The Ultimate Purpose of Creation: From Celestial Macrocosm to Terrestrial Microcosm

By Sujjawal Ahmad

In the Middle Ages, Neoplatonic ideas were studied and discussed by many Muslim thinkers, notable among them are al-Farabi, Avicenna, the Brethren of Purity (Ikhwan- i safa), and many other Ismaili Muslim thinkers including Nasir Khusraw, Abu Yaqub Al-Sijistani, and Hamid al–Din al–Kirmani who propagated a contemplative way of life, extending Gnostic ideas with the traditional Platonic and Aristotelian  philosophy.  In the present essay Sujjawal Ahmad discusses a classical cosmological explanation to the purpose of creation.

Image Source: Ismaili Gnosis


In the classical Ismaili cosmology, reality can be broadly divided into three divisions. The first division is God – the Unconditioned Reality. The second division is God’ command, the Primal Will, the first Conditioned Reality,  on which the rest of creation is contingent.  This realm is Alam-i Ibda, that forms Celestial Macrocosm. The third division is Alam-i khalq, that forms the physical world.

The Ismaili writings explain that the reality of God is beyond the comprehension by any mortal mind, though we may find expressions of His attributes in the Light that emanates through His Command. The Eternal Light of God that emanated, in the words of Prophet’s saying: ”first among created beings’‘, is Universal Intellect.

Although not theoretically defined as God,  but much of the language that describes God in conventional theology applies to Universal Intellect,  since human mind can grasp the understanding of God only to the capacity it can know Universal Intellect. God, in His complete transcendence,  remains absolutely beyond description by human language and discourse.

Intellect is first in the cosmological order, and by virtue of being resulted from the Creative Act of  God — His Word, ‘Kun’, it is Perfect in its essence.  Universal Soul, that follows is imperfect in actuality but perfect in potentiality. Since Intellect emanates Soul, through an act that is not perfect like the Command of God, therefore, Soul is not completely perfect. In this way, unlike Intellect, it is separated from God. Intellect, therefore, being source of the Soul and being at a higher in station than Soul, helps later to come back to the perfection, like a  father who raises his son and helps him become perfect.

Ismaili thinkers, relate ‘Time’ with the motion in the Celestial world. Intellect emanates Soul in a motionless form by virtue of its Perfect Nature. Therefore, its bringing forth of Soul is Eternal, and timeless. But Soul, due to its inherent defect ( of not being perfect), cannot caste its effect in a motionless form. It has to create motion to bring the physical world into existence. Since movements made by the Soul create time, creation of the world occurs in a time bound fashion. 

One point that needs elaboration here is that the Physical world is  a product on part of desire of Universal Soul to achieve its ontological perfection. It can be seen as a kind of image, that resulted as an effect of the creative act of defective Soul, thereby, it is perishable, neither stable nor enduring.


The Ultimate Purpose of Natural World:


The ultimate purpose of Soul’s creative act for its ontological perfection  was creation of Man. Since it cannot achieve this purpose as an intact entity, so it divides into mineral, vegetative, animal and human souls, all seen as traces from Universal Soul and sharing substance with it.

Creation of the physical world starts with prime matter first in the order and continues with elements, plants, animals and finally humans, each appearing in a sequence, starting from the simplest form of life to more complex form. Creation thus, occurred through an evolutionary process, each lower kingdom of creation leading to a higher one. The evolutionary process culminates in the creation of Mankind, since it is only through Man, Universal Soul can achieve its final purpose.  As Seyyed Nasr Hossein notes in “An Introduction to Islamic Cosmological Doctrines”: 

“For [The Brethren of Purity ], God does not create something after man as he created man after the animals, because man, by virtue of being able to return to his origin, fulfills the purpose of the whole of creation. All other orders of beings were created in order that this final stage of reunion might take place. Once the reunion has occurred, there is no metaphysical necessity for another form to be created.”

Thus, the current universe is seen as a result of a long-lasting process, evolving to its current state.  The order of creation that follows ‘time’ is:

  • Formation of basic elements  leading to plants that represent life and possess a primary type of soul called ‘vegetative soul’.
  • A step higher are animals, having been evolved from plants, posses a second ‘animal soul’ in addition to vegetative soul. They obtain nourishment from both plants and minerals.
  • The most nobler of the creation are humans. They share a body form with animals having been evolved from animal. But in addition to vegetative and animal souls, they also possess a third category of soul – the ‘Rational soul’.  It is this soul which defines them as Humans and positions them a distinct creation highest among the terrestrial creatures.

Man, by virtue of possessing individual intellect (aql-i juzv) as a trace of Universal Intellect in addition to a part they share of Universal Soul (Nafs-e-juzv),  presents in his self the whole cosmos – a micro-cosm.

