Pir Nasir Khusraw's Concept of Intellect and Theory of Intellectual Education (I)

By Parvin S. Peerwani

This statue of the Ismaili da’i and intellectual giant Pir Nasir Khusraw stands in his memory in Badakhshan. “Kindle the candle of intellect in your heart and hasten with it to the world of brightness; If you want to light a candle in your heart, make knowledge and goodness its wick and oil,” he wrote.

Part I: Concept of Intellect


The relationship between intellect (‘aql) and faith has always been of fundamental importance to Muslims and has been widely discussed amongst Muslim philosophers and intellectuals.

Etymologically the word ‘aql in Arabic is derived from the trilateral verb ‘-q-l which means to hobble with the ‘iqal (cord used for hobbling the feet of a camel), to arrest, to pay blood money, to restrain, to reason, to comprehend etc. In Islamic philosophy ‘aql is generally understood to be an immaterial substance, active in itself, through which are comprehended the realities of things. In this first part of the essay, we will attempt to see the concept of intellect from the point of the Fatimid philosopher Nasir-i Khusraw (also referred henceforth as Hakim Nasir). The next part will focus on his theory of Intellectual Education.

Khusraw’s Life Changing Dream, Pilgrimage to Mecca and Joining the Fatimid Cause

 Nasir Khusraw was a Persian poet, philosopher, Isma’ili scholar and a traveler. He was born in Qubadyan in 1004 AC in the district of Marv, in the eastern Iranian province of Khurasan. He died in Yumghan, a village in Badakhshan province of Afghanistan. He is considered as one of the great poets and writers in Persian literature.

Hakim Nasir received an excellent education in the sciences, literatures and philosophies of his time, including the study of Greek and Neoplatonic philosophy. He was well versed with the philosophies of al-Kindi, al-Farabi, Ibn Sina as well as the interpretation of the Qur’an. Khusraw occupied a high position in the administrative ranks of the Saljuq court – reportedly in the revenue department.  Evidence also suggests that he was familiar with the court of the previous dynasty, the Ghaznavids. Around the year 1046 AC, Hakim Nasir had a strange dream in which someone warned him against wasting his time in senseless pursuits, and admonished him to search for something which could increase his intellectual potential and wisdom. Deeply influenced by that dream, he gave up all the luxuries of life, resigned from his post and set out on a seven year journey hoping to find the solution to his spiritual crisis. His journey has been documented in his famous work Safarnama. [1]

On his way back after a pilgrimage to Mecca, he visited Cairo, the then capital of the Fatimids, where he met the chief Ismaili da’i al-Mu’ayyad al-Shirazi (d. 470 AH/1077 AC), who initiated him in the Fatimid Da’wah. In the three years that Hakim Nasir spent in Egypt, he attained the high rank of hujjat, and was sent to Khurasan by the Fatimid authority to propagate the Fatimid mission. He stayed in Yumghan to fulfil his duties which also included composing Isma’ili doctrinal and philosophical works until his death in 481 AH/1088 AC. [2]

Some of the works of Nasir Khusraw now available in English

Khusraw’s Definition of ‘Aql and the General Categories of Knowledge

Basing his definition of ‘aql on the concept of ‘aql in the Qur’an as well as on the Aristotelian and Neo-platonic psychologies available at that time, which he had adopted and adapted according to the Isma’ili doctrine of the time, Hakim Nasir defines human ‘aql as an immaterial substance, immortal in its essence which comprehends the realities of the things as they are. The term human intellect is also interchangeably used by him as ‘aql-i gharizi (innate intellect), nafs-i natiqa (speaking soul), and nafs-i ‘aqila (intellectual soul). A human being’s distinction from animal, according to him, is based on the former’s power to think. As the highest of the evolved creatures created by God, the human being possesses powers that rise above other creatures on the evolutionary ladder.

