Ya Ali Madad: The Rationale for Praying to God and Calling upon the Imams in Prayer

We are the Gates of God. We are the medium for His people. He who approaches Him through us is brought near Him. He who seeks our intercession is interceded for. He who seeks His favours through us is favoured by Him. He who turns away from us goes astray.

– Imam Ja‘far al-Sadiq

The purpose of this article is two-fold: first, to explain the metaphysics and philosophy of praying to God through supplication or petitionary prayer (du‘a’) and secondly, to explain the metaphysical and Qur’anic basis for seeking the help and blessings of the Imam of the Time and intercessors in general – the Prophets, the Shi‘i Imams, the Sufi saints (awliya’) etc.

Certain interpretations within the Muslim world that are both theologically shallow and metaphysically hollow seek to attack the theological ideas and devotional practices of Sunni and Shi‘i Muslims. In particular, the doctrines and practices that evoke the help (tawassul) and intercession (shafa‘a) of the Prophet Muhammad, the Shi‘i Imams, and Sufi saints (awliya’) are condemned as idolatry in the name of some abstract monotheism in which a believer should only invoke the help of a personalistic yet transcendent God. However, a metaphysical and theological analysis of the concept of God and the Qur’anic concept of prayer yields a conclusion that confirms the legitimacy and purpose of seeking the assistance of the Prophets and Imams in prayer.

The article draws heavily upon the Qur’an, the Isma‘ili Imams, and the great thinkers from the Islamic intellectual and mystical traditions including the Isma‘ili da‘is, Ibn Sina, al-Ghazali, Ibn ‘Arabi, Nasir al-Din al-Tusi as well as major Christian thinkers like St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas. Thus, the content of this article is relevant for Muslims and Christians alike, particular those who follow esoteric traditions such as Ismaili Tariqah, Twelver ‘irfan, Sufi Tariqahs, and Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christianity.

Summary of Article and Key Sections:

We recommend reading the entire article in order, but readers can click on a section to start reading there.

Summary:

A. Most people in modern times imagine God to be a sort of disembodied mind or personal consciousness that exists in time: they assume God hears the prayers and requests of human beings in real time, and then selectively responds to these requests by intervening in the world to fulfill people’s wishes and requests.

B. But in the metaphysics of classical theism common to Islam, Christianity, Judaism, and Hinduism, God is eternal and therefore beyond all time and change. God is continuously creating and sustaining the Cosmos and His mercy and blessings constantly emanate upon all created beings.

C. Created beings, however, possess varying levels of receptivity with respect to God’s blessings. This includes human beings whose souls are at different levels of preparedness in their ability to receive the continuously flowing favours and blessings of God.

D. Accordingly, prayer does not affect or change God and His continual act of blessings. But rather, the act of prayer brings human beings into the remembrance of God and thereby affects the soul of the one who prays – making the human being more receptive to what God always gives unceasingly.

E. In Islam, the Prophet Muhammad is at the highest level of spiritual purity and receptivity to God and the Qur’an (4:64, 9:103) indicates that the prayers and blessings of the Prophet Muhammad for the believers’ forgiveness and purification bring about the fulfillment of their prayers and bestow inner peace to their souls. Since God transcends all change, the prayers and blessing of the Prophet have real effects upon the souls of the believers – allowing them to be more receptive to God’s blessings and favours.

F. Similarly, the prayers and blessings of the Shi‘i Imams who are the spiritual inheritors of the Prophet Muhammad also help bring out the fulfillment of the believers` wishes and prayers. The Imam of the Time is the means of access (wasilah) by which the believers seek and access the blessings and mercy of God.

G. While praying to God alone may bring about some gradual change in the soul of the believer, it is more beneficial for the believer to also seek the help and blessings of the Prophets and Imams and the Imam of the Time, since their blessings affect the soul of the believer more intensely than his prayers alone and help bring the fulfillment of his wishes and needs.

Links to Sections and Arguments:

Section 1: God’s Ceaseless Blessings – The Metaphysics of Divine Action

A. God is eternal – beyond space, time, and change.

B. God’s creative act is eternal and continuous.

C. God’s act of bestowing blessings, compassion, and favours is eternal and unceasing.

D. Created beings each have a different level of capacity and receptivity with respect to how they receive God’s ever-flowing blessings.

Section 2: The Purpose of Prayer and Supplication to God

A. The human act of prayer cannot and does not change God or His act of blessing which is eternal and unchanging.

B. The essence of all human prayer is to remember God and to exist in harmony with God

C. Prayer changes and affects the one who prays by increasing one’s capacity and preparedness to receive the blessings that God already bestows upon all created beings

Section 3: The Purpose of Seeking the Help and Blessings of the Prophet Muhammad and the Shi‘i Imams in Prayer.

A. Communication through an intermediary (wasilah) is a Divine Custom (sunnat Allah) according to the Holy Qur’an.

B. The Prophet Muhammad is the recipient and the vehicle of God’s blessings, mercy and grace to His creatures.

C. The prayers and blessings of the Prophet Muhammad cause the believers to receive and experience God’s mercy and forgiveness, thereby bringing about the fulfillment of their prayers.

D. The blessings and prayers of the Shi‘i Imams and the Imam of the Time help the believers find the fulfillment of their prayers.

E. To reject the help and intercession of the Prophets and Imams on the grounds of an “individual and unmediated relationship with God” amounts to spiritual idolatry (shirk).

Conclusion: Seeking help and blessings from the Prophet Muhammad, the Imams, and the Imam of the Time – Mawlana Shah Karim al-Husayni – is the foremost expression of the tawhid (transcendent and immanent unity) of God.

Section 1: God’s Ceaseless Blessings – The Metaphysics and Theology of Divine Action

Classical_Theism

Any explanation of of prayer must be anchored in correct metaphysics and theology. Most people in modern times imagine God to be a sort of disembodied mind or personal consciousness that exists in time: they assume God hears the prayers and requests of human beings in real time, and then selectively responds to these requests by intervening in the world to fulfill people’s wishes and requests. This idea of God, common to creationists and “theistic personalists”, suffers from serious flaws because it assumes that God is a subject of consciousness – akin to human consciousness – who hears prayers and then reacts to them in real time through divine interventions. Such a view implies that God undergoes real change and this, as it will be seen, compromises the concept of God.

According to classical theism – the shared theological framework common to Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, and Neoplatonism – God is Absolute and Unconditioned Reality. This means that God is uncaused and self-sufficient in existence; He does not depend on any other reality to exist. Everything other than God is a conditioned reality – which means that its existence depends upon other realities at any given moment. If this theology seems implausible or unproven, then read our earlier article on the Logical Argument for the Existence of God before proceeding further.

A. God is eternal, transcending all space and time, and therefore changeless.

The principle of divine simplicity, moreover, carries with it certain inevitable metaphysical implications. One is that God is eternal, not in the sense of possessing limitless duration but in the sense of transcending time altogether.

– David Bentley Hart

His being the First means there was no ‘first’ before Him and no beginning preceded Him at all. His being the Last means his being without an end, as end can be conceived only as an attribute of what is created. But He is Eternal — the First and the Last. He has always been and He will always be, having neither any beginning nor any end. Occurrence does not apply to Him. Nor does He change from one state to another. He is the creator of every thing

– Imam Ja‘far al-Sadiq,
(Al-Kulayni, Usul al-Kafi, Kitab al-Tawhid, Hadith No. 314, tr. Sayyid Muhammad Hasan Rizvi)

As Unconditioned Reality, God is absolutely simple and without parts of any kind. If God contained parts – physical parts (atoms, particles, energy), intellectual parts (ideas, definitions, attributes, substance, accident), or ontological parts (essence, existence) – His existence would be dependent upon those parts and He would be a conditioned reality, i.e. a created being. The so-called Names and Attributes of God are not parts of God. They are used for God only analogically and not literally; to say God is merciful, living and powerful simply means that God is the source and ground of all mercy, life and power.

Since God is absolutely simple, it follows that He is wholly beyond time and therefore God is eternal. Eternal here does not mean enduring or everlasting; eternal means entirely beyond time and change of any kind. If God did change or evolve with time – it would mean that He moves toward a potential state that He has not yet attained. This implies that God’s essence includes both an actual state (the present) and a potential future state. But if this were true, it would mean that God’s Essence is composed of multiple actualities and potentialities – He would be made of parts and any being made of parts is a conditioned reality. Similarly, if God experienced real change, then one part or aspect of His Essence would remain changeless while another part or aspect would have to be different (due to the occurrence of such a change). This likewise entails that God is a composite and conditioned reality – and this is impossible since God is Unconditioned Reality.

God cannot change over time, moreover, as He would then be dependent upon the relation between some unrealized potentiality within Himself and some fuller actuality somehow “beyond” Himself into which He may yet evolve; again, He would then be a conditional being. He also must possess no limitations of any kind, intrinsic or extrinsic, that would exclude anything real from Him… The principle of divine simplicity, moreover, carries with it certain inevitable metaphysical implications. One is that God is eternal, not in the sense of possessing limitless duration but in the sense of transcending time altogether. Time is the measure of finitude, of change, of the passage from potentiality to actuality. God, however, being infinite actual being, is necessarily what Sikhism calls the Akhal Purukh, the One beyond time, comprehending all times within His eternal “now”; all things are present to Him eternally in a simple act of perfect and immediate knowledge.

David Bentley Hart,
(The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss, 134)

B. God’s creative act is eternal and continuous

The creation according to Islam is not a unique act in a given time but a perpetual and constant event; and God supports and sustains all existence at every moment by His will and His thought.

– Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah Aga Khan III

The creative act of God is not like a human act of designing, constructing or making something. The word “creation” in classical theology means that God – Unconditioned Realities – bestows being (wujud) upon all conditioned realities. In other words, something being “created” means that it depends upon God for its existence at any given moment. Since God is eternal and beyond change, it necessarily follows that God’s creative act is also eternal and not in time – otherwise this would entail a real change in God; furthermore, from God there only proceeds a single act. If multiple acts proceed from God, this would entail multiple modalities or aspects in God’s Essence – rendering Him composite and conditioned. But since God is absolutely simple, His act of bestowing being – which we call “creation” – is single and eternal. The Qur’an refers to God’s creative act as the Command (amr) of God and says “Our Command is but one, like the twinkling of an eye” (Holy Qur’an 54:50). In his explanation of the meaning of creation, Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah Aga Khan III, the forty-eight Imam of the Shi‘i Isma‘ili Muslims writes:

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

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

In the same vein, the Orthodox Christian theologian David Bentley Hart explains that God’s creative act is an eternal act and not a temporal act akin to human deliberation:

If God is the infinite and unconditioned source of all things, then His creative intention— whether He creates only one world, or many, or infinitely many — can be understood as an eternal Act that involves no temporal change within Him. His freedom, moreover, can be understood as consisting not in some temporal act of decision that overcomes some prior state of indecision, but in the infinite liberty with which He manifests Himself in the creation He wills from everlasting.

David Bentley Hart,
(The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss, 138-39)

C. God’s single act eternally bestows His blessings, loving compassion, grace and favours upon all created beings without cessation or interruption

sun-reflecting-into-the-ocean-1628-1366x768

Verily, there is nothing except Him Who is the Lord of the universe but is subject to annihilation, alteration, change, decay, transition from one colour to another, or from one shape to another, or from one quality to another, or from more to less, or from less to more. He alone is eternally in one state and He is the first, before every thing and the last, ever and evermore. His attributes and His names do not undergo any change as they do in the case of others. Take the example of a man who is at one time dust, at other time flesh and blood, and at another time decayed bones and finally dust. Another example is a date which is at a time raw, at other times ripe, mature, and then dry. With every change, the names and attributes also go on changing. Not so, rather just the contrary, is the case of God, to Whom belongs Majesty and Might.

