‘Guardian of Faith’: The Spiritual Authority of the Imam in Shia Ismaili Islam

It is of no doubt that the present day population of Muslims conjures an image that speaks of diversity with respect to its pluralistic interpretational variations. Ranging broadly from the viewpoints of the Shias and the Sunnis, this climate has evolved into contemporary existence of many distinctive and diverse schools of interpretation. In this article Sujjawal Ahmad discusses on the case of Shia Nizari Ismaili Islam elaborating the central doctrine on the concept of Imamat and role of the Imam.


During the early centuries of Islam, Muslims have lived in a milieu that was intellectually active, distinctive for its diversity in terms of multiplicity of stances adopted by communities and schools of thoughts on major religio-political issues of the time. In that atmosphere Muslims would engage freely in lively discourses revolving around a host of issues that were of vital significance to the emerging Muslim Umma. It was only in Medieval times that Islamic world became static to its effervescence to intellectual inquiry.

The range of differences that concern Muslims of today comprise widely from those of interpretation of religious texts, religious authority, ritual practice to political and communal expressions.  Besides sharing the basic beliefs of the oneness of God, Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) as last Messenger of God, and Quran being the last in series of Divine revelations, Muslims differ on many issues. From the time of death of the Prophet  concerns pertaining to authority and governance, ritual and practice, has been at heart of debates among Muslims.

A well-known diversity, for example, is that of the schools of law (madhhab (sing.); madhhahib ). The very existence of different, legitimate schools of law (four, five or more) itself testifies to the fact that Islamic law has expressed itself in several voices.

Diversity that exists today in terms of theological interpretations can be envisaged by the chart given below:


There is a need especially in this regard to develop an informed understanding of the formative doctrines of the Shia Islam and to demonstrate its distinction from the Sunni Islam.  The distinction lies is the former’s belief in the Imamat of Ali b. Abi Talib, as well as its recourse to the doctrine that the office of Imamat continues in the Progeny of Prophet Muhammad, through his daughter Fatima and First Imam Ali b. Abi Talib.

The subject “ the Authority of the Imam in Shia Islam”  is the fundamental concept that is a distinctive mark of the Shia interpretation of Islam. This article, therefore, examines various points that develop a thematic framework of the foundation of theology of Imamat in Shia Islam. Given the fact that Shia Islam has evolved its own distinctive ideologies within its various branches, this article will engage specifically  with one of the broad avenues to what Ismaili thought brings distinction to its doctrine of Imamat. Unfortunately, the Ismailis, their history and doctrines have been subject to considerable misrepresentation by their opponents throughout their history.

I propose to divide the subject into three main topics:

1. The distinction between the Shia and Sunni interpretation regarding succession to Prophet Muhammad.

2. Aspects of the Authority of Imams and Authoritative Interpretation as exercised by the office of Imamat in Shia Islam

3.The Interpretative Authority in 21st Century

1. The distinction between the Shia and Sunni interpretation regarding succession to Prophet Muhammad (PBUH):

For the Shia, the appointment of Ali b. Abi talib and that of Imams that follow in his lineage bears the force of Divine sanction. Shia have always maintained from the beginning that when the Prophet appointed Ali b. Abi talib  as his successor at the pool of Ghadir-i Khum, the appointment was made through Divine decree, an opposition of which is to rebel against the wishes of the Prophet and God.

The origins of Sunnism and Shi‘ism may be traced to the crisis of succession in the Islamic community, and then centered in Medina, following the death of the Prophet Muhammad. According to the message of Islam, Prophet Muhammad was the Seal of the Prophets (khatim al-anbiya), and he could not be succeeded by another prophet. However, a successor was needed to assume Prophet Muhammad’s functions as leader of the Islamic community and state, ensuring the continued unity of the Muslims under a single leader.

