Beyond the Qurʾān. Early Ismaili Ta’wil and the Secrets of the Prophets

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 Beyond The Quran
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David Hollenberg
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The Earl Ismāʿīlī Mission 870–975 – BEYOND THE QURAN

Early Ismā⁽īlī ta⁾wīl was used to explain doctrinal shifts and historical devel- opments of the early Ismā⁽īlī mission and Fāṭimid Imāmate. From the van- tage point of the da⁽wa, the single most important event in Ismā⁽īlism’s first century was the establishment of the Fāṭimid Imāms as rulers of an imperial state. Some Ismā⁽īlī missionaries accepted the Fāṭimids’ claims; others rejected them. Disagreements over the status of the Fāṭimid Imāms weighed heavily in ta⁾wīl.

Most previous histories of Ismā⁽īlism during the Fāṭimid period have viewed Ismā⁽īlism and the Fāṭimid state as inseparably linked. Thus in his monumental history of the Ismā⁽līs, Farhad Daftary writes that after founding the Fāṭimid state, the Ismā⁽īlī Imām continued to be actively engaged in the mission, and the da⁽wa was, from its inception, intended to found such a state.1

Michael Brett writes that Ismā⁽īlī religious rhetoric was meant to align with the needs of an empire; thus the universalistic claims of the Neoplatonic specula- tive philosophy of al-Sijistānī served the imperial aims of the Fāṭimid Imām.2 Paula Sanders links Fāṭimid ceremonial and Ismā⁽īlī ta⁾wīl. For example she reads the procession during the Festival of the Fast Breaking (⁽Id al-Fiṭr) under the Fāṭimid caliph al-⁽Azīz as enacting the hidden sense of the ritual as interpreted by al-Qāḍī al-Nu⁽mān.3

Bierman argues that Fāṭimid public texts such as writing on mosques and coins represent an attempt to inscribe different levels of meaning for different audiences. Thus the concentric circle design of coins initiated by al-Mu⁽izz and the Qur⁾ānic verses on mosques under al-Ḥākim en- coded a secret sense to the Ismā⁽īlī believers.4

My analysis of Ismāʿīlī taʾwīl leads me to draw a strong distinction between dawla rhetoric and da⁽wa knowledge—between state and sectarian rhetoric. This is not to say that the Imām was not central to missionaries and believers. Symbolically the Imām was the possessor of the supernal resources from the immaterial world, the earthly link between heaven and earth, the ship who can guide the believer through salvation. However, during the period in ques- tion, there is little evidence that the Imām or his state apparatus took an ac- tive role in leading the mission.

Moreover, pace Brett, Sanders, and Bierman, I find little evidence that the symbolism of state ceremonial and “public texts” such as coinage and architecture had special meanings according to the Ismāʿīlī missionaries, or that the doctrines of Ismā⁽īlism were of direct utility for the Fāṭimid state. Fāṭimid state rhetoric and Ismāʿīlī daʿwa symbolism may have both focused on the Imām, but the two were distinct and should be analyzed as such. Missionaries did at times claim that the Imām possessed supernatural charisma, and we know that the Fāṭimid caliphs such as al-Mu⁽izz corrected the errant views of missionaries from the Iranian dioceses during private sessions of instruction in Ismā⁽īlī doctrine (Majālis al-ikma), but this seems to have been rare.

Generally speaking it was the missionaries who led these teaching sessions, not the Imām himself. There is little evidence that the Imām spent a great deal of time setting out either the interior interpretations or exterior laws for the community.

This distinction is important for analysis of Ismā⁽īlī ta⁾wīl, for if it can be es- tablished that the Fāṭimid Ismā⁽īlī missionaries were primarily concerned with ecclesiastic (rather than state) politics, we are better equipped to recover the intention of their polemics and apologetics.

The centrality of the concept, “daʿwa” in Ismā⁽īlism cannot be overstated. In practical terms to join the da⁽wa meant to pledge one’s loyalty to a religio- political movement that intended to displace the false tyrant from power with the rightly guided Imām descended from the Prophet. To join the mission of God was to be reborn, or, in another common metaphor, to take refuge from the seas of ignorance on an island of salvation. The da⁽wa, after all, preceded the formation of the state and survived its passing.

Although in Western scholarly literature da⁽wa has become strongly asso- ciated with Ismā⁽īlism, the Ismāʿīlī missionaries were not the first Muslims to invoke the word, nor even the first Shīʿite sectarians to do so, and a discussion of what daʿwa connoted prior to Ismāʿīlism is a good place to begin.


