Esoteric Thought in Physical Form: The Aga Khan Campus in Toronto

Great architecture, like great art, captures esoteric thought in physical form.

Imam Shah Karim al-Husayni Aga Khan IV

In May 2010, Imam Shah Karim al-Husayni Aga Khan IV, the 49th hereditary Imam of the Shī‘ī Ismaili Muslims and the direct descendant of the Prophet Muhammad and Imam Alī ibn Abī Ṭālib, presided over the foundation ceremony for the Aga Khan Museum, Ismaili Centre and Jamatkhana, and Aga Khan Park being built in Toronto. The entire site – known as the Aga Khan Campus – is described by the Imam as follows:

It now includes three elements: a new Ismaili Centre — the sixth such representational building in the world; a new Aga Khan Museum; and a beautiful, welcoming Park, which will link these two new buildings. Together, these three projects will symbolise the harmonious integration of the spiritual, the artistic and the natural worlds — in keeping with the holistic ideal which is an intimate part of Islamic tradition.

Imam Shah Karim al-Husayni Aga Khan IV,
Foundation Stone Ceremony for the Aga Khan Museum, Ismaili Centre and Park
Toronto, May 28, 2010
http://www.nanowisdoms.org/nwblog/9425/

The Aga Khan Museum, Toronto

The Aga Khan Museum, Toronto

In the vision of the Ismaili Imamat, the Aga Khan Campus of Toronto, like the Delegation of the Ismaili Imamat in Ottawa, is not merely a set of buildings. According to the Imam, the Aga Khan Museum, the Ismaili Centre and the Aga Khan Park amount to nothing less than “esoteric thought in physical form”:

“Buildings can do more than simply house people and programmes. They can also reflect our deepest values; great architecture, like great art, captures esoteric thought in physical form. In Islamic thought, beauty and mystery are not separated from the intellect — in fact, the reverse is true. “
– Imam Shah Karim al-Husayni Aga Khan IV,
http://www.nanowisdoms.org/nwblog/10224/

The words of the Ismā‘īlī Imams articulated before public audience are not devoid of esoteric meaning or ta’wīl – as stated by the Ismā‘īlī dā‘ī Sayyidnā Nāṣir-i Khusraw:

“The sayings of the Imams have ta’wīl (esoteric meaning), just as the Speech of God and [the sayings of His] Messenger have ta’wīl, because they are the witnesses of God over the people.”
– Sayyidnā Nāṣir-i Khusraw, (Knowledge and Liberation, tr. Hunzai, 113)

These architectural masterpieces commissioned by the Ismaili Imamat, such as the Delegation of the Ismaili Imamat and the Aga Khan Campus, are actually texts (nass) by which the Ismaili Imam announces his spiritual authority (walayah), instruction (ta’līm) and esoteric exegesis (ta’wīl) to humankind through the symbolic language of architecture.  But the subtle meanings and esoteric mysteries embedded within the “built texts” of the Imam can only be envisioned through the eyes of Ismā‘īlī ta’wīl, or esoteric exegesis, in order for their spiritual meanings to be grasped by the onlookers.

The Ismaili Gnosis blog is proud to announce a four part series of articles, titled Esoteric Thought in Physical Form: The Aga Khan Campus in Toronto, that seeks to uncover and share some of the “esoteric thought” behind the Aga Khan Museum, the Ismaili Center and Jamatkhana, and the Aga Khan Park. The four parts are entitled as follows:

Mysteries of Light (nur): The Aga Khan Museum (part 1)

Prophetic Architectures: The Aga Khan Museum (part 2)

House of Light: The Toronto Ismaili Center and Jamatkhana (part 3)

Garden of Gnosis: The Aga Khan Park (part 4)

Part 1, The Mysteries of Light (nūr): The Aga Khan Museum, is shown below:

aga-khan-museum-jim-bowie-black-white

The new Toronto Museum will take as its theme the concept of light — suffusing the building from a central courtyard, through patterned glass screens. From the outside, it will glow by day and by night, lit by the sun and the moon. This use of light speaks to us of the Divine Light of the Creator, reflected in the glow of individual human inspiration and vibrant, transparent community. As the poet Rumi has written: The light that lights the eye is also the light of the heart… but the light that lights the heart is the Light of God.
– Imām Shāh Karīm al-Ḥusaynī Āgā Khān IV,
(Foundation Stone Ceremony for the Aga Khan Museum, Ismaili Centre and Park, Toronto, May 28, 2010)
http://www.nanowisdoms.org/nwblog/9425/

