Pir Nasir Khusraw's Theory of Intellectual Education

Editor’s note: In Part I of this essay, Parvin Peerwani provided a brief background of the life of Nasir Khusraw and explained his definition of ‘aql and the general categories of knowledge such as the distinction between marifah and ‘ilm.  The modes of knowledge and the relationship of the human soul with the Universal Intellect was described. Based on Hakim Nasir’s teachings, she concluded her article by stating that it was “through the Imam of the Time whereby the human soul becomes recipient to the divine knowledge and the eternal bliss, and thus takes the steps to perfection.”

The following is the second and final installment of her essay.  The link to Part I is provided at the end of this article.

A 13th/19th century Persian manuscript of Nasir-i Khusraw's major work Wajh-i din in which he masterfully applies ta’wil to the system of ideas and concepts propounded in earlier Fatimid texts. Photo Credit: The Institute of Ismaili Studies, http://www.iis.ac.uk

Part II: Hakim Nasir’s Theory of Education (ta’lim) for the Development of the Human Intellect

by Parvin S. Peerwani

The idea of a graduated programme of instruction for the development of human intellect/soul and the thesis of transmission of knowledge (ta’lim) by the divinely assisted teacher can be traced back as far as the pre-Fatimid time in the Rasa’il of Ikhwan al-Safa. [4] This training programme was greatly modified and expanded when the Fatimids established their power in Cairo. The most important source of information for such a programme is the Fatimid thinker Hamid al-Din al-Kirmani (d. ca. 412/1021). In the introduction to his Kitab rahat al-‘aql, he gives a bibliography of the Isma’ili texts as a pre-requisite to the study of his al-Rahat. [5] There are two other works by him which are equally informative on the instructional programme for the seekers of perfection.

(1) Kitab tanbih al-hadi wa al-mustahdi. This work is a teacher’s guide to pupil and deals primarily with two types of worship – knowledge (al-‘ilmiyyah) and action (al-‘amliyyah) – necessary for a seeker of perfection.

(2) Risalat al-wadiyah. This epistle also deals with two types of worship – knowledge and action but at a greater detail [6]

From the study of the above works it can be deduced that ta’lim (instruction or education) encompassed the study of ‘ilm and the practice (‘amal) of various disciplines such as:

(a) Study of the Islamic transmitted sciences. These include the Qur’an and its ta’wil or deeper meaning, the hadith or the traditions of the Prophet, and the teaching of the legitimate Imams from his progeny.

(b) Greek cosmological sciences.

(c) Fatimid Law.

(d) The study of the works of Isma’ili and other Muslim thinkers.

(e) The study of the various sects in Islam.

(f) Practice of shari‘ah.

(g) Meditative practices.

From Hakim Nasir’s works, it appears that he too emphasized the continuation of the tradition of his Isma’ili predecessors as far as the various disciplines of the ta’lim are concerned but with a shift of emphasis. We shall briefly examine some of these disciplines from Hakim Nasir’ s point of view.

1. The Study of the Sciences

Nasir Khusraw gives a great emphasis to the study of the cosmological sciences. He highly esteemed the ancient Greek philosophers because of their keen interest in the study of the cosmos. In his Jame’al-hikmatayn, a work in which he attempts to unify Greek wisdom with Isma’ili theosophy, he is very critical of those Muslim jurists who scorn the study of natural sciences, astronomy and hellenistic wisdom.

To support his view in favour of the study of these sciences he quotes a verse from the Qur’an, “and they contemplate on the creation of the heavens and the earth, (and say): Our Lord! Thou createdest not this in vain. Glory be to Thee! Preserve us from the doom of Fire” (Holy Qur’an, 3:191), meaning that those Muslim jurists who do not study the sciences of creation have partly abandoned the Divine law which obligates a person to study the creation. [JH: 14-15; ZM: 186]

He gives a logical argument for the study of creation deduced from a tradition of the Prophet, “contemplate on the creation but not on the Creator,” that since it is not possible for man to contemplate in the Creator, it is obligatory for him to contemplate on His creation. [JH: 12] The study of creation, according to him, also included the study of medicine and astronomy. In the same work he states that behind every new discovery of some curative medicine or astronomical movements, there has always been the divine power inspiring the scientist concerned. Such discoveries, according to him, are not possible through man’s personal endeavours. [JH: 14-15] The study of creation, he believed, eventually leads a man to the religion of God, and through religion he is able to attain the knowledge of the Divine unity. [JH:154]

2. The Practice of the Shari’ah in Exoteric and Esoteric Forms

The practice of shari’ah, according to him, was extremely important for educating the human intellect. He states categorically that it is not possible for the rational soul to attain the knowledge of the unity of God without observing the shari‘ah.

