by Zayn Kassam
Introduction: Corbin’s Universe
If scholarship is an entrance into a mental universe, then the gateway opened to us by Henry Corbin reveals a universe which is significantly different from those encountered in the works of many scholars of Ismailism. Along with V. Ivanow, S. Stern, W. Madelung, and a few others whose works are significant in impact if not in quantity, H. Corbin may be considered one of the pioneers in the twentieth century in the field of Ismaili studies, who attempted to study it from the viewpoint of texts internal to the tradition rather than from accounts of it by others not of the tradition itself. His impressive oeuvre of course consists of a much wider span than Ismaili studies alone; he edited, translated and wrote extensively on Islamic philosophy, Sufism, and Twelver Shi’ism, as well as on gnosticism as it is manifested in other religious traditions, notably Christianity and ancient Iranian religions.
Many studies have been conducted on Henry Corbin, evaluating his contribution to the field of Islamic studies in general, analysing his method, and critiquing his interpretation and conclusions. My aim here is not to duplicate the observations made in some studies about what is “left out” by Corbin, about his rather individual and personal understanding of Islam, his anti-historicism and about the phenomenological method which he claimed to use although not in the manner in which it is commonly understood. Rather, I would like briefly to examine what he says about Ismailism in the context of: the methods he uses, the attitudes with which he approaches its texts, and the conclusions he draws. Thus, for the purposes of my study, I will focus primarily on the essays on Ismailism contained in Cyclical Time and Ismaili Gnosis (London: Kegan Paul International, in association with Islamic Publications, 1983).
From the outset, it may be salient to mention that the single most important factor cited by almost all scholars dealing with Ismailism is the paucity of historical material surrounding and found within Ismaili texts and concerning Ismaili figures (a lacunae that is being addressed by the publications of the Institute of Ismaili Studies). This obstacle is turned by Corbin into an advantage, for it frees him rather to concentrate on the ideas, often difficult to decipher and contextualize, expressed in these texts. While he admits the importance of historical data, he attempts to look beyond historicity in his analysis of the concepts he finds in the texts he reviews. Corbin’s interest in gnosticism (that which relates to spiritual knowledge) provides him with a lens through which to look for and find structural similarities between ideas found in Ismaili texts and texts of other traditions. In this respect he deserves the recognition of being able to make connections across traditions in his attempt to substantiate his underlying supposition, shared with other perennialist thinkers, that the diversity of gnostic religious expression and experience reveals insights into the human soul’s journey into spiritual awareness.
Corbin’s Three Major Themes of Gnosticism
In his essay, “From the Gnosis of Antiquity to Ismaili Gnosis,” Corbin reveals to us some of the major features, or themes, of gnosticism (as opposed to Gnosticism, which is commonly understood as an early Christian heresy) in its various forms.
1. “The unknowable, impredicable, ineffable Divinity, the Abyss of Silence which is the origin of all the becoming of the worlds.” (161)
2. “The crisis occurring in this Pleroma, to which all forms of gnosis ascribe the great acts of Creation and salvation.” (161)
3. “The figure of the Anthropos, the Saved-Savior.” (161)
The culmination, or central fact of gnosis is that it is:
a teaching which does not aim at some pure theoretical knowledge, [but which is] a mode of understanding which is not a simple act of knowing. It is not a teaching for the masses, but an initiatory teaching passed on to each specially chosen disciple. It is an esoteric knowledge, a knowledge of the Truth that, as such, gives rise to a new birth, a metamorphosis, the salvation of the soul. (153)
Each of these themes represents a wealth of significance which is deserving of amplification, and needs to be understood in much greater detail in order to draw out its significance for Ismailism. I will attempt, as best as I can, to state what Corbin is alluding to in each of these statements, and then proceed to show how he links these with Ismailism.
1. The Cause of All Existence: The Unknowable God
…theophany itself serves as a veil that, while hiding the Unknowable, nonetheless manifests it in so far as it may be manifested, thus rendering the Unknowable divine accessible to worship.
The first statement is an allusion to the tension and relationship, as far as one can be spoken of, within the Unknowable, Ineffable God, which transcends all predication, but which nonetheless is the cause of the existence of all worlds without itself being predicable of existence or non-existence.