Farhad Daftary, Diversity in Islam: Communities of Interpretation

The normative Sunni-centric approach understands guidance of the community after Prophet to be vouchsafed in the Quran, the Sunna and the authoritative religious-legal consensus of the religious experts called ulema and fuqaha. Broadly speaking, the division between the Shia and Sunni traces its origin back to the crisis of succession to the Prophet. The Prophet had performed during his lifetime functions that widely included his religious as well as political roles. Since, it was evident through the message of Islam that Prophet Muhammad (may God’s peace be upon him and his family) was the ‘Seal to the Prophets’ (khatim al-anbiya), so successor to him could not be a prophet. However, a successor was needed to lead the nascent Muslim community and state to ensure continued unity among the Muslims under a single leader. So the question of time was: who would succeed the Prophet after his demise? The range of opinion falls into two camps:

According to the Sunni view, since the Prophet had not left any instruction either verbal or written, it was up-to the community to select a leader among themselves, and that, when and where possible, that person should be most excellent and eminent in those virtues of righteousness that belonged to the Holy Prophet. The choice was fallen on the first four rightly guided caliphs- the immediate successors of the Prophet. In the immediate aftermath of Prophet’s death, admist much ensuing debate, this choice was resolved by a group of Muslim notables who elected Hazrat Abu Bakr, a trusted Companion of the Prophet, as successor to the Messenger of God (Khalifat rusul Allah), a title which was soon simplified to the word Khalifa. A distinctive institution of caliphate was thus founded by the nascent Muslim community. Abu Bakr and the later three caliphs together are called “Rightly Guided Caliphs of Islam”. It was only the fourth caliph Imam Ali b. Abi Talib who was closely related to the Prophet being his cousin and son-in-law, and the only one of the Rightly Guided Caliphs who belonged to the clan of Banu Hashim within Quraish.

The Shia have always maintained that the Prophet had himself designated Ali b. Abi Talib to succeed him to lead the Muslim community after his death. The designation was made at the time of Ghadir-i Khum and instituted by the Prophet himself through Divine Command. This was the basis that subsequently framed and extended the religious doctrine of Imamat of Shia Muslims of later periods. The Shia have always held the conception that the Message of Islam contains inner truths, which are not accessible with individual endeavor of the community and as such beyond limits of comprehension through human reason. In order to understand the true meaning of the Islamic revelation, there was need, therefore, for a religiously authoritative teacher and guide, the Imam, which Shia considered was to be appointed through Divine decree and will. Neither individuals nor Umma at large have authority to sanction independent judgments in the matters of faith. It is only prerogative of Imam of Time who interprets faith and guide community according to changing times.

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

-Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah Aga Khan III,

The Religion of My Ancestors (The Memoirs of Aga Khan III)

The Prophet Appointed Imam Ali as his Successor:

This (‘Ali) is my brother, my executor, and my successor among you. Hearken to him and obey him.’  Prophet Muhammad (Ibn Ishaq, Sirat Rasul Allah, tr. A Guilaume, The Life of Muhammad, 118)

Shia believe that the Prophet himself appointed Imam Ali as his successor, and that the appointment was declared on many occasions. The verse ‘This day I have perfected for you your religion and completed My favor upon you and have approved for you Islam as religion.‘ QQ 5:3, is reported in Shia tradition to have been revealed to the Prophet after he declared Imam Ali as his successor.  For Shia Muslims the same verse is inseparable from the accompanying events of Ghadir-i Khum, where the Prophet is reported to have designated Ali-b Abi Tālib as his rightful successor.

Qur’an 5 (al-Mā’ida), verse 67 says:

‘O Messenger. Proclaim the (message) which hath been sent to thee from thy Lord. If thou didst not, thou wouldst not have fulfilled and proclaimed His mission.’

According to Ibn Abbas: ‘This was revealed concerning Imam ‘Alī. Indeed, the Prophet received the order to declare ‘Ali [his successor]. Various variants of the words of the Prophet at the declaration of Ghadir-i Khum have been given in similar versions by different standard Sunni and Shia hadith collections. Following passages from Ibne Maja (from chapter fadail-al asbab), for example, are quoted here:

‘Then he took ‘Alī’s hand and said:  “Am I not closer (awla) to the faithful than their own souls?”“ Yes!,” They declared. He said: “Am I not worthier of each one of them than their own soul?”“ Yes!,” They responded. He said: “Then this is the friend/ protector (wali) of each person for whom I am their wali. O my God, protect whomever he protects(wali man wālāhu)! O my God, be the enemy of whoever is an enemy to him!”

