The Ismaili Imamat is a supra-national entity, representing the succession of Imams since the time of the Prophet.
Imam Shah Karim al-Husayni Aga Khan IV
In the early hours of July 11, the Aga’s heart-beat weakened. Aly and Sadruddin were summoned to the Barakat but their dying father could no longer speak. Karim came and the Begum was still keeping up her vigil. Four doctors were in attendance and nurses left the sick-room only to change their clothes or take a bite. At midday, the Aga Khan was sleeping peacefully. Forty minutes later his life slipped quietly away… The curtains were drawn and darkness fell over a great figure of the age.”
Willi Frischauer, (The Aga Khans, 1970, p. 206)
The above narrative describes one of the most difficult moments faced by every generation of Isma‘ili Muslim communities: the death of the Imam. This moment is immediately followed by another of equal intensity: the succession of the next Imam. Ultimately, these events amount to a period of trial for the Isma‘ili community as it is a time when they must say goodbye to the Imam whom they have respected, venerated and loved for nearly a lifetime and subsequently transfer all these sentiments to their new Imam. At the same time, the community must come to understand the true nature of this change: in reality, nothing has really changed at all. Despite the death of the Imam, the Imam remains ever-more, albeit in a different guise. In Shi‘a Isma‘ili Islam, the succession of the Imamate – including the demise of the predecessor and the enthronement of his successor – is an event which combines both clarity as well as ambiguity. The face of the succession is clear – this Imam has succeeded that Imam. But the underlying matters are nebulous and in modern times are often subject to speculation: How is the next Imam chosen? Does the Imam-to-be know of his own status beforehand? Was he prepared for his function? Why does the Imamate continue in a single line of male descent? This article will explore these questions pertaining to the Isma‘ili Imamate and the matter of succession in light of some of the historical sources from the intellectual heritage of Shi‘a Isma‘ili Islam.
“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.”
– Imam Shah Karim al-Husayni Aga Khan IV
The Isma’ili Muslims are a branch of Shi‘a Islam which traces the religious and spiritual authority of the Prophet Muhammad through his cousin and son-in-law ‘Ali, the first Imam (spiritual leader) and thereafter by heredity through the Imam’s descendants. The Isma‘ilis are so called because following the death of the fifth Imam Ja’far al-Sadiq, they accepted his elder son Isma‘il as his legitimate successor to the Imamate and traced the Imamate among the lineal descendants of Isma‘il. Meanwhile, the majority of the Shi‘a, later known as the Ithna ‘Ashari (Twelvers) traced the Imamate through Imam Ja’far’s younger son Musa al-Kadhim and through a few more generations until the disappearance of their twelfth Imam in the ninth century.
The Isma‘ili branch was itself subdivided upon the death of their nineteenth Imam, al-Mustansir-bi’llah, with the Nizari Isma‘ilis accepting his son and heir-designate Abu Mansur Nizar as the next Imam while the other branch known as the Must‘alian Isma‘ilis followed another son Ahmad Must‘ali. The Must‘alian Imams were believed to have gone into concealment a few generations later and are now represented by da‘is who lead the communities. The Nizari Isma‘ilis were further subdivided over the succession to their twenty-first Imam Shams al-Din Muhammad. One group followed his younger son[i] Qasim Shah as their Imam while the other followed Muhammad Shah – these groups being known as the Qasim-shahi Nizaris and Muhammad-shahi Nizaris.
Today, the Imam of the Nizari Qasimshahi Isma‘ilis is His Highness Prince Karim Aga Khan IV known to his murids as ‘Mawlana Hazar Imam’ (our lord the present Imam). The Muhammad-shahi community lost contact with its last known Imam, Muhammad Baqir, in the nineteenth century and the bulk of this community transferred its allegiance to the Qasim-shahi Imamat during the Imamate of Sir Sultan Muhammad Shah Aga Khan III, the predecessor and grandfather of the present Imam. Technically the term “Isma‘ili” embraces all those Shi‘a groups which affirm the Imamate of Isma‘il ibn Jafar. In the present time, the term ‘Isma‘ili Muslims’ is most often used to designate to the Nizari Qasim-shahi branch lead by the Aga Khan. Through all the various schisms that have occurred within the Shi‘a community, the matter of succession to the Imamate was of paramount importance and became the determining factor of these events.
[i] According to some sources, Qasimshah was the grandson of Shams al-Din Muhammad. See Shafique Virani, The Isma‘ilis in the Middle Ages, p. 85.
‘Direct Descendants, one from the other…’
“Ever since the time of my ancestor ‘Ali, the first Imam, that is to say over a period of thirteen hundred years, it has always been the tradition of our family that each Imam chooses his successor at his absolute and unfettered discretion from amongst any of his descendants whether they be sons or remoter male issue…”
– Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah Aga Khan III
The matter of succession in the Isma‘ili Imamate is based upon two key factors. The Imam possesses two marks of authenticity which, in effect, support and prove his claims to the Imamate. The first of these is the Imam’s physical descent from the preceding Imams; the second is the explicit appointment or designation, known as nass, which the predecessor Imam has made for the succeeding Imam. These two elements, lineage and designation (nass), signify two kinds of relationships – a physical connection and the spiritual connection – by which people of any age can attain the recognition of the Imam. Thus, the physical genealogy of the Imam effectively narrows down and restricts the possible candidates to the Imamat at any given time to the direct descendants of the previous Imams. The designation of the Imam by his predecessor further specifies the legitimate holder of the office of Imamate to its rightful claimant. Therefore, it must be noted that both the lineage of the Imams and the designation exist for the sake of humankind recognizing the true Imam at any given period of history.
The fact that the Imamate remains among one particular line of descent has been subject to questioning and debate, particularly in the modern age. Inaccurate viewpoints have compared the Imamate to a political dynasty of kingship and others have sought to delegitimize the notion of familial and hereditary authority in the name of equal opportunity and democracy. What is often neglected in such debates is that the Imamate is primarily an Islamic institution and model of leadership and as such it is a faithful reflection of principles which are laid out in the Holy Qur’an – the sacred scripture of Islam. Historically, the Imamate is an institution which succeeds to and continues the spiritual, religious and moral authority of Prophet Muhammad – who is viewed by Muslims as the last in a long line of Prophets whom God has sent to humanity over the ages. As such, the Imamate possesses certain traits in common with the model of Prophetic authority that the Holy Qur’an describes in many of its verses.
Firstly, the Isma‘ili Imamate is connected to the Prophet Muhammad through blood relations and heredity. The first Imam, Hazrat ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib, who is the progenitor of all the Shi‘a Imams, was the first cousin of the Prophet sharing with him a common grandfather, Hazrat ‘Abd al-Muttalib. The Imamate is also linked to the Prophet through his sole surviving child, Hazrat Bibi Fatima, the daughter of the Prophet, who was given in marriage to Hazrat ‘Ali. As the Prophet left no male progeny, his lineage survives through his daughter who, as the wife of the first Imam, is like the matriarch of all the Imams in their progeny.
The idea that the rightful successor to the Prophet Muhammad must be from his family and progeny is not merely based on dynastic ambitions, politics or Arabian tribalism. Rather, the concept of Prophetic succession through family is made evident in the Holy Qur’an in its own narrative regarding the stories of the past Prophets. Prophet Muhammad was himself the last in a long line of Prophets and his succession should be consistent with that of his predecessors who were also succeeded by their family members and descendants. The sanctity and prominence of the families of the Prophets is one of the key principles established in the Holy Qur’an. For example, the Qur’an speaks about Prophet Ibrahim (Abraham) being succeeded by his two sons Hazrat Isma’il and Hazrat Ishaq (Isaac), and Ishaq in turn being succeeded by his son Yaqub (Jacob). Hazrat Yaqub was in turn succeeded by his son Hazrat Yusuf (Joseph). Hazrat Musa (Moses) was helped and succeeded by his brother Harun (Aaron). Hazrat Dawud (David) who was both a king and prophet was inherited by his son Hazrat Sulayman (Solomon). The Prophet Zakariyyah (Zechariah) prayed to his Lord for a son to succeed him and this prayer was answered in the form of Hazrat Yahya (John). In fact, according to S.M. Jafri, the verses which speak about the special status of the families and progeny of various Prophets number to over a hundred in the Holy Qur’an.
In this respect, there must be noted the Quranic concept of the exalted and virtuous family, whose favour in the eyes of God derives from their righteous deeds and services in the cause of God. In all ages the prophets have been particularly concerned with ensuring that the special favour of God bestowed upon them for the guidance of man be maintained in their families and pass to their progeny. The Quran repeatedly speaks of the prophets praying to God for their progeny and asking Him to continue His guidance in their lineages. In the answer to these prayers, the verses of the Qur’an bear direct testimony to the special favour of God being granted to the direct descendants of the prophets to keep their fathers’ covenants intact, to become true examples of their fathers’ righteousness, and to keep fast to the path of righteousness set by these prophets. Four terms are repeatedly used in the Qur’an to express God’s special favour for the descendants of the prophets: Dhurriya, ‘Aal, Ahl, and Qurba. The total number of verses that mention special favour requested for and granted to the families of the various prophets by God runs to over a hundred in the Quran.
