Posted by: Ismaili Gnostic | July 18, 2014

Night of Power: How the Qur’an was Revealed in Human Language

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According to Muslim tradition, the Prophet Muḥammad received the first revelations of the Holy Qur’ān on the Night of Power (laylat al-qadr) which is vividly described in the sūrahs below:

Verily, We sent it down in the Night of Power
And how can we tell you what is the Night of Power?
The Night of Power is greater than a thousand months.
The Angels and the Spirit descend in it by the permission of their Lord for every affair.
Peace it is, until the rising of the dawn.
(Sūrah al-Qadr – 97:1-5)

Ha-Mim.  By the Manifest Book
Verily, We sent it down in a Blessed Night. Verily, We are ever warning.
In it every wise affair is made clear.
A Command from our Presence.  Verily, We are ever sending.
A Mercy from your Lord.  Verily, He is the Hearer, the Knower.
(Sūrah al-Dukhān – 44:1-6)

The traditional interpretation holds that on the Night of Power, the entirety of the Holy Qur’ān as a Scripture including all of its chapters and verses were ‘sent down’ to the lowest heaven and that the Angel Gabriel then began dictating this ‘text’ to the Prophet Muḥammad over twenty-three years.  But this is merely the exoteric interpretation which is based on subjective assumptions and not actually supported by the Qur’ān itself.

Our previous post demonstrates that on this Night, the Prophet was not merely told to “Read: In the Name of your Lord”, but rather, he was already engaged in the spiritual practice of invocation (dhikru’llāh) – alluded to in the first revelation of the Qur’ān which properly reads: “Recite the Name of your Lord” (iqrā’ bi-smi rabbika).

On the Night of Power, the Prophet Muḥammad underwent a spiritual and mystical experience.  The celestial power which granted him this experience is called the Holy Spirit which – as Sūrah al-Qadr states – descended in the Night of Power:

Inna anzalnāhū fī laylati al-qadri
“Verily, We sent it/him down in the Night of Power.” (Holy Qur’ān 97:1)

Tanazzalu’l-malāikatu wa’l-rūḥ fīhā bi-idhn rabbihim min kulli amrin
“The Angels and the Spirit descend in it by the permission of their Lord for every affair.” (Holy Qur’ān 97:4)

The Qur’ān was not merely dictated to the Prophet in the form of Arabic sounds and letters.  Rather, it was infused and inspired into the Prophet’s heart and soul as an immaterial and formless Holy Spirit which is itself beyond sounds, letters, and language.  Sayyidnā Nasir-i Khusraw is very critical of those who presume that the Muḥammad merely heard the Qur’an in Arabic from the Angel Gabriel and then repeated it.  For Nāsir and other Ismā‘īlī Muslim theosophers, the Angel Gabriel is the imaginal rank (ḥadd al-khayāl) of the Holy Spirit that inspires the soul of the Prophet as opposed to his physical ears:

“His learning of the knowledge of the higher world was done through his luminous soul (nafs-i rawshān), and not through his physical ears in the manner in which we hear.”
- Sayyidnā Nāsir-i Khusraw, (Six Chapters – Shish Fasl, transl. W. Ivanow, Chapter 5, Click Here to Read)

The Qur’ān even suggests that the Book (kitāb) revealed to the Prophet was a pure Spirit and Light as opposed to sound and letters:

Wakadhālika awḥaynā ilayka rūḥan mina amrinā mā kunta tadrī mā’l-kitāb walā’l-imānu wa lakin ja‘lnahānu nūran nahdī bihi man nashāu min ‘ibādinā wa-innaka latahdī ilā ṣiratin mustaqimin

“And that We have inspired you [Muhammad] with a Spirit from Our Command.  You did not know what was the Book (kitāb) and what was the Faith.  But We have made it a Light (nur) by which We guide such of our Servants as We will. And verily, you guide to a Straight Path.” (Holy Qur’ān 42:52)

It should also be pointed out that the term ‘Book’ (kitāb) as used in the Qur’ān does not actually refer to ‘writing or ‘scripture’.  Contemporary scholarship questions the very idea that the Qur’ān was meant to be a written Scripture:

To understand kitāb on the level of Book or Scripture is to distort and seriously reduce its potential meaning as used in the Qur’ān.  It is to impair the transparent quality of the word kitāb.  According to the Qur’ān, neither Muḥammad nor any of the preceding prophets was preoccupied with Scripture, something that is written and read.”
(J.W. Fiegenbaum, Prophethood from the perspective of the Qur’ān, PhD Dissertation, McGillUniversity, 153, Click Here to Read)

The term Book (kitāb) as used in the Qur’ān denotes a purely spiritual knowledge of God’s will and guidance as opposed to the text of a Scripture.  Sayyidnā Nāsir-i Khusraw says that the Qur’ān as it exists today reached us through a three-stage process:

First, the Holy Spirit inspires the Book (kitāb) in a spiritual form (without sounds or letters) into the heart and soul of the Prophet (and not his ears and tongue) which the Qur’ān bears witness to in the below verses:

Wa-innāhu latanzīl rabbi’l-‘ālamina
Nazala bihi’l-rūḥu’l-amīnu
‘ala qalbika litakūna mina al-mundhirīna
Bilisānin ‘arabiyyin mubīnin

“And verily, it is a revelation of the Lord of the Worlds
The Faithful Spirit descended with it
Upon your heart, so that you may be of the warners
In clear Arabic language.” (Holy Qur’ān 26:192-195)

Secondly, the Prophet’s soul and imaginal faculty (which are divinely inspired) express the divine inspiration in the form of revealed discourse (nuṭq, tanzīl, qur’ān) consisting of parables and symbols that were drawn from the local traditions, cultures, and contexts of his life and times.  The Prophet himself is an active agent in the process of revelation.  The subtle distinction between the spiritual Book (kitāb) and it having been ‘sent down’ as a revealed discourse (qur’ān) is also described in the following Qur’ānic verses:

Tilka āyātu’l-kitābi’l-mubīni
Innā anzalnāhu qur’ānan ‘arabiyyan la‘allakum ta‘qilūna

“These are the Signs of the Manifest Book,
Verily, We sent it down as an Arabic Qur’ān that you may intellect.” (Holy Qur’ān 12:1-2)

Finally, this revealed discourse or speech (nuṭq, tanzīl, qur’ān) is then recorded (in the Prophet’s own lifetime) and then codified into a formal written Scripture – which happened during the time of Uthmān, the third Caliph of Sunnī Islām.

The very idea of a written Scripture is not essential to the Qur’ān and is never mentioned in the Qur’ān except in a critical way.  For example, the below verse refers to the Book of Moses as essentially ‘Light’ and ‘Guidance’ and its being ‘put on parchments’ by his community as a subsequent event:

“Say: Who revealed the Book which Moses brought, a light and guidance for mankind, which ye have put on parchments…” (Holy Qur’ān 6: 91)

The Night of Power is when the first stage occurred: the entirety of Qur’an in the form Spirit and Light descended into the heart of the Prophet.  This was the climax of the Prophet’s spiritual practice and training which he had been performing leading up to the Night of Power:

When it is said that the Qur’ān was revealed all at once it means that the Prophet’s personality became Qur’ānic on the Night of Qadr The Night of Qadr was the night on which the Prophet attained his quest.  The Prophet lived an abstemious life for about 40 years and, at the age of 38 – or 40 according to some accounts – he suddenly became enlightened, like the Buddha, on a single night.  He received a revelation and the veils suddenly fell away from his eyes.  The Prophet saw that night, which fell in the month of Ramaḍān, as the Night of Qadr and he later gave it this name. That night was in fact his own night of destiny, the night of union, the night on which he arrived at his destination and became a prophet.  It was the night on which all his asceticism and effort bore fruit.  On that night, the Prophet, in effect, became Qur’ānic. In this sense, the Qur’ān was revealed to him in its entirety.  He became a personality from which the Qur’ān henceforth emanated.  His personality became a wealth on which he could draw for the rest of his life.  Hence, this Qur’ān was revealed to the Prophet all at once.” 
(Abdulkarim Soroush, Islam, Revelation and Prophethood, Feb 2008, Click Here to Read)

On the Night of Power, the Prophet did not merely receive the Qur’ān; the Prophet himself became the Qur’ān.  His heart and soul were permanently illuminated and effaced by the Holy Spirit and the Light of the Qur’ān.  Thus, the Prophet became the “speaking Qur’ān” on the Night of Power and for the next twenty-three years, he expressed, rendered and articulated the spiritual Light of the Qur’ān in the form of revealed discourse (tanzīl, qur’ān) over the next 23 years – the revealed recitation whose first verses were: “Recite the Name of your Lord who created” in reference to the spiritual ritual (see our previous post) that he had been performing during the Night of Power.  This revealed Qur’ān did not become a formal text until long after the Prophet’s death, But, in his own lifetime, the Prophet Muḥammad was himself the “Speaking Book” of God who guided people to the Rigtht Path:

And that We have inspired you [Muhammad] with a Spirit from Our Command.  You did not know what was the Book (kitāb) and what was the Faith.  But We have made it a Light (nur) by which We guide such of our Servants as We will. And verily, you guide to a Straight Path.” (Holy Qur’ān 42:52)

The Holy Spirit is the original spiritual reality of the revealed Qur’ān that exists today in the Arabic language.  This Spirit or Light (nur) continues to inspire and descend upon the souls of the hereditary Imāms of the Prophet’s Ahl al-Bayt who succeeded him.  This is precisely why the Prophet Muḥammad could say:

“I am leaving for you two weighty things and if you adhere to both of them, you will never go astray after me. They are the Book of God and my Progeny (itrat), that is my Ahl al-Bayt.  The two shall never separate from each other until they return to me by the [Paradiscal] Pool.”
- Prophet Muhammad, (Saḥīḥ al-Tirmidhi, Sunan, Volume 5, 662-663, No. 328)

Ali is with the Qur’an and the Qur’ān is with ‘Alī.  They will not separate from each other until they return to me at the [Paradisal] Pool.
- Prophet Muhammad, (al-Naysaburi, al-Mustadrak ‘ala al-Saḥīḥayn, 927, No. 4685)

These hadīths do not simply mean that Imām ‘Alī and the Ahl al-Bayt carried a copy of the Qur’ān everywhere they went.   But rather, the Qur’ān always exists in the heart/soul of Imām ‘Alī and the Ahl al-Bayt by virtue of the Holy Spirit that continuously inspires them.  Like the Prophet himself, the Imām is the Speaking Qur’ān and the Speaking Book of God – and this is irrespective of whether there exists a written Scripture or not.  In this sense, Haḍrāt Shams-i Tabrīzī – the spiriīal master of Jalāl al-Dīn Rūmī once said:

‘‘The meaning of the Book of God is not the text, it is the man who guides. He is the Book of God; he is its verses; he is scripture.’’
- Haḍrāt Shams-i Tabrizī, (Shafique Virani, The Ismailis in the Middle Ages, 93)

The major difference between the Prophet and the Imām is that the former expresses the inspiration of the Holy Spirit in the form of symbols and parables that comprise the revealed discourse (tanzīl, qur’ān), while the latter expresses the Holy Spirit in the form of instruction (ta’līm) and inspiration (ta’yīd). The Imām Ja‘far al-Ṣādiq remarks that this Spirit is always present with the successors of the Prophet:

“Gabriel is the one who came down with revelation to the prophets, while the Holy Spirit is with them and with the Successors [Imāms], never departing from them, strengthening them and guiding them on behalf of God.”
- Imam Ja‘far al-Ṣādiq, (al-Qummi, Basā’ir al-Dajarat, 463, No. 1)

The Spirit is also the source of all spiritual enlightenment and insight. In principle, the Spirit can touch the souls of all human beings – as the forty-eighth Imām, Mawlānā Sulṭān Muḥammad Shāh, reminds us:

“…any of us, if the Holy Spirit ever present grants us that enlightenment, can, being thus blessed, have the power which Christ had.”
- Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah, (Memoirs of the Aga Khan, Chapter titled Islam: The Religion of My Ancestors, Click Here to Read)

The Night of Power is not only a night or historical occasion on which the Prophet first received revelation.  In its esoteric meaning, the real Laylat al-Qadr is the spiritual rank of the Prophets and the Imāms – a perfect soul “in which the Spirit and the Angels descend for every affair” and remain ever-present.  This is why Imām ‘Alī has declared:

“I am the meaning of Ramadan; I am Laylat al-Qadr mentioned in the Mother of the Book. My utterance is decisive, for I am Surah al-Hamd.  I am the purpose of prayer itself, whether at home or when travelling. I am the purpose of fasting, and the sacred anniversaries in the months of the year.”
- Imām ‘Alī ibn Abī Ṭālib, (Khuṭbah al-Iftikhār, Click Here to Read)

In the universal sense, the Night of Power is the spiritual state of receptivity to the Holy Spirit – such that each seeker of gnosis can himself become the Night of Power:

Inwardly, or esoterically, the ‘Night of Power’ is interpreted as an allusion to the very soul of the Prophet.  Exoterically, the particular verses of the Qur’an are deemed to have descended ‘upon’ the heart of the Prophet (26:192-94); but esoterically the essence of the Qur’an is deemed to have descended into the heart of the Prophet. What this kind of interpretation alludes to is the spiritual power inherent in the absolute receptivity of the state of the Prophet’s soul… Applied analogically to the spiritual quest, it can be said that every soul must make itself into a kind of ‘Laylat al-Qadr’, by emptying itself of egotism and worldliness, in order to be ‘full’ of receptivity to the divine: one aims to become a vessel made empty for the influx of divine grace.”
- Reza Shah-Kazemi, (Spiritual Quest: Reflections on Qur’ānic Prayer according to the Teachings of Imam ‘Alī, 73-74, Click Here to Read)

Reading Resources:

If you do not accept the existence of God or are not sure, then read a logical argument for the existence of God here.

If you do believe in the existence of God but are unclear on the concept of God, then read this article on the concept of God according to the 48th hereditary Imam of the  Ismā‘īlī Muslims.

If you do accept the existence of God but are unsure as to the existence of the immaterial human soul, then read this article for a series of philosophical arguments on the soul.

If you believe that the Prophet Muhammad was merely a deliverer of the Qur’an and nothing more, then read this article which uses the Qur’an to delineate the spiritual duties and powers of the Prophet Muhammad.

If you believe in the spiritual authority of the Prophet Muhammad and accept the Qur’an as divinely-inspired revelation, but do not accept that Muhammad had any spiritual successors, then read this article containing arguments for a manifest Imam or spiritual leader to succeed Muhammad based on the Qur’anic evidence.

“The Ismaili Imamat is a supra-national entity, representing the succession of Imams since the time of the Prophet.”  
- Imam Shāh Karīm al-Ḥusaynī Āgā Khān IV

View 2 Minute Intro Video

Introduction

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“In the early hours of July 11, the Aga’s heart-beat weakened.  Aly and Sadruddin were summoned to the Barakat but their dying father could no longer speak.  Karim came and the Begum was still keeping up her vigil.  Four doctors were in attendance and nurses left the sick-room only to change their clothes or take a bite.  At midday, the Aga Khan was sleeping peacefully.  Forty minutes later his life slipped quietly away… The curtains were drawn and darkness fell over a great figure of the age.”
(Willi Frischauer, The Aga Khans, 1970, p. 206)

The above narrative describes one of the most difficult moments faced by every generation of Isma‘ili Muslim communities: the death of the Imam.  This moment is immediately followed by another of equal intensity: the succession of the next Imam.  Ultimately, these events amount to a period of trial for the Isma‘ili community as it is a time when they must say goodbye to the Imam whom they have respected, venerated and loved for nearly a lifetime and subsequently transfer all these sentiments to their new Imam.  At the same time, the community must come to understand the true nature of this change: in reality, nothing has really changed at all.  Despite the death of the Imam, the Imam remains ever-more, albeit in a different guise.   In Shi‘a Isma‘ili Islam, the succession of the Imamate – including the demise of the predecessor and the enthronement of his successor – is an event which combines both clarity as well as ambiguity.  The face of the succession is clear – this Imam has succeeded that Imam.  But the underlying matters are nebulous and in modern times are often subject to speculation: How is the next Imam chosen? Does the Imam-to-be know of his own status beforehand? Was he prepared for his function?  Why does the Imamate continue in a single line of male descent?  This article will explore these questions pertaining to the Isma‘ili Imamate and the matter of succession in light of some of the historical sources from the intellectual heritage of Shi‘a Isma‘ili Islam.

Historical Overview

“In time, the Shia were also sub-divided over this question, so that today the Ismailis are the only Shia community who, throughout history, have been led by a living, hereditary Imam in direct descent from the Prophet.
- Imam Shah Karim al-Husayni Aga Khan IV

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The Isma’ili Muslims are a branch of Shi‘a Islam which traces the religious and spiritual authority of the Prophet Muhammad through his cousin and son-in-law ‘Ali, the first Imam (spiritual leader) and thereafter by heredity through the Imam’s descendants.  The Isma‘ilis are so called because following the death of the fifth Imam Ja’far al-Sadiq, they accepted his elder son Isma‘il as his legitimate successor to the Imamate and traced the Imamate among the lineal descendants of Isma‘il.  Meanwhile, the majority of the Shi‘a, later known as the Ithna ‘Ashari (Twelvers) traced the Imamate through Imam Ja’far’s younger son Musa al-Kadhim and through a few more generations until the disappearance of their twelfth Imam in the ninth century.

The Isma‘ili branch was itself subdivided upon the death of their nineteenth Imam, al-Mustansir-bi’llah, with the Nizari Isma‘ilis accepting his son and heir-designate Abu Mansur Nizar as the next Imam while the other branch known as the Must‘alian Isma‘ilis followed another son Ahmad Must‘ali.  The Must‘alian Imams were believed to have gone into concealment a few generations later and are now represented by da‘is who lead the communities.  The Nizari Isma‘ilis were further subdivided over the succession to their twenty-first Imam Shams al-Din Muhammad.  One group followed his younger son[i] Qasim Shah as their Imam while the other followed Muhammad Shah – these groups being known as the Qasim-shahi Nizaris and Muhammad-shahi Nizaris.

Today, the Imam of the Nizari Qasimshahi Isma‘ilis is His Highness Prince Karim Aga Khan IV known to his murids as ‘Mawlana Hazar Imam’ (our lord the present Imam).  The Muhammad-shahi community lost contact with its last known Imam, Muhammad Baqir, in the nineteenth century and the bulk of this community transferred its allegiance to the Qasim-shahi Imamat during the Imamate of Sir Sultan Muhammad Shah Aga Khan III, the predecessor and grandfather of the present Imam.  Technically the term “Isma‘ili” embraces all those Shi‘a groups which affirm the Imamate of Isma‘il ibn Jafar.  In the present time, the term ‘Isma‘ili Muslims’ is most often used to designate to the Nizari Qasim-shahi branch lead by the Aga Khan.  Through all the various schisms that have occurred within the Shi‘a community, the matter of succession to the Imamate was of paramount importance and became the determining factor of these events.

[i] According to some sources, Qasimshah was the grandson of Shams al-Din Muhammad.  See Shafique Virani, The Isma‘ilis in the Middle Ages, p. 85.

‘Direct Descendants, one from the other…’

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“Ever since the time of my ancestor ‘Ali, the first Imam, that is to say over a period of thirteen hundred years, it has always been the tradition of our family that each Imam chooses his successor at his absolute and unfettered discretion from amongst any of his descendants whether they be sons or remoter male issue…”
- Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah Aga Khan III

The matter of succession in the Isma‘ili Imamate is based upon two key factors.  The Imam possesses two marks of authenticity which, in effect, support and prove his claims to the Imamate.  The first of these is the Imam’s physical descent from the preceding Imams; the second is the explicit appointment or designation, known as nass, which the predecessor Imam has made for the succeeding Imam.  These two elements, lineage and designation (nass), signify two kinds of relationships – a physical connection and the spiritual connection – by which people of any age can attain the recognition of the Imam. Thus, the physical genealogy of the Imam effectively narrows down and restricts the possible candidates to the Imamat at any given time to the direct descendants of the previous Imams. The designation of the Imam by his predecessor further specifies the legitimate holder of the office of Imamate to its rightful claimant. Therefore, it must be noted that both the lineage of the Imams and the designation exist for the sake of humankind recognizing the true Imam at any given period of history.

The fact that the Imamate remains among one particular line of descent has been subject to questioning and debate, particularly in the modern age.  Inaccurate viewpoints have compared the Imamate to a political dynasty of kingship and others have sought to delegitimize the notion of familial and hereditary authority in the name of equal opportunity and democracy.  What is often neglected in such debates is that the Imamate is primarily an Islamic institution and model of leadership and as such it is a faithful reflection of principles which are laid out in the Holy Qur’an – the sacred scripture of Islam.  Historically, the Imamate is an institution which succeeds to and continues the spiritual, religious and moral authority of Prophet Muhammad – who is viewed by Muslims as the last in a long line of Prophets whom God has sent to humanity over the ages.  As such, the Imamate possesses certain traits in common with the model of Prophetic authority that the Holy Qur’an describes in many of its verses.

Firstly, the Isma‘ili Imamate is connected to the Prophet Muhammad through blood relations and heredity.  The first Imam, Hazrat ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib, who is the progenitor of all the Shi‘a Imams, was the first cousin of the Prophet sharing with him a common grandfather, Hazrat ‘Abd al-Muttalib.  The Imamate is also linked to the Prophet through his sole surviving child, Hazrat Bibi Fatima, the daughter of the Prophet, who was given in marriage to Hazrat ‘Ali.  As the Prophet left no male progeny, his lineage survives through his daughter who, as the wife of the first Imam, is like the matriarch of all the Imams in their progeny.

The idea that the rightful successor to the Prophet Muhammad must be from his family and progeny is not merely based on dynastic ambitions, politics or Arabian tribalism.  Rather, the concept of Prophetic succession through family is made evident in the Holy Qur’an in its own narrative regarding the stories of the past Prophets.   Prophet Muhammad was himself the last in a long line of Prophets and his succession should be consistent with that of his predecessors who were also succeeded by their family members and descendants.  The sanctity and prominence of the families of the Prophets is one of the key principles established in the Holy Qur’an.  For example, the Qur’an speaks about Prophet Ibrahim (Abraham) being succeeded by his two sons Hazrat Isma’il and Hazrat Ishaq (Isaac), and Ishaq in turn being succeeded by his son Yaqub (Jacob).  Hazrat Yaqub was in turn succeeded by his son Hazrat Yusuf (Joseph).  Hazrat Musa (Moses) was helped and succeeded by his brother Harun (Aaron).  Hazrat Dawud (David) who was both a king and prophet was inherited by his son Hazrat Sulayman (Solomon).  The Prophet Zakariyyah (Zechariah) prayed to his Lord for a son to succeed him and this prayer was answered in the form of Hazrat Yahya (John).  In fact, according to S.M. Jafri, the verses which speak about the special status of the families and progeny of various Prophets number to over a hundred in the Holy Qur’an.