This article focuses on the theme of Light (nūr) by examining the Ismaili Imamat’s remarks, given in the letters and speeches of Imam Shah Karim al-Husayni, on how Light is the overarching theme of the Aga Khan Museum. We begin by quoting the letter of Imam Shah Karim al-Husayni sent to the architect Fumihiko Maki:

For the Aga Khan Museum, I thought that ‘light’ might be a concept around which you could design an outstanding museum. The notion of light has transversed nearly all of human history, and has been an inspiration for numerous faiths, going as far back of course to the Zoroastrians and their reverence for the Sun, to the Sura in the Holy Qur’an titled al-Nur. Decades of Western history are referred to as the ‘enlightenment’ for good reason.”

I hope that the building and the spaces around it will be seen as the celebration of Light, and the mysteries of Light, that nature and the human soul illustrate to us at every moment in our lives. I have explained at the beginning of this letter why I think Light would be an appropriate design direction for the new museum and this concept is of course particularly validated in Islamic texts and sciences: apart from the innumerable references in the Qur’an to Light in all its forms, in nature and in the human soul, the light of the skies, their sources and their meaning have for centuries been an area of intellectual inquiry and more specifically in the field of astronomy. Thus the architecture of the building would seek to express these multiple notions of Light, both natural and man-made, through the most purposeful selection of internal and external construction materials, facets of elevations playing with each other through the reflectivity of natural or electric light, and to create light gain or light retention from external natural sources or man-made internal and external sources… natural light emanating from God’s creation, (and) light… which emanates from human sources, in the form of art, culture and well-inspired human knowledge.”

– Imam Shāh Karīm al-Ḥusaynī Āgā Khān IV
Letter to Fumihiko Maki, January 3, 2006
http://www.nanowisdoms.org/nwblog/7636/

1. Natural Light and its Spiritual Symbolism:

“Although of course we do not believe that the person of the Creator is a form of light, either in waves or in the minutest association of myriads of points, yet the consequence of the light, as seen in the universe, is the nearest we can imagine or hope to believe about the person of our Creator.”
– Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah

Recent discoveries in physics with regard to the nature of light and its uniqueness in the physical world provide an effective illustration of how physical light serves as a powerful and intuitive natural symbol for the Light of God. We can point to the rich symbolic power of natural light through the following thought experiment:

Imagine yourself sitting upon a photon of light, travelling through the Universe at the speed of light.  You would probably experience the following:

You would experience no time and all events would be present in the “now” since light  photons travel at the speed of light, experience no temporal duration and have no mass.

You would experience no space and you would be simultaneously present at all places in the Universe” since at the speed of light, space and time are one.

Everything in the Universe would appear to be flowing out of you, since light is what makes anything observable at all.

The scholar of world religions, Huston Smith, summarizes how the properties of physical light underscore its unparalleled status in the natural world.

“Space? Remember that seated on light—a photon—you are going nowhere. Time?  Time does not exact from photons the toll that it does elsewhere;  how could it when clocks stop at the speed of light? As for matter, photons have neither the rest-mass nor the charge that material particles have… On that single piece (or quantum) of light you are going nowhere. You are weightless. There is neither time nor space, nor are there separated events. If from the earth it is one hundred light-years to a star, from your position on your quantum of light the star and earth are not separated at all. Moreover, it would seem as if the world were pouring out of you, you and your fellow photons, because light creates. It pumps power into the spatio-temporal world.
– Huston Smith, (Why Religion Matters, 138)

Just as physical light is, in a certain fashion, timeless, spaceless, present in all places and ever-creative – as all events in the Universe at the quantum level are exchanges of light photons – the Divine Light of the Creator is even more so above time and space, omnipresent, and the continuous creator of all things in existence. In this way, physical light serves as a natural symbol of the Light of God. Without natural light, nothing in the physical world could be perceived or observed. Similarly, without the Divine Light, nothing in existence would be able to exist or be recognized. In this respect, the Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah has explained, referring to the famous Surah Nur in the Qur’an, that natural light is the loftiest thing in natural world that humans can imagine about the nature of God:

“First of all as regards the idea of the divinity of God: a great deal of the Qur’an is taken up with God’s creation, with God’s intimate presence in the world, with the importance of each human being’s relations with the Creator; but only in one chapter — the chapter on Light — is the nature of the divinity referred to in a very clear form. Although of course we do not believe that the person of the Creator is a form of light, either in waves or in the minutest association of myriads of points, yet the consequence of the light, as seen in the universe, is the nearest we can imagine or hope to believe about the person of our Creator.”
– Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah, “Reincarnation or Companionship on High”
http://www.nanowisdoms.org/nwblog/1520/

2. The Light of the Heart: Human Intellect

10639733_10100955965016467_6968305215211066968_n
“The light that lights the eye is also the light of the heart…
but the light that lights the heart is the Light of God.”
– Jalaluddin Rumi, as quoted by Imam Shah Karim al-Husayni

 

“Everywhere in recorded history light doubles for intelligibility, comprehension, understanding, and – underlying all of these – conscious awareness.”
– Huston Smith

Human beings, like animals and other living things, are aware of their external environments and can respond to stimuli. They are also aware of their physical movements and mental activity. But most importantly, human beings are aware of their own self-awareness. This is what one would call “reflexive self-awareness”, to be aware that one is aware of oneself. This reflexive self-awareness is responsible for rationality – the human ability to reflect upon his own conscious acts and represent ideas in his mind through bodily gestures – movement, actions, and most importantly speech – all of which are gestures which signify and point beyond themselves. It is in this sense that the human being is a rational animal – a creature possessing both animal faculties and this self-transcending reflexive awareness. This reflexive and transcending self-awareness is what we call the intellect (Arabic: ‘aql, Persian: khirad, Greek: nous, Latin: intellectus).  This intellect – present in every human being albeit in different degrees of actualization and intensity – is what the Qur’an and later Sufis such as Rumi call the light of the heart (qalb). The heart does not refer to the physical organ, but rather, the centre of human consciousness or what is traditionally called the human soul. Thus the Holy Qur’an mentions the verb ‘aqala (to intellect) over a hundred times and links it specifically to the “hearts” (qulūb) of human beings:

“Do they not travel through the earth, so that they have hearts (qulūb) by which they intellect (ta‘qilūn bihā) and ears with which they may hear? Truly it is not their eyes that are blind, but their hearts which are in their breasts.” – Holy Qu’an 22:46

In modern times, intellect is often reduced to discursive and logical reasoning only. However, in the Islamic perspective, reasoning – whereby the human being conceptualizes, analyzes and deliberates truths in a step by step manner from premises to conclusions – is just one of the operations of the intellect and this reasoning operation necessarily involves the external senses and internal senses (reflection, estimation, imagination, memory, recollection) that are common to some animals. But the intellect also has a primary and spiritual operation whereby it is able to grasp and seize upon universal, spiritual and intelligible truths in a contemplative, unitive and direct act of perception all at once without having to rationalize from premise to conclusion – similar to the directness of taste (dhawk) or eyesight to the physical senses. The word reason comes from ratio – which means to break into parts. Interestingly, the Arabic word ‘aql means “to bind” and this alludes to the fact that the human intellect’s vision brings together and unites intelligible realities into a holistic vision of existence.

“It is the nature of reason to analyze, to cut asunder even, it would seem, what God Himself has joined… Intellect, on the other hand, is the great connector; it unites what appears disparate, not externally, to be sure, but by bringing to light a deep and pre-existent bond.”
– Wolfgang Smith, (The Quantum Enigma: Finding the Hidden Key, 22)

Even the reasoning operation of the human intellect depends on certain truths which the intellect grasps directly through contemplation and spiritual vision. Thus, Nasir-i Khusraw, echoing the views of most Islamic philosophers such as al-Farabi, Ibn Sina, and Mulla Sadra, offers the following description of the human intellect (‘aql):

“The definition (ḥadd) of intellect (‘aql) is that it is a simple [spiritual] substance (jawhar-i basīṭ) by which human beings (mardomān) perceive things… Life (ḥayāt) is the guardian of the body, and the rational soul (nafs-i nāṭiqah) is the guardian of life, and the intellect (‘aql) is the guardian of the rational soul. And it (the intellect) gives (to the soul) the nobility to recognize its own substance. Knowledge (‘ilm) is an action of the intellect (‘aql), whereby human beings perceive things as they are. So a person is called “intellecting” (‘āqil) because he possesses something by which he perceives things as they truly are.
– Sayyidna Nasir-i Khusraw, (Jāmi‘ al-ḥikmatayn, Section 285)