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

Imam Hasan has explained the Islamic doctrine of God and the Universe by analogy with the Sun and its reflection in the pool of a fountain

– Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah Aga Khan III

Of the favours of thy Lord We bestow freely on all – these as well as those: The bounties of your Lord are not withheld.

– Holy Qur’an 17:20

As stated above, from God there proceeds only a single act of being. If multiple acts proceed from God, this would entail multiple modalities or aspects in God’s Essence – rendering Him composite and conditioned. But since God is absolutely simple, His Act is single and eternal. This act is manifested by different qualities and attributes depending on what aspect of created being one takes into consideration. When one considers the finite existence of created beings, God’s act is described as creation. When one considers the certain features in the Cosmos like life, power, or knowledge, God’s act is described accordingly. Yet, it is one act with multiple facets:

His Exalted Command, which is the cause of all creation and existence, is one absolute grace (fayḍ-i muṭlaq) that shines equally upon the 18,000 words with no special illumination or favour on one rather than another being – every creature will speak about Him, the Exalted, according to the existential rank that it has received from His exalted Command, and in proportion to the existential traces of Him which he witnesses in his own essence.

Nasir al-Din al-Tusi,
(The Paradise of Submission, tr. S.J. Badakhchani, 28)

Through His single and eternal act, God eternally bestows and pours out His loving compassion (rahmah), power (qudrah), life (hayah), knowledge (‘ilm), favour (ni‘mah),grace (fadl), forgiveness (maghirah), inspiration (ta’yid), and illumination (nur), etc. upon all created things. This is confirmed by numerous Qur’anic verses as follows:

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

Do ye not see that God has subjected to you all things in the heavens and on earth, and has made His favours flow to you in exceeding measure, seen and unseen?
– Holy Quran 31:20

And He giveth you of all that ye ask for. But if ye count the favours (ni‘mat) of God, never will ye be able to number them. Verily, man is given up to injustice and ingratitude.
– Holy Qur’an 14:34

That which God opens unto mankind of mercy (rahmah) none can withhold it; and that which He withholds none can release thereafter. He is the Mighty, the Wise.
– Holy Qur’an 35:2

My Mercy (rahmah) encompasses all things.
– Holy Qur’an 7:156

It is He Who sends blessings (yusalli) upon you, as do His angels, that He may bring you out from the depths of Darkness into Light: and He is Merciful (rahimun) to the believers.
– Holy Qur’an 33:43

The most mentioned formula in the Qur’an is the basmalah: Bismi’llahir-Rahmanir-Rahim (By means of the Name of God, the Infinitely Compassionate, the Most Merciful). The divine name al-Rahman refers to loving compassion which is unrestricted and unlimited in its scope and presence. Reza Shah-Kazemi explains the metaphysical implications of the name al-Rahman as follows:

Ultimately nothing can escape or be separated from God’s all embracing Rahmah, which is the divine matrix containing the cosmos. The word ‘matrix’ should be taken quite literally, in relation to its root: ‘mother’. The word for womb, rahim, derives from the same root as Rahmah. The entire cosmos is not just brought into being by Rahmah, it is perpetually encompassed by Rahmah which nourishes it at every instant, as the mother’s womb nourishes and encompasses the embryo growing within it… God’s Rahmah is not just mercy; rather it is the infinite love and overflowing beatitude of Ultimate Reality, one of whose manifestations is mercy.

Reza Shah Kazemi,
(Common Ground between Islam and Buddhism, 105)

Ibn Sina (Avicenna), one of the greatest Islamic philosophers in history who hailed from a Shi‘i Isma‘ili family and incorporates some Isma‘ili views into his thought, also maintains that God never withholds His blessings and gracious emanations from His creatures; it betray the very nature of God to be “miserly” – as Jonathan Dube explains:

Ibn Sīnā recurrently asserts in his works that God generously bestows His blessings on all His creatures and never withholds the effusion of what is suitable for them, hence that there is no miserliness (bukhl) in Him as regards the emanation of existence and perfection on all that necessarily exists by His will. Accordingly, Ibn Sīnā often refers to God’s generosity in the negative, stating that God is not miserly and does not withhold blessings from His creatures. This is not to say that for him God is compelled to emanate what He necessitates – that He cannot not be generous – since, as we have seen, in Ibn Sīnā’s analysis all that God existentiates through Himself is necessary, though not in itself, but by His will. Rather, Ibn Sīnā is signifying that to receive its proper existence and perfections a creature needs only to achieve the proper disposition to receive the divine effusion which is already granted, and thus realize its essential nature by means of its reception, as much as possible.

Jonathan S. Dube,
(Pure Generosity, Divine Providence, and the Perfection of the Soul in the Philosophy of Ibn Sina [Avicenna], Master’s Thesis, McGill University, 2014, 46)

Thus, God does not “cherry pick” and send a greater amount of compassion, blessings and favors to specific created beings and withhold His blessings from others. The light of God’s Command shines upon all created beings equally. Thus, whatever the purpose of prayer and supplication may be, it is not to cause God to send more favours upon a particular creature. In this respect, the relationship between God and the Cosmos can be likened to that of the Sun and its radiation upon a pool of water. The Sun radiates and emanates light without any restriction or special preference. The pool of water – and each water droplet in that pool – receives and reflects the light of the Sun according to its own capacity.

Imam Hasan has explained the Islamic doctrine of God and the Universe by analogy with the Sun and its reflection in the pool of a fountain; there is certainly a reflection or image of the Sun, but with what poverty and with what little reality; how small and pale is the likeness between this impalpable image and the immense, blazing, white-hot glory of the celestial sphere itself. Allah is the Sun; and the Universe, as we know it in all its magnitude, and time, with its power, are nothing more than the reflection of the Absolute in the mirror of the fountain.

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

D. Created beings possess different levels of preparedness, receptivity, and capacities in their ability to receive the blessings and favours that God continually bestows upon them.

God is saying that He gives constantly, while the loci receive in the measure of the realities of their preparedness… Once you understand this, you will know the gift of God is not withheld. But you want Him to give you something that your preparedness cannot receive.

– Ibn al-‘Arabi

Although God’s Command continually showers His blessings and favours upon all of creation, it is nevertheless true that created beings are not equal in terms of knowledge, power, merit, excellence, and the nobility of their essences. Every created being has a different level of receptivity and preparedness toward what is given to it from God’s creative, sustaining and providential act.

Each created being is a combination of certain essential properties and accidental attributes. This combination of properties and attributes define the “level of preparedness” or receptive capacity of each created being towards God’s blessings. Thus, inanimate objects have certain levels of receptivity, i.e. particles, atoms, molecules, minerals, etc. Plants possess another level of receptivity, as do animals. Human beings (the rational animal) are the species at the highest level of receptivity among living things in the physical world. And even among various living things, different plants, animals, and humans possess various levels of receptivity among themselves. Thus, every created being is a particular locus of manifestation (mazhar) of God’s creative power, light and blessings. This is why the Qur’an refers to all natural things as Signs of God.

With respect to humanity, the human souls are at different levels of receptivity and preparedness in terms of receiving and reflecting the light of God. Nasir al-Din al-Tusi compares human souls to various kinds of stones: some are like gems while others are like opaque stones.

Human souls are therefore varied and differ with respect to their receptivity to the resplendent lights of the Divine Command, 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.

Sayyidna Nasir al-Din al-Tusi,
(The Paradise of Submission, tr. S.J. Badakhchani, 109)

This is why the Qur’an declares unequivocally that God does not withhold His favours from anyone while also saying that human beings are in a hierarchy of ranks (darajat) in terms of receiving God’s favours and grace:

To each [category] We extend – to these and to those – from the gift of your Lord. And never has the gift of your Lord been restricted. Look how We have favoured some of them over others. But the Hereafter is greater in degrees and greater in distinction.
– Holy Qur’an 17:21

God will exalt those who believe among you, and those who have knowledge, to high ranks.
– Holy Qur’an 58:111

We raise in degrees whom We will, but over every possessor of knowledge is one [more] knowing.
– Holy Qur’an 12:76

Their Messengers said to them: “True, we are human like yourselves, but God doth grant His grace to such of his servants as He pleases.”
– Holy Quran 14:11

All who obey God and the Messenger are in the company of those on whom is the Grace of God,- of the Prophets, the Sincere, the Witnesses, and the Righteous: Ah! what a beautiful companionship!
– Holy Quran 4:69

This disparity and diversity within the Cosmos is most obvious even in our personal life experience. People live their lives with vastly different circumstances and experiences. It is easy to think that such and such person is “more blessed” than another. But this is not because God sends more to that person; it is because each human being is at a different level of receptivity and preparedness with respect to what God is giving us. The ones who are “favoured” by God are those whose souls have a greater level of preparedness for God’s blessings and favours. Yet many people believe that God is being miserly toward them when they experience undue hardships and difficulties. Thus Ibn Arabi explains the meaning of the Qur’anic verse “the gift of your Lord is not withheld”:

God is saying that He gives constantly, while the loci receive in the measure of the realities of their preparedness. In the same way we say the Sun spreads its rays over the existent things. It is not miserly toward anything. The loci receive the light in the measure of their preparedness… Once you understand this, you will know the gift of God is not withheld. But you want Him to give you something that your preparedness cannot receive. Then you attribute the withholding to Him in that which you seek from Him, and you do not turn your attention toward the preparedness. It is possible that a person has the preparedness to ask, but he does not have the preparedness to receive what he asks for – if it were given to him in place of being withheld.

Ibn al-‘Arabi,
(The Sufi Path of Knowledge, tr. William C. Chittick, 91-92)

In summary, God never withholds blessings or favors from any created being. When a created being is in a deficient state, this is due to its lack of receptivity. In the human context, while all human beings are born into the physical world at different levels of spirituality and perfection, God never ceases bestowing His blessings upon human souls. Those who feel that they are lacking in Divine favors or experiencing God’s wrath only do so because there are spiritual obstacles in their human soul that prevent it from receiving what God is already and continually giving to all creatures. Thus the Qur’an states that all evil is due to one’s own soul and that certain human beings have “locks” on their hearts such that they cannot receive Divine blessings and guidance.

Whatever good comes to you is from God and whatever evil comes to you is from your own soul.
– Holy Qur’an 4:79

Similarly, Ibn Sina explains that the “wrath” of God – in terms of God withholding blessings from a particular creature – does not really exist. When creatures alienate themselves from God’s blessings due to their own actions which create obstructions to the flow of Divine blessings upon their souls – they will naturally experience less of God’s favours. This is not because God stops giving but because the creatures are unable to receive.

In Ibn Sīnā’s worldview, ‘wrath’ – or the withholding of blessings – cannot therefore be attributed to God, but only consists in the condition of alienation from the supernal realm; in other words, in the disruption of a creature’s junction with the higher causes of its existence and perfections. Accordingly, he explains in his commentary on the Theologia that “the ‘wrath of God’ is the condition of being alienated (bu‘d) from the junction with the supernal realm, wherein lie supreme felicity (al-ghibṭat al-‘ulyā) and sheer radiance (al-bahjat al-awfā)” {ll. 15-6} (p. 43). For Ibn Sīnā, God is therefore vastly generous, and never ceases bestowing abundant blessings on His creatures.