In the Qurʾān daʿwa occurs in the nominal form four times, and in verbal forms over two hundred more. It usually connotes “call” or “supplication” and is often paired with “to answer” (ijāba). Usually it is God (or God through one of His prophets) who calls on the believer to believe, and the believer is enjoined to answer by praising Him (Qurʾān 17:52). In one passage it is the devil who issues a call; the believer should resist it and choose God’s call instead. Sometimes in the Qurʾān the agent and recipient of the call is reversed: When one who has been wronged calls to God, God responds (Qurʾān 27: 62).

Whether the call is issued by God (on humankind to believe) or by down- trodden believers (for God’s help), the “call” assumes an ongoing relationship based on support in times of need. Humans are dependent on God, and so they call Him for help; God is humans’ master, and so He calls them to worship Him. A more specific and different sense of the word daʿwa comes in Qurʾān 3:153, at least as it is understood by early exegetes.

The verse refers to a “calling out to the believers from behind.” This is understood by the second/eighth-century commentator Mujāhid as the Prophet exhorting believers from behind in their battle against the pagans, a “call to arms” issued by God (via His Prophet Muḥammad) to the believers.5 It is this sense of daʿwa as call to battle that seems to be meant in some early prophetic traditions. “Every Prophet has a daʿwa,” whereas the idols have no daʿwa in this world or the next, reports Mā- lik ibn Anas in al-Muwaṭṭāʾ.6 Thus Moses, too, was said to have erected a daʿwa against Pharaoh.7

In early traditions and proto-Sunnī histories of the life of the Prophet and the Islamic conquests, the word daʿwa connotes both a “call to arms” and also a call on pagans to convert before military action.8 In the Kitāb al-mubtadaʾ com- posed by Muḥammad ibn Isḥāq (d. 150/767), the Prophet’s military campaign against the pagan Quraysh is referred to as a daʿwa.9 But in other traditions set in the context of the Islamic conquests of pagan Arabia, daʿwa refers to the call for pagans to convert to Islam before they would be compelled to do so militarily. The key phrase was “daʿwa before warfare” (al-daʿwa qabla al-qitāl ), a tradition attributed to the Prophet.10

This sense of daʿwa, a call for non-Muslims to convert before being com- pelled to do so, appears in one of the earliest extant theological epistles, the Kitāb al-tarīsh (The Book of Provocation) attributed to the early Muʿtazilite Ḍirār ibn ʿAmr (d. c. 200/815).11 I translate the relevant section in full.

On Daʿwa

Then a group [qawm] came to him [the jurist] and asked: “What is your view of daʿwa? There is a group that claims that daʿwa does not cease until the day of resurrection, and that it is a prescriptive [law] which one must undertake [ farīa wājiba].” So he [the jurist] said: “Guard against them, for they are advocates of innovation and straying [ahl al-bidaʿwal-alāl ].”

ʿAbd Allāh ibn ʿUmar said: “the daʿwa of the Prophet, peace be upon him, was attained during his life. It ceases after his death until the day of resurrection. An enemy is not the object of a call, and a call [duʿa] is not a necessity.” Al-Ḥasan al-Baṣrī also [holds this view].

The al-Bayhisīya accepted this from him [al-Ḥasan al-Bașrī], for this agreed with their own caprices [ahwāʾihim]. When they appeared, they forbade daʿwa and waged war. Because of this tradition, they slaughtered the people indiscriminately—those who had committed crimes, and those who had not.

Then another group came to him [the jurist] and asked: “What is your view about he who claims that daʿwa has ceased—that [now] there is no daʿwa.” He said, “be on guard against them, for they are advocates of innovation and straying.

Write that the Prophet, peace be upon him, sent ʿAlī ibn Abī Ṭālib secretly and said: ‘ʿAlī, do not fight them until you have called them and warned them. Verily, this is what I commissioned and this is what I commanded.’

He [the jurist] said, “when a young man was captured from the clans of [pagan] Arabs, and they said, ‘O Messenger of God, no one called to us, and your decree [amr] has not reached us!’ He said to them: ‘Do youswear?’

They said, ‘By God, your decree has not reached and no one called us to that.’ He said, ‘leave them on their way until the daʿwa reaches them. Verily, my daʿwa will not cease until the day of resurrection. Protect those seeking protection, repeat the daʿwa.’” Then he (peace be upon him) re- cited, “this Qur⁾ān hath been inspired in me, that I may warn therewith you and whomsoever it may reach” [Qurʾān 6:19].

