Many religious communities around the world, including both Sunni and Shia Muslims, believe in the concept of intercession, which means to plead or intervene on behalf of another. Believers ask those who are considered close to God to intercede with the Lord on their behalf.
In the Shia interpretation of Islam, Allah commanded Prophet Muhammad to appoint Hazrat Ali (peace be upon him) as his successor, and the first in a line of hereditary Imams. The Shia extend the Prophet’s role as intercessor to the Imams descended from him. They therefore invoke the names of Prophet Muhammad, Hazrat Ali, the Imams and other members of the Prophet’s family in their devotional practices and prayers.
Seeking intercession does not mean equating the Prophet or the Imams to God. All Muslims, including Shia Ismailis, believe in the oneness of God (tawhid) as professed in the first part of the shahada, the Islamic declaration of faith: la ilaha illa-llah, which means “there is no god but Allah.”
In the following verse from the Holy Qur’an, the Prophet is described as having the authority to seek forgiveness for those who had made mistakes:
And if, when they had wronged themselves, they had but come to you [Prophet] and asked forgiveness of Allah, and the Messenger had asked forgiveness for them, they would have found Allah Forgiving, Merciful. (Qur’an 4:64)
According to one hadith, the Prophet suggested to a blind man that he offer the following prayer, seeking God’s help through the intercession of the Prophet:
O Allah, I turn towards You through Your Messenger, the conveyor of Your mercy. O Muhammad, I turn to my Lord through you so that He may grant me what I need…
Based on these traditions, many Muslims throughout history have believed in the intercession of Prophet Muhammad. Shia Ismailis and Ithna’asharis invoke the names of the Prophet and their Imams in prayers and devotional practices to seek help from God.
Sometimes, prayers for help or easing of difficulties (mushkil asan) are addressed directly to the Prophet or Imams. This is based on the understanding that all help and support comes from God, but often that grace is channelled through others.
During an interview in 1985 for Thames TV, His Highness the Aga Khan, the 49th Ismaili Imam, had the following to say:
Andrew Gardner: One of the myths surrounding you is that some people in the West think of you as a living god. Not only is that not true, it is also blasphemous.
Aga Khan: Absolutely. I mean, as you know the faith of Islam was revealed at a time when the Arabian continent was idolatrous, and idolatry – all forms of idolatry – are totally prohibited by Islam. It is certainly true to say that the Western world doesn’t necessarily understand the theology of Shi‘ism, nor indeed the theology of many mystical sects, whether they are Shia or Sunni or Christian. Mysticism, in its essence, is difficult.
- Wensinck, A.J., Gimaret, D. and Schimmel, Annemarie, “S̲h̲afāʿa”, in: Encyclopaedia of Islam, Second Edition, Edited by: P. Bearman, Th. Bianquis, C.E. Bosworth, E. van Donzel, W.P. Heinrichs.
- Nanji, Azim. The Penguin Dictionary of Islam. London and New York: Penguin Books, 2008.
- Faith and Practice in Islamic Traditions, vol. 1 (Student Reader). London: Islamic Publications Limited for The Institute of Ismaili Studies, 2015.
- His Highness the Aga Khan, “Aga Khan – Talking Personally,” interview by Andrew Gardner, Thames TV, June 5, 1985.
- IIS Secondary Curriculum: Faith and Practice in Islamic Traditions, vol. 1 and 2