Jonathan S. Dube,
(Pure Generosity, Divine Providence, and the Perfection of the Soul in the Philosophy of Ibn Sina [Avicenna], Master’s Thesis, McGill University, 2014, 46)

Having laid out the metaphysical and theological background of God and His relations to created beings, we now turn to the purpose and meaning of prayer.

Section 2: Becoming Receptive to God’s Blessings – The Metaphysics of Prayer

A. Human prayers do not affect or change God because He is eternally answering all prayers.

Whoever thought God shifts from one state to another has actually ascribed to God the attributes of His creatures. Nothing can provoke God, the Sublime, to bring any change in God.

– Imam Muhammad al-Baqir,
(Al-Kulayni, Usul al-Kafi, Kitab al-Tawhid, Hadith No. 302, tr. Sayyid Muhammad Hasan Rizvi)

From the above metaphysical and theological analysis, the natural question that emerges is this: what could be the purpose of prayer if God’s act of bestowing blessings and mercy is eternal and unchanging? It is quite true that prayer does not and cannot change God. Being eternal, God is not affected by anything and does not change. However, the act of prayer – whether it be formal prayer (salat) or petitionary prayer (du‘a’) in which the worshipper makes specific requests and supplications to God – does make a real difference. While prayer cannot change God, prayer can and does cause change within created beings and may, at the very least, affect the spiritual receptivity of the one who prays. This does not mean that God does not answer prayers; but rather, God is always and already answering all prayers by bestowing His blessings at all times. However, human beings need to take the appropriate steps to be aware of His blessings. Abu Hamid al-Ghazali writes on the meaning of the Divine Name Al-Mujib (Answerer of Prayers):

Al-Mujib – the Answerer of prayers – is the one who responds to the requests of those who ask by assisting them, to the call of those who call upon Him by answering them, and responds to the plight of the poor with all they need. In fact, He blesses before the request and grants favours before the entreaty. But that belongs to God alone – great and exalted, for He knows the needs of the needy before they [even] ask; indeed He already knew them in eternity, so He arranged the sources sufficient to their needs by creating food and nourishment, and by facilitating both the causes and the means of fulfilling all these needs.

Abu Hamid al-Ghazali,
(Al-Ghazali on the The Ninety-Nine Beautiful Names, tr. David B. Burrell, 115)

B. The essence of human prayer is to remember God and thereby exist in harmony with Him.

How we stand this instant and every instant toward Him matters to us more than anything else in the Universe. This is the fundamental question: Are you in harmony with God? If you are – you are happy.

– Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah Aga Khan III

The various prophets, revelations and religious traditions have not prescribed prayer for human beings because God desires being praised by His creatures; nor does prayer amount to some arbitrary activity that Prophets and Imams instituted as means of control. All religious rituals and particularly prayer have been enjoined to bring human existence into harmony with God wherein lies human happiness and felicity. The Qur’an states that the ultimate purpose and essence of formal prayer is the remembrance (dhikr) of God.

Then worship Me and establish the prayer (al-salata) for the sake of My Remembrance (li-dhikree).
– Holy Quran 20:14

The remembrance of God (dhikr Allah) here does not refer to the practice of chanting or invoking God’s Names, but to a spiritual state of the human soul being conscious of God. In this respect, the state of remembering God is “greater” (akbar) than formal prayer:

Indeed, prayer (al-salat) prohibits immorality and wrongdoing, and the remembrance of God (dhikr Allah) is greater (akbar).
– Holy Quran 29:45

This is not to say that formal prayer (salat) has no value; on the contrary, the formal prayer serves as a stepping stone and guarantee that a person will enter into the remembrance of God at regular intervals. However, the purpose of such formal prayer is to facilitate one’s remembrance of God at all times. For this reason, Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah Aga Khan III has written:

There is value in formal observances. I think it is well that a man should make a habit of formal prayer night and morning, for protection and in thanks. But, I place emphasis on the continual direct relation between God and man.

Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah Aga Khan III,
(“Is Religion Something Special”, http://www.nanowisdoms.org/nwblog/10121/)

The remembrance of God – whether accomplished through formal prayer (salat), petitionary prayer (du‘a’) or any other means – has a real and positive effect upon the human soul. This is why the Qur’an states that human souls (hearts) find “tranquil rest” (iṭma’anna) only in the remembrance of God.

Who have believed and whose hearts have rest in the remembrance of God. Verily in the remembrance of God do hearts find rest!
– Holy Quran 13:28

In 89:27, the Qur’an refers to the great souls that enter Paradise as the “satisfied soul at bliss” (nafs al-mutma’inah); that is to say, the blissful souls of Paradise have found this contentment through their remembrance of God. On this point, Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah Aga Khan III explains that the human being’s relationship to God – He who sustains one’s existence at every moment – is the most important thing in life. True happiness – what the Qur’an calls “blissful and restful contentment” (iṭma’anna) – is achieved only when a person is “in harmony with God”:

A man must be at one with God. This may sound old-fashioned to some people. A few may think that they do not believe in God, and some others that it matters little to the individual in his daily life how he stand with regard to Him. Ruling out the atheist, with whom a believer can no more argue than he can discuss color with a blind man, it is surely strange that a believer in an omnipotent and ever-present Deity should fail to realise that how we stand this instant and every instant toward Him matters to us more than anything else in the Universe. This is the fundamental question: Are you in harmony with God? If you are – you are happy.

Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah Aga Khan III,
(“My Personal Life”, Aga Khan III: Selected Speeches and Writings, ed. K.K. Aziz, 866)

C. Prayer changes and affects the one who prays, by increasing one’s capacity and preparedness to receive the blessings that God already bestows upon all created beings.

During the days of your life, fragrant breezes of mercy waft on you from your Lord. Behold! Be receptive to them.
– Prophet Muhammad

As far as the Sacred Essence of God, the Exalted, is concerned, there is no change in it. It is not the case that sometimes He becomes angry and sometimes He has mercy. This change according to the states of the people, takes place in those rays of the light of God which continue to fall on the heart and mind of every human being.
– Allamah Nasir al-Din Nasir al-Hunzai

From the metaphysical perspective, since God’s blessings, mercy, and favours continuously flow and shine upon all created beings, the real effect of prayer is removing the obstacles and obstructions that prevent the human soul from receiving God’s blessings. Thus, achieving “harmony” with God is what allows the human being to receive more of His blessings. Imam ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib tells us that the remembrance of God is what polishes human hearts (souls), allowing them to hear and see after having been deaf and blind to the light of God’s blessings.

Truly, God has made the Remembrance [of God] (al-dhikr) a polish (jila’) for the hearts, by which they hear after being deaf, and see after being blind and yield after being resistant.

Imam ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib,
(Reza Shah-Kazemi, Justice and Remembrance, 142)

The word for polish, jila’, comes from the verb jala, meaning “to bring to light”. This relates to the famous ayat al-nur in the Qur’an which speaks about the Light of God being manifest in the heavens and the earths. Returning to our metaphysics stated earlier, if the relations between God and the Cosmos are likened to the Light shining upon mirrors, then the act of remembering God (dhikr Allah) serves to “polish” the mirrors in which the Light of God is being reflected. In the human context, this means the act of prayer, whose essence is remembrance of God, serves to polish the human soul and remove the obstacles that obstruct it from receiving and reflecting the light of God. Thus, Ibn Sina (Avicenna) explains the meaning of the prayer which states “I seek refuge in God” (audhu bi’llahi) and similar prayers where the human being “turns toward” his Lord:

The term ‘I seek refuge’ and [its linguistic equivalents] (isti‘ādha, ‘awdh, ‘iyādh) are expressions of turning to another for help. Thus, the command simply to turn to another for help indicates that the nonexistence of the occurrence of perfections is not due to the One from whom beneficial things emanate, but is rather due to [something in] the receiver. And this verifies the established teaching that no perfections […] are withheld (mabkhūl) by the First Principle, but […] that the realization of everything depends on one’s preparation to receive them. This is the meaning indicated by the Prophet’s saying (upon whom be peace): “During the days of your life, fragrant breezes (nafaḥāt) of mercy waft on you from your Lord. Behold! Be receptive to them (alā! fata‘arraḍū lahā).” It is therefore evident that the diffusion of blessings (nafaḥāt al-alṭāf) is ceaseless, while interruptions occur only in the preparation [of the receiver].

Ibn Sina (Avicenna)
(tr. Jonathan Dube, Pure Generosity, Divine Providence, and the Perfection of the Soul in the Philosophy of Ibn Sina [Avicenna], Master’s Thesis, McGill University, 2014, 46)

The purpose of prayer – seeking God’s help, petition, personal supplication, etc – is to instill humility and greater awareness upon the person making the prayer. Prayer as in the remembrance of God allows the person to become more receptive to the flow of God’s mercy and blessing that is already and ever occurring. While prayer cannot change or alter God, prayer changes and alters the one who prays – preparing his soul to receive Divine help that is already being sent to him. The only reason why people do not seem to experience God’s favours at every moment is because there are barriers blocking them from receiving them – barriers in the form of vices like pride, ignorance, bad intentions, and the like. If these barriers were removed, then one would always be experiencing God’s mercy, help, favours, and blessings. The goal of prayer is to rehabilitate the person who prays, by untying the spiritual and psychic knots that block the reception of Divine grace from a person’s soul. This is what the Qur’an alludes to when it says:

When (idha) My servants ask you concerning Me, then (fa-innee) surely I am near. I respond to the call of the supplicant when he calls on Me. So let them respond to Me and let them trust in Me, in order that they may be guided rightly.
– Holy Qur’an 2:186

This verse does not say that God hears a person’s prayer and then undergoes change in order to answer them. But rather, the believer is able to perceive God’s response when he asks the Prophet Muhammad about God. This is why this Qur’anic verse contains an if-then (idha – fa) clause. If God’s servants ask the Prophet Muhammad concerning Him, then God is near and responds when the servant calls upon Him. The believer, in to perceive that God is already answering his supplication, must first “respond” to God and have faith in Him in order to be rightly guided. In other words, God is always answering the prayers of His servants but they must be receptive to God in order to perceive and experience the Divine response. The contemporary Isma‘ili philosopher Allamah Nasir al-Din Hunzai offers the following practical advice with respect to prayer:

In order to attain good success and guidance of the heart from God (11:88, 64:11), you should pray not only after every namaz (daily prescribed prayer), but also all the time. During the prayer, extreme humility and expression of indigence is necessary, so that no trace of ill will may remain in the heart and then recourse may be taken to the Divine court. You can also pray in your own tongue, so that the heart may melt due to the painful supplication according to your state and may God, the Benevolent, have mercy upon you due to this condition. However, this point should be remembered that as far as the Sacred Essence of God, the Exalted, is concerned, there is no change in it. It is not the case that sometimes He becomes angry and sometimes He has mercy. This change according to the states of the people, takes place in those rays of the light of God which continue to fall on the heart and mind of every human being. Thus during prayer, if you have serious giryah-u zari or your heart becomes softer and softer, then you should be sure that God, the Exalted, casts the glance of mercy upon you.

