Esoteric Apocalypse (Qiyamah): Isma‘ilī Muslim Perspectives on the “End of the World” (Part 1)

“The Qiyāmah is true and will happen, but a full explanation of it, either in theory or in common doctrine, is not easy.”

– Paul Walker, (Abu Yaqub al-Sijistani: Intellectual Missionary, 73)

“We, the Imāms in descent from Imām Husayn, are present until today and we shall remain until the Qiyāmah and even after the Qiyāmah.”

– Imām Shāh Āgā Shāh ‘Alī Shāh

In Islamic thought, the ideas and themes relating to the “end of the world” fall under the doctrine of qiyāmah (“rising”, “resurrection”).  The Qur’an contains hundreds of references to qiyāmah under various names including:  the Day of Resurrection, 2:85; the Day of Mutual Disillusion, 64:9; the Day of Mutual Calling, 40:32; the Day of Decision, 37:21; the Day they are raised up, 7:14; the Day of Judgement, 1:4; the Day of Gathering together, 50:44; the Day they come forth [from the tombs], 70:43; the Day of Imminence, 40:18; the Day when the Hour comes, 30:12; the Day of Reckoning, 14:41.

For the people of the exoteric (ahl al-ẓāhir), qiyāmah is when physical world comes to an end and all things return to God for the final judgment.  They expect qiyāmah to be preceded by a series of natural disasters and physical events including earthquakes, disasters, wars, the opening of the heavens, and other such things.

However, the esoteric (bāṭin) perspective views qiyāmah in an entirely different sense.  In this sense, Abū Ya‘qūb al-Sijistānī writes that the real meaning of qiyāmah is hidden from the masses and only available to the People of the True Realities:

“Among the greatest of matters in which the People of Realities (ahl al-ḥaqā’iq) take pride is the recognition of qiyāmah, its causes, and the tokens and signs that follow these, about which the people of the exoteric (ahl al-ẓāhir) are in the dark.”

– Abū Ya‘qūb al-Sijistānī, (Kitāb al-Iftikhār, 181)

In the esoteric perspective, qiyāmah is not a physical event, but rather, it is a spiritual or soul-related event which has effects and manifestations in the physical world.  This is because qiyāmah is related to creation (khalq).  Imām Sulṭān Muḥammad Shāh explains that “the creation according to Islam is not a unique act in a given time, but a perpetual and constant event” (Memoirs of the Aga Khan).  Similarly, qiyāmah is an event that occurs in every moment and instant – although it is hidden and not perceived by most people.

Just as time is continuous, it can be felt, measured and aggregated in certain intervals – seconds, minutes, hours, days, years, decades, etc, in the same way, the qiyāmah which is ever-occuring can be experienced in intervals.  When a being fulfills and actualizes the limit (ḥadd) of its own existence, this is the “metamorphosis of being which esoteric parlance designates as qiyāmah, resurrection.” (Henry Corbin, Temple and Contemplation). Thus, qiyāmah is a direct culmination and the recompense (i.e. reward, punishment) of the previous actions and events in the life of a particular being.  All human beings undergo qiyāmah as they ascend from one level of consciousness to the next – such as the progression through the mineral, vegetable, animal, and rational souls in earthly life.

Thus, we can speak of involuntary qiyāmah – when the human soul experiences the death of the physical body and is resurrected in the astral or imaginal body.  There is also the voluntary qiyāmah – when the human soul undergoes the final death and attains union with God – such as the spiriual mi‘rāj of the Prophet Muḥammad.  A collective qiyāmah is something experienced by a group of human beings – such as a community, a nation, a civilization, or even humanity as a whole.

When qiyāmah is understood as “the end of the world” – it is referring to a collective qiyāmah. This qiyāmah is foremost a spiritual event which has consequences and effects in the physical world – as manifested in human history.  However, the term “world” in this expression “the end of the world” cannot be understood as the planet Earth or the physical universe as a whole.  A “world” (‘ālam) refers to the entire way of life, sets of conventional beliefs, paradigms of understanding, and discourses of knowledge (‘ilm) that subsist amongst human beings in a particular period of human history – called a cycle (dawr).  The “end of the world” refers to the conclusion (“death”) of one such historical cycle (dawr) and the beginning (“birth”) of a new cycle.  This transition – from one historical cycle (dawr) to the next cycle – is the qiyāmah or the “end of the world”.  The great Ismā‘īlī Muslim philosopher Sayyidnā Naṣīr al-Dīn Ṭūsī explains as follows:

 “Amongst these [worlds] is the revolution that takes place when one cycle changes to another, when one prophetic tradition (sunnat) and custom changes to another, and one religion (millat) changes to another.  Each one of these is a world, each of these is a separate world, and when each changes, one may say that such and such a cycle, a prophetic tradition and a religion, which did not exist and then came into existence, was a separate world which underwent non-existence and then existence… Thus, when one cycle, which is another world, begins, the founder (wāḍi‘) of the religion of that cycle is made manifest, and his appearance, form, language, dialect, speech, behavior, deeds and spiritual path, both in whole and part, are completely different [from the previous cycle].”

– Nasir al-Din Tusi, (The Paradise of Submission, 68-69)

Different historical periods or cycles are marked by the appearance of God’s Messengers and each cycle (or “world”) lasts anywhere between five hundred or fifteen hundred years.  In the language of the Abrahamic scriptures, the cycles are referred to as the “Days of God” (Qur’ān 14:5) or the “Days of Creation” (Genesis):

“Lo!  Your Lord is God Who created the heavens and the earth in Six Days. Then He established the Throne.”

– Holy Qur’ān 7:54

According to the esoteric meaning (ta’wīl) of this verse, the six days in which God creates the heavens and the earth are six historical cycles of prophecy and religion.  The “world” created in during these six cycles is the “World of Faith” (‘ālam al-dīn).