(S. M. Jafri, The Origins and Development of Shia Islam, Chapter 1, Beirut, 1976)
Prophet Ibrahim (Abraham) occupies a central place for the Jewish, Christian and Islamic traditions. He is acknowledged as the ‘father of monotheism’ and these faiths and their members trace their spiritual ancestry back to him. In the Qur’anic narrative, a special status is particularly given to Prophet Ibrahim and his descendants. Prophet Ibrahim is said to have completed God’s trials, and is thereafter Divinely appointed as an Imam (leader) of mankind. He prays to his Lord that this status is bestowed upon his descendants as well:
And remember that Abraham was tried by his Lord with certain commands, which he fulfilled: He said: “I will make thee an Imam of mankind.” He pleaded: “And also (Imams) from my offspring!” He answered: “But My Promise is not within the reach of evil-doers.” – Holy Quran 2:124
God accepts Ibrahim’s prayer on the condition that only the righteous and just among his progeny will be appointed as Imams. This Qur’anic verse is significant because it establishes two principles about the Shi‘a Imamate as a model of Islamic leadership. Firstly, the Imams who bear the Imamate are not appointed by the whims of common people; rather, like the Messengers themselves, the Imams – who sustain, preserve and interpret the Divine Message – are Divinely appointed. Secondly, all the Imams are to be from the descendants of Ibrahim. It is significant to note that the Prophet Muhammad and his cousin ‘Ali, the first hereditary Imam of Shi‘a Islam, are acknowledged in Arabian and Islamic traditions as descending from Ibrahim through his elder son Isma’il. This also means that the Isma‘ili Imams, through the lineage that goes back to their forefather Imam ‘Ali, are also the direct descendants of Ibrahim. There are also numerous other verses which speak about the unique status and rights which God has bestowed upon the descendants of Prophet Ibrahim[i]. The verse shown below seems to confirm this:
Or are they jealous of mankind because of that which Allah of His bounty hath bestowed upon them? For We bestowed upon the House of Abraham (‘aala ibrahima) the Book (al-kitaba) and the Wisdom (al-hikmata), and We bestowed on them a Mighty Kingdom. – Holy Quran 4:54
The Holy Bible also affirms the special place of Ibrahim and his descendants, such as in the following verse from the Book of Genesis where God speaks to Abraham:
As for Me, this is My covenant with you: You will be the father of many nations. No longer will you be called Abram; your name will be Abraham, for I have made you a father of many nations. I will make you very fruitful; I will make nations of you, and kings will come from you. I will establish my covenant as an everlasting covenant between Me and you and your descendants after you for the generations to come, to be your God and the God of your descendants after you. – Holy Bible, Genesis 17:7
Using biblical data, one can also trace back the lineage of Ibrahim to Nuh (Noah) and Adam – great Prophets and patriarchs for Jews, Christians and Muslims. The following verse of the Holy Qur’an affirms this single lineage which continues today in the line of the hereditary Shi‘a Isma‘ili Imams.
Verily, God did choose Adam and Nuh (Noah), the progeny (‘aal) of Ibrahim (Abraham), and the progeny (‘aal) of Imran above all the worlds (‘alamin), descendants (dhurriyyah), one from the other: And God heareth and knoweth all things. – Holy Quran 3:33-34
The historical identity of Imran – last name in the above verse – is ambiguous and has been subject to different interpretations – the most common being that Imran refers to the father of Musa or the father of Maryam (Virgin Mary) as both are mentioned within the Qur’an. The Shi‘a and particularly Isma‘ili interpretations state that the name Imran in the above verse refers to the father of Imam ‘Ali, whose popular name or kunya was Abu Talib whereas his proper name was, in fact, Imran.[ii] In this sense, the Shi‘a understand the words ‘aal Imran (Progeny of Imran) in the verse to be the hereditary Shi‘a Imams who are the children (‘aal) of Abu Talib (Imran). The logic of this interpretation is clear from the very structure of the verse. Adam, Nuh and Ibrahim are direct descendants of one another (which can be ascertained from the Book of Genesis) and all three names occur in chronological order. Therefore, in keeping with the structure of the verse, Imran and the Progeny of Imran must come chronologically after Abraham and the Progeny of Ibrahim. For all Muslims, the Prophet Muhammad as the greatest Prophet is undoubtedly included as part of the Progeny of Ibrahim. The Prophet Ibrahim had two sons – Isma‘il and Ishaq – and the Israelite Prophets including Musa, Dawud and Isa descend from Ishaq while the Prophet Muhammad descends from Isma‘il. Therefore, Imran and the Progeny of Imran cannot refer to people who came before the Prophet Muhammad – otherwise, the chronological structure of the verse is broken. This eliminates the possibility of Imran referring to the father of Musa or the father of Maryam because both personalities lived before the Prophet Muhammad (who is a member of Abraham’s Progeny). Furthermore, both the father of Musa and the father of Maryam would already be included among the Progeny of Ibrahim via Ishaq. The only consistent interpretation of the verse would chronologically place Imran at most contemporary to the Prophet Muhammad and place the Progeny of Imran after the Prophet Muhammad. The only reading which is faithful to this structure is when Imran is understood as Abu Talib and the Progeny of Imran is understood as Abu Talib’s lineal descendants beginning with ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib, the first Shi‘a Imam.
While the Imamate continues in a male[iii] line of descent, this should not be understood as a deprecation of the feminine. It is often forgotten that the Shi‘a Imams’ claim to be the direct descendants of the Prophet Muhammad is not through male but female descent – as embodied in Fatima the daughter of the Prophet. This is the reason why the Isma‘ili Imams chose the name al-fatimiyyah (the Fatimids) when they established Islam’s only Shi‘i Caliphate in the 10th century, the only Muslim dynasty to be named after a woman. In addition to the Prophet and Fatima, the key figures from whom the lineage of Imamate stems are Imam ‘Ali and Imam Husayn. ‘Ali, as the first Imam in the series, is considered to be the prototype and the forefather of all the Imams. Imam ‘Ali was succeeded as Imam by both of his sons – Imam al-Hasan who was an Entrusted Imam (al-imam al-mustawda) and Imam al-Husayn who was the Permanent Imam (al-imam al-mustaqarr) in whose blessed line the Imamate dwells and continues.[iv] In other words, the Isma‘ili Imams are ‘Alid, Husaynid, and Fatimid – by virtue of which they are Muhammadan.
While the matter of the Imams’ lineage is important, it should not be overestimated. Being a descendant of Imam ‘Ali or other Imams does not automatically make one an Imam as well. It should not be forgotten that the both nass (designation) and lineage are required. The concept of nass does not translate to mere appointment. This designation is itself understood as an expression of the Divine Will. In the Qur’an, it is God who appoints the family members and descendants of the Prophets to their blessed position. The nass which each Imam makes for his successor indicates to his community the identity of the one whom the Divine Will has selected as their next Imam. The twenty-third Nizari Isma‘ili Imam, Hasan ala-dhikrihi al-salaam, explains that the nass does not ‘make’ the Imam into an Imam, it merely ‘reveals’ the identity of the next Imam such that the community may recognize him as such:
The designation which is made is not in order to make him an Imam; it is only made so that people should recognize him as such – otherwise, from his standpoint and perspective, all such different states are one and the same.
– Imam Hasan ‘ala dhikrihi al-salaam,
(Nasir al-Din Tusi, Rawda-yi Taslim transl. S.J. Badakhchani, The Paradise of Submission, p. 123)
The first such nass in the Islamic community goes back to the time of the Prophet when he designated Hazrat ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib as his successor on numerous occasions. The final and most well known occasion of designation of ‘Ali as the supreme leader of the Muslim community took place at Ghadeer Khum where the Prophet declared: “I leave amongst you two weighty things – the Book of God and my Progeny (itrat). If you hold fast to both of them you shall never go astray. These two shall not separate until they return to me at the paradiscal pool.”[v] He further stated: “For whomsoever I am his master (mawla), this ‘Ali is also his master (mawla).”[vi] Since that time, each Imam has designated his successor, with some of these designations taking place privately and others publicly.[vii] It is the belief of the Isma‘ili Muslims that the Imamate will continue to be handed down in a continuous lineage through the designated individuals until the Day of Judgment. This is boldly proclaimed by the Imam Hasan ala-dhikrihi al-salaam:
Know that this Imamate is a reality [which] will never cease, change or be altered. It will continue forever to be transmitted through the progeny of our lords (mawalina). It will never leave them, whether in form, meaning or reality. – Imam Hasan ‘ala dhikrihi al-salaam, (Nasir al-Din Tusi, Rawda-yi Taslim transl. S.J. Badakhchani, The Paradise of Submission, p. 122)
[i] See verse 4:54 where the Qur’an states that God has bestowed the Book (kitab), Wisdom (hikmah) and Kingdom (mulk) upon the progeny of Ibrahim and the related commentary of Imam al-Baqir recorded in Kulayni’s Usul al-Kafi and Qadi al-Nu’man’s Da’aim al-Islam; Verses 2:127-128 where Ibrahim and Isma’il pray for God to raise up from their progeny a submitting community (ummatan muslimeen) and verse 22:78 where the Qur’an addresses the Imams as muslims promised to their father Ibrahim along with Imam Ja’far’s commentary as recorded in Kulayni’s Usul al-Kafi and al-Nu’man’s Da’aim al-Islam;Verses 6:83-88 where several prophets of Ibrahim’s line are mentioned by name and the fact that God chose and guided their forefathers, descendants and brethren. See also the Book of Genesis 18:17-19 about the descendants of Abraham keeping the way of justice and judgment.
[ii] See Abu Firas, al-Qasida ash-Shafiya, transl. Sami Nassib Makarem, The University of Michigan, Ph.D. Dissertation, 1963, p. 126 where Abu Talib is referred to as Imran. See also Mir Ahmed Ali, The Holy Quran: Text, Translation and Commentary, p. 278.
