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The term Shafa’a means intercession, requesting assistance from a spiritual intermediary when seeking divine help. In conservative interpretations, only Muhammad can intercede with God on behalf of human beings. However, in Shi’ism, the idea of mediation includes the twelve Imams. Shafa'a has a close meaning to Tawassul, which is the act of resorting to intimate friends of God to ask forgiveness.

Terminology and Usage[edit | edit source]

He who makes the intercession is called shāfiʿ and shafīʿ. The word is also used in other than theological language, e.g., in laying a petition before a king (LʿA s.v.), interceding for a debtor (al-Bukhari, Istikhrad, 18). Very little is known of intercession in judicial procedure. In the Hadith, it is said: "He who by his intercession puts out of operation one of the hudud Allah is putting himself in opposition to God.[1]

In the Quran and Hadith[edit | edit source]

The word is usually found in the theological sense, particularly in eschatological descriptions; it already occurs in the Quran in this use. Muhammad became acquainted through Jewish and, more particularly, Christian influences with the idea of eschatological intercession. In Job xxxiii, 23 ff. the angels are mentioned who intercede for man to release him from death. In Job v, 1, there is a reference to the saints (by whom here also angels are probably meant), to whom man turns in his need. Abraham is a mortal saint whom we find interceding in the Old Testament (in the story of Sodom and Gomorrah).

In the apocryphal and pseudepigraphical literature, we find the same classes of beings with the same function: the angels[2] and the saints.[3] In the early Christian literature, the same idea repeatedly occurs, but here we have two other classes of beings: the apostles and the martyrs.[4]

In the Quran, intercession occurs mainly in a negative context. The day of judgment is described as a day on which no Shafa’a will be accepted.[5] This is directed against Muhammad's enemies as is evident from X, 18: "they serve not God but what brings them neither ill nor good, and they say these are our intercessors with God"; cf. also LXXIV, 48: "the intervention of those who make Shafa’a will not avail them."

But the possibility of intercession is not excluded. XXXIX, 44 says: "Say: the intercession belongs to God, etc.”. Passages are relatively numerous in which this statement is defined to mean that Shafa’a is only possible with God’s permission: “Who should intervene with Him, without His permission?”.[6] Those who receive God’s permission for Shafa’a are explained as follows: “The Shafa’a is only for those who have an ʿahd with the Merciful" (XIX, 87) and XLIII, 86: "They whom they invoke besides God shall not be able to intercede except those who bear witness to the truth." XXI, 26-8 is remarkable where the power of intercession is credited to the angels: "they say the Merciful has begotten offspring. Nay, they are but His honored servants who ... and they offer not to intercede on behalf of whom it pleaseth Him". It appears that the honored servants mean the angels. XL,[7] is more definite: “Those who bear the throne and surround it sing the praises of their Lord and believe in Him and implore forgiveness for those who believe (saying), Our Lord; who embraces all things in mercy and knowledge; bestow forgiveness on them that repent and follow Thy path and keep them from the pains of Hell."

Such utterances paved the way for open adoption by Islam of the principle of Shafa’a. We already have ample material in the classical Hadith, which reflects the development of ideas to about 150 A.H.. Shafa’a is usually mentioned here in eschatological descriptions. But it should be noted that the Prophet, even in his lifetime, is said to have made intercession. ʿAʾisha relates that he often slipped quietly from her side at night to go to the cemetery of Baqiʿ al-Gharqad [q.v.] to implore forgiveness of God for the dead.[8] Similarly, his istighfar is mentioned in the salat al-janaʾiz,[9] and its efficacy is explained.[10] The prayer for the forgiveness of sins then became or remained an integral part of this salat,[11] to which a high degree of importance was attributed. Cf. Muslim, Janaʾiz, 58: “If a community of Muslims, a hundred strong, perform the salat over a Muslim and all pray for his sins to be forgiven him, this prayer will surely be granted”; and Ibn Hanbal, iv, 79, 100, where the number a hundred is reduced to three rows (sufuf).

