A most interesting and historically important sect of Islam has been the division of the Shī‘a known as the Seveners. Although they have been divided by many schisms, and given rise to at least one separate religion, they all trace their spiritual parentage of Ismā‘īl, eldest son of the sixth Imām of the Twelvers, Ja‘far al-Sāḍiq. Ismā‘īl is said by some Twelvers to have died before his father, by others to have been disowned for a fault ranging from drinking wine to participating in religious activist and revolutionary activities. The Twelvers make his younger brother their seventh Imām; the Seveners followed the descendants of Ismā‘īl and are often called Ismā‘īls.
The explication of their doctrine was profoundly in accord with old Hellenistic-Oriental gnostic ideas which still flourished in many isolated parts of the Islamic Empire. It was skillfully and secretly taught as an esoteric system by dā‘īs, or missionaries, while the whereabouts of the Imāms was carefully concealed. In some areas, such as the Syrian mountains, Kurdistan and Central Asia, the doctrine was grafted on to earlier gnostic communities.
In the late third century, the Ismā‘īls led a series of religious political revolts patterned on that of the ‘Abbāsīs, which culminated in the establishment of an Ismā‘īlī Caliphate "of the Children of Fāṭima" under their own Imām in Tunisia in 909. In 969 these Fāṭimī Caliphs took Egypt and built Cairo as their capital, while trying to expand eastward at ‘Abbāsī expense. A curious episode
of the Cairene period is that of the Caliph al-Ḥākim, who proclaimed his own divinity and in 1021 disappeared during a palace coup. The Druzes of the Lebanese Mountains accepted his claim, severed their connection with Muslims and hold that he was God Incarnate, now in ghayba. With the death of al-Ḥākim's grandson, al-Mustanṡir (A.H. 487/A.D. 1094), the Ismā‘īlīs divided. The younger son, al-Musta‘lī, became Caliph, and the elder son, al-Nizār, was imprisoned. The followers of the sect in ‘Abbāsī territory refused to accept this, and took Nizār's son to one of their mountain fortresses, Alamūt. The Nizārīs, as they became known, were accused of immoderate use of Indian hemp (marijuana) or hashīsh, hence the name hashshāshīn. Their well-known practice of the carefully planned murder of enemies of the sect was justifiable by their doctrine that opponents of the Imām were manifestations of the material world of non-being, and had no "real" existence. (This has given us the word "assassinate.")
The Mongols destroyed the Nizārī strongholds, and for many years the sect was in another period of taqīya or concealment. At times they have concealed themselves in the guise of Ṡūfī orders; Seveners have always had a close affinity with some Ṡūfīs, and influenced the teachers of Ibn al-Arabī. In 1817 the Qajar Shah of Persia gave their Imām the title "Aghā Khān." Nizārī dā‘īs had had considerable success in converting Hindus to their doctrines, and the Imām moved to India in the nineteenth century.
The visible line of Musta‘lī Imāms ended in A.H. 524/ A.D. 1130, when Musta‘lī's son al-Āmir died. He is said by the sect to have left a son, the infant al-Ṭayyib, who went into occultation; the Musta‘lī Imāmate is therefore
invisible. The Fāṭimī Caliphs who succeeded, not being in the direct line of succession, were not Imāms. Even this limited Caliphate was brought to an end by Ṡalāḥ al-Dīn al-Ayyūbī in 1171; the leadership of the sect passed to the dā‘īs in Yemen, who converted numbers of Hindus in Gujerat in West India, the so-called Bohras. 8 The Musta‘līs have split several times.
A good deal of Sevener literature has been published: it appears to be self-contradictory and confusing. This is because all explication of their doctrine was conducted on the sound principle that Truth, while absolute, is necessarily apprehended in a relative way by each individual--that one man's deepest spiritual verity may be another's scandal. Thus there might be many approaches in their propaganda, depending on who was involved, and where, and when. What really mattered, after all, was that one be devoted to the sinless Imām, and ready to serve him. There were degrees of knowledge within the sect according to the amount of truth the individual was judged able to bear, though this aspect was much over-emphasized by their opponents.
