Why Do Ismailis Ask Hazir Imam To Forgive Our Sins?
Question: Why do Ismailis ask Hazar Imam to forgive our sins? Is this practice unislamic? Is it not Allah alone who forgives sins? Did Prophet Muhammad ever forgive anyone in his lifetime?
Answer: The Qur'an uses several words in Arabic that have been translated, perhaps inaccurately, into the same English word -- forgiveness.
The relevant Qur'anic terms are maghfira, 'afwa, and safaha. The third term does not concern us here, but it is important to pay attention to both maghfira and 'afwa. In Arabic the term maghfira literally means to "cover over", "to conceal". When one seeks God's maghfira, one is literally asking God to cover over and conceal one's sins, shortcomings, faults, limitations, etc. In other words, maghfira is not only about forgiving sins but has this broader meaning of seeking God's grace and protection over all kinds of creaturely limitations. In the Qur'an, as far as I am aware, God is the only who grants maghfira and we are always told to ask God for His maghfira. However, the Quran is very explicit that believers must seek God's maghfira through the Prophet Muhammad per 4:64 and other verses. This only applies those who give bay'a to the Prophet. This involves a believer going to the presence of the Prophet, asking God's forgiveness and the Prophet then praying for their forgiveness and only then does the believer find God accepting of their request. This is clearly in the Quran in 4:64 and also in 9:103-104 where the Prophet Muhammad is the mediator for God's acceptance of atonement offerings and His acceptance of people's repentance. In Ismailism, the Imam takes over this role --- where the Imam is an intercessor or mediator for the maghfira of God. This is practiced in the Ismaili Dua where one seeks forgiveness ( Allahuma maghfir-lana) through the Imams ( bi-haqqi Mawlana...).
There is a 2nd Quranic term for forgiveness which is called 'afwa. The meaning of 'afwa is more specific than maghfira and different from it. 'Afwa means to nullify, to make something into nothing, to remove. So if maghfira is about concealing or covering, 'afwa is to make something disappear entirely. According to the Quran, both God and Prophet Muhammad perform 'afwa and grant forgiveness in the sense of granting 'afwa toward the believers. There are clear verses where the Quran tells Muhammad to "forgive them" (3:159) or "hold fast to forgiveness" (7:199) where the word 'afwa is used. So this means that the Prophet himself used to forgive his followers for any transgressions or sins or broken promises that they committed towards him. This is similar to the general idea we find in Islam that if you sin or wrong any person, you must seek forgiveness from them. Likewise, if someone makes a promise to the Prophet and breaks it, they must seek the Prophet's forgiveness in the sense of 'afwa. In Ismailism, this practice continues through the Imams up to the living Imam of the Time. This is why today's Ismaili tasbihs have a line that says "Ya Ali Tu Gat Jamatja Kull Guna Ma'af Kar". The word Ma'af as used in Ismaili prayers is directly from the Arabic word 'afwa. So again, this means that the Ismailis seek 'afwa from the Imam and they seek maghfira from Allah through the Imam. Once again, these are two different kinds of forgiveness.
Historically, since the Quran tells us that the Prophet Muhammad granted 'afwa, we know that he forgave people's transgressions against him during his lifetime -- otherwise it would not be in the Quran. Furthermore, in the Sunni Hadith literature which dates to later than the Quran, we find numerous examples of Prophet Muhammad forgiving all kinds of people and the Arabic term is 'afwa.
Again the confusion arises because the Quran and Hadith are using two different Arabic words for Allah's forgiveness called maghfira and the Prophet's forgiveness called 'afwa. But they are two different ideas with two different Ismaili practices linked to them. I do not think anyone can make a case that it is inappropriate to ask for the Imam to grant 'afwa because the Quran and Hadith tell us that Prophet Muhammad did precisely that.
Some further reading with references to the verses cited above: