Ismaili Studies Presentations by IIS & Harvard at MESA 2015

MESA’s 49th annual meeting will commence in Denver, Colorado at the Sheraton Denver Downtown Hotel on November 21-24, 2015. This year’s panel presentations feature several scholars from the Institute of Ismaili Studies (IIS), Harvard University, University of Chicago, and Nazarbayev University including Farhad Daftary, Samer Traboulsi, Shainool Jiwa, Paul E. Walker, Daniel Beben, Khalil Andani, Paul Anderson, and others. The Fatimid Ismaili Identity Politics panel organized by the IIS take place on Sunday, November 22 at 4:30 PM. Daryoush M. Poor presents in a panel on Concealment and Manifestation on Monday, November 23, at 2:30 PM. The Harvard Panel on Ismaili History and Thought organized by Khalil Andani takes place on Monday at 5:00 PM.

1. Identity Politics in the Fatimid Ismaili Tradition

Organizer: Paul Walker (University of Chicago)
Chair: Farhad Daftary (IIS)
Time: Sunday November 22, 4:30 PM
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2. Medieval Ismaili Muslim Thought: Methodology, Hermeneutics and Cosmology

Organizer: Khalil Andani (Harvard University)
Chair: Daniel Beben (Nazarbayev University)
Time: Monday November 23, 5:00 PM
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Paper Abstract: Manifestation and Concealment in Ismailism: Hermeneutics of Revival
by Daryoush Mohammad Poor


Ismailism begins its history, almost immediately with the experience of concealment (satr), which was interconnected with the inaccessibility of Ismaili Imams beginning with Muḥammad b. Ismāʿīl b. Jaʿfar al-Ṣādiq , who came to be known as Muḥammad al-Maktūm (the hidden). This period of concealment is also marked by the belief of early Ismailis in Muḥammad b. Ismāʿīl being the seventh enunciator and the qāʾim. This period comes to an end when the Fatimids rise to power and ʿAbd Allāh al-Mahdī (ʿUbayd Allāh, in non-Ismaili sources) (d. 322/934) establishes the Fatimid dynasty in North Africa as the first Fatimid Imam-Caliph. The notion of qāʾim is also, as a consequence, revised to accommodate the shift from the early doctrine of messianic beliefs to one that can incorporate the founding of an Ismaili state. The Nizārī-Mustaʿlian split at the time of al-Mustanṣir (d. 487/1094), the eight Fatimid caliph, marks the beginning of another period of concealment with the same implication of the physical inaccessibility of the Imam, which lasts from the death of Nizār (d. 488/1095) until the death of Muḥammad b. Buzurg Umīd (d. 557/1162), the third ruler of Alamut, when his successor Ḥasan II (d. 561/1166) claims decent from Nizār but also claims shortly after to be the qāʾim. It is here that concealment and manifestation transmute fully into a doctrine which specifically deals with the religious law (sharīʿat) and its esoteric meaning (qiyāmat). While in earlier periods (and even later on) concealment often related to the physical accessibility of the Imam (not occultation unlike the Imamī tradition), this time concealment specifically referred to the period of the domination of religious laws and rituals. Manifestation, or be more precise the cycle of manifestation, referred to the era when under certain conditions, religious laws would be lifted. The multiple meanings of satr and kashf, all of which were interconnected with how the doctrine of imamate was understood by Ismailis of different periods, reflect the dynamics of how authority was articulated and exercised in the Ismaili community. This paper will address how these multiple meanings are often invoked, interpreted and reinterpreted to accommodate socio-political and doctrinal changes in the Ismaili community. The paper will draw on the works of Sijistānī, Qāḍī al-Nuʿmān, Nāṣir-I Khusraw and Naṣīr al-Dīn al-Ṭūsī and a few unpublished fragments of manuscripts from the Alamut period of Ismaili history.

Panel Summary: Medieval Ismaili Muslim Thought: Methodology, Hermeneutics and Cosmology organized by Khalil Andani and chaired by Daniel Beben

This panel explores some of the key methodological, hermeneutical and cosmological themes in medieval Ismā‘īlī thought from the pre-Fatimid, Fatimid, and Tayyibi traditions from the 8th to 13th centuries. The first two papers address methodological and hermeneutical issues that have not received attention in prior scholarship while the third and fourth papers make original contributions to areas of discussion in Ismā‘īlī studies and Islamic thought in general..

The first paper analyzes the doctrines of Jābir ibn Ḥayyān vis-à-vis the Ismā‘īlī metaphysics of the Fatimid dā‘īs Sijistani and Kirmani by focusing on their respective attitudes towards history and the natural world. The paper highlights how both systems make use of a hermeneutic principle whereby history and the natural world are regarded as exterior signs of interior truths, and therefore require interpretation.

