Creation of the World : A Classical Ismaili Philosophical Discourse


“The creation according to Islam is not a unique act in a given time but a perpetual and constant event; and God supports and sustains all existence at every moment by His will and His thought. Outside His will, outside His thought, all is nothing, even the things which seem to us absolutely self-evident such as space and time. Allāh alone wishes: the Universe exists; and all manifestations are as a witness of the Divine will.”
– Imām Sulṭān Muḥammad Shāh Āgā Khān III,
(Islam: The Religion of My Ancestors, extract from The Memoirs of Aga Khan: World Enough and Time)

Beyond the creationist and naturalist controversies, and debates between the fundamentalist schools of theologians and scientific community, there is however, another approach towards understanding the notion of creation, and that is, which we find adopted by the various schools of Muslim philosophers of Medieval times. While the conception of evolution by natural selection through random mutations, in its atheistic and materialistic roots and background remains flawed, an endeavor to reconcile this notion can be through considering the approach of teleological basis for creation through evolution which we see adopted in the classical philosophy. As we look back to the Islamic history, we come across many philosophers who have explained it in their own ways utilizing classical aspects of Platonic and Aristotelian ideas, but in the present article I shall mainly focus on the metaphysical and cosmological approach of creation in the classical Ismaili philosophy.

The notion, that God creates by uttering a single Command, is accepted both by conventional groups of theologians and classical Muslim philosophers. In the classical Ismaili Muslim philosophy, creation is not an event that takes place in time, but it is a timeless and an eternal event. God creates all things at once by uttering a single Word ‘Kun’ which serves as His Divine Command or ‘Amr’. As Quran says “He but saith to it, ‘Be,’ and it is! (3:48)

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

—Chapter 54 (The Moon),Verse 50

Creation, for most Ismaili thinkers, is a two-fold process, that is to say, it occurs at two levels:

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

The first level of creation is brought on by the ‘Will of God’ , while the second level is the creation of  a world which proceeds necessarily from His Command, not affecting His Absolute Ipseity or Essence.

‘ Ibda’the Absolutely Innovative Creation:

God is described in the Holy Qur’an as badi‘ al-samawati wa’l-ard :

“To Him is due the primal origin(badi) of the heavens and the earth;When He decreeth a matter(amaran),He saith to it:Be (‘kun’) and it is (fa ya kun)”(2:117)

In Arabic, word ‘badi’ is used to refer to the creation of something from nothing, without any previous example and without the use of any other matter or substance, as opposed to word ‘Khalq’ which means to create something from anything already present.[1] Another word used in the Quran for God as Originator of heavens and the earth is Fatir (6:14). However, we see the following pattern of terms adopted by various Ismaili thinkers:

  • God is described as  Mubdi —the Originator;
  • His Divine command,  Ibda — the act of originating;
  • First Intellect,  Mubda— that which gets originated.

The first thing which God produced and called into existence, through ‘Ibda ’— the Divine Act of Origination, is a simple, spiritual, perfect and excellent substance in which the form of all things is contained. This substance is called the Intellect and termed as Mubda-al-awalwhich means directly originated or brought into existence from non-existence, out of nothing, or to say,  it is invented. Various traditions of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) also confirm that first entity created by God was Intellect :

God – may He be glorified and exalted – created Intellect (‘Aql’) first among the spiritual entities.

– Prophet Muhammad.[2]

Intellect was, however, originated out of nothing – not from any pre-existing substance or material, rather it was invented altogether.

“It did not exist, then it came into existence via ibda and ikhtira, neither from a thing, nor upon a thing, nor in a thing, nor by a thing, nor for a thing and nor with a thing.”

– Hamid al din al-Kirmani, (Rahat al-‘Aql, trans. hunzai, p. 165)

Ismaili thinkers differentiate between creation out of nothing calling it invention (Ibda) and creation from already present thing calling it as true creation (khalq). Nasir khusrau explains the difference between the two terms in these words:

“They term bringing something not out of something else ‘origination’ (ibdāʿ) or ‘invention’ (ikhtirāʿ), while they call ‘creation’ (khalq) the determination (taqdīr) of a thing from another thing. In just this way, the carpenter makes a throne out of wood; he is the creator (khāliq) of the throne and he is also the originator (mubdiʿ) of the form of the throne. Man does not have the capability to originate the body (ibdāʿ-i jism) from nothing.”