Another traditionalist ‘Abd Allah b. ‘Atā quotes Imam Muhammad al-Bāqir: ‘God revealed to his Messenger: “Say to the people: ‘Of whoever I am the master, ‘Alī is his master. ” But the Prophet, afraid of the people, did not say this. Therefore, God revealed to him: “O Messenger, proclaim the (message which hath been sent to thee from thy Lord. If thou didst not, thou wouldst not have fulfilled and proclaimed His mission.” It was then that the Messenger of God took the hand of ‘Alī, on the day of Ghadīr Khumm, and said: Of whosoever I am the master, ‘Ali is his master” [1]


Imam Ali declared ‘Wali’ of the Believers:

“Only God is your wali and his messenger and those who believe, establish worship, and pay the poor due while bowing down (in prayer). Q 5:55.

‘Truly, Ali is from me and I am from him, and he is the wali of every believer after me’ – Prophet Muhammad [2]

“Wali” is someone who has “Walayah” (authority or guardianship) over somebody else. In Shia Islam, Hazrat Ali and after him every Imam personifies the Walaya. According to Ibn Abbās: ‘this verse (Q5:55) was revealed especially concerning ‘Alī ’ [3]

In Shia Islam, Walaya forms the substrate of the faith. It thus serves as an essential criterion and prerequisite of Iman. Walāya is also expressed as the pure love and devotion of a believer towards Prophet Muhammad, his family and his descendant. It, thus serves as an essential pre-requisite of faith, identified with an act of covenant that a murīd makes to the Imam of time. This covenant is called Bayah, expressed in the Qur’an in this way:

“(0 Mohammed) those who enter into a covenant with you make a covenant with God. The hand of God is upon their hands. He who breaks it does harm to himself and he who fulfills the terms of the covenant which he has made to God will be amply rewarded” (Accession: Verse 10)

As a fundamental prerequisite of faith, Bayah affirms the bond of connectivity and devotion of a murid to the Imam of Time. It is the faithful obedience of murids to the Imam, thus shaping life here and now, and as such it allows to actualize their moral obligation and faith. Its importance can be envisaged in the words of Ismaili Muslim dai and jurist al-Qāḍī al-Nu’mān, who says:

The verse from the Holy Quran makes it clear to us that our pledge to the Imams is equivalent to our pledge to the Prophet which is a pledge to God. Just as devotion to the Imams is linked with the devotion to God which under no circumstances can be given up, the fulfilment of our terms of covenant with them is also a sort of devotion from which we cannot break away to the slightest extent.

Majlis No. 5: “Fulfilment of the terms of “Bayat” with the Imams.” Kitab-ul-Himma fi Adabi Ataba-el-a’emma, Translated into English by Prof. Jawad Muscati

Imam Ja‘fer al-Sādiq is reported to have described the nature of the Walaya in these words:

“Our cause (amr) is the truly real and the true reality of the truly real (haqq -al haqq); it is the outer dimension, the inner aspect of the outer, and the inner aspect of the inner dimension ( batin al-batin), and it is a mystery, the mystery of a mystery, a mystery kept secret, and a mystery sealed with a mystery ” Imam Jafer-al Sadiq ( Al-Saffar al-Qummi, Basāir al darajat, vol I, p.71, hadith number. 120. see for the trans. The Master and the Disciple, pp 182.)

This refers to the fact that ultimate status of the Imam is hidden from masses, and a secret that is to be preserved by those who recognized him.

2. Aspects of the Authority of Imams and how this authority functions after the Holy Prophet of Islam.

The perspective of the Shia, through its historical and conceptual foundations, has developed into a coherent alternative to the Sunni worldview. It sees the legacy of spiritual guidance as being preserved in the person of Imam who is the physical and spiritual successor of the last prophet of God, Muhammad (may God’s peace be upon him and his family). Imams are the divinely initiated guides and authoritative exponents of salvific knowledge, a knowledge that is more perfect than any of other person in their time.

Shia derive their doctrine of Imamat based on three major sources: firstly from the Quran, secondly from the sayings of the Prophet, and thirdly from the sayings of the Imams. The present section contains references from these three sources.

Q 3:103 abounds all Muslims to be united:

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

What is this rope of Allah meant here? For Shia Muslims it is the progeny of Prophet Muhammad (Peace be upon him). In Shia scholarship, the Hadith of thaqalain ( two weighty things) is seen of most importance for the doctrine of continuity of Imamat:

I am leaving among you two things; the Book of God and my kindred (itratī), the people of my Household. As long as you will adhere to them, you will never be lead astray, because these two shall never be separated until they return to me at the Pool. (Quoted by Qadi al Nu‘man, the Pillers of Islam, pp 62.)

