Imamate in Nizari doctrine

This is a sub-article to Imamah (Shia doctrine) and is specifically about the Nizari Isma'ilism conception of the term.

The Imamate in Nizārī Ismā'īlī doctrine[1] (Arabic: إمامة) is a concept in Nizari Isma'ilism which defines the political, religious and spiritual dimensions of authority concerning Islamic leadership over the nation of believers. The primary function of the Imamate is to establish an institution between an Imam who is present and living in the world and his following whereby each are granted rights and responsibilities.[2]

The Nizari Imamate follows a genealogy of male Imams originating from prophet hood of Muhammad by means of wedlock of his daughter Fatimah with his cousin Ali and in succession, through their son Hussein and his onward descendants up to the present day. Each ordained as successor Imam of this lineage is charged with serving the Nizari Ismailis community of his era; who are liable to pay the zakat (tithe) dues to him due to his being as ex-officio and the designated Nizari Imam. The Imam in return, imparts them the religious and spiritual guidance and also strives for their physical well-being to the best of his ability.

With respect to their spiritual nature, the Imams are considered living manifestations of the divine word as well as intermediaries (wasilah in Qur'an 5:35) between God and the Ummah. Based on this belief, the Nizari Ismaili concept of Imamate differs from that of the Twelver's concept in that the Nizari Imams possess the authority to interpret the Quran according to the times and change or even abrogate any aspect of "The Way/The Path" (Sharia) of Islam.

The 49th and presently living Nizari Imam is Prince Shah Karim Al Hussaini Aga Khan (IV).[3][4][5][6]


Ismaili Muslims consider love and devotion for the living imam, his deputies and missionaries an integral part of the religion and classify it within the Seven Pillars of faith. The Imam's Teaching Hierarchy (hudud al-din), historically called da'wa in Arabic, is considered a sacred tenet because without his loyal Da'is the living imam would essentially be disconnected from his following.

The Ismailis record several periods in which generations of Imams lived a clandestine lifestyle resulting from political rivalry, religious persecution, and often both. When the Imam of the Time's guidance cannot be delivered publicly his responsibilities are kept up through a staff of devotees acting intermediaries between the Imam and his followers. Ismaili literature traditionally refers to these periods of time as eras of concealment, or dawr al-satr in Arabic.


The Imamat is an institution of welfare that is established through a convent between an imam and his followers, whereby each assume rights and responsibilities.[2] In the words of the present living imam, Shah Karim al-Husayni Aga Khan IV, "the role of the Imam is to listen, not to talk; there's a big difference, in the sense that members of the community must inform me ... what is of concern to them."[7] However serving and humble the Imam of the Time may be, in the eyes of his devotees he is spiritually revered as the asylum of the universe and a blessing worthy of protection and sacrifice.

The source of authority of the Imamat is interpreted by Ismaili Muslims as being explicitly stated within the Quran and they also believe the Quran alone provides its framework. In a sermon delivered during the reign of Al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah the rights and responsibilities between the Imam and his following are explained:

The Imam has not the option to reduce the rights of his flock, nor is the flock to decrease the rights of their Imam. Among the rights of the flock against their Imam is the maintaining of the Book of God and the Sunna of His Prophet, may God bless him and his family, and restitution from those who treat them unjustly for those so treated, and from the powerful among them for the weak, from the noble of them for the lowly, investigating their manner of life and the differing conditions of it, looking solicitously upon his dependants in his efforts, watching over them with his eye. For He, great and glorious is He, concerning what He praised of the character of His Prophet and His Messenger said: ‘There has come to you a messenger from among yourselves; a sorrow that befalls you grieves him; he is anxious concerning you; with the believers he is kind and compassionate’ [Q. 9: 128]. When he does that, the flock should revere him, honor him and extend assistance to him, standing prepared and ready, on behalf of what is right according to the book of God and the Sunna of His Prophet, may God bless him and his family.[8][9]

Examples of recent developments initiated by the Imamat include the foundation of several welfare and higher learning institutions; they exist within the framework of the Aga Khan Development Network, the Aga Khan University, and the Institute of Ismaili Studies.


