Friday, December 4, 2009

528)Dr Paul Walker: Abu Ya‘qub al-Sijistani: Intellectual Missionary; Publication of the Institute of Ismaili Studies

Abu Ya‘qub al-Sijistani: Intellectual Missionary

Dr Paul Walker
Published by the Institute of Ismaili Studies


The writings of al–Sijistani come from a period in history that has dramatic importance for the development of Islamic thought. Many trends in Islamic philosophy and in theology, law, Sufism, or issues of sectarian rivalry crystallised only during the 4th/10th century when this eminent Ismaili theoretician lived and worked. It was also an age of powerful achievement for the Shi‘a and, particularly, for the Ismailis. One generation prior to al–Sijistani, they were a secret movement largely unknown. By the end of his lifetime, they possessed a vast empire of both political and spiritual power.

The Ismaili revolution attested to by these changes involved, first and foremost, issues of religious loyalty, but, in addition, matters of reasoning and of an intellectual commitment to a way of understanding Islam and the mission of its Prophet. This second, more intellectual dimension of the Ismaili programme was as serious as the first, and it required for its propagation and defence a thoroughly trained group of writers and thinkers. Their goal was the conversion of other Muslims to the truth, not merely in respect to proper leadership in religious and political affairs, but in all matters that arise in the pursuit of knowledge.

The 4th/10th century was also the time of a great intellectual ferment in Islamic thought. The Mu‘tazilites brought to Muslim doctrine a kind of rationalism; the Philosophers did likewise but in a different manner. Other groups found their own answers and tried to nullify the influence of both of these. In the midst of all this doctrinal strife, the Ismailis proposed their own solutions and fought hard to have them accepted. Rather than shy away from the great debates, they entered the fray and became a party to the conflicts and contentions of these other scholars. The Ismailis could not do otherwise if they hoped to contend for the hearts and, especially, the minds of the majority. The generation of al–Sijistani aimed to become the voice of majority Islam.

In the midst of this turmoil, al–Sijistani stands as the pre–eminent spokesman of the intellectual wing of the Ismaili mission. He was, of course, not alone, nor was he the first. From our modern perspective, however, we see him more clearly than the rest because Ismaili disciples of the following centuries chose to preserve his books rather than those of his predecessors or contemporaries. Therefore, strictly in terms of the scholarly literature that expresses Ismaili doctrine – outside of the subject of positive law – al–Sijistani’s treatises assumed the highest position for his century and earlier.

Ironically, the man himself is a mystery. There now exist almost no details of his personal life except his name, two dates, the name of the governor who ordered his execution, and his curious nickname “cotton–seed.” In Ismaili tradition he is called Abu Ya‘qub Ishaq ibn Ahmad al–Sijistani. The nisba, al–Sijistani, links him to the Iranian province of Sistan or Sijistan and appears to indicate his main place of residence and activity. Here then we have a major Ismaili writer and agent, active in Sistan from roughly 320/932 to 361/971. Not long after 361/971, he was put to death by the governor of Sistan, Khalaf b. Ahmad, and he thus became a martyr for the Ismaili cause.

These few facts, however, add up to little. Yet, from the prominence of his books and the profoundly impressive intellectual contributions they represent, we discover a truly significant mind and voice – one that deserves recognition as an outstanding figure in the Ismaili past and as a major force in Islamic thought in general. But, in looking at Ismaili literature of the kind produced by al–Sijistani, with its quasi–philosophical themes that bridge the subjects of religion and science, we discovered less political ideology than of rather lofty and abstract, almost timeless, discussions of soul, intellect and God. The questions in al–Sijistani’s writings turn out to concern problems in the theory of creation, in epistemology, in the origin of nature, in the ultimate end of humankind, and in salvation through knowledge. Al–Sijistani wrote about prophecy and human development, the role of law, the formation of law, its interpretation, previous prophets and history, and other themes that had little direct application to the everyday practice of governments and political movements.

Prior to writing this book, Dr. Paul E. Walker wrote another one specifically on al–Sijistani’s Neoplatonism (Early Philosophical Shi‘ism: the Ismaili Neoplatonism of Abu Ya‘qub al–Sijistani). It seemed to him at the time that the most interesting aspect of al–Sijistani’s thought was his combination of Neoplatonic ideas and Ismaili doctrine. But the Ismaili Shi‘ism of al–Sijistani holds a comparable interest. Al–Sijistani himself wanted most to provide the movement with a sound, readily defensible theoretical foundation; he personally cared little for philosophy, Neoplatonic or otherwise.

Only one of al–Sijistani’s books, The Wellsprings, has been edited and published carefully. Because it represents a fascinating combination of philosophy and Ismaili religious doctrine, Dr. Walker followed Early Philosophical Shi‘ism with a volume entitled The Wellsprings of Wisdom containing a complete English translation and commentary on it.

Both of these earlier publications had a scholarly reader in mind. Each, for example, has a full apparatus of citations to the original sources and the early Ismailis, the Greek and pseudo–Greek philosophical texts in Arabic that were read by al–Sijistani and his colleagues, the exact contributions of al–Sijistani’s predecessors in the Ismaili mission, and other matters pertinent to al–Sijistani and his work. In as much as these details of specialised scholarship were already available, it seemed quite appropriate that they not be repeated again in the present volume.
As a new approach, therefore, Walker decided to rearrange al–Sijistani’s own statements – statements which he certainly never presented in a single coherent fashion himself – and to draw out of them a picture of the whole cosmic system that he was trying to describe. In his own writings al–Sijistani explained his thought one item at a time. Never once did he provide either an introduction to the whole or a general framework in which the individual pieces fit.

Nevertheless, he did envision a master plan, a scheme that explains the cosmos at large, the position of the human species in it, and the role of a series of mediators who all convey knowledge of the truth about God and about the universe to the individual, to the community and to the nation.

This book about al–Sijistani differs from the others, therefore, in that it looks at his thought as a coherent whole without special regard to his own discussions of precise details or controversial aspects of individual doctrines. Instead the chapters in it, by assembling its parts and forming them into one complete system, constitute more generally the author's reflections about what al–Sijistani wrote and why he said what he said. Its purpose then is to explain the sources of al–Sijistani’s knowledge, the universe he analysed, the paradise he longed for, and the God he worshipped.

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Easy Nash

The Qur'an itself repeatedly recommends Muslims to become better educated in order better to understand God's creation: Aga Khan IV(2007)
The Quran tells us that signs of Allah's Sovereignty are found in the contemplation of His Creation: Aga Khan IV(2007)
This notion of the capacity of the human intellect to understand and to admire the creation of Allah will bring you happiness in your everyday lives: Aga Khan IV(2007)
Islam, eminently logical, placing the greatest emphasis on knowledge, purports to understand God's creation: Aga Khan IV(2006)
The Holy Qu'ran's encouragement to study nature and the physical world around us gave the original impetus to scientific enquiry among Muslims: Aga Khan IV(1985)
The first and only thing created by God was the Intellect(Aql): Prophet Muhammad(circa 632CE)