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Ismaili Theology Madelung

Ismaili Theology Madelung

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The Institute of Ismaili Studies
The use of materials published on the Institute of Ismaili Studies website indicates an acceptance of the Institute of IsmailiStudies’ Conditions of Use. Each copy of the article must contain the same copyright notice that appears on the screen or  printed by each transmission. For all published work, it is best to assume you should ask both the original authors and the publishers for permission to (re)use information and always credit the authors and source of the information.© 2010 The Institute of Ismaili Studies
Aspects of Ismaili Theology: The Prophetic Chain and the God Beyond Being
Wilferd MadelungThis is an edited version of an article that was originally published in
 Ismaili Contributions to IslamicCulture
, eds. Seyyed Hossein Nasr (1977), Imperial Iranian, Academy of Philosophy, Tehran, pp: 53-65.
Key words
Ash‘ari, Batin, Fatimids, Ibn Sina, Ikhwan al-Safa’, Ismailis, Mu‘tazila, Neoplatonism , al-Sijistani, ZahirThe Ismailis appeared first on the stage of the history of Islam in the second half of the third century AH /ninth century CE and spread with astonishing rapidity. Centred originally in Khuzistan in south-westernIran, its missionaries carried its message throughout the Islamic world from Transoxania and the Indusvalley to the Maghrib. In eastern Arabia, the Yaman and in the eastern Maghrib, its converts becamenumerous enough to set up their own political communities under the sovereignty of the Expected Imam.The fourth century AH /tenth century CE has been called by Louis Massignon ‘the Ismaili century in thehistory of Islam’.
The Fatimid Caliphs, Imams of the Ismailiyya, extended their sway over the westernhalf of the Islamic world from the Atlantic to the borders of Iraq and founded the city of Cairo as theirresidence. In the east, the Qarmatis, dissident Ismailis, controlled much of Arabia, the Persian Gulf andlower Iraq, and for a time threatened the ‘Abbasid capital Baghdad itself. Ismaili missionaries like al-Nasafi, Abu Hatim al-Razi, and Abu Ya‘qub al-Sijistani elaborated Ismaili religious thought in itsclassical form while the Ikhwan al-Safa’, an anonymous group of Ismaili [or Ismaili-influenced] authorsin Basra, published their encyclopaedia of fifty-one popular philosophical treatises which has sinceremained part of general Islamic literature. Ismailis gained followers among all strata of society: rulers,officials, scholars, merchants, peasants and the poor, among the inhabitants of towns and villages as wellas the tribes of the desert.The factors favouring this conspicuous rise of the Ismailis were no doubt manifold. The progressivedismemberment of the ‘Abbasid empire and the political disarray of the ‘Abbasid Caliphate itself weremoving towards a climax. The political upheavals, internal wars, devastation and economic dislocationcaused widespread discontent and unrest, and Ismailis have sometimes been interpreted as essentially asocial revolutionary movement arousing the oppressed to revolt against the established powers andinstitutions. Specific local conditions evidently in some instances lent the Ismailis such a character. Butthe appeal of its message to so many others who did not belong to the oppressed and would not benefitfrom their revolt must warn against any generalisation of this interpretation. The decline of authority andrespect which the ‘Abbasid Caliphs, the representative heads of Sunni Islam, could command, naturallystrengthened the hand of the traditional opposition, particularly the Shi‘a. The other major branches of theShi‘a, the Imamiyya and the Zaydiyya, who had been well established for over a century before theIsmailiyya, indeed also benefited to some extent from the situation to consolidate their position. Yet theirgains were modest in comparison with the almost meteoric rise of the fortunes of the Ismailiyya, who forsome time seemed close to overthrowing the ‘Abbasid Caliphate and restoring the universal empire of Islam on its own terms.
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 The superior centrally directed organisation of the secret Ismaili missionary activity evidently furtheredits quick expansion throughout the Islamic world. But the devotion and success of the Ismailimissionaries must have been due in large part to the intrinsic appeal of the message itself. Ismaili teachingfrom its beginnings offered a comprehensive and coherent view of God, the universe and the meaning of history. While its core embodied general Islamic and Shi‘i tenets and ideals, it integrated some of theHellenistic spiritual and intellectual heritage, which, though mostly condemned or shunned by moreconservative Sunni scholars, had indubitably become part of Islamic civilisation. The anti-Ismailipolemicists might well accuse Ismaili missionaries of trying to insinuate themselves amongst people of the most varied backgrounds by deceptively catering to their particular beliefs and sentiments. In fact,however, Ismaili doctrine did not borrow indiscriminately but rather selected what it found congenial toits basic convictions and amalgamated it into a coherent synthesis of its own.The Ismaili view of prophecy and the Imamate was based on belief in the permanent need of mankind fora divinely guided, impeccable leader and teacher to govern it justly and to direct it soundly in religion. Inthe absence of a prophet, this was the function of the Imam. The Imamate thus was part of the propheticchain which spans the history of man from the beginning to the end. This belief about the significance of the Imamate was part of the heritage which the Ismailis carried on from the earlier Shi‘a, but transformedit into its own cyclical but ultimately teleological view of history. The religious evolution of manaccording to this view is consummated in seven eras, each one inaugurated by a Messenger Prophet orEnunciator (
In the first six eras, the Messenger Prophets, Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, Jesus,and Muhammad, each brought and proclaimed a revealed message, a scripture containing in its apparentand exoteric (Zahir) aspect, a religious law. Each one was succeeded by his Legatee (
