Early Philosophical Shiism: The Ismaili Neoplatonism of Abu Ya’qūb al-Sijistānī
EARLY PHILOSOPHICAL SHIISM – Book Sample
About the Book – EARLY PHILOSOPHICAL SHIISM
The Ismailis, among whom are the followers of the Aga Khan, first rose to prominence during the fourth Islamic/tenth Christian century. Even in this early period they developed a remarkable intellectual program to sustain and support their Shiite cause.
Along with their own version of true Islam, they promoted the investigation of science and philosophy, thus successfully merging the demands of religious tradition and the then newly imported sciences from abroad. The high watermark of this scholarly movement is best illustrated in the writings of the lsmaili theoretician Abü Ya’qüb al-Sijistiini, who applied Neoplatonic ideas and language to his own Ismailism in order to explain both the universe at large and humanity’s unique place within it.
Using published and manuscript writings of al-Sijistiini which have hitherto been largely hidden or ignored, Dr. Paul Walker reveals this scholar’s major contributions to the development of a philosophical Shiism. He analyzes al-Sijistiini’s role in the lsmaili mission (da’wa) and critically assesses the value of his combination of philosophy and religious doctrine. The principal themes covered include God, creation, intellect, soul, nature, the human being, prophecy, interpretation and salvation.
Early philosophical Shiism presents the first book-Iength study of the ideas and teachings of this leading tenth-century figure. it will, therefore, be widely read by students and specialists in Islamic history and medieval philosophy and will also be of great interest to the modem Ismaili community.
The Ismaili message and its philosophers
The balance between Sunni and Shiah Islam changed dramatically at the beginning of the fourth/tenth century with the rise to power of the Fatimids in North Africa and with the success of Related movements, such as the Qarmatians, in other provinces of the Muslim empire. For a while Shiism enjoyed an ascendancy that eventually culminated in the later part of the same century with Buyid control of Baghdad, Hamdanid domination in Aleppo and Fatimid rule in Cairo.
Each of these movements espoused a form of Shiite Religious ideology. Unfortunately, while the superficial facts of these political developments at available in the standard Arabic chronicles, the underlying doctrinal theories of these and other Shiite groups of the period at not.
A complete account of Shiism ought to include details of the thoughts and activities of its partisans, especially those with a claim to positions of influence and leadership. However, the literature of Shiism, as…….,
A fairly restrictive theory of the imamate and of religious authority was widely accepted by the main Shiite groups. From a tradition common among them from the time of the imam Ja’far al-Şadiq as far back as the first half of the second/eighth century, the concept of the role of ‘Alı ibn Abı Talib, as heir and successor of the prophet, saw in ‘Alı much more than the most eminent of Mulıammad’s colleagues and hence the most deserving of the imamate or leader ship of the community. Shiah doctrine also holds that Mulıammad had actually designated (naşş) ‘Alı as his successor and thereby had indicated not just his, but God’s, will in this matter. Such a designation carried with it a testamentary function (waşiya) in which ‘Alı actually inherited from Mulıammad certain of his prophetic powers.
Thereafter, ‘Alıbecame the founder (asiis) ofa special form of teaching which was based on his inherited knowledge of the spiritual meaning of the holy law (shari’a). ‘Alı in turu bequeathed this divinely sanctioned knowledge to his sons l:fasan and l:fusayn and to the imams who descended from them. By virtue of ordination and inheritance, these imams are both infallible (ma’şüm) and “firmly versed in knowledge” (al-riisikhünfi al-‘ilm).
They alone truly understand the real meaning of everything which is outwardly unclear or ambiguous in the Qur’an and the holy law, and they cannot and do not make mistakes in perform ing this function of interpretation. Their word is authoritative, and they are the only valid guides in each generation of Muslims; not to acknowledge and follow them, therefore, leads to ignorance and, consequently, perdition.
The Shiite doctrine of authority, however, carries with it the following important ramification: in contrast to Sunni lslam, which tends towards schools of interpretation of law and teaching, the Shiah in theory can appeal ali questions and disputes to one impeccable source and receive, thereby, answers that have unimpeachable authority and yet which respond to changing exigencies in a timely way.
The imam (or before him the prophet) is a wellspring of living wisdom, a source that flows throughout the course of human history with etemal truths and divine science.
But, as this highest point of authority resides in only one place, not many – that is, in the person who holds the imamate – in reality the transmission of this authority flows by virtue of intermediate offices which convey what is pure and absolute at the top down through varying degrees of declining authenticity to the ordinary mortals waiting for it at the bottom. For this reason alone, Shiism requires an ecclesiastical establishment built as a hierarchy of religious and doctrinal authority.
But, if this is true of Shiism as a whole and is an all-inclusive principle, what role remains for the individual theologian-philosophers and writers, who were themselves not imams, yet who attempted to discharge at least an expository, but possibly even a creative, function in the development and propagation of this religious system?
The record of Shiite political and intellectual activity includes much more than an account of its supreme pontiff. in reality many scholars and writers contributed to Shiism through their own personal efforts to propound and elucidate both its theory and its practice. lts doctrinal literature grew substan tially even in the early periods.
Thus the situation – and possibly the dilemma – of the major Shiite writers and clerics to be studied here finds them acting as the agents and propagators of the specific ideologies behind political movements that, according to the theory of Shiism, contained a teaching which ought rightly to be that of the imam alone. in looking at the work of individual writers, Shiite theory forces an investigator to ask to what degree were the thoughts and ideas in Shiite writings really those of its authors.
Were their words always merely restatements of the teachings of the imam and his officially authorized representatives? How did each writer see his own contribution in terms of the hierarchical authority within the doctrinal system to which he belonged? An answer is critical to under standing the position of each of the individual scholars and what his teachings mean or were intended to accomplish. in ali cases the guiding hand of the imam ought to be evident and should be a critical factor in analyzing any example of Shiite thought. But was this true?
Even if, at one !eve!, ali teachings are those of the imam, this ideal model of knowledge and authority is less likely to apply in the treatises which display concepts predominantly philosophical in nature. in these cases individual scholarly initiative surely becomes important. Shiite writers were no more confined within a rigid intellectual system than most of their Sunni adversaries.
An additional difficulty related to authority stems from various differing conceptions of the imamate, especially those concemed with the problem of occultation (ghayba). When an imam is in occultation, as is, for example, the case for the lmamis following the greater ghayba, he no longer speaks directly to his adherents. in his absence, a form of substitute authority must assume his place.
This was also true of some of the earliest lsmailis, who understood their own position in an analogous manner. Their current imam, Mutıammad b. lsma’ıl, was no longer present; his guidance had passed into the hands of his followers.
The theme of imamate and of ghayba are, therefore, essential factors in analyzing Shiite writings, even while they are truly illusive issues in the Shiism of the !ate third/ninth and early fourth/tenth century, including that of the lsmailis
. To a great extent it raises questions that remain imprecisely answered in the material of this study. Nonetheless, its importance is always discemable just below the surface of the many themes and doctrines to be discussed. it represents but one part of the ideological paradox of Shiism – one which serves to enhance the obscurity of its message.
Thus despite a theoretical paradox, Shiism grants or even requires the existence of a hierarchically ordered, scholarly class whose function is to spread and expound its teachings and doctrine. in fact the Shiah more often than not already depended on an ecclesiastical establishment even when an imam was openly
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