Aspects of Ismaili Theology: The Prophetic Chain and the God Beyond Being
by Wilferd Madelung
This is an edited version of an article that was originally published in Ismaili Contributions to Islamic Culture, eds. Seyyed Hossein Nasr (1977), Imperial Iranian, Academy of Philosophy, Tehran, pp: 53-65.
The Ismailis appeared first on the stage of the history of Islam in the second half of the third century AH /ninth century CE and spread with astonishing rapidity. Centred originally in Khuzistan in south-western Iran, its missionaries carried its message throughout the Islamic world from Transoxania and the Indus valley to the Maghrib. In eastern Arabia, the Yaman and in the eastern Maghrib, its converts became numerous enough to set up their own political communities under the sovereignty of the Expected Imam. The fourth century AH /tenth century CE has been called by Louis Massignon ‘the Ismaili century in the history of Islam’.1 The Fatimid Caliphs, Imams of the Ismailiyya, extended their sway over the western half of the Islamic world from the Atlantic to the borders of Iraq and founded the city of Cairo as their residence. In the east, the Qarmatis, dissident Ismailis, controlled much of Arabia, the Persian Gulf and lower Iraq, and for a time threatened the ‘Abbasid capital Baghdad itself. Ismaili missionaries like al- Nasafi, Abu Hatim al-Razi, and Abu Ya‘qub al-Sijistani elaborated Ismaili religious thought in its classical form while the Ikhwan al-Safa’, an anonymous group of Ismaili [or Ismaili-influenced] authors in Basra, published their encyclopaedia of fifty-one popular philosophical treatises which has since remained part of general Islamic literature. Ismailis gained followers among all strata of society: rulers, officials, scholars, merchants, peasants and the poor, among the inhabitants of towns and villages as well as the tribes of the desert.The factors favouring this conspicuous rise of the Ismailis were no doubt manifold. The progressive dismemberment of the ‘Abbasid empire and the political disarray of the ‘Abbasid Caliphate itself were moving towards a climax. The political upheavals, internal wars, devastation and economic dislocation caused widespread discontent and unrest, and Ismailis have sometimes been interpreted as essentially a social revolutionary movement arousing the oppressed to revolt against the established powers and institutions. Specific local conditions evidently in some instances lent the Ismailis such a character. But the appeal of its message to so many others who did not belong to the oppressed and would not benefit from their revolt must warn against any generalisation of this interpretation. The decline of authority and respect which the ‘Abbasid Caliphs, the representative heads of Sunni Islam, could command, naturally strengthened the hand of the traditional opposition, particularly the Shi‘a. The other major branches of the Shi‘a, the Imamiyya and the Zaydiyya, who had been well established for over a century before the Ismailiyya, indeed also benefited to some extent from the situation to consolidate their position. Yet their gains were modest in comparison with the almost meteoric rise of the fortunes of the Ismailiyya, who for some time seemed close to overthrowing the ‘Abbasid Caliphate and restoring the universal empire of Islam on its own terms.
The superior centrally directed organisation of the secret Ismaili missionary activity evidently furthered its quick expansion throughout the Islamic world. But the devotion and success of the Ismaili missionaries must have been due in large part to the intrinsic appeal of the message itself. Ismaili teaching from its beginnings offered a comprehensive and coherent view of God, the universe and the meaning of history. While its core embodied general Islamic and Shi‘i tenets and ideals, it integrated some of the Hellenistic spiritual and intellectual heritage, which, though mostly condemned or shunned by more conservative Sunni scholars, had indubitably become part of Islamic civilisation. The anti-Ismaili polemicists might well accuse Ismaili missionaries of trying to insinuate themselves amongst people of the most varied backgrounds by deceptively catering to their particular beliefs and sentiments. In fact, however, Ismaili doctrine did not borrow indiscriminately but rather selected what it found congenial to its basic convictions and amalgamated it into a coherent synthesis of its own.
The Ismaili view of prophecy and the Imamate was based on belief in the permanent need of mankind for a divinely guided, impeccable leader and teacher to govern it justly and to direct it soundly in religion. In the absence of a prophet, this was the function of the Imam. The Imamate thus was part of the prophetic chain which spans the history of man from the beginning to the end. This belief about the significance of the Imamate was part of the heritage which the Ismailis carried on from the earlier Shi‘a, but transformed it into its own cyclical but ultimately teleological view of history. The religious evolution of man according to this view is consummated in seven eras, each one inaugurated by a Messenger Prophet or Enunciator (Natiq). In the first six eras, the Messenger Prophets, Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad, each brought and proclaimed a revealed message, a scripture containing in its apparent and exoteric (Zahir) aspect, a religious law. Each one was succeeded by his Legatee (wasi), or Silent One (samit), whose task it was to reveal the inner, esoteric (batin) truths which lay concealed in the Scripture and the Law to the few who were capable and deserving of receiving them.
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A leading contemporary Islamicist, Wilferd Madelung has made significant contributions to modern scholarship on mediaeval Islamic communities and movements, including Twelver Shi’ism, Zaydism and Ismailism. Educated at the Universities of Cairo and Hamburg, he became Professor of Islamic Studies at the University of Chicago in 1969 and the Laudian Professor of Arabic at the University of Oxford from 1978. Professor Madelung is at present Senior Research Fellow with The Institute of Ismaili Studies. Among his recent publications are Religious Schools and Sects in Mediaeval Islam (London, 1985), Religious Trends in Early Islamic Iran (Albany, NY, 1988), Religious and Ethnic Movements in Mediaeval Islam (Hampshire, 1992), The Succession to Muhammad: A Study of the Early Caliphate (Cambridge, 1997), and with Paul E. Walker An Ismaili Heresiography (Leiden, 1998). He has contributed extensively to The Encyclopaedia of Islam, Encycopaedia Iranica of which he is also a Consulting Editor, and learned journals.