Islamic perspective

Qur'an and Isma'ili ta'wil


Qur'an is divine but its interpretation is human and hence there have been different interpretations of various Qur'anic verses. The differences in interpretation of the Qur'anic verses was not a later development but began shortly after the death of the Holy Prophet (PBUH).

Different prominent companions of the Prophet began to differ from each other and with the passage of time these differences also deepened in their scope. There were various reasons for these differences. First and foremost was of course the differences due to understanding. Any text, and much more so the divine text which also tends to be symbolic, is understood depending on ones own mental and intellectual capacity. Also, the understanding of these verses depends on ones own personal or family background; the tribal background and the community ethos also would play an important role.

The Muslims were also embroiled in political disputes with the passage of time and these disputes also got reflected in interpretation of the Qur'anic verses. The disputing parties tried to legitimise their respective positions through either hadith or interpretation of the Qur'anic verses which suited their position.

Also, many sects came into existence in the early period of Islam itself and every sect tried to prove its authenticity by interpreting the Qur'anic verses in keeping with their doctrines. The formation and doctrinal differences of these have been dealt with in various early books like Al-Farq bayn al-Firaq of Baghdadi and others. Each of these sects tried to interpret various Qur'anic verses in their own way. And it became impossible to resolve both political as well as doctrinal differences.

There also evolved differences between the jurists (fuqaha'). These jurists also interpreted the Qur'anic verses in keeping with their understanding of juristic issues. Thus within the Sunni Islam there developed four major schools of fiqh (jurisprudence). The same is true of hadith literature.

Among other reasons for different interpretations of the Qur'anic verses the sectarian differences play most important and interesting role. In fact it will be no exaggeration to say that among other reasons the sectarian differences played very significant role in differing interpretation of the Qur'anic verses. And among other sectarian differences the differences between Sunnis and Shi'as assumed much more controversial role. No other two sects of Islam have differed as much as the Sunnis and Shi'as in understanding and interpretation of certain Qur'anic verses. It was on account of this that the Sunni corpus of hadith developed separately from that of Shi'as.

Independent interpretation

The Shi'as also subsequently sub-divided into number of subsects the main division being between the Ithna Asharis and Isma'ilis. The Isma'ilis developed their own independent interpretation of the Qur'anic verses which radically differs from not only the Sunni interpretation but also the mainstream Shi'a interpretation. It is the Isma'ili interpretation that we would deal with in this paper. We have broadly referred to the Isma'ili doctrines in one of our earlier papers. We would briefly summarise it here for ready reference of our readers.

The Isma'ilis branched off from the Ithna Ashari Shi'as on the question of succession to the fifth (and according to the Ithna Asharis the sixth) Imam Ja'far al-Sadiq. It should be noted that the doctrine of imamah is very central to the Shi'a Islam as the doctrine of Khilafah is to the Sunni Islam. According to the Shi'a belief the imam must belong to the progeny of Fatima and 'Ali and thus son will always succeed the father. This doctrine remains central whichever the Shi'a sect. And most of the differences among the Shi'a sub-sects, though not always, have been on the question of succession as to which son succeeded the previous Imam.

The Hanafiyas believed that it was Ali's son Muhammad bin Hanifa who succeeded as Imam. Similarly the Zaidi Shi'as believed that it was Zaid, the son of Imam Zain al-Abidin who succeeded him. The Zaidi Shi'as are found mostly in the Yemen. Similarly, the Isma'ili Shi'as believe that it was Isma'il who succeeded Imam J'afar al-Sadiq whereas the Ithna Asharis believe that it was Musa Kazim who became imam after Imam Ja'far al-Sadiq.

The chain of imamah as far as the Ithna Asharis are concerned stopped with the seclusion of the 12th imam whose reappearance is awaited by them. And as far as the Isma'ilis are concerned the office of imama continued in the progeny of Isma'il and the 21st imam Taiyyib went into seclusion. But unlike the Ithna Asharis the Isma'ilis do not believe that 21st imam will reappear; they, on the other hand, believe that the imama continues in his progeny and that the imam of the time from his progeny will appear one day.