Allamah Nasir al-Din Nasir al-Hunzai,
(Book of Healing, Institute for Spiritual Wisdom, 128)

The spiritual luminaries and saints of Christian tradition take the exact same position toward the purpose of prayer as the Islamic philosophers, the Isma‘ilis and the Sufis. Several statements from St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Anthony are as follows:

In so far as prayer affects anything at all, it affects ourselves, not God. We do not pray to sway God. We pray in order to change and to dispose ourselves so as to receive properly what God has willed to give us.
– Ceslaus Veleck

God does not need to have our will made known to Him – He cannot but know it – but He wishes our desire to be exercised in prayer that we may be able to receive what He is preparing to give us.
– St. Augustine of Hippo

We must pray, not in order to inform God of our needs and desires, but in order to remind ourselves that in these matters we need divine assistance.
– St. Thomas Aquinas

Prayer is not offered to God in order to change His mind, but in order to excite confidence in us. Such confidence is fostered principally by considering God’s charity toward us whereby He wills our good.
– St. Thomas Aquinas

We do not pray in order to change, by petitionary prayer, the decree of Divine Providence, rather we pray in order to acquire by petitionary prayer what God has determined would be obtained by our prayers.
– St. Thomas Aquinas

(Terrance L. Tiessen, Providence and Prayer: How Does God Work in the World?, 195-198)

God is good, dispassionate, and immutable. Now someone who thinks it reasonable and true to affirm that God does not change, may well ask how, in that case, it is possible to speak of God as rejoicing over those who are good and showing mercy to those who honour Him, and as turning away from the wicked and being angry with sinners. To this it must be answered that God neither rejoices nor grows angry, for to rejoice and to be offended are passions; nor is He won over by the gifts of those who honour Him, for that would mean He is swayed by pleasure. It is not right that the Divinity feel pleasure or displeasure from human conditions. He is good, and He only bestows blessings and never does harm, remaining always the same. We men, on the other hand, if we remain good through resembling God, are united to Him, but if we become evil through not resembling God, we are separated from Him. By living in holiness we cleave to God; but by becoming wicked we make Him our enemy. It is not that He grows angry with us in an arbitrary way, but it is our own sins that prevent God from shining within us and expose us to demons who torture us. And if through prayer and acts of compassion we gain release from our sins, this does not mean that we have won God over and made Him to change, but that through our actions and our turning to the Divinity, we have cured our wickedness and so once more have enjoyment of God’s goodness. Thus to say that God turns away from the wicked is like saying that the sun hides itself from the blind.

– St. Anthony, (The Philokalia, Volume 1. tr. and ed., G.E.H. Palmer, Philip Sherrard, Kallistos Ware. Appendix: A Work Attributed to St. Antony the Great. On the Character of Men and on the Virtuous Life, saying 150, 352)

In this respect, prayer goes beyond formal ritual practices and becomes a posture of humility and receptivity before God in everyday life. A life of prayer does not mean, as some maintain, spending all of one’s days in seclusion performing rituals. It means accepting and recognizing all things that happen in one’s life as a blessing and grace from God, regardless of one’s prior wishes for an outcome. To a certain extent, the invocations and supplications of formal prayer prepare and mould one’s soul for this existential posture. Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah explains this attitude of prayer as follows:

The business of the religious man is to live in continual consciousness and intimate relation with the Might and Glory of God. Associated with that is the need to accept God’s will joyfully, to acclaim what happens to us as a benefit, however much it may seem to the irreligious a misfortune. “It is the will of Allah”, is said by us of Islam, not with sad resignation, but with pious hope.

Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah Aga Khan III,
(Is Religion Something Special, http://www.nanowisdoms.org/nwblog/10121/)

I should, first of all, advise my heirs to learn to desire the thing that happens, and not try to mould events to their desires…I would counsel my heirs to seek satisfaction, not in the flux of circumstances, but within themselves; I would have them resolute, self-controlled, independent, but not rebellious. Let them seek communion with that Eternal Reality which I call Allah and you call God! For that is the twin problem of existence to be at once entirely yourself and altogether at one with the Eternal. I say that you should endeavour to suit your desire to the event, and not the event to your desire. If a wall tumbles down and crushes my foot, I must say: ‘That is the best thing that could happen to me.’ An uncle of mine had a son who was killed. The father gave thanks to Allah for the event. You think that he did not love his son? You are wrong. He loved him dearly.

Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah Aga Khan III,
(My Philosophy of Happiness, http://www.nanowisdoms.org/nwblog/10494/)

Achieving greater harmony and receptivity before God’s blessings and favours does not mean adopting an attitude of complacency and self-resignation. For it is only action – reflecting and acting upon oneself and upon one’s surroundings – that help bring out this spiritual receptivity to God’s blessings and favours – thus allowing one to experience more of these Divine blessings. Prayer works by changing the spiritual constitution of human beings so they can allow themselves to be changed by God. Thus Abu Hamid al-Ghazali notes that while God unceasingly bestows His mercy upon all human beings, each person receives this mercy by “one’s striving to be exposed to the outpouring of the mercy of God, the Most High, upon him…And thus the Prophet said – may God’s mercy and peace be upon him – ‘Your Lord has gifts of mercy for you throughout the days of your life; so expose yourselves to them’” (Al-Ghazali on the Ninety-nine Beautiful Names of God, 69). This is confirmed in the Qur’an which says:

Indeed, God does not change the condition of a people until they change what is in their own souls.
– Holy Qur’an 13:11

Since the purpose of prayer is to create a change within one’s own soul, the next step involves recognizing that one cannot bring about this change by one’s own efforts alone. It is necessary to seek help and assistance of spiritually advanced human beings who can help change and transform one’s soul so as to become more receptive to God’s blessings. This kind of help may be sought from the purest human souls – the Prophets, the Imams, and the Imam of the Time.

Section 3: The Purpose of Seeking the Help and Blessings of the Prophet Muhammad and the Shi‘i Imams in Prayer.

Pilgrims praying for the intercession of Imam 'Ali ibn Abi Talib at his Shrine in Najaf

Pilgrims praying for the intercession of Imam ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib at his Shrine in Najaf

Muslims of Sunni, Shi‘i, and Sufi communities invoke and request the help and blessings of God throughout their formal prayers (salat). In addition, they also perform additional supplications such as petitionary prayer where help and blessings are sought from the Prophet Muhammad, the Shi‘i Imams, and the Imam of the Time. Sunni Muslims pray to God in the name of the Prophet Muhammad and ask for Muhammad’s intercession when visitng the tomb of the Prophet. Twelver Shi‘i Muslims seek the blessings of the Ahl al-Bayt and their Imams through du‘a’ and in visiting the shrines and tombs of their Imams. Many Sufi Muslims, particularly in South Asia and Africa, visit the shrines of deceased Sufi awliya’ (Friends of God) and submit offerings and prayers to seek the blessings of the Sufi shaykhs.

Shi‘i Isma‘ili Musims frequently invoke supplications (du‘a) where God’s mercy, blessings and forgiveness is sought through the right of (bi-haqqi) the prophets of God and the Isma‘ili Imams. Some Isma‘ili petitionary prayers also contain phrases such as Ya Ali Madad, Ya ‘Ali, Ya Hazar Imam, Ya Mawla, etc. In such cases, the Isma‘ili murid or the community (jama‘at) as a congregation seeks the help (madad) and blessings of the Imam of the Time.

The entire question of whether it is justified to seek help from the Prophets and the Imams through phrases such as Ya ‘Ali Madad, Ya ‘Ali, Ya Muhammad, Ya Hazar Imam, etc. revolves around the question of intermediaries between God and human beings. The Arabic word for intermediary or means of access is wasilah which is mentioned in Qur’an 5:35.

A. Communication through an intermediary (wasilah) is a Divine Custom (sunnat Allah) according to the Holy Qur’an.

This is the custom of God (sunnat Allah) with those who passed away before, and you will not find any alteration in the custom of God (sunnat Allah).

– Holy Qur’an 33.62

Let it be clear at the outset that the practice of resorting to an intermediary to accomplish a certain objective is a divine custom (sunnah). This means that God Himself makes use of intermediary causes and objects for specific purposes. For example, the Qur’an refers to all things in the physical world as the Signs (ayat) of God; therefore, God reveals Himself through intermediaries. God also reveals His Guidance (hidayah) and Command (amr) through angels and through human beings such as the Prophets and Imams (see 21:73). God’s inspiration (wahy) to human beings is also through the mediation of the Holy Spirit and the angels (see our article on Surah al-Qadr). Thus, from a purely logical point of view, if God communicates to human beings through various intermediaries – Nature, angels, the Holy Spirit, Prophets, Imams, etc. – then it is quite appropriate for human beings to attain communion with God through these very same intermediaries in accordance with the custom of God (sunnat Allah). There are seventeen Qur’anic verses which state that there will be no intercession between man and God – but these all refer to the intercession of idols as being unacceptable (see 2:254, 2:48, 39:43-44). Meanwhile, there are ten Qur’anic verses which clearly allow for intercession if the intercessor has God’s permission and acceptance (see 2:255, 10:4, 19:87, 43:86). As this section will show, the Prophets and the Imams are the foremost means of access (wasilah) and intercessors for the believer to seek God’s help and blessings.

But how does such an intermediary – the Prophet or the Imam – actually help fulfill a person’s wishes and requests? Why not just pray directly to God? And what is the metaphysical basis of resorting to the help of the Prophet and Imams if God Himself is beyond all change. This will now be explored in greater detail.

B. The Prophet Muhammad is the recipient and the vehicle of God’s blessings, mercy and grace to His creatures.

PMCircle

As mentioned above, human souls are at different levels of receptivity and preparedness in terms of receiving and reflecting the light of God and receiving His blessings. Nasir al-Din al-Tusi compares human souls to various kinds of stones: some are like gems while others are like opaque stones. Among all human beings, the soul of the Prophet Muhammad is at the highest level of preparedness and receptivity of God’s blessings:

God and His Angels send blessings (yasalluna) upon the Prophet. O ye who believe, invoke blessings upon him (salli ‘alayhi) and submit to him in full submission.
– Holy Qur’an 33:56

The Qur’an declares it as a metaphysical truth that God sends His blessings on the Prophet. The believers are commanded to recite the salawat by making the following prayer – O God, send Thy blessings upon Muhammad and his progeny. This prayer is not a literal request to convince God to bless Muhammad and his family – for that is already happening. But rather, the salawat of the believers is really an act of bearing witness to God’s continuous act of blessing the soul of Muhammad and his progeny. All Muslim prayers must include sending blessings upon Muhammad and his progeny, without which such prayers are not legally acceptable. The reasons for this practice will become clear.

The Qur’an also qualifies the Prophet Muhammad with God’s own Names and Attributes. In a famous verse, Muhammad is called the Mercy that God sends to all creatures:

And we have only sent you [Muḥammad] as a Mercy (rahmat) to the worlds.
– Holy Qur’an 21:107

It is by the Mercy (rahmah) from God that you (O Muhammad) were gentle with them, for if you had been stern of heart they would have dispersed from around you.
– Holy Qur’an 3:159

There has certainly come to you a Messenger from among yourselves. Grievous to him is what you suffer; [he is] concerned over you and to the believers is kind (ra’ūf) and merciful (raḥīm).
– Holy Qur’an 9:128

These verses confirm two realities: a) the Prophet Muhammad is the foremost recipient of God’s blessings; and b) the Prophet Muhammad is the vehicle and channel for God’s mercy and blessings to reach all of creation. The latter point is evidence in the third verse since (al-Ra’uf and (al-Rahim, which are among the Names of God in the Qur’an, are used here to describe the Prophet Muhammad. This is simply because the soul of the Prophet Muhammad has a greater capacity for receptivity toward God’s continuous blessings; therefore, Muhammad always receives the blessings and mercy of God and through him, these blessings are conveyed to others – just as the Sun shines and is reflected upon gemstones.

Numerous other passages demonstrate how the Prophet Muhammad is the manifestation and the vehicle for numerous Names and Attributes of God, as showcased in our earlier article.

C. The prayers and blessings of the Prophet Muhammad cause the believers to receive and experience God’s mercy and forgiveness, thereby bringing about the fulfillment of their prayers.

Muhammad

And pray (send blessings) over them. Verily, your prayer (blessing) is a source of peace (sakan) for them. And God is the Hearing, the Knowing.

– Holy Qur’an 9:103

Whereas one’s own prayer can gradually improve one’s spiritual constitution and receptivity to God’s blessings – allowing one to experience the “fulfillment” of one’s prayers, the prayers and blessings of the Prophet Muhammad are more powerful and possess greater efficacy in bringing out the fulfillment of the believers’ prayers and requests to God. While there are numerous Qur’anic verses that confirm the Prophet Muhammad’s right to pray and send blessings upon the believers, we will examine two verses in detail. The first verse is 4:64 which, according to both Sunni and Shi‘i commentaries (tafsir), is a command for the believers to approach the Prophet Muhammad and seek his prayers when they seeking the forgiveness of God:

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

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

As discussed earlier, God Himself is beyond the process of change and alteration since He is eternal. Thus, God eternally bestows His mercy and forgiveness upon all created beings. However, those who lack receptivity to God’s forgiveness will be unable to receive, appreciate or experience God’s forgiveness in their lives. However, as the Qur’an states, if the Prophet Muhammad prays to God for the forgiveness of the believers, only then do “they find” (la-wajadu) God Forgiving and Merciful. The prayers of the Prophet Muhammad do not convince or compel God to become forgiving after having not been forgiving, since God is beyond change and is eternally and always forgiving. But rather, the prayers of the Prophet Muhammad actually affect the souls of the believers – altering the state of their souls whereby the believers become more receptive and conscious of God’s forgiveness which He continually grants to them. The Qur’an 4:64 confirms this because it says “they (the believers) will find (wajadu) God Forgiving and Merciful” as a result of Muhammad’s prayers and does not say “God becomes Forgiving and Merciful.” This proves that the prayers and intercession of the Prophet Muhammad brings out a direct change in the believers’ souls while God Himself remains eternally Forgiving and Merciful. The prayers of Muhammad are akin to the Prophet opening the eyes of the believers so they become more conscious and aware of God granting them forgiveness and compassion.

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

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

According to both Sunni and Shi‘i commentaries (tafsir), this verse was revealed when some believers among the community of the Prophet Muhammad sought to repent for certain wrongful actions which they had committed. This verse guided the Prophet Muhammad to perform the following actions to facilitate the repentance of these believers:
a) The believers submit offerings (sadaqah) from their wealth to the Prophet Muhammad
b) The Prophet Muhammad accepts their offerings.
c) The Prophet Muhammad purifies and sanctifies the souls of the believers
c) The Prophet Muhammad prays (sends blessings) over the believers
d) The Prophet Muhammad’s prayer brings inner peace (sakan) to the souls of the believers
e) The Prophet’s act of receiving the believer’s offerings and repentance represents and signifies God’s acceptance of their offerings and repentance.

When one interprets this verse in light of the metaphysics and theology of classical theism according to which God is beyond all change and alteration, one must logically conclude that the Prophet Muhammad’s act of accepting offerings, purifying the believes, and praying for them is what brings about the fulfillment of their prayers for God’s forgiveness and acceptance of their repentance. Without the Prophet’s prayers, blessings and purification, the believers would not obtain the forgiveness of God. This is not because God is not forgiving and must be convinced to forgive them; but rather, because the believers in their state of sinfulness are simply unable to accept and receive God’s mercy and forgiveness that He is always bestowing upon them. God Himself, transcending time and change, is not affected or altered by the prayers of the Prophet or the believers; the Prophet transforms the souls of the believers through purifying them and making them more receptive to what God bestows upon them of His mercy and blessings, such that they are able to receive and accept His forgiveness. This is demonstrated by the Qur’an’s use of the words “purify them and sanctify them”: these purifying acts by the Prophet remove the sins, impurities and other barriers in the souls of the believers which are impeding and blocking their reception of God’s blessings. The verse also states unequivocally that the Prophet’s prayer and blessing brings sakan – an Arabic word which means “peace”, “stillness” or “rest” – to those whom he prays for. In a very real sense, the Prophet Muhammad’s prayers and blessings are the proximate cause of the believer’s attaining God’s forgiveness while God remains as the ultimate agent of forgiveness.

The Qur’anic verse 4:64, when properly interpreted in light of classical metaphysics, shows that the prayers of Prophet Muhammad affect the believer so that they can realize or “find” God to be Forgiving and Merciful. Similarly, verses 9:102-104 demonstrate that the Prophet Muhammad’s blessings, prayers and purification transforms the souls of the believers so that they may experience God’s mercy and acceptance of their pleas for forgiveness and repentance. In both cases, God is eternal and unchanging in His continuous bestowal of mercy, forgiveness and blessings while the Prophet’s prayers and purification cause a change in the souls of those whom he prays and blesses – purifying them and bringing them into a state of inner peace. This practice, which the Qur’an bears witness to on multiple occasions, was a regular part of the life of the early community of believers at the time of Prophet Muhammad. Fred Donner, the historian of early Islam, explains that the original meaning of the practice of zakat (meaning “purification”) was tied to the prayers of the Prophet Muhammad mentioned in 9:102-104:

Recent research suggests, however, that the original Qur’anic meaning of zakat and sadaqa was not almsgiving, but rather a fine or payment made by someone who was guilty of some kind of sin, in exchange for which Muhammad would pray in order that they might be purified of their sin and that their other affairs might prosper… This understanding of zakat or sadaqa as a payment for atonement or purification of sins is clearest in the following verses: “Others have confessed their sins … Take from their property sadaqa to cleanse them, and purify [tuzakki] them thereby, and pray for them, indeed your prayer is a consolation to them. God is all-hearing, all-knowing” (Q. 9:102-103); the verb “to purify” is from the same Arabic root as zakat. The fact that Believers were sometimes required to make such purification payments, however, underscores how the community was, in principle, focused on maintaining its inner purity, on being as much as possible a community that lived strictly in righteousness, so as to set themselves apart from the sinful world around them and thus to attain salvation in the afterlife.

Fred Donner,
(Muhammad and the Believers: At The Origins of Islam, 64)

The examples discussed above demonstrate that the Prophet Muhammad serves as the “means of access” (wasilah) and intercessor through which the believers could seek and find God’s mercy, blessings, and forgiveness. The person of Muhammad is an active intercessor and means of access: his prayers and blessings purify the souls of the believers, bring them inner peace, and allow them to receive God’s blessings. Sunni sources also provide information on how the Prophet Muhammad instructed a blind man to seek his intercession when praying to God for a cure to his blindness:

A blind man came to the Prophet and said, “I’ve been afflicted in my eyesight, so please pray to God for me.” The Prophet said: “Go make ablution (wudu), perform two rak‘ats of prayer, and then say: “O God, I ask You and turn to You through my Prophet Muhammad, the Prophet of Mercy; O Muhammad (Ya Muhammad), I seek your intercession with my Lord for the return of my eyesight, that it may be fulfilled. O God, grant him intercession for me.” The Prophet added, “And if there is some need, do the same.”

(Ahmad al-Nasa‘i, 417-418, Hadith No.658-660, al-Hakim al-Naysaburi, al-Mustadrak, 1:313, 1:526)

D. As the inheritors of the Prophet Muhammad and the bearers of his spiritual authority (walayah), the blessings and prayers of the Shi‘i Imams and the Imam of the Time help the believers find the fulfillment of their prayers.

Imam Muhammad al-Baqir [A.S.] teaching in Medina. Painting by Qasim Ali, ca. 1525

Imam Muhammad al-Baqir [A.S.] teaching in Medina. Painting by Qasim Ali, ca. 1525

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

– Seyyed Hossein Nasr

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I convey to all my murids my most affectionate and most loving blessings, and I pray that Allah may bring all of you here present, and to your families and homes, peace and hope in the future.

– Imam Shah Karim al-Husayni Aga Khan IV
(Public Address, Tajikistan, 1998)

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

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

The Qur’an would not command believers to seek the means of access (wasilah) to God if such a wasilah no longer exists after the Prophet. Thus, all the spiritual functions of the Prophet Muhammad, with the exception of revelation, continue through his spiritual successors beginning with Imam ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib and his designated descendants, the Shi‘i Isma‘ili Imams up to Imam Shah Karim al-Husayni Aga Khan IV – the Imam of the time. During his own lifetime, the Prophet Muhammad equated himself with Imam ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib in spiritual authority as per the following statements recorded in Sunni Muslim hadith books:

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

Prophet Muhammad,
(al-Hakim al-Naysaburi, Al-Mustadrak ‘ala’l-Sahihayn, Beirut 2002, 19, No. 4636; Ahmad b. Shu‘ayb al-Nasa’i, Khasa’is Amir al-Mu’minin ‘Ali b. Abi Talib, Tehran 1998, 129)

‘Ali is with the Qurʾān and the Qurʾān is with ‘Ali. They will not separate from each other until they return to me at the [paradisal pool] (al-ḥawḍ).

Prophet Muhammad,
(al-Hakim al-Naysaburi, Al-Mustadrak ‘ala’l-Sahihayn, Beirut 2002, 927, No. 4685)

‘Ali is as my own soul (ka-nafsī).

Prophet Muhammad,
(Ahmad b. Shu‘ayb al-Nasa’i, Khasa’is Amir al-Mu’minin ‘Ali b. Abi Talib, Tehran 1998, 104)

You [‘Ali] are from me and I am from you (anta minnī wa anā minka).

Prophet Muhammad,
(al-Hakim al-Naysaburi, Al-Mustadrak ‘ala’l-Sahihayn, Beirut 2002, 924, No. 4672)

Whoever obeys ʿAli obeys me, and whoever disobeys him disobeys me.

Prophet Muhammad,
(al-Hakim al-Naysaburi, Al-Mustadrak ‘ala’l-Sahihayn, Beirut 2002, 925, No. 4678)

O ʿAli, whoever separates himself from me separates himself from God, and whoever separates himself from you, O ʿAli, separates himself from me.

Prophet Muhammad,
(al-Hakim al-Naysaburi, Al-Mustadrak ‘ala’l-Sahihayn, Beirut 2002, 927, No. 4682)

‘Ali is from me and I am from him (ʿAlī minnī wa anā minhu), and nobody can fulfill my duty but myself and ʿAli.

Prophet Muhammad,
(Ahmad b. Shu‘ayb al-Nasa’i, Khasa’is Amir al-Mu’minin ‘Ali b. Abi Talib, Tehran 1998, 106)

For whomever I am the mawlā [master], ʿAlī is his mawla (man kuntu mawlāhu fa-ʿAlī mawlāhu).

