Aspects of Classical Ismaili Cosmology

Sujjawal Ahmad writes for Ismailimail on Ismaili Cosmology.


In classical Ismaili thought, God is an all transcendent Reality that cannot be described with a simile, analogy or definition. God is beyond all ranks, grades and degrees (maratib) and totally transcends unity and plurality, perfection and imperfection;and, for Ismaili thinkers, there is no way to tolerate human perception of Him.The divine will is revealed in the Word ‘Kun’, which serves as the creative intermediary between God and the Intellect (the first originated/created being)  that is to say, it bridges the gap between the transcendent God and the created world. Although, creation takes place at many stages but all the creation, whether it is of spiritual cosmos or physical world, has its origins in God’s Word ‘Kun’. This Divine  Amr is ultimately responsible for directing and sustaining what ever has been created.

The first Existent Being that originated as a result of the first Cause was Intellect, which is ‘One’ and at the same time contains all things in their multiplicity in its luminous substance. Intellect is not theoretically God, but much of the language that is used to describe God in the conventional theology actually applies to the Intellect, as God remains unknowable and cannot be described through use of human language discourse. While God, in His a complete transcendence, is above the condition of being perfect or imperfect, Intellect, for Ismaili thinkers, is the most Perfect being. Physical world, on the other hand, remains defective and needs perfection, while being itself as a product of desire on part of Universal Soul to achieve the ontological perfection of Intellect. As the Soul cannot achieve this purpose as an intact entity, so it has to divide sending forth souls of humans  into this physical world.The ultimate purpose of Soul’s creative act was, creation of Man and each individual soul  plays an instrumental role for bringing Universal Soul closer to the status of Universal Intellect.

God’s Act of Creation is Eternal and Timeless:

God’s Command is undeniable, unstoppable, unending and eternal, which means that the creative act of God is not bound to time.So, the Universal Intellect, which is its effect, is also eternal and timeless.Its beginning is the same as its end.The eternal origination of Intellect and then from it eternal emanation of Soul take place beyond the limits of time:

“Creation as origination does not have any relationship to time;before and after have no scope or meaning at the stage of origination.God’s origination is a-temporal,as is the emanating of the intellect bring soul into existence.Both are eternal.Time can apply to a process only within the soul,it is only there that a prior and posterior exist as two aspects of a single point or a single perspective.”

—Paul E.Walker, (Abu ya’qub al Sijistani— Intellectual Missionary,93)

“There was no time, however, between the coming into existence of the Aql, its being united with the Kalima of the Creator, and the manifestation of the NaEs from it, because time itself was produced by the action of the Nafs.”

—Sayyidina Nāṣir Khusraw,(Shish Fasl,p 14 of the text)

It is necessary here to know how Ismaili thinkers explain the notion of Eternity. Just like time has three aspects, past, present and future, so does eternity has three states or aspects; and these are: Azal, Azalyat and Azali as defined by Ismaili thinkers.

  • Azal (Eternity Itself) which is with God—the Innovator (Mubdi) , but there is no way for thought, imagination, speech, or expression to represent this or to understand it;
  • Azaliyat (or Eternality) which is with the Innovative act of God—the Command (Ibda),which is source of all creation;
  • Azali (or the eternal) which is with Intellect — the first existent being.

“..the eternality which comes from this act of origination from the True Originator, who is Himself eternal, is a trace which when it is made manifest renders the eternal, eternal through Him. This is fixed in the eternal without becoming a part of the eternal; rather, it is a trace of Him — glory be to Him — in just the same way as a book is a trace of the writer by whose act of writing the book comes to be.”

—Sayyidina Nāṣir Khusrau ,( Kitāb-i Jāmiʿ al-ḥikmatayn, trans Ormsby,p.172)

Thus the command is eternality ( the qualification) and Intellect is eternal (the quality itself). Intellect is the Eternal Being in which eternity, in simple words, becomes manifest.Just like Oneness of God becomes One in Intellect, so does eternality becomes eternal in the Intellect.

