light: Succession in the Shī‘a Ismā‘īlī Imāmat)
Ismā‘īlī gnosis, as articulated in the teachings of various Ismā‘īlī Muslim philosophers, sages, and Imāms, reveals the Imāmat in a universal perspective which integrates and unifies the histories, communities and theologies of many different religions. One of the sayings of the Prophet Muḥammad often quoted by Shī‘ī sources states:
“I and ‘Alī are of one light. God created my spirit and the spirit of ‘Alī ibn Abī Ṭālib two thousand years before He created humankind. He sent ‘Alī secretly with every prophet and openly with me.”
– Prophet Muḥammad,
(Shigeru Kamada, ‘Fayd al-Kāshānī’s Walāya’, Todd Lawson, Reason and Inspiration in Islam, 463)
Henry Corbin notes this same ḥadith and concludes that:
“This last is as precise a statement as could be wished for. The Muhammadan Imamate, as the esotericism of Islam, is eo ipso the esotericism of all previous prophetic religions.” (Henry Corbin, History of Islamic Philosophy, 42)
The Imāmat of Shī‘ī Ismā‘īlī Islam is not only the spiritual legacy of the Prophet Muḥammad but it embodies the spiritual meaning (ta’wil) of all the previous prophetic religions and spiritual traditions. The presence of ‘Alī ‘secretly with every Prophet’ also means that this lineage of Imāms has been in existence even before the mission of the Prophet Muḥammad:
“It is impossible to think that there could not have been an Imām before Muhammad al-Mustafa. In reality, for many thousand centuries before this world and people, he was, he is at present, and will (always) be. After recognition of the Imām one must also know that there always was an Imām from the time of the creation of the world to the creation of Adam, from Adam to the Last Prophet, from the Last Prophet to this moment; that he always is, and will be, to the end of the world.”
- Khayrkwāh-i Harāti, (Kalām-i Pīr, transl. Ivanow, 115-116)
The Pre-Muhammadan Imāms
Various statements of the Prophet Muḥammad and the early Imāms illustrate how the Light (nūr) and authority (amr) of the Imāmat were transmitted among their forefathers before manifesting in the persons of the Prophet and Imām ‘Alī. This Light was passed down, from generation to generation, until it reached the historical persons of Prophet and Imām ‘Alī who inherited this Light from their respective fathers. Subsequently, the Light continued to be transmitted through the line of Shī‘ī Imāms descended from the ‘Alī:
“We were silhouettes of light until God wanted to create our form; He transformed us into a Column of Light and hurled us into Adam’s loins; He made us be transmitted through the loins of the fathers and the wombs of mothers… and when He had us reach the loins of ‘Abd al-Muṭṭalib, He divided the light in two and placed half in the loins of ‘Abdallāh and the other half in the loins of Abū Ṭālib. Amina received in her breast the half that was for me, and she brought me into the world; likewise, Fāṭima, the daughter of Asad received in her breast the half that was for ‘Alī, and brought him into the world. Then God had the column [of Light] come to me and I begot Fāṭima; likewise, He had it go to ‘Alī, and he begot al-Ḥasan and al-Ḥusayn… Thus, this light will be transmitted from Imām to Imām until the Day of Resurrection.”
- Prophet Muḥammad,
(Mohammad Ali Amir Moezzi, The Divine Guide in Early Shi‘ism, 40)
In a similar statement, the Fatimid Caliph-Imām Ma‘add al-Mu‘izz li-Dīn Allāh wrote in one of his famous letters:
“We were transferred through the chaste loins and pure and approved wombs. Whenever a loin and a womb brought us together, power and knowledge were manifest from us. This continued until our last ancestor, the best father, the chief of the messengers, the leader of the prophets, Aḥmad and Muḥammad, blessings of God be upon him and his progeny in every circle and in every assembly.”