Hakim Nasir classifies the various faculties (powers) in a human being as follows:

(a) Vegetative soul (nafs-i nabati): it is understood to be the powers of nutrition, growth and reproduction. [ZM:219]

(b) Animal soul (nafs-i haywani or nafs-i shahvani): it is understood to be the five external senses and their powers which are: sight, hearing, touch, smell and taste; five internal powers such as: sensus communis (the centre in which the data of the external senses are collected), imagination, memory, remembrance, apprehension, powers of motion, desire, lust and anger. [ZM:23]

(c) Human or intellectual soul (nafs-i ‘aqila): it is a divine, created substance having the powers of reasoning, inference, organization, creating arts and crafts (sanaye’), understanding the deeper meaning of things, extracting laws from the nature, perceiving the intelligible (ma ‘qulat, i.e. principles of science, intellectual/spiritual forms and truths, deeper meaning of the Qur’ an, and transcendental bliss). [ZM:71, 196, 249, 210-11, 290] Human intellect, according to him, is partial intellect (‘aql-i juzvi), i.e. part of the Universal Intellect and hence linked to its Source. He also calls it the proof (hujjat) of the Universal Intellect. [KI:22] Being potentially perfect, the human intellect needs training for its development and perfection.

Forms of Knowledge for the Intellect’s Perfection: Mar’ifah and ‘Ilm

The human intellect’s perfection, according to Hakim Nasir, lies in the acquisition of knowledge. According to him, there are two categories of knowledge: ma‘rifah and ‘ilm.

He defines ma’rifah as something which cannot be acquired but which is inherent in human beings and animals.[KI:94] For instance, he says, life (jan) in man which is subtle (latif) can only be recognized (shinakhtani) and not understood (danistani). This recognition, according to him, is due to the fact that man innately knows that there is something in the body called jan by which that body is alive. But the jan’s howness, whatness, whereness and whyness is not understood. [KI: 194]

An example that Hakim Nasir gives is as follows:

In a dialogue between Aristotle and a student seeking to know the difference between ma’rifah and ‘ilm, Aristotle asks him whether he has visited a certain city, and if so, to describe what he saw on the way. The student describes that he saw the villages, the running water, some parts of the desert, and a river until he reached that city, which was populated and its description was such and such. Aristotle then says to the student that what he has described is ‘ilm, that is knowledge that he has acquired. Aristotle then asks him if there are any lands and cities beyond that city and if he can describe them. The student replies, “I know (danam) of their existence but I do not know what they are like.” At this Aristotle remarks that this he said out of ma‘rifah. This is called ma’rifah (the awareness) – that a thing exists, but not how it exists. [KI:194]

In Jami’ al-Hikmatayn, quoting an Iranian philosopher in the context of ma‘rifah, Hakim Nasir says that it is unvarying in man from the time of his childhood to his old age. For instance, the ma‘rifah of thirst, hunger, fear of something which he does not know, ma’rifah of shapes, colours and other sensibilia, and the ma‘rifah of pain and other things which man knows by nature (bi-tab’) but the names of those things he must learn from someone. Many animals which are completely formed also share ma‘rifah with man. [JH:248] In the language of the Qur’an it could be called the fitri knowledge.

‘Ilm, on the other hand is a trace of the ‘aql, and according to Hakim Nasir, it is not innate but is acquired (kasb kardani). [KI:194] He defines ‘ilm as the concept (tasavvur) of a thing as it is, whereas an ‘alim who possesses ‘ilm is the one who conceives (tasavvur kunad) a thing as it is. [JH:249] He describes ‘ilm as whatever skills, professions or crafts a man learns whether through thought (tafakkur), instinct (ilham), inspiration (wahi) or from others, whether willingly or out of constraint. It spans the range from language to professions, to philosophy.

He further states that ‘ilm is the activity of the ‘aql and the ma‘rifah is the basis of the ‘aql [JH:249] implying that ‘ilm, whether of the sensory or mental realm, is always accompanied by ma‘rifah which is innate in the human intellect/soul and a much nobler mode of attaining knowledge.

The difference between an ‘alim and ‘aqil, according to Hakim Nasir, is the former conceives (tasavvur kunad) a thing as it is, whereas the latter perceives (andar yaft) the reality of a thing through the intellect. [JH:32] Otherwise said, the former attains knowledge through conceptualization which is an indirect way of attaining knowledge, whereas the latter attains knowledge directly. The example of the former could be the concept of pain, and the latter the experience of pain.