In this respect, there must be noted the Quranic concept of the exalted and virtuous family, whose favour in the eyes of God derives from their righteous deeds and services in the cause of God. In all ages the prophets have been particularly concerned with ensuring that the special favour of God bestowed upon them for the guidance of man be maintained in their families and pass to their progeny. The Quran repeatedly speaks of the prophets praying to God for their progeny and asking Him to continue His guidance in their lineages. In the answer to these prayers, the verses of the Qur’an bear direct testimony to the special favour of God being granted to the direct descendants of the prophets to keep their fathers’ covenants intact, to become true examples of their fathers’ righteousness, and to keep fast to the path of righteousness set by these prophets. Four terms are repeatedly used in the Qur’an to express God’s special favour for the descendants of the prophets: Dhurriya, ‘Aal, Ahl, and Qurba.  The total number of verses that mention special favour requested for and granted to the families of the various prophets by God runs to over a hundred in the Quran.
(S. M. Jafri, The Origins and Development of Shia Islam, Chapter 1, Beirut, 1976)

Prophet Ibrahim (Abraham) occupies a central place for the Jewish, Christian and Islamic traditions.  He is acknowledged as the ‘father of monotheism’ and these faiths and their members trace their spiritual ancestry back to him.  In the Qur’anic narrative, a special status is particularly given to Prophet Ibrahim and his descendants.  Prophet Ibrahim is said to have completed God’s trials, and is thereafter Divinely appointed as an Imam (leader) of mankind. He prays to his Lord that this status is bestowed upon his descendants as well:

And remember that Abraham was tried by his Lord with certain commands, which he fulfilled: He said: “I will make thee an Imam of mankind.” He pleaded: “And also (Imams) from my offspring!” He answered: “But My Promise is not within the reach of evil-doers.” - Holy Quran 2:124

God accepts Ibrahim’s prayer on the condition that only the righteous and just among his progeny will be appointed as Imams.  This Qur’anic verse is significant because it establishes two principles about the Shi‘a Imamate as a model of Islamic leadership.  Firstly, the Imams who bear the Imamate are not appointed by the whims of common people; rather, like the Messengers themselves, the Imams – who sustain, preserve and interpret the Divine Message – are Divinely appointed.  Secondly, all the Imams are to be from the descendants of Ibrahim.  It is significant to note that the Prophet Muhammad and his cousin ‘Ali, the first hereditary Imam of Shi‘a Islam, are acknowledged in Arabian and Islamic traditions as descending from Ibrahim through his elder son Isma’il.  This also means that the Isma‘ili Imams, through the lineage that goes back to their forefather Imam ‘Ali, are also the direct descendants of Ibrahim.  There are also numerous other verses which speak about the unique status and rights which God has bestowed upon the descendants of Prophet Ibrahim[i].  The verse shown below seems to confirm this:

Or are they jealous of mankind because of that which Allah of His bounty hath bestowed upon them? For We bestowed upon the House of Abraham (‘aala ibrahima) the Book (al-kitaba) and the Wisdom (al-hikmata), and We bestowed on them a Mighty Kingdom. - Holy Quran 4:54

The Holy Bible also affirms the special place of Ibrahim and his descendants, such as in the following verse from the Book of Genesis where God speaks to Abraham:

As for Me, this is My covenant with you: You will be the father of many nations. No longer will you be called Abram; your name will be Abraham, for I have made you a father of many nations. I will make you very fruitful; I will make nations of you, and kings will come from you. I will establish my covenant as an everlasting covenant between Me and you and your descendants after you for the generations to come, to be your God and the God of your descendants after you. - Holy Bible, Genesis 17:7

Using biblical data, one can also trace back the lineage of Ibrahim to Nuh (Noah) and Adam – great Prophets and patriarchs for Jews, Christians and Muslims.  The following verse of the Holy Qur’an affirms this single lineage which continues today in the line of the hereditary Shi‘a Isma‘ili Imams.

Verily, God did choose Adam and Nuh (Noah), the progeny (‘aal) of Ibrahim (Abraham), and the progeny (‘aal) of Imran above all the worlds (‘alamin), descendants (dhurriyyah), one from the other: And God heareth and knoweth all things. - Holy Quran 3:33-34

The historical identity of Imran – last name in the above verse – is ambiguous and has been subject to different interpretations – the most common being that Imran refers to the father of Musa or the father of Maryam (Virgin Mary) as both are mentioned within the Qur’an.  The Shi‘a and particularly Isma‘ili interpretations state that the name Imran in the above verse refers to the father of Imam ‘Ali, whose popular name or kunya was Abu Talib whereas his proper name was, in fact, Imran.[ii]   In this sense, the Shi‘a understand the words ‘aal Imran (Progeny of Imran) in the verse to be the hereditary Shi‘a Imams who are the children (‘aal) of Abu Talib (Imran).  The logic of this interpretation is clear from the very structure of the verse.  Adam, Nuh and Ibrahim are direct descendants of one another (which can be ascertained from the Book of Genesis) and all three names occur in chronological order.  Therefore, in keeping with the structure of the verse, Imran and the Progeny of Imran must come chronologically after Abraham and the Progeny of Ibrahim.  For all Muslims, the Prophet Muhammad as the greatest Prophet is undoubtedly included as part of the Progeny of Ibrahim.  The Prophet Ibrahim had two sons – Isma‘il and Ishaq – and the Israelite Prophets including Musa, Dawud and Isa descend from Ishaq while the Prophet Muhammad descends from Isma‘il.  Therefore, Imran and the Progeny of Imran cannot refer to people who came before the Prophet Muhammad – otherwise, the chronological structure of the verse is broken.  This eliminates the possibility of Imran referring to the father of Musa or the father of Maryam because both personalities lived before the Prophet Muhammad (who is a member of Abraham’s Progeny).  Furthermore, both the father of Musa and the father of Maryam would already be included among the Progeny of Ibrahim via Ishaq.  The only consistent interpretation of the verse would chronologically place Imran at most contemporary to the Prophet Muhammad and place the Progeny of Imran after the Prophet Muhammad.  The only reading which is faithful to this structure is when Imran is understood as Abu Talib and the Progeny of Imran is understood as Abu Talib’s lineal descendants beginning with ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib, the first Shi‘a Imam.

While the Imamate continues in a male[iii] line of descent, this should not be understood as a deprecation of the feminine.  It is often forgotten that the Shi‘a Imams’ claim to be the direct descendants of the Prophet Muhammad is not through male but female descent – as embodied in Fatima the daughter of the Prophet. This is the reason why the Isma‘ili Imams chose the name al-fatimiyyah (the Fatimids) when they established Islam’s only Shi‘i Caliphate in the 10th century, the only Muslim dynasty to be named after a woman.  In addition to the Prophet and Fatima, the key figures from whom the lineage of Imamate stems are Imam ‘Ali and Imam Husayn. ‘Ali, as the first Imam in the series, is considered to be the prototype and the forefather of all the Imams.  Imam ‘Ali was succeeded as Imam by both of his sons – Imam al-Hasan who was an Entrusted Imam (al-imam al-mustawda) and Imam al-Husayn who was the Permanent Imam (al-imam al-mustaqarr) in whose blessed line the Imamate dwells and continues.[iv]  In other words, the Isma‘ili Imams are ‘Alid, Husaynid, and Fatimid – by virtue of which they are Muhammadan.

While the matter of the Imams’ lineage is important, it should not be overestimated. Being a descendant of Imam ‘Ali or other Imams does not automatically make one an Imam as well. It should not be forgotten that the both nass (designation) and lineage are required.  The concept of nass does not translate to mere appointment.  This designation is itself understood as an expression of the Divine Will.  In the Qur’an, it is God who appoints the family members and descendants of the Prophets to their blessed position.  The nass which each Imam makes for his successor indicates to his community the identity of the one whom the Divine Will has selected as their next Imam.  The twenty-third Nizari Isma‘ili Imam, Hasan ala-dhikrihi al-salaam, explains that the nass does not ‘make’ the Imam into an Imam, it merely ‘reveals’ the identity of the next Imam such that the community may recognize him as such:

The designation which is made is not in order to make him an Imam; it is only made so that people should recognize him as such – otherwise, from his standpoint and perspective, all such different states are one and the same.
- Imam Hasan ‘ala dhikrihi al-salaam,
(Nasir al-Din Tusi, Rawda-yi Taslim transl. S.J. Badakhchani, The Paradise of Submission, p. 123)

The first such nass in the Islamic community goes back to the time of the Prophet when he designated Hazrat ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib as his successor on numerous occasions.   The final and most well known occasion of designation of ‘Ali as the supreme leader of the Muslim community took place at Ghadeer Khum where the Prophet declared: “I leave amongst you two weighty things – the Book of God and my Progeny (itrat).  If you hold fast to both of them you shall never go astray.  These two shall not separate until they return to me at the paradiscal pool.”[v]  He further stated: “For whomsoever I am his master (mawla), this ‘Ali is also his master (mawla).”[vi]  Since that time, each Imam has designated his successor, with some of these designations taking place privately and others publicly.[vii]   It is the belief of the Isma‘ili Muslims that the Imamate will continue to be handed down in a continuous lineage through the designated individuals until the Day of Judgment.  This is boldly proclaimed by the Imam Hasan ala-dhikrihi al-salaam:

Know that this Imamate is a reality [which] will never cease, change or be altered.  It will continue forever to be transmitted through the progeny of our lords (mawalina).  It will never leave them, whether in form, meaning or reality. - Imam Hasan ‘ala dhikrihi al-salaam, (Nasir al-Din Tusi, Rawda-yi Taslim transl. S.J. Badakhchani, The Paradise of Submission, p. 122)

[i] See verse 4:54 where the Qur’an states that God has bestowed the Book (kitab), Wisdom (hikmah) and Kingdom (mulk) upon the progeny of Ibrahim and the related commentary of Imam al-Baqir recorded in Kulayni’s Usul al-Kafi and Qadi al-Nu’man’s Da’aim al-Islam; Verses 2:127-128 where Ibrahim and Isma’il pray for God to raise up from their progeny a submitting community (ummatan muslimeen) and verse 22:78 where the Qur’an addresses the Imams as muslims promised to their father Ibrahim along with Imam Ja’far’s commentary as recorded in Kulayni’s Usul al-Kafi and al-Nu’man’s Da’aim al-Islam;Verses 6:83-88 where several prophets of Ibrahim’s line are mentioned by name and the fact that God chose and guided their forefathers, descendants and brethren. See also the Book of Genesis 18:17-19 about the descendants of Abraham keeping the way of justice and judgment.

[ii] See Abu Firas, al-Qasida ash-Shafiya, transl. Sami Nassib Makarem, The University of Michigan, Ph.D. Dissertation, 1963, p. 126 where Abu Talib is referred to as Imran.  See also Mir Ahmed Ali, The Holy Quran: Text, Translation and Commentary, p. 278.

[iii] It is often asked why the Imamate must dwell in a male line and always be carried by a man. The exoteric reasons may be related to genetics in that one unique y-chromosome is passed down and preserved in a male lineage while the uniqueness of the x-chromosome is not preserved in a female lineage. In keeping with what Nasir al-Din Tusi writes, the physical geneaology of the Imamserves as a biological sign, demonstration, or marker of the present Imam’s relationship and continuity with the previous Imams. If, for example, the Imamat passed to a woman, then that woman would neither possess a unique y-chromosome nor a unique x-chromosome from any of her ancestor Imams and any future female or male Imam would not possess any unique x or y chromosome from the previous Imams. Thus, if the Imamat was in a female lineage, there would be no clear biological marker or sign of the Imam’s relationship to the previous Imams and this would make it much more difficult for the people of any given time to recognize the Imam of their time. This is merely a hypothesis based on the contemplate knowledge of genetics and the Imams theoretically have full authority to abrogate the norms of succession. The following excerpts from articles on genetics suffice to stress the importance of y-chromosomes passed by males in genetic continuity over the x-chromosomes.

“The X chromosome a woman inherits from her mother is, like any other chromosome, a random mix of genes from both of her mother’s Xs, and so does not correspond as a whole with either of her mother’s X chromosomes… By contrast, the X a woman inherits from her father is his one and only X chromosome, complete and undiluted. This means that a father is twice as closely related to his daughter via his Xchromosome genes as is her mother.”  Source: http://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/201109/the-incredible-expanding-adventures-the-x-chromosome

The y-chromosome is inherited more or less unchanged from father to son to grandson, indefinitelyChromosomes contain the DNA that determines our inherited characteristics, and the y-chromosome is one of the 46-chromosomes in the nucleus of each of the cells of all human males. Most chromosomes, including the two x-chromosomes possessed by females, get recombined or shuffled each generation before being passed down to offspring. But the y-chromosome is unique in remaining more or less unchanged when passed from father to son. Thus while most chromosomes will contain a random mixture of genetic codes from one’s grandparents and great-grandparents, a male’s y-chromosome will be identical or nearly identical to that of his father, grandfather, great-grandfather and beyond for countless generations.”
Source: http://web.stanford.edu/~philr/Bachman/DNABachman3.html 

The esoteric reasons may be related to traditional and esoteric symbolism of the male and female.  In the traditional worldview, gender is not viewed as a simple product of biology, sociology or anthropology.  Gender is understood to be rooted in spiritual principles and celestial archetypes.  Although a full discussion of this subject remains outside our scope, a few remarks will suffice.  In traditional symbolism and metaphysics, the masculine principle is the active, manifest, and majestic pole of being while the feminine is the passive, hidden, and merciful pole.  For example, in certain forms of traditional symbolism, the individual human soul is ‘feminine’ while the celestial Spirit is ‘masculine’ and proper spiritual equilibrium is achieved when the feminine soul submits to the masculine Spirit.  This does not suggest that the female is lower than the male – since both poles are necessary for wholeness and equilibrium.  Similarly, the Imam in relation to his disciples is active or male and the disciple in relation to the Imam is passive or female.  This symbolism carries through in all levels of being – from the ‘World of Command’ with the masculine Universal Intellect and the feminine Universal Soul down to the ‘World of Religion’ – where the Imam must be a man since his spiritual function, in relation to his disciples, is masculine.  Ultimately, the male-female principles have their metaphysical roots in the Divine Reality which is both absolute (corresponding to the male principle) and infinite (corresponding to the female principle).  For details see M. Ali Lakhani, Towards a Traditional Understanding of Sexuality, Editorial published in Sacred Web, Volume 12, available at http://www.sacredweb.org.

[iv] The Nizari Isma‘ilis do not include the name of al-Hasan ibn ‘Ali in their list of Imams which has led some people to conclude that al-Hasan is not accepted as an Imam in Nizari theology.  In reality, al-Hasan ibn ‘Ali is regarded as an Imam by the Nizaris but with a minor difference: al-Hasan is understood to be an Entrusted Imam or Trustee Imam (al-imam al-mustawda) as opposed to a Permanent Imam (al-imam al-mustaqarr), the latter position belonging to his brother al-Husayn ibn ‘Ali.  The Nizari list of Imams only includes the names of the Permanent Imams and not the Entrusted Imams.  The difference between the Entrusted Imam and the Permanent Imam is that the Entrusted Imam is a brother or cousin of the main genealogical line of the Imams who holds the rank and authority of Imam for a temporary period and the Imamate does not permanently dwell among the Entrusted Imam’s descendants.  The Permanent Imam is the hereditary Imam who inherits the Imamate from his forefathers and transmits it to his descendants.  The Entrusted Imam is only appointed in special circumstances and is usually the brother or cousin of the Permanent Imam.  When there is an Entrusted Imam, the Permanent Imam remains silent (samit) although he is the source of authority (amr) of the Entrusted Imam who acts on his behalf. Thus, Imam al-Hasan was an Entrusted Imam as he held the authority and rank of Imamate after Hazrat ‘Ali and then bequeathed it to his brother Imam a-Husayn who then transmitted the Imamate in his progeny. On a similar note, the Prophet Muhammad was the Entrusted Imam in his time while Imam ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib and his forefathers were the Permanent Imams. For further details, see Shafique Virani, The Isma‘ilis in the Middle Ages, pp. 83-85.  In Nizari Isma’ilism, al-Hasan ibn ‘Ali also holds the rank of pir or supreme hujja which is the rank in the Isma’ili hierarchy (hudud) second only to the Imam himself.  This has led some to confuse the positions of Entrusted Imam and pir or simply deny that al-Hasan was an Imam altogether.  In reality, al-Hasan was both an Entrusted Imam and a pir (supreme hujja) and this is perhaps why the Nizari Isma‘ili Ginans, the Asal Du’a (Old Du’a) and the farmans of Imam Sultan Muhammad refer to al-Hasan as ‘Pir Imam Hasan’.

[v] Sahih al-Tirmidhi, Sunan, Volume 5, pp. 662-663, No. 328

[vi] This tradition of Ghadeer Khum has been narrated by at least 110 Companions, 84 tabi’un, 355 ulema, 25 historians, 27 traditionalists, 11 exegesists, 18 theologians and 5 philosophers.  (Dr. S.H.M. Jafri, Origins and Early Development of Shi’a Islam, London 1979, p. 20)

[vii] For example, Imam Muhammad al-Baqir appointed his son Imam Ja’far al-Sadiq in the presence of his followers, referring to him as the best of mankind and the Qa’im ‘al Muhammad (the one in charge of Muhammad’s family).  When al-Baqir was approaching his death, he asked for witnesses to be brought to him and referred to the succession of Prophet Yusuf from Prophet Ya’qub and then made a nass in respect of his son Ja’far al-Sadiq.  See Lalani, Early Shi’i Thought, p. 77.

The Bearers of the Light

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“Since my grandfather, the last Aga Khan, died, I have been the bearer of the Nur – a word which means ‘The Light’.”
- Imam Shah Karim al-Husayni Aga Khan IV

While their lineage and nass constitute the physical characteristics of the Imam, the foundation of the Imamate of the Imams lies in that which is esoteric, hidden and not perceptible to the external senses.  What really qualifies the Imam for his role does not belong to his physical body, but to his subtle soul.  The Imam is in possession of a sacred knowledge or ‘ilm[i] by virtue of which he is the Imam in the first place.  This knowledge is not an empirical or rational knowledge, but a knowledge pertaining to the spirit and the soul.  Ultimately, the position of the Imam is due to his superior knowledge and enlightened intellect as opposed to just an illustrious pedigree.

The ‘ilm of the Shi‘a Imam includes full knowledge of the exoteric and esoteric meanings of the Holy Qur’an and the knowledge required to interpret the faith of Islam, particularly its esoteric sciences.  But the essence of this ‘ilm transcends the individuality of the Imam because it is essentially a mystical gnosis (ma‘rifah) of the Ultimate Reality (haqiqah).[ii] Nasir al-Din Tusi refers to this essential knowledge as the formula of the divine unity (kalima-yi tawhid).[iii]  Due to its sacred and luminous nature, this mystical gnosis has been described by the imagery of ‘Light’ (nur)[iv] and the Imam himself has been often described as the ‘bearer of the Light’.[v]  This is indeed how the present Imam describes himself in a public interview given in 1965 when he was asked whether he was a symbol of the Isma‘ilis’ Faith:

Yes. Since my grandfather, the last Aga Khan, died, I have been the bearer of the Nur – a word which means ‘The Light’. The Nur has been handed down in direct descent from the Prophet. But my work and responsibilities overflow into the practical side of life.
- Imam Shah Karim al-Husayni Aga Khan IV,
(Sunday Times Weekly Review – Interview, Dec 12, 1965)

This ‘Light’ (nur) was manifest in the Prophet Muhammad and also the first Imam ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib.  The Light does not dwell inside their physical bodies, but resides within their subtle souls.[vi]  By virtue of this Light, the individual souls of the Prophets and the Imams possess spiritual sanctity[vii] and divine proximity – referred to as walayah in Sufism and Shi’ism. This Light, transcending their existence as individual persons, is the foundation of the spiritual identity of the Prophet and the Imams by virtue of which the Prophet is reported to have said to ‘Ali: “I am from you and you are from me.”  Isma‘ili and Sufi theosophers have referred to this Light as the Muhammadan Reality (haqiqah al-muhammadiyyah) and the Light of Imamate (nur al-imamah) because it is the metaphysical reality behind the person of the Prophet (and the Imams).  It is this Reality which both Sunni and Shi‘i traditions describe as the luminous being which God created first, before all things:

“The first thing created by God was the Intellect; The first thing created by God was my Light.” - Prophet Muhammad, (Willam Chittick, The Sufi Path of Love, State University of New York Press, New York 1983, p. 66)

The universal concept of the Muhammadan Reality and the Light of Imamate has its equivalents in various spiritual and philosophical traditions.  The Isma‘ili theosophers refer to it as the Universal Intellect (al-‘aql al-kull) while the Islamic philosophers spoke of it as the First Intellect (al-‘aql al-‘awwal).   According to Imam Ja’far al-Sadiq, this Intellect is the primordial Light before God which was manifest in the Prophet Muhammad and the first Imam, ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib:

“Two thousand years before creation, Muhammad and ‘Ali were one Light (nur) before God.”
- Imam Ja’far al-Sadiq, (Mohammad Ali Amir-Moezzi, The Divine Guide in Early Shi ‘ism, p. 31)

In another hadith, the same Imam describes the Intellect (‘aql) as the first spiritual entity to be created from God’s Light:

“God – may He be glorified and exalted – created the Intellect (al-‘Aql) first among the spiritual entities.  He drew it from the right side of His throne, making it proceed from his own Light.”
- Imam Ja’far al-Sadiq, (Mohammad Ali Amir-Moezzi, The Divine Guide in Early Shi ‘ism, p. 8)

In classical Isma‘ili philosophy, God Himself transcends all attributes, descriptions, and names including the categories of space and time, being and non-being, unity and multiplicity, and even existence and non-existence.  God Himself or the Ultimate Reality is referred to simply as ‘He who is above all else’ because He transcends and is prior to the distinction between subject and object and thus outside the range of human knowledge.  In the Isma‘ili metaphysical worldview, all of the attributes and qualities of greatness, majesty and perfection, particularly those of an anthropomorphic nature, pertain to the Universal Intellect or Light of Imamate while keeping in mind that ‘He who is above all else’ is beyond all such qualities.  The Universal Intellect includes all divine attributes and is, technically speaking, the ‘First Cause’ and the ‘Necessary Being’ (wajib al-wujud) of the onto-cosmological hierarchy which gives rise to the physical world.  The Universal Intellect encompasses all things and all being within itself for it is the first and most perfect entity originated by God.  Explaining the Isma‘ili concept of the Universal Intellect as described by Sayyedna Nasir Khusraw, Dr. Alice Hunsberger states that:

The [Universal] Intellect is complete and perfect.  It knows all things, and knows them all at once; there is nothing for it to know later or better.  There is no motion or time within the Intellect or within which the Intellect functions, for time and motion have not yet come into existence in the realm of the Intellect.  Not only does the Intellect know all things; it encompasses all beings, material and spiritual.  In fact, following the Command ‘Be!’, the Intellect is all being; there is nothing outside of itself. The Intellect also lacks nothing and needs nothing, because there is nothing other than its actual perfection. (Alice Hunsberger, The Ruby of Badakhshan, p. 159)

The Isma‘ili Imam is the locus of manifestation (mazhar) of this Universal Intellect or Light of Imamate.  The term mazhar suggests the idea of a mirror which reflects or manifests an object without actually incarnating it physically or causing any change or alternation to the object.  Accordingly, it is the pure human soul of the Imam which serves as this mirror or mazhar of the Universal Intellect which is reflected in the Imam’s soul without actually or materially descending into the person of the Imam.  It is only in this sense that the Imam is called the ‘bearer of the Light’ – in that the Light of Imamate is reflected in the Imam’s human soul while not being physically contained or constrained within this mirror.  Thus, the Universal Intellect remains transcendent in the higher spiritual realm and manifest in the created world while never materially descending into it.  It is important to note the distinctions – between the Imam and the Light of Imamate on one hand, and that between the Light of Imamat and God Himself on the other – so as to keep all things in their proper place.

While all the Imams are the bearers of the Muhammadan Reality or Light of Imamate, they still possess a unique individuality which renders each Imam as being different from the others.  The sequence of the Imams should not be perceived as ‘reincarnations’ of one and the same individual soul, but rather an epiphanic succession where the individual soul of each Imam serves as a unique mirror or locus of manifestation (mazhar) of the same one Light – in the manner of a single light being reflected in multiple mirrors, each with different forms, curvatures and dimensions, with one mirror appearing after another in succession.  Each Imam also integrates the virtues and qualities of his predecessors – each reflects the all.  But at the same time, each Imam manifests these virtues and qualities in a unique fashion due to his individuality.[viii]  These principles are, for example, reflected in the architecture of the Delegation of the Isma‘ili Imamate in Ottawa.  Its maple floor consists of 49 large squares – standing for the 49 Isma‘ili Imams – and each of these 49 squares contains 49 smaller squares.  This visually depicts how each Imam amongst the 49 Isma‘ili Imams reflects and integrates the virtues and qualities of all 49 Imams within himself.