- Imam Ma‘add Abū Tamīm al-Mu‘izz li-Dīn Allāh,
(Shainool Jiwa, Towards a Shi‘i Mediterranean Empire, 169-170)
Ismā‘īlī gnosis understands the universal chain of the Prophets and the Imāms in a cyclical framework – which views the history of humankind as comprised of different periods or ‘cycles’ of history. The following verse of the Qur’ān served as the inspiration for this theory of Cyclical Time:
“It is God who created the heavens and the earth and everything between them in Six Days, then He established (Himself) upon the Throne.” – Holy Qur’ān 32:4
Each “Day” of Creation is a Cycle of one of the six major Prophetic Messengers (nātiqs): Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, Jesus, Muḥammad. A Cycle lasts for several hundred years (ranging between five hundred and fifteen hundred years) during which the Prophet’s community is guided by his Summons, Scripture and religious Law (sharī’ah):
“The Cycle of every prophet is his ‘day’. The time in which we are now – I mean, the time after the Emissary, the Chosen, was sent forth up to the time of the Resurrection – is the ‘day’ of our Emissary. The days of Moses, Jesus, and the other prophets are past… God the Exalted created the lifetime of this world during the span of the prophethood of six prophets, each of whom had his cycle (dawr) and his summons (da‘wat) in his ‘day’ (rūz), and during his day the Emissary summoned people to God… If people were to examine this interpretation, each prophetic community would occupy the position which it indeed occupies: the Christians established on the fifth day, the Jews on the fourth day, the Mazdeans on the third day.”
- Sayyidnā Nāsir-i Khusraw,
(Between Reason and Revelation, transl. Eric Ormsby, 152-153)
The institution of Imāmat was present during these Prophetic Cycles and the pre-Muḥammadan Imāms (i.e. ‘Alī sent secretly) transmitted the gnosis and esoteric interpretation (ta’wīl) of the Scripture and the Law to the spiritual initiates of the Prophet’s community. For example, each of the six Prophets was accompanied by an Imām who served as his waṣī (legatee): Seth (with Adam), Shem (with Noah), Ishmael (with Abraham), Aaron (with Moses), James (with Jesus) and ‘Alī (with Muhammad). The lineage of Imāms continued from Cycle to Cycle, safeguarding and uphold the esoteric meaning of the prophetic message. The Muḥammadan Revelation was the last of the prophetic revelations and was succeeded by the Muḥammadan Imāmat in the person of Imām ‘Alī ibn Abī Ṭālib and the Imāms of his progeny (who are also descendants of the Prophet Muḥammad) to the present day. The Qur’ān alludes to this inter-prophetic lineage of Imāms in the following verse:
“Verily God chose Adam and Noah and the progeny of Abraham and the progeny of ‘Imran above all the worlds. Direct descendents, one after the other, and God is the Hearing, the Knowing.” – Holy Qur’ān 3:33-34
The esoteric meaning and the gnosis of all revelations and traditions has been preserved and transmitted through an uninterrupted chain of Imāms which stems from the Prophet Adam and continues with present Imām Mawlānā Shāh Karīm al-Husayni Āgā Khān IV. The present Imām is himself the direct lineal descendent of Adam, Noah, Abraham, Imran, and the Prophet Muhammad.
The Seventh Cycle is the Cycle of Resurrection (dawr al-qiyāmah) in which the esoteric interpretation (ta’wīl) of all prophetic revelations is revealed. In this final Cycle, knowledge (‘ilm), gnosis and spiritual truths (haqā’iq) become available to humanity at large and the people of the world become unified.
“The interpretation of ‘establishing Himself upon the Throne’ is the execution of the command of God by the Qā’im al-Qiyāmat (‘Master of the Resurrection’), which is the Throne of God and which will be manifest after his six days have passed… ‘Tomorrow’ is the cycle to come. That ‘tomorrow’ in which the wise take such delight is the day of True Resurrrection, when the shadows of ignorance will be lifted from humanity by the light of His knowledge, just as God says, ‘The earth will be illumined by the light of its Lord’.”
