Keywords: Ta’wil, Qur’an, Isma‘ili, tafsir, hermeneutics, al-Kirmani, al-Sijistani, Mu‘tazilite, ays, lays, tawhid, al-khalq, cosmology, Neoplatonic thought, Rahat al-Aql, First Intellect, taqdis, kathrah, and tafawut.
Abstract: This essay explores how writers of the Fatimid period of Ismaili history, during the tenth and eleventh centuries, developed an approach that sought to reconcile an understanding of the transcendent and unique nature of God - embodied in the Quranic concept of tawhid with a view of creation as both produced by, and yet distinct from, God. Such an approach, in common with the general discourse among certain other Muslim schools of thought, was concerned with developing rational tools of comprehension that could be applied to scriptural statements. The set of problems they dealt with had dimensions similar to those faced by other Muslim philosophers and theologians, as well as their Jewish and Christian counterparts, in developing various syntheses with philosophy, particularly in its Platonic, Aristotelian, and Neoplatonic versions. The access to tools of inquiry afforded by the philosophical heritage of antiquity became, for those Muslims committed to rational discourse, a resource and an ally that they willingly co-opted in their quest to decipher truths they believed to be embedded in revelation. The reflexive process engendered by the interaction of the two allowed various Muslim groups to articulate distinctive stances towards the relationship of reason and revelation that in turn led to them being identified with various developing theological orientations. Though in time historical and other factors led to the emergence of one or the other orientation as dominant, it is important to note, during this period, the shared intellectual climate, the commonality of issues, and the existence of a plurality of discourses, which provided the overall context of 'exchange' amongst Muslims, and also between them, the 'People of the Book' and the classical heritage. The 'exchange' also enabled the discussion to take place within a common linguistic framework that had adapted the intellectual tools of discourse and which came to represent, as in the Ismaili case, a point of departure for the expression and elaboration of the received monotheistic doctrine of God.
Professor Azim Nanji serves currently as Special Advisor to the Provost at the Aga Khan University. Most recently he served as Senior Associate Director of the Abbasi Program in Islamic Studies at Stanford University 2008-2010 and also lectured on Islam in the Department of Religious Studies. He was previously the of Director of the Institute of Ismaili Studies from 1998 - 2008.