The Cycle of every prophet is his ‘day’.  The time in which we are now – I mean, the time after the Emissary, al-Muṣṭafa, was sent forth up to the time of the Resurrection – is the ‘day’ of our Emissary.  The days of Moses, Jesus, and the other prophets are past… God the Exalted created the lifetime of this world during the span of the prophethood of six prophets, each of whom had his cycle (dawr) and his summons (da‘wat) in his ‘day’ (rūz), and during his day the Emissary summoned people to God… If people were to examine this interpretation, each prophetic community would occupy the position which it indeed occupies: the Christians established on the fifth day, the Jews on the fourth day, the Mazdeans on the third day.”

– Sayyidnā Nāsir-i Khusraw, (Between Reason and Revelation, tr. Eric Ormsby, 152-153)

In each cycle of prophecy, the Enunciating Prophet (Nāṭiq) reveals a Scripture and a religious Law (sharī‘ah).  Accompanying the Nāṭiq and later succeeding him is the person of the Foundation (Asās) – who is the first hereditary Imām of the cycle.  The Asās is succeeded by a lineage of Imāms until a qiyāmah – when the prophetic cycle comes to an end and the next Nātiq appears.  The institution of Imāmah continues throughout these prophetic cycles – serving as an arc of guidance, continuity and permanence (Click Here to Read our previous post on the continuity of the eternal Imāmat in history).  An overview of these six cycles is as follows:


When the Sixth Prophetic Cycle comes to an end, the Seventh Cycle begins.  The Seventh Cycle, in the Qur’anic verse above, is referred to as the establishment of the Throne.  This Seventh Cycle is the Cycle of the Great Qiyāmah.  This is because a cycle of prophecy consists of the dominance of the religious Law (sharī‘ah) in which spiritual truths (ḥaqā’iq) are concealed in symbols and only available to the initiates.  The Cycle of Qiyāmah is when the spiritual truths are unveiled to the public.  The meaning of qiyāmah is literally “rising” and the meaning of the word “apocalypse” is “revelation”.  Therefore, the qiyāmah or apocalypse is not the end of the physical world, but rather, the revelation, rising or unveiling of spiritual truths to humanity.

“In the cycle of every Prophet, the period of the manifestation of the exoteric (ẓāhir) dimension of the religious law (sharī‘at) is called the cycle of concealment, and the cycle of every Qā’im, when the manifestation of the esoteric realities of the religious laws (haqā’iq-i sharī‘at) of the Prophets occur, is called the cycle of unveiling (dawr-i kashf).”

– Naṣīr al-Dīn Ṭūsī, (The Paradise of Submission, 69)

The Seventh Cycle, which follows the previous Six Prophetic Cycles, is the Special Cycle of the Great Qiyāmah because it happens only once in every several thousand years.  This Cycle of Qiyāmah lasts for one thousand years and is marked by special conditions and events which are the culmination, fulfillment and apex of the previous Six Prophetic Cycles. When the Sixth Cycle – the Cycle of Prophet Muḥammad – reaches its climax and conclusion, it is then that the Cycle of Qiyāmah begins:

“In the current cycle of human history, however, it was still expected, as with the earliest Isma‘ilis, that full qiyama, or the Great Resurrection (qiyamat-i qiyamat), would occur at the end of the final millennial era after Adam; that is, at the end of the sixth era initiated by the sixth law-announcing prophet, Muhammad.  The Great Resurrection, towards which all the partial consummation of the preceding cycles in history of mankind had been tending, would inaugurate the final, seventh era – the culmination of the ages in the history of mankind.”

– Farhad Daftary, (The Ismailis: Their History and Doctrines, II, p. 381)

The person who begins and initiates the Cycle of Qiyāmah is not a Prophet – since Muhammad is the Seal of the Prophets.  Instead, the august personality who begins this Qiyāmah is called the Qā’im al-Qiyāmah (Lord of the Resurrection) and he is the Seventh Nāṭiq after the previous Six Messengers.  Sayyidnā Nāsir-i Khusraw (d. 1088) describes this as follows:

The interpretation of ‘establishing Himself upon the Throne’ is the execution of the command of God by the Qā’im al-Qiyāmat (‘Lord of the Resurrection’), which is the Throne of God and which will be manifest after his Six Days have passed… ‘Tomorrow’ is the cycle to come.  That ‘tomorrow’ in which the wise take such delight is the day of True Resurrrection, when the shadows of ignorance will be lifted from humanity by the light of His knowledge, just as God says, ‘The earth will be illumined by the light of its Lord’.”

– Sayyidnā Nāsir-i Khusraw, (Between Reason and Revelation, tr. Eric Ormsby, 153)

It is true that within a single prophetic cycle, i.e. the Cycle of Prophet Muḥammad, there are minor Qā’ims as well – approximately every seventh Imām in the chain of Imāmat is the Imām-Qā’im of the minor Cycle and brings a minor qiyāmah for the community of believers.  Each minor Qā’im reveals new esoteric teachings to the community of believers relative to his own age.  Some examples of the minor Imām-Qā’ims during the Cycle of Prophet Muḥammad are Imām Muḥammad ibn Ismā‘īl, Imām al-Mu‘īzz, Imām al-Ḥakim bi-amr Allāh, Imām Ḥasan ‘alā dhirkihi al-salām, Imām Shams al-Dīn Muḥammad, and others.  All of these minor Qā’ims serve as previews or foretastes of the actual Qā’im – the Qā’im al-Qiyāmah who is the Seventh Nāṭiq – while the minor qiyāmahs are foreshadowings of the Great Qiyāmah.  Henry Corbin explains that:

“The name of Qā’im, resurrector, is reserved par excellence for “he who will rise up”, the Lord of the Resurrection, at the close of the final Period of our Cycle. Yet each partial Qā’im at the end of each Period of the Septenary, as well as each Imām and each member of the Order, is also, potentially, Lord of the Resurrection, a limb of his mystical body, an oratory in his Temple of Light.”

