How the Ismaili Imam teaches the Esoteric Interpretation (ta’wil) of the Holy Qur’an

You see, my mission is situated on three levels. Firstly, religious: it concerns a symbolic exegesis of the Qur’an: interpreting the Divine Word, the adapting the needs of each community to the time; refashioning the law, constantly and relentlessly. Wherever one finds an Ismaili community, there exists a commission of theologians that engages in this research. But nothing is decided without me…. Our religion is esoteric, you understand. It is a perpetual initiation.

Mawlana Hazar Imam (Translation)
Jeune Afrique Interview (1st), Anne Loesch (Paris, France), 15 October 1967

The Ismaili Muslim tradition – today known as the Shia Imami Ismaili Tariqah of Islam – has been well-known through history for its emphasis on the esoteric or batin dimension of Islam. The early Shi’i Imams taught that the Holy Qur’an and the practices of Islam had different levels of meaning – such as the exoteric or zahir whose knowledge is available and visible to all people and the esoteric or batin whose knowledge is available only to specific individuals who possess the insight and understanding to perceive it. The Qur’an uses the word ta’wil when referring to the esoteric (batin) of the Qur’an and proclaims in 3:7 that “No one knows it’s ta’wil except God and those who are firmly rooted in knowledge (raskhun fi’l-‘ilm).” The hadith of the Prophet Muhammad also notes that Imam ‘Ali’s role is to offer the ta’wil of the revelation (tanzil) brought by the Prophet Muhammad (R. Shah-Kazemi, Justice and Remembrance, 23). This is why the Ismaili Constitution refers to Imam ‘Ali as “the first Imam to continue the ta’wil and ta’lim of Allah’s Final Message and to guide the murids” (Preamble of the Constituttion of the Shia Imami Ismaili Muslims, Section B). Accordingly, the Imam Jafar al-Sadiq has said that “We are the firmly rooted in knowledge (raskhun fi’l-‘ilm) and we know it’s ta’wil.” The ultimate source of ta’wil or the esoteric interpretation of the Qur’an is God Himself and He has inspired this special knowledge (‘ilm) in the Imams of the Prophet’s Ahl al-Bayt.

Throughout the history of the Ismaili Muslims, the function of teaching the ta’wil of the Qur’an has been undertaken by the Ismaili Imams. In many cases, the Imams assigned and delegated the task of instructing their followers in the ta’wil of the Qur’an to their highest ranking hujjats (deputy-proofs) and da’is (missionaries). Thus, there are numerous texts and writings by these Ismaili luminaries that teach the esoteric meaning or ta’wil of the Qur’an: The Esoteric Interpretation of the Pillars of Islam (Ta’wil al-Da’a’im al-Islam) and The Foundation of Esoteric Interpretation (Asas al-Ta’wil) by Abu Hanifah al-Nu’man; The Book of the Esoteric Interpretation of the Religious Law (Kitab Ta’wil al-Shari’ah) by Abu Hanifah al-Nu’man and the Imam al-Mu’izz; The Secrets and Mysteries of the Speaker-Prophets (Sara’ir wa Asrar al-Nutuqa) by Jafar ibn Mansur al-Yaman; The Book of the Boast (Kitab al-Iftikhar) by Abu Ya’qub al-Sijistani; The Lectures of al-Mu’ayyad al-Din Shirazi (Majalis al-Mu’ayyadiyyah); The Face of Religion (Wajh-i Din) of Nasir-i Khusraw. The ta’wil of the Qur’an was historically taught in two forms or mediums – as instruction (ta’lim) from the Ismaili Imams, hujjats and da’is and also as direct spiritual inspiration (ta’yid) from the Imam of the Time. One of the principles of ta’wil is that there are numerous levels of batin and ta’wil appropriate to each person’s spiritual capacity and knowledge, right up to the supreme ta’wil, the batin al-batin (the esoteric behind the esoteric), possessed only by the Imam himself. In this respect, the Imam Jafar al-Sadiq once said “We can speak about a word in seven ways.” When he was asked about this, “Seven, O son of the Messenger of God?”, the Imam replied: “Yes, [not only seven], but seventy.

In the present day, Mawlana Hazar Imam is the forty-ninth Imam of the Ismaili Muslims. During the Imamat of his predecessor, the formal da’wah ranks of hujjat and da’i were abolished. Thus, the function and role of teaching the esoteric interpretation or ta’wil of the Qur’an is now undertaken by the Imam of the Time directly.

The Imam must direct Ismailis on the practice of their religion and constantly interpret the Qur’an for them according to our theology. On the spiritual plane, the Imam’s authority is absolute. Ismailis believe therefore that what the Imam says is the only true interpretation possible.