To be sure, the doctrine changed in the forms in which it was presented, and varied from one time or area to another. In India, it might be convenient to explain the avatars of the gods as former prophets, or vice versa. But in all its known forms, the Ismā‘īlī doctrine comes from the world of late Hellenistic thought--the metaphysics of Neoplatonism and the physics of Ptolemaeus. God is seen as pure Unity, the One, without attributes, incomprehensible to human thought. He is only to be approached by His emanations. He manifests Himself through prime or spiritual matter; here the Universal Intellect, or Nous, is emanated. To it is imparted the Divine knowledge. It
then passes this knowledge on to the Universal Soul, or Pneuma. At the bottom of the scale of emanations is the physical, material world, but even it bears the stamp of the Divine. The emanation of the Universal Intellect in the world of nature is the Nāṭiqs, or greatest prophets, in cycles of seven. The current cycle runs from Adam to Muhammad, the sixth. The emanation of the Universal Spirit is the Waṡī, who accompanies each Nāṭiq. He is the Imām, and may be incarnated in many bodies.
As a religious synthesis of all the science and philosophy available to medieval Islam, Ismā‘īlism had an immense intellectual appeal; it was a "scientific" religion. The mystical number seven and the science of the celestial spheres also figure in Ismā‘īlī literature.
The following selection is attributed (perhaps wrongly) to Ibn Ḥawshab al-Kūfī, a famous dā‘ī active in the Yemen in A.D. 266/A.H. 880. In any case, it is a very early Ismā‘īlī treatise, and shows admirably the system of esoteric interpretation of the Qur’ān (ta’wīl al-bāṭin) for which the Seveners were famous. The outcome of its Messianic promise was the Fāṭimī Caliphate.
. . . The first words of the Qur’ān are: "In the name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate." "In the name of God" is written with seven [Arabic] letters, from which twelve others can be derived, and then the twelve letters of "The Merciful, the Compassionate" follow. This sūra is "The Sūra of Praise" (ḥamd), and is seven verses. The seven letters of "In the name of God" refer to the seven Nāṭīqs [spokesmen: for the Universal Reason; used of the greatest prophets.--ED.] and the twelve derived letters indicate the fact that every Nāṭīq has twelve intendants (naqībs).
Then from the twelve of "The Compassionate, the Merciful" are derived nineteen letters, referring to the fact that
from each Nāṭiq is derived seven Imāms and twelve ḥujjats, making nineteen altogether.
The seven verses of the sūra symbolize the seven degrees of religion. The Sūra of Praise opens the Book of God, and similarly the degrees of religion open the door of knowledge in God's religion. 9
. . . The letter "yā’" (in Mahdī) has the numerical value of ten, and the seventh Nāṭiq will be the tenth after Muhammad and ‘Alī and the seven Imāms of their line. He is the tenth, and he is the seventh Nāṭiq, and he is the Eighth after the seven Imāms. . . .
God says, glory be to Him: "We have cleft the earth in fissures" (80:26) (And the earth is the Waṡī: ‘Alī). And then: "And caused to grow therein grain and the grape, and reeds, and olives, and palms, and dense-tree’d gardens, and fruits, and pasture; and enjoyment for you and your flocks." The meaning of "pasture" (i.e., āb: i.e., "father") is ‘Alī, and (referred to here) are his descendants the seven Imāms and the Eighth, who is the Mahdī, the Seventh Nāṭiq. 10
The ḥujjat (literally: "proof"; a high-ranking Ismā‘īlī dā‘ī, somewhat on a par with archbishop) who organized the Nizārīs of Alamūt (and of chapter strongholds as far west as Syria, where they came in contact with the Crusaders) was Ḥasan ibn al-Ṡabbāḥ. He probably composed the treatise from which this is taken. It was intended to appeal to non-believers, and its metaphysics would have had an obvious appeal for Christians; the Imāms are the Logos, the universe is divinized and God wears a human face.
