Why Do Ismailis Seek the Forgiveness of the Imam?

The Imam in Shi’i Islam is the spiritual heir and successor of the Prophet Muhammad. Thus, whatever spiritual functions that Muhammad performed in his lifetime, the Imam has the rights and authority to continue performing them. Thus, when it is established that the Prophet Muhammad played a substantial role in the forgiveness of the sins of the believers during his own lifetime, then Ismail Muslims seeking the mercy, forgiveness, and blessing from the Imam of the Time is completely justified and consistent with the Qur’anic model of prophetic guidance, authority, and guardianship.

Firstly, the Qur’an uses several Arabic words to speak about forgiveness. Without getting into details, two of these terms are maghfirah and ‘afwa. Maghfirah literally means covering, concealing or even protection. ‘Afwa means blotting out, cancelling or annulling. But English translations render both these terms as “forgiveness” and this causes some confusion. In the Qur’an, one finds that only God grants the maghfirah type of forgiveness to human beings, while both God and the Prophet Muhammad have the right to grant ‘afwa to the believers. 

Whatever spiritual functions Muhammad performed in his lifetime, the Imam has the rights and authority to continue performing them after him - this is what it means for the Imam to be the spiritual successor and legatee ( wasi) of Prophet Muhammad. The Qur'an clearly states that when the believers are seeking God’s forgiveness in the sense of maghfirah, they must go into the physical presence of the Prophet Muhammad, the Prophet must pray to God for their forgiveness, and only after this is done will the believers be able to find God’s forgiveness.

We sent not a messenger, but to be obeyed, in accordance with the will of Allah. If they had only, when they were unjust to their souls, come unto thee [Muhammad] and asked God’s forgiveness (fa istaghfaroo Allaha), and the Messenger had asked forgiveness for them (wa istaghfara lahumu al-rrasoolu), they would have found Allah indeed Oft-returning, Most Merciful (Allaha tawwaban raheeman).
– Holy Qur’an 4:64

Observe in the above verse that it is NOT a question of Prophet Muhammad convincing God to go from a state of not-forgiving and change into a state of forgiving. By logical necessity, God is always forgiving and always bestowing His maghfirah upon all creatures at all times (Qur’an 17:20, 31:20, 14:34, 35:2, 7:156, 33:43). However, when people commit sins against themselves and others, their souls become ignorant, impure and corrupted by these sins and they become blocked or prevented from perceiving and receiving God's forgiveness and blessings. Therefore, it becomes necessary for the believers to purify their souls by seeking the forgiveness of God. But seeking God’s forgiveness by themselves is NOT enough; the Qur’an as shown above clearly commands that everyone must go to the Prophet and have the Prophet seek forgiveness on their behalf in order to be able to perceive or “find” God’s forgiveness. It is the Prophet’s prayer and blessing that actually allows the sinful believers to “find” God Accepting of their repentance. Also see Qur’an 60:12 and 24:62 where it is stated that Muhammad prays to God for the forgiveness of his believers. See also the Appendix at the bottom for how established the Prophet's role in mediating God's forgiveness is established in the Sunni Muslim Hadith Books.

In 9:103 of the Qur’an we find even more detail where God tells the Prophet to perform the following actions when certain people wanted to repent for their sins:

And (there are) others who have acknowledged their faults. They mixed a righteous action with another that was bad. It may be that Allah will relent toward them. Lo! God is Forgiving, Merciful. Take (khud) offerings (sadaqah) from their wealth (amwalihum), 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-sadaqat) and that it is God who is the Accepting of repentance, the Merciful?
– Holy Qur’an 9:102-104

In the above verse, the Prophet Muhammad is ordered to “Take (khud) offerings (sadaqah) from their wealth (amwalihum)”. But the next verse confirms that it is God who “takes the offerings (ya’khudu al-sadaqat)”. Similarly, the Prophet Muhammad is told to purify them (tutahhiruhum) and sanctify them (tuzakkiruhum) by means of this offering. Yet the Qur’an also says that “God purifies (yuzakki) whom He wills” (Qur’an 24:21, see also 33:33). Once again, the only logical conclusion from such verses is that God purifies whom He wills through the Prophet Muhammad’s act of purifying the believers. 

