The issue of Intercession (Shafa‘ah) is one of the most controversial issues within Islam. The Shi‘a school of thought and some schools within the Sunni tradition believe in the concept of Intercession, while others reject it . The Qur’an addresses this issue in three manners. First, there are verses which negate intercession, such as 2:123 and 2:254. Second, there are verses which say that the Intercession is exclusively the domain of Allah—He and only He has the ability to intercede, such as in 6:70 and 39:44. Third, there are verses which take precedence over the first two categories and it is in these verses that the power and ability of intercession is best defined. They state that while the Intercession is the absolute right of Allah, nevertheless, if He wishes, He can extend it to certain people among His creation. The Qur’an states:
No intercessor can plead with Him except by His permission.
Who is he that can intercede with Him except with His permission?
On that Day, no intercession shall avail, except the one from whom Allah, the Most Gracious has given permission and whose word is acceptable to Him.
And they cannot intercede, except for Him with whom He is pleased.
None shall have the power of intercession except one who has received permission or a promise from Allah, the Most Gracious.
Intercession with Him profits none except for those He permits.
According to these verses, certain people will have permission from Allah—such as Prophets, Imams, and Awliya’ (intimate friend of Allah)—to intercede and help people by the permission of Allah. Without His permission, no intercession will be accepted. Even during their lifetime, prophets had the ability to intercede on behalf of those who repented and sought forgiveness and returned to the path of Allah. The Qur’an states:
We sent no messenger but to be obeyed by the leave of Allah. If they who have been unjust to themselves had come to you (Prophet Muhammad) and begged Allah’s forgiveness, and the Messenger had begged forgiveness for them—indeed they would have found Allah All-Forgiving, Most Merciful.
(The brothers of Yusuf) said, “O our father! Ask forgiveness from Allah for our sins. Indeed, we have been sinners.” He said, “I will ask my Lord for forgiveness for you.” Verily, He, and only He, is the Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful.
The Prophet Muhammad has also mentioned to the people in regards to his own intercession:
I will be interceding on the Day of Judgement for whoever has faith in his heart.
Each prophet before me asked Allah for something which he was granted, and I saved my request until the Day of Judgement for intercession on behalf of my nation.
My intercession will be for the people who committed the cardinal sins (al-kaba΄ir) except shirk and dhulm (polytheism and oppression).
The Intercessors are five: the Qur’an, one’s near relatives, trusts (amanah), your Prophet, and the family of your Prophet (the Ahlul Bayt).
Shafa΄ah is not to ask the prophet or the imams for protection or to ward off calamity or to bring happiness and success. Rather, it is to plead to Allah, the Almighty by the sake of those who are near to Him, like the prophets and the imams. As the Noble Qur’an asserts, only those who receive promise and permission from Allah can intercede and help people on the Day of Judgement. Intercession will be for those with good intentions and good belief in this life, who neither defied Allah nor challenged His authority but, perhaps fell behind in part of their religious obligations. Their good record will help them receive the intercession of the messengers, the imams, and the believers on the Day of Judgement.
Imam Ja‘far al-Sadiq (as), the sixth Imam of the school of Ahlul Bayt, at the time of his martyrdom called his relatives and companions and said, “Verily, our intercession will never reach one who takes the prayers lightly.”
Calling Upon the Prophet and Imams for Help
Calling upon the Prophet and the Imams (also referred to as istighathat al-nabi wal-a’immah) is allegorical, not literal. The Noble Qur’an teaches people to worship and seek help from Allah (“iyyaka na‘budu wa iyyaka nasta‘in”); however, the allegorical seeking of help is permitted in the Noble Qur’an. For example, in the story of Prophet Musa (Moses), “And he found there two men fighting—one from his party (Shi‘a), and the other from his foes. The man of his own party asked him (istighathahu) for help against his foe, so Musa struck him with his fist and killed him.”
Many of the narrators of hadith narrate a prayer (du΄a) from the Prophet which begins, “O my Lord! I turn to you by your Prophet, the Prophet of Mercy (Allahumma, inni atawajjahu ilayka bi nabiyyika nabi al-rahma…).” Then it says, “O Muhammad! I turn to Allah by you to solve my difficulties.”
It is also narrated that the feet of ‘Abdullah ibn Umar al-Khattab became disabled and he could no longer walk. After being told to call upon the closest people to his heart, he said, “Wa Muhammada!” His feet became cured and worked properly again. The Noble Qur’an teaches us to “seek help through patience and prayer (sabr and salat).” Sabr (according to commentators of the Qur’an, in this context refers to fasting) and salat (prayers) are means which ultimately lead one to Allah. Thus calling upon the Prophet or Imam ‘Ali is allegorical since all agree that Allah is the main source of support, aid, and assistance and they are a means to Him.
Some Muslims associate calling upon the Prophet or the imams as shirk (heresy). They argue that a person should not ask any person for help. However, we see that if a person is faced with a problem in life, often, this person will logically and naturally call upon a nearby person for help. If a person was about to drown and he called out for help, then would his seeking help from someone other than Allah make him a mushrik (associating one with Allah)?
By the same reasoning, calling upon the Prophet or the imams is not shirk. The argument that they cannot be called upon because they are dead is also invalid, because the Qur’an falsifies the notion of martyrs being classified as dead,
“Think not of those who are killed in the way of Allah as dead. Nay, they are alive with their Lord, and they have provision.”
“And say not of those who are killed in the way of Allah, ‘They are dead.’ Nay, they are living, but you perceive it not.”
If an ordinary Muslim was martyred (for the cause of Allah) is considered to be alive, then how can the Prophet and his family, who were not only martyrs, but whose rank also surpassed that of all other human beings, be considered dead? Calling upon the Prophet and his family does not negate the fact that Allah is the source of help and rescue in this universe. However, because these people are the closest to Him, and they enjoy a special status with Him, then calling upon them means calling upon Allah for the sake of those whom He loves.