Light upon Light: Glimpses into the Succession of the Shia Ismaili Imams — Posted on July 11, 2014 by Ismaili Gnostic

The Ismaili Imamat is a supra-national entity, representing the succession of Imams since the time of the Prophet.

Imam Shah Karim al-Husayni Aga Khan IV

In the early hours of July 11, the Aga’s heart-beat weakened.  Aly and Sadruddin were summoned to the Barakat but their dying father could no longer speak.  Karim came and the Begum was still keeping up her vigil.  Four doctors were in attendance and nurses left the sick-room only to change their clothes or take a bite.  At midday, the Aga Khan was sleeping peacefully. Forty minutes later his life slipped quietly away… The curtains were drawn and darkness fell over a great figure of the age.”

Willi Frischauer, (The Aga Khans, 1970, p. 206)


Imam Shah Karim al-Husayni: Imam of the Atomic Age


“…I am convinced that it is in the best interests of the Shi‘a Muslim Isma‘ilian Community that I should be succeeded by a young man who has been brought up and developed during recent years and in the midst of the new age and who brings a new outlook on life to his office as Imam.  For these reasons, although he is not now one of my heirs, I appoint my grandson Karim, the son of my son Aly Salomone Khan to succeed to the title of Aga Khan and to be the Imam and Pir all my Shi’a Isma‘ilian followers…”

– Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah Aga Khan III


A Link in the Chain


“The Imam is a transitory being, who forms a link between the past and the future. For this reason, ensuring the continuity of the institution and its ability to fulfill its role is what my life is all about.”
– Imam Shah Karim al-Husayni Aga Khan IV,

(Paris Match Interview No. 2907, 3-9 February 2005)

The Isma‘ili Imamate, represented in every age by the Imam of the Time, is a trans-historical institution.   To engage the Isma‘ili Imam is to engage with the history which he represents and, in a sense, connect to the ‘past’ that he embodies in the ‘present’.  In this sense, one can experience the Imams of the past in the present Imam, but also experience the Isma‘ili communities of the past which were linked to these Imams:

In Ismailism, the fact that the Imam embodies a tradition extending considerably backwards in time creates the setting for just such an experience. By encapsulating the past within himself, the Imam serves as history incarnate, so to speak. In this sense, history is not only “learned”; it is also “experienced”, with a heightening of one’s intellectual and moral imagination.

– Aziz Esmail, (Why History, Institute of Isma‘ili Studies: Lifelong Learning Articles)

The figure of the Imam combines both transience and permanence.  As a single part of a series of Imams, each Imam is a transitory being, serving as but a link in the chain.  But the Imamate, the institution which each Imam bears and undertakes in his lifetime, is a permanent institution which has been present since humanity’s origins and which will continue to remain on earth until the Day of Judgment. Thus, the Imam is ‘a link in the chain’ – both historically and metaphysically.  Historically, the Imam is the link in the chain of Imams and a bridge between the past and the future.  Metaphysically, the Imam is a link in the great chain of being – guiding his murids from the limited realm of corporeality to the infinite realm of divinity – and serving as the mediator between the relative and the Absolute.


God is the Light of the heavens and the earth. The similitude of His light is as a niche wherein is a lamp. The lamp is in a glass. The glass is as it were a shining star. (This lamp is) kindled from a blessed tree, an olive neither of the East nor of the West, whose oil would almost glow forth (of itself) though no fire touched it. Light upon light. God guideth unto His light whom He will. And God speaketh to mankind in allegories, for God is Knower of all things.
– Holy Quran 24:35


The purpose of religion, in its essential sense, is ‘to bind’ the relative, the illusionary, and the transient to the Absolute, the Real, and the Permanent.  In Shi‘a Islam, it is the Imam – the bearer of the Light – who combines both transience and permanence within himself and guides the seeker to transcend his transitory and impermanent material life and bring his soul into communion with the Light of the Absolute and Infinite Reality – of which the Universe around us is but one of the infinite manifestations.

In our interpretation of this famous Qur’anic ayat, known as the ayat al-nur (Verse of Light), the ‘niche’ symbolizes the Imam’s physical body and the ‘lamp’ with its ‘glass’ symbolizes his pure soul.  The ‘blessed tree’ is Imam’s pure lineage which extends back through the previous Imams, the Prophet Muhammad, the Prophet Ibrahim and Adam himself; a lineage both physical and spiritual from which many great Prophets, saints and sages have come forth.  The light inside the lamp which shines and illuminates the darkness like a ‘shining star’ is the Light of Imamate which is the source of the Imam’s virtues, knowledge and guidance. It is a universal spiritual Light, ‘neither of the East nor the West’, which shines upon the ‘heavens and the earth’ illuminating all the seekers of enlightenment.  When the Imam departs this world and hands over the Imamate to the next Imam, one bearer of Light is succeeded by another bearer of Light; but their Light is one and the same and in reality there is no change, only ‘Light upon Light’.


“When you inherit an office, which is a life office, you are simply a link in the chain. And you therefore look at life somewhat differently than if you were, I suppose, a professional who moves around and is free to do what he wishes. Now some things are impossible to achieve. I well know that. And if that is the case, I simply have to try and move the issues forward as much as I can. The next Imam will then decide how he wishes to handle the issues. But, it is the continuum which is at the back of my mind. And that’s why perhaps my time dimension appears different than it might for other people.”

– Imam Shah Karim al-Husayni Aga Khan IV,
(Forbes Global, Cover Story, May 31, 1999)


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