The Intellectual Tradition of Shia Ismaili Islam – The Fatimids and their Approaches to Knowledge



“We ought not to be ashamed of appreciating the truth and of acquiring it wherever it comes from, even if it comes from races distant and nations different from us…” –- Abu Yusuf Ya’qub ibn Ishaq al-Kindi (c. 800-866)

1.1. The Spirit of Free Inquiry in Islam

These words, uttered by one of the greatest Islamic philosophers within the medieval period, speak volumes. His statement appears to be a calling; a calling to the truth, a truth which is enshrined within the knowledge of those who may indeed have been, and may continue to be, ‘races distant and nations different from us’. What strikes the reader from al-Kindi’s statement however is the uncompromising attitude of openness towards knowledge which seems to underpin it, as he admits that truth can indeed be found in places far and wide. Consequently therefore, wherever the truth resides, it must be actively sought and its pursuit must be encouraged. Al-Kindi’s attitude towards knowledge is not unique however but rather, represents one which characterised much of the intellectual tradition within the early and medieval periods of Islam.

This spirit of enquiry which underpinned the intellectual activity of Muslim thinkers existed not over a period of decades but over centuries. The Umayyads of Damascus (r. 661-750 C.E.) and Cordoba (r. 756-1031 C.E.), the Abbasids of Baghdad (r. 750-1256 C.E.) and the Fatimids of Cairo (r. 909-1171 C.E.) were all known to have espoused a shared and common attitude towards the acquisition of knowledge; one which encouraged the pursuit of knowledge in all its forms (Leamen, 2000). Whether this manifested in the caliphal patronage of intellectual and scholarly activities of the philosophers and scientists of the day and age, or whether it existed through the funding of libraries and building of institutions of learning such as the famed Bayt al-Hikma (House of Wisdom) in Baghdad during the Caliphate of the Abbasid Caliph al-Maʿmun (r. 813-833) and its equivalent in Cairo, the Dar al-Ilm (House of Knowledge), established in the year 1005 under the rule of the Fatimid Imam-Caliph al-Hakim bi Amr-Allah (r. 996-1021), the yearning for truth reflected the attitude towards knowledge which was prevalent within the Muslim intellectual tradition of the medieval period (Kennedy, 2000).

1.2. The Fatimid Ismailis

Within the broader range of the Islamic umma, the intellectual tradition of one specific community which, albeit constituting a minority group within the already minority Shia branch of Islam, achieved a level of literary output far beyond its relatively small size and minority status (Daftary, 1996). The Ismailis reached their intellectual peak during the Fatimid period, when the Imams of this community (in the specifically Shia sense of the word ‘Imam’; meaning those who, through claiming direct descent from the Prophet Muhammad, served as the legitimate spiritual and temporal heirs to his authority), not only possessed spiritual authority over the Ismaili community but political authority also as Caliphs of the new empire with unfettered temporal authority, in the Fatimid realms.

This period, in which Ismaili intellectual activity flourished under the guidance of the Fatimid Imam-Caliphs, has been described as “not only a climax in the history of the Ismailiyya, but also one of the great eras in Egyptian history [when] Cairo became one of the centres of Islamic culture and art, and a focus of scholarship and science” (Halm, 1997, p. xii). Halm (1997) goes on to describe the period as “one of the most brilliant periods of Islamic history, both politically and in terms of its literary, economic, artistic, and scientific achievements” (p. 2).

To survey the intellectual activity of the Ismailis during the entire Fatimid period however, would fall beyond the scope of this paper and consequently, in one of the following sections the intellectual ideas of one figure within the Ismaili movement, Abu Ya’qub al-Sijistani (d. after 971) will be examined.

Firstly, we shall provide an introduction and brief historical background of the intellectual milieu in which the Fatimid Ismailis came to the fore with the establishment of the dynasty in 909 C.E. to contextualise the period in which their movement grew. Secondly, the foundational system of Ismaili thought will be surveyed, without which, no true picture can be painted of Ismaili doctrine and thought. At the core of this, what we have previously called “Ismaili dualism” (Pabani, 2012) will be examined, representing as it did, a fundamental aspect of the Ismaili worldview. Thirdly, moving on to discuss the religio-political movement of the Fatimid Ismailis known commonly as the daʿwa (the ‘summons’), we shall reflect upon the centrality of knowledge, exploring how knowledge was placed, at the very foundation of the Shia Ismaili intellectual tradition with the Imam as the fountainhead and source of all knowledge. Finally, we will conclude this paper with an exploration of one particularly unique manifestation of this Ismaili attitude towards knowledge; the Ismaili appropriation of Greek and Hellenic thought – in the form of the Neoplatonism – which was adapted in order to articulate the distinctly Shia concept of Imamate. An example of this incorporation of the Greek philosophical tradition into the Shia Ismaili belief system, was the revolutionary Ismaili intellectual scholar and thinker, Abu Ya’qub al-Sijistani (d. after 971), whose thought regarding the nature of knowledge and its sources will be examined.