Some of the terms that appear in this reading

How is Knowledge Acquired?

Hakim Nasir refers to two modes whereby the knowledge is acquired.

(1) Through the five external senses whereby the sensible objects are perceived. As he states, the soul has five perceptible faculties (hassat, quvvat), which lie underneath or behind the five senses. [JH: 252- 253; KI: 194]

(2) Through the essential mode (dhati). In this mode the human intellect/soul knows through its own essence without the help of the external senses or demonstration. This, according to Hakim Nasir, is a much more noble mode of attaining knowledge than the former. As he states, “The acts acts which arise from the essence (dhat) of the soul are nobler than the accidental acts.” [KI:54]

In another passage he says, “Human soul has the essential sight which is not the physical sight – it has all the acts parallel to the external sense-perceptual acts. The essential acts of the human intellect are more exalted than the accidental acts.” [KI:52-53]

The knowledge of the intelligible (ma ‘qulat) and the hidden mysteries in the creation, according to him, are all attained through the essential mode of knowledge. [JH:199]

Hakim Nasir’s recognition of the two modes of knowledge, the first one, which includes the sensory and mental modes, and the second one which is the essential mode, are quite similar to what Sufis and gnostics in various traditions have consistently recognized. In the Qur’anic language they are called: the knowledge by certainty (‘ilm al-yaqin), the “eye” of certainty (‘ayin al-yaqin), and the knowledge by reality (haqq al-yaqin). The first gives access to the outer, sensory realm; the second to the mental realm; and the third to the transcendent, spiritual realm.

To come back to Hakim Nasir’s concept of ‘ilm and ma’rifah, he says that ‘ilm is the activity of the ‘aql, and ma‘rifah is the basis of ‘aql [JH:249] [3] implying that ‘ilm whether of sensory or mental realm is always accompanied by ma’rifah which is innate in the human intellect/soul and much nobler mode of attaining knowledge.

The Human Soul and its Relationship to the Universal Soul

Since ma‘rifah is the basis and source of all sciences, arts and crafts and it cannot be acquired by man’s effort according to Hakim Nasir, a question that may be posed is whether it is subject to increase, that is whether it gives birth to more creative arts and sciences or not. From his works it is understood that ma‘rifah can increase in the human soul. But there is an epistemological problem related to this mode of knowledge.

Pointing to this problem he says: the human soul is not receptive to all forms of knowledge which are in the Universal Intellect because the human soul is potentially perfect and not actually. He calls the rational soul a weak form of wahi (divine revelation), which is distributed in the mankind in varying degrees of intensity. [ZM:211]

Besides, human intellect/soul, according to him, is limited by being subject to senses and sense pleasures, which prevent it from penetrating through its essence and becoming receptive to the knowledge of intelligible. Being potential, with unlimited capacity for development, the individual intellect/soul needs the assistance of the one who is an actual intellect, who can assist the individual soul to become actual and be a recipient to intellectual/spiritual knowledge. People who possess actual intellect, according to him, are ahl al-ta’yid, the divinely assisted people who according to him is the Prophet and the legitimate Imams from his progeny). [ZM:346; KI:27]

According to Hakim Nasir, it is not possible to have a direct access to intellectual/spiritual knowledge (i.e. ma‘rifah) through one’s personal endeavour. He provides a Qur’anic reference for the support of his view. The specific verse is, “O company of jinn and men, if ye have power to penetrate (all) regions of heavens and the earth, then penetrate (them)! Ye will never penetrate them save through hujjah (the word sultan in the verse has been translated by him as hujjah).” (Holy Qur’an, 55:3)

His interpretation of this verse is: “men and jinn cannot penetrate through their substance and discover what is in the heavens and the earth except through the training (parvarish) by the proof (hujjah) of God on the earth who is the Imam of the time.” [GR:4; KI:44]

It implies that man’s access to the spiritual/intellectual realm is only possible through the assistance of the divinely assisted Imam. It is 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. [KI:39-40, 185; ZM:211]