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It is often assumed that the Light of Imamate is mystically transferred from one Imam to the next when the Imam passes away.  But in reality, what passes from one Imam to the next upon the predecessor’s death are only the functions and authority of the Imamate; the Light of Imamate is something that all the Imams possesses at birth[i], although at such time their formal status as Imams is not known or declared.[ii]  It must be remembered that the reality which is described as the Light of Imamate is not a material entity which must be restricted to a single individual, but rather, it can be manifest in several generations at the same time.   From a spiritual standpoint, the Imams are born as Imams and are always Imams; all are the bearers of the Light since birth and even before that. [iii]  The twenty-third Nizari Isma‘ili Imam Hasan ala-dhikrihi al-salaam makes this clearly evident in his Blessed Epistles (fusul-i mubarak):

The Imam is perfect when still in the form of sperm in the loins of his father and the pure womb of his mother.  An Imam is always an Imam and always perfect.  Otherwise, why should he say, ‘The Imam knows from which drop of sperm the Imam after him will come?’
- Imam Hasan ‘ala dhikrihi al-salaam,
(Nasir al-Din Tusi, Rawda-yi Taslim transl. S.J. Badakhchani, The Paradise of Submission, p. 125)

As long as the present Imam is alive, he alone carries out the functions and holds the authority of the Imamate.  The successor Imam will only assume the formal role of Imamate and be officially recognized as Imam when the previous Imam has passed away.[iv]  In other words, the present Imam at any given time is the ‘speaking Imam’ (al-imam al-natiq), while the Imam-in-waiting is the ‘silent Imam’ (al-imam al-samit).  This is indicated in Imam Ja’far al-Sadiq’s repy to a person who asked: “Can there be two Imams at once?”  To which the Imam replied: “No, unless one of them is silent.”[v

This also implies the possibility of several generations of Imams being present at once but with only one of them being the speaking and functioning Imam of the Time.  This was actually a reality during the early days of the Fatimid period.  The Must‘alian Isma‘ili historian Idris Imad al-Din describes a moment from Fatimid history where the Qadi al-Numan was conversing with the Imam Abdu’llah al-Mahdi.  In this period, Imam al-Mahdi had made it publically known that his son Abu’l-Qasim Muhammad – the future Imam al-Qa’im – was to succeed him.  Al-Qa‘im already had a son of his own, Isma’il, who would become the future Imam al-Mansur and Imam al-Mahdi had confided this fact to al-Numan:

Al-Qadi al-Nu’man was among those who had precedence in serving the Imam al-Mahdi bi’llah during the later part of his caliphate.  He was also the beneficiary of the favours of al-Qa’im bi-Amr Allah as were others.  Then Imam al-Mahdi bi’llah disclosed to him the distinction of his grandson Imam al-Mansur bi’llah who was the third of the Imams of the [period of] manifestation.  He (al-Nu’man) said: ‘O Commander of the Faithful, three Imams in one age?’ the [number] astounded him.  Then Imam al-Mahdi bi’llah showed him al-Mu’izz li-Din Allah who was a babe in his cradle and said, ‘And this is the fourth of us, O Nu’man!’
(Idris Imad al-Din, Tarikh al-Khulafa al-Fatimiyyin bi’l-Maghrib, transl. Shainool Jiwa, Anthology of Isma‘ili Literature, p. 60)

In another moving account narrated by the Egyptian historian al-Maqrizi, the Imam al-Mahdi convened a special gathering (majlis) where he brought his son, al-Qa‘im, his grandson, al-Mansur, and his great grandson al-Mu’izz into the same room and covered all of them with a cloak:

One day [Imam] al-Qa’im bi-Amr Allah, upon him be peace, was in his father [Imam] al-Mahdi’s majlis (gathering), seated in front of him.  His son, [Imam] al-Mansur, was standing in front of his grandfather, when al-Mahdi said to him, ‘Bring me your son’, that is [Imam] al-Mu’izz li-Din Allah.   So his nursemaid brought him.  He was one year old or a little older.  Al-Mahdi took him on his lap and kissed him.  Then he said to his son al-Qa’im bi-Amr Allah, ‘O Abu’l-Qasim, there is not a majlis more illustrious on earth than this one, as four Imams are gathered here,’ that is, al-Mahdi himself, his son al-Qa’im, his grandson al-Mansur, and his great-grandson al-Mu’izz li-Din Allah.  Additionally, the parasol bearer, Abu’l-Fadl Raydan, told me that al-Mahdi gathered them in a cloak and said, ‘The Prophet of God, may God bless him and grant him peace, gathered in his garment three Imams, in addition to himself, but in this cloak there are four Imams.
(Al-Maqrizi, Lessons for the Seekers of Truth in the History of the Fatimid Imams and Caliphs, quoted in Shainool Jiwa, Towards a Shi’i Mediterranean Empire, 29)

The above examples show the existence of four generations of Imams in a single age, but Imam al-Mahdi was the speaking Imam, executing the authority of the Imamate, while his son (al-Qa’im), grandson (al-Mansur) and great-grandson (al-Mu’izz) were the silent Imams.  But the above examples describe the more private and intimate moments of the Isma‘ili Imamate as generally the identity of the next Imam was not always a matter of public knowledge.

This also raises the question of the exact relationship amongst the Imam and his future successor(s).  The available literature indicates that there is indeed a special closeness and intimacy between the Imam of the time and the Imam-in-waiting.  In certain periods, this special relationship was made known publicly, particularly in cases where the succession was declared openly.  This is perhaps most evident in the case of the Prophet Muhammad and Imam ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib.  The close relationship between them is testified by ‘Ali himself in the following statement recorded in the Nahjul Balagha:

When I was but a child he took me under his wing … I would follow him [the Prophet] as a baby camel follows the footsteps of his mother.  Every day he would raise up for me a sign of his noble character, commanding me to follow it.  He would go each year into seclusion at [Mount] Hira.  I saw him and nobody else saw him.  At that time no household was brought together for the religion of Islam, except the Messenger of God, Khadija, and myself as the third.  I saw the light of the revelation and the message, and I smelt the fragrance of prophecy.
- Imam Ali ibn Abi Talib,
(Reza Shah-Kazemi, Justice and Remembrance, p. 13)

The current Imam and the future Imam share a spiritual relationship which only the two of them can truly understand.  The Qadi al-Nu’man narrates a beautiful story[vi] which the Imam al-Mansur confided to him.  In his own words, the Imam al-Mansur describes his relationship with his own father, Imam al-Qa’im.  The Imam stated:

Nobody could have been closer to the Imam than myself. I was his son, and yet my heart was filled with awe of his glory. One day, when I was just a little boy, I was walking behind him. I rejoiced at looking at him and receiving his didar. Then I would look at the heavens and the skies and rejoice at looking at them. Then I would look at him once again until my heart was satisfied. I thought to myself, the master of all creation is God in the heavens, and the Imam is his representative. The more this began to sink in, the more glorious my father appeared in my eyes, the more awe-inspired was my heart. Then Imam al-Qa’im turned around to face me. He held me and hugged me close. He said, ‘My dear little son, may Allah not place in your heart what he has placed in the heart of your mawla.’ I knew, at that moment, that he was referring to all of the worries that he had.
- Imam al-Mansur bi’llah,
(al-Qadi al-Nu’man, Majalis wa’l-Musayarat)

The Imam, responsible for the physical and spiritual welfare of his millions of followers, bears a great burden.  No one can really estimate or imagine the intensity of the burden borne by the Imam of the Time except his successor.  Other anecdotes in the Isma‘ili literature relate how the Imams and their future successors were able to confide in one another.  Although the Imams are all born with the spiritual Light of Imamate, there are forms of preparation and initiation by which current Imam initiates the future Imam into the formal functions of the Imamate which he will one day have to undertake.  In this sense, the Qadi al-Numan narrates how Imam al-Mansur would spend time alone with his grandfather Imam al-Mahdi where the two would discuss secrets in confidence and the latter would prepare the former for the Imamate:

He (Imam al-Mahdi) used to confide secrets in him (Imam al-Mansur) and no one knew what transpired between them.  One of the people who used to enter the presence of al-Mahdi frequently, as it was imperative for him to do so, said to me that there was never a time when he (al-Mahdi) was alone without al-Mansur being present and al-Mahdi would be speaking in confidence to him.
(Idris Imad al-Din, Tarikh al-Khulafa al-Fatimiyyin bi’l-Maghrib, transl. Shainool Jiwa, Anthology of Isma‘ili Literature, p. 61)

Having discussed the principles by which the succession in the Isma‘ili Imamate takes place, we can now examine the circumstances of the succession of the present Imam Shah Karim al-Husayni Aga Khan IV.

 

[

[i] See Arzina Lalani, Early Shi’i Thought: The Teachings of Imam Muhammad al-Baqir, Institute of Ismaili Studies and IB Taurus, London, 2000, pp. 78-79

[ii] Imam ‘Ali states in a sermon known as Khutba al-Bayan: “I am the Gnosis of Mysteries”. That is to say, the Imam identifies his inner reality with the knowledge of gnosis of God.  The Imams are also able to communicate this gnosis to their disciples – see Imam ‘Ali’s statements about the nature of Reality (haqiqah) in Reza Shah-Kazemi, Justice and Remembrance: Introducing the Spirituality of Imam ‘Ali, Chapter 3.

[iii] See Nasir al-Din Tusi, Rawda-yi Taslim, translated by S.J. Badakchani as The Paradise of Submission, Institute of Ismaili Studies and IB Taurus, London, 2006, p. 121:

“The formula of the profession of Divine Unity (kalima-yi tawhid) is the [exclusive] heritage to be transmitted and inherited through his sacred progeny and holy descendants, in one line of descent and essence – ‘offspring, one after the other (3:34) – a [lineage] which will never be ruptured, even unto the end of time.”

[iv] See Arzina Lalani, Early Shi’i Thought: The Teachings of Imam Muhammad al-Baqir, Institute of Ismaili Studies and IB Taurus, London, 2000, pp. 79-82

[v] To refer to the Imam as the ‘bearer of the Light’ must not be confused with the Christian concept of Divine Incarnation.  In Isma’ilism, the Imam has never been understood as an incarnation (hulul) of God – a perspective which has always been rejected.  A more precise definition of the relationship between the Imam and God was given at the Ismailia Paris Conference of 1975 where it was resolved:

“The Imam to be explained as ‘mazhar’ of God, and the relationship between God and the Imam to be related to varying levels of inspiration and communication from God to man.”

The term mazhar must be given careful consideration. The word mazhar does NOT mean ‘copy’ or ‘incarnation’ as the polemicist Akbarally Meherally ignorantly stated.  Mazhar is an Arabic noun of place, and is translated as ‘locus of manifestation’. In this sense, when the Imam is called the mazhar (locus of manifestation) of God, it means that the soul of the Imam is like the surface of a mirror upon which the Names and Qualities of God shine and are reflected, producing an image which constitutes the Imam’s pure humanity.  Therefore, the Divine Light is only ‘in’ the Imam insofar as the image of an object is ‘in’ a mirror.  The Divine Light remains immutable and unchanging in itself and does not materially enter the created world.  There is a further distinction made in Islamic theology and mysticism between God’s Essence and God’s Names, and it is only the latter aspect which is reflected in the Imam while God’s Essence remains unknowable and transcendent. Therefore, there is no question of shirk being committed since God does not actually or materially enter into the body of the Imam.  This relationship between God and the Imam in these terms of mazhariyyah (manifestation) can be extended to everything in the Cosmos: All creatures, all created phenomena are the loci of manifestation (mazahir) of God’s Names and Qualities.   Reza Shah-Kazemi explains this as follows:

“This is a point which is made emphatically by the Sufis in order to avoid the accusation of shirk:  the presence of God really is ‘in’ the creature, but only in the sense that an image is really ‘in’ the mirror.  There is no question of the glass of the mirror undergoing any material change as a result of the image that is present on its surface, nor is there any question of a material change or descent of the object into the mirror.  Thus God remains absolutely transcendent, just as the object remains totally other than the mirror.” (Reza Shah-Kazemi, The Other in the Light of the One, The Islamic Texts Society, Cambridge 2006,pp. 110-111)

[vi] Nasir al-Din Tusi, Rawda-yi Taslim transl. by S.J. Badakchani as The Paradise of Submission, p. 109:

“…human souls are therefore varied and differ with respect to their receptivity to the resplendent lights of the Divine Command (anwar-i ishraq-i amr-i ilahi), just as material objects are variously receptive to the physical light of the sun.  [Consider] stones, for example: one [kind] is pitch black, while others are progressively less dark, and their essences are more receptive to illumination, up to translucent glass which receives light from one side and emits from the other. In so far as human beings are unable to be receptive to His Almighty Command without mediation, it was necessary that there should be intermediaries vis-à-vis the Divine Command.  Those people whose consciousness (khatir) behaved as does a [translucent] glass held up to the sun were the Prophets.”

In accordance with Tusi’s explanation as given above, the souls of the Prophet Muhammad and the Shi’a Imams are like the translucent glass or gemstones which capture and reflect the Divine Light to the highest degree possible for a created being. This concept is embodied in the architecture of the Delegation of the Ismaili Imamat in Ottawa and the Aga Khan Museum and Ismaili Centre in Toronto.

[vii] The spiritual purity of the Imams is declared in the Qur’anic verse known as the Verse of Purity (33:33): “And God wishes to remove from you all impurity, O Ahl al-Bayt, and to purify you with a thorough purification.”  According to both Sunni and Shi‘ite hadith, this verse was revealed when the Prophet Muhammad embraced Imam ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib, Imam al-Hasan, Imam al-Husayn, and Bib Fatima under his cloak, indicating that God had purified their souls from all impurities.  For Shi‘a Muslims, all the succeeding Imams possess the same spiritual purity.  These notions are reflected in contemporary Isma‘ili Muslim Prayer (Du ‘a) in Part I (wa ‘ala’l-a‘immati’l-athar = “and upon the Pure Imams”) and Part IV (wa a‘immatika’l-mutahareen = “and Your Pure Imams”).

[viii] Nasir al-Din Tusi states with regards to the differences among the various Imams:

“The principle of relative and real existence (hukm-i idafa wa haqiqat) must be kept in mind…as there are diverse degrees of truth and each Imam manifests a different degree [of truth], a different mystery, a different benefit (maslahat) which they detail and elucidate [for people]…But insofar as the Divine Truth has a unity wherein all these stages are one, and the Imams are all one in reality (haqiqat), so that their persons (shakhs) are not separate from each other nor their spirits.” (Nasir al-Din Tusi, Rawda-yi Taslim transl. S.J. Badakhchani, The Paradise of Submission, The Institute of Ismaili Studies, London, p. 127)

[viiii] Al-Kulayni, Usul al-Kafi, vol. 1, p. 179. This reference was provided and translated by the late Shaykh Seth ‘Abd al-Hakeem Carney, may his soul rest in eternal peace.

[i] This point can be a matter of debate – as some of the early Shi’i traditions indicate that the Light is transferred only when the previous Imam passes away, while other traditions in the same corpus state that the Light is possessed by the Imams even at birth, and since the very creation of their souls in the spiritual World of Particles (alam al-dharr).  See Lalani, Early Shi’i Thought, pp. 80-82.  But later Nizari Isma‘ili Imams state quite clearly that the Imams possess the Light at birth.

[ii] Imam Hasan ala-dhikrihi al-salaam states, as recorded in Nasir al-Din Tusi’s Rawda-yi Taslim, (p. 123, Badakhchani translation)  that: “The designation (nass) which is made is not in order to make him an Imam; it is only made so that people should recognize him as such – otherwise, from his standpoint and perspective, all such different states are one and the same.”

[iii] The Shi‘i hadith literature describes how the luminous souls of the Imams were created by God before the creation of the physical world and the souls of others.  For details, see Mohammad Ali Amir-Moezzi, The Divine Guide in Early Shi’ism, Chapter 1.

[iv] There can be exceptions to this rule.  For example, Nasir-i Khusraw cites the cases of Imam ‘Ali Zayn al-Abideen and Imam Isma’il ibn Ja’far each of whom assumed the functions of Imamate while his father was still alive.  In the case of the former, Imam al-Husayn consigned the Imamate to Imam ‘Ali Zayn al-Abideen on the battlefield of Karbala shortly before he went out to make a final stand against the armies of Yazid.  In the case of Imam Isma‘il ibn Ja’far, his father Imam Ja’far al-Sadiq is reported to have said about him: “He is the Imam after me, and what you learn from him is just the same as if you have learned it from myself.” (Jafar ibn Mansur al-Yemen, Asrar an-Nutuqa, p. 256)  Nasir-i Khusaw and other Isma’ili da’is refer to the ta’wil of the Qur’anic story of the Sun, Moon, and Stars prostrating before Hazrat Yusuf according to which the Imam, the supreme hujja, and the other hujjas submitted to Yusuf as their new Imam while the previous Imam, Yusuf’s father Hazrat Yaqub, was still alive.

Prince ‘Ali Salman Khan: Son of the Imams and Father of the Imams

PAK cool

“We are sending you our beloved son. Consider his coming as equivalent to our own coming.   We are sending our Prince as our Wali ‘Ahd.”
- Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah Aga Khan III

Sir Sultan Muhammad Shah Aga Khan III, the 48th hereditary Imam, was perhaps the most glorious Imam in Isma‘ili history.  He succeeded his father Aga ‘Ali Shah at the tender age of eight and set forward in revolutionizing his community both materially and spiritually during one of the most exciting epochs of human history.  He was the first Imam to settle in the Western world, making his permanent home in Geneva.  He had the longest Imamate in the history of the all Imams through which he brought the Isma‘ili community into modernity and also championed many causes related to the overall welfare of the entire Muslim Ummah.  He was the first Imam to make himself publicly known at the global level since the Fatimid period and his recognition extended from East to West.  Also of importance was this Imam’s role is explaining the esoteric and universal meaning of Islam – which is evident in both his private farmans to the Isma‘ili Muslim community and in his public speeches and writings addressed to the world at large. The Imam explained many principles of Islamic esoterism and mysticism openly and in a clear language – these being concepts which were otherwise taught in private to initiates of esoteric orders.  During his long and eventful Imamate of 72 years, there was much speculation and anticipation regarding the identity of the Imam’s successor.

Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah’s popularity in the world was perhaps equaled by that of his illustrious son Prince ‘Ali Salman Khan, the father of the present Imam Shah Karim al-Husayni.  Prince ‘Ali Khan was very popular and dearly loved by the Isma‘ili community and many had expected him to succeed as the Imam.  He was also well known and prominent in the social circles of the Western world, as evidenced for example by his marriage to the famous actress Rita Hayworth.  At the same time, there were some who questioned his eligibility for the Imamate based on the reports of his risky lifestyle and social life.  In light of these circumstances, some have speculated that Prince ‘Ali Khan was originally designated by Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah to succeed him but that later the Imam changed his mind due to Prince ‘Ali Khan’s lifestyle and nominated his own son Prince Karim instead.  But a closer examination of the facts belonging to this period proves such speculations to be quite untrue.

Prince ‘Ali was born on June 13, 1911 and was the eldest son of Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah.  He spent his life in both the East and the West.  Due to his prominence in the social circles of England, his love for speed, horses and excitement, and his two marriages, the Western media sensationalized him and unfairly portrayed him as a playboy – a clearly distorted image.  One of his biographers, Gordon Young, even concluded at the end of his book, The Golden Prince, that the Prince was not really the playboy which the outside world thought him to be.  As reported in the same book, Prince ‘Ali Khan himself questioned many of the things that had been written about him as being the product of inaccurate journalism. It is perhaps due to the Western media’s mistreatment of Prince ‘Ali Khan’s image that his own son, Imam Shah Karim al-Husayni, the present Imam, tends to avoid publicity:

Young Karim winced whenever the headlines brought the tittle-tattle about his father home to him.  It was in these days that he first formed his aversion to publicity and resolved to give the press as little cause for comment about his personal affairs as humanly possible.  That he would grow up to hate, not his father, of whom he was fond and proud, but his father’s playboy image was a foregone conclusion. (Willi Frischauer, The Aga Khans, p. 186)

In light of these factors, to the undiscerning person Prince ‘Ali Salman Khan appears as a sort of paradox.  On the one hand, he performed religious and spiritual functions on behalf of his father, Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah, and as the son of the Imam was the object of great reverence and devotion.  At the same time, Prince ‘Ali Khan was one of the most popular figures in the Western imagination, and was the centre for social and aristocratic life:

But increasingly in recent years, Aly has gone about his father’s business and those who have seen him in his Eastern robes earnestly carrying out the rituals of his sect find it hard to believe that this can possibly be the same slick socialite who in London, Paris and New York jokes with his friends in a faultless Oxford accent and leads western café society in all the arts of high living and smart thinking. (Gordon Young, Golden Prince, p. 22)

In a manner quite opposite from the newspapers, Prince ‘Ali Khan was viewed and understood quite differently by those within the Isma‘ili community.  For example, the late Al-Wa’z Abualy Aziz who was contemporary with the Prince gives the following description of him in his book:

He was undoubtedly the beloved of his family as well as the Jamats… He was extremely popular in the Jamats all over the world and was loved by young and old alike. Very often he was sent by the Holy Imam to represent him for religious duties. He was a great sportsman and a statesman…  His Serene Highness Prince Aly was a great champion of Islam and never missed an opportunity to serve and defend it. He had all his life contributed financially, as well as physically, to the cause of Islam. A warm-hearted friend, an ardent servant of Islam, a shrewd horse-breeder, an energetic sportsman, a lover of speed and motion, a great public speaker, a cautious statesman, generous and benevolent, he was indeed a great man.
(Al-Wa’z Abualy Aziz, Brief History of Isma‘ilism, Dar as-Salaam, 1974)

PAK on horse

From an early age, the Prince became involved in the affairs of the Isma‘ili Imamate when he accompanied his father on a visit to India in 1923 where the Imam gave didar to his Indian murids. In August 1930, Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah sent Prince ‘Ali Khan to Syria along with the following message (taliqah):

“We are sending you our beloved son.  Consider his coming as our own coming. We are sending our Prince as our Wali ‘Ahd.”
- Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah Aga Khan III,
(Message to the Syrian Isma‘ilis, 1930)

In the above message, the Imam refers to his son Prince ‘Ali Khan as his wali ‘ahd.  This term was interpreted by some as indicating that Prince ‘Ali was designated as the next Imam, but this was not necessarily true.  The actual term wali ‘ahd means ‘master of the pledge (or covenant).’  The term has been used numerous times in Muslim history, particularly in a political sense where it referred to the heir or crown prince of a political dynasty.  Wali ‘ahd was also used by the Isma‘ili Imams when they reigned as the Fatimid caliphs during the 10th and 11th century.  It is true that in many instances, the designated successor of the Fatimid Imam-Caliph was called the wali ‘ahd, but this was not always the case.  For example, the Fatimid Imam-Caliph al-Hakim bi-amri’llah bestowed the title of wali ‘ahd upon two of his cousins – neither of whom actually inherited the Imamate.  Therefore, the word wali ‘ahd cannot be understood as a synonym for the future Imam but rather it indicates ‘a kind of shadow caliph, or rather, a symbolic stand-in who could assume the ceremonial function of the true Imam but not the actual, i.e. veritable, position that is implied by sacred designation.’[i]  This means that while Prince ‘Ali Khan was not the Imam or the future Imam, as wali ‘ahd he held a unique position[ii] as the deputy of the Imam and possessed the rights to carry out secular and religious duties on the Imam’s behalf – something which he did on several occasions.