Mawlana Hazar Imam
L’Expansion Interview, Roger Priouret (Paris, France), March 1975

Nevertheless, some people today have difficulty in seeing how the Ismaili Imam’s guidance and teachings contain the esoteric interpretation (ta’wil) of the Qur’an. In the minds of some, the words of the Imam appear too mundane, ordinary or familiar; instead many expect the Imam to use exotic or out of the ordinary language when he expresses the esoteric interpretation. Others expect the Imam to quote specific Qur’anic verses and provide a textual reading of these verses in the manner of modern Qur’an commentators (musafirun). As a result of these expectations, some erroneously conclude that the present Ismaili Imam simply does not engage in the act of esoteric interpretation. Nevertheless, upon closer examination of the Ismaili Imam’s verbal and practical teachings in light of the Ismaili ta’wil expressed in past literature, one may be able to appreciate how the living Imam’s statements do contain the esoteric meaning or ta’wil of the Qur’an.

There are at least six different ways by which the present Imam, Mawlana Hazar Imam, teaches the esoteric interpretation (ta’wil) of the Holy Qur’an to his murids and the world at large.

1. Speeches and Interviews

The Imam’s Speeches and Interviews contain various allusions (isharat) and indicators of the ta’wil of the Qur’an. For example, when Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah explains the concept of monorealism in his Memoirs 1, he is actually providing an esoteric commentary on the Shahahada (ila ilaha illa Allah) and the Ayat al-Nur in the Qur’an (24:35); when Imam Shah Karim al-Husayni explains that “diversity itself is a gift of the Divine” 2, he is offering a commentary on numerous Qur’anic verses which speak of human diversity and features as the signs (ayat) of God; when the Imam explains how “the Divine Intellect both transcends and inspires the human intellect” 3 and the human spirit must be “guided and supported by the Divine Will” 4 , the Imam is commenting on Qur’an 2:87/42:52 which mention how God bestows His Spirit (ruh) and inspiration (ta’yid) upon human souls; when the Imam speaks about how God is “ineffable and beyond being” 5 and how His “creation is not static but continuous” 6, the Imam is explaining of Ismaili philosophical concepts – such as God transcending being and non-being and God’s Command continuously emanating existence upon all things – in very simplified form without any specialized language.

2. Guidance in Farmans

The Imam’s farmans contain numerous allusions and expressions of the ta’wil of the Qur’an. A frequent but underappreciated example of this is whenever the Imam refers to his murids as “my beloved spiritual children” and bestows his “paternal maternal loving blessings.” The Imam’s reference to his “spiritual children” and himself as the “spiritual mother and father” amounts to an esoteric commentary on Qur’an 33:6 (“The Prophet is closer to the believers than their own souls and his wives are their mothers”) and Qur’an 4:1 (“your Lord who has created you from a Single Soul and then created its Mate”) since the Prophet Muhammad and each succeeding Imam in every age is the Single Soul and spiritual father of the believers and his “wives” or “mate” – according to the ta’wil, this means the spiritual wives not physical wives – are the great hujjats of the Imam and the spiritual mother of the believers. Similarly, when the Imam instructs his murids to engage in remembrance (dhikr) by calling upon the Names of God, the name of the Prophet, the names of the Imams, and the name of the Imam of the Time, the Imam is effectively giving an esoteric interpretation (ta’wil) of 17:110 (“Call upon Allah or call upon al-Rahman. Whichever name you call – to Him belong the Most Beautiful Names”) and 7:180 (“And to Allah belong the Most Beautiful Names, so invoke Him by them.”). The ta’wil of the Most Beautiful Names of Allah is that God’s Names exist in two forms – the verbal or inanimate names composed of letters and spoken by speakers and the living noble names composed of intellect and soul who are the living Prophets and Imams. Thus, calling upon the names of the Imams is the esoteric dimension of calling upon the Names of God. In the past, Ismaili hujjats like al-Mu’ayyad al-Shirazi and Nasir-i Khusraw explained such ideas – the concept of spiritual parents and how the Imams are the ta’wil of God’s living Names – through the course of a long philosophical explanation (see Nasir-i Khusraw, Wajh-i Din; Al-Mu’ayyad al-Shirazi, Majalis al-Mu’ayyadiyyah). Today, Mawlana Hazar Imam speaks of the very same truths of ta’wil but in a more simplified and practical language. Thus, Nasir-i Khusraw writes that “The sayings of the Imams have ta’wil (esoteric interpretation), just as the Speech of God and [the sayings of His] Messenger have ta’wil, because they are the witnesses of God over the people.” (Knowledge and Liberation, tr. Hunzai, 113).