- Sayyidnā Nāsir-i Khusraw,
(Between Reason and Revelation, transl. Eric Ormsby, 153)
The Pre-Adamic Imāms
The Seven Cycles (“The Seven Days”) all together form a Major Cycle (“The Week”) of seven thousand years which began with the Prophet Adam – the Adam of the Qur’ān and the Bible. However, Cyclical History as envisioned in Ismā‘īlī gnosis extends even before this Adam – who was but merely the first Prophet of the current Major Cycle and not the first human being in an absolute sense. The Prophet Adam himself was preceded by a countless number of Cycles during which the lineage of Imāms was also present (see Henry Corbin, Cyclical Times and Ismaili Gnosis).
Various Ismā‘īlī texts document an entire lineage of pre-Adamic Imāms – the Imāms who lived on earth before the Prophet Adam of the Bible and Qur’an. Several of these pre-Adamic Imāms include figures from Indian and Vedic traditions such as Shri Rāma and Shri Krishna – whom the Ismā‘īlī traditions, particular those of South Asia, considered to be the Imāms of the ancient periods. These lists are found in the Ghatpāt Du‘ā’ (see here) of Pir Ṣadr al-Dīn and the writings of Fidā’ī Khurasāni (see here) as well as other sources.
How far back into history does the Imāmat extend? Ismā‘īlī gnosis describes the origins of the Imāmat with the first human being on earth – who is referred to as the “Universal Adam” (al-Adam al-Kull). This Adam, however, is different from the Prophet Adam described in Genesis and the Qur’ān. The Universal Adam was without sin or impurity and established primordial institution of the Imāmat on earth, inaugurating the “Cycle of Cycles”. He and his companions established the first “Call” (da’wah) to gnosis – an esoteric and intellectual Call which has reverberated from Cycle to Cycle and continues into the present Cycle:
“The first Adam founded the ‘Noble Convocation’ (al-da’wah al-sharifah) in this world; he it was who established the hierarchy of the hierocosmos (‘alam al-din), which symbolizes both with that of the Pleroma and with that of the macrocosm… In short, he was the founder of the permanent esoteric hierarchy, uninterrupted from cycle to cycle, and from period to period in each cycle, up to and since Islam.”
(Henry Corbin, History of Islamic Philosophy, 87)
The Imām al-Mu‘izz, in paying tribute and invoking blessings upon his ancestors, makes specific reference to the Imāms of the ‘bygone periods and ages’.
“The customs of the Speaking-Prophets (nuṭuqā’), the ways of the Imāms and Prophets, the paths of the Messengers and Legatees (awṣiyā’), those of us who have passed before and those who shall come, blessings of God be upon us and upon our ancestors, the possessors of authority and discernment, in the preceding epochs and eras, and bygone periods and ages, when they carried out the rules of God and stood up for the order of God.”
- Imam Ma‘add Abū Tamīm al-Mu‘izz li-Dīn Allāh,
(Shainool Jiwa, Towards a Shi‘i Mediterranean Empire, 168)
The below Chart (created by Ismā‘īlī Gnosis) depicts the various Cycles while highlighting the Prophets, the Imāms, the Scriptures, and the community of each Cycle.
The Universal Imāmat
The existence and influence of the Imāms upon a plurality of traditions, civilizations and communities displays the universality of the Imāmat. The Imāmat is not only an institution of Muslim leadership, but its scope and mission extends to people all faiths.
Today the present living Imām – Mawlānā Shāh Karīm al-Husayni Āgā Khān IV – is the inheritor and guardian of the universal gnosis which emanates from all religious and spiritual traditions – including the Adamic, Semitic, Abrahamic, Jewish, Christian and Islamic revelations.
“The first Imam, in a conversation with his disciple Kumayl, makes precise reference to the succession of God’s Sages who, from century to century, remain largely unknown to the majority of men. This was later to be known as silsilat al-‘irfan, the ‘succession of gnosis'; and it consists of all those who, from the time of Seth, the son of Adam, down to the Muhammadan Imams, and including all those who acknowledge them as Guides, have been transmitters of the esoteric aspect of eternal prophecy.”