To the question who are included in the People of Household, Shia scholars quote Ibn Abbas stating that the Prophet introduced his household as Imam Ali and Bibi Fatima, Hasan ibn Ali and Husayn ibn Ali. Jabir has transmitted that the Prophet has said:

“God placed the children of all prophets in their backbone but placed my children in the backbone of Ali”. (Al-Tabataba’i, Muhammad H. Shi’ite Islam. Suny Press. p. 180)

Al- Hassan ibn-i Ali is reported to have said:

‘O people, whoever knows me, knows me, whoever does not know me, I am the bringer of good tidings, the son of warner, the son of summoner to God, powerful and exalted, with His permission; I am the shinning lamp. I am of the Family of the Prophet from whom God has removed filth and whom He has purified, whose love He has made obligatory in His Book when He said: ‘ Whoever performs a good act, We shall increase the good in it’. (Quoted by Wilfred Madulang, The Succession to Muhammad, pp 311.)

The Quran declares appointment of Imams is through Divine Decree:

The prerogative of authority  conferred by God to Imam lies at the heart of the Quranic teachings. Several verses from the Quran declare that God appoints Imams for the guidance of the community of believers.

And when his Lord tried Ibrahim with commands, he fulfilled them. He said: Surely I will make you an Imam for mankind. (Ibrahim) said: And of my offspring (will there be leaders)? He said, my covenant does not include the unjust. (2:124)

And we made of them Imams to guide by our command for they were patient, and they were certain of our clear signs. (32:24)

The Day We will call forth every people with their Imams (17:17)

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

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

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

In the Shi’i tradition, it is not up to desire of people to decide and appoint their Imam on their own will. It is also not possible, at the same time, for a believer to reach the status of Imam through his personal endeavor and knowledge. Designation of an Imam is through Divine decree. The background to this comes from the Quran. As Quran (2:124) declares, the making of a rightful Imam is not the function of ordinary human beings, but is prerogative only of Allah, this very verse categorically declares:

And We made them Imams guiding by Our command. And We inspired to them the doing of good deeds, establishment of prayer, and giving of zakah; and they were worshippers of Us. Q 21:73

“And your Lord creates and chooses whom he pleases, to choose is not theirs “al-Quran(28:68)

The same is expressed in other verses like in (2:124) which declares: “Verily, I (Allah) make you an Imam.”  And in 32:24, where it says: “We made Imams from amongst them.” These all verses declare: Imams are divinely designated.

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

In Shia Islam, Imamat is a hereditary office which is transferred from one Imam to the next through ‘Nas’ . Shia have been divided in history on the question of succession to Imamat into many branches. Among various branches of Shia Islam, it is only Shia Imami Ismaili Muslims who are being led by a living Imam. Today, this office of Imamat is held by Imam Shah Karim al-Hussaini, the Aga khan IV, who is the 49th hereditary Imam of Shia Ismaili Muslims and a direct lineal descendant of Prophet Muhammad (may God’s peace be upon him and his family).

“I am the 49th hereditary Imam in direct lineal descent from the first Shia Imam, Hazrat Ali ibn Abi Talib through his marriage to Bibi Fatimat-az-Zahra, our beloved Prophet’s daughter.”

(2005: Message to the International Islamic Conference, Read at NanoWisdoms)

“The leadership is hereditary, handed down by Ali’s descendants, and the Ismailis are the only Shi‘a Muslims to have a living Imam, namely myself…It is the presence of the living Imam that makes our Imamat unique.”

– Imam Shah Karim al-Husayni Aga Khan IV(2010: Interview – The Power of Wisdom)

Since there is no change in the Sunna of God (Q 35:43), therefore, reason necessitates that Imamat continues in the progeny of Prophet Muhammad and that selection and designation of Imam is by God Himself as has been the case with previous times. 

The Quran Declares Obedience of Imams Obligatory:

In Shia interpretation of Islam, it is incumbent upon believers to seek guidance of Imams with regards to matters they do not possess knowledge of. This is simply to obey the command of God when he says: Ask the people of the reminder (ahl al dhikr) if you do not know (Q.16:43) and Obey God and obey messenger and those of you who have authority (ulil Amr) Q4:59.

