Question: Is it not polytheistic to ask for one’s needs from anyone other than Allah (awj) such as the Prophet (ص) or the infallible Imams (ع) since it is Allah (awj) who is the Fulfiller of Needs?
If one reveres, refers or takes recourse to, or seeks one’s needs from these personages with the intention that are separate from Allah (awj) and independent of Him in fulfilling our needs, such an intention and notion is polytheistic and contrary to tawhid af’ali (the Unity of actions—the independence of Allah (awj) from all else, and the dependence of all other beings on Him in their actions) and tawhid rububi (the Unity of Lordship—His being the sole Planner and sovereign Lord, with all others, whether angels, prophets, or the natural worlds, being Divine workers). Such an intention constitutes polytheism in one’s understanding of Divine actions or Lordship.
But if this same respect, reference, and recourse are with the intention of:
a. Obedience to a Divine command;
b. Repaying the debt we owe them by virtue of their being the conduit of Divine grace in the creational and legal realms;
c. Follow their example or benefit from their special attention, without viewing them as independent of Allah (awj);
then there is no contradiction with Unity of actions or Lordship or with the fact that Allah (awj) is the sole (independent) Fulfiller of needs, since the actions, planning, and fulfilment of people’s desires through these personages are subordinate to Allah’s (awj) action, Lordship, and His being the Fulfiller of needs. They are not independent of Him for it to be considered polytheism.
Thus, the criterion of polytheism in seeking one’s needs from someone other than Allah (awj) is the intention of the individual. If he maintains the Divinity or Lordship of whoever he takes recourse to, or views them as being free of need of Allah (awj), such recourse is considered polytheism because of that belief. But if it is in order to obey Allah (awj) and benefit from the honour and esteem those esteemed people enjoy before Him, so that they implore Allah (awj) for that person’s needs or fulfil them with Allah’s (awj) permission, such an action is not only not polytheistic, but the person taking recourse is also worthy of a reward for having acted in accordance with a Divine command.
The human being’s existence has two aspects, meaning that he is a combination of a celestial soul and a material body. His entire being consists of poverty and need [towards Allah (awj)]. Since he has two aspects, he must fulfil the needs of both aspects in a balanced manner free of the two extremes of excess or negligence in order to remain sound and preserve his existence, and in order to follow the path of advancement and attain the peak of true salvation (the station of Divine regency).
The Creator of the Universe, who in His infinite Wisdom had a specific purpose in the creation of humanity and is aware of the needs of all its existential dimensions, prepared the groundwork for the fulfilment of humanity’s various needs either before their creation or simultaneous to it.
Divine Will dictates that the human being ensures his physical and spiritual soundness and salvation naturally and through free will; otherwise, He could have created mankind in a perfect bodily form, so that he would have no need of development to perfection, just as the creation of the sky and the Earth is in that way.
And He could likewise have created him in a perfect spiritual form, so that he would have no deficiencies in terms of worship, obedience, and entering the sacred realm, just as He created the angels. But the distinction of humanity over all other beings lies in becoming superior to angels while possessing the physical and spiritual needs.
To attain one’s needs, the human being, possessed of free will, must make the best use of the abundant array of Divine blessings in the heavens and the Earth in order to be sound and remain alive. In order to attain one’s spiritual needs, one must make use of the Divine laws in order to connect one’s celestial soul with the malakut (celestial realm).
There is no denying the role of creational and material factors in fulfilling the physical needs of the human being or in the fact that he makes constant use of these factors. Since humanity is familiar with these factors from the moment of birth, or rather ever since humanity was created, the objection does not arise in the mind of most believers that benefiting from these means and effects in fulfilling one’s physical needs may be polytheism or improper conduct in Allah’s (awj) dominion.
For the fulfilment of humanity’s spiritual needs, Allah (awj), the Wise, has placed another form of sustenance at people’s disposal in the form of laws and religion, with sound nourishment in terms of belief, worship, morals, and training, conveyed by the prophets (ع). This is why they are called the “vessel of legislative grace.” This is while the divine prophets, too, are required to observe those limits and duties and to utilize them to meet their spiritual needs and become linked to the spiritual and celestial realm, which is beyond their senses and perception, and for at least some moments of every day they must connect to the sacred realm (through the daily acts of worship).
There are some people who, in availing themselves of this Divine legislative blessing, have excelled others and have linked themselves to that realm both quicker and more strongly than them, so that it is as if they have detached themselves from the natural world and have themselves become celestial. Even amongst these people there are some who have surpassed the rest and attained the station of Divine regent (khalifah), becoming the “‘ummal Allah” (workers of Allah). And in this way, they also become vessels of creational grace; that is, they become intermediaries between that realm and people who have fallen behind the caravan. Thus, these individuals who have fallen behind have no choice but to make use of these intermediaries to benefit from the spiritual realm and meet their needs.
This is where the misconception arises that taking recourse to or seeking one’s needs from these personages contradicts Unity of action or Unity of Lordship.
But just as utilizing material resources and fulfilling physical needs is not polytheism, since Allah (awj) Himself created these blessings, subjected them to mankind1 and gave him permission (in the manner of his creation) to use them in the correct way (which is explained by religious law)—and anyone who is a monotheist knows that they are His gifts, created by Him, and dependent on Him and does not consider them independent or necessary existents—in the same way, taking recourse to, respecting, and seeking one’s needs from those personages, too, presents no contradiction to the Unity of Action or Unity of Lordship and to the fact that only Allah (awj) is the (independent) Fulfiller of needs, since in this recourse or attention to these personages, they are not viewed as being parallel to or independent of Allah (awj).
