Lecture 8 in the Ramadaan series:
UNPACKING THE MOST INTRIGUING QUESTIONS IN THE QURAN
Saturday 2 May 2020 (8 Ramadaan 1441)
Ahlul Bait (a.s) Masjid, Ottery, Cape Town
Mowlana Syed Aftab Haider
Shafa’at (intercession) in the Holy Quran is another hotly debated question. The question arises due to intercession being not allowed in numerous verses of the Holy Quran, where Almighty Allah (SWT) has clearly established that there is no intercession on the Day of Judgement (Qiyamah). So then, how can anyone believe in Shafa’at despite these clear verses?
Most Muslims (not all) do believe in intercession. Yes, there are also other issues in connection with intercession which are worthy of being responded to. I will list a few examples here:
- Intercession is viewed as sort of nepotism – it is based upon connections and not merit based.
- Another challenge presented is that intercession encourages people to commit sins, because they know they will be redeemed through intercession, and therefore they do not have to worry.
- Also, important to understand the verses of the Holy Quran which refers to intercession as Shirk (associating partners with Almighty Allah (SWT)), because you are asking help and seeking support from other than Almighty Allah (SWT).
- Another question which arises is that belief in intercession results in a situation where we cannot really believe in the commands of Almighty Allah (SWT), because on the one side, He is saying do this and don’t do this, but at the same time, if intercession is allowed, then you will get a free pass if you did not follow the commands of Almighty Allah (SWT) as intercession believes that you will be forgiven. How is this possible to understand?
There is a myriad of questions around this topic. Since our theme for these discussions are more focussed on the Holy Quran, we will respond to all these questions and reservations from the Quranic point of view.
INTERCESSION LITERALLY MEANS TO MAKE ODD TO BE EVEN
Before we analyse some of the verses of the Holy Quran dealing with Shafa’at, let us first understand what the literal meaning of Shafa’at is according to the Arabic dictionary. Shafa’at is derived from the root word Shafa, which means “even” ie. the opposite of “odd”. Shafa’at means to make “odd” to be “even”, eg. 1 + 1 = 2 or 3 + 1 = 4. You can see the result of making odd to be even.
It is important to understand this literal meaning as we build this discussion further. One thing is very clear – Shafa’at does not mean that it replaces something fully. It helps out, it does not replace! So, in the above simple example, 1 and 3 must first be there before another 1 can be added to make it even.
The second important linguistic issue is what does it mean when we use the term Shafa’at (intercession)? When we speak about intercession in terms of our day to day language, it is referred to as the action of intervening on behalf of another person.
Is this the same as how the Holy Quran refers to Shafa’at? The Quran speaks about Shafa’at in the sense that if somebody intervenes between Allah (SWT) and creation, to achieve something good (eg. Paradise) or to repel evil (Hellfire). This is what we understand Shafa’at to mean in Quranic terms.
INTERCESSION EXPLAINED IN THE HOLY QURAN
Now let us move to the verses of the Holy Quran which discuss intercession, where there are almost 30 verses connected to this topic. The question of intercession is that the Quran rejects the possibility of intercession on the Day of Judgement (Qiyamah). However, if we look deeper at the verses of the Holy Quran, we find that this is not really the case, as Almighty Allah (SWT) has spoken differently about Shafa’at in different verses of the Holy Quran.
Verses of the Holy Quran can be divided into various groups, starting with the verses which totally deny intercession. Verse 254 of Surah Baqarah (chapter 2 of the Holy Quran) refers:
يَا أَيُّهَا الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا أَنْفِقُوا مِمَّا رَزَقْنَاكُمْ مِنْ قَبْلِ أَنْ يَأْتِيَ يَوْمٌ لَا بَيْعٌ فِيهِ وَلَا خُلَّةٌ وَلَا شَفَاعَةٌ ۗ
“O you who believe! spend out of what We have given you before the day comes in which there is no bargaining, neither any friendship nor intercession.”
From the translation, we see that this verse is indeed very strong, making it very clear that we cannot negotiate a deal on the Day of Judgement through a representative intervening on our behalf. This verse is making it abundantly clear that nobody can help us out on the Day of Judgement!
