Ismailis have made outstanding contributions to Muslim literature. The da‘ wa produced a body of writings that is unique among Muslims. Ja‘far bin Mansur al-Yaman’s Book of the Master and the Disciple (Kitab al-‘ Alim wa’ l-Ghulam), written in the tenth century, is “by far the most accomplished example of the full-scale narrated dramatic dialogue form in Arabic literature” (Morris 2001, p. 6). This sophisticated composition creatively uses form and language to express a complex narrative. It addresses the human search for truth and the meaning of life in a series of dialogues between disciples and spiritual guides. It is a rare and valuable artifact that provides insight into the da‘ wa’s erudition and reﬁned pedagogy Another tenth-century work was the more well-known Epistles of the Brethren of Purity (Rasa’ il Ikhwan al-Safa). Authored by a group of writers who chose to be anonymous, the Rasa’ il became a widely read encyclopedia of philosophy. It comprises 52 epistles arranged in 4 volumes of mathematical-philosophical sciences, physical and natural sciences, spiritual-intellectual sciences, and juridical-theological sciences. The last epistle states that “knowledge of subtle sciences and noble teachings prepare a person in order to improve his physical lot in this world and ameliorate the fate of his soul in the hereafter ” (Poonawala 2008, p. 41). This dual attention to faith (din) and the world (dunya) remains an Ismaili preoccupation to this day.
The da‘ i Abu Ya‘qub al-Sijistani emerged as a major Ismaili philosopher in this century. He engaged actively with issues under debate among Muslim thinkers of various afﬁliations, including the Mu’tazila. Al-Sijistani presented a theory of knowledge that sought to account for the totality of the cosmos in the Kitab al-Yanabi (Book of the Wellsprings of Wisdom). His works “have significance for the long history of philosophy, for the influence of ancient thought on later thinkers, and for the fate of philosophy in Islam” (Walker 1996, p. xiv). He was a foremost Neoplatonist of the period, and his writings enable understanding of how this mode of thought came to be adopted by other Muslim writers.
Hamid al-Din al-Kirmani was hujja of Iraq but was called to Cairo to address serious doctrinal dissension in the da‘ wa. He was an outstanding Muslim philosopher of the eleventh century. His magnum opus, Rahat al-‘ Aql (Repose of the Intellect), presents contemporary science, philosophy, and theology in a masterful way. Its objective was to enable attainment of a paradisiacal state through reason.
Kirmani imaginatively structures a journey in which the soul escapes the troubling state of the physical world and attains freedom in the City of God as it gains a comprehensive sense of God, angelic beings, and the realm of minerals, plants, and animals.“ This book is made up of seven ramparts and each rampart is comprised of seven pathways; the seventh rampart, however, includes fourteen pathways, since the seventh needed twice as many in order to complete the aim intended and the hope of attaining perfection in the next life” (Walker 1999, p. 132). Although dif ﬁcult to decipher the work remains a major creative accomplishment in the literature of ideas a 1,000 years after its composition.
The eleventh century witnessed several other luminaries in the da‘ wa, but the achievements of the intellectual and poet Nasir-i Khusraw deserve particular mention.“ His verses have appeared in nearly every major anthology of Persian poetry compiled since his death in ca. AH 469/CE 107. . .in Iran, Central Asia, India, Czechoslovakia, England or America” (Hunsberger 201, p. xi). He was a superlative exponent of philosophical poetry, and his poems are an essential part of Persianate regions’ educational curriculum today. Khusraw was hujja of Badakhshan and is acknowledged as the founder of Ismaili communities in the mountainous regions of the Pamirs in Tajikistan and Afghanistan and the Hindu Kush in Pakistan as well as Xinjiang in China. His poetry is sung to this day at religious gatherings in these and diasporic locations of the Badakhshan Ismailis.
Khusraw’s Safarnama (Travelogue), which describes a 7-year journey from Iran to Fatimid Cairo as well as sojourns in Mecca, Medina, and Jerusalem, is a valuable eyewitness source (Thackston 2001). Among his philosophical treatises is The Book of Two Wisdoms Reconciled (Kitab-i Jami’ al-Hikmatayn), an erudite endeavor bringing together Aristotelian philosophy and Ismaili ta’wil (Ormsby 2012).
Nasir al-Din Tusi, who worked under Ismaili patronage and later among Mongols, was a foremost thirteenth-century Muslim intellectual. His Nasirean Ethics, written in Nizari fortresses, is a major contribution to Islamic political thought and to discussions of rights within the family unit. It shows inﬂuences of pre-Islamic Iranian, Platonic, Neoplatonic, and Aristotelian thought. Tusi’s key Nizari treatise, Paradise of Submission (Rawda-yi Taslim), is a masterful synthesis of theology, philosophy, and esotericism (Badakhchani 2005). Its comprehensive scope addresses the Creator and the cosmos, the soul, human existence, ethics, religion, eschatology, Prophets and Imams, knowledge, and language.
Satpanth in India produced a unique literary tradition of ginans. Like Suﬁ preachers in the subcontinent, Nizari pirs, notably Shams, Sadruddin, and Hasan Kabirdin, drew from Indic mythology and symbolism to teach their beliefs. Ismaili ideas are embedded explicitly and implicitly in ginans composed in Gujarati, Khari Boli (proto Hindi-Urdu), Punjabi, Sindhi, and Saraiki/Multani (Esmail 2002). This literature comprises “about one thousand works whose lengths vary from ﬁve to four hundred verses” (Kassam 1995, p. 2). Ginans are sung regularly in contemporary religious gatherings of South Asian Khojas and their diaspora.
Excerpted from Professor Karim H. Karim’s Ismailis: A Pluralist Search for Universal Truth