PAK autopic1

Since the age of eleven, too, Aly Khan has flown East to visit groups of the Ismailis in the place of his father.  Wearing faultless tropical suitings and a black Astrakhan cap, Prince Aly would give readings from the Koran and accept tributes on behalf of his father ranging from anything between 10,000 and 30,000 a time. (Gordon Young, Golden Prince, p. 22)

During the Prince’s Syrian visit, an open Darbar took place where thousands of Arab Isma‘ilis, French Officers and the Governor of Syria gave a rising welcome to Prince ‘Ali Khan and four hundred Arab horsemen gave a salute.  The above taliqah was read out during this Darbar and the Syrian murids prostrated themselves before the Prince and kissed his hands in devotion. Prince ‘Ali Khan possessed a unique and charismatic personality which always inspired and cultivated admiration from those who saw him.  This was evident during his tour of the Isma‘ili localities where many members of the community instantly fell in love with his magnetic persona.

His was an astonishing feat of personality: ‘Aly’s appearance always sent the marriage rate soaring,’ wrote Leonard Slater. ‘Young men would speed their courting; young women would overcome their shyness.’  Sex appeal may have had something to do with it but much of Aly’s success was spontaneous popular reaction to a warm-hearted, handsome young man with a genuine affection for people.  From Syria he went on to Bombay and Karachi where he visited jamatkhanas, led the prayers and performed religious ceremonies with a touch as sure as that of an experienced mukhi.  The tour was a great success. (Willi Frischauer, The Aga Khans, p. 107)

During the course of his life, Prince ‘Ali Khan continued to perform important functions on behalf of the Imam, including a visit to India where the Prince was able to deal with issues caused by a dissident group known as the Khoja Reformers.  In the 1950s, Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah suffered a stroke while touring India and Pakistan and Prince ‘Ali Khan as the Wali ‘Ahd assumed his role and carried out religious functions on his behalf. The reality of Prince ‘Ali Khans life is clearly quite different from the distorted and exaggerated stories reported in the Western newspapers.  The Isma‘ili community understood and appreciated the Prince in an entirely different manner.   For example, an Isma‘ili magazine praised Prince ‘Ali Khan in the following way on the occasion of his forty-third birthday:

Our beloved Prince ‘Aly Khan has completed forty-three years of age.  We join Ismaili Jamats from all over the world in offering felicitations to His Serene Highness Prince Aly Khan on this happy occasion.  His Serene Highness has inherited the qualities of his illustrious father, Mawlana Hazar Imam.  The Jamats have been appreciative of the keen interest His Serene Highness takes in all the varied activities of the community in all parts of the world, and of his great contribution to their welfare. (The Ismaili, quoted in Gordon Young, Golden Prince, p. 148)

On July 11, 1957, at midday, Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah Aga Khan III passed away.  His Last Will was read on the morning of July 12.

[i] See Paul E. Walker, Fatimid History and Ismaili Doctrine, 2008, p. 17.

[ii]The Isma’ilis of the Fatimid period also invoked blessings (salwaat) upon the wali ‘ahd. For example, the da’i al-Naysaburi invokes salwaat upon the wali ‘ahd at the beginning of his Ithbat al-Imamah, see Paul Walker, In Praise of al-Hakim, published in Fatimid History and Isma‘ili Doctrine, p. 379.

 

Imam Shah Karim al-Husayni: Imam of the Atomic Age

 aga-khan-iii-funeral-hi-ps-pa

 

“…I am convinced that it is in the best interests of the Shi‘a Muslim Isma‘ilian Community that I should be succeeded by a young man who has been brought up and developed during recent years and in the midst of the new age and who brings a new outlook on life to his office as Imam.  For these reasons, although he is not now one of my heirs, I appoint my grandson Karim, the son of my son Aly Salomone Khan to succeed to the title of Aga Khan and to be the Imam and Pir all my Shi’a Isma‘ilian followers…”
- Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah Aga Khan III

The Imam’s Last Will shocked the world when it announced that he had appointed his grandson Prince Karim to succeed him as the 49th Imam of the Shi‘a Isma‘ili Muslims. However, a closer look at this period reveals that this succession was consistent with Isma‘ili history and one observes many elements which resemble the successions of the Fatimid Imams as cited earlier in this article.  When looking at the early life of Imam Shah Karim, one observes that he was being prepared to undertake the Imamate from a very young age:

shahkarim eid namaz

From the moment Karim was born, it was taken for granted that he would one day become Imam, and, unlike Aly, he was educated for the job from the beginning.  When he was only seven years old, living in Nairobi, he was dressed in a tiny uniform and taken to the jamat-khana to chant: “We are the direct descendant of the Prophet Muhammad, may peace of God be on him.” (Leonard Slater, Aly, Random House, New York, 1965, p. 269)

As a young boy, Imam Shah Karim soon developed a very unique and intimate relationship with his grandfather Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah.  These occasions were most likely not in the public view – in which Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah refused to discuss his succession.  But the more private moments were observed by the close family members including Imam Shah Karim’s mother, Princess Joan:

When the old Aga returned from Africa and was staying in Lausanne, the boys were taken to see him: ‘An extraordinary relationship developed between my father-in-law and my elder son,’ Princess Joan recalls, ‘K always talked to his grandfather as if they were contemporaries.  There was a powerful bond between them.”  It was probably due to his grandfather’s influence that Karim was mature beyond his age without forgoing the pleasures of a typical teenager’s life. (Willi Frischauer, The Aga Khans, p. 152)

The above account is reminiscent of the earlier mentioned anecdotes about the Isma‘ili Imams of the Fatimid period.  It seems that when several generations of Imams were contemporary – such as in the case of Imams al-Mahdi, al-Qa’im, al-Mansur and al-Mu’izz – the grandfather and the grandson Imams shared a special relationship where former would prepare the latter for the formal role of Imamate:

From a young age, [Imam] al-Mu’izz li-Din Allah had a special status with his grandfather [Imam] al-Qa’im.  He used to keep him in his company, be close to him and confide in him in preference to his father.  Whenever he (al’-Qa’im) was alone, he (al-Mu’izz) was with him and whenever he was absent, he (al-Qa’im) would send for him.  Similarly, Imam al-Mansur had the same status with his grandfather al-Mahdi, who was inseparable from him… One day al-Mu’izz mentioned a similar instance to his situation, saying that al-Mahdi bi’llah used to nurture him (al-Mansur) with wisdom and prepare him for the Imamate, just as al-Qa’im did so with him. (Idris Imad al-Din, Tarikh al-Khulafa al-Fatimiyyin bi’l-Maghrib,  transl. Shainool Jiwa, Anthology of Isma‘ili Literature, pp. 60-62)

The situation at the time of Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah, Prince ‘Ali Khan and Imam Shah Karim resembles the above.  Just as the Imam al-Mansur and Imam al-Mu’izz were initiated for the Imamate by their grandfathers, the Imam Shah Karim was initiated by his grandfather Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah.  One observes here a remarkable sense of continuity from the Fatimid period in which Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah and Imam Shah Karim were keeping with the traditions and customs of their ancestors the Fatimid Imam-Caliphs.   Accordingly, the historical reports mention how Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah would spend much time discussing the deeper meaning of the Isma‘ili faith with his grandson Imam Shah Karim. 

The old Aga seemed to think highly of the boy.  Whenever he was at Villa Barakat in Geneva he sent for Karim and talked to him at great length, subtly introducing him into the deeper meaning of the Ismaili faith and instilling him with the sense of mission which became apparent to all not many years later.  Prince Karim himself remembers his grandfather asking questions about his religious instruction, testing his knowledge: ‘He could extract more from a human being in short conversation than anybody else in a lifetime,” he mused. (Willi Frischauer, The Aga Khans, p. 182-3)

In the early 1950s, Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah sent both Imam Shah Karim and his brother Prince Amyn to East Africa to counter a campaign of anti-Ismaili rhetoric aimed against the Isma‘ili Imam and his Wali ‘Ahd Prince ‘Ali Khan.  During this visit, Imam Shah Karim addressed a large crowd – Isma‘ilis and others – and reminded them of all that his grandfather had done for them.  Later, in 1955, Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah sent Imam Shah Karim to East Africa to introduce the new prayers, known as the Holy Du’a, to Isma‘ili communities.  During these years, it is reportred that Imam Shah Karim spent much time with Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah and the latter’s secretaries to familiarize himself with the affairs of the Imamate:

Karim spent most of his time with grandfather or one of his secretaries, Mademoiselle Gaetane Beguel, research and acquainting himself with the Imam’s affairs, both personal and religious. (Willi Frischauer, The Aga Khans, p. 182-3)

Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah finalized his Last Will and Testament in May 1955. He passed away peacefully on July 11, 1957.   The Imam’s Will was read out before members of his family, including Prince ‘Ali Khan and Imam Shah Karim, on the morning of July 12, 1957.  The text of the Will announcing the Imam’s successor is as follows: 

“And in these circumstances and in view of the fundamentally altered conditions in the world in very recent years due to the great changes which have taken place including the discoveries of atomic science I am convinced that it is in the best interest of the Shi‘a Moslem Ismailian Community that I should be succeeded by a young man who has been brought up and developed during recent years and in the midst of a new age and who brings a new outlook on life to his office as Imam.  For these reasons and although he is not now one of my heirs, I APPOINT my grandson KARIM, the son of my son, ALY SALOMONE KHAN to succeed to the title of AGA KHAN and to be the Imam and Pir of all my Shia Ismailian followers.”
- Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah Aga Khan III, (Last Will, Willi Frischauer, The Aga Khans, p. 208)

As stated earlier, although Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah appointed his son Prince ‘Ali Khan as his Wali ‘Ahd, this was not a designation for the succession of the Imamate.  Prince ‘Ali Khan did not inherit the institution of Imamate and was not an Imam, but still holds an exalted status as the son of an Imam and the father of an Imam.[i] Prince ‘Ali Khan was the first to give bay’ah (oath of allegiance) to his son, now known as Mawlana Shah Karim al-Husayni the 49th Imam. Shortly after, the new Imam was met by Isma‘ili leaders and representatives and it was reported that the first words he spoke to them were:

“According to the Will of my Beloved Grandfather, I am your Hazar Imam. I am your 49th Mawla Mushkil Kusha.”
Imam Shah Karim al-Husayni Aga Khan IV, 
(To Jamati Leaders, Geneva, July 12, 1957)

As the 49th hereditary Imam, Mawlana Shah Karim al-Husayni holds a special place within the lineage of Isma‘ili Imams.  The 49th Imam is the seventh Imam of the seventh heptad or series of seven Imams.  The occurrence of seven Imams in Isma‘ili thought has often been linked to the commencement of a new era and therefore, the appearance of forty-nine (seven x seven) Imams suggests the inauguration of a new epoch of major cycle in the history of the Imamate.  Several Isma‘ili theosophers of the Fatimid period wrote that the appearance of forty-nine Imams after Prophet Muhammad would mark the commencement of the Seventh Major Cycle (symbolized by the Seventh Day of Creation) called the Cycle of Resurrection (dawr al-qiyamah) which brings great spiritual and material changes to both the World of Faith (‘alam al-din) and the material world (‘alam al-dunya).[iii]  In this sense, Sayyedna Hamid al-Din Kirmani quoted the following verse of the Holy Qur’an:

“And We have bestowed upon thee the Seven Repeated and the Great Qur’an.”
- Holy Quran 15:87

The ‘Seven Repeated’ refer to the seven cycles of seven Imams who appear in the after the Prophet Muhammad. Kirmani wrote that the appearance of these forty-nine Imams would mark the commencement of the Cycle of Resurrection when the Ranks of Faith (hudud al-din) would be removed and the knowledge of the divine knowledge would become unmediated.[iv]  These signs have now come to pass as the functions of the hudud al-din, especially the hujjahs and da‘is, were abolished during the Imamat of Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah Aga Khan III.[v] At the same time, the murids began to have more direct access to the Imam – something which was not the case in previous periods of history. 

The Cycle of Resurrection is referred to in the Qur’anic verse of the Days of Creation as the period when God ascends the Throne.[vi]  The Isma‘ili da‘is wrote that in the Cycle of Resurrection, justice and equity would be restored to the world and spiritual truths and knowledge would be available to humanity at large.  The period of forty-ninth Imam is the beginning of the Cycle of Resurrection.  The mentions of a ‘new age’ and ‘fundamentally altered conditions’ in the Last Will of Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah appear to speak to the present Cycle of Resurrection. In this regard, some contemporary Isma‘ili thinkers such as Allamah Nasir al-Din Hunzai have written the following about the status of the forty-ninth Imam:

Nur Mawlana Shah Karim al-Husayni Hadhir Imam: Nur means the intellectual, spiritual and moral light; Mawlana means our lord; Shah Karim al-Husayni means the generous king from the progeny of Husayn; Hadir Imam means the Imam whose recognition and obedience is incumbent upon the people of the time and without this the walayat of the previous Imams does not avail anything.  This most noble and the greatest Imam who, in the holy chain of Imamat is the seventh seven, is the Imam of the atomic age.  A great resurrection has taken place in the background of his Imamat, which the people of the world saw only in the world of particles.  They did not see it in the external world.
(Allamah Nasir al-Din Hunzai, Du’a: Essence of Ibadat, p. 90)

[i]It is reported that before the final burial ceremony of Prince ‘Ali Khan in Salamiyya, Imam Shah Karim told Isma‘ili delegates: “Remember he was a son to an Imam and a father to an Imam.”  The statements of the Prophet and the early Imams indicate that the lineage and forefathers of the Imams were spiritually pure and served as vessels for the Nur of Imamat.  This concept is also supported in the Qur’anic verses  (3:33-34) already cited in this article whereby God exalted the lineage from Adam to Imran (Abu Talib, father of  Imam ‘Ali) above all creatures.  In connection to this theme, Imam al-Mu’izz has stated: “We pass in the pure backbones and the sanctified and chaste wombs; whenever we are confined in a backbone and a womb, God shows us in power and knowledge…” (Makarem, The Doctrine of the Isma‘ilis, Beirut 1972, p. 32) and Imam Hasan ‘ala-dhikrihi al-salaam said: “The Imams, both outwardly and inwardly, both exoterically and esoterically, issue from the pure line and loins of the Imam, one after another.” (Nasir al-Din Tusi, Paradise of Submission, p. 125)  All these principles must be applied in understanding the rank of Prince ‘Ali Khan. Prince ‘Ali Khan was both the son of a pure Imam and the father of a pure Imam and thus he must also have shared in this state of spiritual purity. Imam Hasan ‘ala-dhikrihi as-salaam also states that the Nur of Imamat exists even in the state of ‘intellectual sperm’, and in this sense Prince ‘Ali Khan would serve as the transition vessel by which the Light of Imamate was inherited by his son Imam Shah Karim from his father Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah.  In summary, while Prince ‘Ali Khan was never the formal and functioning Imam, his spirituality and purity would be at the same level as the Imams since he is both the descendant of the past Imams and the progenitor of all the Imams to come.  It is worth noting that during the time when Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah, Prince ‘Ali Khan and Prince Karim were contemporary, the Imam ordered the Isma‘ili community to hold a joint saligrah celebration commemorating the birth of all three persons on the date of June 13 – which was the birth date of Prince ‘Ali Khan.

[ii] See Shafique Virani, The Isma‘ilis in the Middle Ages, p. 85 for details regarding this succession.  The author also points out that a grandson succession was repeated in recent times when Imam Shah Karim succeeded Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah.

[iii] Farhad Daftary, The Ismailis: Their History and Doctrines, p. 218 (Second Edition) where he refers to the prediction made by the Syrian da‘i Muhammad b. al-Suri and the Fatimid qadi al-Maliji.

[iv] Simonetta Calderini,‘Alam al-din in Isma’ilism: World of Obedience or World of Immobility, Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, Vol. 56, No. 3, pp. 467: “Kirmani firmly rejected Druze statements about the imminent advent of the Qa’im by reiterating that the Qiyama was not near, but was to take place in the distant future when the long cycle of 49 imams was concluded.”

[v] Rafiq Keshavjee, Mysticism and the Plurality of Meaning: The Case of the Ismailis of Rural Iran, IIS Occasional Papers, p. 6.

[vi] Qur’an 7:54 – “It is He who created the Heavens and the Earth in Six Days and then He ascended the Throne”.  According to the ta’wil of this verse as related in numerous Isma‘ili texts, the world created in Six Days refers to the World of Faith (‘alam al-din); the Heavens stand for the shari‘ah or exoteric laws; the Earth stands for the tariqah or esoteric paths; the Six Days stand for the Six Cycles of the Six Natiqs – Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, Jesus and Muhammad with each Cycle lasting approximately a thousand years; the Seventh Day (Sabbath) or Throne stands for the Cycle of Hazrat Qa ‘im al-Qiyamah which is the Cycle of Resurrection.  For details see Shafique Virani, The Days of Creation in the Thought of Nasir-i Khusraw, published under Academic Articles of the Institute of Ismaili Studies.

A Link in the Chain

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“The Imam is a transitory being, who forms a link between the past and the future. For this reason, ensuring the continuity of the institution and its ability to fulfill its role is what my life is all about.”
- Imam Shah Karim al-Husayni Aga Khan IV, 

(Paris Match Interview No. 2907, 3-9 February 2005)

The Isma‘ili Imamate, represented in every age by the Imam of the Time, is a trans-historical institution.   To engage the Isma‘ili Imam is to engage with the history which he represents and, in a sense, connect to the ‘past’ that he embodies in the ‘present’.  In this sense, one can experience the Imams of the past in the present Imam, but also experience the Isma‘ili communities of the past which were linked to these Imams:

In Ismailism, the fact that the Imam embodies a tradition extending considerably backwards in time creates the setting for just such an experience. By encapsulating the past within himself, the Imam serves as history incarnate, so to speak. In this sense, history is not only “learned”; it is also “experienced”, with a heightening of one’s intellectual and moral imagination.
- Aziz Esmail, (Why History, Institute of Isma‘ili Studies: Lifelong Learning Articles)

The figure of the Imam combines both transience and permanence.  As a single part of a series of Imams, each Imam is a transitory being, serving as but a link in the chain.  But the Imamate, the institution which each Imam bears and undertakes in his lifetime, is a permanent institution which has been present since humanity’s origins and which will continue to remain on earth until the Day of Judgment. Thus, the Imam is ‘a link in the chain’ – both historically and metaphysically.  Historically, the Imam is the link in the chain of Imams and a bridge between the past and the future.  Metaphysically, the Imam is a link in the great chain of being – guiding his murids from the limited realm of corporeality to the infinite realm of divinity – and serving as the mediator between the relative and the Absolute.

God is the Light of the heavens and the earth. The similitude of His light is as a niche wherein is a lamp. The lamp is in a glass. The glass is as it were a shining star. (This lamp is) kindled from a blessed tree, an olive neither of the East nor of the West, whose oil would almost glow forth (of itself) though no fire touched it. Light upon light. God guideth unto His light whom He will. And God speaketh to mankind in allegories, for God is Knower of all things.
- Holy Quran 24:35

The purpose of religion, in its essential sense, is ‘to bind’ the relative, the illusionary, and the transient to the Absolute, the Real, and the Permanent.  In Shi‘a Islam, it is the Imam – the bearer of the Light – who combines both transience and permanence within himself and guides the seeker to transcend his transitory and impermanent material life and bring his soul into communion with the Light of the Absolute and Infinite Reality – of which the Universe around us is but one of the infinite manifestations.

In our interpretation of this famous Qur’anic ayat, known as the ayat al-nur (Verse of Light), the ‘niche’ symbolizes the Imam’s physical body and the ‘lamp’ with its ‘glass’ symbolizes his pure soul.  The ‘blessed tree’ is Imam’s pure lineage which extends back through the previous Imams, the Prophet Muhammad, the Prophet Ibrahim and Adam himself; a lineage both physical and spiritual from which many great Prophets, saints and sages have come forth.  The light inside the lamp which shines and illuminates the darkness like a ‘shining star’ is the Light of Imamate which is the source of the Imam’s virtues, knowledge and guidance. It is a universal spiritual Light, ‘neither of the East nor the West’, which shines upon the ‘heavens and the earth’ illuminating all the seekers of enlightenment.  When the Imam departs this world and hands over the Imamate to the next Imam, one bearer of Light is succeeded by another bearer of Light; but their Light is one and the same and in reality there is no change, only ‘Light upon Light’.

10458164_804629076222664_5624020132494293791_n

“When you inherit an office, which is a life office, you are simply a link in the chain. And you therefore look at life somewhat differently than if you were, I suppose, a professional who moves around and is free to do what he wishes. Now some things are impossible to achieve. I well know that. And if that is the case, I simply have to try and move the issues forward as much as I can. The next Imam will then decide how he wishes to handle the issues. But, it is the continuum which is at the back of my mind. And that’s why perhaps my time dimension appears different than it might for other people.”
- Imam Shah Karim al-Husayni Aga Khan IV,
(Forbes Global, Cover Story, May 31, 1999)

 

Validating the Shia Imamat – Part 3: The Qur’an on the Purified Descendants of the Prophets

By Mohib Ebrahim

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COMMENTARY TO THREAD III

There is no disagreement among all Muslims — Sunni and Shia — that:

i)  Only Allah purifies.

ii)  The Prophets, being purified by Allah and having knowledge of scripture, are rightly guided.

iii)  That the Prophets mentioned in the Qur’an — including Prophet Muhammad — are from the same “seed,” i.e. family line.

iv)  That Allah promised Abraham leadership among the righteous of his “seed.”

v)  As per verse 33:33, the Ahl al-bayt, i.e. the People of the Prophet’s Household, are purified by Allah.

What is contested is whether or not all of the Prophet’s wives and/or the progeny of the Prophet are included as members of the Ahl al-bayt and thus purified.

According to the Shia, citing the historical record, when 33:33 was revealed the Prophet indicated that along with himself, only Hazrat Ali and his wife — the Prophet’s daughter, Fatima — and their two sons, Hussan and Hussein, were his Ahl al-bayt. Prophetic tradition — such as those from Ghadir Khumm discussed earlier — extend the Ahl al-bayt to include the Shia of Imams arising from Hussein’s progeny. The Sunni disagree. They include some or all of the Prophet’s wives and exclude any further progeny from the Ahl al-bayt. Whether or not the Prophet’s wives are included as part of the Ahl al-bayt is not relevant to the issue of Imamat, but the Prophet’s progeny is of course fundamental, for if they are, then according to 33:33 they are purified and have automatic right to leadership and are vested with the knowledge to interpret the Qur’an.

As was done with Threads I and II, when faced with conflicting interpretations, our methodology is to invoke 4:82 and see if other verses can resolve the conflict.

Observation 9 summarises the conclusions of Threads I and II, that (a) on the matter of leadership we are instructed to obey the pure and (b) on the matter of interpretation of the Qur’an, it is fully explained and that explanation lies with the purified. Leaving aside the issue of the Prophet’s progeny, the fact that the Sunni position doesn’t even insist that the purified are required to fulfil these two conditions is itself inconsistent with the Qur’an. The question, therefore, is not if the purified must be present among each generation, but rather, who are they?

It is self-evident that, during the Prophet’s lifetime, these two conditions were met by the Prophet himself. Similarly it is also self-evident that:

i)  if each generation after the Prophet are to obey Allah’s instructions to only follow purified leaders, and

ii)  if the Qur’an is to be fully explained, in perpetuity, as Allah promises,

then a purified person must live with each generation after the Prophet. That two conditions require the purified to satisfy them doubly confirms the necessity of a purified among each generation.

As Observation 10 notes, we must be informed by Allah who are purified since we are not able to make that judgement by ourselves since our knowledge is limited and not perfect. At the Prophet’s time, Allah only identified the Ahl al-bayt — i.e. the People of [Mohammad's] House — as purified. If the purified, who are to fulfil the above two conditions in each generation, do not come from the Ahl al-bayt, then we have no way of identifying them — since Allah doesn’t inform us that any other family will be purified after the Prophet — and thus it becomes impossible to fulfil or meet the above two conditions. This would be a significant inconsistency in the Qur’an.