The intellect’s act of direct perception “of things as they are” is not limited to the contemplation of spiritual realities. It plays a role, albeit a less direct one, in all human perceptual operations. Even human sense perception of physical objects “participates” in the human intellect or, to put it differently, “is illuminated” by the intellect. While it is true that the human eye requires the assistance of natural light to observe a physical object, what the eye actually provides to the brain and to the mind is only an image of the sensory object. And yet, when sense perception takes place, the mind does not merely perceive an image (whether visual, or auditory, etc), it perceives an actual object. But how does the mind – even while just receiving an image – become aware of the real presence of the perceived object, an actual entity which is more than this image? The direct perception of the existing object that occurs through the image is by the human intellect which illuminates our sense perceptions (the image) and directly grasps the intelligible nature (the “form” or “essence”) of the perceived object.

In the perceptual act the image is viewed, not as image, but as a part or aspect of the object; it is seen, in other words, as something that belongs to the object, even as the face of a man belongs to the man. The image thus becomes more than an image, if one may put it thus: it is perceived as a surface, a face, an aspect of a thing which immeasurably transcends the image as such. Now this decisive transition-from image to aspect is something that reason or reasoning can neither effect nor indeed comprehend – which may well account for the fact that philosophers have experienced so much difficulty in coming to grips with the problem of perception. We have as a rule forgotten that there is an intelligence which is intuitive, direct and instantaneous in its operation, an intelligence which has no need for dialectic or discursive thought, but flies straight to the mark like an arrow; and much less do we realize that this high and forgotten faculty-which the ancients termed ‘intellect’ – is operative and indeed plays the essential role in the act of sense perception. Thus, in the absence of intellect – if we were endowed, in other words, with no more than a capacity for the passive reception of images plus a faculty of reason – authentic perception would be impossible, which is to say that the external world would become for us a mere conception or speculative hypothesis… It is by force of intellect that the perceived object is joined to the percipient in the act of perception.”
– Wolfgang Smith, (The Quantum Enigma: Finding the Hidden Key, 21-22)

In summary, the “light of the heart” that “lights the eyes” is the human intellect. This intellect is the center of the human conscious subject – known as the soul – which endows human beings with reflexive self-awareness and rationality. The intellect, in its spiritual dimension, directly perceives spiritual and intelligible truths (i.e. the forms of existing things), illuminating all human acts of perception including sensation. This is what Rumi alludes to when he claims:

The light that lights the eye is also the heart’s light
The eye’s light proceeds from the light of the heart.

In the following line, however, Rumi goes further and tells us that the light of the heart, the human intellect, is rooted in an even loftier source, the Light of God:

But the light that lights the heart is the Light of God
Which is distinct from reason and sense.

For the Islamic philosophers, the Ismā‘īlī dā‘īs, and the Sufi mystics like Rumi and Ibn al-Arabi, the individual human intellects are derived from the vast expanse of the Divine or Universal Intellect – what Rumi calls the “Ocean of Intellect”:

How broad is the Ocean of Intellect
Yea, the intellect of man is a boundless ocean.
O son, that ocean requires, as it were, a diver.
On this fair ocean our human forms
Float about, like bowls on the surface of water;
Yea like cups on the surface, till they are filled;
And when filled, these cups sink into the water.
The Ocean of Intellect is not seen; intelligent men are seen;
But our forms are only as waves or spray thereof.

In the final section of this article, we explore the concept of the Divine Light or Universal Intellect as the source of the human intellect as per Ismā‘īlī gnosis.