[iii] It is often asked why the Imamate must dwell in a male line and always be carried by a man. The exoteric reasons may be related to genetics in that one unique y-chromosome is passed down and preserved in a male lineage while the uniqueness of the x-chromosome is not preserved in a female lineage. In keeping with what Nasir al-Din Tusi writes, the physical geneaology of the Imamserves as a biological sign, demonstration, or marker of the present Imam’s relationship and continuity with the previous Imams. If, for example, the Imamat passed to a woman, then that woman would neither possess a unique y-chromosome nor a unique x-chromosome from any of her ancestor Imams and any future female or male Imam would not possess any unique x or y chromosome from the previous Imams. Thus, if the Imamat was in a female lineage, there would be no clear biological marker or sign of the Imam’s relationship to the previous Imams and this would make it much more difficult for the people of any given time to recognize the Imam of their time. This is merely a hypothesis based on the contemplate knowledge of genetics and the Imams theoretically have full authority to abrogate the norms of succession. The following excerpts from articles on genetics suffice to stress the importance of y-chromosomes passed by males in genetic continuity over the x-chromosomes.
“The X chromosome a woman inherits from her mother is, like any other chromosome, a random mix of genes from both of her mother’s Xs, and so does not correspond as a whole with either of her mother’s X chromosomes… By contrast, the X a woman inherits from her father is his one and only X chromosome, complete and undiluted. This means that a father is twice as closely related to his daughter via his Xchromosome genes as is her mother.” Source: http://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/201109/the-incredible-expanding-adventures-the-x-chromosome
“The y-chromosome is inherited more or less unchanged from father to son to grandson, indefinitely. Chromosomes contain the DNA that determines our inherited characteristics, and the y-chromosome is one of the 46-chromosomes in the nucleus of each of the cells of all human males. Most chromosomes, including the two x-chromosomes possessed by females, get recombined or shuffled each generation before being passed down to offspring. But the y-chromosome is unique in remaining more or less unchanged when passed from father to son. Thus while most chromosomes will contain a random mixture of genetic codes from one’s grandparents and great-grandparents, a male’s y-chromosome will be identical or nearly identical to that of his father, grandfather, great-grandfather and beyond for countless generations.”
The esoteric reasons may be related to traditional and esoteric symbolism of the male and female. In the traditional worldview, gender is not viewed as a simple product of biology, sociology or anthropology. Gender is understood to be rooted in spiritual principles and celestial archetypes. Although a full discussion of this subject remains outside our scope, a few remarks will suffice. In traditional symbolism and metaphysics, the masculine principle is the active, manifest, and majestic pole of being while the feminine is the passive, hidden, and merciful pole. For example, in certain forms of traditional symbolism, the individual human soul is ‘feminine’ while the celestial Spirit is ‘masculine’ and proper spiritual equilibrium is achieved when the feminine soul submits to the masculine Spirit. This does not suggest that the female is lower than the male – since both poles are necessary for wholeness and equilibrium. Similarly, the Imam in relation to his disciples is active or male and the disciple in relation to the Imam is passive or female. This symbolism carries through in all levels of being – from the ‘World of Command’ with the masculine Universal Intellect and the feminine Universal Soul down to the ‘World of Religion’ – where the Imam must be a man since his spiritual function, in relation to his disciples, is masculine. Ultimately, the male-female principles have their metaphysical roots in the Divine Reality which is both absolute (corresponding to the male principle) and infinite (corresponding to the female principle). For details see M. Ali Lakhani, Towards a Traditional Understanding of Sexuality, Editorial published in Sacred Web, Volume 12, available at http://www.sacredweb.org.
[iv] The Nizari Isma‘ilis do not include the name of al-Hasan ibn ‘Ali in their list of Imams which has led some people to conclude that al-Hasan is not accepted as an Imam in Nizari theology. In reality, al-Hasan ibn ‘Ali is regarded as an Imam by the Nizaris but with a minor difference: al-Hasan is understood to be an Entrusted Imam or Trustee Imam (al-imam al-mustawda) as opposed to a Permanent Imam (al-imam al-mustaqarr), the latter position belonging to his brother al-Husayn ibn ‘Ali. The Nizari list of Imams only includes the names of the Permanent Imams and not the Entrusted Imams. The difference between the Entrusted Imam and the Permanent Imam is that the Entrusted Imam is a brother or cousin of the main genealogical line of the Imams who holds the rank and authority of Imam for a temporary period and the Imamate does not permanently dwell among the Entrusted Imam’s descendants. The Permanent Imam is the hereditary Imam who inherits the Imamate from his forefathers and transmits it to his descendants. The Entrusted Imam is only appointed in special circumstances and is usually the brother or cousin of the Permanent Imam. When there is an Entrusted Imam, the Permanent Imam remains silent (samit) although he is the source of authority (amr) of the Entrusted Imam who acts on his behalf. Thus, Imam al-Hasan was an Entrusted Imam as he held the authority and rank of Imamate after Hazrat ‘Ali and then bequeathed it to his brother Imam a-Husayn who then transmitted the Imamate in his progeny. On a similar note, the Prophet Muhammad was the Entrusted Imam in his time while Imam ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib and his forefathers were the Permanent Imams. For further details, see Shafique Virani, The Isma‘ilis in the Middle Ages, pp. 83-85. In Nizari Isma’ilism, al-Hasan ibn ‘Ali also holds the rank of pir or supreme hujja which is the rank in the Isma’ili hierarchy (hudud) second only to the Imam himself. This has led some to confuse the positions of Entrusted Imam and pir or simply deny that al-Hasan was an Imam altogether. In reality, al-Hasan was both an Entrusted Imam and a pir (supreme hujja) and this is perhaps why the Nizari Isma‘ili Ginans, the Asal Du’a (Old Du’a) and the farmans of Imam Sultan Muhammad refer to al-Hasan as ‘Pir Imam Hasan’.
[v] Sahih al-Tirmidhi, Sunan, Volume 5, pp. 662-663, No. 328
[vi] This tradition of Ghadeer Khum has been narrated by at least 110 Companions, 84 tabi’un, 355 ulema, 25 historians, 27 traditionalists, 11 exegesists, 18 theologians and 5 philosophers. (Dr. S.H.M. Jafri, Origins and Early Development of Shi’a Islam, London 1979, p. 20)
[vii] For example, Imam Muhammad al-Baqir appointed his son Imam Ja’far al-Sadiq in the presence of his followers, referring to him as the best of mankind and the Qa’im ‘al Muhammad (the one in charge of Muhammad’s family). When al-Baqir was approaching his death, he asked for witnesses to be brought to him and referred to the succession of Prophet Yusuf from Prophet Ya’qub and then made a nass in respect of his son Ja’far al-Sadiq. See Lalani, Early Shi’i Thought, p. 77.
The Bearers of the Light
“Since my grandfather, the last Aga Khan, died, I have been the bearer of the Nur – a word which means ‘The Light’.”
– Imam Shah Karim al-Husayni Aga Khan IV
While their lineage and nass constitute the physical characteristics of the Imam, the foundation of the Imamate of the Imams lies in that which is esoteric, hidden and not perceptible to the external senses. What really qualifies the Imam for his role does not belong to his physical body, but to his subtle soul. The Imam is in possession of a sacred knowledge or ‘ilm[i] by virtue of which he is the Imam in the first place. This knowledge is not an empirical or rational knowledge, but a knowledge pertaining to the spirit and the soul. Ultimately, the position of the Imam is due to his superior knowledge and enlightened intellect as opposed to just an illustrious pedigree.
The ‘ilm of the Shi‘a Imam includes full knowledge of the exoteric and esoteric meanings of the Holy Qur’an and the knowledge required to interpret the faith of Islam, particularly its esoteric sciences. But the essence of this ‘ilm transcends the individuality of the Imam because it is essentially a mystical gnosis (ma‘rifah) of the Ultimate Reality (haqiqah).[ii] Nasir al-Din Tusi refers to this essential knowledge as the formula of the divine unity (kalima-yi tawhid).[iii] Due to its sacred and luminous nature, this mystical gnosis has been described by the imagery of ‘Light’ (nur)[iv] and the Imam himself has been often described as the ‘bearer of the Light’.[v] This is indeed how the present Imam describes himself in a public interview given in 1965 when he was asked whether he was a symbol of the Isma‘ilis’ Faith:
Yes. Since my grandfather, the last Aga Khan, died, I have been the bearer of the Nur – a word which means ‘The Light’. The Nur has been handed down in direct descent from the Prophet. But my work and responsibilities overflow into the practical side of life.
– Imam Shah Karim al-Husayni Aga Khan IV,
(Sunday Times Weekly Review – Interview, Dec 12, 1965)
This ‘Light’ (nur) was manifest in the Prophet Muhammad and also the first Imam ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib. The Light does not dwell inside their physical bodies, but resides within their subtle souls.[vi] By virtue of this Light, the individual souls of the Prophets and the Imams possess spiritual sanctity[vii] and divine proximity – referred to as walayah in Sufism and Shi’ism. This Light, transcending their existence as individual persons, is the foundation of the spiritual identity of the Prophet and the Imams by virtue of which the Prophet is reported to have said to ‘Ali: “I am from you and you are from me.” Isma‘ili and Sufi theosophers have referred to this Light as the Muhammadan Reality (haqiqah al-muhammadiyyah) and the Light of Imamate (nur al-imamah) because it is the metaphysical reality behind the person of the Prophet (and the Imams). It is this Reality which both Sunni and Shi‘i traditions describe as the luminous being which God created first, before all things:
“The first thing created by God was the Intellect; The first thing created by God was my Light.” – Prophet Muhammad, (Willam Chittick, The Sufi Path of Love, State University of New York Press, New York 1983, p. 66)
The universal concept of the Muhammadan Reality and the Light of Imamate has its equivalents in various spiritual and philosophical traditions. The Isma‘ili theosophers refer to it as the Universal Intellect (al-‘aql al-kull) while the Islamic philosophers spoke of it as the First Intellect (al-‘aql al-‘awwal). According to Imam Ja’far al-Sadiq, this Intellect is the primordial Light before God which was manifest in the Prophet Muhammad and the first Imam, ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib:
“Two thousand years before creation, Muhammad and ‘Ali were one Light (nur) before God.”