), or Silent One(
), whose task it was to reveal the inner, esoteric (
truths which lay concealed in the Scriptureand the Law to the few who were capable and deserving of receiving them.These esoteric truths were, in contrast to the changeable nature of the Law, eternal and unchangingthroughout all eras. The Legatee in turn was followed by seven Imams who guarded the true meaning of the Scripture in both its exoteric and esoteric aspects. The seventh Imam in each era then rose in rank tobecome the Messenger Prophet of the next era and revealed a new scripture abrogating the previous one.This pattern would change only in the seventh, final era. Its Messenger Prophet, the Expected Qa’im orMahdi, was not to reveal a new religious law but to make public fully and without restriction the esoterictruths which had so far been revealed only imperfectly, upon initiation and under the seal of secrecy, tothe few truly faithful followers of the Imams. He would thus inaugurate before the end of the world an eraof pure spiritual knowledge unshackled by the Law.The esoteric truths (
which the divinely guided members of the prophetic chain dispensed wereessentially gnostic. They were based on revelation and transcended human reason, though they gave therational soul its perfection and thus led man to his ‘second creation’ (
khalq thani).
The human intellectcould not reach them by its own independent efforts. Only by initially turning
to the guidance
of theProphets and the Imams could man partake of the divine support (
through which their teachingwould become a salvatory revelation.In concord with the prophetic nature of all
religious knowledge, Ismaili theology was revelational, rather
than rational, in its very core. Classical Ismaili doctrine conceived of God and the principles of thespiritual and physical worlds in Neoplatonic terms. God was the unknowable absolute One who could notbe comprehended or described by reason. He transcended the Universal Intellect, the first principle of thespiritual world of which He was the source, without being Himself Intellect as the Aristotelian tradition
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 maintained. Following the
via negationis,
Ismaili doctrine removed all attributes and names from Godand described Him as transcending being and non-being. While the Ismailis adopted these concepts fromNeoplatonic tradition, they also introduced certain characteristic changes in the Neoplatonic cosmologygiving it a more Islamic character. Thus it described the Universal Intellect not as proceeding from theOne by emanation but as brought forth through His divine Order
or Word
in the act of primordial, extra-temporal Origination
 The Order was, however, addressed to the whole universe, and the Intellect contained the forms of allthings in the spiritual and physical worlds which were, thus, originated all at once (
daf‘atan wahidatan
They were all directly related to God in their origination, though they were manifested onlygradually in the process of emanation and causation proceeding from the Intellect in accordance with thedivine ordination
The Intellect was called the First Originated Being
(al-mubda‘ al-awwal),
since the Order, though logically prior to it, became united with it in existence. God, by His primordial actcould be called the Originator
The Qur’anic origin of the term
God is described in the Holy Qur’an (ii,117 and vi, 101) as
badi‘ al-samawati wa’l-ard 
and of the divine
which was, moreover, identified with the creative imperative
kun, ‘
is evident’. At the terminologicallevel, this Islamisation was carried further by the equation of the Universal Intellect with the Qur’anic Pen(
), Throne (
) and the Decree
and similar equations in respect to the other principles of the spiritual world. More significantly, however, these changes reflected the volitional nature, the libertyof the act of creation as conceived in the Holy Qur’an and Islamic tradition in contrast to the emanationaldoctrine of the philosophers. With the same motive, Ismaili theology expressly denied, against thephilosophic tradition, that God is the first cause
The first cause of the world was rather His Orderor Word which became united with the Universal Intellect. God could only be called
causator causaecausarum (mu‘ill ‘illat al-‘ilal)
.The attractiveness of Neoplatonic theology to Ismaili thought was in part no doubt due to its rigorousaffirmation of the unity, the perfect oneness, of God and His absolute transcendence. Affirmation of theunity of God
and of His transcendence and otherness in relation to all created being
wereindeed fundamental principles of Islam and, in one way or another, present in all Islamic theology.Neoplatonism and Ismaili teachings carried these principles to their ultimate limit. Abu Ya‘qub al-Sijistani, the earliest of the Neoplatonic
Ismaili authors whose theological works have largely beenpreserved, discussed the views of various Muslim theological schools on God’s transcendence.
Herejected even the most radically anti-anthropomorphist doctrine of the rationalist Mu‘tazila who werecommonly accused of going too far in their negation and metaphorical interpretation of the divineattributes and thus of committing
denudation of the Divine Essence. Yet Abu Ya‘qub viewed their
as merely a hidden form of 
ascription of similarity with the creation to God, since the mererepudiation of all similarity with the physical nature of man assimilated Him to the spiritual beings. Thenegation of any similarity of God with creature must thus be complemented with a negation of thisnegation which in effect removes from Him any similarity with the intelligible beings of the spiritualworld. In this paradoxical double negation, Abu Ya‘qub reaffirmed the suprarational nature of Ismailitheology. It was in this transcendence
reason itself, in the necessarily revelational basis of theNeoplatonic concept of the One, that the Ismaili writers recognised its essential affinity to their own pointof view. Characteristically, Ismaili theology did not attempt to offer a proof of God, that first concern of any rational theology. A rational proof of what is beyond reason and being was evidently futile. Nor was

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