This is a question that I encounter very often. Especially in more traditional communities, there’s a consensus that the Imam is an incarnated God, not unlike the Catholic perception of Jesus. Of course, it doesn’t help when we see things like this:
…there is no one greater than myself. If you think of God, then it is myself. If you think about Imam, then too, it is me. And your Beloved Master is also me. There is no one except myself…
…અા દુિનચામાં અમાશ સિવાપ કોઇ મહાન નથી. જો તમે ખુદાવંદતઆલાનો વિચાર કરો તો તે ખુદા પણ અમે છીઅે. જો તમે પીરનો વિચાર કરો તો તે પીર પણ અમે છીએ. જો તમે ઇમામનો વિચાર કરો તો તે ઇમામ પણ અમે છીએ. તમારા મમતાળુ માલિક અને ઘણી પણ અમે છીએય કોઇ નથી અાુ દનિયામા પણ અમે છીએ…
Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah
Vadi Jamatkhana. 16 March, 1902
We’ll get into the specifics of that quote later on, but for now, let’s look at the question generally. Spoilers: the simple answer is “no”.
The second part of the Ismaili Du’a opens with the fifty-ninth verse of the fourth chapter of the Quran: Women (النساء). This verse commands Muslims to obey the authority of God, the Prophet Mohammed “and those of authority from you” (وَأُولِي الْأَمْرِ مِنكُمْ). Imam alBaqir and Imam Jafar asSadiq have said this last phrase applies specifically to the imams. Saying these authority figures, the imams, come “from you” (مِنكُمْ) means that they are human beings, from the same earthly matter as other humans, not divinely incarnated.
The sixth part of the Ismaili Du’a opens with the 112th chapter of the Quran: Devotion (الإخلاص). This chapter is also known as the chapter of monotheism (التوحيد). This chapter says, in no uncertain terms: God is uniquely singular (أَحَدٌ), eternal (الصَّمَدُ), and there’s nothing similar God. Side note: ibn Sina explores these attributes further. In this description, we also get the following phrase:
[God] neither begets, nor is born
لَمْ يَلِدْ وَلَمْ يُولَدْ
Quran 112:3 (Shahih International translation)
Just as a reminder: the Ismaili Du’a, as it exists today, was written by Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah (quoted above). This chapter from the Quran is situated in the Du’a just before naming the members of the Prophet’s family and the subsequent lineage of Imams, starting with Imam ‘Ali. Cleverly, what is recited after affirming that God does not beget (nor is born) is a list of people who begot and were born in chronological order. The line of imams is defined by their heritage, a property that God does not exhibit.
There’s also the argument that, because God is all encompassing, He cannot be limited to a single organism, in this case: the Imam of the Time.
the sun and the moon
Imagine yourself in out in the countryside at night. The full moon is shining bright enough to dimly light your surroundings; you can see the trees and fields around you. You could safely say that the moon, presumably full at this point is lighting your surroundings. It’s because of the light of the moon that you’re able to see.
But the moon is not a light source. The moon, as far as we know, is made up of the same kinds of rocks that Earth is made of (or cheese). But it’s not any substance that glows, or a constant nuclear reaction like the sun is. So, how does the moon provide us with light? The side of the moon that we see during a full moon is facing the sun, so the light that we see actually comes from the sun and reflects back onto Earth. What lights up our surroundings at night is actually the sunlight.
For this analogy, we’re walking around at night, the Imam is the moon, God is the sun, and the light is guidance.
Any divinity that someone would perceive in the Imam is actually a reflection of the divinity of God, not a property of the Imam himself. Just like any light coming from the moon is actually coming from the sun. So, while we live on Earth (at night), we can only see the light of the Imam (the moon), even though that light is coming from God (the sun).
The analogy extends a little bit more. One of the notable features of the moon is its cycle. The moon appears to grow and shrink in size every month. Obviously, this is just a lighting trick, as we see the moon in a different position of its orbit. The moon isn’t actually changing (or going away, as in the case of the new moon), all that’s changing is what we see of it. Not even the amount of sunlight on the moon is changing; if you look at it from space, you’ll see that 50% of the moon is illuminated all the time. Just like the moon, perhaps less regularly or frequently, humanity has had prophets and imams of various degrees. We can look at the Period of Concealment in Isma’ili history as similar to the new moon: the moon is still there, the light is still there, but it’s difficult to see in the sky.
If we look at the geology of the moon, the analogy extends further. A prevailing hypothesis for the formation of the moon is that an asteroid collided with an early Earth and carved out a large chunk before falling into orbit (source). This explains why the material composition of the moon is incredibly similar to that of earth. Likewise, the physical embodiment of the Imam is made of the same material as the rest of us: i.e. we’re all human.
One powerful addition to this analogy is the fact that the moon only reflects about 11% of the sunlight that hits it (source). Likewise, what the Imam brings is only a tiny fraction of what’s available in the graces of God (or at least that’s what the scripture says).
Now, we look again at the quote above from Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah. He makes some pretty bold claims, but not claiming himself to be God. What he does talk about is his proximity to the divine, as well as his proximity to mankind: the Imam acts as a bridge between the two. If there is a bridge across a river, you can’t get to the other side without stepping across the bridge, first. In this case, Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah is pointing toward the bridge (himself) as the only method of reaching the other side. He’s saying that there’s no other way of reaching the divine without the Imam, so: “If you think of God, then it is [the present Imam].”
Finally, Imam ‘Ali has said: “Not only is God more complicated than you think, He is more complicated than you can think.” And this is a sentiment reflected by every Imam and philosopher since: that God exists in a form that is greater than anything terrestrial, even an Imam.