• An Anthology of Ismaili Literature: A Shi‘i Vision of Islam

    I.B. Tauris in association with the Institute of Ismaili Studies, 2008

    ISBN HardBack:
    978 1 84511 794 8

  • The word ‘anthology’ comes from the Greek for ‘flower-gathering’. An Anthology of Ismaili Literature: A Shi‘i Vision of Islam is the first collection of the literary ‘flowers’ of the Ismaili tradition, offering up to its readers glimpses of a literary tradition as rich and varied as it is little-known. The extracts, drawn from all periods of the Ismailis’ pre-modern history, reflect the plural and multi-ethnic history of the community and display a remarkable diversity in style and genre.

    As Azim Nanji points out in his foreword, the impulse to anthologise has a hallowed history in Muslim literature. Muslims have long compiled collections of hadith, biographies, histories, poetry and commentaries as ways of preserving and systematising their heritages. The present volume follows in that tradition, albeit supplemented with the full apparatus of modern scholarship. With sections on ‘History and Memoir’, ‘Faith and Thought’, and ‘Poetry’, An Anthology of Ismaili Literature introduces its readers to the diverse genres of pre-modern Ismaili writing and to the circumstances in which they were produced.

    The book opens with a substantial essay on Ismaili history and literary traditions by Farhad Daftary. The first section of historical extracts begins with the times of uncertainty that preceded the establishment of Fatimid rule in Egypt, as chronicled by the 10th century da‘iinfo-icon and author Ibn al-Haytham. Scenes from the days of the earliest Fatimid Imaminfo-icon-Caliphinfo-icon al-Mahdiinfo-icon (d. 322 AH/934 CE) are retold by his faithful chamberlain Ja‘far and by the renowned jurist and author, al-Qadiinfo-icon al-Nu‘man (d. 363 AH/974 CE). We hear more about the Qadi and the last imam of his time, Imam-Caliph al-Mu‘izz (r. 341-365 AH/953-975 CE), in the words of the 15th-century Tayyibi author Idris Imad al-Dininfo-icon. Two of the greatest luminaries of the 11th-century Ismaili da‘wa have also left detailed accounts of their travels. The autobiography of al-Mu’ayyad fi’l-Dininfo-icon al-Shirazi (d. 470 AH/1078 CE) includes a gripping account of his escape from the hostile kingdom of the Buyidsinfo-icon to safety in the Fatimid realms, an excerpt from which is included here. Roughly at the same time, Nasir-i Khusraw (d. after 462 AH/1070 CE) made a long spiritual journey from Persia to Egypt, then ruled by the Imam-Caliph al-Mustansir bi’llah (d. 487 AH/1094 CE). Here we include his famous description of Old Cairo and his account of the imam-caliph’s rule, in which justice was available to all, regardless of their faith. The section ends with chapters from Pirinfo-icon Sabzali’s narrative of a journey to Central Asia in the early 20th century, in which he and his Indian companions toiled through difficult terrain in Chitral and met with local Ismailis who impressed the Indian delegation with their fervent devotion to the imam of the time.

    Part Two, on ‘Faith and Thought’, is the heart of the volume, and comprises four sections of reflections by the greatest Ismaili thinkers on fundamental questions of creation, revelation, the imamatinfo-icon, ethics and faith. In the first section are extracts from the work of classical Ismaili thinkers such as Abu Ya‘qub al-Sijistani (d. around 360 AH/971 CE), Hamid al-Din al-Kirmani (d. after 411 AH/1020 CE) and Nasir-i Khusraw, who argued against the theology of the time by refusing to project any anthropomorphic (human-like) qualities of God, the Originator. To quote one of the editors, Hermann Landolt, these thinkers ‘also set themselves apart from the mainstream philosophical tradition, arguing that ‘existence’ itself belongs to the domain of the originated and thus cannot be applied to the Originator, whose pure identity is beyond intellectual reach.’ This section also contains al-Sijistani’s reflections on the spiritual quality of beauty in nature and art. It ends with an extract from the epistles of the anonymous Brethren of Purity who are believed to have lived in Basra in the mid 10th century. The authors used the natural world to make profound philosophical arguments: here, the parrot, appointed to argue the case for the animals of prey, attempts to explain how animals stand higher in God’s eyes than humans.

