Transcript: 136 - Farhad Daftary on the Ismā'īlīs

Peter is joined by Farhad Daftary, a leading expert on the Shiite group known as the Ismā'īlīs.
Podcast series

Transcript: A History of Philosophy without any Gaps, episode 136: Farhad Daftary on the Ismā'īlīs

Note: this transcription was produced by automatic voice recognition software. It has been corrected by hand, but may still contain errors. We are very grateful to Tim Wittenborg for his production of the automated transcripts and for the efforts of a team of volunteer listeners who corrected the texts.

Peter Adamson: I said something in the last episode about who the Ismāʿīlīs were and a little bit about their use of Greek philosophical sources. But I was wondering if you could just start by saying a bit about Ismā'īlism and what differentiates Ismāʿīlism from other kinds of Islam.

Ferhad Daftary: Okay. As you know, the Ismā'īlīs are one of the major Shīʿī communities. As such, they were of the opinion that after the prophet, the leadership of the Muslim umma or community belonged to his cousin and son-in-law, Ali, whom they regard as their first spiritual leader or imam. And furthermore, they held that this appointment had been sanctioned divinely. But then later on the Shīʿīs themselves did not agree as to who were the rightful successors to Ali, especially after he was succeeded by two of his sons. On that basis, they became split into a number of groups and communities, each one actually recognizing a different line of imams who descended from Ali. One of the main communities which evolved during this early period of Islam were the so-called Imami Shīʿī. And the Imāmī Shīʿīs in the year 765 on the death of their contemporary imam, a very well-known figure and also a scholar, Imam Jaʿfar al-Ṣādiq, when he died in 765, his succession was disputed amongst his sons. One group followed his eldest son, who had been actually originally appointed as his successor. His name was Ismāʿīl. And those who now came to recognize Ismail and his descendants as their imams became known as the Ismāʿīliyah or Ismāʿīlīs named after Ismāʿīl. Whereas another group eventually evolved into what is known today as the Ithnāʿasharī  or the Twelver Shiʿa. They followed Ismāʿīl's younger half-brother, Mūsā.

PA: And they're called Twelver Shiʿa because...

FD: ...they believe only in a line of twelve imams which ended in the occultation of the twelfth imam. And his Shiʿa has continued to await his reappearance as the Mahdi before the end of time.

PA: Can you just say something quickly about this idea of occultation? So the thought is that ideally the imam is present and alive and available and is both a secular and religious ruler, but sometimes the imam goes off into occultation and is no longer available but he's not dead. So where does this idea come from and does it play a part in Ismāʿīlī thinking?

FD: Yes. All the various Shiʿi groups and communities at one time or another have had this idea of a Mahdi Imam, an imam who has gone into occultation and who would reappear in the imminent future. But the whole idea of Mahdiship itself actually evolved over time and it served various purposes. For instance, at times when a certain imam had no progeny, he was regarded by his community as the Mahdi, as the imam who had gone into occultation and would reappear. Sometimes when the circumstances were not right for the imam to be active openly, he chose to go into a temporary concealment which is quite different from the type of occultation of the 12th imam of the Twelvers. That was an expedient measure so to speak to protect the imam under unfavorable conditions and circumstances.

PA: You have explained to us the difference then between Ismāʿīlī Shiʿism and other types of Shiʿism. But just to make things even more complicated, there's more than one kind of Ismāʿīlism. Can you quickly explain why you get different strands of  Ismāʿīlī Islam?