– Imam Ja’far al-Sadiq, (Mohammad Ali Amir-Moezzi, The Divine Guide in Early Shi ‘ism, p. 31)
In another hadith, the same Imam describes the Intellect (‘aql) as the first spiritual entity to be created from God’s Light:
“God – may He be glorified and exalted – created the Intellect (al-‘Aql) first among the spiritual entities. He drew it from the right side of His throne, making it proceed from his own Light.”
– Imam Ja’far al-Sadiq, (Mohammad Ali Amir-Moezzi, The Divine Guide in Early Shi ‘ism, p. 8)
In classical Isma‘ili philosophy, God Himself transcends all attributes, descriptions, and names including the categories of space and time, being and non-being, unity and multiplicity, and even existence and non-existence. God Himself or the Ultimate Reality is referred to simply as ‘He who is above all else’ because He transcends and is prior to the distinction between subject and object and thus outside the range of human knowledge. In the Isma‘ili metaphysical worldview, all of the attributes and qualities of greatness, majesty and perfection, particularly those of an anthropomorphic nature, pertain to the Universal Intellect or Light of Imamate while keeping in mind that ‘He who is above all else’ is beyond all such qualities. The Universal Intellect includes all divine attributes and is, technically speaking, the ‘First Cause’ and the ‘Necessary Being’ (wajib al-wujud) of the onto-cosmological hierarchy which gives rise to the physical world. The Universal Intellect encompasses all things and all being within itself for it is the first and most perfect entity originated by God. Explaining the Isma‘ili concept of the Universal Intellect as described by Sayyedna Nasir Khusraw, Dr. Alice Hunsberger states that:
The [Universal] Intellect is complete and perfect. It knows all things, and knows them all at once; there is nothing for it to know later or better. There is no motion or time within the Intellect or within which the Intellect functions, for time and motion have not yet come into existence in the realm of the Intellect. Not only does the Intellect know all things; it encompasses all beings, material and spiritual. In fact, following the Command ‘Be!’, the Intellect is all being; there is nothing outside of itself. The Intellect also lacks nothing and needs nothing, because there is nothing other than its actual perfection. (Alice Hunsberger, The Ruby of Badakhshan, p. 159)
The Isma‘ili Imam is the locus of manifestation (mazhar) of this Universal Intellect or Light of Imamate. The term mazhar suggests the idea of a mirror which reflects or manifests an object without actually incarnating it physically or causing any change or alternation to the object. Accordingly, it is the pure human soul of the Imam which serves as this mirror or mazhar of the Universal Intellect which is reflected in the Imam’s soul without actually or materially descending into the person of the Imam. It is only in this sense that the Imam is called the ‘bearer of the Light’ – in that the Light of Imamate is reflected in the Imam’s human soul while not being physically contained or constrained within this mirror. Thus, the Universal Intellect remains transcendent in the higher spiritual realm and manifest in the created world while never materially descending into it. It is important to note the distinctions – between the Imam and the Light of Imamate on one hand, and that between the Light of Imamat and God Himself on the other – so as to keep all things in their proper place.
While all the Imams are the bearers of the Muhammadan Reality or Light of Imamate, they still possess a unique individuality which renders each Imam as being different from the others. The sequence of the Imams should not be perceived as ‘reincarnations’ of one and the same individual soul, but rather an epiphanic succession where the individual soul of each Imam serves as a unique mirror or locus of manifestation (mazhar) of the same one Light – in the manner of a single light being reflected in multiple mirrors, each with different forms, curvatures and dimensions, with one mirror appearing after another in succession. Each Imam also integrates the virtues and qualities of his predecessors – each reflects the all. But at the same time, each Imam manifests these virtues and qualities in a unique fashion due to his individuality.[viii] These principles are, for example, reflected in the architecture of the Delegation of the Isma‘ili Imamate in Ottawa. Its maple floor consists of 49 large squares – standing for the 49 Isma‘ili Imams – and each of these 49 squares contains 49 smaller squares. This visually depicts how each Imam amongst the 49 Isma‘ili Imams reflects and integrates the virtues and qualities of all 49 Imams within himself.
It is often assumed that the Light of Imamate is mystically transferred from one Imam to the next when the Imam passes away. But in reality, what passes from one Imam to the next upon the predecessor’s death are only the functions and authority of the Imamate; the Light of Imamate is something that all the Imams possesses at birth[i], although at such time their formal status as Imams is not known or declared.[ii] It must be remembered that the reality which is described as the Light of Imamate is not a material entity which must be restricted to a single individual, but rather, it can be manifest in several generations at the same time. From a spiritual standpoint, the Imams are born as Imams and are always Imams; all are the bearers of the Light since birth and even before that. [iii] The twenty-third Nizari Isma‘ili Imam Hasan ala-dhikrihi al-salaam makes this clearly evident in his Blessed Epistles (fusul-i mubarak):
The Imam is perfect when still in the form of sperm in the loins of his father and the pure womb of his mother. An Imam is always an Imam and always perfect. Otherwise, why should he say, ‘The Imam knows from which drop of sperm the Imam after him will come?’
– Imam Hasan ‘ala dhikrihi al-salaam,
(Nasir al-Din Tusi, Rawda-yi Taslim transl. S.J. Badakhchani, The Paradise of Submission, p. 125)
As long as the present Imam is alive, he alone carries out the functions and holds the authority of the Imamate. The successor Imam will only assume the formal role of Imamate and be officially recognized as Imam when the previous Imam has passed away.[iv] In other words, the present Imam at any given time is the ‘speaking Imam’ (al-imam al-natiq), while the Imam-in-waiting is the ‘silent Imam’ (al-imam al-samit). This is indicated in Imam Ja’far al-Sadiq’s repy to a person who asked: “Can there be two Imams at once?” To which the Imam replied: “No, unless one of them is silent.”[v
This also implies the possibility of several generations of Imams being present at once but with only one of them being the speaking and functioning Imam of the Time. This was actually a reality during the early days of the Fatimid period. The Must‘alian Isma‘ili historian Idris Imad al-Din describes a moment from Fatimid history where the Qadi al-Numan was conversing with the Imam Abdu’llah al-Mahdi. In this period, Imam al-Mahdi had made it publically known that his son Abu’l-Qasim Muhammad – the future Imam al-Qa’im – was to succeed him. Al-Qa‘im already had a son of his own, Isma’il, who would become the future Imam al-Mansur and Imam al-Mahdi had confided this fact to al-Numan:
Al-Qadi al-Nu’man was among those who had precedence in serving the Imam al-Mahdi bi’llah during the later part of his caliphate. He was also the beneficiary of the favours of al-Qa’im bi-Amr Allah as were others. Then Imam al-Mahdi bi’llah disclosed to him the distinction of his grandson Imam al-Mansur bi’llah who was the third of the Imams of the [period of] manifestation. He (al-Nu’man) said: ‘O Commander of the Faithful, three Imams in one age?’ the [number] astounded him. Then Imam al-Mahdi bi’llah showed him al-Mu’izz li-Din Allah who was a babe in his cradle and said, ‘And this is the fourth of us, O Nu’man!’
(Idris Imad al-Din, Tarikh al-Khulafa al-Fatimiyyin bi’l-Maghrib, transl. Shainool Jiwa, Anthology of Isma‘ili Literature, p. 60)
In another moving account narrated by the Egyptian historian al-Maqrizi, the Imam al-Mahdi convened a special gathering (majlis) where he brought his son, al-Qa‘im, his grandson, al-Mansur, and his great grandson al-Mu’izz into the same room and covered all of them with a cloak:
One day [Imam] al-Qa’im bi-Amr Allah, upon him be peace, was in his father [Imam] al-Mahdi’s majlis (gathering), seated in front of him. His son, [Imam] al-Mansur, was standing in front of his grandfather, when al-Mahdi said to him, ‘Bring me your son’, that is [Imam] al-Mu’izz li-Din Allah. So his nursemaid brought him. He was one year old or a little older. Al-Mahdi took him on his lap and kissed him. Then he said to his son al-Qa’im bi-Amr Allah, ‘O Abu’l-Qasim, there is not a majlis more illustrious on earth than this one, as four Imams are gathered here,’ that is, al-Mahdi himself, his son al-Qa’im, his grandson al-Mansur, and his great-grandson al-Mu’izz li-Din Allah. Additionally, the parasol bearer, Abu’l-Fadl Raydan, told me that al-Mahdi gathered them in a cloak and said, ‘The Prophet of God, may God bless him and grant him peace, gathered in his garment three Imams, in addition to himself, but in this cloak there are four Imams.
(Al-Maqrizi, Lessons for the Seekers of Truth in the History of the Fatimid Imams and Caliphs, quoted in Shainool Jiwa, Towards a Shi’i Mediterranean Empire, 29)
The above examples show the existence of four generations of Imams in a single age, but Imam al-Mahdi was the speaking Imam, executing the authority of the Imamate, while his son (al-Qa’im), grandson (al-Mansur) and great-grandson (al-Mu’izz) were the silent Imams. But the above examples describe the more private and intimate moments of the Isma‘ili Imamate as generally the identity of the next Imam was not always a matter of public knowledge.
This also raises the question of the exact relationship amongst the Imam and his future successor(s). The available literature indicates that there is indeed a special closeness and intimacy between the Imam of the time and the Imam-in-waiting. In certain periods, this special relationship was made known publicly, particularly in cases where the succession was declared openly. This is perhaps most evident in the case of the Prophet Muhammad and Imam ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib. The close relationship between them is testified by ‘Ali himself in the following statement recorded in the Nahjul Balagha:
When I was but a child he took me under his wing … I would follow him [the Prophet] as a baby camel follows the footsteps of his mother. Every day he would raise up for me a sign of his noble character, commanding me to follow it. He would go each year into seclusion at [Mount] Hira. I saw him and nobody else saw him. At that time no household was brought together for the religion of Islam, except the Messenger of God, Khadija, and myself as the third. I saw the light of the revelation and the message, and I smelt the fragrance of prophecy.
