Scholars from IIS, Indiana and Harvard host two Ismailism Panels at MESA Conference on November 23

MESA’s 48th annual meeting will commence in Washington, DC at the Marriott Wardman Park Hotel on November 22-25, 2014. This year’s panel presentations feature several scholars from the IIS, Harvard and Indiana including Nadia E. Jamal, Shainool Jiwa, Paul E. Walker, Khalil Andani, Daniel Beben and others. Both Ismailism panels take place on Sunday, November 23 at 8:30 AM and 4:30 PM respectively.

1. Discovering and Reinterpreting Key Sources of Ismaili Thought and History

Organizer: Paul Walker (University of Chicago)
Time: Sunday November 23, 8:30 AM
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2. Ismaili History and Thought

Organizers: Daniel Beben (Indiana University), Khalil Andani (Harvard University)
Time: Sunday November 23, 4:30 PM
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Panel Summary: Ismaili History and Thought

The papers on this panel deal with the evolution of Isma‘ili Neoplatonic cosmology in the late Fatimid and Tayyibi Ismaili traditions, as well as the doctrines of religious authority in Nizari Isma‘ili thought.

The first paper examines how the Fatimid da‘i Nasir-i Khusraw (d. 1088) addressed Qur’anic verses that depict God in positive of kataphatic language in light of his Neoplatonic metaphysics which explicitly adheres to an apophatic concept of God beyond attributes. The paper demonstrates that Nasir’s solution to this problem, as present in several of his works, is to interpret the Divine Names mentioned in the Qur’an as attributes of the Universal Intellect and Universal Soul (as opposed to God) by means of a Neoplatonic exegesis of Qur’anic verses.

The second paper charts a parallel development of Isma‘ili Neoplatonism in the works of the Tayyibi Isma‘ili da‘i Ibrahim al-Hamidi (d. 1162) by analyzing the mythic elements that he introduced into Isma‘ili cosmology. The paper argues that such elements – the ideas of angelic descent, demiurge, and gnostic dualism – are “memory relics” (memetic pieces of religious myth) while analyzing their relation to similar themes from Christian Gnosticism.

The third paper examines the Ismaʿili text titled the Kalam-i pir and presents a re-evaluation of its date, authorship, and its role and significance within the Central Asian Nizari Ismaʿili tradition.

Paper Abstracts

Reconciling Apophatic and Kataphatic Theology: The Neoplatonic Qur’anic Exegesis of Nāṣir-i Khusraw
By Khalil Andani

This paper examines the development of Ismā‘īlī theology and Neoplatonic cosmology in the thought of Nāṣir-i Khusraw (d. 1088) – an eleventh century Fatimid Ismā‘īlī philosopher and poet. Nāṣir adheres to an apophatic theology which denies all names and attributes from God and posits a Neoplatonic hierarchy of Universal Intellect and Universal Soul between God and the Cosmos. However, numerous verses of the Qur’an describe God in positive or kataphatic language – which other Islamic thinkers understood as references to God’s Attributes (e.g. life, knowledge, speech, power, etc.). This paper, drawing upon four of Nāṣir-i Khusraw’s philosophical works – the “Face of Religion” (wajh-i dīn), “The Feast of the Brethren” (khvān al-ikhvān), “The Reconciliation of the Two Wisdoms” (jāmi‘ al-ḥikmatayn), and “The Six Chapters” (shish faṣl), analyzes how Nasir-i Khusraw reconciles his Ismā‘īlī apophatic theology with the kataphatic language found in the Qur’an. Nāṣir achieves this reconciliation through a two-stage Qur’anic exegesis (ta’wīl) of the kataphatic Qur’an verses that heavily relies upon his Neoplatonic cosmology of the Universal Intellect and Universal Soul. In the first stage, Nāṣir quotes or alludes to Qur’anic verses mentioning specific Divine Names and Attributes and reinterprets them as references to the Universal Intellect and Universal Soul as opposed to God. In this manner, Nāṣir effectively frames the Universal Intellect as “the knowing” (al-‘ālim), “the living” (al-hayy), “the powerful” (al-qādir), “the exalted” (al-‘alī), and “the eternal” (al-azalī) while describing the Universal Soul as “the creator” (al-khāliq), “the maker” (al-ṣāni‘), “the speaker” (al-mutakallim), “the lord” (al-rabb) and “the sublime” (al-‘aẓīm). Nāṣir’s assignment of these attributes to the Intellect and Soul amounts to a Neoplatonic inspired exegesis of the Qur’ān. In the second stage, having reassigned the Divine Names to the Neoplatonic Intellect and Soul, Nāṣir argues that such attributes may be ascribed to God indirectly – in the sense that God is the Originator (al-mubdi‘) of the Intellect and Soul while not being the direct object of the Divine Names. In this way, Nāṣir indirectly allows God be to associated with attributes, while simultaneously, maintaining His transcendence (tanzīh). This exegesis allows Nāṣir to integrate his rigorous apophatic theology with the kataphatic statements found in the Qur’ān. This study has implications for the history of Islamic thought since Nāṣir-i Khusraw’s position prefigures later Islamic thinkers like Ibn al-‘Arabī and his interpreters who equally maintained a metaphysical distinction between the Divine Essence and the Level (martabah) of the Divine Names.