The Great and Exalted has a manifestation in His own form for all eternity in this world. . . . He has made a man noble with that form, and all the prophets and friends of God
have indicated a man who would be the Great and Exalted among people in the form of a man.
. . . Those who speak the truth call (him) Mawlānā, Our Lord, and they consider this the greatest name of God . . . and further Mawlānā has been called Imām. . . . The Shī‘a call Mawlānā Qā’im of the Qiyama; some hold to the name Mālik al-Salām (King of Salem: Melchisedek), some say Muhammad the Mahdī, and some say Muhammad ibn Ḥasan al-‘Askarī . . . some are sure it is (‘Alī's son) Muhammad ibn al-Ḥanafīya. . . .
Who is this person, where does he live, and what is his name? . . . It is known at large and among the elite that the Prophet indicated Mawlānā ‘Alī ibn Abī Ṭālib . . . as Qā’im of the Qiyāma. . . .
Above all the Imāms is Mawlānā ‘Alī . . . who has no end nor beginning. But relatively to the people he appears now as a son, now as a grandson, now aged . . . now young, now a king, now a beggar . . . he appears in the form of the Imām of the time, today and tomorrow.
Haḍrat Bābā Sayyidna Ḥasan-i Ṡabbāḥ . . . was the greatest ḥujjat of the Qā’im of the Qiyāma. . . .
This world from the core of the earth to the zenith of the heaven of heavens is one body (shakhs). . . . And the same power which appears in the sun and moon and stars . . . is in a black stone and darkness. But it is necessary to see. And one must treat all opposites analogously. . . .
The divine light first shines from the heavens . . . and (also) rises from the core of the earth. The (Ptolemaic) heavens are called "fathers" and the four humours (hot, cold, dry, and moist) are called "mothers"; minerals, plants, and animals are called "offspring." They (are) nine fathers . . . then the power of divine light causes whatever is subtly alive in fathers and mothers and offspring to become gathered into the body of a man, and in this special form to arrive at Godhood. . . .
In the realm of sharī‘a its people imagine God conjecturally . . . but one must know that in this form of man, the Lord has manifested Himself . . . the Lord has made man
great and ennobled; regarded relatively He has brought Himself into this special form. . . . 11
This selection, while from a rather late work, displays clearly several characteristic Ismā‘īlī arguments of the past; the central doctrines of Islam are made part of an elaborate theosophical allegory; the Law becomes a mere exterior form for the uninstructed, who do not have the gnosis imparted by the ḥujjat. It is taken from Kalām-i Pīr, one of the holiest manuals of the Central Asian Nizārīs, attributed wrongly to Nāṡir-i Khusraw (died c. A.H. 480/A.D. 1087), a great Persian dā‘ī and poet. It comes from a time when the imām was in concealment, and the ḥujjat took his place. The Nizārīs of today, it should be remarked, do not take the duties of Islam lightly, and are a very progressive community. Such treatises as these are a part of the historic Nizārī past.
. . . In the nature of man are diabolical as well as angelic and human elements . . . it is necessary for a prophet to explain the devil-like and brutal in concrete similes . . . thus he tells (men) that the place for sinners is Hell . . . full of fire with snakes, scorpions and poisonous plants. And he explains the meaning of the angelic qualities in man in concrete forms, telling them that the place for the good is Paradise, a garden full of good food and drink, pretty girls and boys. A prophet must always explain his teaching in such primitive similes, devised . . . for the understanding of all grades of intelligence. Primitive people do not understand . . . anything beyond this, but intelligent people will at once grasp the purport of the simile.
