Does the Imam Claim Divinity? Divine Authority, Inspiration, and Guidance Explained

Firstly, there is an enormous difference between the Imam possessing "divine authority" and the Imam having "divinity". These are not the same thing. It is necessary that these terms should be defined up front before speaking to this question.

  • Authority means "the right to be obeyed by and command obedience from people."
  • Divine authority or more specifically "Divinely-ordained authority" means that God bestows "authority" - the right to be obeyed and command obedience from others. The person to whom God gives divine authority is the "holder of divine authority."
  • Divinity means "to be God, i.e. absolutely self-sufficient, uncaused, uncreated and unconditioned Reality" (see Surat Ikhlas) or "to share in the nature of God" as defined here.
  • Divine inspiration means that God guides and informs the intellect and actions of the "holder of divine authority."
  • Divine guidance means the guidance given by the "holder of divine authority" to human beings, a guidance that itself flows from the "divine inspiration." Divine guidance, being information conveyed from God to humanity is always, by definition, beneficial to humans.

RB: Is this [Imamat] a kind of divine authority?

AK:  You have to be very careful not to confuse the concept of religious authority with divinity. The Prophet himself never claimed any miracle of any sort. The only miracle which you have in Islam is the Qur’an.

- Imam Shah Karim al-Husayni Aga Khan IV, CBC Interview (1st), Man Alive with Roy Bonisteel (Canada), 8 October 1986

Prophet Muhammad had "divine authority" (4:80, 4:64, 48:10, 59:7, 33:6) because he was the Prophet, Messenger, and vicegerent of God, but he did not claim "divinity" as defined above. The Qur'an tells us in many places that "he who obeys the Messenger obeys God." So the authority that Muhammad has is divine authority and he holds it on God's behalf because he is the trustee and vicegerent of God. The guidance that Muhammad gives is "divine guidance". A logical argument for why a Possessor of Divine Guidance must always exist on earth is given  here.

The Prophet Muhammad had two sources of authority, one religious which was the essential one of his life, and the other secular which, by the circumstances and accidents of his career, became joined to his essential and Divinely inspired authority in religion. 

- Mawlana Sultan Muhammad Shah Aga Khan III,  Chapter 2: Islam, The Religion of My Ancestors (The Memoirs of Aga Khan III), 1954

Likewise, the Ismaili Imam - defined here as the historical person who holds the office of Imamat in any given period - has "divine authority" but he does not claim "divinity" as defined above. Thus, the Ismaili Imam is the trustee and vicegerent of God on earth, just as the Prophet was. The Imam's guidance, like the Prophet's guidance, is "divine guidance." The logical and historical proof of the Imamat of the Ismaili Imam is given  here.

"The Shias have therefore always held that after the Prophet’s death, Divine power, guidance and leadership manifested themselves in Hazrat Ali as the first Imam or spiritual chief of the devout. The Imam is thus the successor of the Prophet in his religious capacity; he is the man who must be obeyed and who dwells among those from whom he commands spiritual obedience."

- Mawlana Sultan Muhammad Shah Aga Khan III,  Chapter 2: Islam, The Religion of My Ancestors (The Memoirs of Aga Khan III), 1954

The Imam both publicly and in the Tariqah context claims to:

  • Possess Divine authority from God
  • Receive Divine inspiration from God
  • Convey Divine guidance that is beneficial to humans


  1. The Ismaili Imam of the time claims to have "divine authority" or "divinely-ordained authority." 
  2. The Ismaili Imam further claims that his divine authority is grounded in his "Divine inspiration" - which in religious terms he calls the "Nur of Imamat" and he calls himself as "bearer of the Nur", that is the possessor of divine inspiration from God. 
  3. The Ismaili Imam's guidance is therefore "divine guidance" and ought to be obeyed by anyone who believes in his Imamat, because this guidance is always for the benefit of humans.
I have been the bearer of the “Nur” a word which means “The Light”. The Nur has been handed down in direct descent from the Prophet. 

Imam Shah Karim al-Husayni Aga Khan IV,   The Sunday Times Interview, 12 December 1965

Having understood the various terms and how they relate to Ismaili doctrine, What should be made of the following statement by Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah? Doesn't the below quote demonstrate that the Imam claims Divinity?