“. ..It [the azali or the eternal] represents Intellect as overseer of the lower world, and its absence, even for a moment, would mean annihilation. Thus, the eternal is absolutely essential for the existence of the world. The eternal Intellect, which has life, wisdom, and science, must by this overview shine its blessings on this world at every moment.”

—Paul E.Walker,(Eternal Cosmos and the Womb of History: Time in Early Ismaili Thought)

Eternity is in the realm of Intellect, while Time is in the realm of Soul. Soul, however, is not “in” Time ( in its creation), but instead remains “in” Eternity with Intellect and creates time as its instrument for creating this world[1].The difference between time and eternity, as Corbin notes, is that Time is eternity measured while Eternity is Time not measured, having neither beginning nor end. Eternity can be seen as an eternal duration and its cause is the first Divine Emanation in the form of origination of Intellect.[2]

Hence, just as both the creative act of God (the Universal Command) and the emanative act of Intellect (when it emanates Soul) are eternally time-unbound acts, so it can be concluded that  God continuously creates and sustains His creation. His creative act is not time bound, but Eternal and outside the realm of time. God is not a cause of His creation but He is also not separate from His creation because His Command serves as a link between His transcendent Essence and the created world. Every thing that is created is as a result of causations and emanations, while His Divine Command being the first cause and Intellect being the first existent Being.

Intellect as the First Existent Being:

In the classical Ismaili system of thought, ‘Wujūd’ is a term which applies and designates everything other than the Ultimate Reality of God.The first thing to be called existent is Universal Intellect and all other existents depend for their existence on this first Existent.In the other words, Intellect is the Necessary Wujūd , while the  ‘Divine Command’ being the ultimate Cause of all causes and effects.

“God is He who has brought from not- being (nist) into being (hast) the initial being (hast-i nukhust), so that existence (hast) and non-existence (nist) should both (juft) be created by Him, and should stand side by side (of each other), by His command. This is because both the quality (sifat) and what is qualified by it (sifat-padhir) are under His power (andarmulkh-i u), while He Himself, in His ipseity (huwiyyat), is above everything, and nothing can have a relation to Him (ba-d-u paywastagi nist), just as He said (Quran, cxii,1): “Say, God is one”.”

—Sayyidina Nasir khusrau, (Shish fasl,Ivano trans,The First Chapter, on the Recognition of the Oneness of God)

Universal Intellect in Ismaili metaphysics is, thus:

  • the First Existent,and its existence is the perfect existence, because it has resulted from the most perfect act of creation—the Command of God.
  • not anteceded or preceded by any other existent.
  • an indispensable existent, whose existence is necessary for other existents; and its existence is different from all others in the sense that its existence does not depend upon any other existent but all other existents depend for their existence on it.

In Nasir-i -Khusraw’s words:

“We know that the cause (illat) of all beings is the Word of God Most Holy (kalamah-i- Bari Subhanahu). That Word is one (yiki) and that which is caused by it , in truth, without any intermediary necessarily (lazam) is one, until other effects come into being (padid) and through the mediation of that one effect. For example, a tree, which comes into being from one seed (tukhmi) so that again (baz) by the mediation of that tree from that seed many branches,leaves, and fruits will come into being. Therefore, that first effect was Intellect which accepted completely the strength of its cause through no mediation, [while] Soul was produced (pad!d amad) by the Word, through the mediation of Intellect.”

—Sayyidina Nasir khusrau, (Khwan al-Ikhwan, 89, trans quoted in  Hunsberger’s Dissertation on Nasir-i Khusraw’s doctrine of the soul,p 103)

Thus, universe is, consequently, a creation (makhluq) of God and He is not separate from His creation, for His command or word act as an intermediary between Him and His creation.

Intellect Contains in it All things in their Perfect forms:

Creation, in Ismaili thought, is a  two fold process and occurs at two levels:

  • Atemporal level— which transcends time—origination (Ibda) of all things(in their forms) in the intelligible realm of Intellect as a result of creative act of God in His Command.
  • Temporal  level—  which itself creates time— creation (khalq) of all things in the form of corporeal world (‘alam-i jismani) as a result of activity of Soul.

