Reading Text through Pre-Text: Redefining Isma’ili Hermeneutics
Program Unit: Qur’anic Studies: Methodology and Hermeneutics (IQSA) – Khalil Andani, Harvard University
Isma’ili Muslim hermeneutics, known as ta’wil, is often branded as “allegorical” or “esoteric interpretation” (Daftary 2004, 2007, 2012; Klemm 2003, Wiley 2005) premised on sectarianism. Bar-Asher (2008) describes Isma’ili ta’wil as “a selective, particularized and sectarian approach” in which pre-conceived doctrines are read into the Qur’anic text. Hollenberg (2016) presents Isma’ili ta’wil as a form of cognitive training designed to strengthen Isma’ili sectarian identity. What remains lacking in scholarship is a coherent conceptualization of Isma’ili ta’wil within a general framework of Islamic hermeneutics that seriously engages the Isma’ili thinkers’ definitions of ta’wil, and accounts for the diverse expressions of Isma’ili ta’wil through different authors and historical periods.
This paper draws on Shahab Ahmed’s conceptualization of Islam, which he defines as the hermeneutical engagement of the self with the Pre-Text, Text (the Qur’an and Cosmos), and Con-Text of the Muhammadan Revelation (Ahmed 2015). Using Ahmed’s notions of “Pre-Text” as the transcendent source of Revelation and “Con-Text” as “the body of meaning that is the product…of previous hermeneutical engagement with Revelation” (Ahmad 2015), I present a new definition of Isma’ili ta?wil as the hermeneutical act of reading the Text of Revelation by means of and through the Pre-Text and explain how the diverse expressions of Isma’ili ta’wil in history stem from the different frames of meaning that Isma’ili thinkers drew from an intra and inter-Muslim Con-Text.
This definition of Isma’ili ta’wil is constructed through three arguments: first, I show how the Isma’ili view of Qur’anic revelation (wahy, tanzil) differs substantially from Sunni models of dictated verbal inspiration in that Isma’ili thinkers regard the Prophet as the creator of the Qur’an as a symbolic manifestation of the Pre-Text. Isma’ili thinkers also conceived this Pre-Text as comprising a spiritual realm and the Ismaili da’wa hierarchy led by the Isma’ili Imam. Secondly, I demonstrate how Isma’ili thinkers understand ta’wil as a “revelatory hermeneutic” grounded in divine inspiration (ta’yid), whereby the Isma’ili exegete – through the Imam’s divinely-inspired knowledge – “reads” the Pre-Text of Revelation and then creatively “reads” the Text through the Pre-Text.
The primary hermeneutical function of Isma’ili ta’wil is to render the Text transparent to the Pre-Text, thereby unveiling the Truth of the Pre-Text to the Isma’ili initiate. This is the inverse of Sunni tafsir, which seeks knowledge of the Pre-Text in the Text using hadith, philology, grammar, etc.
Thirdly, I explain how Isma’ili thinkers through history produced divergent expressions of ta’wil because they each conceived the Pre-Text using different systems of meaning from the Con-Text of Revelation.
Khalil Andani is a SSHRC Fellow and doctoral (Ph.D) candidate in Islamic studies at Harvard University focusing on Islamic theology, philosophy, and intellectual history and holds a Master of Theological Studies degree (MTS 2014) from Harvard Divinity School. His publications include a forthcoming article about the Ismaili influence on al-Ghazali’s cosmology in the Oxford Journal of Islamic Studies, two peer reviewed articles on the Survey of Ismaili Studies in Religion Compass, a chapter on Nasir-i Khusraw’s Ismaili philosophy in the The Oxford Handbook of Islamic Philosophy, and two articles comparing Ismaili cosmology and the Christian metaphysics of Meister Eckhart in Sacred Web. Khalil is also a Chartered Professional Accountant (CA-CPA) and has completed Bachelor of Mathematics (BMath) and Master of Accounting degrees at the University of Waterloo (2008).