Shifaa or Intercession in the Qur’an: Clearing Misconceptions

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One of the ideas commonly taught in Islam is the idea of intercession (Shifaa), in which someone (we shall discuss whom) intercedes on behalf of an individual presented before Allah on Judgment Day. But some misconceptions have made this rather simple idea more controversial.

The idea is that the individual may have committed a fairly sizable number of sins and perhaps didn’t do as many good deeds to offset these sins, so s/he is in need of intercession to “pass” this crucial moment of judgment and be allowed into paradise.

Intercession by Prophet Mohammad

Many (if not most) Muslims believe that this “service” is provided by Prophet Mohammad, who is often referred to as al-Shafi’ or “he who intercedes” or even “redeemer.” In a sense, this role is similar to the Christian concept of Jesus as savior or redeemer, except that Muslims categorically consider Mohammad as a human prophet (as they also consider ‘Isa or Jesus), not divine, whereas Christians consider Jesus not only an intercessor but divine and worship him as a “part” of God (called shirk in Islam, meaning “assigning partners with God”). The idea of the intercession of Prophet Mohammad is so strongly adhered to among many that they would be willing to kill anyone who openly challenged this idea. So I’m not sure how long I’ll live, because I am going to openly challenge this idea.

The Quran mentions intercession frequently, most often in reference to the statement that no one can intercede on anyone’s behalf without Allah’s permission. This is significant, because the message given here is not to emphasize WHO intercedes — Prophet Mohammad is NEVER called Intercessor in the Quran — but rather to emphasize Allah’s total authority on the day of judgment, as well as the absolute lack of any participation by anyone to interfere in any way with Allah and His judgment.

قُل لِّلَّهِ الشَّفَاعَةُ جَمِيعًا لَّهُ مُلْكُ السَّمَاوَاتِ وَالْأَرْضِ ثُمَّ إِلَيْهِ تُرْجَعُونَ

Say: “To God belongs all intercession.” To Him belongs the sovereignty of the heavens and the earth, then to Him you will be returned.”

Surat al-Zumar 39:44

Here unequivocally Prophet Mohammad is told to say to the believers that only Allah has sovereignty over intercession, and therefore it is understood to be granted to whomever He chooses. But the prophet is not named or mentioned in any way as an intercessor in the Quran — nor is any other human being. Surely if he was granted this power, Allah our Ultimate Guide would certainly have mentioned it in some way, even once. But that didn’t happen. For angels are the only ones mentioned in the Quran as intercessors, a service they are commanded to perform (angels cannot act without the command of Allah) when Allah the Exalted sees fit. It is never at the discretion of the prophet or even of the angels. Nowhere in the Quran does Allah suggest in the least that Prophet Mohammad is the intercessor or has special privileges of intercession, or name anyone as an intercessor for others, let alone that the prophet shares the throne with Allah — to say this would be both blasphemy, saying that He shares His throne with anyone, and shirk as defined above, in this case directly stating that Allah the Most High, the One with Exclusive Authority and Almighty, shares His throne with another. And yet many Muslims assert this or similar statements, backing their claims with hadiths, or “sayings” of Prophet Mohammad. Even the great Egyptian singer Om Kalthoum had sung a piece that declared this very thing (the lyrics meaning that Allah says to Mohammad “this is my throne, so ascend upon it.” But any hadith should never contradict the Quran; to even imply that he would contradict the Quran would be itself the utmost disrespect of the prophet. This defies the very heart of Islam, tawheed or “the total singularity of Allah,” a very pure monotheism in which the boundary between Creator and created is utterly and entirely sacred.

Surah: 69 – سورة الحاقة – Al-Haaqqa (The reality)

  • تَنْزِيلٌ مِنْ رَبِّ الْعَالَمِينَ
  • [43] (This is) a Message sent down from the Lord of the Worlds.
  • وَلَوْ تَقَوَّلَ عَلَيْنَا بَعْضَ الْأَقَاوِيلِ
  • [44] And if the messenger were to invent any sayings in Our name,
  • لَأَخَذْنَا مِنْهُ بِالْيَمِينِ
  • [45] We should certainly seize him by his right hand,
  • ثُمَّ لَقَطَعْنَا مِنْهُ الْوَتِينَ
  • [46] And We should certainly then cut off the artery of his heart:
  • فَمَا مِنْكُمْ مِنْ أَحَدٍ عَنْهُ حَاجِزِينَ
  • [47] Nor could any of you withhold him (from Our wrath).

I cannot imagine stronger words than these, and directed to us in full force about Prophet Mohammad (pbuh). This is why it is unimaginable that Prophet Mohammad would have ever said that he is the intercessor or shares the Throne of Allah, about which we know nothing (except that it may have a function and is not a place to “sit”), and it certainly isn’t a “chair” in the human sense at all. And these ayat above directly refer to “sayings” or hadiths; with such a powerful admonition, how can anyone imagine that he would dare invent any sayings at all, let alone one that contradicts the very “saying” in question, the Quran? And the idea doesn’t exactly make sense either.