The issues raised with regard to this entity, to which no name or attribute or qualification can be given in order to safeguard that divinity “from any assimilation to a mode of created or originated being” (173) are, in Ismailism, concerned with (a) tawhid which must “avoid the twofold trap of ta’til (agnosticism) and tashbih (‘assimilating’ the Manifestation to That which is manifested)” (174). This leads Corbin to assert the idea of (b) the divine theophany/ies (the encounter between the divine and the human), for without theophany, “God is only a pure indetermination which cannot be worshipped at all” (172). The necessity of theophany further necessitates that it be situated in (c) a figure who, on the angelic plane, “by refusing to claim divinity for itself and instead re-projecting it above and beyond itself” (174) “renders himself [that is, itself] transparent to the Divinity” (172). The idea here is that theophany itself serves as a veil that, while hiding the Unknowable, nonetheless manifests it in so far as it may be manifested, thus rendering the Unknowable divine accessible to worship. That is, it is to this figure that the Divine Names are attributed. This “figure” is the one who is revealed at the “farthest accessible horizon” (Qur’an 53:13-18), for he/it is only the beginning of divine manifestation; from it proceed manifestations from level to level comprising the angelic pleroma (the realm of spiritual powers). Thus, we have here the idea that this figure at the farthest accessible horizon “becomes the Veil, the horizon or limit (hadd) by which the Divine shines through and appears to the [one] following [it]” (177). Corbin clarifies further:
Thus from level to level, from each limit (hadd) to that which it limits (its mahdud) and which is in turn the limit or horizon for the one following it, this tawhid maintains the entire Pleroma in an ascending movement: each hadd ascribes the Divine to that “limit” which precedes it and which is the Veil through which the Divine appears to it; and this higher hadd in turn refers the Divine to the next “limit” or degree preceding itself. (177)
However, there occurs a crisis in this angelic pleroma which halts, or more precisely, retards this procession, and which is responsible for “the great acts of Creation and salvation” (177, 161).
2. The Crisis of the Drama in Heaven: Creation and Salvation
[The human soul] tends toward its perfection through the great souls which appear from epoch to epoch in this world, not only the Prophets but in general all the members of the esoteric Church, up to the coming of the Qa’im, the Resurector
This crisis, “which shakes the celestial pleroma” and which Corbin terms “the drama in heaven,” is explored in his article titled, “Cyclical Time in Mazdaism and Ismailism” (37ff.). The fact of the crisis introduces the idea of a retardation that is responsible for (a) creation, and (b) salvation, both of which are intimately connected with the notions of time and of the interplay of light and darkness.
In Ismailism, the form of the crisis depends on the sources used: for Nasir-i Khusraw (d. ca. 1074 CE: Corbin suggests d. ca. 481 AH/1088 CE), for example, the crisis occurs at the procession of the second hypostasis, the Universal Soul, or Nafs-i Kull. As the Nafs-i Kull turns to face and acknowledge its origin through a response of gratitude or what Corbin calls “adoration”, it realizes that it is imperfect because something stands between it and the Originator, the mubdi‘ — what we might term God. That something is the Universal Intellect, the Aql-i Kull, which stands between the Nafs-i Kull and the Originator. As a result, the Nafs-i Kull is perfect potentially but not in actuality, causing it to move to do something about its imperfection. This movement results in the creation of the rest of the cosmos, including everything that lies in our realm, the realm beneath the moon or sublunary realm, that of earth in which everything is subject to generation and corruption or birth and death. Corbin elaborates:
Just as this [universal] Soul is the adoration of the primordial Archangel [the universal intellect], so the Cosmos is in turn the adoration of the Soul — with this difference, that the Soul cannot complete its work, cannot make good the margin of imperfection and incompleteness that comes to it solely from Time. That is why it starts the movement of the Cosmos; it tends toward its perfection through the great souls which appear from epoch to epoch in this world, not only the Prophets but in general all the members of the esoteric Church, up to the coming of the Qa’im, the Resurrector. Here then the cycle of Time is measured by the Soul’s effort to make good its own ontological imperfection. (37)
In a different account, that of Hamid al-Din Kirmani (d. after 411/1021, according to F. Hunzai), the procession of ten archangelic hypostases is developed, and the crisis occurs with the third of these. Corbin does not state clearly whether Kirmani himself mentions such a “crisis”; he prefers to draw upon the works of the Yamani da‘i Imad al-Din Idris (d. 1462 CE) and Imam Husayn ibn ‘Ali (d. 667 CE). In this account, the third Archangel, the spiritual Adam, adam ruhani, doubts “the eternal ontological anteriority of the two Archangels [that is, the universal intellect and universal soul] who mediate between the Principle [that is, the Originator or God] and the third Archangel [that is, spiritual Adam]” (39).
