Ismail K. Poonawala
Ismail K Poonawala

This page features articles and academic papers by Ismail K. Poonawala, the renowned Islamic scholar. Born in 1937 in Godhra, India, Ismail K. Poonwala is a Professor Emeritus of Arabic and Islamic Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, where he taught since 1974. He also taught at McGill and Harvard universities. A specialist in Ismaili history and doctrines, he is the author of Biobibliography of Ismaili Literature (1977), a comprehensive survey of Ismaili authors and their writings including manuscript holdings in public and private collections. Recently he edited Turks in the Indian Subcontinent, West and Central Asia: Turkish Presence in the Islamic World (2016).

In conversation: Prof Poonawala talks about his life and works in this interview.

Epistles of the Brethren of Purity and its vision of pluralistic world
Ismail Poonawala delivered a lecture in March 2017 at the International Ismaili Studies Conference in Ottawa, Canada. The theme of the conference was "Mapping of a Pluralistic Space in Ismaili Studies." This is the transcript of the lecture.

Epistles of the Brethren of Purity and its vision of pluralistic world (PDF).

Translability of the Quran: Theological and literary considerations

It seems that Muslim Orthodoxy's objection to translation mainly stems from doctrinal consideration. Literally problems, on the other hand, remain formidable. The Qur'an has its lexical subtleties, its perplexities of grammar, its cadences and rhymes, its metaphor and poetry. All these qualities not only tax the ingenuity of the translator but make it almost impossible to avoid interpretation. No translation can do justice to the original, and the unique quality of its i'jaz is lost in translation.

Translability of the Quran: Theological and literary considerations (Scanned PDF).

Succession crisis among Dawoodi Bohras
,p>Our scrutiny of the sources demonstrates that the question of succession to the daʿiship, similar to the succession to the imamate, is fraught with human emotion, personal tensions, and other mundane factors. The issue was not free from internal family intrigues and personal ambition of an individual. There are clear guidelines for the qualifications of the daʿī and a manual on how to conduct the affairs of the daʿwa with equity and justice – a “mirror for princes” type of text.

Succession crisis among Dawoodi Bohras.

Ismaili Tawil of the Qura'n

Ismailis make a fundamental distinction between aspect of religion, the zahir (exterior) and the batin (interior). The former aspect consist of exterior aspects, such as knowing the apparent meaning of the Quran and performing the obligatory acts as laid down in the sharia, the religious law. The latter aspect is comprised of knowing the hidden, inner, true meaning of the Qrua'n and the sharia. They further maintain that it is the natiq (lawgiver-prophet) who receives revelation (tanzil) and promulgates the sharia, while it is his associate and deputy, the wasi (plenipotentiary), who expounds the batin through the science of ta'wil. The zahir, therefore, varies from prophet to prophet in accordance with each epoch, whereas the batin remains unchanged and is universally valid. Despite this twofold division of religion into exoteric and esoteric aspects, Ismailis stress that both are not only complementary to each other, but that they are also intertwined with each other like body and soul. One without the other, therefore, cannot exist.

Ismaili Tawil of the Quran. (Scanned PDF).

Humanism in Ismaili thought: The case of the Rasail Ikhwan al-Safa

Cultural historians are divided as to whether the term "humanism," a product of the Graeco-Roman humanitas ideal, can be applied to the world of medieval Islam. In his chapter entitled "al-Naza al-insaniyya fi'l-fikr al-'arabi" (The Humanist Trend in Arab Thought), 'Abd al-Ral:rman Badawi, reflecting on humanism in Arab thought, states that Greek culture was not unique in creating a humanist ideal. Every high culture, he asserts, produces this phenomenon in its own way. A number of other scholars, such as Louis Gardet, and Mohammed Arkoun have discussed and elaborated on humanism as a feature of Arab-Islamic civilization. In The Rise of Humanism in Classical Islam and the Christian West, George Makdisi has covered all aspects of Islamic learning and rendered the Arabic term adab as humanism.