– Imam Ali ibn Abi Talib,
(Reza Shah-Kazemi, Justice and Remembrance, p. 13)
The current Imam and the future Imam share a spiritual relationship which only the two of them can truly understand. The Qadi al-Nu’man narrates a beautiful story[vi] which the Imam al-Mansur confided to him. In his own words, the Imam al-Mansur describes his relationship with his own father, Imam al-Qa’im. The Imam stated:
Nobody could have been closer to the Imam than myself. I was his son, and yet my heart was filled with awe of his glory. One day, when I was just a little boy, I was walking behind him. I rejoiced at looking at him and receiving his didar. Then I would look at the heavens and the skies and rejoice at looking at them. Then I would look at him once again until my heart was satisfied. I thought to myself, the master of all creation is God in the heavens, and the Imam is his representative. The more this began to sink in, the more glorious my father appeared in my eyes, the more awe-inspired was my heart. Then Imam al-Qa’im turned around to face me. He held me and hugged me close. He said, ‘My dear little son, may Allah not place in your heart what he has placed in the heart of your mawla.’ I knew, at that moment, that he was referring to all of the worries that he had.
– Imam al-Mansur bi’llah,
(al-Qadi al-Nu’man, Majalis wa’l-Musayarat)
The Imam, responsible for the physical and spiritual welfare of his millions of followers, bears a great burden. No one can really estimate or imagine the intensity of the burden borne by the Imam of the Time except his successor. Other anecdotes in the Isma‘ili literature relate how the Imams and their future successors were able to confide in one another. Although the Imams are all born with the spiritual Light of Imamate, there are forms of preparation and initiation by which current Imam initiates the future Imam into the formal functions of the Imamate which he will one day have to undertake. In this sense, the Qadi al-Numan narrates how Imam al-Mansur would spend time alone with his grandfather Imam al-Mahdi where the two would discuss secrets in confidence and the latter would prepare the former for the Imamate:
He (Imam al-Mahdi) used to confide secrets in him (Imam al-Mansur) and no one knew what transpired between them. One of the people who used to enter the presence of al-Mahdi frequently, as it was imperative for him to do so, said to me that there was never a time when he (al-Mahdi) was alone without al-Mansur being present and al-Mahdi would be speaking in confidence to him.
(Idris Imad al-Din, Tarikh al-Khulafa al-Fatimiyyin bi’l-Maghrib, transl. Shainool Jiwa, Anthology of Isma‘ili Literature, p. 61)
Having discussed the principles by which the succession in the Isma‘ili Imamate takes place, we can now examine the circumstances of the succession of the present Imam Shah Karim al-Husayni Aga Khan IV.
[i] See Arzina Lalani, Early Shi’i Thought: The Teachings of Imam Muhammad al-Baqir, Institute of Ismaili Studies and IB Taurus, London, 2000, pp. 78-79
[ii] Imam ‘Ali states in a sermon known as Khutba al-Bayan: “I am the Gnosis of Mysteries”. That is to say, the Imam identifies his inner reality with the knowledge of gnosis of God. The Imams are also able to communicate this gnosis to their disciples – see Imam ‘Ali’s statements about the nature of Reality (haqiqah) in Reza Shah-Kazemi, Justice and Remembrance: Introducing the Spirituality of Imam ‘Ali, Chapter 3.
[iii] See Nasir al-Din Tusi, Rawda-yi Taslim, translated by S.J. Badakchani as The Paradise of Submission, Institute of Ismaili Studies and IB Taurus, London, 2006, p. 121:
“The formula of the profession of Divine Unity (kalima-yi tawhid) is the [exclusive] heritage to be transmitted and inherited through his sacred progeny and holy descendants, in one line of descent and essence – ‘offspring, one after the other (3:34) – a [lineage] which will never be ruptured, even unto the end of time.”
[iv] See Arzina Lalani, Early Shi’i Thought: The Teachings of Imam Muhammad al-Baqir, Institute of Ismaili Studies and IB Taurus, London, 2000, pp. 79-82
[v] To refer to the Imam as the ‘bearer of the Light’ must not be confused with the Christian concept of Divine Incarnation. In Isma’ilism, the Imam has never been understood as an incarnation (hulul) of God – a perspective which has always been rejected. A more precise definition of the relationship between the Imam and God was given at the Ismailia Paris Conference of 1975 where it was resolved:
“The Imam to be explained as ‘mazhar’ of God, and the relationship between God and the Imam to be related to varying levels of inspiration and communication from God to man.”
The term mazhar must be given careful consideration. The word mazhar does NOT mean ‘copy’ or ‘incarnation’ as the polemicist Akbarally Meherally ignorantly stated. Mazhar is an Arabic noun of place, and is translated as ‘locus of manifestation’. In this sense, when the Imam is called the mazhar (locus of manifestation) of God, it means that the soul of the Imam is like the surface of a mirror upon which the Names and Qualities of God shine and are reflected, producing an image which constitutes the Imam’s pure humanity. Therefore, the Divine Light is only ‘in’ the Imam insofar as the image of an object is ‘in’ a mirror. The Divine Light remains immutable and unchanging in itself and does not materially enter the created world. There is a further distinction made in Islamic theology and mysticism between God’s Essence and God’s Names, and it is only the latter aspect which is reflected in the Imam while God’s Essence remains unknowable and transcendent. Therefore, there is no question of shirk being committed since God does not actually or materially enter into the body of the Imam. This relationship between God and the Imam in these terms of mazhariyyah (manifestation) can be extended to everything in the Cosmos: All creatures, all created phenomena are the loci of manifestation (mazahir) of God’s Names and Qualities. Reza Shah-Kazemi explains this as follows:
“This is a point which is made emphatically by the Sufis in order to avoid the accusation of shirk: the presence of God really is ‘in’ the creature, but only in the sense that an image is really ‘in’ the mirror. There is no question of the glass of the mirror undergoing any material change as a result of the image that is present on its surface, nor is there any question of a material change or descent of the object into the mirror. Thus God remains absolutely transcendent, just as the object remains totally other than the mirror.” (Reza Shah-Kazemi, The Other in the Light of the One, The Islamic Texts Society, Cambridge 2006,pp. 110-111)
[vi] Nasir al-Din Tusi, Rawda-yi Taslim transl. by S.J. Badakchani as The Paradise of Submission, p. 109:
“…human souls are therefore varied and differ with respect to their receptivity to the resplendent lights of the Divine Command (anwar-i ishraq-i amr-i ilahi), just as material objects are variously receptive to the physical light of the sun. [Consider] stones, for example: one [kind] is pitch black, while others are progressively less dark, and their essences are more receptive to illumination, up to translucent glass which receives light from one side and emits from the other. In so far as human beings are unable to be receptive to His Almighty Command without mediation, it was necessary that there should be intermediaries vis-à-vis the Divine Command. Those people whose consciousness (khatir) behaved as does a [translucent] glass held up to the sun were the Prophets.”
In accordance with Tusi’s explanation as given above, the souls of the Prophet Muhammad and the Shi’a Imams are like the translucent glass or gemstones which capture and reflect the Divine Light to the highest degree possible for a created being. This concept is embodied in the architecture of the Delegation of the Ismaili Imamat in Ottawa and the Aga Khan Museum and Ismaili Centre in Toronto.
[vii] The spiritual purity of the Imams is declared in the Qur’anic verse known as the Verse of Purity (33:33): “And God wishes to remove from you all impurity, O Ahl al-Bayt, and to purify you with a thorough purification.” According to both Sunni and Shi‘ite hadith, this verse was revealed when the Prophet Muhammad embraced Imam ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib, Imam al-Hasan, Imam al-Husayn, and Bib Fatima under his cloak, indicating that God had purified their souls from all impurities. For Shi‘a Muslims, all the succeeding Imams possess the same spiritual purity. These notions are reflected in contemporary Isma‘ili Muslim Prayer (Du ‘a) in Part I (wa ‘ala’l-a‘immati’l-athar = “and upon the Pure Imams”) and Part IV (wa a‘immatika’l-mutahareen = “and Your Pure Imams”).
[viii] Nasir al-Din Tusi states with regards to the differences among the various Imams:
“The principle of relative and real existence (hukm-i idafa wa haqiqat) must be kept in mind…as there are diverse degrees of truth and each Imam manifests a different degree [of truth], a different mystery, a different benefit (maslahat) which they detail and elucidate [for people]…But insofar as the Divine Truth has a unity wherein all these stages are one, and the Imams are all one in reality (haqiqat), so that their persons (shakhs) are not separate from each other nor their spirits.” (Nasir al-Din Tusi, Rawda-yi Taslim transl. S.J. Badakhchani, The Paradise of Submission, The Institute of Ismaili Studies, London, p. 127)
[viiii] Al-Kulayni, Usul al-Kafi, vol. 1, p. 179. This reference was provided and translated by the late Shaykh Seth ‘Abd al-Hakeem Carney, may his soul rest in eternal peace.
[i] This point can be a matter of debate – as some of the early Shi’i traditions indicate that the Light is transferred only when the previous Imam passes away, while other traditions in the same corpus state that the Light is possessed by the Imams even at birth, and since the very creation of their souls in the spiritual World of Particles (alam al-dharr). See Lalani, Early Shi’i Thought, pp. 80-82. But later Nizari Isma‘ili Imams state quite clearly that the Imams possess the Light at birth.