– Henry Corbin, (Temple and Contemplation, 162)

Thus, the Qā’im al-Qiyāmah (Lord of the Resurrection) is not merely one of the seven Imāms, but rather, he is the Qā’im of the entirety cyclical history and his qiyāmah is the Great Qiyāmah.  Sayyidnā Nāsir-i Khusraw explains the difference between the Qā’im (Seventh Nāṭiq) and the previous Prophets as follows:

“The Jews respect Saturday and do not work on it because of this, i.e. God has rested on this day. But they do not know that when the Messengers told people this, they meant that the people should know that, by the command of God, there will come to this world Six Messengers who will instruct the people (to work). When the Seventh will come, he will not instruct, rather, he will give them the reward of their work. And they called it Saturday and said to respect it and that day is the day of the Lord of Resurrection (Qā’im-i Qiyāmat), may peace be upon him.”

– Sayyedna Nasir-i Khusraw,
(Wajh-i Din, Chapter VII, tr. Faquir Muhammad Hunzai, ‘Ilm Magazine, Vol. 11, No. 4/3, December 1987 / March 1988, p. 36)

A visual depiction of the Seven Prophetic Cycles of Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, Jesus, Muhammad, and the Qa’im. Each Cycle spans approximately 1,000 years.

Indeed, the very purpose of the previous Prophets, Messengers and Imāms and their missions was to prepare the way for the arrival of the Qā’im and the Cycle of Qiyāmah.  The function of the Qā’im is to be the “lord of reckoning” instead of a “lord of sharī‘ah” like the Messengers of God before him.

“Through the Qā’im, God completes and fulfills his promise in the wayof bestowing intellectual emanations upon all souls.  The Qā’im is crucial to the completion of the cycle of revelation. He is intrinsically related to the cycle in its growth and harmony or its corruption and disunity. He negates all natural structures since the very event of the advent of the Qā’im symbolises the end of one order, the judgment, and the beginning of another order, different yet not discontinuous.”

– Boustan Hirji, (A Study of Risalah al-Bahira, PhD Thesis, McGill University, Montreal, October 1994, 155)

Many religions have described the coming of the Qā’im under different terms and symbols such as the Messiah, the Kalki Avatara, Matreyah, the Mahdi, and others.  According to the Ismā‘īlī gnosis, the Qā’im is not some random person who appears out of nowhere, but he comes from the lineage of the Imāms from the progeny of the Prophet Muḥammad and Imām ‘Alī ibn Abi Ṭālib.  In the Holy Qur’ān, all the various names of qiyāmah such as the “Hour”, the “Last Day”, etc. are references and allusions to the holy personality of the Qā’im.  The Prophet Muḥammad once said: “I and the Hour were sent like these two forefingers.”  That is to say, Muḥammad is the final Prophet to appear before the coming of the Qā’im.  The Prophet’s analogy of himself and “the Hour” as “two forefingers” means that they are both similar in the sense of being divinely-inspired human beings.

In Ismā‘īlī gnosis, the Qā’im al-Qiyāmah is the most eminent human being in the entire Cosmos.  His soul encompasses and integrates the virtues of all the Prophets, Imāms, sages, saints, and luminaries who preceded him.  In this sense, Henry Corbin refers to the Qā’im as the “Perfect Child” because he is the most perfect soul to be created by the Universal Soul and it is through him that Universal Soul actualizes its own perfection.

“It is said, for example, that the Qā’im, the aim and goal of all the hudūd, the degrees or “horizons”, is the Grand Cycle of which the Imāms are the periods or partial cycles, just as each Imām is himself a cycle in relation to his ḥudūd. … It is also said that the Qā’im is the “coalescence” (majma), the corpus mysticum of all the ḥudūd; each of the Imāms has his own corpus mysticum, his Temple of Light, and all are gathered together and integrated in the Sublime Temple of the Resurrector.

– Henry Corbin, (Cyclical Times and Ismaili Gnosis, 99)

Over one thousand years ago, several Ismā‘īlī pīrs, hujjats, dā‘īs, and philosophers offered prophecies, descriptions, and explanations of the how the Great Qiyāmah would occur and what its signs and effects would be.  It must be remembered that since Qiyāmah is a spiritual event, then all the verses and descriptions of it in the Qur’ān and other scriptures must be understood symbolically using the technique of ta’wīl (esoteric interpretation).

In a summary form, we now relate the major “Signs” of the Qiyāmah and the appearance of the Qā’im al-Qiyāmah as outlined in the books of the Ismā‘īlī da‘wah:

1) The Night of Power (laylat al-qadr)

LQ Post

And verily, We revealed him in the Night of Power
And how can We convey to 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 upon all decrees by the permission of their Lord
Peace it is, until the rising of the Dawn.

– Holy Qur’ān 97:1-5

The beginning of the Cycle of Qiyāmah is the appearance of the Night of Power (laylat al-qadr).  Exoterically and historically, the Night of Power was one of the last odd nights of the Month of Ramaḍān.  But esoterically in light of the qiyāmah, the Night of Power, refers to an august personality in the World of Faith who begins the Cycle of Qiyāmah.

All Nātiqs were accompanied by their Asās – the first Imām of the new Cycle who served as the Ḥujjat (proof) and Bāb (gate) of the Nāṭiq – like Imām ‘Ali was for the Prophet Muḥammad, or Imām Shith (Seth) was for Prophet Adam. Similarly, each Imām has a son who serves as his Ḥujjat/Bāb and later succeeds him – like Imām Ja‘far al-Ṣādiq was for Imām Muḥammad al-Bāqir.

On the same lines, the Qā’im al-Qiyāmah is also accompanied by his own Ḥujjat or Bāb – except that whereas the Ḥujjat/Bāb/Asās of every Nāṭiq or Imām came after him, the Ḥujjat or Bāb of the Qā’im comes before him.  That is to say, the Qā’im’s own father or the preceding Imām (instead of his son or the succeeding Imām) will serve as his Ḥujjat or Bāb.

“Before the advent of the seventh cycle, governed by the Qa’im, comes the Lahiq or Hujjat of the Qa’im. This is noteworthy, as the hujjat of an Imam is generally his contemporary. The Hujjat of the Qa’im, however, is the harbinger of the advent of the Sabbath.”