So the Qur’an has clearly established the following practice or protocol as per 4:64 and 9:103. When the believers have committed sins and want to be forgiven by God, they have to do the following: 

  • Go into the presence of the Prophet Muhammad
  • Ask for God’s forgiveness in front of the Prophet
  • Give an offering (sadaqah) to the Prophet from their wealth
  • The Prophet accepts their wealth
  • The Prophet prays for their forgiveness
  • The Prophet purifies and sanctifies the believers’ souls
  • The Prophet bestows his blessings upon the believers
  • The believers find peace from the Prophet’s blessing
  • Through all of this, God has accepted the believer’s repentance and offerings through the acts of the Prophet — “Do they know know it is God who accepts the offerings” 
  • As a result believers will find the forgiveness of God

Thus, these two Qur’anic verses illustrate for us how important the Prophet Muhammad is in the process of God forgiving the believers. The Prophet Muhammad in his own lifetime was the channel or means of access (wasilah) by which the believers seek out God’s forgiveness on one hand, and also, the Prophet is the medium by which God purifies and forgives the believers. This is why the verses say the Prophet must purify the souls of the believers; and yet the Prophet’s performance of all these acts is equated with the act of God because the Prophet acts by God’s authority. Since the Imam is the inheritor of the authority, knowledge, and light of the Prophet, then it makes perfect logical sense for the Imam to continue the above practices — which is basically what happens in Jamatkhana every time the murid does dua karavi, makes an offering to the Imam and asks for the forgiveness of his sins. In other words, the entire Isma’ili practice of seeking forgiveness (ma’af) from the Imam of the Time is firmly rooted in the Holy Qur’an.

Finally, the Qur’an also speaks about ‘afwa — the second kind of forgiving — that literally means annulling or cancelling or blotting out or effacing. But this type of forgiving is done by the Prophet himself. So while the Prophet and Imam are intermediaries of the magfirah type forgiveness, they are direct sources and agents of the ‘afwa type of forgiveness. Thus the Qur’an says about the Prophet Muhammad dealing with the believers: 

And, it is by the Mercy of Allah (rahmatin mina Allahi) that you [Muhammad] were gentle with them, for if you had been stern and fierce of heart they would have dispersed from around about you. So forgive them (fa o’afoo ‘aanhum) and ask forgiveness for them (wa istaghfir lahum) and consult with them upon the conduct of affairs. And when you are resolved, then put your trust in Allah. Surely, Allah loves those who trust.
– Holy Qur’an 3:159

Hold to the forgiveness (khuthi al-‘afwa); command what is right; But turn away from the ignorant.
– Holy Qur’an 7:199

In the above verses, the Prophet Muhammad is told to “forgive them” and “hold fast to forgiveness”. The word used here for forgiving is ‘afwa. Another Qur’anic verse describes the forgiveness of the Prophet in exactly the same words as the verses earlier which discuss the forgiveness (‘afwa) of God Himself. 

Whatever misfortune happens to you, is because on the things your hands have wrought, and for much He grants forgiveness (wa ya’afoo ‘an katheerin).
– Holy Qur’an 42:30

So in other words, both God and the Prophet (and the Imam) perform ‘afwa. As per the Appendix at the bottom, even the Sunni tradition interpreted the above verses to mean that the Prophet Muhammad was ordered by God to grant forgiveness and pardon to the believers for their faults, as recorded in Sunni Muslim Hadith Books. These all-important acts of forgiveness continue to be performed by the Isma’ili Imams from the Ahl al-Bayt of the Prophet Muhammad. A clear example is found when Jamat recites the following prayer imploring the Imam for his forgiveness in the giriyazari tasbih: 

Ya Ali, Tu Gat Jamat Mathe Rahem Kari,
Ghat Jamatja Kul Gunah Ma’af Kari.