"...There is no one greater than myself. If you think of God, then it is myself"

At first glance this statement by the 48th Ismaili Imam may seem as if he is claiming Divinity. However, the statement does NOT violate Tawhid in any way shape or form. The reason being - Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah never says he is God here. Mawlana Sultan Muhammad Shah rather is saying that the Imam is the highest level of reality in the cosmic hierarchy that a human being can think of, reach, and attain. This is because God, as per Ismali belief, is utterly transcendent and beyond all names, descriptions, and thoughts. Thus, God cannot be thought of or recognized directly because human minds are not capable of that. Instead, human minds can recognize only the Highest Created Being under God, and that Highest Created Being is the Nur of Imamat. 

The key phrase is - "if you think of God then it is Myself." Now, is it actually possible for a human to think of God and for his intellect to grasp God? It is not possible. True thinking is able to grasp and encompass the object of thought. This is how intellect knows anything at all, but God is above all limits so He cannot be grasped or encompassed by anything, not even the highest level of intellect. So when the intellect attempts to think of God, the most the intellect can reach or attain to is the Universal Intellect - which is the Highest Created Being and identical to the Nur of Imamat.

God according to Ismaili Theology: 

1. God is beyond all names and attributes (including every name and attribute mentioned in the Qur’an like the Powerful, the Living, the First, the Last, etc.); all the so-called Divine Names and Attributes are created ( Read Here); (Click “Read Here” to see logical arguments and primary source quotes from the Ismaili Imams, hujjats and da‘is for each point.)

2. God is beyond matter, energy, space, time and change ( Read Here);

3. God is beyond all human conceptions in the imagination and intellect ( Read Here);

4. God is beyond both positive and negative qualities, i.e. He is not knowing and not not knowing; He is not powerful and not not powerful ( Read Here);

5. God is beyond all philosophical and metaphysical categories: spiritual/material, cause/effect, eternal/temporal, substance/accident, essence/attributes, and existence/essence: God is above existence and non-existence ( Read Here);

6. When God is associated with a name or attribute in scripture, ritual or everyday speech, e.g. “God is knowing”, the real meaning of this statement is that God is the source and originator of that power or quality, i.e. God is the originator of all knowledge but He Himself is beyond actually possessing knowledge as an attribute ( Read Here);

7. God’s Creative Act is called His Word or Command; this Command is a single, eternal, and continuous act which continually gives existence to and sustains all created or conditioned realities in every moment of their existence ( Read Here).

The creation according to Islam is not a unique act in a given time but a perpetual and constant event; and God supports and sustains all existence at every moment by His will and His thought.

–  Mawlana Sultan Muhammad Shah Aga Khan III, Chapter 2: Islam, The Religion of My Ancestors (The Memoirs of Aga Khan III), 1954

The supposed myth of claimed Divinity:

"The Aga Khan sees himself as nothing more than a community leader and philanthropist, and he only allows the preaching of his supposed divinity to continue so the community will follow his guidance for their own benefit."

Some misinformed members of the community have come to the conclusion that the Imam allows the myth of his supposed divinity to exist so the community will follow him. The Imam, as has been shown above, does not claim divinity - so this idea that the Imam perpetuates the myth that he is divine just so community members will follow him does not hold water and frankly, from a historical perspective, there is just no evidence for this.

  • From the wording in the Ismaili Constitution, - which all Ismailis in theory agree to and are bound to - the daily Jamatkhana ritual prayers, and the Imam's own statements (in public and in farmans), a rather different picture emerges and it seems untenable to say that Hazar Imam sees himself as nothing more than a community leader, philanthropist, de-facto head of state, and Chairman/CEO of institutions. 
  • When the Imam gives guidance on any matter in a speech or a farman - on any spiritual or social or ethical or economic matter - where is this guidance coming from? Is it the Imam simply giving a personal opinion, or is this guidance coming ultimately from God? 
  • Finally, given that Ismailis reaffirm the bay'ah, (the acceptance of the Imam's spiritual power and authority and committing to obey him), how does this bay'ah have any meaning if the Imam is nothing more than CEO/humanitarian/community head?

I am fascinated and somewhat frustrated when representatives of the Western world — especially the Western media — try to describe the work of our Aga Khan Development Network in fields like education, health, the economy, media, and the building of social infrastructure.  Reflecting a certain historical tendency of the West to separate the secular from the religious, they often describe it either as philanthropy or entrepreneurship. What is not understood is that this work is for us a part of our institutional responsibility — it flows from the mandate of the office of Imam to improve the quality of worldly life for the concerned communities.

– Imam Shah Karim al-Husayni Aga Khan IV,  Acceptance Address, Tutzing Evangelical Academy’s Tolerance Award, May 20, 2006

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