This Imamat Day, like any Imamat Day is a great time to reflect on the History of our Imams. Ismaili Gnosis even did a retrospective on their Instagram leading up to July 11th this year. But how many Imams have we actually had?
The common belief is that we’ve had 49 Imams, including the current. When we recite part six of the du’a we list out 48 Imams and then conclude with the name of the current imam. Hazar Imam has even written:
I am the 49th hereditary Imam in direct lineal descent from the first Shia Imam, Hazrat ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib through his marriage to Bibi Fatimat-az-Zahra, our beloved Prophet’s daughter.
So obviously, there’s 49 Imams. End of article. Gosh, that was a short one.
Except, maybe there isn’t.
During the Diamond Jubilee celebrations this year, we watched a video that quickly listed all of the Imams we’ve had so far (there were 48 listed, plus Hazar Imam), along with the date that they served until. There were a few dates missing, of course: during the three periods of hiding in Ismaili history, any information about the Imams is scarce, if not lost entirely. However, there was one date we do know, that was left out of the video: the year 755.
755 is the year that Imam Ismail died. This is important because his father Imam Jafar asSadiq died in 765, ten years later. As we know, when the Imam dies, the position is passed down to the appointed son, but when Jafar asSadiq died, his appointed son had been dead for 10 years already. Imam Ismail never actually got to serve as the Imam, as the position passed over him to his son (or his brother, if you’re a Twelver).
So if you’re only counting Imams that got to serve as Imams, we’d only have 48.
We still count Imam Ismail as an Imam (in fact, we’re named after him). According to the rules that Jafar asSadiq set up, once someone is designated to be the Imam, they’re the Imam whether or not they actually live to serve. But that’s not the first time an Imam was appointed, but didn’t get to serve. Hazrat Hasan, the son of Imam ‘Ali and brother of Imam Hussein is commonly thought to be appointed as an Imam, in addition to serving as a caliph. However, Hasan was poisoned (probably by one of his wives) and Imam Hussein became the Imam.
So, if we’re counting appointed Imams, we’d have to count Hazrat Hasan as well as Imam Ismail. However, the “rule” about appointed Imams being the Imam whether they serve or not came about after Hazrat Hasan (remember, it was written by Imam Jafar asSadiq). So, although Hazrat Hasan doesn’t officially count as an Imam as far as Nizari Ismailis are concerned, that hasn’t stopped other Shia from retconning Hazrat Hasan back into the lineage of Imams.
As explored above, an Imam can be considered an Imam, whether they serve or not, as long as they’re appointed. But when do they become the Imam? Is it when they’re appointed? Is it when the appointment is announced (usually by reading a will)? In Ismaili tradition, the appointment of “Imam” is applied to the entirety of the man’s life, not just the time he served, or was even known about. According to Imam ‘Ala Dhikri asSalam:
An Imam is always an Imam… Their status looks different according to the way that our eyes perceive them. For example, sometimes a child, sometimes an old person, and sometimes a youth, and so forth, because although he does not change, it can be that we see him with our eyes as changing, or see him as two distinct persons, as a father and son…
Nasir adDin Tusi, The Paradise of Submission
Which means that any Imam, from their conception is the Imam for their whole life. That also means that if the next Imam is alive right now, he is also the Imam right now. This adds to our count because the current Imam is a grandfather.
So, even though we don’t know who the next Imam is, if they get appointed in the future, they’re the Imam right now.
So far, we’ve been looking at the hereditary line of Imams from the Prophet Muhammad’s daughter. But those aren’t the only Imams in the Ismaili tradition. They’re just the last ones. Some Ismaili scholars believe that Imams have existed before the Prophet Muhammad as well, each following from their own prophet. For example, it’s believed that Abraham appointed his two sons as the Imam (well, one as the Imam and the other as his assistant, but there’s still some dispute between the big religions on which son was which). Moses allegedly appointed his younger brother, Aaron, to be an Imam after his passing. Noah had his three sons, and of course Jesus had his disciples. According to tradition, as long as humanity has existed there has been someone to guide people toward divinity. So there would be a prophet, followed by appointed Imams until the next prophet.
Let’s assume there’s been prophecy since the beginning of mankind. We can date the evolutionary split between humans and our closest relative (neanderthal) to between 300-800 thousand years ago. For the sake of simplicity, I’ll pick a commonly estimated middle point: 400 thousand years ago. Our human lifespan has changed over the years, increasing up to almost 80 years today. Because I’m lazy, I’m going to take an average of 30 years and extrapolate from the 7th century backwards. I’m also not going to take into account some of the longer lives documented in scripture (sometimes up to a thousand years) because those can be negated by the people who were killed early for things like apostasy.
With some division, we can get a general number of generations since the beginning of humanity. If there’s always either a prophet or an imam, we just need to subtract the number of prophets. According to Abu Dharr, the Prophet Muhammad said that there’s been 315 messengers of God, 25 of which are named in the Quran*. If we subtract that from the total number of generations, we get approximately 13,100 Imams since the beginning of mankind.
*There are some semantics around this account. Muhammad says that there’s been 124,000 “prophets” (نبي “nabi” in Arabic) 315 of which are “messengers” (رسول “rasool” in Arabic). According to Muslim scholars, only the messengers receive a message from God, while prophets follow the teachings of their previous messengers so I only used the number of rasools for my calculation above. If we were to take into consideration the number of prophets Muhammad refers to, there could be up to a dozen prophets roaming around at any given time in human history.
Up until this point, we’ve been talking about people who have been the Imam. Whatever the actual number is, there’s been plenty of people that have passed through that mantle, including the imams that you find in Sunni mosques, of which there’s multiple at any given time. As far as human imams are concerned, the number doesn’t really matter. The Imam, whichever Imam, really comes in two parts. One part is the physical: the human body that fills the role of the Imam during his lifetime. That part is subject to appointment, and death, and dying before appointment, and everything else.
The other part is the spiritual part. It’s often called the light (نور “noor” in Arabic) and that exists separate from, but also within all of the Imams. It’s believed that the light is actually unchanged and passed down along with the mantle of the Imamat. So, it’s the same light in the current Imam as it was in the previous, not a new iteration of the light, but the same light. That’s why the Imam is a hereditary position, it’s given to members of the Noorani (نوراني descended from light in Arabic) Family, because each of the members are blessed with the light from God, via the Prophet Muhammad. This is explained in part six of the du’a as well.
In Ismaili belief, it’s this same light that extended and transferred through the Prophets (and their own “noorani families”) throughout history. So, while there have been many human Imams throughout history, they all share one light. And if we look at the Imam as a spiritual entity, rather than a physical one, there’s only one Imam.