– Shafique Virani, (The Days of Creation in the Thought of Nasir Khusraw, Institute of Ismaili Studies)

The Qā’im, in the symbolic language of the Qur’ān, is called the “Last Day” (yawm al-ākhirah) or the Seventh Day (in the Bible).  And therefore, the “Last Day” is preceded by the greatest of all nights – in the language of the Qur’ān, this is called the Night of Power (laylat al-qadr).  According to the science of ta’wīl, the Night of Power stands for the great Imām who functions as the Ḥujjat or Bāb of the Qā’im and the entirety of Sūrat al-Qadr is a metaphor for the exalted personality of this Imām.

“…the Ḥujjat of the Qā’im comes before him in the World of Faith and he is the Night of Power (laylat al-qadr).”

– Sayyidna Nasir-i Khusraw, (Wajh-i Din, Discourse 33)

The Night of Power (laylat al-qadr) is a symbol (mathal) of his Bāb (gate) and Ḥujjat (proof) who is going to come before him. And thus the Bāb of the Qā’im is the lord of universal explanation (sahib al-bayan al-kulli) and the true unveiling (kashf al-haqiqi).”

– Sayyidna al-Mu’ayyad fi’l-Dīn al-Shirāzī, (al-Majalis al-Mu’ayyadiyyah, Volume II, 612)

The Night of Power is greater than a thousand months.  The inner meaning of this is that the Ḥujjat of the Qā’im shall be greater than a thousand Imāms.  This is because the Ḥujjat of the Qā’im will be “the lord of universal explanation and the true unveiling” – meaning, his teachings will reveal spiritual truths and insights in clear, succinct and unprecedented manner.  Indeed, the Qā’im’s Ḥujjat will be the greatest Imām of all the Cycles of Prophecy going back to Adam:

“His saying, ‘Laylat al-Qadr is better than one thousand months’, alludes to the Bāb of the Qā’im, peace be on his mention, [who is] greater than all of what is established by the manifestation of the grades of the intellects, from the legatees of the possessors of the religious laws and their most radiant degree.”

– Sayyidna al-Mu’ayyad fi’l-Dīn al-Shirāzī, (Majālis al-Mu’ayyadiyyah, Volume III, 8)

“The Night of Power is better than a thousand months.”  That is, the Ḥujjat of the Qā’im is superior in knowledge to a thousand Imams, although collectively their ranks are one.”

– Sayyidnā Nāsir-i Khusraw, (Wajh-i Din, Discourse 33)

The meaning of al-Qadr is the Qā’im of the Progeny of Muḥammad (qā’im-i āl-i Muḥammad) and the meaning of Laylat al-Qadr is the Ḥujjat or Bāb of the Qā’im.  The Qur’ān explicitly states: “We revealed him in the Night of Power”, i.e. “We revealed the Qā’im in the personality of his Ḥujjat.”  This means that the Qā’im will carry out his mission, reveal his knowledge and display his glory in the physical world through the person of his ujjat.

This Hujjah or Asās of the Qā’im will be the most publicly known and renowned Imām in the entire world – the people of the ẓāhir and the bāṭin – just as the Prophet Muḥammad was manifest to both groups of people.  Sayyidnā Abū Ḥātim al-Rāzī and Sayyidnā Nāsir-i Khusraw explain this as follows:

“…the da‘wah is established in the name of the Asās in secret and will become manifest in public in the presence of the Last Completer [the Qā’im].”

– Sayyidnā Abū Ḥātim al-Rāzī, (Shin Nomoto, Early Ismaili Thought on Prophecy, PhD Thesis, 307)

“…the status of the Asās will be manifest at the time of the advent of the Seventh Rank (hadd), namely, the Qā’im, to the people of the exoteric (ẓāhir) and the esoteric (bāṭin), as the rank of the Nāṭiq has become completely manifest to the people of the exoteric and the esoteric prior to the [advent of] the Seventh Rank (the Qā’im).

– Sayyidna Nasir-i Khusraw, (Wajh-i Din, Chapter 19, Section 7)

The Cycle of Qiyāmah is thus inaugurated in by not one, but two figures – the Ḥujjat of the Qā’im and the Qā’im al-Qiyāmah.  This idea of two messianic figures is also paralleled in the Abrahamic traditions.  The Sunni and Twelver Shī‘ī Muslims await the second coming of the Prophet Jesus and the Mahdī of the progeny of Prophet Muḥammad.  The Jews await Messiah and the second coming of the Prophet Elijah – who functions as the “interpreter” of the Messiah.  These are all symbolic designations for the manifestation of the Ḥujjat of the Qā’im and the Qā’im al-Qiyāmah at the beginning Seventh Cycle – the Cycle of Qiyāmah.


2) The Sun and the Moon are united

Lunar-Eclipse-Gemini (1)
A visual depiction of a lunar eclipse. The lunar eclipse is a symbol of the union of the offices of Imamah and Piratan during the Cycle of Qiyamah.

“And when the Moon is eclipsed, and the Sun and Moon are united,”

– Holy Qur’ān 75:8-9

According to various Ismā‘īlī texts (i.e. Kitab al-‘Ālim wa’l-Ghulām – Ja‘far ibn Manṣūr al-Yaman; Taṣawwurāt – Naṣīr al-Dīn al-Ṭūsī), the Sun (shams) stands for the Imām and the Moon (qamar) stands for the Pīr or Supreme Hujjat (Bāb).  The Imām is the spiritual father of the believers and the Pīr or Supreme Hujjat (Bāb) is their spiritual mother.  Metaphysically, the Imām is the locus of manifestation of the Universal Intellect and the Pīr is the locus of manifestation of the Universal Soul.

The union of the Sun and the Moon at the time of Qiyāmah means that the institutions of Imāmah and Piratan will be united in the person of the Imām during the Cycle of Qiyāmah.

3) When the Stars darken

When the Sun is shining, the Moon and the Stars are present but not visible.  This symbolizes the state of the Imam and the Ranks of Faith in the Cycle of Qiyamah.
When the Sun is shining, the Moon and the Stars are present but not visible. This symbolizes the manifestation of the Imam and the concealment of the Ranks of Faith (hudud al-din) in the Cycle of Qiyamah.