[ii] Imam Hasan ala-dhikrihi al-salaam states, as recorded in Nasir al-Din Tusi’s Rawda-yi Taslim, (p. 123, Badakhchani translation) that: “The designation (nass) which is made is not in order to make him an Imam; it is only made so that people should recognize him as such – otherwise, from his standpoint and perspective, all such different states are one and the same.”
[iii] The Shi‘i hadith literature describes how the luminous souls of the Imams were created by God before the creation of the physical world and the souls of others. For details, see Mohammad Ali Amir-Moezzi, The Divine Guide in Early Shi’ism, Chapter 1.
[iv] There can be exceptions to this rule. For example, Nasir-i Khusraw cites the cases of Imam ‘Ali Zayn al-Abideen and Imam Isma’il ibn Ja’far each of whom assumed the functions of Imamate while his father was still alive. In the case of the former, Imam al-Husayn consigned the Imamate to Imam ‘Ali Zayn al-Abideen on the battlefield of Karbala shortly before he went out to make a final stand against the armies of Yazid. In the case of Imam Isma‘il ibn Ja’far, his father Imam Ja’far al-Sadiq is reported to have said about him: “He is the Imam after me, and what you learn from him is just the same as if you have learned it from myself.” (Jafar ibn Mansur al-Yemen, Asrar an-Nutuqa, p. 256) Nasir-i Khusaw and other Isma’ili da’is refer to the ta’wil of the Qur’anic story of the Sun, Moon, and Stars prostrating before Hazrat Yusuf according to which the Imam, the supreme hujja, and the other hujjas submitted to Yusuf as their new Imam while the previous Imam, Yusuf’s father Hazrat Yaqub, was still alive.
Prince ‘Ali Salman Khan: Son of the Imams and Father of the Imams
“We are sending you our beloved son. Consider his coming as equivalent to our own coming. We are sending our Prince as our Wali ‘Ahd.”
– Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah Aga Khan III
Sir Sultan Muhammad Shah Aga Khan III, the 48th hereditary Imam, was perhaps the most glorious Imam in Isma‘ili history. He succeeded his father Aga ‘Ali Shah at the tender age of eight and set forward in revolutionizing his community both materially and spiritually during one of the most exciting epochs of human history. He was the first Imam to settle in the Western world, making his permanent home in Geneva. He had the longest Imamate in the history of the all Imams through which he brought the Isma‘ili community into modernity and also championed many causes related to the overall welfare of the entire Muslim Ummah. He was the first Imam to make himself publicly known at the global level since the Fatimid period and his recognition extended from East to West. Also of importance was this Imam’s role is explaining the esoteric and universal meaning of Islam – which is evident in both his private farmans to the Isma‘ili Muslim community and in his public speeches and writings addressed to the world at large. The Imam explained many principles of Islamic esoterism and mysticism openly and in a clear language – these being concepts which were otherwise taught in private to initiates of esoteric orders. During his long and eventful Imamate of 72 years, there was much speculation and anticipation regarding the identity of the Imam’s successor.
Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah’s popularity in the world was perhaps equaled by that of his illustrious son Prince ‘Ali Salman Khan, the father of the present Imam Shah Karim al-Husayni. Prince ‘Ali Khan was very popular and dearly loved by the Isma‘ili community and many had expected him to succeed as the Imam. He was also well known and prominent in the social circles of the Western world, as evidenced for example by his marriage to the famous actress Rita Hayworth. At the same time, there were some who questioned his eligibility for the Imamate based on the reports of his risky lifestyle and social life. In light of these circumstances, some have speculated that Prince ‘Ali Khan was originally designated by Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah to succeed him but that later the Imam changed his mind due to Prince ‘Ali Khan’s lifestyle and nominated his own son Prince Karim instead. But a closer examination of the facts belonging to this period proves such speculations to be quite untrue.
Prince ‘Ali was born on June 13, 1911 and was the eldest son of Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah. He spent his life in both the East and the West. Due to his prominence in the social circles of England, his love for speed, horses and excitement, and his two marriages, the Western media sensationalized him and unfairly portrayed him as a playboy – a clearly distorted image. One of his biographers, Gordon Young, even concluded at the end of his book, The Golden Prince, that the Prince was not really the playboy which the outside world thought him to be. As reported in the same book, Prince ‘Ali Khan himself questioned many of the things that had been written about him as being the product of inaccurate journalism. It is perhaps due to the Western media’s mistreatment of Prince ‘Ali Khan’s image that his own son, Imam Shah Karim al-Husayni, the present Imam, tends to avoid publicity:
Young Karim winced whenever the headlines brought the tittle-tattle about his father home to him. It was in these days that he first formed his aversion to publicity and resolved to give the press as little cause for comment about his personal affairs as humanly possible. That he would grow up to hate, not his father, of whom he was fond and proud, but his father’s playboy image was a foregone conclusion. (Willi Frischauer, The Aga Khans, p. 186)
In light of these factors, to the undiscerning person Prince ‘Ali Salman Khan appears as a sort of paradox. On the one hand, he performed religious and spiritual functions on behalf of his father, Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah, and as the son of the Imam was the object of great reverence and devotion. At the same time, Prince ‘Ali Khan was one of the most popular figures in the Western imagination, and was the centre for social and aristocratic life:
But increasingly in recent years, Aly has gone about his father’s business and those who have seen him in his Eastern robes earnestly carrying out the rituals of his sect find it hard to believe that this can possibly be the same slick socialite who in London, Paris and New York jokes with his friends in a faultless Oxford accent and leads western café society in all the arts of high living and smart thinking. (Gordon Young, Golden Prince, p. 22)
In a manner quite opposite from the newspapers, Prince ‘Ali Khan was viewed and understood quite differently by those within the Isma‘ili community. For example, the late Al-Wa’z Abualy Aziz who was contemporary with the Prince gives the following description of him in his book:
He was undoubtedly the beloved of his family as well as the Jamats… He was extremely popular in the Jamats all over the world and was loved by young and old alike. Very often he was sent by the Holy Imam to represent him for religious duties. He was a great sportsman and a statesman… His Serene Highness Prince Aly was a great champion of Islam and never missed an opportunity to serve and defend it. He had all his life contributed financially, as well as physically, to the cause of Islam. A warm-hearted friend, an ardent servant of Islam, a shrewd horse-breeder, an energetic sportsman, a lover of speed and motion, a great public speaker, a cautious statesman, generous and benevolent, he was indeed a great man.
(Al-Wa’z Abualy Aziz, Brief History of Isma‘ilism, Dar as-Salaam, 1974)
From an early age, the Prince became involved in the affairs of the Isma‘ili Imamate when he accompanied his father on a visit to India in 1923 where the Imam gave didar to his Indian murids. In August 1930, Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah sent Prince ‘Ali Khan to Syria along with the following message (taliqah):
“We are sending you our beloved son. Consider his coming as our own coming. We are sending our Prince as our Wali ‘Ahd.”
– Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah Aga Khan III,
(Message to the Syrian Isma‘ilis, 1930)
In the above message, the Imam refers to his son Prince ‘Ali Khan as his wali ‘ahd. This term was interpreted by some as indicating that Prince ‘Ali was designated as the next Imam, but this was not necessarily true. The actual term wali ‘ahd means ‘master of the pledge (or covenant).’ The term has been used numerous times in Muslim history, particularly in a political sense where it referred to the heir or crown prince of a political dynasty. Wali ‘ahd was also used by the Isma‘ili Imams when they reigned as the Fatimid caliphs during the 10th and 11th century. It is true that in many instances, the designated successor of the Fatimid Imam-Caliph was called the wali ‘ahd, but this was not always the case. For example, the Fatimid Imam-Caliph al-Hakim bi-amri’llah bestowed the title of wali ‘ahd upon two of his cousins – neither of whom actually inherited the Imamate. Therefore, the word wali ‘ahd cannot be understood as a synonym for the future Imam but rather it indicates ‘a kind of shadow caliph, or rather, a symbolic stand-in who could assume the ceremonial function of the true Imam but not the actual, i.e. veritable, position that is implied by sacred designation.’[i] This means that while Prince ‘Ali Khan was not the Imam or the future Imam, as wali ‘ahd he held a unique position[ii] as the deputy of the Imam and possessed the rights to carry out secular and religious duties on the Imam’s behalf – something which he did on several occasions.
Since the age of eleven, too, Aly Khan has flown East to visit groups of the Ismailis in the place of his father. Wearing faultless tropical suitings and a black Astrakhan cap, Prince Aly would give readings from the Koran and accept tributes on behalf of his father ranging from anything between 10,000 and 30,000 a time. (Gordon Young, Golden Prince, p. 22)
During the Prince’s Syrian visit, an open Darbar took place where thousands of Arab Isma‘ilis, French Officers and the Governor of Syria gave a rising welcome to Prince ‘Ali Khan and four hundred Arab horsemen gave a salute. The above taliqah was read out during this Darbar and the Syrian murids prostrated themselves before the Prince and kissed his hands in devotion. Prince ‘Ali Khan possessed a unique and charismatic personality which always inspired and cultivated admiration from those who saw him. This was evident during his tour of the Isma‘ili localities where many members of the community instantly fell in love with his magnetic persona.
