“What does it mean to become an Imam in the Ismaili tradition?”
“As you know, I was born into a Muslim family, linked by heredity to the Prophet Muhammad (may peace be upon him and his family). My education blended Islamic and Western traditions in my early years and at Harvard, where I majored in Islamic History. And in 1957 I was a junior when I became the 49th hereditary Imam of the Shia Imami Ismaili Muslims — when my grandfather designated me to succeed him.
What does it mean to become an Imam in the Ismaili tradition? To begin with, it is an inherited role of spiritual leadership. As you may know, the Ismailis are the only Muslim community that has been led by a living, hereditary Imam in direct descent from Prophet Muhammad.
That spiritual role, however, does not imply a separation from practical responsibilities. In fact for Muslims the opposite is true: the spiritual and material worlds are inextricably connected. Leadership in the spiritual realm — for all Imams, whether they are Sunni or Shia — implies responsibility in worldly affairs; a calling to improve the quality of human life. And that is why so much of my energy over these years has been devoted to the work of the Aga Khan Development Network.”
Mawlana Hazar Imam
Samuel L. and Elizabeth Jodidi Lecture at Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, USA, November 12, 2015
“All Muslims are called upon to improve the physical condition of our world, and honouring our cultural heritage is vital to that calling. Our response in simple terms is that not a day goes by where my institution – the Ismaili Imamat – is not building or rebuilding something somewhere: a historic site perhaps, but also a hospital, a university, an industry.”
Mawlana Hazar Imam
at the 50th anniversary of ICOMOS, London
October 22, 2015
“The Imamat is a Muslim institution with a history going back over 1400 years. As Imam of the Ismaili Muslims, I am to be concerned with the quality of life of the Community and those amongst whom it lives. Over many centuries and decades, that responsibility of the Imamat has entailed the creation of institutions to address issues of the quality of life of the time, and it today includes a number of non-governmental organisations, foundations and economic development agencies.”
Mawlana Hazar Imam
at the Opening of Alltex EPZ Limited at Athi River, Kenya
December 19, 2003
“Soon after the Founder of Islam, Prophet Mohammed, died, issues concerning the religious and secular leadership of the Muslim Community arose. By and large, the Sunni Muslims maintained that after Prophet Mohammed’s death each Muslim was left to interpret and practice his faith according to his understanding although every Mosque has its own Imam to lead the prayers. The Shia Muslims, on the other hand, believe that the successor to the leadership of the Muslim Community both in spiritual and temporal matters was the Prophet’s cousin and son-in-law, Ali, and that this leadership was to continue thereafter by heredity through Ali in the Prophet’s family.”
Mawlana Hazar Imam
Swiss-American Chamber of Commerce, Zurich, Switzerland
January 14, 1976
Upon the death of Prophet Muhammad, a successor was needed to assume his functions as leader of the community. The majority felt that the Prophet had not designated a successor and since he was the “seal of prophets” (khatim al-anbiya), he could not be succeeded by another prophet. A group of leading notables chose Abu Bakr (r.632-34), a Companion of the Prophet, as the successor to the Messenger of God (khalifat rasul Allah), whence the word caliph in Western languages.
This group held that the revelation, the Prophetic accounts (hadith), and normative acts (sunna) would sufficiently guide the community; they came to be known as Sunnis.
A small group held that the Prophet had indeed designated his cousin and son-in-law Ali b. Abi Talib as his successor instituted by Divine command and revealed at Ghadir Khumm shortly before his death. This group came to be known as “Shi’at Ali,” party of Ali, or simply, Shi’a.
The Shi’a interpretation
The Shi’a held that the message from God contained inner meanings that could not be understood through human reason alone and therefore, a religious authoritative guide, or Imam, was needed. The Prophet’s successor was responsible for interpreting and teaching the message of Islam. A person with such qualifications could only belong to the Prophet’s family (ahl al-bayt), which came to be defined to include Hazrat Ali and his wife Fatima, the Prophet’s daughter, and certain members of their progeny.
While all Muslims profess the Shahada, the Shi’i doctrine places importance on the Imam’s kinship to the Prophet as a prerequisite for possessing the required religious knowledge (ilm) and authority. After Imam Ali, the Imamat was to continue through the descendants of Hazrat Ali and Hazrat Fatima, and after Imam al-Husayn, it would continue until the end of time. The Husaynid Alid Imam has an understanding of the exoteric (zahir) and esoteric (batin) meanings of the message of Islam.
The institution of Imamat is the central doctrine of Shi’ism based on the belief in the permanent need for mankind for a divinely guided leader in spiritual and temporal matters.
The Twelver Shi’a (Ithna Asharis)
The major branch of the Shi’i interpretation of Islam that acknowledges a line of 12 (Arabic: ithna’ashar) Imams, beginning with Imam Ali b. Abi Talib. After Imam Ali, the community recognised his sons al-Hasan and al-Husayn, and then traced the Imamat in the Husaynid Alid line. Upon the death of Imam Ja’fa al-Sadiq in 765, they acknowledged his son Musa al-Kazim (d. 899) as their Imam. After the death of their 11th Imam al-Hasan al-Askari in 874, they recognised his son Muhammad, who was believed to have gone into hiding around the same time and is expected to return at the end of time as the divinely guided Mahdi. In the absence of their last, hidden Imam the community follows and emulates a living learned person (mujtahid) who is qualified to interpret the message of Islam.
Named after the sixth Shi’a Imam, the Ismailis further subdivided after the death of the Fatimid Caliph-Imam al-Mustansir bi’llah in 1094. Imam had designated his son Nizar as his successor, however, a group recognised the leadership of his brother Abu’l-Qasim Ahmad, who took the title of al-Musta’li. These Ismailis came to be designated as Musta’liyya, or Musta’lians, and they further split into the Hafizi and Tayyibi branches named after the respective leaders al-Hafiz and al-Tayyib.
Those who gave allegiance to Imam Nizar came to be known as Nizariyya, or Nizaris. The Nizari Ismailis, generally designated as Ismailis, are the only Muslim community to have continued to be led by a living hereditary Imam from the Prophet’s family, today known internationally as Aga Khan.
Farhad Daftary, A Short History of Ismailis, Cambridge University Press, Edinburgh University Press
Farhad Daftary, Zulfikar Hirji, The Ismailis An Illustrated History,
Compiled by Nimira Dewji