On the other hand, Threads I and II expound — in consistency with the Shia position that purified in each generation are part of the Ahl al-bayt — that, historically (going as far back as the Qur’an speaks to) all the purified have descended from, or are members of, one “house,” i.e. family, and furthermore, Allah promised that He would continue to appoint the righteous from the same “house” (the House of Abraham) as leaders for Mankind, i.e. they will be the purified, per Thread I. And consistent with this and verse 33:62 — where Allah informs us that He does not change His practices — there aren’t, to my knowledge, any verses in which Allah indicates He has terminated this practice or rescinded his promise to Abraham and therefore we have no reason whatsoever to assume the purified will not continue to be appointed from one family — indeed the same family they were appointed from prior to the Prophet. Failure, therefore, to find such a continuous lineage of the purified after the Prophet, descended from the Prophet, would again result in a serious failing in the order the Qur’an lays down for mankind.

On the other hand that there is such a lineage, and critically only one such claimed lineage of “qualified rightly guided leadership”, i.e. leadership appointed by Allah, at the very least corroborates or at best confirms the Qur’an (depending on one’s insight into the evidence). That lineage is the lineage of the Shia Ismaili Imams, of whom His Highness the Aga Khan is the 49th hereditary Imam. As his predecessor, Sir Sultan Muhammad Shah, Aga Khan III, said:

If those who believe that Hazrat Ali was the rightful successor of the Prophet to be the ‘Ulu’l-amr Menkom [then they] must accept the principle of that succession — for the same reasons they accept in the case of Hazrat Ali — his rightful Imam descendants. [T]he Spiritual Imamat remained with Hazrat Ali and remains with his direct descendants always alive till the Day of Judgement. That a spiritual succession to the Imamat makes the Imam the ‘Ulu’l-amr Menkom always according to the Qur’an and though he has his moral claim to the Khalifat as well, always he can, like Hazrat Ali himself owing to the conditions of the world, accept and support such worldly authorities as the Imam believes help the cause of Islam. (12)

Observations 11 and 12, and verse 36:12 quoted in the conclusion of the thread are not critical to the argument but offered merely to illustrate how allegorical verses — when viewed through the prism of the foregoing — assume a corroborative air or quality, consistent with the necessity of a lineage of purified, descended from the Prophet, living among each generation.

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Validating the Shia Imamat – Part 2: The Qur’an on the Purified and Rightly-Guided Possessors of Knowledge

By Mohib Ebrahim

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COMMENTARY TO THREAD II

Since this thread is concerned with the question of how we are to acquire the correct meaning of the Qur’an, as explained previously, it is self-evident that the verses which will provide the answer must themselves not be among the ambiguous verses for otherwise we have an intractable paradox: the Qur’an’s instructions on how to obtain the correct meaning of itself cannot be understood because the instructions themselves are ambiguous. Therefore, out of necessity, we have no option but to take all verses relevant to answering this question at their face value, at least as far as their interpretation is relevant for this issue.

When it comes to acquiring the correct meaning of the Qur’an there are three key questions:

a)  Is the Qur’an fully understandable by all?

b)  If not, then are the parts which are not understandable by everyone understood by anyone, other than Allah?

c)  If they are, how can we identify them?

With respect to question (a), verse 3:7 explicitly states that some verses of the Qur’an are plain to understand, while others are allegorical, therefore questions (b) and (c) become pertinent.

With respect to question (b) several verses cited clearly indicate that some do indeed understand the whole Qur’an. In particular verses 29:49, 56:75-80 and 75:17-19, which are discussed below.

VERSES 3:7 (FIRST HALF) AND 29:49

Firstly, from the first part of 3:7 we know parts of the Qur’an are plain for everyone to understand and therefore confirm there is a common base of knowledge everyone has in order to understand those clear parts, yet 29:49 (and 41:3, 6:98, 6:105) speaks of a special group who have been granted additional knowledge to make the Qur’an “clear”. Since this additional knowledge is not needed to understand the plain parts (because everyone can already understand them) it is reasonable to assume the knowledge is for understanding the ambiguous parts mentioned in 3:7, which not everyone can understand. Having such knowledge to understand those parts, would make the Qur’an, for them, fully explained just as 6:114 says the Qur’an is.

VERSES 56:75-80

Similarly verses 56:75-80 speak of the Qur’an being hidden which none can touch except the purified. It is self-evident that this cannot refer “touching” the physical Qur’an simply because many have defiled the physical Qur’an and such people are not considered “pure” by any definition. Nevertheless, Allah has said the Qur’an has been hidden from everyone except the pure which means, therefore, some other attribute of the Qur’an and not the physical Qur’an is hidden. The question is what attribute is not hidden for the purified?

Thread I set out that, prior to Prophet Mohammad, Allah reserved leadership only for the pure. Similarly, Allah informs us in the verses cited in this thread, that, in the past, scripture and guidance (i.e. knowledge) was also only vested with the pure. Consistent with this, in this, His final revelation, Allah confirms, once and for all, in 6:82, only the pure are rightly guided (i.e. have knowledge of scripture). In other words, only the pure have ever had, or ever will have, that special knowledge of scripture — over and above what everyone already has — that makes them rightly guided.

Summarising the above we have:

i)  In the past, only the pure were ever vested with knowledge of scripture and rightly guided.

ii)  Only the pure will ever be rightly guided (and thus have the knowledge of scripture to be rightly guided).

iii)  The Qur’an is fully explained and also, per 29:49 (and other verses listed), a special group of people is vested with additional knowledge that makes the Qur’an “clear” to them. In other words, they are vested knowledge of scripture and would thus be rightly guided.

iv)  The Qur’an is not “hidden” for the pure. In other words, the pure (who are rightly guided by definition) are vested with knowledge of scripture.

It is self-evident then that those with the knowledge of scripture which makes the Qur’an clear to them, are the pure. Or, in the converse, what is hidden about the Qur’an (per 56:75-80) for all except the pure, is knowledge of scripture.

Finally, verses 75:17-19 inform us we are to only follow His explanation of the Qur’an. Clearly, the plain verses mentioned in 3:7 above do not require Allah’s explanation, and so the explanations spoken of in 75:17-19 must refer to the explanations of allegorical verses. Therefore it is self-evident if none are vested with that knowledge, we can not get His explanation that He has asked us follow. As we know, and also set out above, Allah speaks to us by vesting knowledge of scripture with the pure and so when the pure — who have been granted that knowledge which makes the Qur’an clear to them — explain the Qur’an to us, they are explaining it to us the way Allah wishes it to be explained, providing us with His explanation that we are to follow, exactly as described in 75:17-19.

VERSE 3:7 (SECOND HALF)

Finally, we come to the second half of verse 3:7, a verse which like 4:59 of Thread I has been the subject of much debate between the Sunni and Shia. The disagreement arises, quite literally, over the placement of a full stop. The Sunni version of the verse is:

He it is Who hath revealed unto thee (Muhammad) the Scripture wherein are clear revelations – they are the substance of the Book – and others (which are) allegorical…. None knoweth its [the allegorical verses'] explanation save Allah. And those who are of sound instruction say: We believe therein; the whole is from our Lord; but only men of understanding really heed. (Qur’an 3:7, Pickthall)

While the Shia version of the ending is:

… None knoweth its [the allegorical verses'] explanation save Allah and those who are of sound instruction. They say: ‘We believe therein; the whole is from our Lord’ but only men of understanding really heed. (Qur’an 3:7, Pickthall, modified according to Shia belief)

The difference (underlined) being whether Allah alone knows the meaning of the allegorical verses, or Allah and “those of sound instruction” — or “those firmly rooted in knowledge” as given in other translations — both know the meanings.

As before, when faced with such conflicts our methodology is to invoke 4:82 and see if other verses bring clarity to what is intended, rather than resorting to parsing the Arabic or examining the historical record.

If the Sunni position is correct — that everyone has the knowledge to understand the plain verses of the Qur’an but only Allah knows the meaning of the allegorical verses — then this would be:

i)  Inconsistent with 6:114 which informs us that the Qur’an is fully explained.

ii)  Inconsistent with verses 29:49 (and other verses listed) and 56:75-80 which, as explained above, inform us that some — the pure — have been granted special knowledge to understand the whole Qur’an.

iii)  Inconsistent with verses 75:17-19 which direct us to only follow Allah’s explanation of the Qur’an. However this command is impossible to follow since He has not vested anyone with the knowledge to provide us with His explanation.

On the other hand, if the Shia version is correct — that there are some vested with knowledge to understand the allegorical — this would corroborate and be consistent with:

i)  verse 6:114 that the Qur’an is fully explained,

ii)  verses 29:49 (and the other verses listed) and 56:75-80 which, as explained above, inform us that some — the pure — have been granted special knowledge to understand the whole Qur’an,

iii)  verse 75:17-19 which, as explained above, directs us to only follow Allah’s explanation of the Qur’an, which is only possible if some are vested with His knowledge to pass on to us.

Furthermore and notwithstanding all of the above, the Sunni position — that only Allah knows the meaning of the allegorical verses — is just an interpretation of 3:7 since there aren’t, to my knowledge, any verses in the Qur’an stating only Allah knows the meaning of the allegorical verses. On the other hand, the verses of the Thread speak directly to and establish the contrary. And so, as with Thread I, what is explained, understandable and corroborated by several verses takes precedence over an interpretation, with no corresponding verses to substantiate the interpretation.

Since the Sunni interpretation of 3:7, generates all these inconsistencies while the Shia interpretation clears them all then by verse 4:82 — that the Qur’an is free of any inconsistencies — the acceptable interpretation is that Allah and others know the meaning of the allegorical verses.

From the above, we now also have the answer to question (c), posed at the start of the commentary for this thread, and the identifying characteristic of those who have the knowledge to understand the whole Qur’an is they are the purified. As was pointed out with leadership, in Thread I, it is self-evident that if who interpret the Qur’an were also not pure, like the Messenger, they will make mistakes and, thus by definition, cannot be rightly guided. Consequently, to avoid being misled by such interpreters, others with more knowledge would have to double-check them would not only render such interpreters redundant but also undermine the legitimacy of their claim to interpret as the rightly guided.

However, as with Thread I, we are again left with an seemingly impossible situation of knowing who are the pure.

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Validating the Shia Imamat – Part 1: The Qur’an on the Holders of Authority

By Mohib Ebrahim

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COMMENTARY TO THREAD I

Note firstly that, Allah informs us that He does not change His practices:

Such is the way of God concerning those who passed away before, and never shall you find in the way of God any change. (Qur’an 33:62, S.V. Mir Ahmed Ali translation)

As set out from the verses cited, prior to Prophet Mohammad, Allah limited “command” or “leadership for mankind” exclusively to those who were either purified, faultless, righteous, not among the wrong-doers or disbelievers, and so forth. Then, consistent with this historical practice, Allah, in his last and final revelation (i.e. the Qur’an), instructs mankind not to obey those who have sinned or who are disbelievers. More particularly, in verse 4:59, Allah instructs those who believe to follow Him, the Prophet and “those of you who are in authority.”

Exactly who are “those in authority” has been the subject of much debate, with the Sunni insisting they may be any ruler while the Shia insisting they may only be someone pure and faultless since it makes little sense for Allah to command mankind to follow Allah and the Prophet, both of whom are pure and faultless, as well as any other ruler irrespective of their character or virtue or faith or knowledge. For, it is self-evident that if “those who are in authority” were also not pure, like Allah and the Messenger, they will make mistakes and, thus by definition, cannot be rightly guided. Consequently, to avoid being misled by such leaders, others with more knowledge would have to double-check them rendering such leaders redundant and undermining the legitimacy of their claim as rightly guided leadership.

Nevertheless, leaving aside the rational arguments as to who “those in authority” may or may not be, our methodology, when faced with conflicting interpretations, is to invoke 4:82 and see if other verses bring clarity to what is intended. If the Sunni position is correct, and “those in authority” neither have to be pure and faultless nor be of the same family from which those with “command” and “leadership for mankind” were previously appointed, then this would be, as per the verses cited:

i)  inconsistent with Allah’s final command in the Qur’an not to obey those have sinned or who were disbelievers and render it impossible to follow,

ii)  inconsistent with Allah’s steadfast, unyielding practice — going as far back as the Qur’an speaks to — to appoint mankind’s leadership for him,

iii)  inconsistent with Allah’s steadfast, unyielding practice — going as far back as the Qur’an speaks to — to vest leadership only in the pure and the faultless, and

iv)  inconsistent with Allah’s steadfast, unyielding practice — going as far back as the Qur’an speaks to — to vest leadership with the righteous of the same family.

Furthermore and notwithstanding the above, the Sunni position — that “those in authority” do not need to be pure and faultless — is just an interpretation since there aren’t, to my knowledge, any verses in the Qur’an stating that Allah left mankind free to choose their own leaders and/or that mankind’s kind leadership do not have to be pure and faultless (and breaking with His historical practices of ii, iii and iv above and in contradiction to verse 33:62). On the other hand, the verses of the Thread speak directly to and establish the contrary. It is self-evident what is explained, understandable and corroborated by several verses takes precedence over an interpretation, with no corresponding verses to substantiate the interpretation.

Since the interpretation allowing “those in authority” to be impure, generates all these (and other) inconsistencies while the contrary interpretation clears them all, then by verse 4:82 — that the Qur’an is free of any inconsistencies — the acceptable interpretation is that “those in authority” must be the pure.

Since we are unable to judge — perfectly and without error — who are the pure, Thread III will address the apparently impossible command not to follow disbelievers or those who have sinned. Indeed, Allah has said He will judge wherein we differ (42:10, 22:67-69, 5:48, 39:46, 6:164, etc.) thus precluding us from even making such assessments.

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Qur'anic Threads: Towards validating Manifest Imamat from the Qur'an alone

Posted by: Ismaili Gnostic | July 8, 2014

How to Validate the Shia Imamat from the Holy Qur’an


Qur'anic Threads: Towards validating Manifest Imamat from the Qur'an alone

BY MOHIB EBRAHIM

EDITOR’S NOTE

On August 5th, 1923, a young 16 year old boy — the youngest honorary missionary and member of the Bombay Recreation Club, now the Ismaili Tariqah and Religious Education Board (ITREB) — delivered a two hour lecture to “prove the significance and the need of Imamat from the Holy Qur’an and the Hadith.” That boy was Rai. A. M. Sadaruddin, who went on to devote the rest of his life in service to the Imamat and to Ismaili studies and history, culminating in his appointment, personally by Mawlana Hazar Imam, as a member of the first Review Board of the Institute of Ismaili Studies. Learn more about this event here.

Ninety years later, to the month, we are pleased to bring to you a groundbreaking and compelling piece by Rai Sadaruddin’s grandson, Mohib Ebrahim (founder and publisher of the NanoWisdoms Archive of Imamat Speeches, Interviews and Writings), in which he, following in his grandfather’s footsteps, also validates Manifest Imamat and its necessity but this time from the Holy Qur’an alone. Remarkably, his fresh perspective and innovative method avoids the usual technical debates over the Arabic language and the historical record which this subject never fails to instigate.

Excerpts from his article appear below, however the actual presentation and validation appears in the document linked at the end.

INTRODUCTION

Upon the death of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) a fundamental debate arose as to who was his rightful successor as leader of the nascent Muslim community. The debate is so fundamental that it is at the root of the Shia/Sunni difference of Islam and it has simmered continuously in the subsequent 1,400 years, at times boiling over with rage.

Over the centuries much has been written by both Shia and Sunni to “prove” their respective positions correct. On the one hand Shia theologians, philosophers, scholars, clergy and lay people have all sought to validate the Shia Imamat while on the other, their Sunni counterparts attempt to make the converse case. What is particularly perplexing and vexing to outside observers is both parties make their case from the same evidence — marshalling quotes from the Qur’an and Hadith (anecdotes about, and sayings of, the Prophet), key historical records as well as relying on rational or “common sense” arguments.

The paradox arises because there is no unanimous agreement over which historical records are accurate, which Hadith are authentic, and then even when there is agreement, disagreement arises over their interpretation. The dilemma is not improved, but rather compounded, when evidence from the Qur’an is relied upon simply because of the Qur’an itself admits, in verse 3:7, to its own partial ambiguity thereby rendering those parts open to individual interpretation.

DISAGREEMENT OVER THE HISTORICAL RECORD

To appreciate the depth of the quagmire over historical records, it would be instructive to review one particularly important example relevant to the Shia/Sunni disagreement over the Shia Imamat.

Consider the official position of the Ismailis — who are also the only branch of Islam, Shia or Sunni, which have “a living Imam who traces his family back to Hazrat Ali” (1). They state, as do all Shia, that:

[The Shia's] espousal of the right of Ali and that of his descendants, through Fatima, to the leadership of the community was rooted, above all, in their understanding of the Qur’an and its concept of qualified and rightly guided leadership, as reinforced by Prophetic traditions. The most prominent among the latter were part of the Prophet’s sermon at a place called Ghadir Khumm, following his farewell pilgrimage, designating Ali as his successor, and his testament that he was leaving behind him ‘the two weighty things’, namely the Qur’an and his progeny, for the future guidance of his community. (2)

In addition, all Shia maintain that the Prophet also said at Ghadir Khumm:

To whomsoever I am the Maula (the Lord – the Master), Ali is his Maula (the Lord – the Master). O God! Be Thou a friend to him who is a friend to him (Ali). (Be Thou) an enemy to him who is enemy to him (i.e. Ali). Help one who helps him (i.e. Ali). Foresake one who foresaketh him (i.e. Ali). (3)

Finally, Mir Ahmed Ali also notes:

[Upon] descending from the pulpit [after appointing Ali as Maula], the Holy Prophet commanded everyone of the huge gathering to pay his “Baiyat” or homage or allegiance to Ali. The first one to pay the baiyat was Umar ibn al-Khatab (who later became the 2nd Khalif)…. Hearing the words with which Omar felicitated Ali, the Holy Prophet commanded Omar not to address Ali as son of Abu Taleb, but as ‘Amirul-Momineen’, i.e. the Lord Commander of the Faithful…. Like his other titles … the title of ‘Amirul-Momineen’ was also bestowed upon Ali exclusively for him by the Prophet himself for none else held any of the titles during his lifetime of the Holy Prophet, particularly ‘Amirul-Momineen’. (3)

The question is then of course: what is the Sunni position over Ghadir Khumm? Mir Ahmed Ali lists some 80 of the most respected Sunni authorities and books which have “reported this event in all its details.” (3) He also adds that the number of authorities who have “relayed this event with its true significance” (3) is such that there is “not a single event of the Islamic history nor any other Qur’anic Verses which has earned so much unanimous, universal, unquestionable and doubtless attention from such great authorities in such a huge number” (3).

Nevertheless, despite such an agreed upon record of what took place at Ghadir Khumm, the Prophet’s words were nevertheless still parsed and dissected by, what appear to the uninitiated, hair-splitting arguments over Arabic and its grammar, that in all likelihood the matter will never be settled. For example, the word Maula is taken to mean “friend” and not “Lord” or “Master.” Such is the state of affairs, that, in concluding his lengthy commentary about the event, Mir Ahmed Ali wrote out of frustration:

[I]n spite of so much of the doubtless and the unchallengable acknowledgement of the facts [over Ghadir Khumm] it is only a wonder how man could ever insist upon his own fanciful notions and hold himself fast to them, unless his conscience and reasoning cease to work or he does not want to be corrected. (3)

DISAGREEMENT OVER QUR’ANIC INTERPRETATIONS

Given the disagreement about a historical event despite overwhelming agreement on its record by both sides, one can only imagine the disagreement over arguments relying on the Qur’an, given its admitted ambiguity. Perusing, for example, Chapter 4, “Al-Baqir’s Views on the Imamate,” of Arzina Lalani’s “Early Shi’i Thought: The Teachings of Imam Muhammad al-Baqir” offers a flavour of this, vis a vis the Imamat. In it, she discusses some of the Qur’anic verses — including 5:55, 5:67, 5:3, 4:59, 4:83, 4:51, 4:53, 4:54, 4:58, 9:119, 9:105, 2:143, 3:5 [sic, 3:7], 35:32, 42:22 [sic, 42:23], 64:8, 57:28, 6:122, 33:6, 43:28, 33:33, 17:71 — cited and interpreted by the 4th/5th Imam (i) revered by all Shia, Imam Muhammad al-Baqir, in his defence of the Imamat. Needless to say, the Sunni have their own interpretations for each of these verses.

While some of the Sunni interpretations appear strained to Shia ears, the Shia interpretation of others can only be understood as referring to the Imamat when explained by the Imams themselves, giving rise to suggestions of self-serving interpretations. Other verses, like the historical record, have been subjected to similar hair-splitting debates over the Arabic and its grammar, perhaps none more so than 3:7 where the debate quite literally rages over the placement of a full stop.

SETTING THE GROUND RULES FOR A NEW APPROACH

Leaving aside those ambiguous verses that require the Imamat to explain they refer to the Imamat, past attempts to validate the Imamat from the Qur’an were, in general, based on arguing a specific interpretation of what were, hopefully, “smoking gun” verses that one could then point to and proclaim, “Here, clear verses where Allah ordained the Imamat.” However, the fact is that such “smoking gun” verses are few and far between — if they are to be found at all, given the disagreements over interpretation, as explained above. Furthermore, even if they are very clear when read in a certain light, it is precisely because they need to be read in that certain light and then argued in isolation, that they do not, in my opinion, provide substantive, let alone conclusive, evidence.

Consequently, inspired by the Ismaili position mentioned above, it began to dawn on me that perhaps there was an alternative approach — at least for me — to resolve the dual quagmires of contradictory historical records and Qur’anic interpretations. However, several severe constraints were first needed. The “Ground Rules” as it were.

Furthermore, surely it is self-evident that answers must be found in the “plain verses,” and not the ambiguous ones, for otherwise we would have an unresolvable paradox that the instructions on how we are to acquire the correct meaning of the Qur’an’s ambiguous verses, were themselves be cloaked in ambiguity.

QUR’ANIC THREADS: TAKING UP THE INVITATION OF VERSE 4:82

The problem, however, is that the unambiguous verses do not come specially identified. And, since merely quoting a verse from the Qur’an implies interpretation, the first question which arises about a verse is whether or not it is one of the ambiguous verses. If the verse is not sufficiently clear by itself to be excluded from the ambiguous verses, then — rather than trying to justify the interpretation semantically, parsing words or Arabic, or resorting to the historical context of the verse — perhaps other verses can be brought to bear and corroborate the interpretation offered and thereby settle issue with evidence. In fact the verse:

Will they not then ponder on the Qur’an? If it had been from other than Allah they would have found therein much incongruity. (Qur’an 4:82)

invites us to validate our interpretations by reconciling them with other parts of the Qur’an to and iron out any “apparent” inconsistencies our (mis)understandings create. Therefore, rather than trying to find and interpret a single “smoking gun” verse, argued and relied on in isolation, to justify Imamat, I use what I call Qur’anic Threads.

Qur’anic Threads propose a conclusion that arises from a set of mutually supportive, interlocking Observations related to a single concept with each Observation substantiated from a set of verses. It seems self-evident that if the Qur’an has no discrepancies, per 4:82 above, then surely it must neither have discrepancies at the micro (verse) level nor at macro (conceptual or “thread”) level. Therefore, if the thesis behind a thread is valid, threads will give interpretations credence, objectivity, coherence, resilience and stability because well formed threads are internally consistent from several perspectives and thus threads provide robust, perhaps even conclusive, lines of evidence and argument which are able to better withstand challenge as compared to individual, “smoking gun” verses argued in isolation.