    The second section consists of reflections on the nature of prophecy and the imamat, many of which affirm the importance of the continued existence of the imamat and its role as a guiding principle down the generations. It begins with al-Sijistani’s demonstration of the universal process of prophetic revelation as an esoteric reflection of the history of mankind itself. The Fatimid da‘i al-Mu’ayyad fi’l-Din al-Shirazi said that ‘…. all the sciences, including the rational ones… are collectively present in the sciences of the prophets’, thus establishing the importance of reason in religion. Human reason, further explains the Ismaili thinker and poet Nasir-i Khusraw, is a trace of the Universal Intellect, and thus does not contradict revelation. Another distinguished Fatimid scholar, Ahmad b. Ibrahim al-Naysaburi (fl. 4th/10th – early 5th/11th century), similarly used rational tools and metaphors from the natural world to explain how the imamat is the pole and foundation of religion. Hamid al-Din al-Kirmani explains why the imamat is necessary to carry forward God’s message and the example of His Messenger. The 11th-century Persian hujjainfo-icon Hasan-i Sabbah, affirms, in a fragmentary surviving text, the need for the Ismaili imam as the authoritative teacher who would guide humans towards their spiritual goals. Finally, the thinker Nasir al-Din al-Tusi (d. 672 AH/1274 CE) explains the nature and necessity of the imamat and why it is necessary for the seeker to submit to ‘the wise and perfect man’ to achieve true knowledge.

    Several Ismaili texts describe individual journeys in search of spiritual knowledge. The third section begins with the tale of the initiation of a young seeker, excerpted from the account of Ja‘far b. Mansur al-Yaman (d. ca. 346 AH/957 CE), who wrote even before the establishment of the Fatimid caliphateinfo-icon. Next is the account of Nasir al-Din al-Tusi who found himself dissatisfied with various spiritual paths and eventually came to believe in the necessity of a ‘spiritual instructor’ to guide his way to spiritual knowledge. Knowledge itself has an external dimension and an inner, subtle truth. Hamid al-Din al-Kirmani explains the need for higher knowledge through the interpretation of scripture and al-Sijistani explains that such knowledge is acquired by the prophets in the form of spiritual inspiration, bypassing the material world. Next are three examples by Ismaili scholars of ta’wil or subtle elucidations that bring out the inner esoteric meanings of Qur’anic phrases and the religious duties of Muslims.

    The section on faith and ethics begins with al-Qadi al-Nu‘man’s distinction between iman (faith) and islam (submission) from the start of his magnum opus of Fatimid law, the Da‘a’im al-Islam. This is followed by al-Naysaburi’s ‘code of conduct’ for da‘is, which brings out key aspects of the institutional hierarchy of the Fatimids. From laws and norms to ethics is a natural progression. In a passage on the refinement of character from a text attributed to Nasir al-Din al-Tusi, the author asserts that ethics is governed by the recognition of and reverence for the imam of the time. Al-Tusi also wrote a short treatise on tawalla, ‘solidarity’ and tabarra, ‘dissociation’, which is quoted here in full. This is followed by an extract from a treatise by a 16th-century author, Khayrkhwah-i Harati, who asserts the importance of spiritual edification or ta‘lim and the role of the Ismaili hierarchy in leading believers towards the truth and the divine.