 ʿUmar ibn al-Khaṭṭāb would not go to battle until he called and recited scripture [yaqraʾu ʿalayhim kitāban] to them. Some accepted that and approached him, while others were in opposition [takhallafū].12

An anonymous jurist (al-faqīh) is asked about the views of two groups, one that claims that daʿwa is a legal prescription carried out at all times and an- other that asks whether daʿwa was limited only to the mission of the Prophet and is proscribed after this time, a view tied to a tradition on the authority of ʿAbd Allāh ibn ʿUmar and also attributed to al-Ḥasan al-Bașrī (d. 110/728), a politically quietist theologian who shunned active engagement with state politics.

The jurist explains that the latter view—that daʿwa after the time of the Prophet is proscribed—was used as a pretext for the Kharijite group known as “the Bayhasīya” to attack their enemies without first calling them to the faith. The jurist’s own view is that daʿwa is indeed intended to continue. He adduces a tradition that ties this view to the reason for the revelation of a verse of the Qurʾān, which implies that the Qurʾān’s reach will extend to the future.

The fact that the topic, daʿwa, merited its own section in the epistle suggests that during the eighth century, it was a topic on which theologians offered considered opinions. Since the anonymous jurist seems to represent Ḍirār b.

⁽Amr’s own views throughout the epistle, one can conclude that, in modified form, an early view of daʿwa was a call to non-Muslims to convert to Islam.13 This would become the predominant association of the word in Sunnism that obtains until today. The case within Shīʿism is somewhat different.

Daʿwa in Early Shī⁽ism

Shīʿites hold that the leader of the Islamic polity must rightfully be a descen- dent of the Prophet’s clan of Hāshim, usually descended from the Prophet’s cousin ʿAlī and daughter Fāṭima. For early Shīʿites daʿwa was an abbreviated form of the phrase daʿwat al-aqq, literally, “a call to the truth,” or, since as the word for truth “al-aqq” is one of God’s ninety-nine names mentioned in the Qurʾān (Qur⁾ān 6:62), a “call to God.” Furthermore certain second/eighth- and third/ninth-century sources suggest that for early Shī⁽ites, daʿwat al-aqq im- plied something more specific.

It was a call to remove from power the false caliph currently ruling the Islamic lands and to install in his place the true Imām, a descendent of the family of the Prophet. As this figure was charged with both ruling the state and shepherding the faithful to heaven, daʿwa was simultaneously a call for political revolution and a religious mission to save Muslim souls from perdition.

The figure charged with carrying out this mission is called the dāʿī, a word that is usually translated “missionary.” The word ʿī is simply the active parti- ciple of the word daʿwa (call), thus a “caller.” The dāʿī functioned as a religious missionary and a political operative and consultant: in addition to bringing ac- olytes and conscripts into the politico-religious movement, he explained shifts in the doctrines of the movement to the believers.

An important second/eighth-century Shīʿite group that frequently invoked the term daʿwa was the Zaydīs. They held that the Imām should be the most knowledgeable candidate descended from the Prophet’s daughter Fāṭima and cousin ʿAlī who takes up the sword against the false caliph and founds a state. For them daʿwa clearly implied a “call to arms” on behalf of this Imām. Accord- ing to Zaydī jurists, when Muslims are ruled by an unjust tyrant, joining a just daʿwa is a legal obligation for the community.14

Also during the second/eighth century, the term daʿwa was used by Shīʿite groups with radically different doctrines. Like the Zaydīs these sects sought to replace the figure in power whom they believed was a tyrant with a descen- dant of the Prophet, the rightful political and spiritual leader of the Muslim community. But unlike the Zaydīs, they held that their leader was more than merely the rightful Imām: he was a supernatural figure, a divinely guided savior who would initiate the End of Days.

These sects, known by their opponents as ghulāt (exaggerators or extremists, that is, those who hold doctrines other Islamic theologians deemed extreme, such as the belief that their Imām has the capacity to communicate with angels or is God incarnate), missionized among the semiliterate communities in agricultural towns and villages on Is- lam’s fringes.

Some of these sects claimed that the Imām is currently in hiding (ghayba). He will return (rajʿa) at the End of Days, a period marked by natural catastrophes, bloodshed, and miraculous celestial phenomena such as the rising of the sun in the West. He will defeat the enemies of the family of the Prophet and their followers and fill the earth with justice.15

Others claimed that ʿAlī was Muḥam- mad’s waṣī (legatee), and that the relationship between the Prophet Muḥammad and his waṣī ʿAlī is similar to that between the Prophet Moses and his wāṣī Aaron. The Imām had access to special books and scrolls that he inherited from the Prophet’s cousin ⁽Alī.16 Other sects claimed that the Imām receives proph- ecy, or, more commonly, that he knows scripture’s secret sense.