The second paper revisits prior scholarship regarding the Ismā‘īlī influence upon al-Ghazālī and argues that al-Ghazālī’s Mishkāt al-Anwār likely appropriated Ismā‘īlī cosmological ideas and discourses from Nāṣir-i Khusraw. This is demonstrated by first analyzing Faḍā’iḥ al-Bāṭiniyya and tracing a great deal of its material back to Nāṣir-i Khusraw’s Wajh-i Dīn. The paper then reveals the presence of Ismā‘īlī ideas in al-Ghazali’s two-world cosmology that permeates his Mishkāt and further shows how al-Ghazālī’s unique “Veils” cosmology and its astral symbolism is derived from the Ismā‘īlī cosmology.

The final paper examines the role of the dāʿī muṭlaq in Ṭayyibī Ismāʿīlism, the highest rank within the religious hierarchy through analyzing several historical Ṭayyibī texts, including Kanz al-Walad, Zahr al-Maʿānī. The paper argues that the dāʿī muṭlaq has essentially acquired by proxy the ability to transmit religious knowledge – whose transference and propagation is ritualized act -in lieu of the Imam. Meanwhile, the Imam takes on the role of a cosmological principle, an “imam absconditus” who guarantees the legitimacy of the dāʿī.

Paper Abstracts

The Ismā‘īlī Influence on al-Ghazālī: A Reassessment
By Khalil Andani

The life, career, and thought of Abū Ḥamīd al-Ghazālī (1058-1111) have continued to captivate scholars of Islamic thought for the last several decades. Being well versed in Ash‘arite kalām, falsafa, and Sufism, al-Ghazālī is often credited with formulating a unique synthesis of these divergent streams of Islamic theology and philosophy. At the same time, al-Ghazālī is remembered for his infamous refutations of the Philosophers and the Ismā‘īlīs in texts whose publication shortly preceded al-Ghazālī’s own spiritual crisis in the last decade of the eleventh century. This paper revisits the pivotal question of the Ismā‘īlī influence upon the cosmology of al-Ghazālī and demonstrates that al-Ghazālī adopted certain features of the Ismā‘īlī cosmology present in the Persian Ismaili thought of Abū Ya‘qūb al-Sijistānī (d. after 971) and Nāṣir-i Khusraw (d. 1004-1088). The paper first attempts to ascertain one of the Ismā‘īlī sources to which al-Ghazālī had access by examining some of the Ismā‘īlī doctrinal material presented in his Faḍā’iḥ al-Bāṭiniyya and tracing this material back to eleventh-century Ismā‘īlī treatises. This analysis concludes that the Wajh-i Dīn of Nāṣir-i Khusraw was a likely source for al-Ghazālī’s knowledge of Ismā‘īlī doctrines. Secondly, the paper demonstrates the great commonality between al-Ghazālī’s “two-worlds” cosmology of spiritual-physical correspondence (muwāzana) laid out in his Mishkāt al-Anwār and Nāṣir-i Khusraw’s two-world Ismā‘īlī cosmology which is equally based on correspondence. Finally, the paper re-examines al-Ghazālī’s higher cosmology in the “Veils” section of the Mishkāt where he explains how the true God transcends both the “Lunar Angel” (whom the Aristotelians worship as the First Mover) and the “Solar Angel” (the Obeyed One, whom the falāsifa worship as the Necessary Existent). This section critically appraises the prior conclusions of Hermann Landolt (1991) and Frank Griffel (2010) on the “Veils” section and argues that al-Ghazālī derived his theological interpretations of the God of the falāsifa and the Aristotelians as well as his polemical strategy of evoking Sun and Moon worship from Nāṣir-i Khusraw’s Ismā‘īlī cosmology and the Wajh-i Dīn in particular. The paper concludes that al-Ghazālī likely appropriated Ismā‘īlī cosmological ideas and polemical tactics from Nāṣir-i Khusraw and re-presented them in his Niche of Lights. Even if this conclusion is not certain, the results of this study call for a reassessment of the degree of Ismā‘īlī influences on the thought of al-Ghazālī.