“And when the stars darken”

– Holy Qur’ān 81:2

“And when the stars are obliterated.”

– Holy Qur’ān 77:8

In all the cycles of prophetic history, the Imāms delivered their ta‘līm and ta‘wīl through a hierarchy of representatives and teachers – the bābs, the hujjats, the dā‘īs, and ma’dhūns.  This hierarchy makes up the “World of Faith” (‘ālam al-dīn) and is known as the “Ranks of Faith” (ḥudūd al-dīn). In the World of Nature, the Imām is symbolized by the Sun, his Bābs by the Moon, and the rest of the ḥudūd by the Stars.  This is related to the vision of the Prophet Joseph (Yusūf) when he saw “the Sun, the Moon, and eleven Stars” (see Sūrat Yusūf) prostrating before him.

When the Cycle of Qiyāmah begins and the Qā’im appears in the physical world, the Ranks of Faith (i.e. “the Stars”) will cease their formal functions and the Imām himself will take over their roles.  This is the meaning of the Qur’ānic verse:

“The Day We shall summon every people with their Imām.”

– Holy Qur’ān 17:71

This is because the Imām, as the Sun of Faith (shams al-dīn) will be manifest to the world and the Moon and the Stars of Faith will no longer be visible. When the Sun is shining in its full glory, the light of the Moon and the Stars cannot be observed, despite their continuous presence. It is also related in a prophetic ḥadīth:

“Goodness is knotted up in the forelocks of horses till the Day of Qiyāmah.”

– Prophet Muhammad,
(Sunān Abū Dawūd, Book 21, Number 21.19.44)

“Nasir Khusraw explains that the ta’wil of this is that the da‘wat, th e summoning of humankind, will not be severed from the hujjats, symbolised by the horses, and the da‘is, symbolised by their forelocks, till the time of the Qā’im’s manifestation.”

– Shafique Virani, (The Days of Creation in the Thought of Nasir Khusraw, Click Here to Read)

The Ismā‘īlī da‘wah – the formal and practical da‘wah that actively summons people to the recognition of the Imām – will be abolished along with the functions of the Ranks of Faith (also confirmed by Hamīd al-Dīn al-Kirmānī in his Kitāb al-Riyāḍ).

4) The Heavens are rolled up

heavens scroll
A visual depiction of the heavens being rolled up into a scroll. The imagery of a scroll serves to symbolize the “scroll of the shari’ah” which is abrogated in the Cycle of Qiyamah.

The Day that We roll up the Heavens like a scroll rolled up for books (completed),- even as We produced the first creation, so shall We produce a new one: a promise We have undertaken: truly shall We fulfil it. Before this We wrote in the Psalms, after the message (given to Moses): ‘My servants, the righteous, should inherit the Earth.”

– Holy Qur’ān 21:104

The various terms in the Qur’ān – “heaven”, “earth”, “mountains”, “seas”, “rivers”, etc. all contain an esoteric or ta’wīlī meaning because they refer not to the physical world (dunyā) but to the World of Faith (‘ālam al-dīn).  Therefore, the real meaning of “heavens” is the exoteric (ẓāhir) and the sharī‘ah, and the inner meaning of “earth” is the esoteric (bāṭin) and the ṭarīqah.  Just as the physical heavens surround and protect the physical earth, the ẓāhir protects and envelopes the bāṭin.  The “rolling up” of the “heavens” means that the sharī‘ah will be abolished when the Cycle of Qiyāmah begins and the quaking of the “earth” means that the esoteric sciences will become revealed in a sudden way – in the manner of earthquakes – even though people may not be prepared for it.

“Al-Sijistānī explains that ta’wīl is necessary for two categories of Qur’ānic verses: one, verses with physical objects such as heaven, earth, and mountains, and two, the allegorical verses. In chapter 12 of Kitāb al-Iftikhār (“The Book of Pride”), al-Sijistānī gives some examples such as Q 21:105: “Before this We wrote in the Psalms, after the message (given to Moses): ‘My servants, the righteous, should inherit the earth’.” This, he suggests, should not be interpreted in the literal sense since it is always the tyrants who take the land. The earth on which vegetation grows is a source of nourishment for all creatures; therefore its inner meaning is the nourishment of the soul (i.e. spiritual knowledge). In another passage, Q 21:104, “The day that We roll up the heaven like a scroll rolled up with the writings,” the “heaven” signifies the sharī‘a which will be abrogated on the judgment day.”

– Diana Steigerwald, (“Ismā‘īlī Ta’wīl”, The Blackwell Companion to the Qur’ān, ed. Andrew Rippin, 391)

With respect to the abrogation of the sharī ‘ah at the time of Qiyāmah, Sayyidnā Nāsir-i Khusraw (as per Khwān al-Ikhwān) explains that the sharī‘ah of Prophet Muḥammad has two dimensions – the specified (waḍ‘ī) sharī‘ah and the intellectual (‘aqlī) sharī‘ah.  The specificed sharī‘ah refers to specific formal or ritual practices as Ṣalāh (ritual prayer), Ṣawm (ritual fasting), Wudū (ablution), Hajj (pilgrimage), etc. in their exoteric form – without which mankind can still survive and function.  The intellectual sharī‘ah refers to moral and ethical laws such as the laws against murder, stealing, and unethical behavior – without which humanity would plunge into chaos.

“While Nāṣir emphasizes that in the physical world action is necessary for the development and perfection of the human soul, he makes a distinction in the two types of practices of sharīa. He divides the sharīa into intellectual (‘aqlī) and positional or statutory (waḍ‘ī). The intellectual  sharīa  is always necessary to maintain the order and discipline of society. Meanwhile the statutory sharīʿa is a temporary measure that conceals certain realities (ḥaqā’iq) that cannot be openly revealed due to the unfavourable time. When the time becomes favourable, these devices are no longer necessary.