The Quran makes it obligatory on the believers to obey “those in authority” in addition to their obedience to Allah, and His Prophet, as we see evident in the following verse from the Quran which says:

O you who have believed, obey Allah and obey the Messenger and those in authority among you (Q4:59)

Another verse employed in matter is Q4:83, which says:

‘When there comes to them a matter, be of security or fear, they broadcast it; if they had referred it to the Messenger and to those in authority among term, those of them whose task is to investigate would have known the matter’

The Quran emphatically relates the obedience to ‘those in authority’ to the obedience of the Prophet and Allah. It has been a question of debate among Muslims on who are ‘those in authority’ being refereed to? In Shia tradition, these verses refer to the Imams. Imams are ‘those in authority’ whose obedience is made obligatory on the believers.

God (Glory be to Him) said: ‘If it had been from other than God surely they would have found in it much inconsistency: (4:82). This leads us to say: Those in authority among us are this knowledgeable among us. They are our Imams and the Prophet’s vicegerents over us. They are the ark of Noah. He who boards it is saved. God has ordered us to follow them and to acquire knowledge from them’ (Imām al-Masūr, Tathbīt al- imāma, Trans. Sami Makerem, p65.)


Imams are Authoritative Instructors and Interpretators of the Scripture:

The Qur’an Declares everything is created in pairs:

‘And of everything We have created in pairs ( zawjayn), that ye may reflect.’

(Qur’an 51:49)

The Qur’an emphatically declares that bounties which human beings receive are of two kinds: seen and unseen bounties (Qur’an 31:20) and that, on the Day of Judgment, people will be asked about these bounties (Qur’an 102:8). It would be rational to say that unseen bounties provided to humans are accessible, since if these were not to be accessible then accountability to know them on the Judgement was not justified.

Various narrations contrast the outward revelation of the Qur’an ( it’s tanzil) with the inner ta’wīl. A key Hadith from the Prophet through ‘Ali b. Abī Tālib and Ibn Masud, speaks of Zahir and Batin of the Qur’an:

Every verse of the Quran has four senses: an outward (zahir) and an inward (Batin) sense, a limit ( had) and a point of transcendence. The outward sense is the recitation, and inward sense is the understanding of the verse; the limit defines what is lawful and unlawful, and point of transcendence is the heart’s place or elevation the intended meaning, as an understanding from God, Mighty and Majestic is He. The outer knowledge [ of the Qur’an] is a knowledge [accessible to] the generality; whereas the understanding of its inner meaning and its [divinely] intended meaning is [for] a selected few ( khāss). [4]

Another Hadith comes down to us through through Ibne Masud, where the Prophet is reported to have said:

The Qur’an was sent down according to seven ‘lectiones’ (ahruf). Each Qur’anic verse has an exterior (zahir) and an interior (Batin). Each lectio (harf) has a limit ( hadd) and a point of transcendency (matla).

Prophet Muhammad [5]

Further Imam Jafer al Sadiq is reported to have said:

There is no zahir without batin and there is no batin without zahir.  [6]

In Ismaili thought, attaining knowledge about the esoteric aspect thus becomes indispensable in order to be able to discharge one’s responsibility with regard to the bounties. The prophet converts timeless theoretical reality into a practical instrument for the benefit of human society on its path to salvation.

For the Shi’a, and Ismailis more specifically, the textual elements of the Quran – being unique as embodiment of Divine Revelations – revealed through the Prophet, are seen to have at least two levels: One exoteric (zahir) and the other esoteric (batin). The esoteric is concealed by an apparent form of what is exoteric, while the former gives meaning to the later. Todd Lawson in his book ‘Reason and Inspiration in Islam, Theology, Philosophy and Mysticism in Muslim thought’, notes, classical Ismaili teachings divide the instructions of Imam and Prophets into three categories:

  1. the exoteric aspect
  2. the introduction to the esoteric aspect
  3. the pure esoteric aspect ( the highest stage)


The knowledge of the batin is the highest level of instruction. The central term used for exegesis of the text of Qur’an – is ta’wīl,  that is, taking the Quranic term back to its root sense, unveiling the inner meaning of the letter of scripture and surface of the text. 

