Isma‘ilis


Isma‘ilis
(isma‘iliyya)
   An important and influential division of Shi‘ite Islam, the Isma‘ilis branched off from the Twelver Shi‘ites over the identity of the last imam. The Isma‘ilis identify him as their seventh imam, Isma‘il ibn Ja‘far (who is rejected in Twelver genealogy), and believe he went into occultation and will return at the end of time as the Mahdi (hence the name ‘Isma‘ilis’, or ‘Seveners’ [sab‘iyya], as they have also sometimes been called). Unlike the Twelvers, who – as a general rule at least – historically have tended towards political quietism during the period of the imam’s occultation, the Isma‘ili movement has generally been characterized by different kinds of political activism, ranging from the founding of the Fatamid dynasty in Tunisia and Egypt, to the propagandist activities of their missionaries (da‘is) throughout the Sunni ‘Abbasid provinces, to the more radical methods of Hasan-i Sabbah, who from his seemingly invulnerable mountain fortress of Alamut founded the Nizari Isma‘ili state in Persia and Syria.
   Isma‘ilis are also noted for distinguishing between an external, apparent (zahir) meaning of revelation and a more fundamental and important inner (batin) meaning. It is believed that the hidden, esoteric truths of the Qur’an can only be disclosed through the complex, symbolic and allegorical interpretations of divinely guided imams, which are then selectively disseminated through their missionaries in a hierarchical and highly secretive manner. For this reason they are sometimes referred to as the batiniyya (‘esotericists’), or alternatively the ta‘limiyya (loosely, ‘authoritarians’) because of their emphasis on the authoritative teaching (ta‘lim) of the imams. The inner teaching involved a messianic eschatology, a cyclical theory of history and an elaborate mythical cosmology, which by the fourth/tenth century was effectively replaced by a more intellectually sophisticated Neoplatonic system.
   The Isma‘ili conception of God as ‘Originator’ (almubdi‘) places a great emphasis on His absolute transcendence and unity – and by extension, His fundamental difference from all created things. In order to do justice to this uniqueness, the Isma‘ilis developed a negative theology that denied intellectual as well as corporeal attributes to the divine and employed a rigorous strategy of ‘double negation’ (God is not a thing, but also not not a thing, etc.). The effect of this was to render God altogether mysterious and unknowable.
   This points up a certain ambivalence that the Isma‘ilis felt with regard to the proper place of reason within their system. On the one hand, they insisted upon the authority of the divinely guided prophet and imams: universally distributed human reason is, on their account, not capable of uncovering the ultimate soteriological import of revelation, or grasping the true nature of reality on its own. However, the Isma‘ilis’ own metaphysics posited the ontological primacy of reason or intellect (‘aql) within creation: intellect is the first and only being ‘originated’ by God, and that from which everything else in the universe ultimately proceeds. The prophets and imams are invested with authoritative knowledge precisely because of their privileged relation to intellect; even revelation itself is ultimately a manifestation or incarnation of intellect, and thus cannot be at odds with reason. The Isma‘ilis’ ambivalence towards reason is reflected in their view of philosophy. In theory, they held it in rather low regard, characterizing it as fruitless, even contradictory speculation in the absence of the divinely guided authoritative teaching of the prophets and imams. Yet the Isma‘ilis’ own texts are often extremely philosophical in nature and their greatest intellectual achievements would have been unthinkable without the contributions of Neoplatonism. Some of the major Isma‘ili thinkers are Muhammad al-Nasafi, Abu Hatim al-Razi, Abu Ya‘qub al-Sijistani, Hamid al-Din al-Kirmani and Nasir-i Khusraw. The secretive intellectual circle known as the Ikhwan al-Safa’ or ‘Brethren of Purity’, the Ash‘arite theologian al-Shahrastani and the Twelver Shi‘ite philosopher al-Tusi have been identified by some scholars as potential, or at least partial, Isma‘ilis as well.
   Further reading: Corbin 1993; Daftary 1990; Walker 1993

Islamic Philosophy. . 2007.

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