Ismaili philosophy as an attempt at explanation and inter predation of revelatory learning

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Isma’ilism belongs to the Shi’ah branch of Islam, and, in common with various Muslim interpretive communities, has been concerned with developing an intellectual discourse to elucidate foundational Qur’anic and Islamic beliefs principles. Isma’ili philosophy grew out of an attempt at discursive reflection aimed at an explanation of the haqa’iq or truths grounded in revelation but intelligible to human reason, which was regarded as a gift of God. The appropriate use of the intellect in the service of exegesis was thus regarded as both necessary and legitimate.

One of the terms of self- description used in the Qur’an is Umm al-kitab. Literally, the “Mother of the Book”, the concept is also by extension the archetypal ground of all knowledge and revelation. Shi’i and Isma’ili intellectual self-expression have thus sought throughout history to represent themselves as the quest for truth in a continuing conversation with this transcendent text, the source of all revelation.

Interaction philosophical traditions before Islam
This conversation was further enhanced by the additional interaction with other intellectual traditions encountered by Muslims in the course of the expansion and growth of the world of Islam. In addition to Jews and Christians, there Zoroastrians, Hindus and others, some of whom were accorded the status of “People of the Book”, and who also included in their heritage residual philosophical traditions of classical antiquity in the Near East. The access to tools of Greek and Syriac was adopted willingly by many Muslims. The reflective process engendered by the interaction of two allowed Isma’ilis to articulate a distinctive philosophical stance. During this early period one finds, therefore, among Muslims a shared intellectual climate, a commonality of issues and plurality of discourses. This “exchange” took place also within a common linguistic framework, namely Arabic and, later, Persian.

Different ideas about Ismaili philosophy
It would, however, be misleading to label Isma’ili and other Muslims philosophical stances, as has been done by some scholars in the past, simplistically as manifestations of “Isma’ili/ Muslims Neoplatonism,” “Isma’ili/ Muslims gnosticism.”, etc. While elements of these philosophical and spiritual schools were certainly appropriated, and common features may be evident in the expression and development of “Isma’ili as well as other ideas, it must be noted that they were applied within very different historical and intellectual contexts and that such ideas came to be quite dramatically transformed in their meaning, purpose and significance in Islamic philosophy.

In view of the bias towards Isma’ilism that developed among certain schools of Islamic thought, it has been designated by several pejorative names in the past. By those who were hostile to it or opposed its philosophical and intellectual stance, the Isma’ilis were regarded as heretical, legends were fabricated about them and their teachings and it was implied that they had strayed from the true path. Such a dogmatic posture, adopted primarily by some heresiographers and polemicists, tended to marginalize Isma’ili and in general, the Shi’i contribution to intellectual life in Islam. Unfortunately, early Western scholarship on Islamic philosophy inherited some of these biases and tended to project a negative image of Isma’ilism, perceiving, its philosophical contribution as having been derived from sources and tendencies “alien” to Islam. Recent scholarship, based on a more judicious analysis of primary sources, provides a balanced perspective. Indeed, scholars of Islamic though, such as Muslim Mahdi, Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Wilferd Madelung, Henry Corbin, M. Hodgson, W. lvanow and S, Stern have tried to show how Isma’ili thought has been in constant interaction with and to certain extent influenced
well –known currents of Islamic philosophy and theology Their views represent a consensus that it is inappropriate to that treat Isma’ilism as a marginal school of Islamic thought, rather it constitutes a significant philosophical branch, among others in Islamic philosophy.

language and the early Ismaili philosophy works
Early Ismaili philosophical works dating back to the Fatimid period (fourth/ tenth to sixth/ twelfth century) are in Arabic, Nasir –i Khusraw (d.471/ 1078) was the only Ismaili writer of the period to write in Persian. The Arabic tradition was continued in Yemen and India by the Must’alis and in Syria by the Nizaris. In Persia and in Central Asia, the tradition was preserved and elaborated in Persian. Elsewhere among the Ismailis, local oral languages and literatures played an important part, though no strictly philosophical writing were developed in these languages.