The second type of verses are those which explain that Almighty Allah (SWT) will do intercession Himself. What does this mean? Let us look at this excerpt from verse 4 of Surah Sajdah (chapter 32 of the Holy Quran):
مَا لَكُمْ مِنْ دُونِهِ مِنْ وَلِيٍّ وَلَا شَفِيعٍ ۚ
“You have not besides Him any guardian or any intercessor.”
This verse announces that Almighty Allah (SWT) is the intercessor. This means that if we are sitting with a difficult account on the Day of Judgement, loaded with sins, then according to the laws of Allah (SWT), we are to face the consequences through His punishment. That said, He is promising in this verse that He will directly intercede to override His own ruling and thereby forgive you.
The third type of verses are those which explain intercession on the Day of Judgement through influential people, meaning not Allah (SWT) directly, as explained in the above verse. Indeed, the intercession of these sacred individuals will be only through the permission of Almighty Allah (SWT).
The very well-known verse in this regard is verse 255 of Surah Baqarah (chapter 2 of the Holy Quran), which is Ayatul Kursi. The following excerpt from this verse refers:
مَنْ ذَا الَّذِي يَشْفَعُ عِنْدَهُ إِلَّا بِإِذْنِهِ ۚ
“Who is he that can intercede with Him but by His permission?”
This verse therefore explains clearly that there will be people who are able to intercede, but only with the permission of Almighty Allah (SWT).
Then, the fourth type are verses of the Holy Quran which discuss the conditions of those people who will be able to receive intercession. An example is the following excerpt from verse 28 of Surah Anbiyaa (chapter 21 of the Holy Quran), which explains that Almighty Allah (SWT) will allow intercession to be received for those whom He is pleased with.
وَلَا يَشْفَعُونَ إِلَّا لِمَنِ ارْتَضَىٰ
“And they do not intercede except for him whom He approves.”
Another example is this excerpt from verse 18 of Surah Ghaafir (chapter 40 of the Holy Quran), which explains that oppressors will not receive intercession:
مَا لِلظَّالِمِينَ مِنْ حَمِيمٍ وَلَا شَفِيعٍ يُطَاعُ
“The unjust shall not have any compassionate friend nor any intercessor who should be obeyed.”
So, to state the obvious, one of the conditions for receiving intercession on the Day of Judgement is that you should not be an oppressor.
Now, what do we understand from these 4 types of verses in the Holy Quran which discuss intercession? It is very clear that the first type is referring to there being no intercession. Then the second type is saying that there is intercession directly from Almighty Allah (SWT). Then the third type says that there is intercession through special people. And the fourth type elaborates on the conditions required in order to receive intercession.
NO INTERCESSION IN QIYAMAH FOR THE IGNORANT IDOL WORSHIPPERS
The picture becomes clear when we bring these different types of verses together. We will understand this with the help of the great commentator of the Holy Quran, Allama Tabataba’i (r.a). He explains that when Almighty Allah (SWT) is saying no intercession in verse 254 of Surah Baqarah, it is referring to that practice of Jahiliyyah – the pre-Islamic era of ignorance.
This is when the idol-worshippers believed that the same system they follow in this world will apply after death as well, as a form of intercession. That is why they would offer sacrifice for their idols and bring gifts to their idols. Even when they would bury their dead, they would bury them along with their weapons and ancillaries which they believe they will need in the Hereafter.
They thought that the afterlife is similar to this world, and therefore they need to go “prepared”. It was their form of bribing the idols so that they will intercede for them in the Hereafter. It is in this context that verse 254 of Surah Baqarah was revealed, rejecting intercession of the idols on the Day of Judgement.
REAL INTERCESSION IS NOT THROUGH HAVING CONNECTIONS IN HIGH PLACES!
Those verses noted earlier which somehow acknowledge the presence of intercession are different to verse 254 of Surah Baqarah explained above. Again, what is the meaning of intercession? Ignoring the Jahiliyyah understanding described above, even in our times, we can think of intercession in two different ways.
In our daily life in this society filled with corruption, unfortunately when we speak about intercession, we look for connections in order to cut corners or be favoured above others. And with connections we try to resolve our problems. Naturally, this is the understanding of intercession we experience in our day to day life. This intercession is not the Quranic definition we believe in. This intercession is more a case of nepotism rather than following regulations! It is more about who you know, to get your job done, rather than fulfilling the required criteria.