. . . But the conditions of mankind are always changing, under the influence of the stars and peculiarities of different periods, and thus the Law must change. . . . Thus the (book of a prophet) must be allegorical and its teachings expressed
in similes. . . . Primitive people . . . understand (nothing) beyond the outward meaning, the ẓāhir; they should follow the outward side of the Prophet's instructions, similar to straw or bark. Those capable of understanding the inner meaning, the bāṭin . . . can perceive the meaning of the commandments . . . the ẓāhir must be continually changing, while the . . . bat in is concerned with the world of reality . . . or divinity, and is unchangeable. . . . 12
The meaning of the fast is taqīya or dissimulation . . . the Feast of Fast-breaking is the Day . . . of the Great Qiyāma [the triumph of the religion].
The meaning of the zakāt or religious tax is teaching the religion and making it to reach the faithful . . . (according to) their capacity to understand it . . . the distributor is the Ḥujjat, who conveys as much as one can stand. . . .
Running in the pilgrimage means hastening toward the Imām.
Prostration . . . means this: if a believer who is fully initiated (ma’dhūn) or a dā‘ī, commits a mistake, he must return to the higher knowledge which is with the Ḥujjat. . . . 13
The treatise on the "Recognition of the Imām" was probably written for the Nizārīs of Badakhshān in the early part of the sixteenth century. It was written for the instruction of a small and isolated community at a time when the Imām was concealed, and the only connection was the ḥujjat, to whom much importance is given here; a time which must have seemed on the whole a gloomy one. The language has changed somewhat; the Imām is now the manifestation of the Creative Act, the Word. The expectation of the promised deliverer is as strong as ever.
This is on the recognition of the Imām, who is the maẓhar (manifestation) of the Divine Creative Act; and on his Ḥujjat, who is the (manifestation) of the Universal Reason; on the Dā‘ī; on the senior initiate (ma’dhūn) and the junior
initiate (ma’dhūn-i asghar) and the neophyte or mustajīb, who are altogether the (manifestation) of the Universal Soul; and on (how to recognize) the "opponents" of the religion) who are the (manifestation) of the Universal Body.
I begin with the recognition of the Imām . . . he may be known (directly) in his own person, and at another time through his Ḥujjat. It is possible to recognize him directly only on the day of the "Sabbath of Faith" . . . each "day of faith" is one thousand years . . . on the (seventh) the Sun of Faith, the Imām, becomes manifested.
[Each thousand year period belongs to a Nāṭiq; the thousand years after the Hijra, toward the end of which this was written, was therefore the "Day of Muhammad."--ED.] . . . in the other six days . . . called the "Night of Faith," the Law (sharī‘a) is a veil for the Imām . . . but as there is the moon to take the place of the sun (at night) so the Ḥujjat takes the place of the Imām when he is not manifest. . . .
(While) in the 6000 years of the "night of faith" the Imām becomes manifest occasionally . . . these manifestations are not in his full glory. . . . But it would be absurd to think he would leave the "Chosen" without the possibility of recognizing him; for the purpose of their acquiring this knowledge the world was created. . . . Therefore the moon must exist in this night of faith. . . . 14
239:8 Much interesting information is to be found in J. N. Hollister, The Shī‘a of India (London, 1953).
239:9 Translated from edition of Arabic text by Kamil Hussein in Collectanea of the Isma‘ili Society (Leiden, 1948), Vol. I, p. 189. A translation of a defective text was made earlier, by W. Iwanow, in Studies in Early Persian Isma‘ilism and published by the Isma‘ili Society (Bombay, 1948).
239:10 Ibid., p. 199.
239:11 Marshall G. Hodgson, trans., The Order of Assassins (The Hague, 1955), pp. 284-313.
239:12 W. Iwanow, ed. and trans., Kalām-i Pīr (Bombay, 1935), p. 49.
239:13 Ibid., pp. 92, 93.
239:14 W. Iwanow, trans. On the Recognition of the Imām (Bombay, 1947), pp. 17-20.