INSPIRATION FOR A FRESH PERSPECTIVE AND A CORRESPONDING NEW APPROACH

Although the aforementioned constraints prevents the demonstration from getting mired once again in the quicksands of parsing Arabic, personal interpretations of allegorical verses and conflicting historical records, they appear, superficially, to be unreasonably severe rendering it all but impossible to accomplish anything. Hope, however, lies in precise notions articulated in the Ismaili explanation of the Shia position, highlighted below:

[T]he Shia’s espousal of the right of Ali and that of his descendants, through Fatima, to the leadership of the community was rooted, above all, in their understanding of the Qur’an and its concept of qualified and rightly guided leadership, as reinforced by Prophetic traditions. [Emphasis added] (2)

Namely, that the Qur’an sets out two criteria for valid leadership: qualified and rightly guided. Here now were precise, specific criteria that could be tested objectively — as opposed to the subjective duels of linguists and historians — exactly as verse 4:82 proposes in the same spirit of scientific inquiry. Perhaps this is why Imam Jafar al-Sadiq said “Intellect (‘aql) is that by which Allah is worshipped and a place in Paradise earned” (5) and the Holy Prophet said:

To listen to the words of the learned and to instil into others the lessons of science is better than religious exercises. (8)

The Ismaili explanation of the Shia position and these two criteria beg the question: Does the Qur’an indeed declare a notion of “qualified and rightly guided leadership?” And if it does, then it prompts several fundamental questions:

i) What qualifications make one “qualified and rightly guided” to lead?
ii) Who are the “qualified” to lead and who are “the rightly guided?”
iii) And most importantly, can they be identified?

Individually, each answer would be of immense value. Collectively, however, the conclusion they offer may well be unassailable. Surprisingly the answers are neither as obscure nor as surprising as one might imagine.

To investigate the Qur’anic position on the previous questions, three Threads (corresponding roughly to each question) were developed. Each thread is depicted in single page chart, which can be read independently of the commentary which follows each.

Continued in the document linked below

CLICK ON ANY THUMBNAIL TO DOWNLOAD THE FULL ARTICLE,
THE 3 THREAD CHARTS AND THEIR RELATED COMMENTARY


Qur'anic Threads: Towards validating Manifest Imamat from the Qur'an alone

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Mohib Ebrahim is the Editor and Publisher of the NanoWisdoms Archive of Imamat Speeches, Interviews and Writings. The Archive is a unique Website dedicated solely to the Ismaili Imamat’s knowledge and has been granted special permission to reproduce His Highness the Aga Khan’s speeches. With over 500 readings and 1,000 quotes it is the most comprehensive, public collection of Imamat knowledge available today.

An honours graduate of Simon Fraser University in Computer Science and Mathematics, Mohib has been involved in software development and the IT industry since the ’80s. His current project, MasterFile, is a state-of-the-art evidence system for academic researchers, investigators, and litigators. Mohib may be reached at: mohib[at]sent.com

OTHER ARTICLES BY THE AUTHOR

Truth, Reality and Religion: On the use of Knowledge and Intellect in Deen and Dunia

Posted by: Ismaili Gnostic | July 5, 2014

What is Shia Islam? A Visual Chart of Different Shia Communities

ShiaIslam_Updated Image

“It is important, therefore, for non-Muslims who are dealing with the Ummah to communicate with both Sunni and Shia voices. To be oblivious to this reality would be like ignoring over many centuries that there were differences between Catholics and Protestants, or trying to resolve the civil war in Northern Ireland without engaging both Christian communities.”
- Imam Shāh Karīm al-Ḥusaynī Āgā Khān IV

This short article features a visual chart outlining the major differences between Shia and Sunni Muslims and further depicting the major divisions and branches within Shia Islam pertaining to the succession of the Shia Imamat.

While all Muslims affirm the absolute oneness of God and the role of Muhammad as His final prophet, Shia and Sunni Muslims differ on the question of legitimate spiritual and religious authority after the Prophet Muhammad. It must be kept in mind that while Muhammad was alive, he was both the political and spiritual leader of the believers. All questions concerning religious interpretations, law, ethics, theology, etc. were deferred to and decided by the Prophet; his ruling was, for all intents and purposes, the direct representation of God’s Will and Command to the believers. Far from being just a mouthpiece for the Qur’an, Muhammad was the fountainhead of all spiritual authority, esoteric knowledge, moral leadership and the channel of God’s continual guidance and blessings for the believers. To obey the Prophet in his lifetime was the practical way of obeying God. God’s blessings, guidance and forgiveness had to be sought through Muhammad’s intercession, blessings and prayers. All devotional offerings (ṣadaqah) and acts of repentance by the believers were offered to God via Muhammad. Thus, in addition to being the vehicle through which the Qur’an is revealed in human language, the Prophet Muhammad was the bearer of a spiritual authority or charisma, called walāyah, which was the source of the spiritual sanctity and purity by which he performed the aforementioned spiritual duties. The relationshiop between God and the Prophet Muhammad is depicted in the below diagram and can be read about here:

PMCircle

Sunni Muslims recognize no direct succession of spiritual and charismatic authority (walāyah) of Muhammad; the community exercises authority and religious interpretation through the Caliphate (holding political authority, the scholars (ulamā) and Sufi shaykhs holding religious and mystical authority. Meanwhile, Shia Muslims stress that the Prophet Muhammad – whom Qur’ān 33:6 speaks of as possessing more authority (awlā) over the believers than their own souls – had actually designated his cousin and son-in-law ‘Alī ibn Abī Ṭālib as the master (mawlā) of the believers. This took place during the Prophet’s farewell pilgrimage when Muhammad halted the pilgrims at Ghadīr Khum, quoted Qur’an 33:6 by saying “Do I not have more authority (awlā) over you than your own souls” and then proceeded to declare “He whose mawlā I am, ‘Alī is his mawlā”. This event at Ghadīr Khum is attested to by Sunni and Shia sources and narrated by 184 companions. Therefore, the Shia Muslims hold that the spiritual and charismatic authority of the Prophet Muhammad and all of his aforementioned spiritual rights and duties (with the exception of scriptural revelation) continue through the institution of hereditary spiritual leadership called the Imamat, with Imam ‘Alī ibn Abī Ṭālib as the first Imām.  This Imamat is subsequently handed down by each Imam to his appointed successor from among his male progeny. The Imams are of the Prophet’s Ahl al-Bayt whom the Qur’an declares as thoroughly purified by God as per Qur’an 33:33. The Imam for Shia Muslims is the inheritor of the Prophet Muhammad’s authority and the sole source for the legitimate interpretation of Islam.

Sunni Muslims came to recognize the Qur’an, the Sunnah (custom) of Muhammad as recorded in the Ḥādīth literature, and legal interpretative techniques such as scholarly consensus (ijmā), analogy (qiyās), and interpretation (ijtiḥād) as the sources (uṣūl) for religious and legal interpretations. Meanwhile, Shia Muslims regard the institution of the Imamat and its living and continual interpretation of the Qur’ān as the sole authoritative and legitimate source of religious interpretation and spiritual guidance.

Over the last 1,400 years, the Shia Muslims experienced a number of splits and divisions due to disagreement over the rightful succession of the Imams. Different groups differed over the identity of the legitimate successor to a given Imam, thus resulting in the emergence of different Shia groups who trace the legitimate succession through different lines of Imams, which stem from the same ancestor. For example, the Ismailis and the Twelvers follow two different lines of Imams – both of which trace back to the Imam Ja‘far al-Ṣādiq. All of the major splits and the resultant branches are depicted in the below Visual Chart for the sake of informing the public about the historical origins of Shia Muslim communities.

The chart is followed by important extracts from the Address of His Highness Aga Khan IV, the forty-ninth hereditary Imam of the Nizari Ismaili branch of Shia Islam in an inaugural Speech made to the Parliament and Senate of Canada in 2014.

Click Here for Larger View

ShiaIslam_Updated Image


“Perhaps the most important area of incomprehension, outside the Ummah, is the conflict between Sunni and Shia interpretations of Islam and the consequences for the Sunni and Shia peoples. This powerful tension is sometimes even more profound than conflicts between Muslims and other faiths. It has increased massively in scope and intensity recently, and has been further exacerbated by external interventions. In Pakistan and Malaysia, in Iraq and Syria, in Lebanon and Bahrain, in Yemen and Somalia and Afghanistan it is becoming a disaster. It is important, therefore, for non-Muslims who are dealing with the Ummah to communicate with both Sunni and Shia voices. To be oblivious to this reality would be like ignoring over many centuries that there were differences between Catholics and Protestants, or trying to resolve the civil war in Northern Ireland without engaging both Christian communities. What would have been the consequences if the Protestant-Catholic struggle in Ireland had spread throughout the Christian world, as is happening today between Shia and Sunni Muslims in more than nine countries? It is of the highest priority that these dangerous trends be well understood and resisted, and that the fundamental legitimacy of pluralistic outlooks be honoured in all aspects of our lives together, including matters of faith.”

“I have the great privilege of representing the Ismaili Imamat — this institution which has stretched beyond borders for more than 1400 years and which defines itself and is recognised by an increasingly large number of states, as the succession of Shia Imami Ismaili Imams.”

“The Ismaili Imamat is a supra-national entity, representing the succession of Imams since the time of the Prophet. But let me clarify something more about the history of that role, in both the Sunni and Shia interpretations of the Muslim faith. The Sunni position is that the Prophet nominated no successor, and that spiritual-moral authority belongs to those who are learned in matters of religious law. As a result, there are many Sunni imams in a given time and place. But others believed that the Prophet had designated his cousin and son-in-law, Ali, as his successor. From that early division, a host of further distinctions grew up, but the question of rightful leadership remains central. In time, the Shia were also sub-divided over this question, so that today the Ismailis are the only Shia community who, throughout history, have been led by a living, hereditary Imam in direct descent from the Prophet.

- Imam Shāh Karīm al-Ḥusaynī Āgā Khān IV,
(Speech made to both Houses of the Canadian Parliament and Senate, February 27, 2014)

 

Reading Resources:

If you do not accept the existence of God or are not sure, then read a logical argument for the existence of God here.

If you do believe in the existence of God but are unclear on the concept of God, then read this article on the concept of God according to the 48th hereditary Imam of the  Ismā‘īlī Muslims.

If you do accept the existence of God but are unsure as to the existence of the immaterial human soul, then read this article for a series of philosophical arguments on the soul.

If you believe that the Prophet Muhammad was merely a deliverer of the Qur’an and nothing more, then read this article which uses the Qur’an to delineate the spiritual duties and powers of the Prophet Muhammad.

If you believe in the spiritual authority of the Prophet Muhammad and accept the Qur’an as divinely-inspired revelation, but do not accept that Muhammad had any spiritual successors, then read this article containing arguments for a manifest Imam or spiritual leader to succeed Muhammad based on the Qur’anic evidence.

Abstract: According to traditional interpretations, the first verse of the Qur’ān (iqra bi-smi rabbika) merely commands the Prophet Muhammad to read aloud the verses of the Qur’ān.  But based on early Muslim tradition and the rules of Arabic grammar, the Qur’an’s earliest verses actually show that Muhammad was engaged in a form of mystical meditation, consisting of repeating and reciting a special Name of God, when the Qur’an was revealed to him. This interpretation has profound implications on how Muslims should understand the spirituality of a prophet: every prophet undergoes a spiritual initiation which includes rigorous spiritual training, the performance of mystical practices like meditation using a special Name of God.

If you do not accept the existence of God or are not sure, then read a logical argument for the existence of God here.

If you do believe in the existence of God but are unclear on the concept of God, then read this article on the concept of God according to the 48th hereditary Imam of the  Ismā‘īlī Muslims.

If you do accept the existence of God but are unsure as to the existence of the immaterial human soul, then read this article for a series of philosophical arguments on the soul.

If you believe that the Prophet Muhammad was merely a deliverer of the Qur’an and nothing more, then read this article which uses the Qur’an to delineate the spiritual duties and powers of the Prophet Muhammad.

If you believe in the spiritual authority of the Prophet Muhammad and accept the Qur’an as divinely-inspired revelation, but do not accept that Muhammad had any spiritual successors, then read this article containing arguments for a manifest Imam or spiritual leader to succeed Muhammad based on the Qur’anic evidence.

surat al-alaq

“The command to recite the Name of the Lord seems to refer to a certain act of devotion… The interpretation…according to which ūrat al-‘Alaq urges the prophet to praise the Name of his Lord, was almost utterly forgotten.” (Uri Rubin)

Ramaḍān  is the month in which the first revelations of the Holy Qur’ān descended to the Prophet Muḥammad. It is widely reported that the first verses of the Holy Qur’ān revealed to the Prophet as he meditated in the Cave of Hira were:

Iqrā’ bi-smi rabbika’lladhī khalaqa
Khalaqa al-insāna min ‘alaqin
Iqrā’ wa rabbuka al-Akramu
Alladhī ‘allama bi’l-qalami
‘Allama’l-insān ma lam ya‘lam

These verses are usually read and translated as follows:

Read: In the name of your Lord Who created
Created man from a clot
Read: And your Lord is most Generous
Who has taught by the Pen
Has taught man that which he knew not.
(Holy Qur’ān 96:1-5)

According to most traditional accounts and interpretations, the Prophet was being told by God to read the verses of the Qur’ān which the Angel Gabriel was conveying to him.  This interpretation implies that the Qur’ān, even prior to being revealed in the physical world, was a static and fixed text which the Prophet merely conveyed or ‘read’ to his community. However, there is no basis for this interpretation which has its origins in a later period and is married to a particular theology that sees the Qur’an in its Arabic form as transcending human history.  But there is another way of understanding these verses, based on early Muslim tradition and Arabic grammar, which yields a different interpretation altogether.


Remember the Name of your Lord

The words bi-smi rabbika must first be re-examined.  In the traditional interpretation, these words mean ‘in the name of your Lord’ – where the word bi is translated as “in”.  Thus, the Prophet is being commanded to merely read the Qur’anic verses – ‘in the name of’ his Lord as they revealed to him.  But it would be better to actually look at all the instances of the words bi-smi rabbika in other Qur’ānic verses to see if this reading actually makes sense in the context of the Qur’ān as a whole:

Fasabbiḥ bi-smi rabbika al-‘aẓīmi
“Then praise the Name of your Lord, the Supreme.”

(Holy Qur’ān 56:74)

Fasabbiḥ bi-smi rabbika al-‘aẓīmi
“Then praise the Name of your Lord, the Supreme.”

(Holy Qur’ān 56:96)

Fasabbiḥ bi-smi rabbika al-‘aẓīmi
“Then praise the Name of your Lord, the Supreme.”

(Holy Qur’ān 69:52)

Wa-udhkuri isma rabbika wa tabattal ilayhi tabtīlān
“And remember the Name of your Lord and devote yourself to it/Him devotedly.”

(Holy Qur’ān 73:8)

Wa-udhkuri isma rabbika bukratan wa aṣīlān
“And remember the Name of your Lord morning and evening.”

(Holy Qur’ān 76:25)

In the first three verses (56:74, 56:96, 69:52), the expression bi-smi rabbika is used but the word bi is silent in meaning – it does not actually add anything to the meaning of the phrase which is read as “praise the Name of your Lord” instead of “praise in the Name of your Lord”.  In the last two verses (73:8, 76:25), the bi is not present and the verb dhakara (to remember, to invoke) is used instead of the verb sabbaḥa (to praise, to glorify).  But the meaning of all these verses is virtually the same in that they are instructing the Prophet (and/or the believers) to praise or remember the Name (ism) of their Lord.

This conclusion should be applied to the Iqrā’ verse and the words bi-smi rabbika.  If we make the bi silent (as it is in the three verses above), and recall that the word Iqrā’ also means ‘recite’, then the first verse of the Qur’ān reads follows:

Iqrā’ bi-smi rabbika’lladhi khalaqa
“Recite the name of your Lord Who created”

The meaning of the above reading is vastly different than the traditional reading.  Instead of being told to read a pre-determined, static text, the first verse of Ṣūrah al-Alaq is instructing the Prophet Muḥammad to recite or invoke the Name of his Lord.  This reading was also supported by the early Qur’ān commentator Abu ‘Ubayda (d. 825) who held that iqrā’ bi-smi rabbika actually means iqra isma rabbika (‘Recite the Name of your Lord’).  The ba is added in speech but is silent in its meaning and does not add anything to the phrase.

It appears that this was the original meaning of the first verses of the Qur’ān based on the earliest sources.  It seems that later traditions and commentaries eventually shifted the meaning of this verse to the way it is read today: “Read: In the name of your Lord” according to which the Prophet was being commanded to simply read the ‘text’ of the Qur’ān.  In this sense, the scholar Uri Rubin concludes that:

“The command to recite the Name of the Lord seems to refer to a certain act of devotion which the prophet is prompted to perform in honour of his Lord…The view that in Sūrat al-‘Alaq Muḥammad is commanded to start spreading the divine message of the Qur’ān has thus become the most prevalent one.  The interpretation preserved by Abū ‘Ubayda, according to which Sūrat al-‘Alaq urges the prophet to praise the Name of his Lord, was almost utterly forgotten.”
(Uri Rubin, Some Notes on the Interpretation of Sūrat al-‘Alaq, Click Here to Read)

Therefore, we must ask the question: Why does it matter that the Qur’ān instructs the Prophet to “recite the Name of your Lord” as opposed to “Read: In the Name of your Lord”?

Firstly, this means that the Qur’ān is not necessarily a preset, static ‘text’ or ‘book’ which the Prophet Muḥammad was passively reading to his community.  In fact, the very notion that the Prophet was literally reading or hearing Arabic words and sounds is itself questionable (this issue will be dealt with in a later post).  Secondly – and more immediate for the present discussion – the verse shows that the Prophet was being told to perform a specific ritual – the recitation of a particular Name of God.  The commentator al-Rāzī even adds that the meaning of iqrā (recite) in Ṣūrah al-‘Alaq is equivalent to udhkur (invoke, remember).  Thus, the words iqrā bi-smi rabbika mean “remember/invoke the Name of your Lord”. This means when the Prophet was in the Cave of Hira, the first revelation of the Qur’ān was actually telling him to engage in the remembrance (dhikr) of the Name of God – and a very specific name as evidenced by the term rabbika (your Lord) which already suggests a particular and intimate connection between the Prophet and God.

The fact that the Prophet was instructed to recite or invoke or remember the Name of God shows that Muḥammad was, to some extent, familiar with this devotional practice of invocation.  The Prophet, even prior to receiving revelation, knew of an actual Name of God to recite and the actual method of invocation.  As he retreated regularly to the Cave of Hira, it appears that the Prophet was already engaged in certain spiritual practices and disciplines – which included the invocation and recitation of a specific Name of God – what is today known as dhikr.  Interestingly, this practice of dhikr – the repeated remembrance and invokation of the Divine Name – is the bedrock of spiritual praxis throughout Shi‘ism and Sufism.

It is even more remarkable that another early ṣūrah of the Qur’ān – which came to the Prophet a few years after the first revelation – repeats the instruction for the Prophet to perform a specific recitation (qur’ān) of a weighty Word (qawl) – the Name of God – in a meditation during the night:

Yā ayyuhā’l-muzzammilu
Qumi al-layla illā qalīlan
Niṣfahu awi unquṣ minhu qalīlan
Aw zid ‘alayhi wa-rattili al-qur’ān tartīlan
Innā sanulqī ‘alayka qawlan thaqīlan
Innā nāshi’ata al-layli hiya ashaddu waṭan wa-aqwamu qīlan
Innā laka fī’l-nahāri sabḥan tawīlan
Wa-udhkhuri isma rabbika wa-tabbattal ilayhi tabtīlan

O ye who wraps himself
Rise up during the night except a little
Half of it or less from it a little
Or add to it and recite the recitation with measured rhythm
Indeed, we will cast upon you a weighty Word
Indeed, the rising of the night is very hard and most potent and more suitable for the Word
Indeed for you in the day is prolonged occupation
And invoke the Name of your Lord and devote yourself to it with devotion.
(Holy Qur’ān 73:1-8)

These verses of Ṣūrah al-Muzzammil – which are among the earliest revelations of the Qur’ān in Mecca – prescribe a very specific spiritual practice. The Prophet is told to rise for a special night meditation and recite a special Word (qawl); the recitation (al-qurān) of this Word (the term al-qur’ān here refers to this particular recitation and not the Qur’ānic Scripture which did not yet exist) is to be done in a rhythmic tone which probably involves a specific breathing pattern; the Word to be invoked in this meditation is the Name of God and depending on how the words tabbattal ilayhi are read (i.e. “devote yourself to Him” or “devote yourself to it“), it may be said that the Prophet is instructed to devote himself to this invoked Name.

To summarize – the earliest revelations of the Qur’ān instruct the Prophet Muḥammad to engage and continue in the practice of reciting and invoking the Name of God – a Name which was a special and sacred Word that the Prophet was specifically granted.


The Ascension of the Prophets through the Names of God

The theme of the invocation of the Divine Name (ism ilahi) or Word (kalima; qawl) is not only unique to the case of Prophet Muḥammad – it actually recurs in the story of several Prophets in the Qur’ān.

In the Qur’ānic story of the appointment of Prophet Adam, what gives Adam precedence over the angels is the fact that God taught him all the “Names”.  These “Names” taught to Adam were none other than the Divine Names – the Most Beautiful Names of God – by which Adam attained spiritual superiority over the angels:

Wa ‘allama ādama’l-asmāa kullahā thumma ‘araḍahum ‘alā’l-malāikati faqāla anbiūnī bi-asmāi hāulāi in kuntum ṣadiqīna

And He taught Adam all the Names. Then he said to the angels: ‘Inform me of the Names of these if you are truthful.”

(Holy Qu’ān 2:31)

In other verses (38:72-73 and others), the Qur’ān refers to the “Spirit” (al-ruḥ) that God breathed into Adam after which the angels prostrated before him.  This means that the Names of God and the Spirit are one – the Spirit comprises the inner reality of the Names.  Henry Corbin remarks that:

“This is emphasized by a hadith (a tradition) illustrating the Qur’ānic verse, which declares that Adam remained there, flung like an inert body, until God breathed His spirit into him, that is, until He has breathed into him spiritual science, the science of the esoteric things, that “science of Names” (Qur’ān 2:29), by means of which beings are promoted to their true being.”
(Henry Corbin, Swedenborg and Esoteric Islam, 103-104, Click Here to Read)

The identification of the Spirit and the Divine Name is also demonstrated by the meaning of the Arabic word ruḥ.  The term ru is derived from the word ri (breath) and the actual recitation of the Divine Name (ism Allah) is actually a form of ‘breathing’ – indeed, this is the noblest form of breathing.  And therefore, the Divine Spirit (ruḥ) or Breath (riḥ) which was given to the Prophet Adam took the form of the invoked Divine Name. In other words, the Prophet Adam attained his spiritual rank above the angels due to his internalization of the Divine Spirit which takes places through the invocation (dhikr) of the Names of God.

In the story of Noah, the Ark of Noah which leads the believers to salvation in both worlds runs its course by means of the Name of God:

Wa-qāla irkabū fīha bi-smi’llahi majrahā wa-mursāhā inna rabbī laghafūrun raḥīmun

And he (Noah) said: ‘Embark in it (the Ark).  The Name of God is its course and its anchorage.  Verily, my Lord is the Oft-Forgiving, the Merciful.’”
(Holy Qur’ān 11:41)

The Qur’ān also relates that God tested the Prophet Abraham by means of certain “Words” (kalimāt).  These Words refer to the Divine Names by which Abraham ascended the ranks of spirituality until God appointed him as the Imām of of the time:

Wa-idhi ibtalā ibrāhīma rabbuhu bi-kalimātin fa amtammahunna qāla innī jā‘iluka li’l-nāsi imāman qāla wa min dhurriyyatī qāla lā yanālu ‘ahdī al-ẓalimīna

“And remember when Abraham was tried by his Lord by certain Words and he fulfilled them.  He said: ‘Verily, I appoint you Imām of humankind.’  He (Abraham) said: ‘And of my descendents?’ He (God) answered: ‘My covenant is not with the unjust.’” 
(Holy Qur’ān 2:124)

The Prophet Abraham’s spiritual legacy is also passed down amongst his descendents by means of a sacred Word (kalimah) which endures forever.  In other words, Abraham taught these Words (kalimāt) and Names of God to his successors:

Wa-ja‘alahā kalimatan bāqiyatanaqibihi la‘allahum yarji‘ūna

“And he made it an Enduring Word amongst his descendants so that they may return (to God).”
(Holy Qurān 43:28)

In the story of Mary and Jesus, the Qur’ān describes how Mary received the Spirit of God – due to which she gave birth to the Prophet Jesus:

Wa maryama ibnnata ‘imrāna allatī aḥsanat farjahā fanafakhnā fīhi min rūḥinā wa-ṣaddaqat bi kalimāti rabbihā wa-kutubihi mina’l-qānitīna

“And Mary, daughter of ‘Imran, who guarded her sexual organ and We breathed into it from Our Spirit.  And she testified to the truth through the Words of her Lord and His Books and she one of the devout servants.”
(Holy Qur’ān 66:12)

Nāsir-i Khusraw gives the esoteric interpretation (ta’wīl) of the God breathing His Spirit into the sexual organ of Mary as follows:

“This means that Mary did not turn her ears to the devils (iblisan) with their speeches. This is because the sexual organ is like the ear, and ear symbolizes the sexual organ because through it comes the corporeal form (ṣurat-i jismāni), and through the ear the psychic form (ṣurat-i nafsāni). ‘She guarded her sexual organ’ means that she did not turn her ear to those who only teach the zahir, the formal side of the religion, disregarding the esoteric interpretation (ta’wīl).”
- Sayyidna Nāsir-i Khusraw,
(Shish Fasl or Six Chapters, transl. W. Ivanow, Chapter 3, Click Here to Read)

For Nāsir-i Khusraw, the Divine Spirit was breathed into the “ear” of Mary and not her sexual organ.  This also shows that the actual form of the ‘breathing of Spirit’ was something audible – a Word (kalimah).  The sexual organ in this verse is used as a symbol or metaphor for the ear.  Just as the sperm – the source of the physical form – is deposited in the womb by means of the sexual organ, the Divine Word – the source of the spiritual form – is deposited in the soul through the ear.

