The Esoteric Feminine: Women in Ismaili History and Thought — Ismaili Gnosis com

ISMAILI WOMEN come from a proud and rich heritage of intellectual prowess, spiritual illumination, and strength against adversity. Ismaili Gnosis @ Instagram presents a series on the history of strong Ismaili women starting with Hazrat Khadijah, the wife of Prophet Muhammad. On Instagram this can be viewed at (

In Ismaili history, women have not only played important material and political roles. The Ismaili esoteric tradition recognizes a number of women who held important spiritual ranks and performed religious functions alongside the Prophets and Imams: Hazrat Eve with Prophet Adam, Hazrat Hagar with Prophet Abraham, Hazrat Zulaykhah with Prophet Joseph, Hazrat Maryam with Prophet Moses, Hazrat Maryam with Prophet Jesus, Hazrat Khadijah and Hazrat Fatimah with Prophet Muhammad, and numerous other women with the Imams.

According to the Ismaili esoteric interpretation of prophetic history, these women were the hujjats (proofs) of the Imam: they held the rank of spiritual mother [like the Ismaili Pirs] and were responsible for disseminating the esoteric knowledge or ta’wil of the Imams to the disciples. In this sense Qadi al-Nu’man (Asas al-Ta’wil, 58-59) explains the inner meaning of the Qur’anic verse 4:1 which says God created Adam’s wife from him with the words: “your Lord who created you from a Single Soul and created its mate from it” (rabbakum alladhi khalaqakum min nafsin wahidatan wa khalaqa minha zawjaha) or the biblical idea that God created Eve from Adam’s rib: God did not perform some surgical procedure on Adam. The real meaning is that Eve’s soul was nourished and illuminated with knowledge from Adam’s soul through ta’yid (spiritual inspiration); Eve is one of the hujjats of Adam as every Imam has 12 hujjats of the day and 12 hujjats of the night who disseminate his esoteric teachings in the same way that human beings have 12 ribs on the left side and 12 ribs on the right side. Above these 24 hujjats, the Imam is surrounded by 4 special hujjats who are his spiritual wives and one of these special hujjats was usually a woman. The Qur’an 33:6 – “The Prophet has more authority over the believers than their own souls and his wives are their mothers” refers to the hujjats or spiritual wives of the Prophet and not his physical wives. So Eve being from Adam’s ribs means she was Adam’s hujjat and became his spiritual wife; she is the bearer of the ta’wil of Adam’s prophetic revelation:

On the earthly plane, we find Eve, as Adam’s wife, typifying the esoteric content of the shari‘ah; she is the one who knows its meanings contained within the symbols, and that is why Adam cannot fulfill the shari‘ah of this cycle without her. This Adam-Eve mystery reappears in all the periods: just as the Ka’bah is the symbol of the Hujjat, so is Noah’s ark (safinah); only those who take their place there will find salvation. It is only through the Hujjat) that one may be conjoined with the Imam. The “Supreme Mary” (Maryam al-Kubra), who in turn exemplifies the heavenly Eve, was Jesus’ Hujjat because it was she who opened the doors of gnosis which had been closed, by being the first to appeal to ‘Isa [Jesus], the master of the new shari‘ah. Similarly, the “Supreme Fatima” (Fatima al-Kubra) was the Hujjat of the first Imam during the period of the “sixth Adam.”

– Henry Corbin, (Cyclical Times and Ismaili Gnosis, 183)

Typically, this female hujjat was a daughter of an Imam, a wife of an Imam, or a mother of an Imam. Bibi Fatimah al-Zahra possessed all three of these relationships. Each of these great women are the manifestation of the “Esoteric Feminine” – the Celestial Light which the Ismaili metaphysics calls the Universal Soul (al-nafs al-kull) and the biblical tradition calls Sophia. In the process of creation, God originates the Universal Intellect (al-‘aql al-kull) – the first of all spiritual beings in creation. The Universal Soul emanates from the Universal Intellect, and this Universal Soul creates and sustains the Cosmos.


In the World of Religion, the hujjat is the locus of manifestation (mazhar) of the Universal Soul while the Imam is the locus of manifestation (mazhar) of the Universal Intellect. The Celestial Feminine or Universal Soul is most often associated with Bibi Fatimah al-Zahra, the daughter of the Prophet, but it is manifested by all of the female hujjats:

Fatimah the Radiant (Fatimah al-Zahra) appears as an archetype exemplified in numerous recurrences, which are carefully noted by the typology of Ismaili ta’wil. Generally speaking, the feminine figures who exemplify this archetype are, like Fatimah herself above all, so many typifications of gnosis (‘ilm al-batin, ‘ilm al-haqiqah), of the initiation into this gnosis, and of the Life which this gnosis breathes into the “dead,” i.e., into those who are unknowing and unconscious. Thus, her esoteric rank is above all that of the Hujjat, the “Proof” or Witness of the Imam, indeed even a substitute for the Imam who, being in possession of the ta’wil, is the source of that Life which resurrects the dead.

– Henry Corbin, (Cyclical Times and Ismaili Gnosis, 182)


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