FD: The Ismāʿīlīs were more or less a unified community until the year 1094. Most of these splits amongst the various Shiʿi communities always revolved around the question of succession to an imam. In that year, when the 8th Fatimid Caliph, who ruled from Cairo, he was a Fatimid Caliph and at the same time he was the imam of the Ismāʿīlīs, when he died in 1094, his succession was disputed between two of his sons, Nizār and al-Mustaʿlī, and as a result, the entire Ismāʿīlī community also split into two rival factions named after these two sons as Nizaris and Mustaʿlians. The Mustaʿlians were in Egypt and they recognized the later Fatimid Caliphs as their imams, whereas the Nizārīs had their stronghold in Iran and they really were consolidated under the initial efforts of a famous dāʿī or missionary by the name of Ḥasan-i Ṣabbāḥ, who is well known in history. And these two communities, of course, had different historical trajectories, but the Mustaʿlian Ismāʿīlīs who eventually found their stronghold in Yemen and the Nizāris who initially concentrated in Iran and then Syria and then much later in Central Asia and still much later in South Asia, both of these main communities of the Ismāʿīlīs survived the downfall of the Fatimid Caliphate in 1171. Therefore, Ismāʿīlism has continued down to our times in its two forms, the Tayyibi Mustaʿli form in Yemen and then India where they are known as the Bohras and the Nizāri Ismāʿīlīs who are scattered today in more than 25 countries of the world and they have had a continuous line of imams. The present imam, His Highness the Aga Khan, is the 49th imam in the series and the main regions of concentration of that branch of Ismāʿīlism are in Central Asia, Afghanistan, South Asia, Iran, Syria and since the early 1970s also emigrants from East Africa and other parts of Africa to various western countries.

PA: And politically speaking, the high point of secular power for the Ismāʿīlīs has been the Fatimid Caliphate. Do you say that's right?

FD: The Fatimid Caliphate, I wouldn't call it, I mean, I wouldn't use the word secular in this context because as you know, in Islam it's very difficult to separate the religious from secular, although the two domains have their own sort of mandate and so on, but the Fatimid Caliphs were at the same time the Ismāʿīlī imams and it was in fact in the person of the Fatimid Caliph that the institution of the Ismāʿīlī daʿwa or mission and head of the state, these two positions came together because the Fatimid Caliph/imam in fact was at the same time the head of the Fatimid dawlat or the state and the government apparatus and at the same time the supreme spiritual leader of the Ismāʿīlī daʿwa and in that capacity he articulated the religious policies of the mission which was active also outside of the Fatimid state and in fact had its most lasting and most significant success outside of the Fatimid state and as a result we see that Ismāʿīlism disappeared in Egypt on the downfall of the Fatimids but it has survived in the lands beyond the Fatimid state up until now.

PA: Maybe we can go on now to talking about the relationship between Ismāʿīlism and philosophy then. One of the striking things about Ismāʿīlism and their use of philosophical ideas is how much they drew on Hellenic sources, so sources that were originally Greek and in particular Neoplatonic sources, for example the Arabic versions of Plotinus and I'm wondering why you think they were so attracted to these texts in particular, for example why did they go for Plotinus rather than say Aristotle or Aristotelian logic which would have been seen as more primary by someone like al-Farābī or the Baghdad school Peripatetics.

FD: The great translation movement really took off under the early Abbasids and really reached its peak under al-Mamūn. The Muslims for the first time now came into contact with Arabic translations of a whole host of Greek works from logic, medicine and also metaphysics and the works which modern scholars have called Neoplatonic together with the works of the great masters like Aristotle and Plato. These works in translation influenced a variety of Muslim scholars and thinkers. One should count amongst the foremost people who were influenced by this new kind of knowledge the Ismāʿīlī authors of the Iranian lands, where Neoplatonism and other philosophical traditions became fashionable amongst the educated classes, amongst the elite of the society. Now at the time the Ismāʿīlī dāʿīs or missionaries, who were at the same time the scholars and the authors of the community, had adopted a particular policy of addressing their message to the educated strata of the society and to the elite. In order to do that they wanted to use the most intellectually fashionable language and idioms available to them and that was Neoplatonism which had already become quite popular amongst the Muslims of Khorasan and other regions of Central Asia and Iran. But one must always keep in mind that in trying to harmonize the Ismāʿīlī Shiʿi theology with this type of philosophical tradition they continued to remain theologians. Deep down, deep in their hearts they would never consider themselves as part of the the philosophers, they remained theologians but they garbed their theological message in this intellectually fashionable language in order to maximize the intellectual appeal of their message to the educated elite and strata of the society without compromising their basic theological message which revolved around the central Shiʿi doctrine of the Imāmat.