These groups thrived between the first and third centuries. Although An- thony and Bayhom-Daou disagree on the period these early Shīʿite groups thrived, they do agree on the order in which their doctrines developed.17 The earliest doctrines of Shīʿite sectarians included imminent messianism and es- chatology, militancy (engagement in violent struggle or the threat of future such warfare), and waīya (belief that God provides to every age a Prophet and a legatee).18 As Bayhom-Daou established, a second phase is marked by gnosticism and esotericism, the belief that a demiurge below the supreme God created both a spiritual, luminous, immaterial world, the pleroma, and this evil material world.

The human soul originated in the former higher sphere but fell into the lower world of matter and forgot its origin. Through recourse to secret, higher knowledge brought by a savior to a small elite of followers, the soul may be awakened and gradually rise to its true home. In the Islamic context, the so-called Shī⁽ite “exaggerators” (ghulāt) betrayed such beliefs as the transmigration of souls (tanāsukh), spiritual cycles (adwār), and that their Imām was an incarnation of the divine light, a prophet, or, according to some, a demiurge-creator.19

 It is likely that both the messianic and esotericist phases took root in the semiliterate agricultural regions in Iraq where such notions had existed for some time. Some of the technical terms of these sects were later adopted by Imāmīs and Ismāʿīlīs over a century later. These terms include the disappearance (ghayba) and return (rajʿa) of the Imām, inspired interpretation (taʾwīl), and a “speaking Prophet” (iq) and “silent legatee” (āmit).

How this terminology persisted is uncertain; it could very well be that, as Bayhom-Daou suggests, these sects actually existed later than the sources purport.

In describing these sects, modern scholars have applied the language of these groups’ enemies and referred to them as “extremist.” This is problem- atic on several levels.20 First, such scholars do not explain the criteria for why Imāmī or proto-Sunni scholastics should be accepted as orthodox or norma- tive, and their opponents who hold such views as the supernatural character of the Imām as “extreme.” Second, during the second and third Islamic centuries, the doctrines in question, and the status they held, were fluid.

The ritual cursing of Abū Bakr and ʿUmar was labeled extreme (ghuluww ) during the eighth century but became normative for most Shīʿites by the ninth. To describe early Shī⁽ite sects, I would suggest that concepts derived from hostile sources should not be adopted as categories to be applied, but as evi- dence to be considered. The late ninth- and early tenth-century theologians applied the term ghuluww as a trope to establish their doctrines as normative and their opponents as deviant.

Rather than adopt the standards of orthodoxy from a particular moment of Shī⁽ite history, it is useful to develop terms from outside the tradition to describe Shī⁽ism’s doctrinal landscape. Social scientific studies of sectarianism serve this ends.

Sect in Classical Islam

In the social sciences, research on sects and sectarianism by sociologist of religion Bryan Wilson and historians Stark and Bainbridge have followed lines established in the “church-sect theory” of Max Weber and Ernst Troeltsh. Wil- son defines the sect as a voluntary association that holds a well-defined sense of the source of evil in the world and responds to this evil.21

To explain the genesis of new movements, Stark and Bainbridge posit a reward-cost theory of social exchange based on the degree of a group’s social tension with the external society. Those who benefit from the status quo are likely to maintain low-tension associations, whereas those who suffer a high degree of social deprivation gain rewards from joining high-tension associations.

Some empirical elements for measuring tension among religious associations include difference, demonstrations of antagonism, the establishment of group norms, and separation.

This “church-sect” paradigm does not square easily with classical Islam. Both Bryan Wilson’s and Stark and Bainbridge’s models of sectarianism assume a church that occupies the orthodox or dominant mainstream position in society; the sect departs from, and is in conflict with, this church.22 Since in classical Islam there was neither a central church nor a clearly established “dominant position” that defined belief and praxis, the categories “school” and “sect” are preferable.

A school may be defined as a voluntary association associated with a great scholar of the past and with the works he was known to have composed. Is- lam’s schools of law and theology emerged in the ninth and tenth centuries based on the teachings of eighth-and ninth-century scholars.

They emphasized that there had been a direct, scholar-to-scholar aural-written form of transmis- sion, and that the growth of the tradition tends to accrue through commentary (shar) on the sources (uūl ) composed by the school’s founder. Christopher Melchert shows that a juristic school (madhhab) was defined by the presence of a chief scholar, the production of commentaries on standardized epitomes, and the ongoing transmission of knowledge.23 Insomuch as it could be said to

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