Several concepts need to be introduced here. The first is that the first Archangel [universal intellect] issues a call, has a mission (da’wah) to all who proceed subsequent to it to acknowledge the Oneness of the primordial principle, that is, to acknowledge the tawhid [uniqueness or oneness] of God in the manner already described above (subject neither to tashbih nor to ta’til). In ignoring this call the spiritual Adam’s “transgression becomes a transgression” (40), causing him to fall into a stupor, and when he awakens from this stupor, he realizes that a rupture has taken place, which has created Time, and moreover, that he has been “retarded” [or has “fallen”] to the position of the tenth Archangel. In addition, the retardation, as a temporal dimension, introduces “an opacity in the dimension of pure Light” (40).
Another consequence of this doubt is the generation of the cosmos, for this third Archangel, in whose image an entire universe of [potential] angels has been formed, is thereby responsible for their placement in “an existence in the dense and opaque world of material nature” (41), which however, is also the context within which they will find their salvation [that is, become actual angels]. The Archangel awakens from his stupor and resolves his doubt in a movement of conversion, when he heeds the call of the da’wah, simultaneously transmitting an appeal to his angels to do likewise and thereby overcome their own retardation. In thus being the medium through which darkness is born (in the form of Iblis), the third Archangel becomes simultaneously the medium through which it is vanquished, by virtue of his conversion. Correspondingly, the cosmos created by the doubt of the Archangel is also that ”which is the instrument of their [that is, of the angels formed in his image] purification and the scene of the combat which is at once theirs and his” (41). This now leads us to the third theme of gnosticism, the relationship between the Saved-Saviour [the third, now tenth archangel] and its earthly counterpart.
3. Metamorphosis of the Human Being and the Temple of Light
The mode through which this metamorphosis in the human being from the state of angelicity in potentia to angelicity in actu is accomplished is through a movement from the exoteric (zahir) to the esoteric (batin) through an exegesis (ta’wil)
The crux of this third feature of gnosticism lies in its conception of the human (anthropos), and in its underlying presupposition that the purpose of the human soul is to undergo a metamorphosis which will restore it to its original state of angelicity. Thus, the status of the human being cannot be understood except in relation to angelology.
When we turn to Ismailism, we find that Corbin has isolated a significant number of transformational concepts attached to this central theme of the metamorphosis of the human being, all the separate strands of which form an interconnected whole merging in the concept of the Imam as the “temple of light”. These strands may be enumerated as follows:
a. The cycles of time, alternating between periods of epiphany, when direct vision of the truth is accessible to all the angels made in the image of the spiritual Adam, and occultation, when the form of Iblis is freed from its imprisonment in the “world of the mothers” (43). The energy generated by the spiritual Adam’s victory over his own Iblis causes the Grand Cycle (that is, the earthly cycle) to be ushered in by a period of epiphany rather than occultation.
b. The “drama on earth”, which is a reflection, a re-enactment, of the drama that occurred in the angelic pleroma. The drama on earth is characterized by the seduction of the human Adam by the human Iblis. Briefly, this Adam, who was “one of the last survivors” of “a race of human beings superior to ours, who were the educators of our race” (44), belongs to the cycle of Epiphany, during which there was a “direct intuition of all truth” (45). The impending advent of the liberation of Iblis causes the onset of the cycle of Occultation, when Adam is charged, as natiq [one who enunciates or speaks], with the proclamation of a new religious Law. Iblis, in human form, seduces Adam by
persuading Adam that since the perfect science of Resurrection was revealed by the last Imam (Qa’im) of the preceding cycle to which they both belonged, and since the blissful men of that cycle owed their state of innocence and freedom to this gnosis, the men of the new cycle should not be deprived of it. (46)
Out of his inexperience Adam succumbs and “reveals the secret to men [that is, human beings] who are unfit to receive it, betrays the symbols to the unworthy” (46).