PA: That actually was the next thing I was going to ask you because I think that's very interesting what you just said. So it's not so much that they selected Neoplatonism as a good match for Ismāʿīlism, it's that the audience they were speaking to had already acquired an interest in Neoplatonism. But still it seems to me like there is a good match between one central idea of Ismāʿīlism and Imamism in general and Neoplatonism which is the idea that some souls achieve a kind of union with higher divine principles so in the case of Neoplatonism that would be the intellect and this is what knowledge is, so most souls remain, as it were, down here in the physical world trapped in sensation and imagination, but the souls who Plotinus would consider to be philosophers achieve union with the intelligible world and it is fair to say, isn't it, that the Ismāʿīlīs are adapting that kind of epistemology to explain prophecy and Imamism.

FD: Yes, you know, in order to have a better appreciation of the Ismāʿīlīs' appropriation and adoption of Neoplatonism and other philosophical traditions is to really stop and look back and to realize that from early on as a Shiʿi community the Ismāʿīlīs were of the opinion that humankind cannot come to know God and cannot come to have access to the truths of religion through his ʿaql or intellect alone and that he needed a guide. This was really the starting point of the Shiʿi tradition and they furthermore held that the message of Islam in fact came from the sources which were beyond the comprehension of ordinary men and hence the need for an Imam or a spiritual guide and this actually did fit rather well with the Neoplatonism which they adopted and in fact they did adopt that in a very creative manner to suit their own message, which was in a sense also connected to their cyclical view of history, which they had combined with their doctrine of Imāmat. They believed that the sacred history of mankind would be consummated in seven eras, each era beginning with a speaker, a nāteq or a prophet who would bring a new religious law, he would be succeeded by a legatee or a waṣī and seven Imams. The seventh Imam of each era would rise in rank to become the nāteq, the prophet of the following era, but the bottom line here is that in each era including the era of Islam, whose prophet was Muhammad and then his waṣī and immediate successor Ali and then the Imams recognized by the Ismāʿīlīs, these were the sole sources or wellsprings of wisdom. They were the ones who were qualified to interpret the religious message of that era to the rank and file. So in the era of Islam the people who had that knowledge, of course after the prophet and Ali, were the Imams recognized by the Ismāʿīlīs and they were the ones whose guidance would also provide the believers with the sort of knowledge which they needed in order to purify their souls and acquire salvation.

PA: This idea that humankind requires a guide, not just the prophet but also Ali following the prophet Muhammad and the Imams, what is their argument for this? Because this is a position that was attacked by philosophical thinkers, for example Abū  Bakr al-Rāzī and al-Ghazālī, two people who are not usually put in the same class together, but they both accused the Ismāʿīlīs of what's called taqlīd which is uncritical acceptance of authority basically and it seems like the Ismāʿīlīs are making a very bold epistemological claim here, which is that for most of us, everyone other than one of these Imams or the Ismāʿīlīs, it's impossible to achieve knowledge on one's own, so one needs an external guide. Do they have any kind of argument for convincing us of that?

FD: Well from our vantage point of today it's difficult to perhaps fully understand the situation of the early Muslims and the early Shiʿa which provided the milieu in which this doctrine was actually articulated. At the time they were thinking of a particular type of religious knowledge which was not available to everybody. That religious knowledge was possessed by the prophet and as part of his heritage had been passed on to Ali and then to the Imams who were from the progeny of Ali. This was a type of divinely sanctioned knowledge. It was not for instance a knowledge of a type that one would acquire by enrolling in a course today. It was a very special type (of knowledge) and we should really make a distinction between that type of religious knowledge or ʿilm which is really the focal point of the doctrine of imāmat which is passed on from Imam to Imam.

PA: So the idea isn't that you couldn't learn the rules of geometry without consulting an imam, it's that there's this specific type of knowledge.

FD: Exactly, which mankind needs for its spiritual guidance.