It is also to be noted that the Isma'ilis also split on the question of succession of imama after Imam Mustansir billah. A section of the Isma'ilis believed that Mustansir had nominated his younger son Must'ali as his successor and the other section believed that Nizar, his elder son, was nominated as Mustansir's successor. And Imam Taiyyib belongs to the Must'alian stream.

Manifest and hidden meaning

Here in this paper we will be dealing mainly with the interpretation of the Qur'an by the Isma'ilis before the split between the Musta'lians and the Nizaris. The Druzes are also basically Isma'ilis and we will deal with Druzes in a separate paper. The Druzes split off from the Isma'ilis after the death of Imam Hakim. The Druzes developed their own interpretation of the Qur'an which again radically differs from the mainstream Isma'ilis.

The Isma'ilis, like all other Shi'as believe in the hidden meaning of the Qur'an which they refer to as ta'wil. In the tafsir literature of Sunni Islam the words tafsir and ta'wil are used almost synonymously. But in the Shi'a Islam both have distinct meaning. Tafsir in Shi'a Islam refers to the manifest meaning of the Qur'an and ta'wil refers to its hidden meaning.

The Sunnis and Shi'as differ on the meaning of the sixth verse of the chapter three i.e. the chapter on "Ali Imran". According to the Sunni commentators this verse means that "None knows its interpretation (ta'wil i.e. the hidden meaning) save Allah and the Rasikhun fi' al'ilm (i.e. those firmly rooted in knowledge) say: We believe in it, it is all from our Lord." Thus according to the Sunni commentators of the Qur'an Allah alone has the knowledge of ta'wil and the Rasikhun fi' al-'ilm (i.e. the great 'Ulama) do not possess that knowledge and they only believe that it is known only to Allah.

The Shi'ahs, on the other hand, believe that the knowledge of ta'wil is possessed by the al-rasikhun fi' al-'ilm also and these rasikhun in 'ilm are nothing but the imams from the progeny of Fatima and 'Ali. Not only Allah but the holy Prophet (PBUH), his legatee (wasi) and imams from his progeny also possess the knowledge of ta'wil. Now the most important question is what is this ta'wil?. In the Isma'ili literature it is also referred to as 'ilm al-ladunni which passes orally from Prophet to his wasi and from wasi to imam and from one imam to another.

But if we go historically then one finds the exposition of ta'wil literature much later i.e. during the Abbasid period, in fact, after the controversy about the appointment of Isma'il and the subsequent split in the Shi'a community. The hidden meaning of the Qur'anic verses is attempted by the Isma'ili imams and da'is (i.e. missionaries and summoners to the Isma'ili faith) after the spread of Greek knowledge in the Islamic world.

We have already written about The Rasa'il Ikhwanus Safa i.e. the Epistles of the Brethren of Purity in a separate paper. These epistles are of great importance in the Isma'ili literature. These epistles though do not attempt exposition of ta'wil systematically but do contain elements of it and could be taken as the beginning of the exposition of the discipline of ta'wil. Its fifty-third epistle supposedly deals with this.

Unique to the Isma'ili sect

The Isma'ili da'is particularly Saiyyidna Yaqub al-Sijistani, Saiyyidna Ja'far Mansur al-Yaman, Saiyyidna Qadi al-Nu'man, Saiyyidna Hamiduddin Kirmani, Saiyyidna Muayyad Shirazi, Saiyyidna Hatim and several others have played a great role in developing this unique discipline. It will be no exaggeration to say that 'ilm al-ta'wil is really unique to the Isma'ili sect and it was a grand attempt to synthesise the all available knowledge of the time - particularly the Greek knowledge popularised by the Abbasids through translations of the Greek classics into Arabic - with the Islamic teachings.

Of course the Isma'ilis believe that the 'ilm of ta'wil did not develop with the popularisation of the Greek knowledge but is part of the 'ilm al-nubuwwat (i.e. the Prophetic knowledge) passed on from imam to imam as referred to earlier. But historically speaking we do not find its record before the Epistles of Ikhwanus Safa were compiled. One can say that this knowledge of ta'wil among the Isma'ilis was reduced to writing only when faced with the challenge of the Greek knowledge.