This verse from the Quran serves as a proof text for the dual world view held among Imāmī Shi‘i and Ismailis, and Imam’s authority and his role as exclusive interpreter of the word of God :

It is He who has sent down to you [O’ Muhammad] the Book; in it are clear (muhkamat) verses – they are the Essence of the Book. And others are ambiguous (mutashabihat). As for those in whose hearts is deviation, they follow what is ambiguous from it, seeking discord and seeking its ta’wil (esoteric interpretation). But no one knows its ta’wil except God and those who are firmly rooted in knowledge (rasikhun fi’l-‘ilm), saying (yaquluna): ‘We believe in it. All is from our Lord.’ And no one will be reminded except the possessors of inner understanding (ulu’l-albab). – Holy Qur’an 3:7

Muslims have read this verse in two contrasting ways:

One way to read is what we find adopted by majority of Sunni Muslims and literalist groups, the last part reads as: “No one knows its ta’wil except God [full stop]. And those who are firmly rooted in knowledge say: We believe in it, all is from our Lord.” This approach limits the ta’wil of the Qur’an to be known by God alone and no one else.

In another equally valid reading, followed by numerous groups of Muslims among the Sunni and the Shi‘a – the theologians, the Philosophers, the Sufis, the Twelver Shi‘a, and the Ismaili Shi‘a, the last part says: “No one knows it’s ta’wil except God and those who are firmly rooted in knowledge, saying: We believe in it, all is from our Lord.”According to this second reading, the ta’wil of the Qur’an is known both by God and a group of people called “the firmly rooted in knowledge” (al-rāsikhūna fi’l-‘ilm) .

The esoteric instruction that is subject to the required level of comprehension is to be provided by the Imam or anyone appointed by him, to those who give Bayah to him. Several traditions affirm the authoritative station of the Imams in this regard, for example:

I am the Master of the revealed letter (of the Quran), and ‘Ali is the master of the spiritual hermeneutics.

Prophet Muhammad [7]

‘Ali b. Abī Tālib is the one who has the knowledge of the exoteric (zāhir) as well as of esoteric (bātin).

Prophet Muhammad [8]

‘Ali is with the Qur’an and the Quran is with Ali. They will not separate from each other until they return to me at the pool.’

Prophet Muhammad [9]

Every revealed verse without exception the Prophet recited to me, dictated it to me so that I write it down with my own hand. He taught me the esoteric ( tawil) and exoteric ( tafsir) interpretation ( of every verse), abrogating and abrogated, firm and ambiguous. Simultaneously, the Messenger of God implored God that He would implant in me the understanding and the learning by heart. And indeed, I did not forget a single word of it.

Imam ‘Ali b. Abī Tālib [10]

The light by the means of which we are guided, the Quran… It is me who will inform you concerning it, what it contains of knowledge of the future, of the teachings on the past, of the healing of your sufferings and of the setting in order of your relationships.

Imām ‘Ali b. Abi Tālib [11]

The exoteric form needs refreshing approaches to interpretation, possible only through a divinely appointed guide while the spiritually vibrant inner core is unchanging and eternal. The exoteric form is symbolic and contains esoteric aspect (al-bātin) which is beyond the language as the vehicle of Divine Revelation. Following is the quotation from Ismaili Muslim dai and jurist Al-Qādī al-Nu’mān, further adds to it:

“[God] the Exalted, the Most High has determined the esoteric layer of [the Qur’an] as his Messenger’s miracle, and the esoteric layer as a miracle of the Imams, from among his family. [The knowledge of the esoteric] exists only with them, and no one but they can produce anything similar; just as none but their forefather, Muhammad the Messenger of God, could produce the visible text [of the Qur’an]. It is inherited knowledge and is deposited with them; it exists with no one but them; they discuss it with each group according to their understanding and bestow upon the people of each rank that which they deserve thereof; they deny [this knowledge] to those to whom it needs to be denied, and remove from it those who deserve to have it removed, according to the words of Almighty Bestower [God]: ‘This is our gift. Bestow it or cease it without reckoning. Q.38:39’” 

Al-Qādī al-Nu’mān, Asās al-tawil, pp. 31-32. [12]

Al- Qadi al-Nu‘mān defines the exoteric aspect as perceptible through the senses and esoteric aspect as comprehended by knowledge, later being the object of true knowledge.