Rather, those possessed with awareness view their efficacy and planning as being an extension of Allah’s (awj) planning and action, and consider their existence—like that of all other beings—to be nothing but their very needfulness of the Divine Essence, since without Divine providence and grace they have no being of their own, let alone for them to be able to perform actions or fulfil needs. Thus, the belief in their efficacy and their fulfilment of needs, since it is in extension of Allah’s (awj) action and being the Fulfiller of needs, does not entail polytheism.
As for why Allah (awj) referred us to these noble people and why we are in need of them to benefit from the spiritual and celestial realm, this is for several reasons:
1. These individuals are the “vessels of Divine grace” to people and a channel or conduit for the current of Divine mercy towards all beings of the universe, to the extent that if not for these Noble beings, the creation of the heavens and Earth and what is between them would not have been worthy of note. This is why Allah (awj) says in the well-known hadith qudsi [hadith in which both the words and the meaning belong to Allah (awj), as opposed to the prophet explaining the meaning in his own words]: “If not for you (the Prophet (ص)), I would not have created the universe, and if not for ‘Ali I would not have created you, and if not for Fatimah I would not have created the two of you [since the existence of the three of you, who complement each other, is the reason for creation].”2
Thus, to attain the source of the grace of being, one must make use of this channel so as not to be deprived of Divine providence. This is why we say in Du’a al-Nudbah: “Where is that Godly threshold through which they enter?”
2. Since these intimate personages in Allah’s (awj) court have adorned themselves with Divine attributes, attention to them is like attention to Allah (awj), since intimacy with them—even if in times of need—makes one attentive to Allah (awj) and reminds one of the Divine signs. This is why we recite in one of the supplications, “Where is that Godly countenance to which the friends of Allah turn?”
3. Since they are intimate in Allah’s (awj) court and vessels of grace, their prayers do not go unanswered and their intercession is accepted by Allah (awj). Thus, in the continuation of our supplication (an-Nudbah) we say, “Where is that distressed one whose prayers are always answered?” Also, since they are noble, they do not refuse the request of any supplicant. If it is in his best interest, they do not send him back empty-handed, and this has been experienced many times by their contemporaries and visitors to their shrines. This is why they are addressed with the words, “Your habit is kindness and your disposition is nobility. Your affair is truth, sincerity, and compassion.”3
4. A direct link with the unseen realm is not possible for people who have not attained the level of perfection, and thus they must make use of these means and paths. This is why Allah (awj) has commanded,
“O you who believe. Fear Allah and seek a means (of approach) to Him.”4
There are also many traditions in which the Ahlul Bayt (ع) are called the “means” and Divine “strong faith” that a believer must recognize and take hold of.5 Again, we recite in Du’a an-Nudbah, “Where is the one who is a means of connection between the earth and heavens?”
5. To know, refer, and take recourse to them produces familiarity with them and the fulfilment of needs and thus brings about love and intimacy. This love and intimacy with these noble personages becomes a source of instruction and guidance for the individual, although they themselves are free of need of people and their referral, since they have attained their goal through Divine attention.
6. The referral of people to the friends (awliya’) of Allah (awj) is a reward that they receive in return for their efforts, as Allah (awj) says to the Prophet (ص):
“And remain awake for a portion of the night, (involved in) supplication; perhaps you will attain a praiseworthy station (that of intercession in this world and the next).”6
7. People’s referring and taking recourse to these noble personages on the one hand encourages others to follow their path, and on the other hand it does away with the arrogance and pride of worshippers, ascetics, “wayfarers,” and other claimants to a “journey to Allah” and to self-purification, and it prevents ostentatious and pretentious impostors from flourishing.
8. The station of the perfect human being is many degrees higher than that of the angels, since:
1. In this world and the next, the angels are at the service of Allah’s (awj) righteous servants;
2. The efficacy of the angels is predetermined and is therefore not considered a distinction for them;
3. On the night of the Ascension (mi’raj), the Prophet (ص) advanced farther than the angel Jibra`il (ع);
When the angels are entrusted with executing various affairs7 (in extension of Allah’s (awj) efficacy), why should not these personages, who have attained the greatest station of purity and nearness to Allah (awj), be the same?
The conduct of great personalities and wise people, when they see their subordinates are able to perform certain tasks, is to entrust those tasks to them so they can supervise those subordinates in responding to those who refer to them. In this way, those individuals can receive an exclusive training and be given a recompense for their efforts, and in addition others can get to know them and their station better and will find it easier to become familiar and intimate with them.
Also, it is the conduct of rational people when they want to contact some prominent personality to do so through intermediaries and people close to him if they themselves are not close to him, making use of the respect and honour in which those people are held to attain their needs. Of course, they do this with the full realization that this need to use intermediaries is because of their own inadequacy; the intermediaries are in no way equal or parallel to that prominent person, and they cannot do anything without his consent.
In short, to become connected to the unseen world, obey Divine commands, train and elevate the self, and fulfil our needs in this world and the next—both spiritual and physical—we are in need of recognizing, referring to, imploring, and loving the friends (awliya’) of Allah (awj). Taking recourse to them is to take recourse to (Divinely sanctioned) means, “the firm rope of Allah” and the intermediaries in Allah’s (awj) court — intermediaries who are dependent on Allah (awj) for their existence and all their existential attributes, and whose efficacy and fulfilment of people’s needs is in extension of that of Allah (awj).
Taking recourse in this manner is not polytheism, since the independent Fulfiller of needs is none but Allah (awj) alone.