3. Ismaili Tariqah Rituals

The Imam has prescribed and authorized a number of Ismaili Tariqah rituals practiced in jamatkhana and each of these rituals is the embodiment of the esoteric interpretation (ta’wil) of a Qur’anic concept or Pillar of Islam 7. For example, the very concept of jamatkhana as the House of the Imam is the esoteric meaning (ta’wil) of the Hajj 8 to Makkah. The Ismaili Muslim prayer, Du’a, is the embodied ta’wil of the Namaz or Salah 9. The du’a karavi ritual, also known as mubay’ah, is the embodied ta’wil of ablutions (wudu’). The ethical and spiritual disciplines that the Imam enjoins on his murids are the esoteric dimension of fasting (sawm) 10. All of this means that the esoteric interpretation (ta’wil) of hajj, salah, wudu’ (ablutions) and sawm (fasting) formerly explained by Ismaili Imams and hujjats in the form of textual and verbal instruction (ta’lim) are today taught by the Imam of the Time to the Jamat in the form of Tariqah rituals and practices.

4. AKDN and the Institute of Ismaili Studies Publications

The Imam of the Time shares esoteric knowledge and teachings through institutional activities. In general, the activities of the Aga Khan Development Network are embodiments and practical demonstrations of the Ethics of Islam. The Imam himself has said that “the ethics of Islam guide all my activity” 11 and these Ethics are further manifested in the institutions the Imam establishes and directs. The Institute of Ismaili Studies is an important institution because its research and publication activities have published numerous translations and editions of Ismaili esoteric literature written by the great Ismaili Imams, hujjats and da’is of the past. Many of the core esoteric Ismaili texts – which were not accessible to even Ismaili murids in prior periods – have become available to all Ismailis and the public at large due to the efforts of the Institute of Ismaili Studies. The patronage of academic Ismaili studies began with Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah in the 1930s and has continued in an accelerating pace under the Mawlana Hazar Imam who is the Chairman of the Institute of Ismaili Studies Board of Governors.

Indeed, this momentous period in which the esoteric content of Islam and other faiths becomes available to the masses had been foretold a thousand years ago 12 by the great Ismaili hujjats including Nasir-i Khusraw and al-Mu’ayyad al-Shirazi. Thus, the Institute’s release and publication of formerly inaccessible Ismaili ta’wil texts can be seen as another medium by which the Imam of the Time teaches the esoteric interpretation (ta’wil) of the Qur’an to the entire world. Over a hundred years ago, Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah told the Jamat that they could learn the Qur’an and its meaning by becoming “students of those who know its real meaning” through reading “the books of our faith.” The books of the Ismaili faith are those works written by the Ismaili hujjats and da’is of the past – as they were the ones who knew the real meaning of the Qur’an. These “books of our faith” are among the publications and translation of the Institute of Ismaili Studies and the Jamat can find the esoteric meaning of the Qur’an in these books:

If you want to learn the Qur’an, become students of those who know its real meaning. In this way you will learn its real meaning. You are unaware of the many books of our Faith (din). Therefore you have not studied most of them. If you study such books you will understand and no defect will remain within you. Your intellect (‘aql) will guarantee you that your Faith (din) is true if you read such works. This you will come to know.

Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah (Jangbaar, India) 14 September 1899

5. Architectural Design

In recent years, the Imam of the Time has established architectural landmarks across the world such as the Delegation of the Ismaili Imamat, the Aga Khan Museum, and the Ismaili Centres. The architectural design of these buildings symbolizes and embodies the esoteric interpretation of Islam, as the Imam himself has stated: “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.13 The Imam has even written, regarding the Delegation of the Ismaili Imamat, that “the building in a sense should be somewhat mysterious and visually nearly esoteric.” He referred to the Delegation’s architectural design as “translating concepts that have a context in our faith and our history, yet stride boldly and confidently ahead, into modernity; for expressing both the exoteric and the esoteric” 14. A close reading of the Delegation building’s architecture 15 shows how the design symbolizes Ismaili esoteric doctrines and ta’wil from the past: the translucent rock crystal inspired dome of the Delegation of the Ismaili Imamat symbolizes and represents the perfect souls of the Prophets and Imams illuminated by the Light of God as discussed by Nasir-i Khusraw and Nasir al-Din Tusi.