Every Nizari Imam is considered to be a testament to God's spiritual presence among his people. When a descendant of the holy family is nominated as the "Imam" they become one essence with the divine and a living manifestation of the Holy Quran. Each such designated (by nass) Imam receives the Nur (Light) of God as per the Quranic Ayat which asserts thus:

And We have vested everything in the manifest Imam. (Quran 36:12)

This Noor of God exists simultaneously in the present moment in the Almighty God's transcendental form as well as in the Nizari Imam's human form. Thus, when describing the essence of an Imam, the spiritual Nizari instructor of Rumi, the great Shams Tabrizi, wrote:

The meaning of the 'Book of God' is not the text (of the Quran); it is the Man who Guides. He is the 'Book of God'. He is its verses. He is scripture.[10]

In a sermon delivered during the reign of Al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah the measure of obedience to the Imam is explained:

God said: 'O you who believe, obey God and obey the Messenger and those with authority among you' [Q. 4: 59 ]. Thus He makes obedience a duty, attaching it to obedience to the regulators of His affairs. They are the ones who uphold, on behalf of God, His truth and those who summon to him whoever desires to obey Him. He singled them out by the imamate, which is the highest of the ranks below prophecy. He prescribed for the servants rights due them and ordered them to fulfil these. He stipulated that they are connected to obeying him, doubling their reward on the measure of how well they follow those whose authority is ordained.[8][9]


During the Fatimid rule of Egypt the affairs of state governance were a prominent occupation for the Ismaili Imams as the Fatimid Caliphs of Egypt. Aside from the governance of the Fatimid Empire there were also religious and spiritual affairs pertaining to the Fatimid Ismailis of the time who accepted the Fatimid Caliphs also as their spiritual Imams.

An institution of Ismaili Dawa (propagation of the Ismaili faith) was created by the Fatimid Imams and authority was delegated to Dais (spiritual teachers) for specific territories under the Fatimid Empire and even for territories beyond its borders to propagate Ismailism.

Textual basis

See also: Hadith of Ghadir Khumm and Hadith of Mubahala

At al-Ghadir Khumm, by God's direct and emphatic command, Prophet Mohammad designated his cousin and son-in-law Ali—husband of his daughter Fatima-tz-Zahra—as his successor to his spiritual office as the first Imam in the continuing line of hereditary Imams and as his successor to his temporal office as the first Caliph of the entire Muslim ummah (community). Ali was then accepted as the successor to Prophet Mohammad's leadership at al-Ghadir Khumm by about 100,000 pilgrims on their return journey after participating in the Prophet's Farewell Pilgrimage, his last one before his death that same year.

At al-Ghadir Khumm the most prominent and closest Companions of the Prophet (the Asaba) "gave their allegiance (bayah) personally to Ali under the Prophet's supervision." Among the Prophet's Companions were the first three Caliphs (the Rashidun Caliphs—i.e., the "Righteous Caliphs") Abu Bakr, Umar and Uthman who took Ali's hand in their own hands and publicly spoke their unstinted allegiance to serve him as their Imam and Caliph in the very same manner that all Muslims used to give their allegiance to Prophet Mohammad.

Numerous reliable hadith sources—both Shia and Sunni—record the event at Ghadir Khumm. They agree that Prophet Mohammad on his return journey from the final pilgrimage stopped at an oasis between Mecca and Medina known as Ghadir Khumm and addressed the large gathering of Muslims assembled there at his explicit command even though it was excruciatingly hot that day in order to hear God's special message to them (the people) according to God's message the Prophet himself had received at Ghadir Khumm directly from God via the Quranic Ayat 5:67 thus:

"O Apostle: Deliver (to the people) what has been revealed to you from your Lord. And if you do not do so then you will not have delivered His Message (of Islam). And God will protect you from the people." —Quran 5:67.

The Prophet then asked the gathered Muslims whether he (the Prophet) had a greater claim upon them than they had even upon themselves. The Muslims responded that Prophet Mohammad had a greater claim upon them than they had even upon themselves. The Prophet then went on to say,

"God is my Master and I am the master of all the believers. He whose master I am, Ali is his master. He whose master I am, Ali is his master. He whose master I am, Ali is his master. (i.e., repeating it three times). O God, help whoever helps Ali, oppose whoever opposes Ali, support whoever supports Ali, forsake whoever forsakes Ali, and may the truth follow Ali wheresoever he turns. Ali, the son of Abu Talib, is my brother, my executor (Wasi), and my successor (Caliph), and the leader (Imam) after me."[11]

The Shia Nizari Ismaili tradition bears witness to the continuity of the hereditary authority vested in the Imamim Mubeen (the Manifest Imam) at Ghadir Khumm by Prophet Mohammad and which has continued over 1,400 years from Ali to the present Imam-of-the-Time, Prince Karim al-Hussaini Aga Khan, the 49th hereditary Imam and direct descendant of Prophet Mohammad through Hazrat Ali and Hazrat Bibi Fatima tz Zahra.


