Shafa'at (intercession) is an important concept in the Islamic faith. Though being an important issue, it's surrounded by controversy. In general, Shias and Sunnis believe in intercession while some others, such as Wahabbis, do not believe in it and reject the concept.
The word "Shafa'at" has been derived from "ash-shaf ", which means "even". In common parlance, intercession refers to the interceder taking advantage of his power, influence or nearness with the authorities to change their view on the guilty or criminal. In this type of intercession, there is no change in the condition or state of the guilty person; rather, the change is in the person holding authority. Sometimes the interceder may add facts about the person to be punished which may alter the intellectual foundations for the punishment. But this kind of intercession is not possible in Islam as Allah does not lack in knowledge about the criminal, and His knowledge cannot be added to.
The religious meaning of intercession refers to the interceder making a distinctive and qualitative transformation in the state and condition of the guilty person. This change, because of connection and nearness with interceder, transforms the guilty person into a cleaned state in which he/she becomes eligible for intercession.
Intercession cannot benefit the person for whom the intercession is asked, yet does not deserve it. Allama Tabatabai stated in Al-Mizan: "The effect of an intercessor's words depends on one or the other factor which may have some influence upon the concerned authority; in other words, intercession must have a solid ground to stand upon. The intercessor endeavors to find a way to the heart of the authority concerned, in order that the said authority may give the reward to, or waive the punishment of, the person who is the subject of intercession. An intercessor does not ask the master to nullify his mastership or to release the servant from his servitude; nor does lie plead with him to refrain from laying down rules and regulations for his servants or to abrogate his commandments (either generally or especially in that one case), in order to save the wrong-doer from the due consequences; nor does he ask him to discard the canon of reward and punishment, (either generally or in that particular case). In short, intercession can interfere with neither the institution of mastership and servitude nor the master's authority to lay down the rules; nor can it affect the system of reward and punishment. These three factors are beyond the jurisdiction of intercession.
"...But intercession is effective only if the person for whom one intercedes is otherwise qualified to get the reward and has already established a relationship with the authority. If an ignorant person desires appointment to a prestigious academic post, no intercession can do him any good; nor can it avail in case of a rebellious traitor who shows no remorse for his misdeeds and does not submit to the lawful authorities. It clearly shows that intercession works as a supplement to the cause; it is not an independent cause."
There are two types of intercession: intercession in creation and intercession in legislation.
Intercession in Creation
Allah is the first and final cause. All causes originate from and end at Him. The intermediate causes of creation – such as life and sustenance, which work as the conduits bringing Divine Mercy – fall into this category. The following are Qur'anic verses based on this concept: "Whatever is in the heavens and what is in the earth is His; who is he that can intercede with Him but by His permission?" (2:255). "Surely your Lord is Allah, who created the heavens and the earth in six periods, and He is firmly established on the throne (of authority), regulating and governing all things. No intercessor (can plead with Him) except after His permission." (10:3)
Intercession in Legislation
The grand divine system running this universe also encompasses the concept of intercession. The system of noble prophets, their teachings, reward and punishment also make provision for intercession of eligible people by divinely authorized men and angels. The following are some of the verses of the Holy Qur'an which talk about this kind of authorization:
- On that day shall no intercession avail except for those for whom permission has been granted by (Allah) Most Gracious and whose word is acceptable to Him." (20:109)
- And intercession will not avail aught with Him save of him whom He permits." (34:23)
- "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." (53:26)
- "…and they do not intercede except for him whom He approves..." (21:28)
- "And those whom they call upon besides Him have no authority for intercession, but he who bears witness of the truth and they know (Him)." (43:86)
The above verses clearly elucidate the fact that some of the men and angels are authorized to further the case of guilty ones with Allah's permission and pleasure. Allama Tabatabai says about the reality of intercession: "...intercession, in its true sense, belongs to Allah only; all His attributes are intermediaries between Him and His creatures, and are the channels through which His grace, mercy and decrees pass to the creatures; He is the real and all-encompassing intercessor: 'Say: A1lah's is the intercession altogether' (39:44); '...you have not besides Him any guardian or any intercessor…' (32:4); '…there is no guardian for them nor any intercessor besides Him...' (6:51). The intercessors, other than Allah, get that right by His permission, by His authority.
In short, intercession with Him is a confirmed reality – in cases where it does not go against the divine glory and honor." (Al-Mizan)
The Beneficiaries of Intercession
On the Day of Judgment there will be two groups of people: one will be of those receiving their accounts in their right hand, and the second will be of those receiving it in their left hand. The second group will be deprived of any intercession and hell will be their permanent abode. The Holy Qur'an has counted four sins which will make them fall into the pit of hell, and from which the people of right hands will be free: "Every soul is held in pledge for what it has earned, except the people of the right hand, in gardens, they shall ask each other about the guilty: 'What has brought you into hell?' They shall say: 'We were not of those who prayed, and we used not to feed the poor; and we used to enter into vain discourse with those who entered into vain discourse. And we use to call the Day of Judgment a lie, till death overtook us.' So the intercession of intercessors shall not avail them." (74:38-48)
There are also traditions from the Ahlul Bayt (peace be upon them) which declare that those who underestimate the prayers or do not perform prayers will not receive intercession.
The people of right hand will be the ones receiving intercession of the intercessors. Allama Tabatabai explains: "The people of the right hand are the ones who shall benefit from the intercession; and they are the ones whose religion and faith Allah is pleased with. They may come on the Day of Judgment with perfect deeds – and in that case there will be no need for any intercession; or they may come burdened with some sins and it is they who shall benefit from the intercession. Therefore, the intercession shall be for those people of the right hand who may have committed some sins..." (Al-Mizan)
The people of right hands are the ones who have followed the righteous Imam and whose religion, beliefs, and deeds have been approved by Allah. These are the people who have been steadfast in their covenant to Allah and have been free from the uncleanness of polytheism and exploitation.