3. The Light of God: Divine Intellect

Divine Intellect

“The Divine Intellect, Aql-i Kull, both transcends and informs the human intellect.”
– Imam Shah Karim al-Husayni Aga Khan IV

“The human intellect derives its “light” directly from the Divine Intellect: it “participates” in the Divine Intellect, as the Platonists say.”
– Wolfgang Smith

Many religious traditions, including Hinduism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam view the human intellect (buddhi; khirad; nous; intellectus; aql) as deriving its intelligible power or “light” from the Light of God, known as the Divine Intellect. For many Islamic philosophers, including the Ismā‘īlī dā‘īs, the Divine Intellect is the first originated being (al-mubda‘ al-awwal) which comes forth from God’s creative act or command (amr). This idea is found in a number of prophetic ḥadīths which read:

“The first thing God created was the Intellect (‘aql); the first thing God created was my Light.”
– Prophet Muhammad

“God created the Intellect first amongst the spiritual entities (ruhaniyyin).”
– Imam Ja‘far as-Sadiq, (al-Moezzi, The Divine Guide in Early Shi‘ism, 8)

This first being is variously called the First Intellect, the Universal Intellect, the Divine Intellect and is often described using the imagery of light.  For this reason, the Divine Intellect is referred to as the Light of Muhammad, the Light of Imamat, and the “Light of God in the Heavens and the Earth” mentioned in the famous Qur’anic Surah of Light.  From a metaphysical point of view, the Divine Intellect or Divine Light contains the spiritual archetypes, attributes, virtues or forms of all created existents – in which all things pre-exist before being manifested in physical form. The Ismaili dā‘ī Hamid al-Din al-Kirmani once depicted the essence and attributes of the Universal Intellect in the following diagram:

Kirmani Intellect

As the Light of God, the Divine Intellect is the highest limit of knowledge, existence and spirituality that created beings can ever attain. The eminent scholar of Nāṣir-i Khusraw, Alice Hunsberger, explains the Divine Intellect’s nature as follows:

“The 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, (Nasir Khusraw: The Ruby of Badakhshan, 159)

The Divine Intellect is God’s highest revelation to Himself and His creatures. The light of the Divine Intellect is manifest throughout all created being. Every creature in the Cosmos – with respect to its particular qualities – serves as a sort of mirror, partially reflecting the perfections and intelligibility of the Divine Intellect based on its own capacity – as the Ismā‘īlī dā‘ī Abu Ya‘qub al-Sijistani explains to his students:

“…think of Intellect as being the ‘Mercy of God’ (raḥmat-i khudāy) which was poured out upon the creatures in such a way that every thing had a glitter from the light of the Prime Intellect in accordance with its own ‘measure’ (miqdār), be this a corporeal or a spiritual being, or a naturally generated composite… Thus, Intellect is a light poured forth upon creation, shining in every thing, and its luminosity is in accordance with the measure of the substance of [each] thing, depending on the wide or narrow range of that substance.”
– Abu Ya‘qub al-Sijistani, (Unveiling the Hidden, tr. Landholt, Anthology of Philosophy of Persia Volume 2, ed. Nasr and Aminrazavi, 97)

All creatures of the Cosmos, insofar as they are knowable and intelligible, participate in the Divine Intellect and reflect a measure of its light. While this insight comes from medieval philosophers and theologians, even modern physicists the likes of Albert Einstein have emphasized that the intelligibility and rationality of the Universe – that they perceive through scientific endeavors – is evidence of “intellect incarnate”, a “superior reasoning power” or “infinite spirit” governing and manifesting itself throughout existence.

“Certain it is that a conviction, akin to religious feeling, of the rationality or intelligibility of the world lies behind all scientific work of a higher order. . . This firm belief, a belief bound up with deep feeling, in a superior mind that reveals itself in the world of experience, represents my conception of God.”
– Albert Einstein (Antony Flew, There is a God, 101-102)

“Every one who is seriously engaged in the pursuit of science becomes convinced that the laws of nature manifest the existence of a spirit vastly superior to that of men, and one in the face of which we with our modest powers must feel humble. My religiosity consists of a humble admiration of the infinitely superior spirit who reveals himself in the slight details we are able to perceive with our frail and feeble minds. That deeply emotional conviction of the presence of a superior reasoning power, which is revealed in the incomprehensible universe, forms my idea of God.”
– Albert Einstein (Antony Flew, There is a God, 101-102)

But it is the human intellect, among all created beings, that most directly participates in the Divine Intellect, and is therefore able to perceive the intellect and rationality that is incarnate throughout the Cosmos. This is because the light of the human intellect is a radiation from the Divine Intellect. Thus, the Christian scholar and physticist Wolfgang Smith explains that:

The human intellect derives its “light” directly from the Divine Intellect: it “participates” in the Divine Intellect, as the Platonists say. All human knowing without exception hinges upon this “participation,” which of course admits of various modes and countless degrees, ranging from the humblest act of sense perception to ways and intensities of knowing of which as yet we have not the slightest idea. But the fact remains: What ultimately connects the human subject to its object in the act of knowing is indeed “the true Light which lighteth every man that cometh into the world” (John 1 :9).”
– Wolfgang Smith, (The Wisdom of Ancient Cosmology, 20)

The Ismā‘īlī dā‘īs refer to the Divine Intellect’s emanation of light and knowledge upon the human intellect as ta’yīd – a term meaning divine support, divine inspiration, or spiritual assistance.  Ta’yid is derived from the Arabic verb ’ayyada (to help, to “give hand”) and is used in reference to God assisting Jesus and others through the Holy Spirit (ruḥ al-quds). The Prophets, Imams, and ḥujjats in the Ismā‘īlī da‘wah hierarchy are recipients of the highest degree of ta’yīd or divine inspiration from the Divine Intellect, although all human intellects participate in ta’yīd to a one degree or another. Mawlana Hazar Imam describes the role of the Divine Intellect in relation to the ta’yīd of the human intellect as follows:

The Divine Intellect, Aql-i Kull, both transcends and informs the human intellect. It is this Intellect which enables man to strive towards two aims dedicated by the Faith: that he should reflect upon the environment Allah has given and that he should know himself. It is the light of Intellect which distinguishes the complete human being from the human animal and developing that intellect requires free enquiry. The man of Faith who fails to pursue intellectual search is likely to have only a limited comprehension of Allah’s creation. Indeed, it is man’s intellect that enables him to expand his vision of that creation.”
– Imam Shah Karim al-Husayni Aga Khan IV,
Inauguration Ceremony Aga Khan University, November 11, 1985
http://www.amaana.org/speeches/speechaku1985.htm 

The ta’yīd (inspiration) from the Divine Intellect is what empowers the human intellect and enables the human intellect to grasp and contemplate the spiritual and intelligible truths represented throughout the Cosmos. The recipient of ta’yīd is able to recognize himself and see everything in the world as it truly is – as alluded to in the Imam’s words. The intellect empowered by the Divine Intellect is able to have a unitive vision of God’s creation in all its levels and dimensions. 

At the highest level of human intellect – variously called the “acquired intellect” (‘aql-i mustafad) or the luminous intellect (‘aql-i nūrānī) – the human soul receives spiritual knowledge and spiritual truths through ta’yīd without the need to derive knowledge from the physical senses or rational proofs. Sayyidnā Abu Ya‘qub al-Sijistani refers to the spiritual truths that come to the Prophets and Imams via ta’yīd as “pure knowledge” and explains how it is superior to the knowledge gained through scientific or deductive methods:

“That is the outpouring of [the light of] divine inspiration (taʾyīd) upon the hearts of God’s chosen ones and His servants. This is the Pure Knowledge which belongs exclusively to the Prophets, the Legatees and the Imams… This Knowledge is not contaminated with anything like seeking proofs, which is, of course, the [ordinary] scientific method; it is not the kind of knowledge arrived at by the scholars of this world through one [or another] among the proofs. 
– Abu Ya‘qub al-Sijistani, (Unveiling the Hidden, tr. Landholt, Anthology of Philosophy of Persia Volume 2, ed. Nasr and Aminrazavi, 94)

As stated in the poetry of Rumi quoted by Mawlana Hazar Imam in his speech at the Groundbreaking Ceremony of the Aga Khan Museum, the “light of the heart” is the human intellect while the “light of God” that illuminates the “light of the heart” is the Divine Intellect, or what the Imam of the Time refers to as the “Divine Light of the Creator.”

urbantoronto-4202-12610

“The new Toronto Museum will take as its theme the concept of light — suffusing the building from a central courtyard, through patterned glass screens. From the outside, it will glow by day and by night, lit by the sun and the moon. This use of light speaks to us of the Divine Light of the Creator, reflected in the glow of individual human inspiration and vibrant, transparent community. As the poet Rumi has written: The light that lights the eye is also the light of the heart… but the light that lights the heart is the Light of God.
– Imām Shāh Karīm al-Ḥusaynī Āgā Khān IV,
Foundation Stone Ceremony for the Aga Khan Museum, Ismaili Centre and Park, Toronto, May 28, 2010: 
http://www.nanowisdoms.org/nwblog/9425/