When we say that our beloved Prophet Muhammad (SAWA) or his purified Ahlul Bait (a.s) will intercede for us, it does not mean that this will happen through our connections to Rasulullah (SAWA) and the Ahlul Bait (a.s). It does not mean we will be granted what we are not deserving of. This understanding of intercession is clearly not correct, and not the type of intercession we are discussing today from a Quranic perspective.
INTERCESSION IS OUR RELATIONSHIP AS SLAVES WITH OUR MASTER ALLAH (SWT)
Shafa’at (intercession), from the Quranic perspective is the relationship of the human being with Almighty Allah (SWT). This relationship with Almighty Allah (SWT) reaches a point where it achieves His pleasure. This results in grounds for Almighty Allah (SWT) to be kind, compassionate and forgiving to this servant of His. Not only does Almighty Allah (SWT) display extra care for this group of people, but He also allows His very special people to intercede for these pious servants.
What is the difference? The first intercession, which is connection-based, is basically from the lower level to a higher level. However, in the case of real intercession explained in the Holy Quran, it is upside flowing down. This means it is from Master to servant instead of from servant to Master. There is no nepotism in this true meaning of intercession.
It is the kindness of Almighty Allah (SWT) which you are seeking, and He is giving. You are not bypassing a law (which we do with connections), as the law belongs to Almighty Allah (SWT). Allah (SWT) is making space in His own law to accommodate you due to you deserving it ie. merit based.
The purpose of this intercession is also twofold:
Firstly, Almighty Allah (SWT) wants to show us that those who are able to intercede for us are truly superior. They are the divine Prophets (a.s), the Ahlul Bait (a.s) and the martyrs of Islam, and Allah (SWT) wants to indicate their greatness, which we should recognize.
Secondly, this type of intercession also provides the opportunity for sinners to seek forgiveness and gain proximity to Almighty Allah (SWT). This is due to their spiritual connection with Almighty Allah (SWT) or with His friends (Auliya). This spiritual connection which you establish is not possible through breaking the laws of Almighty Allah (SWT) and being inconsiderate for His commands. Such a person can never establish a link with the Auliya of Almighty Allah (SWT), and thus cannot be included in their intercession.
Intercession is at that point where a person is connected as a whole to Almighty Allah (SWT) and His Auliya, despite all challenges, sins and other problems in the person’s book of account. Such a person has strong faith in Allah’s (SWT) mercy. Hence, such a person is seeking this mercy and Almighty Allah (SWT) is showering His mercy.
This is the response which addresses most of the questions or reservations on intercession.
SEEKING INTERCESSION IS PURELY TO DRAW CLOSER TO ALLAH (SWT)
Intercession does not mean Shirk (associating partners with Almighty Allah (SWT)) nor does it mean Kufr (disbelief), because you do not worship the intercessor.
Wahhabi thought, in principle, agree that intercession is possible and that intercession of Rasulullah (SAWA) is correct. However, their point of contention is that we cannot seek directly from Rasulullah (SAWA). Instead, they say we should ask from Almighty Allah (SWT) to make Rasulullah (SAWA) our intercessor.
There is nothing wrong with this routing, but we believe we can ask from Rasulullah (SAWA) and the Ahlul Bait (a.s) directly for intercession, like we do in Dua Tawassul, which we read every Tuesday night. This practice is not Shirk, because we are asking them because they have been allowed by Almighty Allah (SWT). They are not in competition with Him.
Let me again refer to the explanation from Allama Tabataba’i (r.a). He says that the denial of intercession was in response to those who believed that the idols can help them defeat Allah (SWT) or push back His punishment.
We believe that those capable of interceding, in the form of Rasulullah (SAWA), the Ahlul Bait (a.s), Auliya (friends of Allah (SWT) and Shuhada (martyrs) have been given permission by Almighty Allah (SWT). They are in the same line of this will of Almighty Allah (SWT) to intercede in our shortcomings.