It is essential here to note that the concept of tawil in Ismaili thought does NOT completely correspond to the practices of transmission and adaptation generally known as tarjuma or tafsīr. While it is central to any understanding of the Qur’an that it calls for a need to engage with the words found in it, this essentially becomes a concern of legal theorists and translators who engage with the words of the Qur’an to generate its meaning. The themes and contents of a tafsir are determined by specific objective and audience to which it is being addressed. As it addresses asbāb al-nazūl (occasions of revelation) and a general commentary, which may add theological and philosophic ideas held by the writer. Since the text of the Quran in Islam is seen to be of inimitable language, translations produced in other languages are subject to validation and reinterpretation of the text remains unfeasible.

Imam is thus divinely authorized interpreter of the revelation and his interpretation is ‘free from error’ and by virtue of being repository of intrinsic nature of knowledge that he possesses, only Imam holds authority of tawil and talim of the Quran. The knowledge of the believers is subject to their obedience to Imam and their love and reverence towards him. However, it is not necessary that Imam should give tawil of Quran in any written form.

Thus in Shia Islam, the esoteric interpretation is centered upon the person of Imam who is the unveilor and elucidator of reality.

On the basis of above discussion following points can be established so far:

  1. God appoints Imams in addition to the Prophets
  2. Function of a Prophet is to reveal the Scripture and Law
  3. The Scripture is revealed in a symbolic form and contains hidden truth.
  4. Function of Imam is to unveil the hidden truth to those who recognize him.
3.The Interpretative Authority in 21st Century: 

During lifetime of the Prophet, the Prophet himself provided an existential and spiritual map that provided lucid means to the Muslims to achieve highest goals of engaged surrender to God.

Since with time context changes as historical and cultural location of the believers changes, there is thus a compelling need to reinterpret the existential vision in an innovative way that responds approximately to the changing historical, cultural and social horizons. Sunni Muslims sought solution to this in the form of Ijtehād and Ijmā. But for Shia Muslims since Imam is the temporal and spiritual successor of Prophet Muhammad, he holds absolute interpretative authority (ta’lim) and exegetical-hermeneutical authority (tawil) to define the fundamental principles of Islam and adjust its traditions to conform to principles according to the changing contexts and needs of Jamat.

“Among Ismaili groups that give allegiance to a living Imam, the Imam’s presence is considered necessary to contextualise Islam in changing times and circumstances and his teachings and interpretation continue to guide followers in their material as well as spiritual lives. An example is the role of the current Imam of the Nizari Ismailis, the Aga Khan who leads a worldwide community…..Among the Shi’a continuity with Muslim tradition and values thus remains tied to the continuing spiritual authority vested in the Imam or his representatives.”

Azim Nanji, Islamic Ethics

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

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

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

As Imam of the Ismaili sect, I am in a position to adapt the teachings of the Qur’an to the modern condition. On the question of modernity the issue is essentially whether one is affecting the fundamental moral fabric of society or whether one is affecting the fundamentals of religious practice. As long as these two aspects are safeguarded the rest can be subject to adjustment. Imam Shah Karim al-Husayni Aga Khan IV, India Today Interview (1st), Aroon Purie (India)

Since Islam, in the words of Aga Khan, ‘guides man not only in his spiritual relationship with God, it also guides man in his relationship with his fellow men and his relationship with the material world around him’, therefore, in Shia tradition, Imam is not only responsible for guidance of the community in spiritual matters, but he is also responsible for material well-being and protection of the community. [13]

In all interpretations of Islam, Imams are required to lead not only in interpreting the faith but also in improving the quality of life for the people who refer to them. This ethical premise is the foundation of the Aga Khan Development Network, which has long been serving the developing world without regard to ethnicity, gender or race.

Imam Shah Karim al-Husayni Aga Khan IV, Address to the International Press Institute, 54th General Assembly, 22 May 2005

Present Ismaili Imam has been engaged with civil society work since when he became Imam in 1957. He has concerned himself in three broad avenues of cultural, economic and social development of Muslims and the developing world. He has extended multitude of programs and institutions to serve the Ismaili community. Ismaili Imamat has established a broad network of development agencies, generally referred to as Aga Khan Development Network.

The AKDN has adopted a wider position articulated in an international framework of largest array of agencies and institutions of the world where Muslims live in majority or in minority, and it helps the government’s structures for poverty alleviation and improving Quality of Life.