    The third part of the volume is devoted to Ismaili poetry, the prime vehicle for devotional expression throughout the generations. As Kutub Kassam explains, poetry discloses ‘the inner, spiritual life of the poets and the communities they represent’. This part is divided into compositions originally produced in Arabic, Persian and the languages of South Asia. The Fatimid period is represented by compositions of the versatile and prolific poet Ibn Hani al-Andalusi (d. 362 AH/973 CE), famed as the ‘Mutanabbi of the Maghribinfo-icon’, and the more personal, devotional verses of al-Mu’ayyad fi’l-Din al-Shirazi. Nasir-i Khusraw is another one of the greatest poets of the Persian Ismaili tradition. The poems included here demonstrate his devotion to the Ismaili cause as well as his virtuosity and poetic skill. These are followed by compositions by the 13th-century Alamutinfo-icon-based poet Hasan-i Mahmud-i Katib, which express devotion to the imam, and the more astringent, questioning poetry of Nizari Quhistani (d. 720 AH/1320 CE). The lesser-known poets of the post-Alamut era are represented in several compositions dating from the 15th to the 18th century, which demonstrate a continuing devotion to the Ismaili imams even when the community was dispersed and fragmented. The maddah poetry of the Ismailis of Badakhshan, composed largely in Tajik Persian, is represented here in several compositions that reflect the diversity of genres and themes in devotional poetry. Rounding off the volume are selections from the ginans of the South Asian Nizaris, attributed to some of the Ismaili preacher-poets who were active in the region from the 7th AH/13th CE century. Many of the poetic compositions in this part of the anthology continue to be a source of inspiration for Nizari Ismailis today.

    Although the IIS has published Ismaili texts and their English translations for over a decade, it is for the first time that a publication brings the range of the tradition to academic and lay readers. Lovers of poetry could turn to Shimmering Light: An Anthology of Ismaili Poetry (1996), translated by F. M. Hunzai and edited by Kutub Kassam. Enthusiasts of Ismaili philosophy could consult the second volume of An Anthology of Philosophy in Persia: Ismaili Thought in the Classical Age edited by Seyyed Hossein Nasr and Mahdi Aminrazavi (2008). The present volume, however, brings to its readers a greater range of genres, new translations from the foremost scholars in the field, and brief contextual introductions to every extract. It is hoped that the bouquet of this anthology will draw readers to further explore the riches and diversity of Ismaili literature.