6. Spiritual Inspiration (ta’yid)

The knowledge of the Imam of the Time is rooted not in physical books or verbal words, but rather, in his luminous soul in the form of spiritual and luminous inspiration called ta’yid or the Holy Spirit. God continuously bestows this spiritual inspiration (ta’yid) or light (nur) 16 upon the Imam’s pure soul, as a result of which the Imam is the possessor of all esoteric knowledge (‘ilm). The Imam also directs and bestows this ta’yid upon the souls of the murids of highest rank – called hujjats in the past. In this respect, the souls of the hujjats can receive the ta’wil from the Imam through spiritual inspiration (ta’yid) instead of verbal instruction (ta’lim). A medieval Ismaili text describes this spiritual connection between the Imam and the hujjat as follows: “A path exists from the hujjat to the Imam, he becomes aware by the divine support (ta’yid) of his heart.” (S. Virani, The Ismailis in the Middle Ages, 74). The Ismaili murids at the spiritual rank of hujjat are taught the ta’wil of the Qur’an by the Imam in the form of ta’yid and subsequently express the Imam’s ta’wil in the form of words as poetry, prose, commentary, instruction (ta’lim) and other forms of discourse appropriate to the spiritual capacities of the people.

The present Imam of the Ismaili Muslims, Mawlana Hazar Imam, teaches the esoteric interpretation of the Qur’an to his murids and to the entire world in at least six different ways – in his public speeches, in his farmans, in the Tariqah rituals he prescribes and authorizes, through his institutional activities including the Institute of Ismaili Studies publications, through Islamic architecture, and through the spiritual inspiration called ta’yid which reaches certain elevated souls. Recognizing the esoteric interpretation of the Imam in these six mediums is important for all Ismaili Muslims. This is because the present Imam told his murids to keep in mind that the Ismaili Tariqah is “an esoteric branch of Islam” and that this esoteric meaning “is not there to everyone” but that “it is there to those who are part of our Jamat.” The Imam has further stated that his murids “should be able to explain the esoteric meaning” of parts of the Qur’an and that specific Qur’anic words “must represent to you a concept” (Bombay, November 22, 1967). The Imam of the Time continues to provide the ta’wil of the Qur’an on a ongoing basis so that his murids always have access to the “correct” interpretation, as he once stated in an irshad:

[W]e are, and will continue to seek out knowledge and understanding, particularly, from the Quran, so that my murids can look forward to the future with interpretation which is correct… and it is important that, as time evolves, we should continue under the guidance of the Imam to seek clarity and understanding from the Quran-e-Shariff. And I want my spiritual children to know that this is an endeavor which is being undertaken on an ongoing basis, and that guidance will be given on a continuing basis.

Mawlana Hazar Imam (Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania), 17 August 2007

  1. Chapter 2: Islam, The Religion of My Ancestors, The Memoirs of Aga Khan III, publisher??, 1954
  2. The Peterson Lecture, Annual Meeting of the International Baccalaureate (Atlanta, USA), 18 April 2008
  3. Faculty of Health Sciences of the Aga Khan University and Aga Khan University Hospital Inauguration Ceremony (Karachi, Pakistan), 11 November 1985
  4. Address to the Enabling Environment Conference (Kabul, Afghanistan), 4 June 2007
  5. Address to the International Colloquium ‘Word of God, Art of Man: The Qur’an and its Creative Expressions’ organised by The Institute of Ismaili Studies (London, United Kingdom), 19 October 2003
  6. Acceptance of the Charter of the Aga Khan University (Karachi, Pakistan) 16 March 1983
  7. The Seven Pillars of Islam: The Esoterics of Walayah, Ismaili Gnosis
  8. Esoteric Hajj: From the Physical Ka’bah to the Living Imam, Ismaili Gnosis
  9. The Esoterics (Batin) of Prayer: From Salah to Du’a’, Ismaili Gnosis
  10. Ramadan: From Physical Fasting to Spiritual Fasting, Ismaili Gnosis
  11. Jeune Afrique Interview (2nd), Coumba Diop, ‘Ethics of Islam guides all my work’ (Mali or Côte d’Ivoire), 19 September 2005
  12. Esoteric Apocalypse (Qiyamah): Isma’ili Muslim Perspectives on the “End of the World” (Part 1), Ismaili Gnosis
  13. Delegation of the Ismaili Imamat Opening Ceremony (Ottawa, Canada), 6 December 2008
  14. The Delegation of the Ismaili Imamat Foundation Stone Ceremony (Ottawa, Canada), 6 June 2005
  15. The Delegation Decoded, Khalil Andani
  16. Esoteric Thought in Physical Form: The Aga Khan Campus in Toronto, Ismaili Gnosis

2 thoughts on “How the Ismaili Imam teaches the Esoteric Interpretation (ta’wil) of the Holy Qur’an

  1. The article is very interesting and informative. Thank you.
    One should strive to know the Batin ie.’Tawil’. Only a very few of us have the knowledge and such a grace from Allah- search out and connect with them.

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