His was an astonishing feat of personality: ‘Aly’s appearance always sent the marriage rate soaring,’ wrote Leonard Slater. ‘Young men would speed their courting; young women would overcome their shyness.’ Sex appeal may have had something to do with it but much of Aly’s success was spontaneous popular reaction to a warm-hearted, handsome young man with a genuine affection for people. From Syria he went on to Bombay and Karachi where he visited jamatkhanas, led the prayers and performed religious ceremonies with a touch as sure as that of an experienced mukhi. The tour was a great success. (Willi Frischauer, The Aga Khans, p. 107)
During the course of his life, Prince ‘Ali Khan continued to perform important functions on behalf of the Imam, including a visit to India where the Prince was able to deal with issues caused by a dissident group known as the Khoja Reformers. In the 1950s, Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah suffered a stroke while touring India and Pakistan and Prince ‘Ali Khan as the Wali ‘Ahd assumed his role and carried out religious functions on his behalf. The reality of Prince ‘Ali Khans life is clearly quite different from the distorted and exaggerated stories reported in the Western newspapers. The Isma‘ili community understood and appreciated the Prince in an entirely different manner. For example, an Isma‘ili magazine praised Prince ‘Ali Khan in the following way on the occasion of his forty-third birthday:
Our beloved Prince ‘Aly Khan has completed forty-three years of age. We join Ismaili Jamats from all over the world in offering felicitations to His Serene Highness Prince Aly Khan on this happy occasion. His Serene Highness has inherited the qualities of his illustrious father, Mawlana Hazar Imam. The Jamats have been appreciative of the keen interest His Serene Highness takes in all the varied activities of the community in all parts of the world, and of his great contribution to their welfare. (The Ismaili, quoted in Gordon Young, Golden Prince, p. 148)
On July 11, 1957, at midday, Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah Aga Khan III passed away. His Last Will was read on the morning of July 12.
[i] See Paul E. Walker, Fatimid History and Ismaili Doctrine, 2008, p. 17.
[ii]The Isma’ilis of the Fatimid period also invoked blessings (salwaat) upon the wali ‘ahd. For example, the da’i al-Naysaburi invokes salwaat upon the wali ‘ahd at the beginning of his Ithbat al-Imamah, see Paul Walker, In Praise of al-Hakim, published in Fatimid History and Isma‘ili Doctrine, p. 379.
Imam Shah Karim al-Husayni: Imam of the Atomic Age
“…I am convinced that it is in the best interests of the Shi‘a Muslim Isma‘ilian Community that I should be succeeded by a young man who has been brought up and developed during recent years and in the midst of the new age and who brings a new outlook on life to his office as Imam. For these reasons, although he is not now one of my heirs, I appoint my grandson Karim, the son of my son Aly Salomone Khan to succeed to the title of Aga Khan and to be the Imam and Pir all my Shi’a Isma‘ilian followers…”
– Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah Aga Khan III
The Imam’s Last Will shocked the world when it announced that he had appointed his grandson Prince Karim to succeed him as the 49th Imam of the Shi‘a Isma‘ili Muslims. However, a closer look at this period reveals that this succession was consistent with Isma‘ili history and one observes many elements which resemble the successions of the Fatimid Imams as cited earlier in this article. When looking at the early life of Imam Shah Karim, one observes that he was being prepared to undertake the Imamate from a very young age:
From the moment Karim was born, it was taken for granted that he would one day become Imam, and, unlike Aly, he was educated for the job from the beginning. When he was only seven years old, living in Nairobi, he was dressed in a tiny uniform and taken to the jamat-khana to chant: “We are the direct descendant of the Prophet Muhammad, may peace of God be on him.” (Leonard Slater, Aly, Random House, New York, 1965, p. 269)
As a young boy, Imam Shah Karim soon developed a very unique and intimate relationship with his grandfather Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah. These occasions were most likely not in the public view – in which Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah refused to discuss his succession. But the more private moments were observed by the close family members including Imam Shah Karim’s mother, Princess Joan:
When the old Aga returned from Africa and was staying in Lausanne, the boys were taken to see him: ‘An extraordinary relationship developed between my father-in-law and my elder son,’ Princess Joan recalls, ‘K always talked to his grandfather as if they were contemporaries. There was a powerful bond between them.” It was probably due to his grandfather’s influence that Karim was mature beyond his age without forgoing the pleasures of a typical teenager’s life. (Willi Frischauer, The Aga Khans, p. 152)
The above account is reminiscent of the earlier mentioned anecdotes about the Isma‘ili Imams of the Fatimid period. It seems that when several generations of Imams were contemporary – such as in the case of Imams al-Mahdi, al-Qa’im, al-Mansur and al-Mu’izz – the grandfather and the grandson Imams shared a special relationship where former would prepare the latter for the formal role of Imamate:
From a young age, [Imam] al-Mu’izz li-Din Allah had a special status with his grandfather [Imam] al-Qa’im. He used to keep him in his company, be close to him and confide in him in preference to his father. Whenever he (al’-Qa’im) was alone, he (al-Mu’izz) was with him and whenever he was absent, he (al-Qa’im) would send for him. Similarly, Imam al-Mansur had the same status with his grandfather al-Mahdi, who was inseparable from him… One day al-Mu’izz mentioned a similar instance to his situation, saying that al-Mahdi bi’llah used to nurture him (al-Mansur) with wisdom and prepare him for the Imamate, just as al-Qa’im did so with him. (Idris Imad al-Din, Tarikh al-Khulafa al-Fatimiyyin bi’l-Maghrib, transl. Shainool Jiwa, Anthology of Isma‘ili Literature, pp. 60-62)
The situation at the time of Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah, Prince ‘Ali Khan and Imam Shah Karim resembles the above. Just as the Imam al-Mansur and Imam al-Mu’izz were initiated for the Imamate by their grandfathers, the Imam Shah Karim was initiated by his grandfather Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah. One observes here a remarkable sense of continuity from the Fatimid period in which Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah and Imam Shah Karim were keeping with the traditions and customs of their ancestors the Fatimid Imam-Caliphs. Accordingly, the historical reports mention how Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah would spend much time discussing the deeper meaning of the Isma‘ili faith with his grandson Imam Shah Karim.
The old Aga seemed to think highly of the boy. Whenever he was at Villa Barakat in Geneva he sent for Karim and talked to him at great length, subtly introducing him into the deeper meaning of the Ismaili faith and instilling him with the sense of mission which became apparent to all not many years later. Prince Karim himself remembers his grandfather asking questions about his religious instruction, testing his knowledge: ‘He could extract more from a human being in short conversation than anybody else in a lifetime,” he mused. (Willi Frischauer, The Aga Khans, p. 182-3)
In the early 1950s, Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah sent both Imam Shah Karim and his brother Prince Amyn to East Africa to counter a campaign of anti-Ismaili rhetoric aimed against the Isma‘ili Imam and his Wali ‘Ahd Prince ‘Ali Khan. During this visit, Imam Shah Karim addressed a large crowd – Isma‘ilis and others – and reminded them of all that his grandfather had done for them. Later, in 1955, Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah sent Imam Shah Karim to East Africa to introduce the new prayers, known as the Holy Du’a, to Isma‘ili communities. During these years, it is reportred that Imam Shah Karim spent much time with Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah and the latter’s secretaries to familiarize himself with the affairs of the Imamate:
Karim spent most of his time with grandfather or one of his secretaries, Mademoiselle Gaetane Beguel, research and acquainting himself with the Imam’s affairs, both personal and religious. (Willi Frischauer, The Aga Khans, p. 182-3)
Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah finalized his Last Will and Testament in May 1955. He passed away peacefully on July 11, 1957. The Imam’s Will was read out before members of his family, including Prince ‘Ali Khan and Imam Shah Karim, on the morning of July 12, 1957. The text of the Will announcing the Imam’s successor is as follows:
“And in these circumstances and in view of the fundamentally altered conditions in the world in very recent years due to the great changes which have taken place including the discoveries of atomic science I am convinced that it is in the best interest of the Shi‘a Moslem Ismailian Community that I should be succeeded by a young man who has been brought up and developed during recent years and in the midst of a new age and who brings a new outlook on life to his office as Imam. For these reasons and although he is not now one of my heirs, I APPOINT my grandson KARIM, the son of my son, ALY SALOMONE KHAN to succeed to the title of AGA KHAN and to be the Imam and Pir of all my Shia Ismailian followers.”
– Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah Aga Khan III, (Last Will, Willi Frischauer, The Aga Khans, p. 208)
As stated earlier, although Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah appointed his son Prince ‘Ali Khan as his Wali ‘Ahd, this was not a designation for the succession of the Imamate. Prince ‘Ali Khan did not inherit the institution of Imamate and was not an Imam, but still holds an exalted status as the son of an Imam and the father of an Imam.[i] Prince ‘Ali Khan was the first to give bay’ah (oath of allegiance) to his son, now known as Mawlana Shah Karim al-Husayni the 49th Imam. Shortly after, the new Imam was met by Isma‘ili leaders and representatives and it was reported that the first words he spoke to them were:
“According to the Will of my Beloved Grandfather, I am your Hazar Imam. I am your 49th Mawla Mushkil Kusha.”
– Imam Shah Karim al-Husayni Aga Khan IV,
(To Jamati Leaders, Geneva, July 12, 1957)
As the 49th hereditary Imam, Mawlana Shah Karim al-Husayni holds a special place within the lineage of Isma‘ili Imams. The 49th Imam is the seventh Imam of the seventh heptad or series of seven Imams. The occurrence of seven Imams in Isma‘ili thought has often been linked to the commencement of a new era and therefore, the appearance of forty-nine (seven x seven) Imams suggests the inauguration of a new epoch of major cycle in the history of the Imamate. Several Isma‘ili theosophers of the Fatimid period wrote that the appearance of forty-nine Imams after Prophet Muhammad would mark the commencement of the Seventh Major Cycle (symbolized by the Seventh Day of Creation) called the Cycle of Resurrection (dawr al-qiyamah) which brings great spiritual and material changes to both the World of Faith (‘alam al-din) and the material world (‘alam al-dunya).[iii] In this sense, Sayyedna Hamid al-Din Kirmani quoted the following verse of the Holy Qur’an:
“And We have bestowed upon thee the Seven Repeated and the Great Qur’an.”