O ‘Ali, may you have mercy upon the Gat Jamat,
May you forgive all the sins of the Gat Jamat.

The above tasbih uses the word ma’af to signify the forgiveness of the Imam. Ma’af is an Urdu word meaning forgiveness and is actually derived from the same Arabic word ‘afwa. Thus, the very use of the term ma’af in this Isma’ili tasbih is a reference to the concept of ‘afwa in the Holy Qur’an. It means that the Jamat is imploring the Imam to blot out or annul its sins — in very much the same way that the Qur’an describes the act of Prophet Muhammad as shown earlier. In other words, the entire Isma’ili practice of seeking forgiveness (ma’af) from the Imam of the Time is firmly rooted in the Holy Qur’an!

The Du’a Karavi practice is one where the murid approaches the Mukhi Saheb and seeks the Imam’s forgiveness. This practice is also a symbolic enactment of the Qur’anic verse 4:64 which commands the believers to go into the physical presence of the Prophet Muhammad to seek forgiveness. The Imam of the Time occupies the station of the Prophet in this regard and the Mukhi – Kamadia represents the Imam of the Time in Jamat Khana. The monetary offering that the murid brings is a symbolic offering ( sadaqah) which is actually mandated in the Holy Qur’an as follows: 

O ye who believe! When you hold private conversation (najaytumu) with the Messenger, offer something in charity (sadaqatan) before your private consultation (najwakum). That will be best (khayrun) for you, and most conducive to purity (wa atharu). But if ye find not (the wherewithal), Allah is Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful.
– Holy Qur’an 58:12

In the Du’a Karavi ceremony, the Mukhi Sahib announces that “ Mawlana Hazar Imam Kull Gunah Ma’af Kar” (May Mawlana Hazar Imam forgive all your sins) — where once again the word ma’af is derived from the Qur’anic term ‘afwa which is the ‘forgiveness’ or ‘blotting out’ of one’s sins that is performed by the Prophet himself. Therefore, this practice of seeking the Imam's forgiveness is also directly rooted in the Holy Qur’an. 

In summary, it is simply inaccurate to maintain that “only God alone can forgive sins” because the Holy Qur’an actually specifies three different forms of forgiveness signified by three distinct Arabic words. The first term, mafghira, signifies the covering and concealing of one’s sins and is an act of God Himself but in which the Prophet or Imam of the Time intercede and mediate for the believers by virtue of their status as God’s medium (wasilah) and intercessors on earth. The second term, ‘afwa, means annulling or canceling the sins and is an act of both God and the Prophet or Imam of the Time. The third term, safaha, is to overlook the sins entirely and is also an act of the Prophet or Imam of the Time. 

As the Qur’anic verse 3:159 demonstrates, it is incumbent upon the true believers to seek both the forgiveness ( ‘afwa) of the Prophet or Imam himself and the forgiveness (maghfirah) of God through the Prophet/Imam’s intercession and prayers. Therefore, the Isma’ili Du’a invokes the right (haqq) of the Prophets and the Imams in seeking God’s maghfirah while the Isma’ili tasbihat and superogatory practices such as Du’a Karavi and Chanta plead for the Imam’s ‘afwa by asking for his ma’af (forgiveness) of one’s sins. The Isma’ili Muslim practices of repentance, forgiveness and spiritual purification are therefore firmly rooted in the Holy Qur’an. Every Isma’ili murid has given bay’ah — has entered into a spiritual contract with the Imam and in doing so, the murid has promised never to disobey the commands (faramin) of the Imam. If one has disobeyed the Imam, then one has committed a breach of the bay’ah and it is necessary to seek forgiveness — both of God and of the Imam. It is necessary in everyday life to seek forgiveness from any person one has wronged. Therefore, it is even more necessary for murids to repent and seek the forgiveness from their Imam when they have disobeyed his guidance or instructions.