– Faquir Muhammad Hunzai, (Nasir-i Khusraw’s Ethical Philosophy, 15)

It may be wondered as to why the abrogation of the sharī ‘ah must occur in the first place.  This is because all sharī ‘ahs were compiled and composed by a Nāṭiq in accordance with the culture and needs of his time.  Furthermore, each sharī‘ah has an outer form and an inner meaning which is like a spirit that inhabits a body.  Over time, it is natural that a sharī‘ah becomes worn out and ineffective due to the progression of history and human life – as Sayyidnā Abū Ya ‘qūb al-Sijistānī explains:

“After a long time, the sharī‘ah becomes empty of the ‘spirit of the second age’, particularly, after the advancement of Man with the expansion of the knowledge, his intelligence and his mental faculities.”

– Sayyidnā Abū Ya‘qūb al-Sijistānī, (Ithbāt al-Nabuwwat, 343)

When this happens – usually after more or less a thousand years – a new sharī ‘ah is established and a new prophetic cycle begins and the new Nātiq abrogates the old sharī ‘ah and compiles a new one.  However, after the Prophet Muḥammad, there are no more Prophets. Therefore, the Qā’im will abrogate the specified sharī‘ah while revealing its inner meaning (ta’wīl) and simultaneously, spiritualize and transform the sharī‘ah into a higher mode of ritual practice.  The intellectual sharī‘ah – as a set of ethics and moral guidelines – always remains in force and becomes more prominent in the Cycle of Qiyāmah.

5) The Intellectual Da‘wah and the Epoch of Knowledge (Dawr al-‘Ilm)

era of knowledge
An image depicting how knowledge comes to light. The Cycle of Qiyamah is the Epoch of Knowledge (dawr al-‘ilm) and the Qur’anic description of “being raised from the graves” refers to the manifestation of once hidden or concealed knowledge out in the open.

“Our Qā’im will begin a New Summons (du‘ā’an jadīdan).”

– Imām Ja‘far al-Ṣādiq,
(Amir-Moezzi, The Divine Guide in Early Shiism, 119)

The Qā’im al-Qiyāmah will inaugurate a new intellectual and gnostic da‘wah (da‘wat al-jadīdah al-‘ilmiyyah). This is the difference between the Summons of the Qā’im and the Summons of the previous Six Prophetic Messengers.  The Summons of the Prophets was an exoteric (ẓāhirī) and physical (‘amalī) Summons whereas the Summons of the Qā’im is intellectual (‘aqlīyyah) and gnostic (‘ilmīyyah):

Sijistānī specifies that the summons of [Prophet] Muhammad, when likened to the Hour, are ritualistic whereas the summons of the Qā’im is intellectual. The reason the Qā’im is absent at the time of the prophet is that his summons are different from that of the prophet… Since the Qā’im’s call is intellectual (da‘wah is ‘ilmiīyah) the Qā’im’s knowledge is not visible; whereas the Prophet’s (raūl) call (da‘wah) is ‘amalīyah.  Therefore, while hypocrites may enter the dawah of a prophet, only the sincere can enter the dawah of the Qā’im; and their souls will be recompensed according to that effort of sincerity.  Sijistānī holds that God has ordained the da‘wah of the Qā’im as intellectual, not ritualistic.  It is intellectual because it cannot be operative through force since force would make its followers hypocrites, not true believers. Therefore, the believer must possess knowledge (‘ilm), and the ṣāhib al-‘ilm is he who deals with those who profess a belief without the use of force, i.e. without an externally motivating factor. Therefore, a believer is defined as the one who is intellectually convinced of the truth of revelation and accepts this as an intellectual conviction and not as a mere acceptance and observance of the law.”

– Boustan Hirji, (A Study of Risalah al-Bahira, PhD Thesis, McGill University, Montreal, October 1994, 155)

The Qā’im begins a new phase of human history known as the Epoch of Knowledge (dawr al ‘ilm).  In the periods before the Qā’im, humanity lives in the Epoch of Practice – where both religion and worldly life are oriented around actions (‘amal) and physical resources.  After the coming of the Qā’im and the beginning of the Cycle of Qiyāmah¸ humanity enters into the Epoch of Knowledgle (dawr al-‘ilm) in which there is an abundance of knowledge (‘ilm) available in a way that humankind has never seen before.

“The final epoch before the advent of the Qā’im is defined as the epoch of practice (dawr al-‘amāl), and is one in which religious practices are obligatory on the part of the individual practitioner.  With the establishment of the Qā’im and the commencement of the epoch of knowledge (dawr al-ilm), even the practice of obedience (ta‘ah) to the hudud al-din is no longer required… Therein arises another set of distinctions: between the epoch of practice (dawr al-‘amal) and the epoch of knowledge (dawr al-‘ilm).  The dawr al-‘ilm (Epoch of Knowledge) is the time of the Qa’im, and associated with this is tayid, purity, and more significantly, “pure knowledge” (al-‘ilm al-mahd)…. Because the Qa’im is established at the end of the dawr al-‘amāl, the epoch of the Qa’im is the epoch of purity (safa), tayid and ‘ilm, without religious obligation in terms of practice (taklif). 

– Elizabeth R. Alexandrin, (The Sphere of Walayah: Ismalii Ta’wīl in Practice according to al-Mu’ayyad, PhD Thesis, McGillUniversity, 2006, 322-334)

As a result of the beginning of the Epoch of Knowledge, the esoteric meaning – ta’wīl – of all previous religions and revelations is unveiled to humankind.  The Qur’ān foretells this in the verse:

“Do they not wait (hal yanzurūna) for its ta’wīl? The Day when its ta’wīl arrives, those who had forgotten it from before will say: ‘Verily, the Messengers of our Lord came with the Truth.”