- Henry Corbin, (History of Islamic Philosophy, 72)
Notes to Chart
- The dates before Jesus are approximate and subject to debate and speculation. The events of Mahābharata War have been dated by Dr. Padmakar Vishnu Vartak (see link) to 5,561 BC which was before the biblical timeline of Genesis (which began around 4,000 BC) and the birth of Prophet Adam in India. Similarly, the genealogies found in Ismā‘īlī sources place Shri Rāma and Shri Krishna before the Seth and the Imams of the Adamic Cycle. Shri Budh (see the Ginān Budh Avatar) was the last Imām of the pre-Adamic Cycle who initiated the Cycle of Adam and appointed Adam as the first Prophet. In the Persian and Arabic traditions, he is referred to as the Resurrector (qā’im) Imām Hunayd and should not be confused with the founder of Buddhism who lived much later.
- Each Cycle began with a major Prophet (Nāṭiq) who was accompanied by an Imām called the Asās or Waṣī. The Prophet of each Cycle revealed a Scripture and a religious Law and established a unique religious community. The Asās-Imām succeeded the Prophet as the interpreter of the revelation and the leader of the community. The Imāms succeeded one another in direct lineal descent except in the case where the Prophet emerged from their line (in the case of Adam, Noah, and Abraham) in which the permanent Imāmat was transmitted from grandfather to grandson (e.g. from Lamech, father of Noah, to Shem, son of Noah). The genealogy and timeline of the biblical figures is found in the Bible. From a strictly historical point of view, the names in the genealogy before the period of Moses may actually stand for entire tribes or generations, in which case these genealogies must be taken symbolically and not literally. Nevertheless, they serve to illustrate the underlying theme which is the presence of the Imāmat in every epoch and period.
- After Prophet Abraham, the institution of Imāmat continued in two parallel lineages – the Permanent Imāms descended from Ismā‘īl and the Entrusted Imāms descended from Isaac, with the latter including many of the well-known Isrā‘īlite Prophets and Imāms (including Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Aaron, Joshua, David, Solomon, John, Jesus, James). The Entrusted Imāms of the Isrā‘īlite line continued until the Cycle of Prophet Muhammad. The lineage of Permanent Imāms continued in a hereditary succession through the line of Ismā‘īl (including Mawlānā ‘Adnān and Mawlānā Khuzaymah) to the time of the Prophet Muḥammad and continues thereafter in the line of Imām ‘Ali ibn Abī Ṭālib down to Imām Shāh Karīm al-Husaynī.
- The Ismā‘īli texts named Simon Peter (Shamun al-Safa) as the Imām succeeding Jesus. However, contemporary research shows that Jesus’ brother – James the Just (Ya’qūb al-Ṣādiq) – was his actual successor (see Robert Eisenman, James the Brother of Jesus).
- The Cycle before Adam (termed as “Pre-Adamic”) was a Cycle of Resurrection in which humankind enjoyed an exalted level of gnosis, spirituality and ethics. The Qur’ān refers to Pre-Adamic humanity as being “one community” in the verse: “Mankind was one community and God raised Prophets as bearers of good news and as warners and revealed to them the Book with Truth that it may judge between mankind concerning that in which they differed” (Holy Qur’ān 2:213). But humanity began to turn away from the primordial religion of tawḥīd and began to differ amongst themselves which prompts the beginning of the Cycle of Adam and the sending of the Prophets. With the coming of the Seventh Cycle – the Resurrection – humanity is judged and returns to the state of “one community”.
- The initiator of the Seventh Cycle, the Cycle of Resurrection, is the Lord of Resurrection (Qā’im al-Qiyāmah) who does not bring any new prophetic message but reveals the esoteric meaning or universal ta’wīl of all the previous revelations. The Imām directly preceding the Qā’im is his Proof (hujjah) or Gate (bāb) and will be the most exalted Imām of the Six Cycles.