Echoes of the Gnostics: ‘Kitāb Kanz al-Walad’ of al-Ḥāmidī and the Incorporation of Mythic Cosmology into Ismāʿīlī Thought
By Paul Anderson

Neo-Platonic philosophy deeply influenced the development of many different genres of Islamic intellectual disciplines – not least of which was the intellectual sciences in Ismāʿīlī Islam. While the inspiration of Neo-Platonism upon Ismāʿīlī philosophy has been much discussed, the archetypes strongly reminiscent of the ancient Gnostic movements have not. One such work of the ḥaqā’iq (“esoteric realities”) genre, to which little research has been devoted, is the 12th century C.E. Ṭayyibī thinker Ibrāhīm al-Ḥāmidī’s (d. 1162 C.E.) work, Kitāb Kanz al-Walad. This text contains many themes which are less specifically representative of Neo-Platonism than they are of the Gnostic movements of early Christianity. The purpose of this paper will be to discuss some of the unusual mythic elements in this work, to reveal the surprising parallels to the Gnostic traditions. In particular, this paper will explore what I term “memory relics,” memetic pieces of a religious mythos which survive beyond the religion’s death and become embedded and “nativized” in a new cosmology. Some particular issues that will be discussed are whether al-Ḥāmidī’s system displays a prototypical Gnostic kind of dualism, the role of the demiurge, and the existence of a mythic “le drame dans le Ciel,” as Henry Corbin termed it, within the Kanz. This work will analyzed as a text exemplifying Islamic gnostic themes, but also as an attempt to apply an allegorical overlay upon Ismāʿīlī Neo-Platonic rationalism, as well as the socio-political developments which may have led al-Ḥāmidī to formulate his cosmology.

Rethinking the Kalām-i pīr and Its Role in the Central Asian Ismāʿīlī Tradition
By Daniel Beben

This paper investigates the tradition of the Kalām-i pīr, a fundamental text preserved among the Ismāʿīlī Shīʿīs of the Badakhshan region of Central Asia attributed to the eleventh-century Ismāʿīlī poet and missionary Nāṣir-i Khusraw. The first major study of the text was undertaken by Wladimir Ivanow, who produced an edition and translation of the work in 1935. Ivanow judged the Kalām-i pīr to be a “forgery” of an earlier text committed by the sixteenth-century Ismāʿīlī author Khayrkhwāh Hirātī, who falsely ascribed his work to Nāṣir-i Khusraw. Ivanow concluded that the text is to be understood primarily as a specimen of Ismāʿīlī philosophical writing, and that the attribution to Nāṣir-i Khusraw is merely fanciful and unrelated to the work. Since that time, Ivanow’s interpretation of the text has remained authoritative among scholars of Ismāʿīlism. In recent years, however, multiple new manuscripts of the work, as well as a range of related materials have come to light, suggesting the need for a thorough re-evaluation of the text and its history. In this paper I demonstrate, based on research in multiple collections of Ismāʿīlī manuscripts, that Khayrkhwāh Hirātī likely had no role in the development or transmission of the text, and that the present redaction of the work should instead be dated to the mid-eighteenth century. Furthermore, I argue that the attribution to Nāṣir-i Khusraw is not merely incidental to the text, but rather is central to understanding the interpretation and significance of the text among the Ismāʿīlīs of Central Asia. Its development and attribution must be considered within the context of the social and religious history of Badakhshan in the eighteenth century, an era which saw an energetic expansion of the Ismāʿīlī daʿwa in the region and the development of a flourishing hagiographical tradition connected with Nāṣir-i Khusraw. This paper draws as well upon a series of oral histories and ethnographic observations which demonstrate a much wider range of significances and forms of extra-literary engagement with the text as a sacred object among Central Asian Ismāʿīlīs, which indicate the role of the text as an agent of conversion and Islamization. In summary, this paper challenges the interpretation which views the Kalām-i pīr primarily as a philosophical text; more broadly, it suggests a revision of the framework by which we understand both the legacy of Nāṣir-i Khusraw and the historical process of conversion among the Ismāʿīlīs of Central Asia.

4 thoughts on “Scholars from IIS, Indiana and Harvard host two Ismailism Panels at MESA Conference on November 23

  1. It would be great if someone record this meeting on the video and share on YouTube. We need to know what they will talk about.

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