– Holy Qur’ān 7:53

The Qa’im will unveil the ta’wil (esoteric meaning) of all scriptures and revealed religions during the Epoch of Knowledge.  It is through this ta’wil that people will be able to recognize the truth (haqq) in the messages and revelations of the Prophets.  This means that the esoteric, philosophical and theological materials of all religions – formerly concealed and guarded except from a select few – will be accessible in the Cycle of Qiyāmah.  In most periods of history, the believers could not freely share such material and had to maintain the veil of taqīyya and secrecy.  However, the Cycle of Qiyāmah will allow such knowledge and wisdom to be shared freely and in abundance:

“In fact, other Shi’ite factions likewise maintain that, with the coming of the ‘messianic figure’, the obligation of taqiyya and kitman will be anulled and the believers will be permitted to divulge their secretsIn Isma‘ili thought, the secrets revealed at the end of time are the truths (haqa’iq) or the inner aspect of religion (batin) – in effect, the philosophical, theological and esoteric knowledge of every kind.  Consequently, in Isma‘ili tradition, acquiring this knowledge and transmitting it to others entails a messianic sentiment – for the disclosure of this knowledge is a clear sign of the end of time… These sciences are entrusted to the Imams, the descendents of ‘Ali, and to their followers (such as Jabir); with the appearance of the ‘messianic figure’, the external aspect of religion (zahir) wil lose its primacy and will be replaced by the inner aspect, namely, the philosophical and esoteric sciencesIn this era, ‘the tables will be turned’: the hitherto concealed Isma‘ili knowledge will be revealed to all, judgment day will commence and human history will reach its final end.”

– Michael Ebstein, (“Secrecy in Isma‘ili Tradition and in the Mystical Thought of Ibn al-‘Arabi”, Journal Asiatique, 298.2 (2010), 326-329)

In the Epoch of Knowledge, the the Qā’im will accept and affirm the right of each community to its own religious tradition.  This is also because the spiritual and esoteric meaning of scriptures will also be unveiled during the Cycle of Qiyāmah.

“He [the Qā’im] will take the Torah and the other holy Books from the case and will judge the faithful of the Torah from the Torah, and the faithful of the Gospels from the Gospels, the faithful of the Psalms according to the Psalms, and the faithful of the Qur’an according to the Qur’an.”

– Imām Ja‘far al-Ṣādiq, (Amir-Moezzi, The Divine Guide in Early Shiism, 225)

During the Cycle of Qiyāmah which lasts for one thousand years, the Qā’im and his Deputies (khulafā’) – all of whom are from the progeny of Prophet Muḥammad – also work to rid the earth of injustice and suffering.  This is in accordance with the ḥadīth of the Prophet:

“Even if there remains (in the life of the world) only a single day, God will prolong it until there comes a man, a descendant of mine, who will fill the earth with equity and justice even as it has been filled with oppression and injustice.”

– Prophet Muhammad,
(Sunān Abū Dawūd, Kitab al-Mahdi, Hadith No. 4270)

6) The Hidden Qiyāmah

An image of the sunlight shining through the clouds. This depicts the coming of the Qa’im and his spiritual influence in the sense that the Qa’im himself will not be recognized directly but his knowledge and inspiration – like sunlight – will permeate the entire world.

“Do they only wait for the Hour – that it should come on them all of a sudden, while they are unaware?”

– Holy Quran 43:66

“He is called “mahdi” because he guides (yahdī) to a hidden teaching.”

– Imām Muḥammad al-Bāqir,
(Amir-Moezzi, The Divine Guidein Early Shiism, 225)

Many people expect the advent of the Cycle of Qiyāmah to be an event filled with fanfare such that all human beings will recognize it.  However, the Qur’ān indicates exactly the opposite.  The Qiyāmah is the most hidden and most secret of all affairs because it is a spiritual or soul-related event and is only perceived by the highest degrees of souls in the World of Faith.  Many Qur’anic verses point to this fact:

“Do they only wait for the Hour – that it should come on them all of a sudden (baghtatan), while they are unaware?”

– Holy Quran 43:66

 “Do they then feel secure from the coming against them of the covering veil of the wrath of Allah,- or of the coming against them of the Hour all of a sudden (baghtatan) while they are unaware?”

– Holy Quran 12:107

“Verily the Hour is coming – My design is to keep it hidden for every soul to receive its reward by the measure of its effort.”

– Holy Quran 20:15

This means that when the Cycle of Qiyāmah begins, most of humankind will not be aware of it due to its hidden and concealed nature.  Even the Bible describes how the Qiyāmah (“the Day of the Lord”) shall occur secretly without anyone noticing:

“But the day of the Lord will come like a thief.”

– New Testament, Peter 3:10

“For you know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night.”

– Thessalonians 5:2

As in the manner of of the Qiyāmah, the Qā’im al-Qiyāmah will likewise be veiled and hidden.  This does not mean that the Qā’im will enter into an occultation (like the twelfth imām of the Twelver Shī‘ī’s). The Qā’im will appear in the physical world as a human being but his rank and spiritual status will not be perceived or recognized by most people.  With respect to the appearance of the Qā’im in the physical world, the following ḥadīth is relevant:

“Indeed, Islam began as a Stranger (gharīban) and it will return as a Stranger.  Blessed are the strangers.”

– Prophet Muhammad,
(Amir-Moezzi, The Divine Guide in Early Shiism, 225)

This ḥadīth describes the state of the Qā’im and how he will appear “strange” to the people of the world during his advent.  The Qur’ān describes the veiled appearance of the Qā’im and the events of his time in the following verses:

“And your Lord shall come, with the angels, rank on rank.”

– Holy Qur’ān 89:22

“Do they not wait until God comes to them in shades of clouds, with the angels and the question is (thus) settled? but to God do all questions go back.”

– Holy Qur’ān 2:210

These verses describe the coming of the “Lord” (rabb).  However, God Himself – transcending time and space – is above the process of “coming” or “going”.  This verse refers to the coming of the Qā’im and the events of Qiyāmah – indicated by the words “do they not wait” (hal yanẓurūna).

The “Lord” refers to the Qā’im and the Angels who accompany him refer to the Deputies or Vicegerents (khulafā’) of the Qā’im who represent him and carry out his mission on earth.  The description of “God comes to them in shades of clouds” means that the Qā’im comes to the World of Faith and the physical world while being “veiled” from people’s recognition – in the same way that the clouds may conceal the Sun from being looked upon directly.