– Holy Quran 15:87
The ‘Seven Repeated’ refer to the seven cycles of seven Imams who appear in the after the Prophet Muhammad. Kirmani wrote that the appearance of these forty-nine Imams would mark the commencement of the Cycle of Resurrection when the Ranks of Faith (hudud al-din) would be removed and the knowledge of the divine knowledge would become unmediated.[iv] These signs have now come to pass as the functions of the hudud al-din, especially the hujjahs and da‘is, were abolished during the Imamat of Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah Aga Khan III.[v] At the same time, the murids began to have more direct access to the Imam – something which was not the case in previous periods of history.
The Cycle of Resurrection is referred to in the Qur’anic verse of the Days of Creation as the period when God ascends the Throne.[vi] The Isma‘ili da‘is wrote that in the Cycle of Resurrection, justice and equity would be restored to the world and spiritual truths and knowledge would be available to humanity at large. The period of forty-ninth Imam is the beginning of the Cycle of Resurrection. The mentions of a ‘new age’ and ‘fundamentally altered conditions’ in the Last Will of Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah appear to speak to the present Cycle of Resurrection. In this regard, some contemporary Isma‘ili thinkers such as Allamah Nasir al-Din Hunzai have written the following about the status of the forty-ninth Imam:
Nur Mawlana Shah Karim al-Husayni Hadhir Imam: Nur means the intellectual, spiritual and moral light; Mawlana means our lord; Shah Karim al-Husayni means the generous king from the progeny of Husayn; Hadir Imam means the Imam whose recognition and obedience is incumbent upon the people of the time and without this the walayat of the previous Imams does not avail anything. This most noble and the greatest Imam who, in the holy chain of Imamat is the seventh seven, is the Imam of the atomic age. A great resurrection has taken place in the background of his Imamat, which the people of the world saw only in the world of particles. They did not see it in the external world.
(Allamah Nasir al-Din Hunzai, Du’a: Essence of Ibadat, p. 90)
[i]It is reported that before the final burial ceremony of Prince ‘Ali Khan in Salamiyya, Imam Shah Karim told Isma‘ili delegates: “Remember he was a son to an Imam and a father to an Imam.” The statements of the Prophet and the early Imams indicate that the lineage and forefathers of the Imams were spiritually pure and served as vessels for the Nur of Imamat. This concept is also supported in the Qur’anic verses (3:33-34) already cited in this article whereby God exalted the lineage from Adam to Imran (Abu Talib, father of Imam ‘Ali) above all creatures. In connection to this theme, Imam al-Mu’izz has stated: “We pass in the pure backbones and the sanctified and chaste wombs; whenever we are confined in a backbone and a womb, God shows us in power and knowledge…” (Makarem, The Doctrine of the Isma‘ilis, Beirut 1972, p. 32) and Imam Hasan ‘ala-dhikrihi al-salaam said: “The Imams, both outwardly and inwardly, both exoterically and esoterically, issue from the pure line and loins of the Imam, one after another.” (Nasir al-Din Tusi, Paradise of Submission, p. 125) All these principles must be applied in understanding the rank of Prince ‘Ali Khan. Prince ‘Ali Khan was both the son of a pure Imam and the father of a pure Imam and thus he must also have shared in this state of spiritual purity. Imam Hasan ‘ala-dhikrihi as-salaam also states that the Nur of Imamat exists even in the state of ‘intellectual sperm’, and in this sense Prince ‘Ali Khan would serve as the transition vessel by which the Light of Imamate was inherited by his son Imam Shah Karim from his father Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah. In summary, while Prince ‘Ali Khan was never the formal and functioning Imam, his spirituality and purity would be at the same level as the Imams since he is both the descendant of the past Imams and the progenitor of all the Imams to come. It is worth noting that during the time when Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah, Prince ‘Ali Khan and Prince Karim were contemporary, the Imam ordered the Isma‘ili community to hold a joint saligrah celebration commemorating the birth of all three persons on the date of June 13 – which was the birth date of Prince ‘Ali Khan.
[ii] See Shafique Virani, The Isma‘ilis in the Middle Ages, p. 85 for details regarding this succession. The author also points out that a grandson succession was repeated in recent times when Imam Shah Karim succeeded Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah.
[iii] Farhad Daftary, The Ismailis: Their History and Doctrines, p. 218 (Second Edition) where he refers to the prediction made by the Syrian da‘i Muhammad b. al-Suri and the Fatimid qadi al-Maliji.
[iv] Simonetta Calderini,‘Alam al-din in Isma’ilism: World of Obedience or World of Immobility, Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, Vol. 56, No. 3, pp. 467: “Kirmani firmly rejected Druze statements about the imminent advent of the Qa’im by reiterating that the Qiyama was not near, but was to take place in the distant future when the long cycle of 49 imams was concluded.”
[v] Rafiq Keshavjee, Mysticism and the Plurality of Meaning: The Case of the Ismailis of Rural Iran, IIS Occasional Papers, p. 6.
[vi] Qur’an 7:54 – “It is He who created the Heavens and the Earth in Six Days and then He ascended the Throne”. According to the ta’wil of this verse as related in numerous Isma‘ili texts, the world created in Six Days refers to the World of Faith (‘alam al-din); the Heavens stand for the shari‘ah or exoteric laws; the Earth stands for the tariqah or esoteric paths; the Six Days stand for the Six Cycles of the Six Natiqs – Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, Jesus and Muhammad with each Cycle lasting approximately a thousand years; the Seventh Day (Sabbath) or Throne stands for the Cycle of Hazrat Qa ‘im al-Qiyamah which is the Cycle of Resurrection. For details see Shafique Virani, The Days of Creation in the Thought of Nasir-i Khusraw, published under Academic Articles of the Institute of Ismaili Studies.
A Link in the Chain
“The Imam is a transitory being, who forms a link between the past and the future. For this reason, ensuring the continuity of the institution and its ability to fulfill its role is what my life is all about.”
– Imam Shah Karim al-Husayni Aga Khan IV,
(Paris Match Interview No. 2907, 3-9 February 2005)
The Isma‘ili Imamate, represented in every age by the Imam of the Time, is a trans-historical institution. To engage the Isma‘ili Imam is to engage with the history which he represents and, in a sense, connect to the ‘past’ that he embodies in the ‘present’. In this sense, one can experience the Imams of the past in the present Imam, but also experience the Isma‘ili communities of the past which were linked to these Imams:
In Ismailism, the fact that the Imam embodies a tradition extending considerably backwards in time creates the setting for just such an experience. By encapsulating the past within himself, the Imam serves as history incarnate, so to speak. In this sense, history is not only “learned”; it is also “experienced”, with a heightening of one’s intellectual and moral imagination.
– Aziz Esmail, (Why History, Institute of Isma‘ili Studies: Lifelong Learning Articles)
The figure of the Imam combines both transience and permanence. As a single part of a series of Imams, each Imam is a transitory being, serving as but a link in the chain. But the Imamate, the institution which each Imam bears and undertakes in his lifetime, is a permanent institution which has been present since humanity’s origins and which will continue to remain on earth until the Day of Judgment. Thus, the Imam is ‘a link in the chain’ – both historically and metaphysically. Historically, the Imam is the link in the chain of Imams and a bridge between the past and the future. Metaphysically, the Imam is a link in the great chain of being – guiding his murids from the limited realm of corporeality to the infinite realm of divinity – and serving as the mediator between the relative and the Absolute.
God is the Light of the heavens and the earth. The similitude of His light is as a niche wherein is a lamp. The lamp is in a glass. The glass is as it were a shining star. (This lamp is) kindled from a blessed tree, an olive neither of the East nor of the West, whose oil would almost glow forth (of itself) though no fire touched it. Light upon light. God guideth unto His light whom He will. And God speaketh to mankind in allegories, for God is Knower of all things.
– Holy Quran 24:35
The purpose of religion, in its essential sense, is ‘to bind’ the relative, the illusionary, and the transient to the Absolute, the Real, and the Permanent. In Shi‘a Islam, it is the Imam – the bearer of the Light – who combines both transience and permanence within himself and guides the seeker to transcend his transitory and impermanent material life and bring his soul into communion with the Light of the Absolute and Infinite Reality – of which the Universe around us is but one of the infinite manifestations.
In our interpretation of this famous Qur’anic ayat, known as the ayat al-nur (Verse of Light), the ‘niche’ symbolizes the Imam’s physical body and the ‘lamp’ with its ‘glass’ symbolizes his pure soul. The ‘blessed tree’ is Imam’s pure lineage which extends back through the previous Imams, the Prophet Muhammad, the Prophet Ibrahim and Adam himself; a lineage both physical and spiritual from which many great Prophets, saints and sages have come forth. The light inside the lamp which shines and illuminates the darkness like a ‘shining star’ is the Light of Imamate which is the source of the Imam’s virtues, knowledge and guidance. It is a universal spiritual Light, ‘neither of the East nor the West’, which shines upon the ‘heavens and the earth’ illuminating all the seekers of enlightenment. When the Imam departs this world and hands over the Imamate to the next Imam, one bearer of Light is succeeded by another bearer of Light; but their Light is one and the same and in reality there is no change, only ‘Light upon Light’.
“When you inherit an office, which is a life office, you are simply a link in the chain. And you therefore look at life somewhat differently than if you were, I suppose, a professional who moves around and is free to do what he wishes. Now some things are impossible to achieve. I well know that. And if that is the case, I simply have to try and move the issues forward as much as I can. The next Imam will then decide how he wishes to handle the issues. But, it is the continuum which is at the back of my mind. And that’s why perhaps my time dimension appears different than it might for other people.”
– Imam Shah Karim al-Husayni Aga Khan IV,
(Forbes Global, Cover Story, May 31, 1999)