Muhammad’s intercession at the day of judgment is described in a tradition that frequently occurs;[12] the main features are as follows. On the day of judgment, God will assemble the believers; they turn to Adam for his intercession in their need. However, he reminds them that through him, sin entered the world and refers them to Nuh. But he also mentions his sins and refers them to Ibrahim. In this way, they appeal in vain to the great apostles of God until ʿIsa finally advises them to appeal to Muhammad for assistance. The latter will gird himself and, with God's permission, throw himself before Him. Then he will be told, "arise and say, intercession is granted thee." God will thereupon name him a definite number to be released, and when he has led these into Paradise, he will again throw himself before his Lord, and the same stages will again be repeated several times until finally, Muhammad says, "O Lord, now there are only left in hell those who, according to the Quran, is to remain there eternally."

This tradition is in its different forms the locus classicus for the limitation of the power of intercession to Muhammad to the exclusion of the other apostles. In some traditions, it is numbered among the charismata allotted to him.[13]

Muhammad’s Shafa’a then is recognized by the ijmaʿ; it is based on XVII, 79: “Perhaps the Lord shall call thee to an honorable place"; and on XCIII, 5: "And thy Lord shall give a reward with which thou shalt be pleased[14] Muhammad is said to have been offered the privilege of Shafa’a by a message from his Lord as a choice; the alternative was the assurance that half of his community would enter paradise. Muhammad, however, preferred the right of intercession, doubtless because he thought he would get a considerable result from it.[15]

The traditions vividly describe how the "people of hell" (Jahannamiyyun) are released from their fearful state. Some have had to suffer comparatively little from the flames; others, on the other hand, are already in part turned to cinders. They are sprinkled with water from the well of life and restored to a healthy condition (e.g., Muslim, Iman, 320). In another class of traditions, it is said that every Prophet has a "supplication" (daʿwa) and that Muhammad keeps his secret to intercede with God for his community on the day of judgment[16]

Following the Christian conception mentioned above, Islam was not content to make Muhammad the sole conveyor of intercession. At his side, we find angels, prophets, martyrs, and even simple believers.[17] But it is Muhammad who will be the prime intercessor.[18] For the Shiʿa, naturally, the power of intercession after the Prophet falls above all to the Imams.[19]

Finally, one should examine the question of those for whom intercession will be efficacious. In the classical tradition, the response in principle which is given there is that Shafa’a is valid for all those who do not associate anything with God,[20] even if they have nevertheless been guilty of grave sins (of which they have not repented). A famous hadith makes the Prophet say, “My intercession will be for the grave sinners of my community (li-Ahl al-kabaʾir min ummati)[21] Such is the position of the Sunni theologians,[22] including the Hanbalis.[23] For them, the Prophet’s intercession will concern all those believers who, because of their sins, would have merited divine punishment, with God either admitting them to His Paradise immediately or else bringing them forth from Hell at the end of a period of time more or less protracted.[24] The Muʿtazila, on the other hand, as well as the Kharijites, reject this interpretation.[25] For the Muʿtazila, prophetic intercession can only operate in favor of sinners who have already repented;[26] they consider it to be, on God’s part, an extra act of favor (fadl).[27] Against the Sunni position, the Muʿtazila invoked certain of the Quranic verses cited above, notably XL, 18, and XXI.[28]

Hadith on Shafa’a of Imam Hussain[edit | edit source]

Through chain of authorities reaching Shaikh Saduq, who relates from his chain of narrators from Abil Jarood, who says that Imam Muhammad al-Baqir said that, one day the Holy Prophet Muhammad was in the house of Umm Salama, his wife, and told her not to allow anyone to visit him. Imam Hussain, who was a child at that time, entered therein and rushed to the Prophet. Umm Salama followed him and saw Imam Hussain seated on the chest of the Prophet, and the Prophet was weeping. In his hand, there was something which he was turning upside down. Then he said,

“O Umm Salama! Jibra’eel has come to me and reported that my Hussain would be martyred, and this earth is of his place of martyrdom. Preserve this with you, and the day this earth turns into blood, know then that Hussain has been martyred.”