This raises the question – if the Qā’im will be unrecognizable in the physical world, how does he influence human beings? Although the Qā’im’s status is hidden or veiled in the physical world, his real mission is carried out in the subtle world of human souls or the spiritual realm – because Qiyāmah is primarily a spiritual event.  Thus, the Qā’im cannot be conceived as a political warrior, a world conqueror or ruler in the exoteric or physical sense.  His role and function is primarily spiritual, hidden and intellectual.  The Qā’im allows human souls to have access to the flow of spiritual illumination (nūr) inspiration (ta’yīd), and esoteric interpretation (ta’wīl) in the spiritual world – in a form superior to the previous Six Prophetic Cycles.  Nāsir-i Khusraw writes that the Qā’im, for this reason, is represented and symbolized by the ‘Īd al-Adha and its namāz:

“The Qā’im is represented by the Īd al-Ādha, the festival of sacrificeas well as by the prayer recited on this occasion. He is the lord of the two worlds, as the inner meaning of the divine scripture is revealed through him and he delivers the believers from the torment of ignorance, extracting symbols from concealment and explaining them. The fact that the expression ‘God is Greater’ (Allahu akbar) is recited five times before the festival prayer indicates that during the cycle of the Qā’im, the believers receive benefit directly from the five spiritual ḥadds: the Universal Intellect, the Universal Soul, Jadd, Fath and Khayāl.

– Shafique Virani,(The Days of Creation in the Thought of Nasir-i Khusraw, Click Here to Read)

All the Prophets of the past guided human beings through physical structures and symbols in Scripture and religious practices – thus only providing an indirect experience of spiritual truth – in accordance with the limits of their times.  Conversely, the Qā’im interacts with human souls directly – and offers a direct spiritual experience of metaphysical and spiritual truth (haqq).  Abū Ya‘qūb al-Sijistānī explains that the Qā’im is called the “Mahdi” because he guides (yahdī) each soul to its own inner reality:

“The name of that person [i.e., Mahdī] is derived from [the root] HDY [“to guide”], which implies that there is no way for anyone to avoid him and his Call (daʿwat), or to escape from his arguments and proofs, because he guides the humans to that which is in their own inner reality (ḥaqīqat-i īshān) and shows the way to those sciences to which ‘the Horizons and the Souls’ bear witness and opens the way for the souls to know the spiritual dominion of God, so that the souls become one with the True Realities (ḥaqāyiq) and the Spiritual Support [taʾyīd].”

– Abū Ya‘qūb al-Sijistānī, (Kashf al-Mahjūb, tr. Landolt, An Anthology of Philosophy in Persia Volume 2, 119)

7) The Cycle of 49 Imāms

The ceiling of Glenview Jamatkhana features a pattern of seven concentric septagons. Each septagon stands for a Minor Cycle of Seven Imams. The Center of the Seven Heptagons represents the Qa’im al-Qiyamah who appears after the Cycle of 49 (7×7) Imams.

“And We have bestowed upon thee the Seven Repeated Ones and the Great Qur’an.”

– Holy Qur’ān 15:87

Several Ismā‘īlī dā‘īs of the Fatimid period had prophesized that the coming of the Qā’im and the beginning of the Cycle of Qiyāmah would take place after the coming of forty-nine Imāms in the Cycle of Prophet Muḥammad.  This is based, in part, on the above verse.  Exoterically, the Seven Repeated Ones refer to the seven verses of Sūrah Fātihah.  Esoterically, the Seven Repeated Ones refer to a minor cycle of seven Imāms being repeated in seven heptads and the “Great Qur’ān” refers to the Qā’im al-Qiyāmah.

“The Seven Oft-Repeated (al-sab‘ al-mathāni) are symbols of the Imams from Haḍrat ‘Alī.  Whenever Seven Imāms pass away, another Seven Imāms come like the Seven Days of the week, and this state remains until the Day of Judgement.”

– Sayyidnā Abū’l-Qāsim al-Malījī, (al-Majālis al-Mustansīrīyyah, Cairo, 1947, 29)

Based on this verse, Sayyidnā Hamīd al-Dīn al-Kirmāni prophecized that the Qiyāmah would take place after the appearance of forty-nine Imāms.  This is summarized in an academic study as follows:

“Kirmānī firmly rejected Druze statements about the imminent advent of the Qā’im by reiterating that the Qiyāma was not near, but was to take place in the distant future when the long cycle of forty-nine Imāms was concluded. Only then would the Qā’im remove all the ranks of the world of dīn [‘ālam ad-dīn], which would no longer be necessary as intermediaries for the knowledge of the divine knowledge would become pure, actual, and no longer mediated.”

– Simonetta Calderini, (“‘Ālam al-dīn in Ismā‘īlīsm: World of Obedience or World of Immobility?”, Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, Vol. 56, No. 3 1993, 467)

Similarly, Sayyidnā Muḥammad b. al-Ṣūrī – the dā‘ī of Syria – wrote that the seventh heptad (set of seven) of Imāms after the Prophet Muḥammad is the greatest of all because it leads to the coming of the Qā’im al-Qiyāmah:

“Muḥammad b. ‘Alī al-Ṣūrī, a Fatimid dā‘ī in Syria who died around 487/1094, enumerates the imāms of the era of Islam in a long poem.  According to him, the seventh heptad of imāms in the era of Muḥammad is the most eminent one, because it precedes the coming of the Qā’im.”

– Farhad Daftary, (The Ismailis: Their History and Doctrines, 208)

The advent of the Cycle of Qiyāmah and the manifestation of the Qā’im are the climax of all human history since the time of Adam.  One may wonder or even doubt the plausibility of such events occurring in actual history.

However, it must be known now that the Great Qiyāmah has already occurred. To  read about how the Cycle of Qiyāmah begins and the manner in which the Signs of Qiyāmah come to pass in the light of actual history – Click Here to Read Part 2 of this post.

14 thoughts on “Esoteric Apocalypse (Qiyamah): Isma‘ilī Muslim Perspectives on the “End of the World” (Part 1)

  1. Why hazrat dawood(a.s) is not included among the list of messengers who brought sharia?he too was inspired with holy book.

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