The Imam further speaks of how the Divine Light is “reflected in the glow of individual human inspiration” – and this is an allusion to the Divine Intellect bestowing ta’yīd upon human intellects and souls, the result of which all human discoveries, spiritual, cultural and scientific, can take place. In his letter to the architect quoted at the beginning of the article, the Imam spoke of two kinds of light: “natural light emanating from God’s creation, (and) light… which emanates from human sources, in the form of art, culture and well-inspired human knowledge.” This is another reference to the light of the physical world, which serves to symbolize and manifest the Divine Intellect, and the light of human knowledge, which is inspired by the Divine Intellect. The interrelationship between the Divine Intellect (light of God), the Cosmos (the light of the eyes), and the human intellect (light of the heart) is represented in the below diagram:

Divine Intellect

“From the outside, it will glow by day and by night, lit by the Sun and the Moon.”

As also mentioned in the above quote, the Museum’s architecture reflects and refracts the natural light from the Sun and the Moon. In terms of the esoteric meaning of the architecture, the Sun is a primordial symbol of the Divine Intellect.

The Sun is ‘naturally’ the symbol of the Divine Intellect for anyone who still possesses the faculty of symbolic perception and in whom the symbolist spirit is operative.”
– Seyyed Hossein Nasr, (Knowledge and the Sacred, 153)

Just as the Sun is the natural symbol of the Divine Intellect, the Moon is the symbol of the Universal Soul – the first spiritual being to emanate or flow from the Divine Intellect and the immediate source of the existence of Prime Matter and the physical Universe. Even the terms “day” and “night” mentioned by the Imam have an esoteric meaning or ta’wīl. Sayyidnā Nāṣir-i Khusraw explains the esoteric exegesis (ta’wīl) of the Sun and the Moon in the below commentary on verse 41:37 of the Qur’an – whose words are mirrored in the statement made by the Imam of the Time that the Aga Khan Museum “will glow by day and by night, lit by the Sun and the Moon.”

And among His signs are the night and the day and the sun and the moon. Do not prostrate yourself to the sun, nor to the moon, prostrate yourself to He Who has created them (41:37). Thus, by the ‘night’ God means the Prophet (nāṭiq) who [by way of parables and allegories] has concealed things [of knowledge] just as the night conceals things. By the ‘day’ He means the Legatee (asās) who explains the parables, as the day reveals things that the night keeps hidden. By the ‘Sun’ He means the [Universal] Intellect and by the ‘Moon’ the [Universal] Soul, because the Intellect gives benefit to the Soul as the Sun gives light to the Moon.
– Sayyidnā Nāṣir-i Khusraw, (Wajh-i Din, Discourse 11)

We close this article on the esoteric mysteries and symbolism of Light (nūr), which is the underlying theme of the Aga Khan Museum, Ismaili Centre and Park, with the below words of the Imam of the Time on how such buildings are meant to convey spirituality and bring one’s faith and everyday life.

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“I am trying to bridge a number of different forces by building this modern building, and one of them is to take some of the value systems of the past, put them into this building, but not make it so esoteric that it overburdens you. It has to be inspirational and subtle. It is not a theological building, but if, within that building, there are spaces of spirituality, which we like to see as part of everyday life — it is not the exception, it should be part of everyday life — then you are bringing that into that building.”
– Imām Shāh Karīm al-Ḥusaynī Āgā Khān IV,
‘Under the Eaves of Architecture’, ‘The Process of Change’, March 6 2007
http://www.nanowisdoms.org/nwblog/summary-documents/his-highness-the-aga-khan-explains-the-vision-and-rationale-behind-the-aga-khan-museum-toronto/

4 thoughts on “Esoteric Thought in Physical Form: The Aga Khan Campus in Toronto

  1. Pingback: Ta’wil of the Tragedy of Karbala — Ashura and Arbaeen, Symbols for Upholding the Truth | Ismaili Web Amaana

  2. I am interested in finding out the source and year of the quote below.

    “Although of course we do not believe that the person of the Creator is a form of light, either in waves or in the minutest association of myriads of points, yet the consequence of the light, as seen in the universe, is the nearest we can imagine or hope to believe about the person of our Creator.”
    – Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah

  3. Pingback: The Light of the Heart: Human Intellect

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