c. In repentance, Adam returns with his progeny to the “paradise in potentia” which is the Ismaili da’wah, whose members are the angels in potentia. Their battle is “against the demons with human faces, who are the posterity of Iblis…” (46).
d. This repentance is the batin [or inner aspect; that which is hidden from view] of the revealed Law, or, as Corbin terms it, “positive religion”, consisting as it does of the “knowledge of the esoteric laws and hidden meanings”, that is, the ta’wil. Thus, this cycle is “punctuated by seven periods or millennia, each ushered in by an Enunciator prophet (Natiq) of a new Revelation, assisted by a spiritual legate (sic) (Wasi) who is the foundation (Asas) of the Imamate and who throughout his period transmits the secret or esoteric meaning of the doctrine to the Seven Imams who are descended from him” (42).
e. Through both the revealed law and its esoteric exegesis [ta’wil], “the fruit of the positive religion”, which here means the triumph of the spiritual Adam over his retardation from the position of the third archangel to the tenth, and “the final Resurrection (qiyamat), can spring forth” (47), meaning that the retardation caused by the third archangel resulting in the “partial” Adam, that is, the human Adam, can be overcome in order to usher in the final Resurrection. This final resurrection, of course, is the restoration of the spiritual Adam to his original status, as the third in the pleroma, who, in a direct vision of the truth, acknowledges the true tawhid as the negation of all attributes from the Unknowable originating principle (mubdi’) and the affirmation of all His names to the hypostases, such as the first created, who are the hudud, or limits, that is, the places (or figures) where the theophanies arise (89).
f. This “Grand Resurrection” which is the focal point of the drama, both in heaven and on earth, is proclaimed by the figure of the last Imam Resurrector. Two important notions are attached to this figure. Firstly, this Imam, who Corbin calls the Anthropos or Perfect Child, “engenders himself in the secret of the cycles of the aeon, and who, in his eschatological Epiphany, is expected to be the ultimate “exegete” of mankind, a member of the true posterity of Adam, which he will lead back (ta‘wil) to the celestial archetype in which it originated” (47-48). Thus “each of the Imam’s manifestations, the Imam of each period, is only the manifestation of a unique and eternal Imam who, in the person of the last among them, will consummate the totality of the Aeon or Grand Cycle” (48).
Secondly, the adepts who comprise the esoteric hierarchy, that is, the members of the da’wah, who as mentioned earlier, are angels in potentia, “compose the mystical Body, the Temple of Light of this Imam-Resurrector” (47). The task of each adept is to undergo a metamorphosis from the potential state into an angel in actuality, by engaging in a battle which has a two-fold implication: first, each adept battles for the “person of the Angel of mankind (the third Angel who has become the tenth)” (49), and for the Angel who is in the adept in potentia, that is, waiting to be actualized. The “fallen” third angel, as the tenth Angel, finds his manifestation “through the person of the primordial Adam, through that of each partial Adam, and finally through the person of the Imam Resurrector; and similarly the Imam Resurrector is already manifested and announced in the person of every Imam of every period” (49-50). All adepts, meanwhile, “have their celestial archetype in the Angels who followed the tenth Angel in his repentance” (50), that is, those angels who were formed in the image of the tenth angel.