Noteworthy here is that conventional theology of both Islamic and Christian traditions hold the notion of man created in the image of God:

“So God created human beings in His own image. In the image of God He created them; male and female He created them.”-Genesis (1:27)

“Allah created Adam in His/his image (`ala suratihi)” -Prophet Muhammad,(Al-Bukhaari 6227, and Muslim 2841)

This image of God,  implies to the fact of man manifesting both intellect and soul in his self,  a pattern that reflects the celestial cosmos.

Man in his utmost rationality is informed by the Universal Intellect, that gives him an instrumental role in moving his individual soul (as such Universal Soul also) closer to its perfection.

In Natural world, where every physical phenomena obeys laws of physics without knowing consciously, likewise, man can follow exoteric practices of faith without knowing its essence, and without conscious of esoteric knowledge aspect that lies therein.  This renders man with inherent potential to act like a blind phenomena or use his intellect and nourish his soul with the food of knowledge. Man is capable to ascend to higher phases of reality to know his Creator.

Religion – A Road to Salvation:


{From Nasir Khusraw} Man’s task is to witness and worship the glory of God. The fact of physical creation has set out a task for the world to accomplish, that is, to achieve the value and significance of the heaven. In the same way that man receives his bodily nourishment from plants and animals, he is to receive spiritual nourishment from God…  God has sent prophets and the Book so that man can better understand his servitude to God. By taking his nourishment from the words of the prophets and the scriptures, and by accepting and acting as a proper slave of God, man can overcome his status and ascend from the level of beasts to an angelic state in the eternal blessing of heaven.? Alice C. Hunsberger,  Nasir-i Khusraw’s doctrine of the soul: From the universal Intellect to the physical world in Isma’ili philosophy pp 199.

As we have already seen, man serves as a vehicle for Universal Soul to fulfill its desire to become perfect in actual.

Salvation simply means to reach back to the World of Origination, called Alam- i Ibda, or Alam ‘e Amr.  Religion gives a practical framework to train man for that. In Ismailism, following the religious practices alone without knowing esoteric reality inherent therein, does no good for a believer in his path to salvation.

God sends to this world His Messengers and Imams who are teachers bestowed with salvafic knowledge, a knowledge that is unique and not shared by common people. The divine inspiration comes to them  in the form of ‘Holy Spirit’. They receive emanations coming from the world of ‘Ibda’, and as such serve as a mediators for mankind to those emanations.  Soul of a believer is not perfect on the other hand, so it needs continuous training through following religious practices prescribed in the form of Sharia.

Ismaili system of thought divide human history into seven periods that together comprise one big era. In each period, God sends down prophets and imams for guiding mankind towards right path. Each period begins with a Natiq or Speaker Prophet who enunciates tanzil in a symbolical language  of a law (shariah) that conceals truths at the esoteric level (an act which is termed as  ‘taleef’) . This function Natiq is analogous to that of Universal Soul creating dense realm of physical world  out of subtle realm. Asas, the foundation of religionis Natiq’s executor who succeeds him and carries out the function of bringing tawil (esoteric interpretation) of the shariah the form of ‘tawil’, that helps the community of believers to go back to the origins of the subtle truths behind symbols and metaphors. This function of Asas continues with his descendants called Imams, who serve as gates to reach the esoteric knowledge. Each of the Holders of Authority is charged with the responsibility of conveying benefits emanating from the celestial world to mankind, and therefore, each individual man must know his ‘master of time’ (sahib al-zaman), who governs his own time for it is through him that these blessings flow.

I conclude this article quoting  Nasir khusrau for whom nothing in this world can come more nobler than human beings, for they are the only creation where mineral, vegetal, animal and rational souls can come together.

“…when the effect of the (activity of) the Nafs-i Kull is manifested in the human body, and when the latter gets its “food” from the ‘Aql-i Kull, by acquiring the knowledge of its own origin (asl), by knowing and recognizing the oneness of God (tawhid), then, through all this, the (human) soul  in the body ‘becomes similar to the Nafs-i Kull, …..when that soul receives “food” from the ‘Aql-i Kull, and, having become similar to the latter, returns to the Nafs-i Kull, it attains eternal bliss  when the Nafs-i Kull itself re-joins the ‘Aql-i Kull. “

-Sayyidina Nasir khusrau (Shish fasl, Ivano trans, The Fourth Chapter, on the Creation of the Human Soul in the Material World)

Author: ismailimail

Independent, civil society media featuring Ismaili Muslim community, inter and intra faith endeavors, achievements and humanitarian works.

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