There has, as a result, been considerable diversity of thought and intellectual development in Ismailism throughout history. While more of the Arabic and Persian literature of past has become available, much still remains to be properly edited –led alone carefully studied. The following exposition of main trends in Ismaili philosophy is meant to outline the general features that represent shared tradition and common thematic concerns.

Among the tools of interpretation of Scripture that are associated particularly with Shi’i and Ismaili philosophy is that of ta’wil. The application of this Qur’an term, which connotes “going back to the first / the beginning.” marks the effort in Ismaili thought of creating a philosophical and hermeneutical discourse that establishes the intellectual discipline for approaching revelation and creates a bridge between philosophy and religion. Its meaning in Shi’i context must not therefore be confused with its usage in Sunni kalam.

As set forth in Ismaili writings, the purpose and goal of ta’wil is to arrive at an “original” understanding of Scripture by going beyond the formal, literal meaning of the text, nor limiting the total significance nor rejecting entirely the validity of such a formal reading, but affirming that the ultimate significance and totality of meaning of any text could only be grasped by application of ta’wil. Such hermeneutics, in their view, complemented tafsir, the mode of formal interpretation in Islamic thought, and did not reflect a dichotomized way of viewing Scripture. Rather, it attested to the divine use of language in multiple ways, particularly as exemplified in the Qur’an verses that employ symbolic and figurative language. Philosophy as conceived in Ismaili though thus seeks to extend the meaning of religion and revelation to identify the visible and the apparent (azhir) and also to penetrate to be roots, to retrieve and disclose that which is interior interior or hidden (batin). Ultimately, this discovery engages both the intellect (aql) and the spirit (ruh), functioning in on integral manner to illuminate and didclose truth (haqai’q).

Hamid al – din kermani view about language’s ability to explain Oneness of God ( Tawhid)
In his works al- Risalat al- durriyah and Rahat al- aql the the Fatimid philosopher Hamid al- Din al- Kirmaini (d.c.412/1012) juxtaposes discussion of speech and language to his exposition of the concept of God and tawhid. He argues that grow out of words which are composed of letters which allow words to signify specific meanings. But words as well as language are contingent and relative. Since God is not contingent but absolute, language, by its very nature, cannot appropriately define Him in a non- contingent way and take account of that which makes God different from that entire in contingent. Thus language in itself fails to define God as befitting His glory. Language, however, is a beginning, because it is the foremost tool for signifying and representing the possibility of what God is. The fact of being human and possessed of an intellect compels one to speak of and inquire about the agent from whom existentiation (or origination) comes forth, Thus when one speaks of God, one does not necessarily describe Him as He is, but has affirmed that He is indeed the originator of all that we employ to understand and describe His creation.

Symbolic language and Tawhil
The appropriate mode of language which serves us best in this task is, according to al- Kirmaini, symbolic language. Such language, which employs analogy, metaphor and symbolic, allows one to make distinctions and to establish differences in ways that a literal reading of language does not permit. Ta’wil, additionally understood a hermeneutic and symbolic process, has the capacity to relate meaning to its beginnings- for that not only is the root sense of the word ta’wil itself but also expresses the religious purpose for which such a process is to be employed –as an intellectual and spiritual journey to understanding God and His creation. This understanding starts as the deciphering of words used in the Qur’an, where God is indeed referred to as the “Sublime Symbol” (30:27), thus legitimating the use of symbolic language. Such language employs a special system of signs, the ultimate meaning of which can be “unveiled” by the proper application of ta’wil.

Early Muslim reflection on tawhid the Qur’anic concept of the oneness and unity of God, sought to clarify the distinction between a transcendental Creator a contingent, created and pluralistic unverse.