“That there was no form for the world with the originator prior to the origination.”

—Paul E.Walker,(The Wellsprings of Wisdom, p. 96–98.)

“…He by a single command originates (ikhtara‘) beings all at once without the need afterward to alter or change,”

—Sayyidina Abu Ya’qub al Sijistani, ( Ithbat al-Nubuwa, p. 3)

Thus, creation occured primarily in the form of intelligible realm of Intellect as a result of Ibda-creation out of nothing (or ex nihilo), all at once(without involvement of time)   , as a result of the Command of God.Various parts of the universe, however, became only gradually manifested through the process of causation and emanation. Al-Sijistani emphatically denies that the world was created thing by thing or moment by moment. It was, he maintains, originated at once (daf‘atan wahidatan).[3]

“The ontological difference between the intelligible realm (dar al-ibda) and the sensible realm (dar al-makhluq) is a direct result of their different processes of coming into being. The intelligible realm originates in the Word of God, in no time, while the sensible realm (consisting of the created beings (makhluq) after Soul is produced (khalq) over time.”[4]

Intellect’s Emanative Act:

Universal Intellect emanates Universal Soul, it produces Soul without will, without desire, and without movement.Thus, its act of emanation is also extra-temporal and Universal Soul comes into being all at once as a result of emanation from the Inellect. This is the reason why Quran says as:

“And Our commandment is but one (commandment), as the twinkling of an eye.”

—Chapter 54 (The Moon),Verse 50

The creation of Intellect and that of Soul takes place before the creation time, so, both of them are eternal beings, that is, they are not bound to time.

In Ismaili metaphysics, Universal Intellect and Universal Soul, the two metaphysical limits (Hudud) of the spiritual world, have been explained with different relations.Some of them are discussed  below:

  • The Beneficent and the Beneficiary:

As a result of its recognition as One, Intellect emanates Soul.Soul, unlike Intellect, is imperfect in actuality but perfect in potentiality.Intellect is perfect because it has resulted from the Creative Act of  God—His Word ‘Kun’, so it is perfect.But, the emanating act  of  Intellect is not of the same level, in its perfection, to the Divine Act; hence  we can say that the act of Intellect has defect compared with that of Command such that which is caused (i.e. Soul) is not perfect.So, the Intellect helps perfect the Soul as is the case between father and a son.Just like a  father is a one who raises his son and perfects him, so is the Intellect that helps Soul to come back to the perfection.But, as mentioned earlier, Soul is defective, being imperfect in actuality, it cannot do anything for its creative acts in motionless and timeless condition (which is not the case with Intellect that produces Soul in a total motionless condition).It does not has power to effect its action without movement while at rest.Instead, it can only produce this physical world,firstly, by creating time (which results from the movements made by Soul in restless condition).Creation through Soul is, thus, a time bound process.In order to get help from Intellect, it has to move upwards while in order to create this physical world it has to move downwards.This physical world can be seen as a kind of image, because it has resulted as an effect of creative act of defective Soul, so it is perishable, neither stable nor enduring.

Here it can be said that the one is Beneficent (fā’ida dahanda), and the other is beneficiary (fā’ida pazīr).Intellect constantly helps the Soul to reach to its perfection.Soul can be considered as a receptacle that is benefited by the powers of Intellect.Soul cannot reach to its perfection on its own but it needs a helper and that helper is Intellect.

  •  The Pen and The Tablet

“Since the Soul has the rank of the tablet, the Intellect has the rank of the pen.The pen provides information to the tablet, in the same way that the Intellect informs the Soul.”

—Sayyidina Nāṣir Khusraw, ( Kitāb-i Jāmiʿ al-ḥikmatayn, trans Ormsby,p.202)

Pen has potential to write on paper, but as long as a writer does not issues a command to the pen to write, it cannot write on its own.Similarly, Divine Intellect is under the Command of God and acts as a mediator to emanate Universal Soul, and then the Soul creates this world as a result of its desire to become perfect; while, the role played by the Intellect is just like that of a pen [k’lam].Every thing that has been created as a result of Soul’s activity is already present potentially,in its perfect form, in the luminous essence of Intellect.In the other words, Intellect, itself being as the First Existent, contains in it origin of all other existents.Soul only plays a role to bring forth what is present in potentiality to become actuality.

