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‘i and author Ibn al-Haytham. Scenes from the days of the earliest Fatimid Imam-Caliph al-Mahdi (d. 322 AH/934 CE) are retold by his faithful chamberlain Ja‘far and by the renowned jurist and author, al-Qadi 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-Din. 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-Din al-Shirazi (d. 470 AH/1078 CE) includes a gripping account of his escape from the hostile kingdom of the Buyids 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 Pir 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 imamat, 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 hujja 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 caliphate. 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 Maghrib’, 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 Alamut-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.