Therefore, it is not surprising that even early Christian theology maintained that the Holy Spirit impregnated the Virgin Mary with Jesus not through her sexual organ but by means of her ear.  Mary received the Spirit by ‘hearing’ the Word of God which was spoken to her.

The bodily locus of the virginal conception was not portrayed in early Christian acts as the vagina, but the ear: ‘The conception was by hearing’, wrote John of Damascus.  In early iconography the Holy Spirit is not portrayed as coming into Mary’s body physiologically by sexual transmission, but spiritually by attentive hearing…the conception was by right hearing of the Word of God.”
(Thomas C. Oden, Classic Christianity: A Systematic Theology, 292, Click Here to Read)

The end of the verse also mentions how Mary testified to the truth through the Words (kalimāt) of God – these being the same Words by which Abraham was tested.  The Qur’ān also refers to Jesus as a Word (kalimah) from God which He breathed into Mary:

‘Isa ubnu maryama rasūlu’llahi wa-kalimatuhu alqāhā ilā maryam wa-rūḥun minhu

“The Messiah, Jesus son of Mary, was only the Messenger of God, and His Word (kalimatuhu) that He cast to Mary, and a Spirit from Him…”
(Holy Qur’ān 4:171)

The above verse states that Jesus was the God’s Spirit and Word (kalimah) which He “cast” (alqā) into the Virgin Mary.  This is significant because in Ṣūrah al-Muzzammal (73:53), the exact same verb – alqā (to cast, to commit, to present) – is used when the verse says to the Prophet Muḥammad – “Indeed we will cast (sanulqī) upon you a Weighty Word”.  Thus, the “casting” of the Word of God upon the Virgin Mary is identical to the “casting” of the Word of God to the Prophet Muḥammad.

Even in the case of Prophet Jesus, the Qur’ān indicates that God inspired him with the Holy Spirit.  This Spirit is initially given to a Prophet in the form of a Word (kalimah) or Divine Name (ism ilahi) – as shown in the cases of Prophet Adam and the Virgin Mary.

It is indeed remarkable that the Qur’ān highlights the instrumental role of the Words, Spirit or Names of God in the spiritual ascendance of the major Prophets: Adam is exalted above the angels only through the Divine Names or Spirit; Noah’s Ark safeguards the believers by the power of the Name of God; Abraham passes God’s trials and attains to the rank of Imām of all humankind only after being tested by God’s Words and transmits this Word to endure amongst his descendants; Mary receives in her ear the Holy Spirit in the form of a audible Word to give birth to Prophet Jesus; Jesus performs his miracles by means of this Holy Spirit. The Prophet Muḥammad, both prior and after his initial revelations of the Qurān, is made to recite a weighty Word that is the Name of his Lord.


Spiritual Initiation into Prophethood

The above Qur’ānic analysis shows that the great Prophets of God (e.g. Adam, Abraham, Noah, Mary/Jesus, Muḥammad) attained their exalted status by means of the Name of God which was received by them in the form of a Word (kalimah; qawl) that embodies the Divine Spirit.  This demonstrates that the Prophets had to undergo a process of spiritual training, initiation, and development by means of the Word or Name of God to actualize their souls’ perfection for the function of prophethood.

These notions are all expressed in “the early Ismā‘īlī idea of the gradual formation of enunciator-prophethood or nāṭiq-ship in a future prophet”. For Ismā‘īlī gnosis, the person of the Prophet does not merely attain prophethood in a sudden way without any historical or spiritual context.  The Prophet experiences a spiritual expansion and elevation of his own soul – the culmination of which is receiving divine inspiration (ta’yīd) of the Divine Spirit and assuming of the prophetic office (al-nubūwwah).  While a Prophet possesses latent perfection and is pre-destined for his mission even before his physical birth, his spiritual training effects “the gradual development of the prophetic faculty in a future prophet” (Nomoto, 218).  Many Ismā‘īlī Muslim theosophers and gnostics such as Abū Hātim al-Rāzi, Qādi al-Nu‘mān, and Abū Ya‘qūb al-Sijistānī have described this process of prophetic formation in their writings:

“On the issue of the gradual formation of prophethood, we must consider some passages by al-Sijistāni, who is more systematic in presenting his thought.  Al-Sijistāni holds that prophethood (al-nubūwah) does not suddenly come into conjunction with just any prophet; rather, the prophet must experience significant change (al-istiḥālah) in his spiritual status until he reaches the rank of enunciator-prophethood (ḥadd al-nāṭiqīyah).”
(Shin Nomoto, Early Ismā‘īlī Thought on Prophecy According to the Kitāb al-Iṣlāḥ by Abū Ḥātim al-Rāzī, 217, Click Here to Read)

The Prophets’ spiritual training does not occur in isolation; numerous Ismā‘īlī esoteric texts relate how the Prophets were initiated and trained by a hierarchy of spiritual knowers – the dignitaries of the “Calling” (al-Da‘wah).  The Calling (al-Da‘wah) is an ancient and perpetually present institution of spiritual knowers, sages, and initiates present in every time and age under the leadership of the Imām of each period (Click Here to Read our Previous Post for details).  It is the Calling (al-Da‘wah) which transmits eternal gnosis from generation to generation across time and space.  In certain historical periods, the Calling operates openly while in others it functions in secret (such as in the present age and time). 

The earliest chapters of the Qur’ān indicate that both before receiving revelation and afterwards, the Prophet Muḥammad was already familiar with the spiritual practice of remembrance (dhikr) of the Divine Name.   The fact that the Qur’ān instructed him to invoke the Name of his Lord (rabbika) indicates that a direct and intimate relationship already existed between the Prophet Muḥammad  and God Himself.  Thus, the Name which Muḥammad was reciting was a specific Divine Name (the Name of his Lord) that already had a special significance for the Prophet.  This could only mean that Muḥammad was taught the ritual of invoking his Lord’s Name by the members or dignitaries (ḥudūd) of the Calling through whom he received spiritual training:

Prophethood and prophetic ascent are linked to the gradual perfection of the human being that takes place initially with the training the “Calling” (da‘wah) provides in each prophetic cycle….The “Calling” of each epoch, like the “ranks of religion”, thereby provides the necessary training (tarbiyyah) not least for individual practitioners but for the prophets as well… Even the prophets are not exempt from the necessary training that the “Calling” provides in each cycle of prophetic history…The apparent Calling is paired with the hidden Calling for the purpose of explanation and facilitation.
(Elizabeth R. Alexandrin, “Prophetic Ascent and Initiatory Ascent in Qāḍi al-Nu‘mān’s Asās al-Ta’wīl”, Gruber, Colby, The Prophet’s Ascension: Cross-Cultural Encounters with the Islamic Mi‘rāj Tales, 160-164, Click Here to Read)

The previous Prophets including Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, and Mary/Jesus, were all prepared and ‘raised’ (baatha- Holy Qur’ān 2:213) for their missions in the same way.  From the earliest revelations of the Qur’ān, one clearly sees that the actual method of the Prophet Muḥammad’s spiritual ascension to the rank of prophethood was the invocation (dhikr) of a special Word (kalimah; qawl) that is the Name of God (ism Allāh).  It is of no small significance that almost all the Ṣūrahs of the Holy Qur’ān begin with the words bi-smi’llāh – bearing witness how each and every verse of the Qur’ān descended through the Prophet only by means of his invocation of the exalted Name (ism al-azam) of God.  This truth is also made present in daily life when Muslims and people of other faiths invoke the Name of God (i.e. bi-ismi’llah) when beginning any task.

During this month of Ramaḍān and in all moments of life, the one who seeks to follow the Prophets’ example (sunnah) must engage in the intense remembrance (dhikr) of God’s Names. In doing so, the spiritual seeker responds to the Calling (al-da‘wah) – thereby perfecting his or her human soul to attain direct communion with the Holy Spirit – the Spirit which inspired the Prophet to “RECITE the Name of your Lord who created” (iqrā’ bi-smi rabbika’lladhi khalaqa).

Notes:

For the academic and scholarly background to this post, consult the following:

Uri Rubin, Some Notes on the Interpretation of Sūrat al-‘Alaq, Click Here to Read

Shin Nomoto, Early Ismā‘īlī Thought on Prophecy According to the Kitāb al-Iṣlāḥ by Abū Ḥātim al-Rāzī (Thesis), Click Here to Read

Elizabeth R. Alexandrin, “Prophetic Ascent and Initiatory Ascent in Qāḍi al-Nu‘mān’s Asās al-Ta’wīl”, Gruber, Colby, The Prophet’s Ascension: Cross-Cultural Encounters with the Islamic Mi‘rāj Tales, Click Here to Read

Posted by: Ismaili Gnostic | June 27, 2014

Ramadan: From Physical Fasting to Spiritual Fasting

Shahru ramaḍāna alladhī unzila fīhi’l-qur’ānu hudan lilnasi wabayyinātin mina’l-hudā wa’l-furqāni fa-man shahida minkumu’l-shahra falyaṣumhu

“The Month of Ramaḍān in which was sent down the Qur’ān a guidance for mankind, and manifest proofs of the guidance and the criterion (between truth and falsehood).  So whomever among you witnesses the Month, let him fast it.” (Holy Qur’ān 2:185)

Fasting (ṣawm) is among the seven pillars (arkān) of classical Shī‘ī Ismā‘īlī Islām and the five pillars of classical Sunnī Islām.  For Ismā‘īlī gnosis as taught by the Ismā‘īlī Muslim theosophers , each pillar (rukn) of Islām has an exoteric form (ẓāhir), an esoteric meaning (bāṭin), and a spiritual reality which is the esoteric beyond the esoteric (bāṭin al-bāṭin).

The level of exoteric form is sharī‘ah (religious law), the level of esoteric meaning is ṭarīqah (spiritual path), and the level of spiritual reality is ḥaqīqah (spiritual truth).  Other Muslim theologians recognize these three levels as submission (islām), faith (imān), and beauty (iḥsan).  Corresponding to these three levels in the human being are the physical body (jism) or sensual/animal soul, the rational soul (nafs al-nātiqah), and the heart (qalb) or spiritual intellect (‘aql).

The word ṣawm literally means ‘to abstain’ from something.  Accordingly, in Ismā‘īlī gnosis, there are three levels of fasting (ṣawm):

1) Exoteric Fasting (ẓāhirī ṣawm)

2) Esoteric Fasting (bāṭinī ṣawm)
3) Real Fasting (ḥaqīqī ṣawm)

1. Exoteric Fasting (ẓāhirī sawm)

The practice of Exoteric Fasting from food and drink from sunrise to sunset during the month of Ramadan was first established when the early Muslim community lived in Medinah among Jewish and Christian tribes. Before the Qur’anic instruction to fast for the month of Ramadan was revealed, the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him and his family) had instructed his followers to fast on the tenth day of the month of Muharram as the Jews did, as well as on some other occasions. These former practices of fasting were replaced by the Ramaḍān fast, whose exact rules also underwent further modification by the Prophet: for example, sexual relations were initially forbidden by the Prophet during the nights of Ramaḍān, but the Prophet later changed this rule and allowed sexual relations (see Qur’an 2:187) during the nights (see Francis E. Peters, Muhammad and the Origins of Islam, 215-216). According to the Holy Qur’an, fasting was prescribed for the believers so that they may learn taqwah – a word which can mean piety, mindfulness, or God-consciousness.

Yā ayyuhā alladhīna āmanū kutiba ‘alaykumu’l-siyāmu kamā ‘alā alladhīna min qabilikum la‘allakum tattaqūna

“O ye who believe! Fasting is prescribed to you as it was prescribed to those before you, that ye may do taqwā. (Holy Qur’ān 2:183)

Naṣir al-Dīn al-Ṭūsī explains the purpose of Exoteric Fasting to ‘imprint’ a noble ‘form’ upon the human soul:

“Fasting (rūza), which similarly restrains the soul from its [base] inclinations, was introduced so that for thirty days a year, and every day [from dawn] until night [fall], one closes one’s mouth to food and drink, and avoids and denies oneself appetizing things which one’s taste is accustomed and which are agreeable to one’s nature.  One should be steadfast in this self-control and self-denial in this so that gradually and by degrees, a form will become imprinted in the soul, unto such a point that all one’s limbs and faculties, whether internal or external, become restrained from [pursuit of] improper things.”
- Naṣir al-Dīn al-Ṭūsī, (The Paradise of Submission, 149, Click Here to Read)

The direct agent of Exoteric Fasting is the sensual soul (i.e. the animal soul and the vegetative soul).  As Exoteric Fasting purifies the body and restrains the sensual soul, it also influences and imprints a spiritual form upon the human soul.

Exoteric Fasting (ẓāhiri ṣawm) is performed during the month of Ramaḍān as one of the practices of the sharī‘ah.  The mandatory nature of the sharī‘ah continues through the Cycles of Prophethood until the Cycle of Resurrection (qiyāmah) – when the sharī‘ah is spiritualized and its outer forms are no longer obligatory upon the believers. (See Nāsir-i Khusraw, Khwan al-Ikhwan, Wajh-i Dīn; Faquir Muhammad Hunzai, The Ethical Philosophy of Nasir-i Khusraw, Click Here to Read).

In many places today it must become commonplace for people to sleep during most of the day – the time of fasting – and then feast through the entire night when fasting is not required. In many such places more food is consumed by people during the month of Ramaḍān than any other month. In such cases the spirit of fasting becomes lost and obscured. However, the Exoteric Fasting is merely the outermost layer of this practice.

2. Esoteric Fasting (bāṭini sawm)

All the exoteric practices of the sharī‘ah (religious law) have an inner meaning or ta’wīl.  The ta’wīl of Exoteric Fasting (ẓāhirī ṣawm) is Esoteric Fasting (bāṭinī ṣawm).

Whereas Exoteric Fasting is to keep one’s mouth closed by abstaining from food and drink, Esoteric Fasting is to keep one’s mouth closed by abstaining from speaking of the the esoteric knowledge of revelation (tanzīl) and interpretation (ta’wīl) to those who lack the capacity to receive it:

The meaning of the fast (rūza) is to observe the taqīyya, i.e. precautionary dissimulation, and to keep secret from the enemies the tenets of the religion which is to be preached (dīn-i da’wat). The day of ‘Id is (the symbol of) the day of the Resurrection of Resurrections (qiyāmat-i qiyāmat), when, by the omnipotence of the command of the Qā’im, all people will be over powered by argument and proof.”
- Sayyidnā Khaykhwah-i Harātī, (Kalām-i Pīr, transl. Ivanow, Chapter 7)

This practice of concealing sacred or esoteric knowledge is called taqīyyah. The Qur’ān (2:183) states that the purpose of fasting is to develop taqwā.  The words taqwā and taqīyyah come from the same Arabic root (w-q-y) which means ‘piety, devotion, godliness, mindfulness’ and therefore, taqwā and taqīyyah are ultimately one in meaning.

In Shī‘ī Islam, the act of taqīyyah – ‘keeping secret’ the esoteric teachings of the Imāms – is a fundamental principle of faith:

“Nine tenths of the Religion consists of taqīyyah; whoever does not practice this has no Religion; Taqīyyah is part of my Religion and that of my ancestors; whoever does not keep taqīyyah is devoid of Faith.”
- Imam Ja‘far al-Ṣādiq, (Muhammad Ali Amir-Moezzi, The Divine Guide in Early Shi‘ism, 129, Click Here to Read)

The sacred knowledge of the Imāms is a difficult, subtle, and sometimes unbearable gnosis. One must practice precaution and discretion in both receiving and sharing esoteric knowledge:

“Our teaching is difficult, particularly arduous, exasperating, distressing.  Offer it to people in small quantities.  To those who acknowledge it, tell more, but avoid telling more to him who denies it.”
- Imam ‘Alī ibn Abī Ṭālib, (Muhammad Ali Amir-Moezzi, The Spirituality of Shi‘i Islam, 294, Click Here to Read)

For this reason this knowledge must be secret and safeguarded from those who lack the capacity to hear it.  This is the meaning of Esoteric Fasting: “The fast keeper signifies the one who maintains silence” (Nāsir-i Khusraw).

“With regard to the ritual fast, we have already seen that it consists in observing the discipline of the arcane, ‘in keeping the secret of your Imām‘, is not surrendering anything imprudently to enemies and to the profane.”
- Henry Corbin, (Temple and Contemplation, 172, Click Here to Read)

The relationship between Exoteric Fasting and Esoteric Fasting is based on symbolism and correspondence. In Exoteric Fasting, it is forbidden to eat and drink during the day, but it is permissible to eat and drink during the night.  The ‘day’ symbolizes the realm of the exoteric and the ‘night’ symbolizes the realm of the esoteric.  Similarly, the rational soul has its ‘food’ and ‘drink’ just as the body does.  The ‘food’ of the rational soul is the knowledge of revelation (tanzīl) and the ‘drink’ of the rational soul is the knowledge of its interpretation (ta’wīl).  In Esoteric Fasting, this means that one must abstain from teaching and seeking the esoteric knowledge (bāṭini ‘ilm) of the tanzīl (symbolzed by ‘food’) and ta’wīl (symbolized by ‘drink’) in the exoteric domain (symbolized by the ‘day’), but one is permitted to teach and seek the esoteric knowledge (bāṭini ‘ilm) in the esoteric domain (symbolized by the ‘night’).  The connection between eating/drinking and the esoteric (baṭin) is shown by the relationship between the words bātin (‘esoteric’) and baṭn (‘belly’) – which share the same Arabic root (b-ṭ-n) meaning ‘interior, hidden, secret’ and are thus related in meaning.  This shows that only the esoteric knowledge (bātini ‘ilm) should be ‘eaten’ (i.e. internalized) into one’s innermost nature (baṭn).

A diagram of the correspondence between Exoteric Fasting (ẓāhirī ṣawm) and Esoteric Fasting (bāṭinī ṣawm) is shown below:

Click to Enlarge Chart

The first Esoteric Fast was enjoined upon the Prophet Adam.  According to the Qur’ān, Adam was prohibited from eating from the sacred Tree in Paradise:

Wayā ādamu uskun anta wazawjuka’l-janata fakulā mina ḥaythu shi’tumā walā taqrabā hadhihi’l-shajarata fatakūnā mina al-ẓalimīna

“O Adam, dwell you and your wife in the garden and eat of from where you wish but do not approach this Tree lest you both be among the wrongdoers.” (Holy Qur’ān 7:19)

The Tree symbolizes the supreme esoteric knowledge – known as the sacred science of Resurrection (‘ilm al-qiyāmah).  Adam was not permitted to divulge this supreme esoteric knowledge in his time – this was his ‘fast’.  However, Iblis tempted Adam and he was unable to keep his promise as he ‘tasted’ from the Tree – that is, he attempted to access and communicate the esoteric gnosis which was not meant for him:

Fawaswasa lahumā’l-shaytan liyubdiyā lahumā mā wūriya ‘anhumā min sawātihimā waqāla mā nahākumā rabbukumā ‘an hadhihi’l-shajarati illā an takūnā malakayn aw takūnā mina’l-khālidīna wa qāsamahumā innī lakumā lamina’l-naṣiḥīna
Fadallāhumā bighurūrin falammā dhāqā’l-shajarata badat lahumā sawātuhumā waṭafiqā yakhṣifāni ‘alayhimā min waraqi’l-janati

“And the Satan whispered to them to make apparent to both of them what was concealed from both of them of their shame.  And he said ‘Did not your Lord forbid you both from this Tree except that you become angels or that you become of the immortals’.  And he swore to them both: ‘I am to both of you among the sincere advisors’. So he made both of them fall by deception.  Then when they both tasted the Tree their shame became apparent to them and they began to cover themselves from the leaves of the Garden.” (Holy Qur’ān 7:21-22)

Henry Corbin comments on the above verses and remarks that Adam broke the rule of the Esoteric Fasting:

So Adam ‘breaks the fast’, the vow of silence which is the ritual prescription par excellence of the Esoteric Order.  ‘To break the fast’ is to taste of the Tree of Knowledge that is the preserve of the actualized Angel.  At the same time, it is to strip oneself of the protective veil of symbol.”
- Henry Corbin, (Temple and Contemplation, 108, Click Here to Read)

The Virgin Mary was also instructed to observe this Esoteric Fasting.  The Holy Qur’ān narrates that God instructed Mary:

Fakulī wa-ishrabī waqarrī ‘aynan fa-immā tarayinna mina’l-bashari aḥadan faqūlī innī nadhartu lilrraḥmāni ṣawman falan ukallima’l-yawma insiyyan

“So eat and drink and refresh the eye. Then if you see any mortal, say: Surely I have vowed a fast to the Beneficent God, so I shall not speak to any man today.” (Holy Qur’ān 19:26)

A close analysis of the verse shows that the Virgin Mary’s fast is not merely to refrain from speaking in general – as she still ‘speaks’ to declare that she is fasting – but rather, her fast is from a particularly kind of speaking which involves the communication of sacred knowledge to those who are not prepared for it.

The ultimate agent and object of Esoteric Fasting is the rational soul of the human being.  Just as Exoteric Fasting disciplines the physical body and the animal soul, Esoteric Fasting disciplines the rational soul.  As Esoteric Fasting restrains and purifies the rational soul, it also helps to awaken the faculty of the spiritual intellect (‘aql) which resides in the heart (qalb).

Just as the Exoteric Fasting lasts until the end of the month of Ramaḍān and ends on the day of ‘Id, Esoteric Fasting is practiced by the initiates (murīds) of the esoteric ṭarīqahs during the Cycle of the Religious Law (dawr al-sharī‘ah) until the advent of the Cycle of Resurrection (dawr al-qiyāmah) when gnosis and esoteric knowledge can be revealed and shared openly.