Ash'aris among the Shi'as met this challenge by totally opposing the Greek philosophy (though using its tools to refute it) while the Isma'ilis among the Shi'as met this challenge by attempting a creative synthesis of the Greek knowledge including its cosmogony with the basic teachings of Islam. Thus the Ash'aris and the Isma'ilis carved out different ways of meeting the challenge of the Greek philosophy and its great impact on the Islamic world. This impact should not be underrated.

The Ismai'ili ta'wil is based on reason. The word ta'wil in Arabic means to go to the first, primary or basic meaning of the word. According to the Isma'ilis each and every verse of the Qur'an has basic meaning or hidden meaning apart from the manifest or secondary meaning. According to them a mu'min is one who knows and believes in the hidden or original meaning (batin) of the Qur'anic verses.

The Isma'ilis maintain that there is difference between a Muslim and a Mu'min. One who recites the kalima and performs all the manifest rituals (zahiri) like offering prayers, fasting, giving zakat, performing haj etc. is a Muslim. But a mu'min is more than being a Muslim. A Mu'min is one who not only performs the zahiri rituals but also believes in batin, the real, the original, the intended, meaning of these rituals.

The Isma'ilis quote the verse 14 of the chapter 49 which reads as follows: "The dwellers of the desert say: We believe (amanna). Say: You believe not, but say, We submit (aslamna); and faith (iman) has not yet entered into your hearts." Thus this verse, the Isma'ili theologians point out, clearly makes distinction between Islam and Iman, between those who submit (Muslims) and those who believe (Mu'min). Iman, according to them is not mere acceptance of what is manifest zahir but sincere belief in batin (the hidden, the original).

Strictly guided secret

Before we proceed further it is necessary to understand what is batin or what is the way ta'wil is done? It is also important to note that ordinary people are not supposed to know the original meaning or the ta'wil. It is only the chosen few or the initiated who are entitled to know. The contents of ta'wil was kept a strictly guided secret even from ordinary believers. The reason was obvious.

The Isma'ilis were looked upon as heretics by the orthodox Muslims. Imam Ghazali also wrote a book on Batinis and condemned them. They were accused of believing in hulul and tanasukh i.e. belief in Imam being God and transmigration of souls though it is not true. Even Dr. Kamil Husain, who was chairman of the department of Isma'ili Studies, Al-Azhar, Cairo, strongly refuted such allegations. But the Isma'ilis were greatly misunderstood about their real beliefs.

The Isma'ilis, for fear of such condemnations had to hide from general Muslims their beliefs in batini theology and reveal it only to the chosen or initiated few. The knowledge of batin was revealed to a person only after ensuring his/her sincerity and faithfulness. Even today the ordinary Bohras do not have any knowledge of ta'wil though there is no such fear as it prevailed in those days from the Sunni orthodox 'ulama.

According to the Isma'ilis there is a whole ideal system called mathal and here on earth there is a corresponding system called mamthul (representative of the ideal). To understand this it is necessary to know that Allah is a totally transcendent Being who cannot be comprehended by human mind at all. He transcends everything conceivable and is just incomprehensible. He has no attributes whatsoever. He is also not actively involved in creation of the universe. He only created the 'uqul (intellects made of pure light). The intellects are fine beings made of light. The matter, as opposed to light, is kathif (i.e. heavy and dark).

Allah or the Ultimate Being has no role in creation of matter. He is referred to by Saiyyidna Yaqub al-Sijistani as Mubd'i al-Mubdi'at (i.e. the Creator of the creators). His role ceased with creation of the 'Uqul (i.e. the Intellects). Allah created only light, not darkness. One cannot attribute creation of darkness and kathafat (heaviness) to Him.