This article appeared in Universality in Islamic Thought: Rationalism, Science and Religious Belief, Edited by Michael Morony, London: I.B.Tauris, 2014.

Humanism in Ismaili thought: The case of the Rasail Ikhwan al-Safa. (Scanned PDF).

Ismail b. Abd al-Rasul
Nothing is known about Ismail b. Abd al-Rasul's early life, education, and family except that he and his son Hebat-Allāh were the students of Loqmānji b. Ḥabīb-Allāh (d. 1173/1760), the renowned Ismaʿili pundit of his time. Soon both the father and son became distinguished scholars in their own rights. Ismail b. Abd al-Rasul. (PDF).
Hasan b. Nuh: An Indian Ismaili scholar
Hasan b. Nuh was born and brought up in Khambhāt (Cambay), a port city in Gujarat, in western India, and received his early education there. Seeking more knowledge, after he had exhausted all the sources available in India, he gave up his family life and friends, left his native town, and sailed to Yemen. Hasan b. Nuh: An Indian Ismaili scholar. (PDF).
Ismāʿīlī Manuscripts from Yemen
How did the Ismāʿīlī works,1 written by their duʿāt (pl. of dāʿī, i.e. missionaries) in different countries, at distinct times, under diverse circumstances, come to be preserved in Yemen having completely disappeared from their country of origin?2 The answer to this intriguing question can be found in Ismāʿīlī history. The Ismāʿīlīs are historically associated with Yemen, as expounded by the Ismāʿīlī Yemenī dāʿī Idrīs ʿImād al-Dīn, a historian of the daʿwa3 and a prolific author, who died in 872/1468 in Shibām (Kawkabān).4 The following account is culled from his two major historical works. Ismāʿīlī Manuscripts from Yemen (PDF).
The Evolution of al-Qāḍī al-Nuʿmān’s Theory of Ismaili Jurisprudence
Shiʿi Ismaili law, codified by al-Qāḍī al-Nuʿmān (hereafter referred to as Nuʿmān) in his enduring work Daʿāʾim al-Islām (The Pillars of Islam) with the approval of the fourth Fatimid Imam-caliph al-Muʿizz li-Dīn Allāh, is almost a millennium old.1 Ever since its promulgation, most probably in 349/960 as the official code of the Fatimid empire, the Daʿāʾim has reigned supreme, particularly with the Mustaʿlī- Ṭayyibī Ismailis of Yemen and the Indian subcontinent after the fall of the Fatimids in Egypt in 561/1171. The Evolution of al-Qāḍī al-Nuʿmān’s Theory of Ismaili Jurisprudence as Reflected in the Chronology of his Works on Jurisprudence (PDF).
Note on Kiatab al-Zina by Abu Hatim al_Razi
This essay is prompted by Cornelius Berthold's article "The Leipzig Manuscript of Kiatab al-Zina by the Ismaili author Abu Hatim al-Razi. It is intended to develop, refine, and elaborate on that article and in particular to bring further evidence to bear on Berthold's argument on the structure of the book. Note on Kiatab al-Zina by Abu Hatim al_Razi (PDF).
Wealth and Poverty in the Qurʾān, Ḥadīth and the Rasāʾil Ikhwān al-Ṣafāʾ
The central message of the Qurʾān besides the concept of One God (tawḥīd), during the Meccan phase, is socio-economic justice. Both concepts are intertwined and one cannot be separated from the other. The doctrine of charity, in terms of alleviating suffering and helping the needy, constitutes an integral part of Islamic teachings. In the earliest passages of the Qurʾān one finds expressions of severe hostility towards wealth, recommending the rich to make worthy use of their possessions, and the threat of harsh chastisement by God. The remedy applied to the evils caused by the inequality of wealth is the taxation (zakāt, i.e., obligatory alms) of the rich. It sets forth the precept of the good circulation of wealth among the poor and needy, not from the rich to the rich. The Qurʾān makes constant admonitions and demands for zakāt/Ṣadaqa. Wealth and Poverty in the Qurʾān, Ḥadīth and the Rasāʾil Ikhwān al-Ṣafāʾ (PDF).