Umm, Salama said, “O Prophet of Allah! Pray to Allah to relieve Hussain from this calamity.” The Prophet replied,

"Yes, I prayed to Allah for it, but Allah revealed to me that due to his martyrdom, a status will be bestowed on him, which will be unapproachable by anyone else. And he will be having such followers (Shi'a) who will intercede (on the day of Qiyamah), and their intercession (Shafa’a) will be accepted. And that Mahdi will be from his progeny. Hence how good for them who will befriend Hussain and will be among his followers (Shi'a). For surely on the day of Qiyamah, they will be successful."

In Popular Piety[edit | edit source]

Although the Throne Verse (sura II, 155) asks, "Who could intercede with Him except by His permission?" many Muslims believed that the Prophet was granted this permission, as XVII, 79 speaks of his "special rank." Another Quranic verse that seems to allow intercession was XL, 7, where "those who carry the divine throne" are mentioned as constantly asking divine forgiveness. Thus, the belief developed that even pious acts could serve as intercessors: the Quran will intercede for those who have studied and recited it devoutly, and this hope is often expressed in prayers written at the end manuscripts of it. Other religious works could be imagined as interceding, such as the profession of faith; even mosques were thought to be transformed into white camels or boats to carry to Paradise those who had regularly performed their prayers in them, just as Friday might appear as a beautiful youth to intercede for people who had honoured him by attending the Friday worship. It was also believed that martyrs could intercede on behalf of family and friends and that children who had died in infancy would intercede for their parents to have them brought to Paradise because otherwise, they would feel lonely.

But the most important intercessor is Muhammad, and the numerous people in the Muslim world who are called “Muhammad Shafiʿ” bear witness to this belief, which is based on the legend that at Doomsday, all prophets (including the sinless Jesus) will call out nafsi nafsi “I myself [want to be saved]” while Muhammad calls out ummati ummati "my community, my community [should be saved]." Innumerable folk-songs and high-flown poetical descriptions tell how he will lead his community to Paradise carrying the green "banner of praise" (liwaʾ al-hamd), for his Shafa’a is meant is believed, for the grave sinners of his community.

Many prayers contain the request that God may grant His Prophet the position of honor in which he can intercede for his community; typical is the prayer in al-Jazuli’s Dalaʾil al-khayrat, “O God, appoint our lord Muhammad as the most trusted of speakers and the most prevailing of requesters and the first of intercessors and the most favored of those whose intercession is acceptable ... etc.” Poetry in which hope for Shafa’a is expressed is found abundantly in all the languages of the Islamic world, whether one turns to a scholar like Ibn Khaldun in North Africa or a folk poet in the Khowar language, the Karakorum. The Urdu poet Mir Muhammad Taqi Mir (d.1223/1810 [q.v.]) claims: “Why do you worry, O Mir, thinking of your black book?

The person of the Seal of Prophets is a guarantee for your salvation!”

and the Mamluk Sultan Qayitbay of Egypt was as convinced of the Prophet’s intercession as were poets in Sind, who loved to enumerate dozens of countries over which the Prophet’s Shafa’a stretches (mostly in alliterating groups of names). All of them claimed that their “hand was on his skirt” to implore his help, and some, like the Urdu poet Muhsin Kakorawi (d. 1905), expressed the hope that the poetry written in his praise might be recited at Doomsday to make the Prophet intercede on his behalf (although the Hadith emphasizes the umma, not an individual, as the recipient of intercession.) Even Hindu poets wrote poetry in the hope of the Prophet's intercession, and the believers' fear of the terrible Day of Judgment was more and more tempered by adding the element of hope, represented by the Prophet’s loving care for his community.