Why, if Allah is The All-Merciful, and there is no mercy at all comparable to that of Allah, would anyone imagine that “someone” else, such as Prophet Mohammad, would have greater mercy than Allah, to the point where it would be necessary to mitigate Allah’s cruelty (forgive such a thought!) with the mercy of a man??? Even if this man is the highest rank of prophet? Is this not clearly a way of denying His mercy? One would have to believe the Quran contradicts itself (and throw out one’s religion in that case) to believe that Allah the Exalted Almighty, who clearly states He is in total control over intercession, yet at the same time relinquishes control sometimes, for the sake of certain persons, handing it over to a more-merciful human!!! This is obviously a total error in understanding. It is not that humans know each other more than the All-Knowing who is closer to us than our jugular veins. It can’t be that Allah wants us to have a human mediator as a kind of position of honor for the prophet, because the concept of “mediation” for matters of Allah’s Authority in and of itself is shirk.

So why? People want what is easy, a way out of a tight spot. There is no tighter spot than Judgment Day. Allah inspires fear in those who believe. And no one is without sin. One never knows what will happen on that Day. So a handy solution would be, hey, we have this prophet whom Allah approves of and who is going to paradise, so let him put in a good word since we are Muslim and basically follow the prophet, etc. Eventually this desire becomes “fact,” and then it becomes “dogma.” And then it becomes critical to the idea of surviving J-Day, so those who believe in it would like to annihilate those who say, wait, this doesn’t make sense, it can’t be true.

And thus we have the dependency on an easier fix for Judgment Day, something one can literally count on one’s fingers, say some magic words, and the whole specter of Jahannam, Hell, will be “solved.” For example, this hadith from At-Tabari: “Whoever sends blessings on me ten times in the morning and ten times in the evening will obtain my intercession on Judgment Day.” Do you think Prophet Mohammad would have said this, if Allah the Almighty All-Merciful, the Most Merciful of the Merciful, that to simply say words which ask Allah to give blessings and prayers for Mohammad (pbuh), repeating these words in this way, and nothing else, that Prophet Mohammad, by this way, can assert that he will have Allah’s permission granted on Judgment Day to intercede. And of course, this hadith implies that such permission will be granted according to the angels’ saying yes, we counted them up, 20 a day just as promised, so forget about his cruelty to his wife, his stinginess to those in need, his favoritism of one son over the other in the inheritance, and his being oblivious in his prayers, with too much on his mind of this world such as worry his wife will get some of his hard-earned money, etc., but these 20 words weigh more than that because At-Tabari said that so-and-so said that a few other guys said that Mohammad said, this, and who can challenge him on that? Deal done! With such an EZ way out, no wonder men are ready to kill for it. As if they can make it true by force. Or force of believing it. Did they ever actually notice what the Quran was saying?

The Angels as Intercessors, but Only with Allah’s Permission

So if Prophet Mohammad cannot intercede, who can? As I said above, the angels can, but only with Allah’s permission. Intercession then is a sort of prayer performed by angels on behalf of a believer whom Allah first adjudicated as being in need of “moral support” because of his/her sins, but also basically good and deserving of paradise. Because the Quran says Allah is always only just and fair, and will never oppress anyone. So intercession then is a sort of formality, but Allah is sole Judge, and the intercession does not change the actual judgment, but rather is a way of showing Allah’s mercy to those who may be “borderline” cases in terms of faith.

وَكَم مِّن مَّلَكٍ فِي السَّمَاوَاتِ لَا تُغْنِي شَفَاعَتُهُمْ شَيْئًا إِلَّا مِن بَعْدِ أَن يَأْذَنَ اللَّهُ لِمَن يَشَاءُ وَيَرْضَىٰ

And how many an angel is there in the heavens whose intercession does not avail at all except after Allah has given permission to whom He pleases and chooses?

Surat Al-Najm (The Star) 53:26

Here we read that the angels can be intercessors, but that they can only intercede or pray for a person if Allah gives them permission. The Quran should have the final say on matters such as this! Of course, no one can “know” an angel nor can s/he prepare for the possibility of intercession by, for example, getting in the good graces of one. So intercession in the hereafter is not like that in this world where we can try to influence the intercessor by bribes or other means. By the same token, by showing too much near-worship and assigning too many powers to the prophet, one cannot influence him to “do something” on that Day. The only solution is sincerity, compassion, deep faith in Allah alone, and studying the Quran and trying to live by its deeper and most emphatic guidance, especially spending in His way, helping others in whatever way we can, financially or by simple acts of kindness, taking time to listen to someone or show concern. Not by amassing “hassanat” as if it’s a “point system” where each word in the Quran one reads is ten points, even superficially without understanding, or turning a recitation on in the background and making sure to cry, or having a dream in which one sees the prophet or a relative of his. Good deeds should be simply that — not only prayer and fasting (certainly they count and are obligatory), but also equitable treatment of others, generosity, charity, and forgiveness.

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