Prophet Muhammad,
(Cited in numerous Sunni Muslim Hadith sources listed here)

Just as the Prophet Muhammad’s soul is at the highest level of spiritual purity and receptivity to God’s continual blessings, the souls of the Imams of the Ahl al-Bayt are also at the summit of purity. The Qur’an declares the purity of the Ahl al-Bayt as follows:

And God only intends to keep away from you all impurity, O Ahl al-Bayt, and purify you with a thorough purification.
– Holy Quran 33:33

Similarly, the Qur’an and the Prophet indicate that the Imams who are the descendants (al) of Muhammad likewise receive God’s blessings at all times.

It was said, “O God’s Messenger! We know how to greet you, but how to invoke God for you?” The Prophet said, “Say: O God, bestow Your blessings upon Muhammad and the Progeny (al) of Muhammad just as You blessed Abraham and the Progeny of Abraham.”

(Al-Bukhari, Sahih, Volume 6, Hadith No. 320, Read Here)

Once again, reciting this prayer, the salawat, does not make God bestow His blessings on Muhammad and the Shi‘i Imams – for they receive these blessings regardless of whether people invoke them or not. This salawat is an affirmation and a bearing witness to this spiritual reality on the part of the believer. In continuously reciting the salawat, the believer becomes more and more cognizant and conscious of God’s blessings upon the Prophet and the Imams and, in doing so, the believer himself becomes more able to receive these blessings through the Imams. In other words, the salawat is a classical example of a prayer seeking God’s blessings through the Prophet and the Imams.

The early Imams were invoked as means of access (wasilah) to God during their own lifetimes. Ahmad ibn Hanbal records that ‘Abdullah ibn ‘Abbas sought the help of God through Imam ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib when he was near-death:

When the death time of ‘Abdullah ibn ‘Abbas approached, he said: “O God! I seek to approach toward Thee by means of the walayah of ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib.”

(Ahmad Ibn Hanbal, Fada’il al-Sahaba, Vol. 2, 662)

The Shi‘i Ismaili Imams, as the inheritors of the Prophet, continue the spiritual functions of the Prophet Muhammad. Each Imam in his own time is the wasilah (means of access) to God for his disciples. This concretely means that the Imam of every time and age prays to God on behalf of all the believers for their forgiveness just as the Prophet himself did (per Qur’an 4:64); the Imam of the time receives the believers’ offerings (sadaqah) and zakat and purifies their souls as Muhammad had done in his own lifetime (per Qur’an 9:103); the Imam mercifully pardons and forgives the believers’ sins and shortcomings as the Prophet had done (per Qur’an 3:59); and the Imam bestows his blessings and prayers upon the souls of the believers, for their prosperity, resolution of difficulties and inner peace (sakan) just as Muhammad had done so (per Qur’an 9:103). In light of the Imam’s spiritual functions, it is customary for the followers of the Imams to appeal to their help and assistance as intermediaries between God and humankind.

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

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

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

Tawassalu indal-masa‘ib bi-mawlakum al-hadir al-mawjud Shah Karim al-Husayni

In the time of difficulties, seek help through your present and living mawla Shah Karim al-Husayni

Nizari Isma‘ili Du‘a’, Part III

The word tawassalu comes from wasilah (means of access) mentioned in Qur’an 5:35 (“Be mindful of God and seek the wasilah unto Him”) and evokes the living Imam (bi-mawlakum) as the wasilah to God. From a metaphysical perspective, the souls of the Isma‘ili Imams including the living Imam, Shah Karim al-Husayni Aga Khan IV, are of the greatest level of spiritual purity and have the highest degree preparedness and receptivity to God’s blessings and favours. While God constantly bestows His blessings and favours upon all created beings, most human souls lack the capacity to fully receive them. When anyone prays for the fulfillment specific wishes and needs, he is essentially seeking a greater share of God’s blessings and favours; one way to bring this about is through one’s own individual prayers and supplications to God directly, without any intermediaries: but such a prayer does not change God in any way and hopefully alters one’s soul enough to bring about a greater receptivity to receive God’s blessings.

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

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

We are the Gates of God. We are the medium for His people. He who approaches Him through us is brought near Him. He who seeks our intercession is interceded for. He who seeks His favours through us is favoured by Him. He who turns away from us goes astray.

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

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

The intercession of the Prophets and Imams is evoked in the current Isma‘ili Du‘a’. In the fourth part, the supplicant seeks God’s mercy, forgiveness, and sustenance by “the right of’ (bi-haqqi) the Messengers of God, the Imams, and the Imam of the Time:

Allahum-maghfir lana dhunubana
w’arzuqna, wa’rhamna,
bi-haqqi rusulika’l-muqarrabin,
wa a’immatika’l-mutahharin,
wa bi-haqqi mawlana wa imamina,
Shah Karim al-Husayni

O God, forgive us our sins,
And give us our sustenance, and have mercy upon us,
By the right of Thy closest Messengers
And Thy pure Imams,
And by the right of our lord and our Imam
Shah Karim al-Husayni

Nizari Isma‘ili Du‘a’, Part IV

This is a supplication invoking the help of God through the mediation of the Prophets, the Imams, and the Imam of the Time. Their intercession and mediation is invoked by the phrase bi-haqqi – which can be interpreted and translated in several forms such as “by the right of”, “in the name of”, or “for the sake of”. The term haqq refers to the rights (huquq) which God has bestowed upon His creatures. The above supplication is an affirmation of the right (haqq) of intercession and mediation which God has granted to the Prophets and the Imams as His wasilah (means of access) to mankind. Henry Corbin, one of the great scholars of Shi‘i Islam, explains how the souls of the Imams are in a state of walayah (closeness and intimacy with God) due to which God has granted them a special kind of “right” (haqq) – when God initially created their souls before the creation of the world.

Thus at the origin, through this predilection, God confers a kind of right to Himself upon those who are the pre-eternal objects of this predilection: Hence that formula of invocation, frequent in Shi‘i prayers, which sounds forth like a supreme conjuration, as if by invoking this “right to Himself” conferred by God upon His Friends, the prayer formulated by their friends bore in itself the force of an accomplishment. The Imams themselves preferred the formula bi-haqqina, which can be translated “by our right” or “in the name of our cause”.

Henry Corbin,
(Shi’ism: Doctrines, Thought, and Spirituality, ed. Nasr, 173)

Even at the practical level, the role of the Imam of the Time is to transform and develop the soul of each believer through his guidance, instruction, inspiration, blessings and prayers. The Imam’s blessings essentially remove the impediments and obstacles from the soul of the disciple such that it can reach felicity through attaining a greater share of God’s blessings. This confirmed by Qur’an 9:103 which commands the Prophet to “accept offerings from their wealth so that you may purify them and sanctify them, and pray (send blessings) upon them; verily, your prayer (blessing) is a source of peace for them.” Just as the Prophet Muhammad actively purified, sanctified and brought inner peace (sakan) to the believers through his prayer and blessing, the Imam of the Time performs these very same functions. Ibn ‘Arabi describes this transformative function of the Prophet and Imams as follows:

When the divine physician comes – and he is the Prophet, or the Inheritor of the Prophet, or the sage – he examines what is required by the soul’s configuration. The soul submits itself to him and places its reigns in his hands so that he will train it and take steps to achieve its felicity.

Ibn al-‘Arabi,
(William C. Chittick, The Sufi Path of Knowledge, 305)

The Qur’an also describes the Prophets and Imams as the channels of God’s blessings and favours using symbolic language. For example, the Qur’an speaks of the Hand of God (yad Allah) in multiple verses as follows:

The Jews say: “God’s Hand is tied up.” Be their hands tied up and be they accursed for the (blasphemy) they utter. Nay, both His Hands are widely outstretched: He giveth and spendeth (of His bounty) as He pleaseth.
– Holy Qur’an 6:64

Say, “Indeed, [all] bounty (fadla) is in the Hand of God – He grants it to whom He wills. And God is all-Encompassing and Wise.”
– Holy Quran 3:73

That the People of the Book may know that they have no power whatever over the Grace (fadl) of Allah, that (His) Grace is in His Hand, to bestow it on whomsoever He wills. For God is the Lord of Grace abounding.
– Holy Qur’an 57:29

The above verses specifically say that God’s favours or bounties (fadl) are in His Hand (yad) and this implies that believers should seek God’s favours from His Hand. Who or what is the Hand of God? Since God has no parts and no human organs, the Hand of God must be something analogous in function to a human hand, but without being an actual part of God. Instead, the Hand of God must be created being which belongs to God, through which God’s favours and blessings reach others. The Qur’anic verse on bay‘ah equates the Hand of God with the Prophet Muhammad when it says: “Verily, those who give their ba‘yah to you [Muhammad], have given their ba‘yah to God Himself. The Hand of God is upon their hands.” (Holy Qur’an 48:10). In this act of bay‘ah, it was the hand of the Prophet Muhammad which was physically upon the hands of his followers. However, the Qur’an declares this to be the Hand of God. Thus, the presence of the Prophet Muhammad was the concrete manifestation of the Hand of God: the Prophet is God’s Hand personified. Since all of God’s “favours” (fadl) are in the Hand of God, it logically follows that the believers should seek God’s favours from the Prophet Muhammad who is the living manifestation of the Hand of God. In the exact same sense, the Shi‘i Isma‘ili Imams – who are the spiritual inheritors of the Prophet Muhammad – are the living Hand of God on earth through whom God’s blessings and bounties reach His creatures:

God 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 succor of the skies comes down. We plant the grasses of the Earth. Through our worship, God is worshipped. If it were not for us, God would not be worshipped.

Imam Ja‘far as-Sadiq,
(al-Kulayni, Usul al-Kafi, Vol. 1, 144)

Since the Imams are the Gate of God, the Face of God, and Hand of God, it is perfectly acceptable and logical that the believers seek the blessings of the Imam of the Time for the fulfillment of their needs, requests and wishes including:
a) the resolution of their difficulties (mushkil asan);
b) safeguard (salamat rak) the faith (iman) of the believers;
c) regularity in dasond, good deeds (sukreet), and worship (‘ibadat);
d) warding off (dafeh kari) problems (afat), calamities (balau), diseases (bimariyu)
e) fulfillment (puri kar) of good wishes (nek umed)
f) the forgiveness (ma‘af kar) of sins (kull gunah)
g) the true understanding (haqiqati samaj)
h) increase (vudaro kar) in peace (samp), well-being (salah), sincerity (ikhlas), and love (mahhabat)
i) the salvation of departed souls (kull ruhani)
j) the luminous beatific vision (nurani didar)
k) the acceptance (qabul) of goodness of intention in prayer (dua niyyat khayr)

The believers are completely justified in addressing the above needs and requests to the Prophet or Imam himself – calling out “Ya Ali Madad”, “Ya Ali”, “Ya Muhammad”, “Ya Mawla”, or “Ya Hazar Imam” followed by a specific request. This practice of actually calling upon the name of the wasilah – whether a Prophet or Imam – is confirmed in the Qur’anic narrative of how the Children of Israel asked Moses for water.

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

There are two important points in the above verse:
a) The people addressed their request for water to Moses (istasqahu = they asked him for water)
b) Moses, under God’s inspiration, answered their prayer and fulfilled their request by producing twelve springs of water
Thus, the Children of Israel were justified in requesting water from Moses and God answered their prayer and fulfilled their request through Moses. In this case, both the Children of Israel and God Himself make us of Moses as their wasilah (means of access).

Along the same lines, the believers are completely justified in addressing their requests and prayers to the Imam of the Time by calling “Ya Ali”, “Ya Hazar Imam”, etc. The Imam is conscious of the requests and supplications of his believers and mercifully responds to them.

Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah Aga Khan III at the age of 8 years when he made the below address.

Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah Aga Khan III at the age of 8 years when he made the below address.

Outwardly, Mawla Murtada ‘Ali used to eat bread made of barley, but otherwise, he used to tear apart mountains, and within a moment used to reach the other end of the world, and whoever sought the help of Mawla Murtada ‘Ali he used to fulfill their wishes and resolve their difficulties. We are the great grandson of Mawla Murtada ‘Ali.

Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah Aga Khan III,
(Address in Bombay, September 1, 1885)

The connection between the Imam of the Time and his believers is a spiritual one: the soul of the Imam is connected to the souls of the believers through the bay‘ah and this connection transcends time and space. The Qur’an says that “the Prophet is closer to the believers than their own souls” (Qur’an 33:6) and this holds true for the Imam since he is the Prophet’s successor. The Imam’s spiritual support (ta’yid) and blessings can reach the souls of his believers regardless of their physical locations. In this respect, the pure soul of the Imam of the Time serves as the relay point from which God’s blessings are extended to the believers and to humanity at large. In at least two places, the Qur’an indicates that God has bestowed His favours on certain human beings and that these individuals have the permission and authority to extend and bestow God’s favours and blessings to others without restriction:

God sets forth the Parable (of two men): a slave under the dominion of another; He has no power of any sort; and a man on whom We have bestowed goodly favours from Ourselves, and he spends thereof (freely), privately and publicly: are the two equal? Praise be to God. But most of them understand not.
– Holy Qur’an 16:75

Such are Our Gifts: whether you bestow them or withhold them, no account will be asked.
– Holy Qur’an 38:39

Even when the Imam of the Time, Mawlana Shah Karim al-Husayni, visits his murids physically, he verbally conveys his blessings to his murids. In a public visit to Tajikistan in 1998, the Imam of the Time said the following:

mawla

On this day of joy and happiness, and at the beginning of this Irshad, I convey to all my murids my most affectionate and most loving blessings, and I pray that Allah may bring all of you here present, and to your families and homes, peace and hope in the future.

Imam Shah Karim al-Husayni Aga Khan IV,
(Public Address, Shugnan, Tajikistan, September 25, 1998)

In a public Golden Jubilee Darbar in Syria, the Imam of the Time bestowed his blessings on his spiritual children, and extended his prayers for all Muslims and people of all faiths:

Imam Shah Karim al-Husayni Aga Khan IV addressing his murids and people of other faiths in Syria 2008.

Imam Shah Karim al-Husayni Aga Khan IV addressing his murids and people of other faiths in Syria 2008.

To all my spiritual children who are present here today and to your families wherever they may be, I give my most affectionate loving blessings for barakah, and the resolution of whatever difficulties you may be facing. My brothers and sisters in Islam and other faiths should be assured that my deep and heartfelt prayers are with you for your peace your unity and for your happiness. Khanavadan. Khanavadan. Khanavadan.

Imam Shah Karim al-Husayni Aga Khan IV,
(Public Address, Al-Khawabi, Syria, August 24, 2008)

In summary, the Imam of the Time is the wasilah (means of access) to God following the Prophet Muhammad. Whenever a believer seeks the fulfillment of certain needs and the resolution of difficulties, he is essentially looking to receive a greater share of God’s blessings. Since God is eternal and His blessings pour down unceasingly upon all creation, the believer’s reception of these blessings remains limited by the imperfect capacity of his own soul to receive them. However, the believer can attain a greater reception of God`s blessings, mercy and favours by seeking the help of the Imam of the Time; the Imam who already receives the greatest share of God’s favours and blessings at any given time and channels these Divine favours to those who seek them through his own prayers and blessings. While God Himself remains unaffected and unchanged by prayers, the Imam’s blessings (like those of the Prophet Muhammad per Qur’an 4:64 and 9:103) actually change and transform the believer’s soul – rendering the believer more receptive to the continuous outpouring of God’s favours and mercy. As a result, the believer finds the fulfillment of his request and prayers through the Imam’s blessings and this is why it makes complete logical sense to request help from the Imam of the Time in all matters. These ideas are expressed at the end of the Fifth Part of the Isma‘ili Du‘a’ which states:

The Ismaili Imam of the Time Blessing Vizier Rajabali Meghji Vissram at DSM Oct 1957. Credit: Simerg

The Ismaili Imam of the Time Blessing Vizier Rajabali Meghji Vissram at DSM Oct 1957. Credit: Simerg

ya imam al-zaman, ya mawlana
anta quwwati wa anta sanadi wa alayka itikali
ya hadir ya mawjud ya Shah Karim al-Husayni
anta’l-imam al-haqq al-mubin

O’ Imam of the Time, O our lord
You are my strength and you are my support and upon you is my reliance
O’ present O’ living Shah Karim al-Husayni
You are the true manifest Imam

Nizari Isma‘ili Du‘a’, Part 5

Even those who do not recognize the Imam of the Time, can still benefit from the intercession of the Prophet Muhammad and previous Imams. This is why all Muslim prayers must include salawat – asking God to bless Muhammad and his progeny – because this is actually a prayer of intercession whereby the believers seek God’s blessings through Muhammad and the Imams of his progeny. Any Muslim prayer is not acceptable without this salawat because it would be quite ineffective without it. Thus the Sunni imam al-Shafi‘i once said in a poem:

Loving you, O family of the household of the Prophet of God,
is an obligation (fard) from God in the Qurʼān which He revealed;
Sufficient to show the grandeur of your dignity
is that one who blesses you not — no prayer has he.

Muhammad ibn Idris al-Shafi‘i
(Reza Shah-Kazemi, Justice and Remembrance, 17)

D. To reject the help and intercession of the Prophets and Imams on the grounds of an individual and unmediated relationship with God amounts to spiritual idolatry (shirk).

And when it is said to them, “Come, the Messenger of God will pray for your forgiveness,” they turn their heads aside and you see them evading while they are arrogant.

– Holy Qur’an 63:5

If a person’s response to all of this is to say “I do not need any intermediary between me and God” or “since God is all-powerful, it is better to ask help directly from Him”, then such an attitude misses the mark entirely because it is focused on the wrong issue. Such people also claim that seeking the help of the Prophets and the Imams is shirk (joining partners with God). In reality, such people have assessed the entire matter incorrectly. Finding the fulfillment of one’s prayers and requests for God’s blessings is not about convincing God to give you more blessings or appealing to God’s unlimited power; the fulfillment of one’s prayers is attained by making oneself more receptive and more prepared to receive what God is already giving. This is why Ibn al-‘Arabi stresses:

God is saying that He gives constantly, while the loci receive in the measure of the realities of their preparedness… Once you understand this, you will know the gift of God is not withheld. But you want Him to give you something that your preparedness cannot receive. Then you attribute the withholding to Him in that which you seek from Him, and you do not turn your attention toward the preparedness. It is possible that a person has the preparedness to ask, but he does not have the preparedness to receive what he asks for – if it were given to him in place of being withheld.

Ibn al-‘Arabi,
(The Sufi Path of Knowledge, tr. William C. Chittick, 91-92)

The real focus of a person who is praying for God’s blessings, mercy and help should be on how to increase his spiritual receptivity. While various acts of individual prayer can help increase one’s level of receptivity, to believe that one’s own efforts alone is sufficient in accomplishing this monumental feat is nothing but egotism – especially when there do exist Prophets, Imams, and awliya’ whose souls are the purest before God and most receptive to His favours. To consider all human beings, even the Prophets and Imams, as merely equal to oneself in spiritual purity and perfection is tantamount to spiritual idolatry – the idolatry of worshiping one’s own ego. As the Qur’an says – “Have you seen him who makes his capricious ego (hawa) his god (ilah).” (Qur’an 25:43). This was precisely the sin of Iblis when he refused to prostrate toward the Prophet Adam; Iblis failed to recognize Adam as the intermediary between himself and God.

From a Sufi point of view, a believer without a personal guide runs the risk of never progressing past the stage of belief (iman) to become a muslim, i.e. a person who has submitted his or her ego to God. The situation is similar to Iblis, who, believing himself to be superior to a being of clay, refused to bow down to Adam. This would be equivalent to accepting the first half of the Muslim profession of faith, “There is no god but God,” without also fully accepting the second half, “and Muhammad is His Messenger.” Identifying only with the transcendent aspect of Islam, as Iblis did, makes one susceptible to the danger of pride. The human capacity for self-deception is such that people could easily think they were good Muslims on the basis of their love for an invisible, distant and impersonal God and their fulfillment of ritual obligations. It is precisely this tendency, “Iblisian tawhid”, of deviating from the teaching of the prophets, that eventually requires new prophets or heirs to the prophets to remind people of the “original” message…“Muhammadan tawhid” recognizes divine unity both in the human and in the Transcendent, the human being potentially acting as a bridge between the material world and the divine.

Arthur F. Buehler,
(Sufi Heirs of the Prophet: The Indian Naqshbandiyya and the Rise of the Mediating Sufi Shaykh, 39)

As a result, a person’s so-called “unmediated” relationship with God is actually mediated by their own pride and ego. This is what the Prophet referred to as the “hidden shirk”, the worship of one’s ego and caprice instead of God. The Qur’an singles out people who are too proud and arrogant to accept the prayers for the Prophet Muhammad on their behalf:

And when it is said to them, “Come, the Messenger of God will pray for your forgiveness,” they turn their heads aside and you see them evading while they are arrogant.
– Holy Qur’an 63:5

Without the presence of the Prophet and the Imams who succeed him in every age as intermediaries between man and God, the ego within man would remain present but hidden. Part of the purpose of the Prophet’s role as intermediary is to test and ignite the egotism within people such that their ego can be recognized and tamed. As Jalal al-Din Rumi explains:

The Imam of the Time at the Paris Mosque in 1957

God made prophets intermediaries in order that envious feelings arise [in others] through anxiety [of the ego]. Since no one was shamed by God, no one was envious of God. [however], the person whom he considered like himself would be [the object of his] envy – [precisely] for that reason. When the greatness of the Prophet became established, from [his] acceptance [by the Muslim community] no one became envious of him. Thus in every time a Friend (wali) of God exists to [act as] a continual test until the Day of Judgment.

Hazrat Jalal al-Din Rumi,
(Arthur F. Buehler, Sufi Heirs of the Prophet: The Indian Naqshbandiyya and the Rise of the Mediating Sufi Shaykh, 40-41)

If the Prophet’s prayers are required for the believers to “find God Forgiving and Merciful” (4:64), or if his prayers bring inner peace (sakan) and purification(tazkiyyah) to one’s then why should anyone reject the assistance of the Prophet and the Imams as being unnecessary for oneself? Their help is absolutely necessary if someone seeks God’s blessings because a) the Prophets and Imams already receive God’s blessings; and b) their prayers, blessings and guidance are the proximate cause of improving one’s spiritual receptivity to God’s blessings. Even within the Sufi tradition, it has been argued that seeking help by calling upon the names of the Friends of God (awliya’ Allah) is more effective than only calling upon God Himself. This is because most people do not know God due to His absolute transcendence above the human intellect and have no real relationship with Him. Only the Friends of God who have the gnosis (ma‘rifah) of God through their pure souls and intellects can receive God’s favours in the most complete away and transmit them to others. Ordinary human beings are better off approaching God through His Friends by calling upon them for help:

When some travelers asked Abu’l-Hasan al-Kharaqani (d. 1033) to pray for their safety, he advised them to set out on their journey in the name of God and call out Abu’l-Hasan’s name if they ran into trouble. When highway robbers attacked the caravan, those who called on the shaykh were saved and those who called on God were robbed and killed. Abu’l-Hasan explained later that those who called on God directly petitioned someone they did know know and so they received no aid. Those appealing to Abu’l-Hasan used the name of a person who knew God and who could then intercede and assist them.
– Arthur F. Buehler,
(Sufi Heirs of the Prophet: The Indian Naqshbandiyya and the Rise of the Mediating Sufi Shaykh, 41)

Conclusion: Seeking help and blessings from the Prophet Muhammad, the Imams, and the Imam of the Time – Mawlana Shah Karim al-Husayni – is the foremost expression of the tawhid (transcendent and immanent unity) of God.