References[edit | edit source]

  1. Ibn Hanbal, Musnad, ii, 70, 82; cf. al-Bukhari, Anbiyaʾ 54/11; Hudud, 12
  2. Test. Adam, ix, 3
  3. Maccab., xv, 14; Assumptio Mosis, xii, 6
  4. cf. Cyril of Jerusalem in Migne, Patrologia Graeca , xxxiii, 1115; patriarchs, prophets, apostles, martyrs; cf. xlvi, 850 lxi, 581
  5. sura II, 48, 254
  6. II, 255, cf. X, 3
  7. cf. XLII, 5
  8. Muslim, Janaʾiz , 102; cf. al-Tirmidhi, Janaʾiz, 59
  9. e.g. Ibn Hanbal, Musnad , iv, 170
  10. ibid., 388
  11. e.g. Abu Ishaq al-Shirazi, Kitab al-Tanbih, ed. T.J.W. Juynboll, 48
  12. e.g. al-Bukhari, Tawhid , 19; Muslim, Iman , 322, 326-9; al-Tirmidhi, Tafsir , sura XVII, 19; Ibn Hanbal, i, 4
  13. e.g. al-Bukhari, salat, 56
  14. al-Razi’s commentary on sura II, 48, 2nd masʾala ; cf. earlier, Muslim, Iman, 320
  15. al-Tirmidhi, Ṣifat al- Ḳiyama, 13; Ibn Hanbal, iv, 404
  16. cf. e.g. Ibn Hanbal, ii, 313; Muslim, Iman, 334
  17. al-Bukhari, Tawhid, 24/5; Ibn Hanbal, iii, 94; Abu Dawud, Jihad, 26; al-Tabari, Tafsir on Quran, XIX, 87
  18. Muslim, Iman, 330, 332; Fadaʾil, 3; Abu Dawud, Sunna, 13
  19. see e.g. M.J. McDermott, The theology of al-Shaikh al-Mufid, Beirut 1978, 254-5
  20. cf. al-Bukhari, Tawhid, 19; al-Tirmidhi, Sifat al-qiyama , 13
  21. Abu Dawud, Sunna, 21; al-Tirmidhi, loc. cit., 11; Ibn Maja, Zuhd , 37
  22. cf. al-Ashʿari, Maqalat, Wiesbaden 1963, 474
  23. cf. Laoust, La profession de foi d’ Ibn Baṭṭa , Damascus 1958, 100 of tr.
  24. see al-Razi, Tafsir on Quran, II, 48, beginning of the second masʾala, ed. Tehran n.d., iii, 56
  25. see al-Baghdadi, Usul al-din , Istanbul 1928, 244; Ibn Hazm, Fisal , Cairo 1317-21, iv, 63
  26. see Mankdim = Ps. ʿAbd al-Jabbar, Sharh al-usul al-khamsa , Cairo 1965, 688, 691
  27. see al-Ashʿari, Maqalat, 474; Mankdim, op. cit., 691; al-Razi, Tafsir, iii, 56
  28. cf. Mānkdīm, 689; al-Rāzī, op. cit., iii, 56

Bibliography[edit | edit source]

  • Ibn K̲h̲uzayma, Tawḥīd, Cairo 1968, 241-325
  • Ād̲j̲urrī, S̲h̲arīʿa, Cairo 1950, 331-52
  • Ibn Fūrak, Mud̲j̲arrad maḳālāt al-As̲h̲ʿarī, Beirut 1987, 167-70
  • Bāḳillānī, Tamhīd, Beirut 1957, 365-77
  • idem Inṣāf, Cairo 1963, 168-76
  • D̲j̲uwaynī, Irs̲h̲ād, Paris 1938, 222
  • Abu Yaʿlā, Muʿtamad, Beirut 1974, § 375
  • Abu ’l-Muʿīn al-Nasafī, Tabṣira, ii, Damascus 1993, 792-7
  • L. Gardet, Dieu et la destinée de l’homme, Paris 1967, 311-14
  • E. Riad, Shafa’a dans le Coran, in Orientalia Suecana, xxx (1981), 37-62
  • D. Gimaret, La doctrine d’al-Ashʿarī, Paris 1990, 497-500.
  • M. Horten, Die religiösen Vorstellungswelt des Volkes im Islam, Halle 1917
  • Tor Andrae, Die person Muhammads in lehre und glauben seiner gemeinde, Stockholm 1918 Taede Huitema, De voorspraak (Shafa’a) in den Islam, Leiden 1936 Constance Padwick, Muslim devotions, London 1960 A. Schimmel, And Muhammad is His Messenger, Chapel Hill, N.C. 1985. (Annemarie Schimmel)

Source[edit | edit source]