“And the [relationship of the] Intelligence (aql) to the Pen is illustrated in such a fashion, that until the [writer’s] [straight] line (khaṭṭ) actually appear [that is,be drawn], it (i.e. the straight line) is unknown because the [potential] line within the pen issues from the soul of the person although a person’s soul bears no [direct ontological] resemblance or connection to the pen just as the Creator’s cause [or ‘command’], glory be to him, is attached to the Intelligence without the Intelligence [necessarily] enjoying any attachment or connection to the ipseity (huvīyat) of the Creator, glory be to him, other than as the function of the manifestation of the existents from the Intelligence in the same manner as a piece of writing is obtained from the pen.”

—Sayyidina Nāṣir Khusrow, (khwān al-ikhwān,trans N. Wahid Azal)

“Prophet of God has called Universal Intellect ‘God’s pen’ (qalam-i khudāy), for everything that is in the mind of the writer comes first to the pen, then from the pen it goes to the tablet: without the tablet nothing would be revealed. And this world itself is in the likeness of a book written by God the Exalted”

—Sayyidina Nāṣir Khusrau, (Kitāb-i Jāmiʿ al-ḥikmatayn, trans Ormsby,p.203)

  • Soul is a Trace of Intellect:

Just like moon depends for its light on sun, it does not has its own light but the light that it reflects is actually that of sun, similarly, Soul does share its matter from the Intellect.Soul is nothing else but a trace of Intellect.

“Soul did not come into existence until it was a compound (tarkib). Its composition (tarkib) is with the matter (madat) of Intellect. The proof for this statement is that when Universal Soul received matter from Universal Intellect into its own essence, it was “matter-accepting (midst padhlr).” Whatever accepts matter is a mixture. When it received matter from Intellect it became composite. Individual Soul was not addressed (mukhatabah) by God Almighty until it was compounded with Intellect.”

—Sayyidina Nāṣir Khusraw ,[ Khwan al-Ikhwan, 98,tans quoted in Hunsberger’s Dissertation on’ Nasir kushraus’s Doctrine of Soul’,p 73 ].

For Ismaili thinkers, Intellect is associated with number ‘one’ and Soul is associated with number ‘two’. Soul, being second in number having been created, is considered to be a trace of Intellect— that is to say, it shares its essence with Intellect.It is similar to Intellect in the sense that it is Perfect in potential but also shows dissimilarity,at the same time, with the Intellect in the sense that it is imperfect in actual. Sayyidina Nāṣir-i-Khusrow gives example of number ‘one’ and ‘two’; number ‘two’ has essence of ‘one’ as it contains ‘one’ twice,so it contains in it a trace of one.In a similar manner, Soul is a trace of the Intellect. Sayyidina Abu Yaqub al-Sijistani also explains about Soul being a trace of Intellect, as Walker notes:

‘An effect must share a quality with its cause .Intellect regards its own self and informs it.The result is soul,which is thus caused by intellect,and since it is the image of intellect,it participates in intellect.Not only can intellect not engender soul out of itself but it must share with soul some qualities of intellect.The effect thus participates in its own cause.”

—Paul E.Walker, (Abu ya’qub al Sijistani-Intellectual Missionary,93)


1 Corbin, Cyclical, 33


3. The Ismaili Vocabulary of Creation, Walker

4.Nasir Khusrau’s Doctrine of Soul,Dr A.Hunsberger’s Dissertation;p 132

Author: Sujjawal Ahmad

Sujjawal is a Pakistan based writer. He did his Masters degree in Molecular Biology from Quaid-i Azam University Pakistan. He writes on philosophical traditions of the world religions, more specifically on Ismaili Philosophy and Theology. Contact via email:

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