Why do we pray to the Imam?

One of the concerns that rises both inside and outside the Ismaili community is prayer towards the Imam. In Islam, prayer can only be directed to God, without equal. I'll note that there are different interpretations to that previous sentence: one that prayer should only be directed to God and the other that it's literally impossible to direct prayer to anywhere other than God due to omnipresence. And yet, the Imam's name is mentioned in a lot of Ismaili prayers, especially the secondary prayers where the Imam is implored for all the blessings that would normally be bestowed by God.

However, there are people who practice Ismailism who do believe that the Imam is God incarnate. This contrasts both Islamic beliefs generally, and Ismaili teachings specifically. While I'm not in the habit of calling people's beliefs wrong, equating the Imam to God would be considered wrong in the context of Ismailism.

This is not a new issue for Ismailis either. My main man Nasir adDin Tusi (of course) relates a similar story during his exploration, before joining the Ismailis.

I was engaged in a dispute with a jurist in Jajarm. In the course of the debate, the jurist denigrated the Ismailis. I asked the reason for this, and he said that they considered the Imam to be God, because they refer to their Imam with the words ‘our lord’ (mawlana) which, in their opinion, could not be used except for God.
— Contemplation and Action, p38

The jurist goes on to explain that the word "Lord" is used to refer to Muhammad, Ali, and all of the Imams in prayer, while both the title and the prayer can only be directed towards God. He specifies the phrase "O God, o our Lord" (allahuma, ya mawlana); a phrase that is still very common in Ismaili prayers, today.

Tusi then explains that, "since God cannot be recognized except through the Imam, the relationship of the Imam to God... is like that between a name and what it names" (p. 39). He insists that Ismailis aren't deviating from the Islamic belief of God without equal, because they're using the name for the direction towards God as well as God.

Us twenty-somethings are often asked "why are you on your phone so much?" The older generations see youngsters staring at screens and tapping away at all hours of the day. But, if you look a little closer, you'll see that I'm not staring at my phone. Instead, I'm looking at pictures from my friends' vacations. I'm reading news from around the world. I'm looking at depression memes on Reddit. I'm using the phone to reach a world wider than my immediate surroundings, but until you actually look at the screen you would think that I'm fascinated with a glowing box in my hand.

The relationship between an Ismaili and God is very similar. Yes, it looks a lot like Ismailis are praying to the Imam, just like it looks like I'm staring at my phone (which is effectively what we're doing anyway). But, just like I'm using my phone as a tool, as a medium, to watching videos of children falling over, Ismailis are using the Imam as a medium to pray to God. I wouldn't be able to reach pictures of hybrid animals photoshopped together without my phone. Likewise, an Ismaili wouldn't be able to reach God without the Imam.

TLDR Imamat History

TLDR Imamat History