"Hence, it is necessary for you that you should remind yourselves of the covenants that you have made with the Imam and the terms of the covenant that you have taken upon yourselves to fulfill. If you ignore inadvertently or forget or treat lightly any of those terms, then the moment you realize your mistake you must atone for it by repentance and do what you have omitted to do. If you have forgotten the terms or some part of it then renew them by reviving the terms of the covenant. Admit your guilt and repent to God and to the Imam."
– Abu Hanifa al-Nu’man, (Kitab al-Himma — Code of Conduct)

Appendix: Prophet Muhammad forgiving the believers in Sunni Muslim Hadith Texts:

Allah ordered  His Prophet to forgive the people their misbehavior (towards him).
Sa'd said:  Messenger of Allah, forgive and pardon. God has granted you a sublime position, (but so far as he is concerned) the people of this settlement had-decided to make him their king by making him wear a crown and a turban (in token thereof), but God has circumvented this by the truth He has granted you. This has made him jealous and his jealousy (must have) prompted the behaviour that you have witnessed.  So, the Prophet (may peace upon him) forgave him.
The Prophet (ﷺ) said, "May Allah save the tribe of Aslam, and  may Allah forgive the tribe of Ghifar!"
(The Verse)  "Hold to forgiveness; command what is right..." was revealed by Allah except in connection with the character of the people.
The  Prophet of Allah (ﷺ) was commanded to hold to forgiveness from the conduct of the people.
A man came to the Messenger of Allah (ﷺ) and said: ‘I intend to undertake a journey, so give me provision. He said:  ‘May Allah grant you Taqwa as your provision (Zawwadak Allāhut-taqwā).’ He said: ‘Give me more.’ He said: ‘And may He forgive your sin (Wa ghafara dhanbak).’ He said: ‘Give me more, may my father be ransomed for you, and my mother.’ He said: ‘And may He make goodness easy for you wherever you are (Wa yassara lakal-khaira ḥaithu mā kunt).’”
I heard the Prophet (ﷺ) reciting Surat-at-Tur in Maghrib prayer, and that was at a time when belief was first planted in my heart. The Prophet (ﷺ) while speaking about the war prisoners of Badr, said, "Were Al-Mutim bin Adi alive and interceded with me for these filthy people,  I would definitely forgive them for his sake."
"I asked 'Aishah about the character of the Messenger of Allah. She said: 'He was not obscene, nor uttering obscenities, nor screaming in the markets, he would not return an evil with an evil, but rather  he was pardoning and forgiving."
"I heard my father say, that he heard his grandfather Al-Harith bin 'Amr, that he met the Messenger of Allah during the Farewell Pilgrimage, when he was atop his slit-eared camel. (He said):  'I said: O Messenger of Allah, May my father and mother be ransomed for you; pray for forgiveness for me. He said: May Allah forgive you (plural). Then I came to him from the other side, hoping that he would supplicate just for me alone, and not them.  I said: O Messenger of Allah, pray for forgiveness for me. He said: May Allah forgive you (plural). 
"The  Messenger of Allah (ﷺ) supplicated for forgiveness for me on the Night of the Camel, twenty-five times."
He was then brought to the Messenger of Allah (ﷺ) who said to him, "Ask forgiveness of Allah and turn to Him in repentance." The man said, 'I ask Allah's forgiveness and turn to Him in repentance.'  The Messenger of Allah (ﷺ) then said three times, "O Allah! forgive him."
The Prophet said: O Allah, grant forgiveness to the Ansar, the offspring of the Ansar and the offspring of the offspring of the Ansar.
Allah's Messenger (may peace be upon him) called for water and performed ablution with it. He then lifted his hands and said.  O Allah, grant pardon to Thy servant Abu Amir. (The Prophet had raised his hands so high for supplication) that I saw the whiteness of his armpits. He again said: O Allah, grant him distinction amongst the majority of Thine created beings or from amongst the people. I said: Allah's Messenger, ask forgiveness for me too. Thereupon Allah's Apostle (ﷺ) said:  Allah, forgive the sins of Abdullah b. Qais (Abu Musa Ash'ari) and admit him to an elevated place on the Day of Resurrection. Abu Burda said: One prayer is for Abu 'Amir and the other is tor Abu Musa.

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