3. The Real Fasting (haqīqī ṣawm)

The Exoteric Fasting and the Esoteric Fasting together form a pair:  form and meaning, symbol and symbolized.  But a pair is always resolved in a third term which is the spiritual reality (ḥaqīqah) of both components. The spiritual reality of fasting is called ‘Real Fasting’ (ḥaqīqī ṣawm).   Naṣir al-Dīn al-Ṭūsī explains the reality (ḥaqīqah) of fasting:

“The fourth [pillar] is fasting, meaning that one has to surrender his seven exoteric and esoteric faculties to the command of God.
- Naṣir al-Dīn al-Ṭūsī, (Shī‘ī Interpretations of Islam, 41)

“…to refrain from every thought, word and deed which does not conform to reason and is not permitted by the intellect, that is to say, not bound to the Command of the Truthful Master.”
- Naṣir al-Dīn al-Ṭūsī, (The Paradise of Submission, 149, Click Here to Read)

In Exoteric Fasting (ẓāhirī ṣawm), the faculties of the body and the animal soul are restrained and made to abstain from food, drink and sensual pleasure.
In Esoteric Fasting (bāṭinī ṣawm), the rational soul (nafs al-nāṭiqah) restrains its internal faculties such as speech and abstains from communicating the esoteric knowledge of revelation (tanzīl) and interpretation (ta’wīl) to those who are not ready to receive it.
In Real Fasting (ḥaqīqī ṣawm), the intellect (‘aql) restrains both the physical faculties of the body and the internal faculties of the soul and abstains from anything (in thought, word, or deed) which is contrary to the Command of God.

The spiritual discipline of Real Fasting is best explained in the teachings of the Nizārī Ismā‘īlī Imāms.  The twenty-sixth Imām, Mawlānā ‘Alā’ al-Dīn Muḥammad of Alamūt – replying to questions asked of him about fasting – defines Real Fasting as follows:

“This Jamā‘at has never set aside the Real Prayer and Fasting that God has ordered, and will never do so. In the past they have always summoned mankind to Real Prayer and Fasting, and with the passage of time they have done this, and will continue this summons. As for the Fasting of this Jamā‘at, whereas in the realm of the sharī‘ah, out of twelve months which make up the year, for one month, from dawn to dusk, one closes his mouth against eating and drinking, the rule of this Jamā‘at requires that during the whole of one’s life one is not permitted to abandon the Real Fast even for the twinkling of an eye.  They keep not just one organ of the body closed, but rather all seven external and internal organs against that which God has prohibited, so that they may always preserve a state of Fasting. ”
- Imām ‘Alā al-Dīn Muḥammad, (Naṣir al-Dīn al-Ṭūsī, Rawḍā-yi Taslīm, transl. Badakhchani, Representation No. 28, 242)

The thirty-fourth Nizārī Imām Mawlānā Shāh Gharīb Mīrzā (Imām al-Mustānsir-bi’llāh III) of Anjudān instructs his murīds to maintain the Real Fasting for the entire year:

“The whole year you must fast, just as the Exoterists (ẓāhiriyān) fast one month. The meaning of this fast is austerity. Control yourselves; keep yourselves away from bad qualities, evil and indecent actions and devilish acts, so that the mirror of your hearts may be gradually polished. Also know that those thirty days during which the Exoterists (ẓāhiriyān) fast, the (real) fast lasts only one single day. They fast thirty days only in order not to miss that single day, and this is also a symbol (ramz). And just as they keep on fasting for thirty days in order to fast on that particular day, so you must through the whole of your lives experience difficulties and suffering for the sake of the attainment of the vision (liqā) of the Creator, you must be patient, persevering in austerities, and keeping your inner self fasting for as long as you live.”
- Imām Shāh Gharīb Mīrzā, (Pandiyāt-i Jawanmardī, transl. Ivanow, 37)

The Imām also specifies the spiritual reality (ḥaqīqah) of the fasting of the different organs of the body – the ears, the eye, the head, the tongue, the heart, the hands, and the feet:

“The fast of the head means to treat one’s own head with the same humility as the feet of other people, casting out from one’s head the lust for superiority, greatness and pride, because greatness and superiority are only suitable to the all-great substance of the Truth (Ḥaqq), who is eternal, and the King of the Authority. The fasting of the eye means that one must keep away coveting looks from the women who are not lawful to one. The fasting of the ear means that one should abstain from listening to slander. The fasting of the tongue means that one should keep one’s tongue from uttering abuse or slander. The fasting of the heart means to keep the heart free from doubt. The fasting of the foot is to hold one’s foot back from a wrong step. The fasting of the hand is to keep all one’s limbs away from treachery so that they may not do evil. This especially applies to one’s tongue which must be kept from uttering lies. And there is no greater lie than the denial of (the existence of) the Imam, saying that he has disappeared. God has cursed liars, who talk about such a disappearance (of the Imam), and make the ignorant people follow them in order to enjoy their short lived respect.”
- Imām Shāh Gharīb Mīrza, (Pandiyāt-i Jawānmardī, transl. Ivanow, 37)

The ultimate agent and the object of Real Fasting is the spirit (ruh) or intellect (‘aql) present in the heart (qalb) of the human soul.  Just as Exoteric Fasting disciplines the physical body and Esoteric Fasting disciplines the rational soul, the Real Fasting polishes the heart (qalb) which is where the intellect shines forth. In the Gospels, Jesus alludes to this distinction between Exoteric Fasting and Real Fasting when he states:

“Don’t you see that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and then out of the body? But the things that come out of the mouth come from the heart, and these make a man ‘unclean.’ For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander.” (Gospel of Mathew, 15:17-19)

Real Fasting actualizes the human intellect (‘aql) through its control over the rational soul and the physical body.  The person of actualized intellect is divinely inspired (al-mu’ayyad) and attains the spiritual vision (liqā, dīdar) of tawḥīd – both with respect to the oneness (waḥdah) of God and the integration (waḥdah) of the human soul.

All of the pillars of Islām contain an exoteric form and an esoteric meaning and together, the exoteric (ẓāhir) and the esoteric (bāṭin) lead to the esoteric of the esoteric (bāṭin al-bāṭin) which is the spiritual reality (ḥaqīqah).   The following table summarizes the exoteric form, the esoteric meaning and spiritual reality of fasting:

Click Image to Enlarge


Keeping the Fast

It is much more difficult to practice the pillars of Islam at the level of tarīqah and haqiqah as compared to the level of sharī‘ah.  Accordingly, the discipline of Real Fasting (ḥaqīqī ṣawm) is much more demanding and holistic then that of Exoteric Fasting (ẓāhirī ṣawm).  However, if one is unable to abide by the practices of the ḥaqīqah, then he can remain in the practices of the sharī‘ah:

One should be certain that the commandments and prohibitions of the sharī‘at are far easier to perform then the real (takālif-i ḥaqīqī) duties, because all of that which is prescribed for a day and night for the man of the sharī’at can be performed in two hours.  The commandments and prohibitions of the truth (ḥaqīqat) are more difficult, in the sense that if the man of truth, even for a twinkling of an eye, forgets the real prayer, fasting and obedience and becomes negligent, in that period of time, whatever he does or sees will not be for God’s sake.  Rather, if one drinks a sip of water or eats a morsel of bread aiming to quench thirst and hunger, that sip and morsel, in accordance with the law of truth (ḥukm-i ḥaqīqat), will be unlawful to him and he will not be considered a man of truth (mard-i ḥaqīqī) and of the people of the esoteric (ahl-i bāṭin).  Rather, the act of obedience that he performs will be futile and he will not be worshipping God, nor will he be granted salvation.   Any member of the Jamā‘at who does not find in himself such a strength, that is, to fulfill the commandments and prohibitions of the truth (ḥaqīqat), it is advisable for him not to abandon obedience to the sharī‘at, or else he would be a loser, both in this world and in the Hereafter.”
- Naṣir al-Dīn al-Ṭūsī, (Shi’i Interpretations of Islam, 43-44)

Fasting (ṣawm), according to the gnosis of Shī‘ī Ismā‘īlī Islam, has multiple levels, forms and dimensions.  While the Exoteric Fasting (ẓāhirī ṣawm) is practiced in the month of Ramaḍān, and the Esoteric Fasting  (bāṭinī ṣawm) is performed during the Cycle of Religious Law (dawr al-sharī‘ah which continues until the end of the Cycle of Prophet Muḥammad and the beginning of the Resurrection), the Real Fasting (ḥaqīqī ṣawm) must be observed for all 365 days of the year.

With respect to the present day practices of prayer and fasting amongst the Ismā ‘īlīs, the late Dr. Hasan Nathoo had the opportunity to discuss the issue with Imām Sulṭān Muḥammad Shāh in 1946.  Dr. Nathoo relates as follows:

In the matter of the Ismā‘īlis praying only three times daily instead of five times and not keeping [exoteric] fasts generally in the month of Ramaḍān, he [the Imām] told me two things: that in the Qur’ān there was no specific mention of the number of daily namāz. It was only a tradition (sunnah); the other was that there was a ḥadīth where the Holy Prophet had said that if during his lifetime the people of Arabia observed 90% of his injunctions, 10% would be forgiven. But after his death, if the followers observed even 10%, 90% would be forgiven. These hadiths are confirmed in a book on the life of the Prophet by Martin Lings which I read only recently. This hadith makes Islam the most liberal religion.
- Dr. Hasan E. Nathoo, (My Glorious Fortnight with Sir Sultan Muhammad Shah, London, 1988)

The ḥadīth cited by the Imām is quoted below:

“Ye are in an age in which, if ye abandon one-tenth of what is ordered, ye will be ruined. After this a time will come when he who shall observe one-tenth of what is now ordered will be redeemed.”
– Prophet Muḥammad,
(Seyyed Ameer Ali, The Spirit of Islam, 183)

The current cycle of humankind is the Cycle of Resurrection (read more here on this subject) and therefore, the exoteric and esoteric forms of fasting are no longer enjoined. It must be remembered that the Imāms hold the authority to prescribe the forms of fasting and Imām Sulṭan Muḥammad Shāh has only made the Real Fasting (ḥaqīqī ṣawm) an obligation (farḍ) upon all the believers of spiritual reality (ḥaqīqatī mu’minīn). Just as the Prophet Muhammad prescribed and interpreted the exact forms of prayer and fasting during his own lifetime, the Imām of the Time, as the bearer of the knowledge and authority of the Prophet, continues this role of ritual interpretation in every age.

If, rightly, the Muslims have kept till now to the forms of prayer and fasting at the time of the Prophet, it should not be forgotten that it is not the forms of prayer and fasting that have been commanded, but the facts, and we are entitled to adjust the forms to the facts of life as circumstances changed.  It is the same Prophet who advises his followers ever to remain Ibnu’l-Waqt (i.e. children of the time and period in which they were on earth), and it must be the natural ambition of every Muslim to practice and represent his Faith according to the standard of the Waqt or space-time.”
 - Imām Sulṭān Muḥammad Shāh Āgā Khān III,
(Foreword to Muhammad: A Mercy To all the Nations by Al-Hajji Qassim Jairazbhoy, Click Here to Read)

Posted by: Ismaili Gnostic | June 10, 2014

Ten Reasons why Human Consciousness or Mind is not Physical

Arguments for the Immateriality of the Human Mind or Consciousness:

Click Here to Read the Full Article on Consciousness, the Brain, and Physics

mindbrain

“Mechanists consider mind to be a part of the body, but this is a mistake. The brain is a part of the body, but mind and brain are not identical. The brain breathes mind like the lungs breathe air.”
- Huston Smith

Certain people today hold to a belief that the human mind or consciousness is nothing more than physical brain activity, and that such brain activity occurs deterministically – in which mechanistic particles and neural firings in the brain are solely responsible for human thoughts, beliefs, intentions, and behaviors. In such a worldview, free will is nothing but an illusion and human beings are nothing more than automatons controlled  by the determinstic laws of classical physics. However, this belief in the material determinism and the denial of the substance of human consciousness can be defeated by a number of arguments - one of which is the immateriality of human consciousness.

The below arguments demonstrate that the human consciousness and its stream of conscious states (what can be called “mind”) are immaterial or non-physical. By “immaterial”, we mean that the human consciousness is not reducible to the brain or any kind of material object.  Colin McGuin illustrates the general argument for the immateriality of the human mind using a generic example that mental events or conscious states lack the properties of material objects:

“Consider a visual experience, E, as of a yellow flash. Associated with E in the cortex is a complex of neural structures and events, N, which does admit of spatial description. N occurs, say, an inch from the back of the head; it extends over some specific area of the cortex; it has some kind of configuration or contour; it is composed of spatial parts that aggregate into a structured whole; it exists in three spatial dimensions; it excludes other neural complexes from its spatial location. N is a regular denizen of space, as much as any other physical entity. But E seems not to have any of these spatial characteristics: it is not located at any specific place; it takes up no particular volume of space; it has no shape; it is not made up of spatially distributed parts; it has no spatial dimensionality; it is not solid. Even to ask for its spatial properties is to commit some sort of category mistake, analogous to asking for the spatial properties of numbers.”
- Colin McGuin, (Consciousness and Space, Click Here to Read)

Below is a list of the ten arguments – each argument is further explained below:

1. Conscious states or mental events lack the spatio-temporal properties of material objects

2. Conscious states are not divisible into parts or components as are material objects

3. Conscious states possess an aboutness or intentionality directed toward other things while material objects are not “about” anything.

4. Conscious states possess qualia or qualitative characteristics 

5. Conscious states, in certain cases, include abstract ideas like mathematical objects or logical operators

6. Conscious states, in certain cases, are logically structured and ordered in their sequence, i.e. 2 + 2 = 4

7. The correlation between brain activity and conscious states breaks down in certain cases

8. Certain conscious states like Near Death Experiences occur when no brain activity is present (this is verified in peer reviewed studies)

9. The human consciousness is self-aware or reflexive while material objects lack self-awareness.

10. There is no explanation of how material brain events such as neural firings give rise to the qualitative and non-spatial features of conscious experience.

Click Here to Read the Full Article on Consciousness, the Brain, and Physics.

1. Conscious states lack spatio-temporal properties: Thoughts, sensations, feelings, and intentions do not have mass, momentum, shape, spatial location, spatial extension, or temporal location and they are neither particles nor waves. Meanwhile, material objects do possess some spatio-temporal properties.  Since conscious states lack the properties of material objects, it follows that consciousness is neither identical with nor reducible to matter.

“Matter is located in space; one can specify precisely where a given tree, let us say, resides. But if one asks where his perception of the tree is located he can expect difficulties. The difficulties increase if he asks how tall his perception of the tree is; not how tall is the tree he sees, but how tall is his seeing of it.”
- Huston Smith, (Forgotten Truth, 1985,67)

“We perceive, by our various sense organs, a variety of material objects laid out in space, taking up certain volumes and separated by certain distances. We thus conceive of these perceptual objects as spatial entities; perception informs us directly of their spatiality. But conscious subjects and their mental states are not in this way perceptual objects. We do not see or hear or smell or touch them, and a fortiori do not perceive them as spatially individuated.(2) This holds both for the first- and third-person perspectives. Since we do not observe our own states of consciousness, nor those of others, we do not apprehend these states as spatial.”
- Colin McGuin, (Consciousness and Space, Click Here to Read)

2. Conscious states are not divisible into material parts or components: Material objects are divisible into parts, but one cannot divide sensations like seeing redness, the feelings of joy, the intentions to stand up, or a logical deduction into material parts.  A red object may be material and contain parts, but the perception of the red object that occurs in the mind knows no such division. Since conscious states are not divisible as are material objects, it follows that consciousness is neither identical with nor reducible to matter.

3. Conscious states have an “aboutness” or intentionality: a thought is about something, an idea is of something, a desire is for something, an image is an image of something, an abstract proposition refers to something. Meanwhile, material objects, i.e. tables, chairs, brain cells, do NOT possess any intentionality: they have no “aboutness” and do not refer to anything. Thus, while a belief or proposition in the mind can be true or false, a material brain state is neither true nor false due to lacking intentionality. Since conscious states have intentionality and material objects do not, it follows that consciousness is neither identical with nor reducible to matter.

4. Conscious states possess qualia or qualitative features: these qualia cannot be fully described by or reduced to the correlated physical brain activity that occurs at the same time as the conscious experience.  For example, one can know about every neuron firing that occurs in the brain when the colour red is being perceived, including the molecular composition of the red object represented mathematically, but none of this data will provide the actual experience of seeing red. Consequently, even if a person knows all of the empirical data about the colour red, they will still attain new knowledge when they actually perceive red in conscious experience. Since conscious states contain qualia and material objects lack qualia, it follows that consciousness is neither identical with nor reducible to matter.

5. Certain conscious states include abstract concepts and categories to immediately interpret sense-data. For example, when the conscious subject has the sensation or experience of touching an apple, he also interprets this sensation as signifying an actual external object as opposed to nothing more than an impression. Thus, the mind interprets sensory impressions by resorting to abstract concepts and imposing them upon the sense impression in order to situate the impression in an intelligible context. Another example is that when the conscious subject notices that two perceived objects are similar and two objects are different, the mind is resorting to abstract notions of similarity and difference to make this judgment.  But these abstract concepts – of similarity, difference, equality, inequality, etc. are not themselves material and cannot be provided or created by mere aggregates of material objects like atoms, molecule, cells or neurons. Indeed, the converse is more true – our very understanding of atoms, molecules or cells relies on abstract concepts to begin with. Since some conscious states employ abstract concepts that are not present in material objects, it follows that consciousness is neither identical with nor reducible to matter.

6. Certain mental events, such as propositional thought processes, are logically ordered: With respect to abstract propositions in the mind there is a logical relationship between the content of one thought and the content of the subsequent thought.  For example, two plus two equals four or “All men are mortals; Socrates is a man; therefore Socrates is mortal” are propositions whose content is determined by logic and not by neuro-biological brain events.  Meanwhile, neuron firings in the brain are organically related and not related conceptually or logically. But the thought content of abstract propositions are related logically and conceptually.  Therefore, certain mental states such as rational and logical thought are clearly not governed by the same parameters as the corresponding brain events (if there is such a correlation). Since conscious thinking has logical form and structure while material brain states do not, it follows that consciousness is neither identical with nor reducible to matter.

7. The correlation between conscious experience and neuro-biological brain events breaks down in several cases. Scientists have so far discovered a correlation between certain conscious states and neurobiological brain events. This correlation should, however, be expected if consciousness is immaterial and has causal influence on the states of the brain. Nevertheless, certain kinds of conscious experience which are more intense, transpersonal or transcendent (than ordinary conscious states) are inversely correlated with brain activity because they take place with less or diminished brain activity.  Some examples given by Bernardo Kastrup are listed below:

a)      Fainting caused by asphyxiation or other restrictions of blood flow to the brain is known to sometimes induce intense transpersonal experiences and states of non-locality.

b)      Pilots undergoing G-force induced loss of consciousness – where blood is forced out of the brain, significantly reducing its metabolism – report experiences similar to Near Death Experiences. (Whinnery and Whinnery 1990)

c)      Certain Yogic breathing practices increase blood alkalinity levels, thereby constricting blood vessels in the brain and causing hypoxia and dissociation. This leads to significant transpersonal and non-local out of body experiences. (Taylor 1994)

d)     Psychedelic substances cause intense, non-local transpersonal experiences (Strassman et al, 2008). But a recent study showed that these substances do not increase brain activity, they actually decrease brain activity by decreasing cerebral blood flow, where the magnitude of decrease predicted the intensity of the conscious experience.

e)      Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS) can inhibit cortical function in certain locations of the brain and subjects reported Out of Body Experiences when neural activity in the angular gyrus of patients with epilepsy was inhibited in this way.

The full descriptions of the above examples are given here.

8. Near Death Experiences occur when there is no brain activity at all: Near Death Experiences, perhaps the most intense and transcendent of reported transpersonal experiences of consciousness, occur when the subjects are brain dead and brain activity is totally flat. While scientists have tried to attribute the cause of NDEs to anoxia of the brain, release of endomorphines, or fear of death, a recent study published in the Lancet December 2001 Issue called “Near-death experience in survivors of cardiac arrest; a prospective study in the Netherlands” put these theories to rest. The author of this peer reviewed NDE study, Pim Van Lommel, writes that:

Out Of Body Experience

“In our prospective study of patients that have been clinically dead (VF on the ECG) no electric activity of the cortex of the brain (flat EEG) must have been possible, but also the abolition of brain stem activity like the loss of the corneareflex, fixed dilated pupils and the loss of the gag reflex is a clinical finding in those patients. However, patients with an NDE can report a clear consciousness, in which cognitive functioning, emotion, sense of identity, and memory from early childhood was possible, as well as perception from a position out and above their “dead” body. Because of the sometimes reported and verifiable out-of -body experiences, like the case of the dentures reported in our study, we know that the NDE must happen during the period of unconsciousness, and not in the first or last second of this period.  So we have to conclude that NDE in our study was experienced during a transient functional loss of all functions of the cortex and of the brainstem. It is important to mention that there is a well documented report of a patient with constant registration of the EEG during cerebral surgery for an gigantic cerebral aneurysm at the base of the brain, operated with a body temperature between 10 and 15 degrees, she was put on the heart-lung machine, with VF, with all blood drained from her head, with a flat line EEG, with clicking devices in both ears, with eyes taped shut, and this patient experienced an NDE with an out-of-body experience, and all details she perceived and heard could later be verified. There is also a theory that consciousness can be experienced independently from the normal body-linked waking consciousness. The current concept in medical science states that consciousness is the product of the brain. This concept, however, has never been scientifically proven.”
- Pim Van Lommel
(http://www.nderf.org/NDERF/Research/vonlommel_skeptic_response.htm)

The main author of the Lancet study, Van Lommel, concludes that prominent atheist Michael Shermer’s view that consciousness is material is incorrect and contrary to the results of his study:

“Michael Shermer states that, in reality, all experience is mediated and produced by the brain, and that so-called paranormal phenomena like out-of body experiences are nothing more than neuronal events. The study of patients with NDE, however, clearly shows us that consciousness with memories, cognition, with emotion, self-identity, and perception out and above a life-less body is experienced during a period of a non-functioning brain (transient pancerebral anoxia).” 
http://www.nderf.org/NDERF/Research/vonlommel_skeptic_response.htm

9. In human beings, consciousness is self-aware or self-reflexive: Consciousness in the human being is self-aware; that is to say, human beings are not only conscious, but they are conscious of their consciousness. A person has a direct knowledge of his or her own selfhood or “I-ness”, as Aristotle writes:

“There is something in us which is aware that we are in activity, and so we are aware that we are sensing and we would be thinking that we are thinking.” 
- Aristotle, (Nicomachean Ethics, 10.9.1170a31-3)

The “I-ness” of each human is his rational soul (nafs al-nāṭiqah) and this self-aware rational soul is, in no way, reducible to the brain or matter in general. This is evident for the simple reason that material things, including whatever the human brain is composed of, totally lack the property of being self-aware. Materialists like to argue that a complex arrangement of matter can somehow magically produce consciousness but offer no explanation of how unconscious, unaware material entities produce immaterial and qualitative conscious experience, let alone self-aware consciousness.

“But if someone says that it is not so, but that atoms or other partless units can produce the soul by coming together in unity and identity of experience, he could be refuted by their juxtaposition, and not a complete one, since nothing which is one and united with itself in identity of experience can come from bodies which are incapable of unification and sensation, but soul is united in itself in identity of experience.
- Plotinus, (Ennead 4.3.1-6, tr. Armstrong)

Since human consciousness is self-aware while material objects are not self aware, it follows that consciousness is neither identical with nor reducible to matter. In fact, a recent study conducted at UCLA published in Nature 467 (28 October 2010) which shows that human beings can control neuron firings with the act of thinking.  The authors of the study write in the abstract that:

 

“Recording from single neurons in patients implanted with intracranial electrodes for clinical reasons here we demonstrate that humans can regulate the activity of their neurons in the medial temporal lobe (MTL) to alter the outcome of the contest between external images and their internal representation…  Subjects reliably regulated, often on the first trial, the firing rate of their neurons, increasing the rate of some while simultaneously decreasing the rate of others.”
http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v467/n7319/full/nature09510.html

 

10. There exists no material explanation of how the material brain can solely create or produce subjective consciousness – this is known as the “Hard Problem”:

“The Hard Problem is explaining how subjective experience arises from neural computation. The problem is hard because no one knows what a solution would look like or even is a genuine scientific problem in the first place. And not surprisingly everyone agrees that the hard problem (if it is a problem) is a mystery.”
- Steven Pinker, (The Mystery of Consciousness, Mind & Body Special Issue of Time Magazine, January 29, 2007)

Click Here to Read the Full Article on Consciousness, the Brain, and Physics.

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