You have looked to the Imam of the Age for advice and help in all matters and through your Imam’s immense love and affection for his spiritual children, his Nūr has indicated to you where and in which direction you must turn so as to obtain spiritual and worldly satisfaction.

Imam Shah Karim al-Husayni Aga Khan IV

Intercession

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

Every single favour you have is from God.
– Holy Qur’an 16:53

Whatever good comes to you is from God and whatever evil comes to you is from your own soul.
– Holy Qur’an 4:79

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

Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah at Platinum Jubilee. The Imam touched his hand to his head to signify his bestowing blessings upon his murids.

From this ontological point of view, as noted above, at verses 1-3 of the Fatihah, there is nothing in being but God; what appears as “other” than God is a mazhar, a locus of manifestation of God and nothing else. When assistance is sought from the Prophets, the Imams and the saints, one is seeking assistance from them as so many manifestations of God, so many mazahir, or loci, of the zuhur (manifestation) of al-Zahir (the Outwardly Manifest). Therefore, the means as well as the end is divine: it is not a question of seeking human means for the sake of attaining a divine end, for one sees through the human form to the divine substance of the mazhar. This is a radical mode of tawhid, a more penetrating application of the principle: From Thee alone we seek help.

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

As God is the Unconditioned Reality, the first conditioned reality to receive being through the Light or Command of God is the Universal Intellect (also called the Light of Imamat and the Muhammadan Light). The Universal Intellect is the Eternal Imam and the Muhammadan Reality which mediates between the Absolute Reality of God and all of creation. Thus, the Universal Intellect is the ontological intercessor for all created beings. God’s Existentiating Command reaches every particle of creation and keeps it in existence by means of the Universal Intellect. As Abu Ya‘qub al-Sijistani explains:

Thus, Intellect becomes one with the Word (Command of God) in the sense that it necessitates that every particle of the Creation has a share of the Command of God because every creature shares a part of the Command of God through which it has come to be there and by virtue of which it remains in being, and the Light of the Command of God shines in it.

Abu Ya‘qub al-Sijistani,
(Kashf al-Mahjub, in Anthology of Philosophy in Persia Volume 2, 93)

Through the Universal Intellect, God’s Light radiates upon the souls of the Prophets and Imams, and by means of their souls, upon the souls of the believers. This metaphysics is expressed by the Islamic prayer – O’ God, bestow Thy blessings upon Muhammad and the Progeny of Muhammad – a prayer that bears witness to the Light of God’s Command flowing through the Universal Intellect to the souls of the Prophet Muhammad and the Imams of his progeny, and through them, upon all human souls.

This is why the believers often invoke the help of the Imam of the Time for the fulfillment of any need with the phrase Ya Nur Mawlana Shah Karim al-Husayni. Through the affection, prayers and blessings of the Imam’s pure soul, the blessings of the Light (nur) of Imamat are extended to the believers and all those seek his help. Ya ‘Ali Madad.

For hundreds of years, my spiritual children have been guided by the Rope of Imamat. You have looked to the Imam of the Age for advice and help in all matters and through your Imam’s immense love and affection for his spiritual children, his Nūr has indicated to you where and in which direction you must turn so as to obtain spiritual and worldly satisfaction.

Imam Shah Karim al-Husayni Aga Khan IV,
(Karachi, December 13, 1964, in Ilm Magazine, July 1975, Vol. 1, No. 1, 7)

13 thoughts on “Ya Ali Madad: The Rationale for Praying to God and Calling upon the Imams in Prayer

  1. A gem. An important element in the discourse is the concept of Tawhid (God is incomprehensible) itself. How can one as a human with limited perceptive faculties be so sure about their own conception of God and His nature that s/he tries to force it upon others. If you assert it on others as if your conception is the ultimate truth, you are already polluting the concept of Tawhid (in the theoretical sense) and I believe, that’s what shirk is. For one’s own self, it is a constant meditative space/practice to try to understand God and that’s the purpose. Conversations are also fruitful because you need that stimulus to grow and reflect deeply but summoning the final call on the matters is problematic. As Jiddu Krishnamurti states “The constant assertion of belief is an indication of fear.” and how can practice of Tawhid be grounded in fear.

  2. Thank you for explaining the wasillah of Allah,who is the imam of the time,the sign of this could be found in the planet we live on the earth,sun symbolizes Allahs light which sets on one side of the earth and is rising on the other side of it,but if you are looking from space it’s light is continuously present,earth is like the people of this world for whom there is a day and night,day symbolizes there soul and night is its physical body,the moon symbolizes imams body and its light which is not its own but of the sun symbolizes imams light,which helps the people to navigate through the darkness of there existence towards the light of god,the effect of moon on earth is visible by the high and low tide it creates in the oceans,composition of the earth and moon is the same they are made of the same cosmic element,just like the imam and the people’s body are made of flesh,but the light of moon is from sun,just like imams light is from Allah,so they are the bridge between the physical and the eternal.

  3. Pingback: The Rationale for Praying to God and Calling upon the Imams in Prayer | Ismaili Gnosis | Ismailimail

  4. Is Divine Will (irada-e-ilahi) i.e. God’s creative will also known as “irada-e-takwin”, created (hadis) or eternal (qadim) and is there any temporal interval between God’s Will and his act (fi’l)?
    If it is asserted that there is a temporal interval between God’s Will and his actions, meaning that God’s will is temporally prior to His act, so this would result in the doctrine of similitude (tashbih) according to which God is held to be similar to His creatures, therefore the only logical assumption seems to be that there is no temporal interval between His Will and His act, and in fact there exists simultaneity between the two,meaning that they occur simultaneously without there being any time gap or interval,because after all the concept of Time/zaman applies only to material or corporeal existents that are subject to corruption, decay and change,and not to the Immutable Divine Essence.This analysis shows that there is inseparability between Divine Will and Divine Acts, because it cannot be that God will’s a certain thing to be but the object willed fails to materialize or come into existence, because this goes contrary to the notion of divine omnipotence.Having established simultaneity between Divine Will and God’s actions,now we come to the issue of the created or eternal nature of Divine Will, well in a way it is both,because in terms of possessing the “qudrah” to will, God’s will is eternal because He always possessed the ability or power to will,whereas from the view point of the Will’s manifestation into His act i.e. simultaneity between His Will & Act, it is created (hadis) because if it is held to be eternal even in this sense so God’s acts, being inseparable from His Will, would also become eternal,resulting in a multitude of eternal entities which is inadmissible in the light of the Doctrine of Divine Unity (tawhid).

    • The existentiating Act of God is eternal and the first created being, the Universal Intellect is eternal. But there are different levels of eternity – Azal, Azaliyyah, and Azali.

      God is Azal, His Command is Azaliyyah and the Universal Intellect is Azali. Time (Zamaan) only exists in Nature under the Universal Soul.

  5. Pingback: Ismaili Gnosis Reading: The Imam’s Blessings as Intercessor | Ismailimail

  6. I agree with the notion that God does not withheld his blessing and favors from beings, but it depends on our receptivity and preparedness that how much we can avail of this ceaseless blessing, let me elucidate it through an example of a magnet, when we bring an iron towards the magnet it attracts it and if we bring a wood near to it, it shows no affect although there is magnetic field in both of the cases but only those material respond which can align its particle with the magnetic field.
    we can experience the blessing of God if we starts removing the obstructions and try to align our actions according to the will of God.

  7. This incredibly knowledgeable and insightful article is real wisdom to me. I cannot overstate this enough.

    What I personally struggle with from a purely philosophic viewpoint (my receptive ability) is the issue of suffering in the world. I’m not talking about ‘adult’ suffering, but say that of Children. Is it really that these children’s’ souls are not receptive to Allāh/God’s Mercy? I’m not trying to argue here, but I cannot find reasoning for certain suffering in this world. The closest answer that I have found is within the writings of the dualistic gnostics. Now, this mythic story that they portray might be overly exaggerated. As Henry Corbin describes the ‘retardation’ of the 3rd emanation, maybe this is more fitting. But at some level it seems that either a process of the Divine emanation resulted in error (quite possibly a necessary error) in which He/It could delve into even the realm of imperfection, or that God may actually want unnecessary suffering for some other purpose that we cannot fathom with our imperfect minds. “God works in mysterious ways…” That was something I’ve heard in my Catholic upbringing.

    For me it is easy to understand the receptive capacity of the Light and Mercy of Allāh, but carrying it out logically seems to means that even those who are innocent as yet of free-will are also catastrophically hindered by such a seemingly ‘adult’ construct. The only thing that comes to mind is the Hindu law of Karma and Transmigration – even the innocent who are inflicted with pain, suffering and death must be inflicted because of their spiritual evolution – maybe even for the evolution of others (i.e., parents of a child who dies of an illness).

    I personally, want to believe, but my ‘aql creates barriers. I even have events beyond intellectual reason to strengthen this belief (certain deedar that I won’t share) of which I would call gnosis. But I always question such belief until I can obtain an answer suitable to all parts of my being. Not for selfish reasons (I hope) but to place actual ‘knowing’ over faith. But I do see both as necessary. As the Christian Gnostics called it, “Pistis Sophia” – Faith Wisdom.

    I am no theologian, nor any sort of scholar or philosopher, so I don’t mean to portray that, but rather mean to express my continuing struggle with this world of suffering. And I don’t even suffer myself, but it is seeing it in others. My life is easy, alhamdulillah and shukr mawla.

    But again, I love reading the posts here and actually pray for their continuance and for answers. Some how I feel this exists and I just haven’t been receptive to it yet.

    Thank you!

    • P.S. I think I could read and re-read this 1000 times and learn much. And I can stare at the images of Hazir Imam and Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah for hours. I sort of get lost. A very meaningful and necessary article.

    • God chooses his finest to go through sufferings, for every suffering there is a reward, for every hand stretched out to help the one in need, there is a reward, As Hazrat Ali A.S once said ” Any trouble or calamity that draws you away from Allah is a Punishment and any trouble or calamity that draws you toward Allah is a test”

      If there were no fury of mother nature that causes extreme damages and losses, no one would think of death anymore or even imagining ourselves in that situation, we are so consumed in our daily lives that the reason for our existence has been forgotten by many

      The way I look as natural disasters is for a way of Allah to bring people closer from every walk to life, irrespective of their color, cast, creed or age and it also makes us realize that that there is something way too powerful is out there, which most of the world has conveniently forgotten.

  8. Excellent article like always..would want you to correct an error in the first para regarding certain ideas of sunni and shia islam being attacked I think you meant sufi..

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