“Moses saw the ‘fire’ in his own being with his inner eye. That fire,” he says, “was the light of tawhid (the Divine unity). It is not possible for anyone to see such a light unless one follows the Book (i.e. the Qur’an), the divine law and observes the (shari’ah) acts. [K1:64]

According to his conception, the shari‘ah (i.e. the divine guidance in the Holy Qur’an) is a knowledge system containing truths about the ultimate nature of things which were revealed to the Prophet. [KI:214] Its aim is to activate the human intellect and bring it out from potentiality to actuality. The Source of these divine laws is the Universal Intellect and the Prophet was the hujjat (proof) of the Universal Intellect. As we have discussed earlier (see Part I), human intellect according to Hakim Nasir is the hujjat (proof) of the Universal Intellect. Since the Source of the Prophet’s knowledge i.e. shari‘ah and the human intellect is common, there cannot be any dichotomy between Faith (i.e shar’iah) and human ‘aql. The scriptural laws and the dictates of human intellect are basically in agreement. The intellect within man commands the good and praiseworthy and forbids him from the evil and reprehensible (amr-i ma‘ruf va nahi-ye munkar). The messengers too have come to command the good and forbid the evil. [ZM:42, 49] It could be argued that since the human intellect knows what is right and wrong why should man need a Prophet to convey to him what he already knows through his own intellect. Hakim Nasir’s answer would be that human intellect is potentialy perfect hence man needs the assistance of the Prophet and, after him, the Imams to give him shari’ah for the development of his intellect from potentiality to actuality.

Shari’ah, according to him, has two aspects, exoteric and esoteric. The exoteric aspect of the shari’ah included the mu’amalat (i.e. guidance regarding man’s behaviour in the society and family laws), as well as the pillars of Islam such as ablution (taharat), prayer (salat), alms (zakat), fasting (sawm) in the month of Ramadhan, pilgrimage to Mecca (hajj), and holy war (jihad).

The esoteric aspect of the shari‘ah (called ta’wil) was the deeper, real intention or meaning of the divine guidance. For instance, ablution means the purification of human soul (through the subjugation of the irrational in man); alms means dissemination of knowledge; fasting means keeping away from anything which is reprehensible (to the rational soul); pilgrimage means visiting the Imam for knowledge; jihad means waging war at two fronts: (a) externally against the enemies of religion through (the weapon of) knowledge, (b) internally against ones concupiscent desires. [WD: 153, 257, 268]

The seeker of perfection, according to him, is required to follow both aspects of the shari‘ah – the exoteric as well as the esoteric. For the former is the worship of God through action, whereas the latter is the worship of God through knowledge. Without the harmony of knowledge and action the rational soul, according to him, cannot develop. For “tanzil (technically, the exoteric aspect of the shari’ah) and ta’wil,” he says, “are as food and drink to the rational soul.” [JH:210] The exoteric aspect of the shari’ah was the function of the Prophet, the Imam’s function was to give the esoteric aspect of the shari‘ah.

(3) Divine Knowledge through Meditative Practices

The other discipline for the development of the human soul, according to him, is the conscious effort by man “to have mastery over his irrational desires (nafs-i shahvani) by the power of his rational soul. “If a man does not indulge himself in the pleasures of the senses,” he says, “his rational soul becomes powerful and perceives things without any prior education. For it is natural for the human soul to be active (in the mental and sensory realms). But if it is (consciously) prevented from indulging in the things of senses and sense pleasures, and made to become passive and quiescent, then it perceives by its spiritual power things from its own world which are innate in its essence. Like an eye whose function is to see (but if it is struck by disease its natural function is obstructed). When its malady is removed, it perceives physical things without any constraint or help of a person with sight.” [KI:54]

In another place he says, “When the rational soul stops indulging itself in the activity in space and remains in a state of repose and quiescence without intentionally looking at or listening to anything in that state it is able to receive intelligibles (ma‘qulat) due to which it attains intense intellectual bliss.” [ZM:49]

The central idea in the above passages is when the human soul turns within from its centrifugal to centripetal state through a process of stilling all the agitations and stirrings in the mind, and remains in a prolonged state of quiescence and passivity, it perceives the unseen depth of itself and attains a direct knowledge of spiritual truths from the intellectual/spiritual world. But the essential precondition for the soul is to turn away from the sense pleasures and remain in a state of quiescence. This, according to Hakim Nasir, is difficult to achieve by man through his personal endevours. Hence arises the need for a divinely guided person to assist him. According to him, the admonition of the Prophet to acquire knowledge and follow various types of worship given by him all aimed at making the human soul strong so that it acquires mastery over his concupiscent desires and thus become receptive to divine knowledge which is also the aim of ta’lim (education or training) given by the divinely assisted people i.e. the Imams from the Prophet’s progeny. Receptivity to divine knowledge implies the actualization of the human intellect/soul towards development and perfection. Meditative practice is also an important discipline in Sufi tariqahs. It is known as the practice of khalwa (spiritual retreat). This is a spiritual exercise for a disciple in a Sufi tariqah to sit in solitude for a period of time and have no consciousness of anything without being asleep. It is a state of pure consciousness in which it is assumed that ma‘rifah becomes manifest.