The Network spans mainly in South and Central Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa, Middle East, Europe and North America. An outline of these development agencies is depicted in the chart below:


The agencies operate at a transnational level in social, economic and cultural sectors. Operating in more than 30 countries of developing world, it employs more than 80,000 people. Its agencies are concerned with industrial promotion, tourism, finance, aviation, media in addition to its major role in education and health sector.


The essay gives a short glimpse into the formative doctrine of Imamat in Shia Ismaili Islam. God appoints Prophets to guide people. This article engages with several Quranic verses and hadith collections to assert that God also appoints Imams to carry out function of guidance to humankind. Since the Prophet of Islam is the last prophet of God, therefore, Imamat continues for guidance of people in the matters of faith. Function of Imam is not only to guide the community in spiritual matters, but he is also charged with responsibility of material well-being of those who give Bayah to him.

  1. The Tafsir of al-Hibarī (d. 286/899): Qur’anic Exegesis and Early Shi‘i Esoterism. Muhammad Ali Amir -Moezzi, The Sudy of Shia Islam, History, Theology and law, Edited by Farhad Daftary and Gulfarid Miskinzoda.
  2. Cited by Reza Shah Kazmi in his Chapter: Imam Ali, The Shia World, Pathways in Traditions and Modernity, Ed by Farhad Daftary, Amyn B.Sajoo, pp 35
  3. Tradition no. 22, pp 260. Al- Hibari, al-Masnad, ed. al-Sayyid Muhammad Ridā al-Husayni. Hadith Quoted by Muhammad A.A Moezi, The Study of Shia Islam, ed by Farhad Daftary and Gurdofarid Miskinzada, pp123.
  4. Sahl b ‘Abd Allah al-Tustari, tafsir al Quran al-azim, ed. Muhammad Basil ‘Uyyun al-Sud as Tafsir al Tustari (Beirut, 2002), p 16. Quoted in The Spirit and the Letter, Approaches to the Esoteric Interpretation of the Qur’an, ed by Annabel Keeler and Sajjad Rizvi. p.6.
  5. Transmitted through Ibne Masud, Hadith quoted in Sufi Hermeneutics, The Qur’an and commentary of Rashīd Al-Dīn Maybudī, By Annabel Keeler, p 70.
  6. Quoted in The Spirit and the Letter, Approaches to the Esoteric Interpretation of the Qur’an, ed by Annabel Keeler and Sajjad Rizvi., p 8.
  7. Hadith quoted by Muhammad Ali Amir -Moezzi, The Tafsir of al-Hibarī ( d. 286/899): Qur’anic Exegesis and Early Shi‘i Esoterism. , The Sudy of Shia Islam, History, Theology and law, Edited by Farhad Daftary and Gulfarid Miskinzoda
  8. Tradition narrated by Ibn ‘Abbās, Sulaymām b Ibrahim al-Qunduzi d. 1294, Yanabi all mawadda, Hadith quoted by Mohammad Ali Amir-Moezzi, The Tafsir of the alHibarī:Quranic Exegesis and Early Shi‘i Esotericism.
  9. Cited by Reza Shah Kazmi in his Chapter: Imam Ali, The Shi’i World, Pathways in Traditions and Modernity, Ed by Farhad Daftary, Amyn B.Sajoo, pp 35
  10. Shawhid al-tanzil, Al-Hakim al Haskani (d after 470/1077-1078), ed. MB al Mahmudi, (Beirut, 1094/1974), vol. I, p.35, Trans Mohammed Ali Amir Moezzi.
  11. Attributed to Nahj al balagha, sermon number 157, p499, ed A.N Faid al Islam (Tehran, 1351 Sh./1972)
  12. Asās al-tawil, pp. 31-32. Trans: Meir M. Bar-Asher, The Authority to Interpret Qur’an, See The Study of Shia Islam, Ed by Farhad Daftary and Gurdofarid Miskinzada, pp 156-157
  13. Speech at the Ismaili Centre Foundation Stone Ceremony (Burnaby, Canada), 26 July 1982


About the Author:

Sujjawal Ahmad has a Masters degree in Science with specializations in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. His research focused on Targeted Molecular Therapeutics at Quaid- e Azam University, Pakistan. Sujjawal has authored many articles on Philosophy and Comparative Religions.  With his background in science and his interest in Philosophy he has struggled much, in his personal journey,  to reconcile faith with science, and continues to develop and share his understanding about the nature of reality. 


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