The mode through which this metamorphosis in the human being from the state of angelicity in potentia to angelicity in actu is accomplished is through a movement from the exoteric (zahir) to the esoteric (batin) through an exegesis (ta‘wil) of revelation (51). Only then will the Grand Resurrection at the end of the Grand Cycle take place. This brings to the fore the idea of the tutelary angel, manifested (the idea of mazhar, the locus of manifestation) both in the Imam and in each member of the esoteric hierarchy, each of whom acts as a limit, or hadd, for the one below it, the mahdud or that which is bounded or limited. The relation between the two is as follows:
Each hadd is bound to its mahdud by a companionship of initiatory brotherhood; it must draw it along, lift it to its own rank, in order to raise itself to a higher hadd, or rank…. At each degree, the horizon, or limit, defines for the adept the measure of his being and of his perception; his knowledge of himself, like his knowledge of his Lord, rises from horizon to horizon, from Angel to Angel, that is to say, from metamorphosis to metamorphosis. (85)
The fundamental premise upon which this transformation rests is that the metamorphosis from potential angelicity (in potentia) to actual angelicity (in actu) can only be effectuated by one who is already actualized as an angel, that is, an angel in actu, and such a figure—or figures—are the “Pure Imams” (104). Through their teachings, or spiritual exegesis (ta‘wil), they awaken the souls of their adepts, who comprise their “Temple of Light” to their true nature. This true nature is that of angels formed in the image of the tenth angel, that is, not to a nature which is alien to them but which is their original status. In other words, the Saviour “saves his followers by awakening them to their primitive [that is, primordial or original] nature that is also his” (116). Thus, the gnostic dictum, “Know Thyself” is in Ismailian gnosis to be understood as awakening the soul to its true self through consociation (paywastagi) with the Imam, who is the mazhar [locus of manifestation] of the tenth angel, and who awakens the soul of the adept through his spiritual exegesis (ta‘wil). This ta‘wil is communicated by the degrees (hudud) of the esoteric hierarchy (da’wah) to each subsequent level, enabling the soul to be awakened to the level of gnosis it is capable of attaining, and drawing it further and further upward until it reaches the threshold of the Imam himself, whereupon it will be drawn upwards by the Imam as part of the Temple of Light to the final, or Grand Resurrection of Unveiling, which is the true affirmation of tawhid.
Corbin’s Method and its Impact on his Ismaili Studies
Corbin approached Ismaili texts with a view to elucidating the gnosticism which he identified as the true religious aim of human beings. It was this aspect which interested him most…the wealth of his erudition is able to identify the key structural elements of Ismailism, such as the notions of ta‘wil (and hence zahir and batin), cyclical time, the Imam, the soul as the locus of transformation..
his has been an all-too-brief delineation of some of the central aspects of Corbin’s analysis of some key Isma’ili concepts. Many other important aspects have been left out, such as his discussions on the homologies found between Ismailism, Mazdaism and Ebonite Christian doceticism. At this juncture, however, it may be salient to ask: What impact does Corbin’s method have on his Ismaili studies?
The first remark we may advance is that he perceives a unity in Ismaili thought which may not always seem apparent from a study of the various individual thinkers who contributed to the shaping of Ismaili thought up to the time of the Fatimid and Alamut thinkers. This is not to say that he was unaware of the differences among the various major thinkers in Ismailism, for he had certainly worked closely enough with works of individual thinkers such as Kirmani, Sijistani, Nasir-i Khusraw, ‘Imad al-Din Idris and Nasir al-Din Tusi not to be cognizant of significant intellectual differences between their systems, and between their conceptions of the da’wah, the position of the Imam, and their celestial universes. (155) Nonetheless, and perhaps because of his profound erudition, he was able to isolate and highlight those elements in their writings that allowed him to focus on and reveal structural homologies with gnosticism, in which he was interested as a perennial philosophy that made its appearance in different human cultures at different times. It is possible that in advancing what we may term a “megatheory”, that is, his view that gnosticism finds expression in every religious tradition in some form or another, that he “selected” the information he required to fit his theory. Thus, he read the diverse texts of Ismailism with a view to identifying those elements within them which substantiated his theory. Builders of megatheories run the risk of an exposed Achilles tendon which brings to the fore all the details which do not fit into the theory. In this case, however, the wealth of his erudition is able to identify the key structural elements of Ismailism, such as the notions of ta‘wil (and hence zahir and batin), cyclical time, the Imam, the soul as the locus of transformation, and the angelic pleroma (the hypostases), and the concept of tawhid with respect to an Unknowable primordial principle, and then to supply sufficient detail from the works of individual Ismaili thinkers in support of his theory. While the more cautious student today may want to examine each major Ismaili thinker on his own terms, there is no denying that s/he would have to acknowledge the “gnostic” context clarified by Corbin within which that Ismaili thinker operates. Moreover, the illuminating notes made by Corbin on each of the Ismaili manuscripts edited by him are invaluable, and in fact one often wishes that his notes had not been so brief.