From the above discussion, it may be concluded that Hakim Nasir’s concept of ‘aql (intellect) is quite broad. It is understood to be a divine immaterial substance, not subject to annihilation after the death of the human body. It is a trace, a part and a proof of the Universal Intellect, and seems to include various faculties potentially present in it which could be activated through various disciplines of education (ta‘lim). But what Hakim Nasir continuously emphasises is the importance of the instruction of the knowledge given by the Prophet and the Imams from his progeny for the development of the human intellect. What could be understood from this is a growing tendency in the intellectual sector of the Islamic milieu which either undermined or denied the revelatory knowledge. The former tendency was in the form of Peripatetic philosophy, and the latter in the form the writings of such physician philosophers as Muhammad Zakaria Razi (d. ca. 934 A.C.) Hakim Nasir’s emphasis on the above matter seems to be a warning to the believers not to be detracted by such tendencies of the time.

His emphasis on the study of the natural sciences and his severe criticism of those Muslim jurists who neglected this study also show that in certain quarters of the Islamic world, Muslim jurists had tended to become too literal in their interpretation of the Shari’ah and narrow in their understanding of the message of the Qur’an which besides other matters also admonished the believers to study the natural sciences.

Finally his emphasis on following the twin aspects of the divine revelation in the Qur’an – the tanzil i.e the external, and the ta’wil or the underlying meaning of the revealed text for the development of the human intellect also show certain trends in the Islamic milieu of his time. It appears that in certain quarters of the Islamic world the message of the Qur’an was taken too literally which tended to fossilize Islam. Hakim Nasir seems to be cautioning the believers against that trend.

Date reading posted on Simerg: January 22, 2011

© Simerg

For Part I, please click Pir Nasir Khusraw’s Concept of Intellect (includes Dr. Parvin Peerwani’s profile)


Footnotes and Reference abbreviations:

[4] Ikhwan al-Safa, Rasa’il, (Beirut, 1957) vol.1, pp. 266- 275, 346-350, 399-400; vol.IV, pp.41-42.

[5] Hamid al-Din al-Kirmani, Kitab al-Rahat al-’Aql, ed. by Kamil Husayn, (Cairo, 1948),Introduction.

[6] Mss. no. 152. Cf. A.Gacek, Catalogue of Arabic Manuscripts in the Library of the Institute of Ismaili Studies, vol.1 (London, 1984).

GR: Gusha’ish va Raha’ish by Nasir-i Khusraw, 2nd edition of the original Persian text by Sa’id Nafici. Tehran, 1961.

JHKitab Jami’ al-Hikmatayn by Nasir-i Khusraw. Text Persan edite avec ime double Etude Preliminaire en Francais et en persan par H. Corbin et Moh. Mo’in. Tehran et Paris, 1953.

KI: Khwan al-Ikhwan by Nasir-i Khusraw. Edited by Yahya al-Khashshab. Cairo, 1948.

WD:Wajh-i Din by Nasir-i Khusraw. Edited by Gholam Reza Aavani; introduction in English by S.H. Nasr. Tehran, 1977.

ZMZad l-Musafirin by Nasir-i Khusraw. Edited by Muhammad Bazl al-Rahman. Berlin, 1341 AH


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3 thoughts on “Pir Nasir Khusraw's Theory of Intellectual Education

  1. A very nice piece and articulation about the revered da’i and hujjat. I wonder that after many centuries his thoughts are very much valid for the Muslim world along to his faith-fellows –the Ismaili Muslims.

  2. This article is so relevant to some Baitul-al-ilm team who came to Birmingham counterpart a few months ago who presented a play called The Journey of Pir Nasir Khusraw. I shall forward this to my friends locally. Thanks for publishing this finely researched article by Dr. Parvin Peerwani.

  3. “without intentionally looking at or listening to anything in that state it is”

    the transition state…in between the breaths as I see it. Many esoteric traditions focus on this state and it is wonderful to have it here on Simerg. Physicists are actually working on understanding the same at a a chemical level.

    Intense articles but absolutely worth contemplating..

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