 – Sayyidina Nasir khusrau, (Kitāb-i Jāmiʿ al-ḥikmatayn,trans Ormsby,p 189)

Thus, the Command is innovative act of God and effect of it is Intellect. Both Command and Intellect are not separate from each other. A cause exists when its effect exists. In the other words, existence of a cause depends upon its effect and same is true for the effect, it exists only as a consequence of its cause. Both effect and cause cannot considered separate from each other. Relation between the Command and Intellect is just analogous to the example of the Sun and its light. Command is like Sun and Intellect can be seen as its light, while there is no difference between the two —  apparently they are two different entities but in essence they are one. The Universal Intellect is united with the Command and there is no intermediary entity separating between the two. In this way, the perfect state of the Intellect and its high spiritual status is assured. There is also not any temporal difference between the Command and Intellect, the only difference is at the conceptual level. As origination of Intellect occurred beyond the limits of time, so,  we cannot say which came or first or which afterwards, because before and after did not exist then.The only difference lies is at conceptual level.

The command of God is Being-Making.And Being-Making does not subsist except in Intellect, that is to say, if there were not intellect, no Being would be. The proof of this thesis is that no artist in the world would make art without Intellect. Another is that the first Being, namely, Intellect, is the result of Perfect Liberality, and the Perfect Liberality is that for which Intellect becomes a mediator (wasilah) through its excellence; and it is not possible for a thing (Intellect) to become a mediator except at that time when it (Intellect) is itself in Being.Therefore, the first Intellect does not appear after Being Making, and two do not have priority over each other. We say that the Command of the Originator, the most High,is Being Making, and Intellect is the first Being Made. Therefore the command, namely Being-Making, and Intellect, namely the first Being-Made, do not have priority over each other.”

 – Sayyidina Abu Yaqub al-Sijistani,(Kashf-al-Mahjoob,p22)

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

Nasir khusrau, in his book Gushayish wa Rahayish, explains this ‘Word-Intellect’ relation with the example of ‘blackness’ and ‘black’. Blackness has received its name from the color black, it can only be perceived when black exists, while black itself is a consequence of its quality i.e. blackness. Another way to understand this relationship, as Nasir khusrau explains, is to consider ‘Word’ as ‘oneness’ and ‘Intellect’ as ‘one’. As ‘oneness’ only manifests its existence in ‘one’ and ‘one’ itself is so called because of it quality i.e. ‘oneness’; so these two properties cannot be considered separate from each other, rather, they are one in essence. Divine Word is the cause and Intellect its effect. An effect cannot be separated from its cause and if we remove cause then effect itself ceases to exist. Existence of Intellect depends on the Divine Word which serves as an intermediary between God and the Intellect.

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

  – Sayyidina Abu Yaqub al-Sijistani, (Ithbat al-Nubuwa, p. 3)

Thus, creation occured primarily in the form of intelligible realm of Intellect as a result of ‘Ibda’ — that is, ‘creation out of nothing’ (or ex nihilo); and this took place, all at once, beyond the limits of time. The ‘Command of God’, according to al-Sijistani, is like a date seed, for it contains everything in it. The Command serves as ‘Divine Act’ and the result of it is creation of all things, in their multiplicity, in the substance of First Intellect. 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]

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.

“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 atemporal, 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.”[5]

God’s Command is the Ultimate source of the whole cosmos.The  ultimate effect of His Command ‘Kun’, through mediation of Intellect and Soul, is this physical world. The Divine Command encompasses everything that exists. The 48th Ismaili Imam, Sultan Muhammad Shah Aga khan III, explains this all-encompassing nature of God’s Command in these words as already quoted :

“Allāh alone wishes: the Universe exists; and all manifestations are as a witness of the Divine will.”

(Islam: The Religion of My Ancestors)


‘Tarqib’the Progressive  Unfolding of Creation by Universal Soul:

The second level of creation is that of physical world that occurs gradually in parts as a result of activity of Universal Soul; Soul, unlike Intellect, cannot produce “in one instant,” rather it needs passage of time for bringing physical world into existence.  