The changing interpretations of the Quran by the Nizari Ismaili Imams to adapt to changing times creates tension between the Nizari Ismaili Imams and the Orthodox Ulema (Islamic scholars). The two most recent Nizari Ismaili Imams titled Aga Khan III and Aga Khan IV have replaced the obligation to perform the daily prayers from five times a day to three times a day by following the Quranic injunction rather than following the Prophet's custom (hadith and sunnah), in order to ease the religious pressures on the Muslim in the modern world. For example, they have dispensed with the veil for women and replaced it with dressing according to common decency in the country of one's residence:

"But purdah, as now known, itself did not exist till long after the Prophet’s death and is no part of Islam. The part played by Muslim women at Kardesiah and Yarmuk the two most momentous battles of Islam next to Badr and Honein, and their splendid nursing of the wounded after those battles, is of itself a proof to any reasonable person that purdah, as now understood, has never been conceived by the companions of the Prophet. That we Muslims should saddle ourselves with this excretion of Persian custom, borrowed by the Abbassides, is due to that ignorance of early Islam which is one of the most extraordinary of modern conditions." —Aga Khan III

Specifically, the Aga Khan IV has emphasized the ethics of pluralism, the cosmopolitan ethic of frontierless brotherhood and sisterhood, the forbearance from killing to settle disputes, governance by constitution and law, and the importance of keeping to the Islamic ethics practiced by the Prophet of Islam.


The Ismailis and the Twelvers split over the succession to Imam Ja'far al-Sadiq. Ismailis contend that Jafar had designated his son Isma'il ibn Jafar as his heir and the next Imam in the hereditary line and thus the Isma'ilis follow the Imamat of Isma'il and his progeny. Although Imam Ismail predeceased his father, he (i.e., Isma'il ibn Jafar) had in his own right designated his son Muhammad ibn Ismail as the next hereditary Imam who was to follow after him. In direct opposition to this belief, the Twelvers believe that Imam Ismail's younger brother Musa al Kadhim was from the beginning the rightful successor to Imam Jafar and that Ismail himself was never a contender.

The Nizari Ismailis have always maintained that the Imamah (also known as 'Imamat') can only be inherited from the current Imam to a direct descendant in a father-to-son (or grandson) hereditary lineage starting with Imam Ali and then to Imam Hussein and so on until their present Imam, Prince Karim al Husseini. Hassan bin (son of) Ali is regarded as a Trustee Imam (imam al-mustawda) as opposed to a Hereditary Imam (imam al-mustaqarr). This fact is clearly demonstrated in the recitation of the Nizari Ismailis' daily prayers three times a day in which Imam Hasan's name is not included in the hereditary lineage[12] from Imam Ali to their 49th[13] Imam Prince Karim al Hussaini (although Hassan bin Ali is revered as part of the Prophet's personal family, the Ahl al-Bayt). If Hassan bin Ali's name were to be included as one of the Ismaili Imams in their prayer recitation then the present Imam Prince Karim of the Nizari Ismailis would have to be the 50th Imam and not the 49th Imam, the way he has identified himself and is known to the world.


  1. Badakhchani, S. Jalal. "RAWŻA-YE TASLIM". Encyclopædia Iranica. Retrieved 24 April 2016.
  2. 1 2 Interview on BBC Radio 4 - 1979, September 6|
  3. Zachary, G. Pascal (9 July 2007). "The Aga Khan, a jet-setter who mixes business and Islam". NY Times. Retrieved 7 December 2011.
  4. "Mapping the Global Muslim Population". The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. Pew Research Center. 7 October 2009. Retrieved 20 April 2012.
  5. "The 500 Most Influential Muslims – 2011". Royal Islamic Strategic Studies Centre. Retrieved 20 April 2012.
  6. "His Highness the Aga Khan". Retrieved 26 November 2011.
  7. Interview on BBC Radio 4 - 1979, September 6. 17:00 minutes.
  8. 1 2 Daftary, Farhad|Study of Shi‘i Islam, The: History, Theology and Law |(Kindle Locations 10208–10220). I.B.Tauris. Kindle Edition.
  9. 1 2 Khuṭba of al-Q āʾim 302 (no. 1)
  10. Virani, Shafique N.|The Ismailis in the Middle Ages: A History of Survival, A Search for Salvation|Oxford University Press, New York, 2007|p. 93
  11. References to the sermon: 1. A'alam al-Wara, pp 132–133; 2. Tadhkirat al-Khawas al-Ummah; 3. Sibt Ibn al-Jawzi al-Hanafi, pp 28–33; 4. al-Sirah al-Halabiyyah by Noor al-Din al-Halabi, v3, p 273
  12. Daftary, Farhad (1990). The Ismailis: Their History and Doctrines. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press. pp. 551–553. ISBN 0-521-42974-9.
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