Date reading posted on Simerg: January 14, 2011
Date updated: January 15, 2011

© Simerg

Part II:  Please click  Pir Nasir Khusraw’s Theory of Intellectual Education


Footnotes and Reference abbreviations:

[1] Nasir-i Khusraw, Safar nama, 2nd edition by M. Siyaqi, (Tehran, n.d.) pp. 1-2. An English translation of this book is available under the title Nasir-i Khusraw’s Book of Travels by William Thackston (paperback, 2001). See book front cover, above. Also, the first chapter of Michael Wolfe’s compilation One Thousand Roads to Mecca is dedicated to the Ismaili traveller.

[2] W. Ivanow, Nasir-i Khusraw and Ismailism, (Bombay, 1948); Bertels, A.E. Nasir-i Khosrivi ismailism tran. in Persian as Nasir-i Khusraw va Isma’iliyan, by Arin Pur (Tehran,1346 H.S.) pp. 149-232

[3] P. S. Peerwani, Cosmological Doctrines of Nasir-i Khusraw and the edition of his Khwan al-Ikhwan, Ph.D dissertation, Tehran University, 1975. Cf. Introduction.

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

JH:Kitab 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.

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


About the author: Dr. Parvin Peerwani, whose pen-name is Latimah-Parvin Peerwani, completed her undergraduate and graduate studies in Islamic and Middle-Eastern studies from the American University of Beirut (Lebanon), and obtained her Ph.D from Tehran University (Iran) in Islamic Philosophy and Iranian Sudies. Her dissertation was on the philosophy of Nasir-e Khusraw. She served the Ismaili Tariqah and Religious Education Board (ITREB) in Karachi for a year, and then joined the Institute of Ismaili Studies (IIS) in London, UK, teaching there in the field of her specialization for 15 years. She has served as professor at the Dept. of Islamic Studies of McGill University’s branch at IIS, and as visiting professor at the Pontifico Instituto di Studi Arabi E D’Islamistica in Rome (Italy).

At present she resides in Dallas, USA, and teaches online undergraduate program in Islamic philosophy, mysticism and Qur’anic commentaries. She is also involved in another on-line initiative which provides an MA program in Comparative Islamic and Western Philosophy at Middlesex University of England through an affiliation with the Islamic College of Advanced Studies in London.

Professor Peerwani also serves on several editorial boards including the Journal of Shi’ite Islam and Muslim Women published from London. Her papers on Shi’ite mystical philosophy and Ismaili thought have appeared in numerous scholarly journals and volumes such as the Journal of Transcendent Philosophy, British Middle Eastern Society, the Journal of Mulla Sadra Academy, and Anthology of philosophy in Persia. Her most recent books are Mulla Sadra on the Hermeneutics of the Light Verse of the Qur’an, and Spiritual Psychology, the Fourth Spiritual Journey in Transcendent Philosophy.


Editor’s Notes:

(a) The article originally appeared in Ilm, Volume 12, Number 1 (July 1989), published by ITREB, UK,  and has been edited and adapted for this Web site with the author’s consent.

(b) Readers may be interested in Alice Hunsberger’s article,  The Esoteric World Vision of Nasir Khusraw, in Sacred Web

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15 thoughts on “Pir Nasir Khusraw's Concept of Intellect and Theory of Intellectual Education (I)

  1. A very well detailed text….from this web site I came to know many thing related to Pir Nasir Khusraw. Thank you for such a good effort.

  2. A highly accomplished scholar for having achieved her goal of studying Pir Nasir Khusraw. May she be blessed with more ‘ilm’ and help us to develop our ‘aql’ carrying it further.

  3. This indeed is very thought provoking. I have also read with great interest Justice and Remembrance where ‘intellect’ is explained. I would like to know if Wajh-e Din (The Face of Religion) has been translated into English and where I can obtain a copy?

    Thank you

    • A truly very inspring and ilmi and marafiah .I have studied this several time and I am still in process of learning .I pray Allah that he may give me the blessing to understand it in its true sence


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