From the most perfect substance of the First Intellect, there proceeds a second one which in hierarchy is below the first and is called the Universal Soul (al-Nafs al-kull). Comprehending its separation from the One, Soul turns to return to its source to regain its position within the Intellect and, ultimately, within the Command. For Nasir khusrau, physical world is ‘not‘  a product of any sin of Soul (as we see this notion in the cosmology of Kirmani and his contemporary Muslim philosophers which was, in later periods, accepted by Tayyabi dais and philosophers as well). Physical world, for Nasir khusrau, is the result of Soul’s activity in the search for its own perfection which is reflected in its activity in the form of motion initiated to overcome a defect in its own essence. This defect of Soul is its separation from God. Soul has an eternal desire for its nearness to God and as such become perfect in actuality like Intellect.

The fashioning of the material world involves several steps, which proceed in a linear and progressive fashion :

  • As a result of its desire to become perfect in actuality and its reunion within its source, it creates motion (jumbash).  The result of this motion is creation of  time. As motion of Soul is timeless and eternal, so creation of time is also eternal. Every thing that now proceeds in the order of creation is brought into existence in a time bound fashion.
  • Proceeding to time, Soul creates a subtle material called Prime Matter which is a simple and ideal substance that cannot be sensed because, in its primitive foundation, it is a form of unique existence.
  • The ‘Prime matter’ brings forth the stage of creation which represents Mineral Kingdom. This occurs through the creation of four elements of Nature i.e earth, water, air, and fire.(These four elements actually represent four states of matter, that is, solid, liquids, gases and plasma)
  • The Mineral kingdom leads to Plant Kingdom which ends in creation of  Animal Kingdom and finally Humans come into existence. Each level of creation has its spiritual existence as well. Plants have vegetal soul, animals have animal Soul, and humans have rational Soul.
  • Humans are the only  creation that contain in them all three souls, that is, they have vegetal, animal and rational souls. Vegetal and animal souls are for nourishment and movement respectively, while rational soul is the speaking soul which enables humans to acquire knowledge, utilize and then transmit it to others in the form of language and discourse.
  • In his utmost rationality man also possesses a part from the Universal Intellect in the form of individual intellect. This is the reason he has been called Supreme creature ( Ashraf al-Makhlukat). Moreover, only humans can use the two traces of Universal Intellect i.e. science (ilm) and philosophy (hikmat). These two traces help individual souls to reach perfection by seeking this knowledge and Hikamat from the true wellsprings of knowledge, that are,  Natiq Prophet of the cycle and Imams from the progeny of Natiq, who are bestowed with direct spiritual inspiration of the Universal Intellect in the form of Holy Spirit.

It is in this contex, for most classical Islamic philosophers, the Quran speaks about creation of the whole mankind from a single Soul.

O mankind! Be careful of your duty to your Lord Who created you from a single soul (Quran 4:1)

Physical world is, thus, a product of desire on part of the Universal Soul to achieve ontological perfection of the Intellect. But Soul cannot achieve this purpose as an intact entity, so it has to divide. So in the words of Plotinus:

The Soul is unable to seize the content of intelligence;it must therefore review its aspect one by one.In doing so,it engenders time and subsequently produces the sensible as temporal [6]

Humans, in their utmost rationality, have a direct access to intellect and each individual soul plays a crucial role in the perfection of Universal Soul and is instrumental in moving the Universal Soul closer to its perfection. Human body, however, acts as an intermediary agent in the purification of the individual soul.This is achieved through individuals carrying out religious duties in the form of Shariah set forth by Natiq and seeking knowledge from Imams.

 –Sujjawal Ahmad


1.tafsir Ibn Kathir 1/241

2.Mohammad Ali Amir-Moezzi, The Divine Guide in Early Shi ‘ism, (SUNY Press, 1994),31

3.  The Ismaili Vocabulary of Creation, Walker

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

5.Abu ya’aqub al Sijistani-Intellectual missionary,Paul E.Walker,933

6.[Plotinus,A.H Armstrong,Cambridge History,pp.115–116;cf.Ennead III,7]

7. Al-Bukhaari (6227) and Muslim (2841)

8. Ivano trans The Fourth Chapter, on the Creation of the Human Soul in the Material World.

9.See section [16] in the Ikhwān Risāla fī’l ‘Ishq, ed. and tr. A. Lalani

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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