In sum, then, it may be fair to say that Corbin approached Ismaili texts with a view to elucidating the gnosticism which he identified as the true religious aim of human beings. It was this aspect which interested him most, and he points out his interest often enough for him not to have to apologize for not having focused on the many other concomitant aspects of organized religion (such as its legal systems and its pragmatic, this-worldly concerns). As the state of scholarship advances, and as more Ismaili texts come to light, his work may stand to be challenged or to be further vindicated. Currently, it is daunting for the student to challenge many of his assertions in the narrow spheres within Islamic studies that he defined as his subject of interest. This is because his masterly command of the texts lead him to revealing insights to be gained from the texts precisely because he brings them into conversation with ideas found in other religious traditions. The legacy his work has left lies in the plethora of individual studies which may now be carried out on the basis of his preliminary, yet nonetheless insightful and penetrating investigations.
Date reading posted on Simerg: January 26, 2011
© Zayn Kassam
Adams, C.J. “The Hermeneutics of Henry Corbin” in Approaches to Islam in Religious Studies, ed. By R.C. Martin. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1985. 129-150.
Algar, H. “The Study of Islam: The Work of Henry Corbin” in Religious Studies Review, 6:2 (1980). 85-91.
Corbin, H. Cyclical Time and Ismaili Gnosis. London: Kegan Paul International, in association with Islamic Publications, 1983.
“Nasir-i Khusraw and Iranian Ismailism” in The Cambridge History of Iran. V.4: The Period from the Arab Invasion to the Saljuqs. Edited by R.N. Frye. Cambridge: CUP., 1975. 520-542.
Goodman, L.E. Review of Creative Imagination in the Sufism of Ibn Arabi (1969) in International Journal of Middle East Studies, 2 (1971). 278-290.
About the Author: Zayn Kassam is Professor of Religious Studies at Pomona College in Claremont, CA. She received her Ph.D. from McGill University in the History of Religions in 1995, with a specialization in Islamic and Indian Philosophy. She teaches courses on women in Islam, Islamic mysticism, Islamic philosophy, as well as contemporary Muslim literature. More recently, she has also been teaching courses on religion and the environment.
Editor’s Note: This article was published in an earlier revision in Hikmat, July 1991, Vol III No. 5, pages 46-52.
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Thank you to all who have read this article and left comments!
Very good piece and thought-provoking. Please note that lacuna is singular and lacunae plural, so sentence in third paragraph should either read “this lacuna” or “these lacunae”…
Thanks, Jim! I don’t know how that escaped my final proof-read, and I appreciate your catching it!
Please clarify Point 2 para 4 ….(Mention of Imam Hussain)
A different account, that of Hamid al-Din Kirmani (d. after 411/1021, according to F. Hunzai), the procession of ten archangelic hypostases is developed, and the crisis occurs with the third of these. Corbin does not state clearly whether Kirmani himself mentions such a “crisis”; he prefers to draw upon the works of the Yamani da‘i Imad al-Din Idris (d. 1462 CE) and Imam Husayn ibn ‘Ali (d. 667 CE). In this account, the third Archangel, the spiritual Adam, adam ruhani, doubts “the eternal ontological anteriority of the two Archangels [that is, the universal intellect and universal soul] who mediate between the Principle [that is, the Originator or God] and the third Archangel [that is, spiritual Adam]” (39).
Would appreciate a response.
Very informative post. Thank you very much !
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Agree with the conclusion of the author. Henry Corbin’s approach to study Ismaili cosmology exclusively on Ismaili texts may lead the students on Ismailism to a narrow perspective. These intertwined or opposing theories had developed in a context which was marred or pushed up by Hellenistic philosophy. I think it is appropriate to understand the intellectual developments in their actual contexts.
In Ismaili doctrine, the concept of Noor is crucial as this study points out. In Christianity ‘gnosis’ as I understand it, or this dimension may exist but it seems to be regarded as merely a heretic notion of the few. As one goes deeper in the Faith a few exceptional scholars like late Henry Corbin have focused and dug out this very rich and deep esoteric dimension of the Ismaili faith with his intensive study and has conveyed this essence to the readers as a precious gift to us.
Professor Farhad Daftary is another such a scholar who enlightens us with his focus on history of Ismailis. Their contributions to the vast ‘ocean’ of knowledge complement each other in our understanding of Ismaili faith as part of Sufism or mysticism, certainly esoteric rather than exoteric element in the religion of Islam.
Great article. The fall of Adam is described very well in this article.
Like many other articles by Henry Corbin or themes that explore his works, I found this article challenging to absorb. However, Dr. Kassam’s article brings another dimension and variation in the study of Ismailism by a leading scholar of Islamic philosophy and mysticism.