The Eternal Imam: Songs of Krishna – Sermons of ‘Alī

Imām ‘Alī ibn Abī Ṭālib once proclaimed this soul-quaking utterance in his “Sermon of the Great Explanation”:

“I am the Sign of the All-Powerful. I am the Gnosis of the Mysteries. I am the Threshold of Thresholds. I am the companion of the radiance of the divine Majesty. I am the First and the Last, the Manifest and the Hidden. I am the Face of God. I am the mirror of God, the supreme Pen, the Tabula secreta.”
– Imām ‘Alī ibn Abī Ṭālib,
(Khuṭbah al-Bayān, Shah-Kazemi, Justice and Remembrance, 187)

How can such powerful statements of the Imām be explained? The eminent scholar Henry Corbin reminds us that:

“Here it is not this or that Imām that speaks in his own name, but an Eternal Imām.”
– Henry Corbin, (Cyclical Time and Ismaili Gnosis, 119)

Ismā‘īlī Muslim philosophy describes how an innumerable number of Imāms have been present on earth through a myriad of Cycles and Periods (see our previous post for details).  But underlying the plurality and multiplicity of the historical Imāms is a single Light (nūr) or Reality (ḥaqīqah) – the “Eternal Imām”:

“In the Ismā‘īlī theosophy the seven Imāms of the seven periods of a cycle epiphanize the essence of a unqiue and Eternal Imām.”
– Henry Corbin, (Cyclical Time and Ismaili Gnosis, 119)

What is the Eternal Imām? God is the Absolute Reality (al-Ḥaqq), the Essence (al-dhāt), the Originator (al-Mubdi‘) of all existence – totally transcending all names, attributes, descriptions and qualities including even being and non-being. The Eternal Imām is the first origination and the first manifestation of God – known as the Divine Word (Arabic: kalimah; Greek: Logos), the Muhammadan Light (nur Muḥammadī) and the Universal Intellect (al-‘aql al-kull) in Sufism and Ismā‘īlī gnosis in accordance with the well-known ḥadīths of the Prophet:

“The first thing created by God was the Intellect (‘Aql); the first thing created by God was my Light (Nur).”
– Prophet Muhammad,
(Murata, The Tao of Islam, 379, Click Here to Read)

The Eternal Imām is the Supreme Name of God which comprises all the Divine Names and Attributes: the Living (al-ḥayy), the Self-Subsistent (al-qayyūm), the Knowing (al-‘ālim), the Perfect (al-tamm), the High (al-‘alī), the All-Merciful (al-raḥmān), the Eternal (al-qādim), the Creator (al-khāliq), the Sustainer (al-rabb), the Light (al-nūr), the One (al-wāhid), the Witness (al-shāhid), the Face of God (wajh Allāh), etc.  Thus, the Eternal Imām is the greatest manifestation and the eternal “personification” of the transcendent Absolute in the form of Names and Attributes – the ‘Lord’ who is directly worshipped and adored by the creatures.  But the Eternal Imām is not God Himself: the Absolute Reality (al-Ḥaqq), the Essence (al-dhat), the Originator (al-Mubdi‘) remains forever transcendent and inaccessible, exalted above all attributes and relationships.

The historical Imām – the individual person of the Imām who lives in the material world (dar al-dunyā) and in the world of faith (‘alam al-dīn) – is the locus of manifestation (mazhar) of the Eternal Imām.  There is no incarnation or ‘taking on human flesh’.  The historical Imām is only a locus of manifestation. The pure soul of the historical Imām serves as the mirror of the Eternal Imām as evidenced in Imām ‘Alī’s words: “I am the mirror of God.”

The historical Imām is both the mirror and the reflection of the Eternal Imām.  A mirror does not possess anything and is poor before the object it reflects.  The historical Imām – as the mirror – is the most humble Servant of God (‘abdu’llāh), the Friend of God (walīyyu’llāh), the Proof of God (hujjatu’llāh) and the Vicegerent of God (khalifatu’llāh) amongst humankind.  This is why one finds the Imāms uttering some of the humblest supplications (du‘ā’) before their Lord:

“I praise Thee, – and Thou art worthy of praise – for Thy benefaction toward me, the lavishness of Thy favours toward me, and Thy plentiful bestowal upon me, and for showing bounty toward me through Thy mercy and lavishing Thy favour upon me. Thou hast done well toward me, I am incapable of thanking Thee.”
– Imām Zayn al-Abidīn,
(al-Sahifah al-Sajjadiyyah, Supplication 51, Verse 1)

The historical Imām – as the reflection of the Eternal Imām – is likewise the Hand of God (yadu’llāh), the Tongue of God (lisānu’lllāh), the Eye of God (‘aynu’llāh), the Side of God (janbu’llāh) and the Face of God (wajhu’llāh). In this respect, the historical Imām is the living Names and Organs of God and the channel of God’s blessings upon humankind.  This is why Imām ‘Alī ibn Abī Ṭālib and the other Imāms have also made some very bold and ecstatic utterances.  Their words and statements tend to oscillate between the differing points of view of the Eternal Imām and the historical Imām:

“I am the Sign of the All-Powerful. I am the Gnosis of the Mysteries. I am the Threshold of Thresholds. I am the companion of the radiance of the divine Majesty. I am the First and the Last, the Manifest and the Hidden. I am the Face of God. I am the mirror of God, the supreme Pen, the Tabula secreta.”
– Imām ‘Alī ibn Abī Ṭālib,
(Khuṭbah al-Bayān)

“Indeed, Allah created us and formed us, and gave us the most perfect form. He made us His Eye over His Servants, and His Speaking Tongue, through which He speaks to His Servants. We are His Open Hand, extended with Mercy and Kindness to His Servants. We are His Face, through which He is reached, and the Gate which indicates upon Him. We are His reservoir in the heavens and Earth. Through us, the trees grow and the fruits are ripened. Through us the rivers flow, and through us the succour of the skies comes down. We plant the grasses of the Earth. Through our worship, Allah is worshipped. If it were not for us, Allah would not be worshipped.”
– Imām Ja‘far al-Ṣādiq,
(al-Kulayni, Usūl al-Kāfi, 1:144)

Some readers may be shocked by such statements being uttered by the Imāms. What must be remembered is that the pure human soul of the historical Imām is utterly humble before God and aware of his own nothingness in the face of the Divine.  The Imām’s pure soul is completely effaced in the light of the Eternal Imām because of his awareness of his own creature-hood. Like a perfectly polished mirror which is empty of all dust and rust, the soul of the Imām – empty of all sins, egotism, and individual pride – is the mazhar that perfectly reflects the light of the Eternal Imām (i.e. God’s Names and Attributes) through his own words and deeds.  There is no question here of ‘incarnation’ (Arabic: ḥulūl – of God entering into the creature and ‘taking on flesh’): the Eternal Imām is not inside the body of the historical Imām; God does NOT become man.  But the Divine Names/Attributes are truly reflected in the soul of the historical Imām who is but the mazhar – the locus of manifestation or epiphany.

“The ‘friends of God’, who know they are nothing in the face of the Absolute, are the ones who most faithfully reflect the Divine Names and Qualities, which belong not to them but to God… The reflections of these divine attributes shine through them most clearly precisely because the mirrors of their hearts have been polished by the remembrance of God; and the most persistent stains—those imprinted by egotism—have been removed.”
– Reza Shah Kazemi, (Justice and Remembrance, 188-89)

The Eternal Imām has always manifested in the form of the historical Imāms throughout the ages of humankind.   Thus, one should not be surprised to know that the Imām’s spiritual sanctity and divine mission – known as walāyah – is universal and has been revealed and declared in all revelations, scriptures, and religious traditions.  The Imām Ja‘far al-Ṣādiq (the fifth Imām of the Muḥammadan Cycle) has that:

“Our walāyah is the walāyah of God.  Every prophet was only ever sent for it; the walāyah of ‘Alī is inscribed in the books of the prophets; a messenger was only ever sent to proclaim the prophethood of Muḥammad and the walāyah of ‘Alī.”
– Imām Ja‘far al-Ṣādiq,
(Mohammad Ali Amir-Moezzi, The Spirituality of Shi‘i Islam, 258)

One of the ancient spiritual texts in which we find the walāyah of the Eternal Imām is the Bhagavad Gita – meaning the “Song of God”.  In this text, the Eternal Imām appears as Shri Krishna – who is revered by Vaishnavite Hindus as the avatara of Shri Vishnu.  This conclusion is confirmed by the spiritual hymns known as the Gināns – composed by a group of the Bābs (“Gates”) and Ḥujjats (“Proofs”) of the Ismā‘īlī Imāms known as the Pīrs.  The Gināns proclaim that the Eternal ‘Ali (one of the names of the Eternal Imām) is Shri Vishnu and that Mawlānā Shri Krishnā was himself the mazhar or the avatāra of the Eternal Imām:

Ād Vishnu te Nar-Ali jaañ
“The pre-eternal Vishnu is the Lord ‘Alī.”

– Sayyidnā Pīr Saḍr al-Dīn,
(Buddh Avatar, Verse 456)

Āshāji Kānh rūp ka(n)i jiv ṭārya, eno anṭ na pār ji
“In the form of Krishna the Lord saved many souls; there are no ends to Your limits.”

– Sayyidnā Pīr Ḥasan Kabīr al-Dīn,
(Anant Akhāḍo, Verse 428)

Some South Asian and Persian Ismā‘īlī texts locate Shri Rama and Shri Krishna in the hereditary lineage of historical Imāms (the earthly manifestations of Eternal Imam) which spans back before the biblical Adam (see our previous post From Ādam to Āgā Khān: The Universal Imāmat for more details).