PA: But then I guess even then it seems like a philosopher might object to that and say that, without an argument to this effect, there's no reason to think that there's any kind of knowledge which is absolutely crucial for us to acquire, that we can't achieve just using reason. In fact there are alternative views in the context, so the Muʿatazila arguably think that reason is adequate to achieve understanding of the most important truths of Islam and is in agreement with Islam and certainly that seems to be the position of numerous philosophers including al-Kindī amd al-Farābī. So what would the Ismāʿīlīs say against that sort of view?

FD: The Ismāʿīlīs would say what every other Shiʿi or every member of any other Shiʿa group would say, as I just tried to explain. We are not talking about an ordinary type of knowledge here. This is a type of knowledge which is the prerogative of the ahl al-bayt, the people of the house of the members of the Prophet's the family and it's by the membership in the family, in a sense, it's through that channel that they in fact inherit this knowledge. It's not a knowledge that can be acquired through education or election and this is why they did not agree with the way the bulk of the Muslim community at the time, later known as the Sunnis, came to elect a successor to the prophet.

PA: So maybe the idea then is just that it's not the sort of knowledge that anyone could have just by recourse to reason because it's too particular or contingent.

FD: Exactly it's of a very very special kind really.

PA: And so, just to take an example, you wouldn't be able to use reason to know that you should pray five times a day facing Mecca because it's not the sort of thing reason could ever discover by itself. So a prophet has to tell you.

FD: Right. But of course, it's also implied by the doctrine of the Imāmat that each imam of the time should interpret the religious edicts, prohibitions and commandments and so on according to the changing circumstances of the time.

PA: Which is one reason why you need continued guidance.

FD: Yes, that built-in sort of mechanism for progress is really embedded in the very doctrine of Imāmat. It's not a rigid frozen type of institution.

PA: So I suppose that from a Shiʿi point of view they would accuse Sunnis of always having to go back to just the text of the Quran and the Hadith.

FD: Exactly. So you would have no way of adapting the religious teaching to changing circumstances.

FD: The Sunnis in fact may continue to use the fatwās of the dead scholars but the Shiʿa do not believe in that.

PA: So it's like a continuous living revelation.

FD: It's a living imam, the present Imam, particularly for the Ismāʿīlīs, who is the foundation of the knowledge and the source of the guidance in every age and his authority his teaching authority his authority of guidance in that sense is independent of the authority of the previous imams.

PA: That seems though to bring us to a problem and this is the last thing I'd like to ask you about which is that also the Ismāʿīlīs and other Shiʿis get themselves into a similar situation right because if the Imam is in occultation and you have no access to the Imam then in fact you don't have this access to living revelation so don't you wind up back in the same situation?

FD: That has happened. In fact that has happened for the Twelver Shiʿis since the time of the occultation of their twelfth Imam in the year 874 and for the other branch of the Ismāʿīlīs who do not recognize the Aga Khan as the succession of the Imams. All their Imams have remained in concealment since the year 1130. And in the absence of the Imams the Tayyibi Ismāʿīlīs have been led by dāʿīs or the supreme leaders with absolute power and gradually in all but name these dāʿīs have taken over the functions and attributes of the Imams and to a large extent the mujtahids or the religious jurists and scholars of the Twelver Shiʿi community gradually have also appropriated the various functions that were reserved only for the Imams of that community.

PA: This is almost like you start with the Prophet Muhammad and then you have as a successor Ali and then after the death of Ali you have Imams and then when the Imams are in occultation you have dāʿīs, but there's always someone to lead the community. And so as it were, the community is never abandoned and on their own.

FD: One of the early hadiths of the Shiʿi community goes this way, that it's so important at all times to have an Imam because he is the proof of God on earth. The Imam is the proof of God on earth and the earth can never be without an Imam. It goes on to say that even if two men were left on the face of the earth one of them had to be the Imam. So the presence of the Imam on earth is that important. Now whether he's a manifest Imam or an Imam in hiding, that's of course a different matter.


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