What sources does an Ismaili Muslim consult when seeking guidance on a religious matter?
Due to the way Islam is presented in the media and public discourse, many Ismailis may just assume that the first and highest ranked source for guidance is the Text of the Qur'an, the second highest source is the Hadith of the Prophet, and then the third ranked source is the guidance of the Imams. This would mean that you would check the Qur'an first and whatever guidance the Qur'an gave about a topic would take priority over anything the Prophet reportedly said or one of the Imams said; likewise what the Prophet said on a matter would rank higher than what the Imams said, etc. In this model, the guidance of the Imams is only required if the Qur'an and Prophet's guidance do not address a topic, and in either case, whatever guidance stated in the Qur'an, by the Prophet, or by an Imam remains forever and eternally binding – thus leading to a snowballing of rules, commands, do's and don't's over history.
The above is a Sunni model of divine guidance and not applicable to Ismailis in the past or today. For the Ismailis, from the standpoint of seeking divine guidance in the here and now, the model is closer to the REVERSE of the above. Why?
Firstly, the commands in the Qur'an were NEVER meant to be followed for ALL time – the Qur'an just simply does not present things that way. Everything ordered in the Quran was for the Prophet's time only and even that is limited, because the Qur'anic discourse – not being a book until later on – gave continuous, evolving, and shifting guidance over 23 years as events occurred. After the Prophet, the Imams give new commands, replace old commands, and keep evolving all the rituals and practices – all of this being new manifestations of divine guidance.
The Prophet's Sunnah was never meant to be followed in the sense of imitating his precise actions – Sunnah is a pre-Islamic concept which Ummayad scholars then connected to the Prophet because the Qur'an itself hardly contained guidance on most issues and they required a second source of guidance. The words of the living Imam and the Imams in general take priority over the words of the Qur'an and the Prophet for the purposes of present day divine guidance:
The Imam must direct Ismailis on the practice of their religion and constantly interpret the Qur’an for them according to our theology. On the spiritual plane, the Imam’s authority is absolute. Ismailis believe therefore that what the Imam says is the only true interpretation possible. This is fundamental to our religion — perhaps something similar is found in the case of the Pope in the Catholic religion.
– Mawlana Hazar Imam (Translation)
L’Expansion Interview, Roger Priouret, ‘Face to Face with the Aga Khan’ (Paris, France), March 1975
What the Quran and Muhammad guided to in their own time was fine for that time, but the whole purpose of Imamat is that fresh divine guidance and updated interpretation of God's Will comes through the Imam in every age. These points are made clear in greater detail in the following readings and sources:
1. 10 Facts to know before Reading the Quran
--- This is a necessary piece to read first, before anything else. It is an academic historical intro to the Qur'an, its history, its context, and even answering some common Islamophobic claims about it.
2. Academic Lecture - The Speaking Qur'an: Revelation in Sunni and Shia Ismaili Islam
--- An academic talk given by Khalil Andani (PhD candidate at Harvard University, specializing in Ismaili Muslim thought) on the subject of how the Qur'an is revealed to Muhammad and what the Qur'an is. What you learn from here is that the popular idea of what the Quran is today is DIFFERENT from what the Qur'an actually says about itself. Furthermore, the Shia Ismaili view of what the Qur'an is and how it is revealed through the Prophet fundamentally differs from the widely popular Sunni viewpoint.
3. How and why the Imam of the Time is the Speaking Qur'an
4. Ismaili Esoteric Approaches to the Quran
--- Here is a detailed article on ta'wil - the esoteric interpretation of the Qur'an in the Ismaili Muslim tradition.
5. How the Ismaili Imam teaches the Esoteric Interpretation of the Quran today
--- Continuing from #4, this article talks about how the notion of Ta'wil works today through the guidance of the Present and Living Imam.