INTERCESSION PROVIDES HOPE WHEN ONE IS IN THE DEPTHS OF DESPAIR
Again, I want to repeat the literal meaning of intercession, which I introduced at the beginning of this discussion. I said that Shafa’at (intercession) means to make odd to be even. Now, in order to make odd to be even, there should first be odd. You cannot make zero to be even. You cannot have intercession where you have absolutely nothing but expect intercession will replace your actions. Intercession does not replace your actions. Intercession rescues you. It helps you out.
Those who say that intercession is a story of backward societies where nobody wants to work, and everybody wants to sleep is again a misconstrued perception of what intercession truly is. In fact, intercession is exactly the opposite, in that it creates hope! When a person commits repeated sins, he/she reaches the point where they become despondent as they are drowning in sins and shortcomings.
Such a person basically surrenders to the Satanic influence. However, this same person would have hope if he/she believes in intercession. The encouragement from intercession is that if you try to come up and establish a connection to the Ahlul Bait (a.s), even if it is a very weak connection to Imam Husain (a.s), you will rise above from the ditch of darkness from sins. Therefore, we believe that intercession brings hope, as it is an agent of positive movement in that one never loses hope.
Almighty Allah (SWT) sets His divine commands. By showering His mercy on us, His servants, He expands His will by being compassion and merciful towards us. It is not as if He is nullifying His divine law.
RASULULLAH (SAWA) AND THE AHLUL BAIT (A.S) ARE THE BEST INTERCESSORS
I would like to draw your attention to another very interesting point. In our discussions about the Islamic ideology (Aqeedah), specifically on the chapter of resurrection and the Day of Judgement, we have a topic called the embodiment of A’maal (actions). What this means is that on the Day of Judgement, whatever we have done in this world (our deeds) will be embodied in front of us. This is referred to as “Tajassum of A’maal”.
Like our deeds and actions will become the living reality, similarly our relationships will be embodied in front of us on the Day of Judgement. So, what is our relationship in this world with our living Imam (atfs)?
The Imam, as our leader, guides us towards salvation and the pleasure of Almighty Allah (SWT). If we establish this relationship strongly with our Imam (atfs), it will manifest and flourish on the Day of Judgement. This is not a question of guidance per se, but rather a matter of our Imam leading us to Paradise and the pleasure of Almighty Allah (SWT) which is of course intercession.
Intercession is clearly very important, and the greatest intercessor is our beloved Prophet Muhammad (SAWA). Someone asked which verse in the Holy Quran carries the greatest hope for us. This verse is verse 5 of Surah Dhuha (chapter 93 of the Holy Quran):
وَلَسَوْفَ يُعْطِيكَ رَبُّكَ فَتَرْضَىٰ
“And soon will your Lord give you so that you shall be well pleased.”
The Imams of Ahlul Bait (a.s) have explained that this verse is referring to the intercession of Rasulullah (SAWA), where he will ask for forgiveness on behalf of the sinners of his Muslim nation (Ummah) and they will be forgiven. He will ask for more and more, and Allah (SWT) will grant forgiveness, until he is pleased. We can imagine what great level this intercession will be! Therefore, this verse gives us the greatest of hope for salvation on the Day of Judgement (Qiyamah).
LADY FATIMA (S.A) PROMISES TO INTERCEDE FOR THOSE WHO LOVE AND CRY FOR HUSAIN (A.S)
Indeed, the Ahlul Bait (a.s) are part of this special status of interceding. Lady Fatima (s.a) has a special title connecting her to intercede on our behalf. And then needless to mention, Imam Husain (a.s) and the martyrs of Karbala who offered the greatest of sacrifice, enjoy the high status in the eyes of Almighty Allah (SWT). He rewards them with this permission to intercede on behalf of sinners who are somehow connected to them.
Lady Fatima (s.a) beautifully sums it up by saying that she will not enter Paradise until she ensures that all those who cried for her Husain (a.s) and established the link of love with her Husain (a.s) have entered Paradise.
This stage can be even after going through periods of punishment and accountability in the transit period after death and before Qiyamah, such that you are already clean by the time you reach the Day of Judgement but are still sitting with a book of account which leaves you needing help to be pushed through.
This is where Lady Fatima (s.a) promises to come to our rescue, as lovers of the Ahlul Bait (a.s) and Imam Husain (a.s).