  • List of Plates xi

    Foreword Azim Nanji xiii

    Preface and Acknowledgements xv

    Contributors xvii

    List of Reprinted Works xxi

    List of Abbreviations xxv

    Ismaili History and Literary Traditions Farhad Daftary 1


    Introduction Samira Sheikhinfo-icon 33

    1. Ibn al-Haytham: Kitab al-munazarat 35

    Ibn al-Haytham meets the da‘iinfo-icon Abu ‘Abd Allah 35

    The Proof of the Excellence and Purity of Imaminfo-icon ‘Ali 37

    Ibn al-Haytham Takes the Oath of Allegiance 40

    The da‘is of the Kutama 41

    2. Ja‘far b. ‘Ali: Sirat al-hajib Ja‘far 44

    An Incident from al-Mahdiinfo-icon’s Journey to North Africa 44

    al-Mahdi Greets his Troops 46

    3. al-Qadiinfo-icon al-Nu‘man: Iftitah al-da‘wainfo-icon 49

    al-Mahdi’s Coming from Sijilmasa and his Arrival in Ifriqiyainfo-icon 49

    Early Decrees of al-Mahdi 52

    Eulogy of al-Mahdi 55

    The Administrative System of al-Mahdi 56

    4. Idris Imad al-Dininfo-icon: ‘Uyuninfo-icon al-akhbar 59

    On the Nurturing of the Imams 59

    Under the Guidance of the Imam: al-Qadi al-Nu‘man’s Compositions 62

    5. al-Mu’ayyad fi’l-Dininfo-icon al-Shirazi: Sirat al-Mu’ayyad 67

    Fleeing from Shiraz to Ahwazinfo-icon 67

    6. Nasir-i Khusraw: Safar-nama 71

    A Description of the City of Old Cairo 71

    A Description of Sultan’s Banquet 75

    7. Pirinfo-icon Sabzali: Madhya Eshiya ni rasik vigato 77

    Journey to Central Asia 77


    Introduction Herman Landolt 85


    1.Hamid al-Din al-Kirmani: al-Risala al-durriyya 89

    On the Meaning of tawhidinfo-icon, muwahhid and muwahhad 89

    2. Abu Ya‘qub al-Sijistani: Kashf al-yanabi 121

    On the Pure Identity of the Originator 98

    The Explanation of the World of Intellect and the World of Soul 99

    3. Nasir-i Khusraw: Gushayish wa rahayish 102

    Ontology 102

    4. Abu Ya‘qub al-Sijistani: Kashf al-mahjub 111

    That the Beauty or Adornment of Nature is Spirtual 111

    5. Ikhwan al-Safa: Rasa’il Ikhwan al-Safa’ 113

    The Case of the Animals versus Man before the King of the Jinn 113


    1.Abu Ya‘qub al-Sijistani: Kash al-mahjub 121

    On the Fifth Creation (Prophethood) 121’ayyad fi’l-Din al-Shirazi: al-Majalisinfo-icon al-Mu’ayyadiyya 131

    Reason and Revelation 131

    3. Ahmad b. Ibrahim al-Naysaburi: Kitab ithbat al-imamainfo-icon 142

    Affirming the Imamate 135

    4. Hamid al-Din al-Kirmani: al-Masabih fi ithbat al-imama 142

    In the Proof of the Imamate and its Necessity 142

    5. Hasan-i Sabbah: al-Fusul al-arba‘a 149

    The Doctrine of ta‘lim 149

    6. Nasir al-Din al-Tusi: Rawda-yi taslim 153

    Concerning the Various Kinds of Submission 153

    On Prophethood and Imamate 158


    1. Ja‘far b. Mansur al-Yaman: Kitab al-alim wa’l-ghulam 169

    Initiation of the Disciple by the Master 169

    Conversation between Salih and Abu Malik 174

    2. Nasir al-Din al-Tusi: Sayr wa suluk 180

    al-Tusi’s Search for Knowledge 180

    3. Abu Ya‘qub al-Sijistani: Kitab al-yanabi‘ 186

    On the Manner of the Transmission of Spiritual Inspiration 186

    4. Hamid al-Din al-Kirmani: al-Masabih fi ithbat al-imama 188

    In Proof of the Interpretation of the Revelation 188

    5. al-Qadi al-Nu‘man: Asasinfo-icon al-ta’wilinfo-icon 192

    The Story of Job 192

    6. Abu Ya‘qub al-Sijistani: Kitab al-yanabi‘ 195

    On the Meaning of the Profession of Faith 195

    On the Meaning of the Cross 197

    On the Agreement of the Cross with the Profession of Faith 197

    7. Nasir-i Khusraw: Wajh-i din 199

    On the Establishment of Knowledge 199

    On the Description of the Subtle Spiritual World 200

    On the Necessity of Obedience to the Imam of the Time 203

    On the ta’wil of Inna li’llahi wa-inna ilayhi raji‘un (We Belong to Allah and unto Him we Return) 207


    1. al-Qadi al-Nu‘man: Da‘a’im al-Islam 211

    On Faith (iman) 211

    On the Distinction between iman (Faith) and islam (Submission) 219

    2. Ahmad b. Ibrahim al-Naysaburi: al-Risala al-mujaza 222

    Qualifications for the da‘wa 222

    Qualifications for a da‘i 226

    3. Nasir al-Din al-Tusi: Rawda-yi taslim 234

    On the Refinement of Character 234

    4. Nasir al-Din al-Tusi: Tawalla wa tabarra 241

    Solidarity and Dissociation 241

    5. Khayrkhwah-i Harati: Risala 247

    The Epistle 247


    Introduction Kutub Kassam


    1. Ibn Hani’ al-Andalusi 257

    2. al-Mu’ayyad fi’l-Din al-Shirazi 260


    1. Nasir-i Khusraw 271

    2. Hasan-i Mahmud-i Katib 282

    3. Nizari Quhistani 285

    4. Persian Poets of the post-Alamutinfo-icon Era 290

    5. The Poetry of Central Asia 298


    1. Pir Shams 309

    2. Pir Sadr al-Din 311

    3. Pir Hasan Kabir al-Din 315

    4. Nurinfo-icon Muhammad Shah 318


    Glossary 322

    Bibliography 328

    Index 339
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