Matter was created by the tenth Intellect also called 'ashir-i-mudabbir (i.e. the Tenth Intellect managing the universe). All the matter representing kathafat (heaviness and darkness). Since the Tenth Intellect ('Ashir-e-Mudabbir) is responsible for creation of matter and this universe it is his responsibility to reconvert this darkness and heaviness into light (nur). The corresponding being on earth to the Tenth Intellect is the Prophet. Thus the Prophet is the mamthul of 'Ashir-e-Mudabbir on earth. He assists him (i.e. the Tenth Intellect) in transforming the kathafat (darkness and heaviness) into latafat (nur).

Representative of the Tenth Intellect

The Prophet shows the right path to the people and has been described by the Qur'an as sirajan munirah (i.e. the lighted lamp) for this reason. He transforms the human beings into light (nur). After the Prophet it is the Imam who performs this function. And as there cannot be any Prophet after Muhammad (PBUH), he is succeeded by Imams from the progeny of Fatima, his daughter and 'Ali, her husband. According to the Isma'ili beliefs this earth can never remain without Imam, a spiritual guide, an active agent (mamthul of Ashir-e-Mudabbir) on earth. An Isma'ili da'i wrote an epistle Ithbat-ul-Imamah to prove this.

Thus Imam on earth is the representative of the Tenth Intellect and hence commands highest respect of the believers. He has all the attributes of the Tenth Intellect and since Allah has no attributes (He transcends all attributes and is beyond them), these attributes apply to the Tenth Intellect. Therefore, the Imam who is mamthul of the Tenth Intellect on earth also has these attributes on earth. It is this theory of attributes which was misunderstood by the opponents of the Fatimi Imams as the belief in hulul i.e. descent of God into the person of Imam. Dr.Kamil Husain has discussed this in detail in his Muqaddimah (introduction) to the Diwan of Saiyyidna Mua'yyad Shirazi. The person of Imam does not correspond to Allah but to the Tenth Intellect, as pointed out above.

The Isma'ilis (also referred to as the Fatimids or those following the Fatimi Da'wah) also believe in the cyclical theory of history. Since it is the duty of the Tenth Intellect to convert total darkness and kathafat in the universe into light in every cycle of history a portion of darkness is reconverted into light and these cycles will continue until entire matter is reconverted into nur (light) and there is no more kathafat in this universe.

In every cycle an Adam is created and the chain of prophethood ends with the last Prophet who is in turn succeeded by imams and lastly, in every cycle there appears what is known as Qa'im al-qiyamah (i.e. one who brings about the Day of Judgement, the Qiyamat). The cycle ends with the Qa'im al-Qiyamah and a definite portion of dark matter is converted into light in that cycle. Thus, according to this theory, these cycles will continue until there is no more matter in this universe and all matter there in is transformed into latafat i.e. light and it is light which will ultimately prevail. This, in short, is the Isma'ili cyclical theory of history of this universe.

Some of the important books of ta'wil and batini 'ulum are the Kitab al-Shawahid wa al-Bayan of Saiyyidna Mansur al-Yaman, Ta'wil al-Da'a'im of Saiyyidna Qadi al-Nu'man, Rahat al-'Aql by Saiyyidna Hamiduddin Kirmani, Al-Majalis of Saiyyidna Mua'yyad Shirazi etc. These books contain the highest achievements of the Isma'ili or Fatimi missionaries as far as the knowledge of batin is concerned. We will give some examples of 'ilm al-ta'wil from these books.

Saiyyidna Qadi al-Nu'man who compiled the celebrated book of Isma'ili jurisprudence al-Da'a'im al-Islam, also compiled Ta'wil al-Da'a'im. In this latter work Qadi Nu'man describes the original meanings of all the elements of shari'ah and all the related rituals. Qadi N'uman first emphasises that a true believer has to strike balance between the zahir and batin i.e. what is manifest and what is original intent of the shari'ah rituals.

Qadi Nu'man had to lay this emphasis on the balance between zahir and batin because some extremists among the Isma'ilis had declared that the shari'ah is suspended (ta'til al-shari'ah) and it is no more necessary to observe the external rituals for those who know 'ilm al-batin. The Qaramitah, an extremist sect of the Isma'ilis had ceased to observe the