To demonstrate the reality of the Eternal Imām, we present below a side-by-side comparison of the ecstatic self-declarations found in the Songs (gīta) of Mawlānā Shri Krishna and the Sermons (balāgha) of Mawlānā ‘Alī.  Most remarkably, the “I AM” declarations of these two exalted personalities are extremely similar.   In the last analysis, it is the Eternal Imām – regardless of the form of His historical manifestations – who speaks and proclaims His Eternal Identity:

“Even if the sermon was not in reality pronounced by the First Imām…it was, at a given moment [pronounced] by an Eternal Imām, in the Shī‘ī consciousness, and it is this that matters from a phenomenological point of view.”
– Henry Corbin,
(Mohammad Ali Amir-Moezzi, The Spirituality of Shi‘i Islam, 106)

Imām ‘Alī has said: “I speak in every language of the world”.  In the language of yesterday, the Eternal Imām spoke as Mawlānā Shri Krishna; in the language of today, he speaks as Mawlānā Shāh Karīm.

The Songs (Gita) of Shri Krishna and the Sermons (balagha) of Imām ‘Alī:

Human Form – Eternal Essence:


The Creator and the Fashioner:


The Creator and the Destroyer:


The Sustainer and the Provider:

The Judge and the Resurrector:

The All-Encompassing and the Omnipresent:

The All-Knowing and the Omniscient:

The Revealer of Scripture and the Teacher of Gnosis:


The Manifest and the Immanent:

Historical Names of the Eternal Named:


Sources:
(Note: Some translations will slightly differ from the above)

Imām ‘Alī ibn Abī Ṭālib, Khuṭbah al-Bayān, transl. Mohammad Ali Amir-Moezzi, The Spirituality of Shi‘i Islam, Click Here to Read

Imām ‘Alī ibn Abī Ṭālib, Khuṭbah al-Ma‘rifat bi’n-Nūrāniyyah, Hafiz Rajab al-Bursi, Mashāriq Anwār Yaqīn fi Asrār Amir Mu’minīn, (Beirut: Dar Andalus, 1978), transl. Khazeh Fananpazir, Arthur’s Classic Novels, Click Here to Read

Imām ‘Alī ibn Abī Ṭālib, Khuṭbah al-Iftikhār, Hafiz Rajab al-Bursi, Mashāriq Anwār Yaqīn fi Asrār Amir Mu’minīn, (Beirut: Dar Andalus, 1978), transl. Khazeh Fananpazir, Arthur’s Classic Novels, Click Here to Read

Imām ‘Alī ibn Abī Ṭālib, Khuṭbah al-Tuṭunjiyyah, Hafiz Rajab al-Bursi, Mashāriq Anwār Yaqīn fi Asrār Amir Mu’minīn, (Beirut: Dar Andalus, 1978), transl. Khazeh Fananpazir, Arthur’s Classic Novels, Click Here to Read

Imām ‘Alī ibn Abī Ṭālib, Al-Majlisī, Bihar al-Anwār, 26:6-15, transl. Seth ‘Abd al-Hakeem Carney, 2007.

Imām ‘Alī ibn Abī Ṭālib, Sayyid Gulām Ḥusayn Riḍa. Nahj al-Asrār, 119-128, transl. Seth ‘Abd al-Hakeem Carney, 2007.

Imām ‘Alī ibn Abī Ṭālib, Meir Bar-Asher and Aryeh Kofsky. The Nuṣayrī-‘Alawī Religion, 171. Click Here to Read

Imām ‘Alī ibn Abī Ṭālib, Muḥammad ibn Sharh Āshūb al-Māzāndarāni, Al-Manaqib Āl Abī Ṭālib, 3:387, transl. Seth ‘Abd al-Hakeem Carney, 2007.

Imām ‘Alī ibn Abī Ṭālib, Muḥammad ibn Muḥammad al-Mūfid, Al-Ikhtiṣāṣ, 248, transl. Seth ‘Abd al-Hakeem Carney, 2007.

Shri Krishna, Bhagavad Gita As it is, transl. A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, Click Here to Read

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9 thoughts on “The Eternal Imam: Songs of Krishna – Sermons of ‘Alī

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  6. Can someone explain the differences and similarities between the concepts of the perfect man and the eternal imam?
    Did the eternal imam also manifest himself in the prophet Mohammad (pbuh)?
    If so, why the focus on the manifestation in imam Ali?

  7. As you pointed out above, many of our Imams in the past have been very open about who they are and what they represent.

    In contrast, our current Imam has taken a much more subdued approach to this. I can recall in an interview where he asked if he was divinely guided and his response was that even Prophet Muhammad never claimed divinity. At another point, I read that he denied that he was the mazhar of God, although I do question the authenticity of the site that reported this.

    What I’m wondering is this denial a form of taqiyya?

    • The current Imam was asked in the Man Alive interview whether “is this some kind of divine authority” and his response was to not confuse religious authority with divinity. He added that the quran was the only miracle in Islam.

      This response is true based on what’s explained the the article. The divine means uncaused and self-sufficient. The historical Imam is not divine. He’s the mazhar – the mirror of the Eternal Imam and the Eternal Imam is the first manifestation of the Divine, it is not God Himself. So the mazhar is not divine; the mazhar is ontologically “poor” like an empty mirror.

      So the Imam is being completely truthful when he denied divinity because divinity doesn’t belong to the person of the Imam. It is merely reflected in and through him.

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