Ties of Blood and Water: The Ritualization of Knowledge and the Legitimization of the Dāʿī Muṭlaq in Ṭayyibī Shiʿism
By Paul Anderson

In many religious traditions, there exists a certain tension between traditional forms of knowledge and esoteric forms of knowledge. In many cases, esoteric knowledge is accused of “adding” to premises which have already been established by scripture or praxis. However, what can be said about this tension when the fundamental principles of religious belief accept esoteric knowledge as a truth? Who wields authority of this knowledge? In this paper, I propose to examine the role of the dāʿī muṭlaq in Ṭayyibī Ismāʿīlism, the highest rank within the religious hierarchy of that tradition. Following the occultation of the last Ṭayyibī Imam, al-Ṭayyib Abī’l-Qāṣim, the dāʿī muṭlaq becomes supreme head of the Ṭayyibī community. This invested within the dāʿī a particular authority over religious knowledge, in any form. With what was formerly a scholarly position, the rank of the dāʿī becomes a hereditary, sacerdotal position which implies specific epistemic and cosmological claims about the nature of the world. My argument is two-fold: firstly, the nature of religious knowledge in Ismāʿīlism, in particular here, the Ṭayyibī form, is defined in such a way that its transference and propagation is ritualized act. Secondly, that the dāʿī muṭlaq has essentially acquired by proxy the ability to transmit religious knowledge in lieu of the Imam. The dāʿī has come to occupy a sacred space originally reserved for the Imam – the focus of ritual action – while the Imam has retreated into the role of a largely cosmological principle, an “imam absconditus” as one might say, whose function is largely to guarantee the legitimacy of the dāʿī and provide a source for the reception of knowledge. I will argue that certain shifts in Ṭayyibī thought reflect the historical circumstances of the Imam’s occultation. Cosmologically, the dāʿī is elevated to a manifestation of a celestial intellect. Symbolically, he becomes associated with the qiblah, and epistemologically, the provider of esoteric initiation. All of these have specific ritual contexts, as the dāʿī becomes the new focus of ritual action. To examine this, I will look at a variety of historical Ṭayyibī texts, including Kanz al-Walad, Zahr al-Maʿānī, and others. I will also make some reference to the modern context of the dāʿī muṭlaq in order to illustrate the development of the office and its claimed ownership of religious knowledge.

The World as Discourse: Hermeneutics, Cosmology, and Natural Science in the Jābirian Corpus and Early Ismāʿīlism
By Aaron Viengkhou

It is difficult to clearly demarcate the history of science from the history of religion in the Medieval Islamic world, where questions of science were often posed within a religious framework, and vice versa. Among the most interesting (and most enigmatic) episodes in this dual history of science and religion centers around the figure of Jābir ibn Ḥayyān and his supposed influence on the development of proto-Ismāʿīlī doctrine. The present article attempts to situate Jābirian doctrines vis-à-vis Ismāʿīlī metaphysics by analyzing their respective attitudes towards history and the natural world. The emphasis is on an identification of typological affinities that point to an intellectual and spiritual genealogy between the two doctrinal systems, although the historical circumstances of this genealogy must for now remain inconclusive. I thus begin with an overview of Jābirian alchemy and the related theme of “the Science of the Balance.” This “science” is, in effect, a hermeneutical methodology whereby the objects of the physical world are metaphysically related to the words by which they are named; by measuring and manipulating the phonemes of these names, the scientist can effect changes in physical bodies while at the same time penetrating into the inner meanings of things. Thus, the cosmos is seen as one grand discourse that is subject to interpretation by the Science of the Balance. From here I move on to consider the place of natural science in early Ismāʿīlī doctrine. I refer in particular to the works of Abū Yaʿqūb al-Sijistānī and Ḥamīd al-Dīn al-Kirmānī. I pay special attention to the emphasis each one places on the cosmological role of the natural sciences, and the ways in which natural science intersects with the performance of scriptural exegesis. The connection between exegesis, cosmology, and sacred history is also discussed. After having considered the role of natural science and scriptural exegesis in the Jābirian corpus and early philosophical Ismāʿīlism, I proceed to offer some preliminary occasions for comparison. Methodologically, both make use of a hermeneutic principle whereby history and the natural world are regarded as exterior signs of interior truths, and are therefore in need of interpretation. That is, the world itself is discursive, and its perfection lies in the performance of exegesis and transmutation. Beyond this fundamentally similar application of hermeneutics to history and the natural world, typological affinities are also evident in the details of their treatment of letter symbolism, cosmology, mineralogy, and sacred history.

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2 thoughts on “Ismaili Studies Presentations by IIS & Harvard at MESA 2015

  1. Pingback: Ismaili Studies Presentations by IIS & Harvard at MESA 2015 | Ismaili Gnosis | Ismailimail

  2. As an ordinary self-made student in Ismailism but a keen learner all the same, this wealth of knowledge is something I shall cherish as an important source of contributions by many Scholars and their Research Papers to refer to. Thank you.

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