This process of conceptual clarification among various Muslim groups was related to the presence of other monotheistic traditions such as Judaism and Christianity as well as a developing awareness of philosophical understanding of a divine reality available in the Hellenistic influence on the monotheistic traditions. The creation of philosophical vocabulary to understand divinity took place concurrently with the rise of legal and traditionalist modes Muslims who were seeking to articulate the relevance of monotheistic faith to Muslims lives in more immediate terms as affecting praxis. Some of them perceived the quest for what they saw as a theoretical understanding of God as having dubious values in the practice of the truth. It is against this background that Isma’ili thinkers began their intellectual formulations of the uniqueness of God.

Explaining Oneness of God ( Tawhid). By Sijistani
Among Ismaili predecessors, one of the best- known thinkers of the Fatimid period is Abu Ya’qub al- Sijistani (d. c. 361/971) His works, building on pervious writings, enable us to see the formulation of a position in the context of the larger debate in the fourth/tenth century among Muslim theologians and philosophers. While discounting those outside the pale of monotheistic faith, whose beliefs, according to him, are polytheistic or anthropomorphic, he classifies others under several broad categories – those who ascribe to God the attribute He ascribes to Himself in Book, but who do not to speculate unduly about these attributes, and those argue in favour of speculation and wish to negate the attribution of human –like qualities to God and therefore maintain that God can neither be defined, described of these positions allows for the attribution of transcendence in an appropriate manner. He states: “Whoever removes from his Creator descriptions, definitions and characteristics falls into a hidden anthropomorphism, just as one who describes Him and characterizes Him falls into over anthropomorphism.

In particular, he seeks to refute those who follow the Mu’tazilite position by pushing it to what he regards as its logical conclusion. Like al- Ash’ari he points to problem of ascribing of essential attributes, by perpetuating a duality between essence and attribute, world also lead to specific attribute (Knowledge, power, life, etc.) cannot be maintained, since human beings also have a share in such attributes. If these were to be denied, the negation would be incomplete, since the denial takes account only of characteristics of material creations (makhluqat) and not of spiritual entities. If one is to adopt the path of negation, he argues, then it must be a complete negation, denying that God has either material attributes or spiritual ones, thereby rendering Him beyond existence (ays0nd non- existence (lays)

God’s transcendence from Sijistani point of view
In formulating such a sweeping concept of tawhid, Sijistani assumes three possible relations between God and His Creation: God can resemble His Creation entirely, in part, or not at all. In order to affirm the total distinction implied in tawhid, the third relation is the most appropriate involving a total distinction from all from of creation. Basing himself on a Qur’anic verse, “To Him belong the Creation [al- khalq] and the Command [al-amr] “ (7:54), he divides all originated being into (1) those that can be located in time and space, i.e. those that are formed (makhlqat), and (2) those that were originated through the act of command, all at one (daf’atan wahidatan) ,and which are beyond time and space and are created (mubda’at). The former possess attributes, while the latter are entirely self- subsistent. The establishing and articulating of true transcendence (tanzih) must therefore deny both:

These does not exist a tanzih more brilliant and more noble than the one by which we establish the tanzih of our Mudbi [Originator] by using these words in which two negations, negation and a negation of negation [ nafyyn wa –nafyyu nafyin], oppose each other.

Thus, the first negation disassociates God from all that can possess attributes, and the second from all who are “attributes”. He is careful to avoid suggesting that even that which is without attributes, defined and non- defined, is God – in his schema God is beyond both, rendering Him absolutely unknowable and without any predicates.

Such a concept of tawhid immediately presents two problems foe a Muslim: the first concerns how one might worship such a God, and the second, if He indeed so transcends His creation, how it that it comes into existence? The “grammar of divinity “ affirming distinction now leads in Ismaili thought to the “ladder of meaning” by which transcendence manifested through creation becomes “Knowable”.


History of Islamic philosophy – seyyed Hossein Nasr- pages:144to149


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