al-Sijistani, Abu Ya‘qub


al-Sijistani, Abu Ya‘qub
(d. c. 361/971)
   Al-Sijistani is generally viewed as one of the most important early Persian Isma‘ili philosophers. A substantial number of his works have been preserved, among them the Unveiling of the Hidden (Kashf al-mahjub) and the Book of Wellsprings (Kitab al-yanabi‘). Building upon the formative work of his predecessor al-Nasafi, al-Sijistani elaborated a Neoplatonic cosmology that differed from those of the falasifa in certain important respects. First, unlike al- Farabi and Ibn Sina’s systems, there are no imported Aristotelian elements such as the ‘active intellect’ and so forth. Second, al-Sijistani emends the traditional Neoplatonic model of emanation (fayd) by distinguishing between origination (ibda‘) and procession or manifestation (inba‘atha, inbi‘ath) in order to preserve God’s absolute transcendence and uniqueness. According to this model, God the ‘Originator’ (mubdi‘) creates only one thing directly through his timeless command, ‘Be!’ This is intellect (‘aql), the first originated being (almubdaal-awwal), which, like a seed, contains implicitly within it the entirety of the universe. The emergence of the universe from intellect is from that point on a matter of ‘procession’ rather than origination. In this process of emanation, intellect gives rise to soul (which, in its quest for perfection, initiates motion and time), soul gives rise to nature, and nature gives rise to the physical world, within which the human soul is entangled. Al-Sijistani’s main practical concern is with the reversal of this process: our return or ascent, which begins when the embodied soul looks back towards its spiritual origin and attempts to comprehend it. But towards this end, unaided, universally distributed human reason is simply not sufficient. Only divine law, a manifestation or incarnation of intellect, can activate human beings’ implicit knowledge of their true nature and origin. This is revealed through the prophets (who function as deputies of intellect in the physical world), and then interpreted and taught by the Shi‘ite imams (who are uniquely endowed with the intellectual capacity to grasp its true meaning). In this way the soul’s return to its intellectual origin is initiated. Yet on al-Sijistani’s account, God Himself is above and beyond all intelligibility. The only way to talk about God is by means of double negation (nafyun wa nafyu nafyin) (i.e. God is not a thing, but also not not a thing). Similarly, concepts such as firstness, substance, intellect, being and cause cannot, strictly speaking, apply to the Divine. Theologians and philosophers have rightly resisted the attribution of physical qualities to God, but unwittingly remain mired in anthropomorphism by attributing to Him residual intellectual properties. Al-Sijistani avoids this error by distinguishing God, not only from creation (which on his account proceeds from intellect), but from intellect itself, which is still just the first originated being. Intellect thus functions in al-Sijistani’s thought as a kind of ‘fire wall’ between the emanated universe and God. It can, through its selective manifestation as prophecy, tell us how we should live and what we should believe. It can even enable us to rise up from our embodiment in the material world and return to our intellectual origin, but it cannot give us knowledge of God the Originator, who remains forever on the other, inaccessible side of intellect.
   Further reading: Nasr with Aminrazavi 2001; Walker 1993, 1994, 1996

Islamic Philosophy. . 2007.

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