2.1. The Intellectual Milieu during the Period of the Fatimid Ismaili Rise to Power

The Ismaili daʿwa began during a period in which much intellectual discussion was taking place within the umma on a variety of matters In all of this, one of these debates, perhaps the first major point of intellectual debate we could say, pertained to question of what response the Muslims should have towards knowledge from beyond the Islamic tradition (by this is meant the Quran and sunna, or example of the Prophet, as the traditional foundational sources within Islam), what Kennedy (2000) has labelled the “non-Islamic sciences” (p. 25) such as philosophy, medicine, astronomy etc. Here, the most hotly debated amongst these was philosophy, specifically that which had originated from the Greeks which gave primacy above all else to notions such as reason, the intellect, and logic as sources of knowledge and truth. Those Muslims who believed that reason had a vital role to play in understanding the Islamic message came to be represented by two groups; firstly and most obviously was the philosophers, or rather, the falasifa as the Arabic tradition refers to them. Secondly, were the Muʿtazilites, a group of theologians who held that reason and the intellect of man – in addition to the revelation itself – were valid as sources of knowledge (and even crucial to it) with regards to the Islamic revelation (hence the term ‘rationalists’ which is sometimes applied to them) (Corbin, 1993). Resonating with the quote from al-Kindi above, Walker (1996) states that “[t]he purpose of the Ismaili mission was to locate the truth” (p. 12). It is within this milieu and period of intellectual ferment that we must situate and understand the Ismaili intellectual movement and their response to this ongoing debate, and indeed their search for the truth.

2.2. The Foundational Principles of Ismaili Thought

In order to explore the nature of knowledge as envisaged by key figures within the tradition of this Muslim community, it is crucial to understand the very fundamentals which underpinned their entire worldview as a religious community within the Islamic tradition. In the first instance, the early Ismailis maintained that revelation itself along with its prescribed religious commandments and prohibitions had two fundamentally distinct yet complimentary aspects; one aspect known on the surface as the exoteric, manifest and outer aspect (zahir) and that which was beneath the surface, representing the esoteric, hidden and inner aspect (batin). It is to be noted that in the early Fatimid phase of Ismaʿilism, neither rendered the other irrelevant or useless. Rather, one without the other would cause the perceptible truth and reality as an impossible truth to comprehend. (Daftary, 2007) For the Ismailis themselves, the exotericism or zahir of the ritual laws of revelation (shariʿa) was merely a veil for the batin – the esoteric meaning within. For without a desire to understand the spiritual truths (haqaʾiq) of the divine scriptures, the religious laws and practises themselves would lose their importance. Similarly, without adherence to the religious laws, one would be unable to attain knowledge of the batin and consequently the realities within (haqaʾiq). Thus, we are able to perceive one of the major aspects of Ismaili doctrine which permeates their entire system of belief – that of duality. The constant pairing of ideas – such as zahir/batin, tanzil/ta’wil, natiq/asas, Imam/hujja – manifested themselves throughout the development of Ismaili doctrine representing what we have previously called “Ismaili dualism” (Pabani, 2012, pp. 12-14). From the Shiʿa and consequently Ismaili perspective, it was understood that mankind was in constant need of divine guidance, which was the primary purpose behind God’s sending of the Prophets in the first instance (Madelung, 1977). The Prophets were commanded to guide people to the knowledge of God but this guidance was envisaged as that which could not and would not end with the passing of Muhammad and accordingly, the Shiʿa attested that divine guidance would continue through his progeny, the Imams in descent from Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law ʿAli b. Abi Ṭalib. (Daftary, 2000). Thus, from the earliest period the Ismailis viewed the essence of religion as that which needed to be understood through correct guidance of an infallible guide. (Lalani, 2000) Knowledge was seen as possessing both an external/zahir and internal/batin aspect, and it was the Imam as the ultimate source of this knowledge, who – through a network of daʿis and through the hermeneutical method of esoteric interpretation (known as taʿwil) would fulfil the mission of the Prophet in elucidating for the believers, both the true meaning of the zahir/outer aspects of the law of Islam (shariʿa) and the batin/inner meanings of these external forms. Important to note here was that knowledge did not stop at the batin for this too had another hidden meaning, the batin behind the batin (Morris, 2005) and this would continue until the believer reached the ultimate, eternal, immutable and universal truths (haqaʿiq) which were enshrined within. (Corbin, Cyclical Time and Ismaili Gnosis, 1983). As Shah (2005) explains, according to the most famous and renowned Ismaili jurist al-Qaḍi al-Nuʿman (d. 974), “the Imam… is the final authority for Qurʾanic knowledge and through his instrumentality one can take cognisance of the truths as necessary for spiritual advancement” (p. 123).

2.3. The Ismaili Daʿwa and the Centrality of Knowledge

In terms of education, the notions of teaching, learning and the dissemination of knowledge were key concepts for the Ismailis and they were to have a long and well-reputed tradition of patronising as well as independently pursuing learning. In fact, when one examines the foundations of the Fatimid Dynasty, one notices that the entire Ismaili movement in its early formative period was centered around the idea of knowledge; knowledge of the Imam of the Age (sahib al-zaman) from the progeny of the Prophet Muhammad, and through the Imam, the believer would acquire true knowledge of the faith, its scripture and its rituals, in both their exoteric (zahir) form and their esoteric (batin) meaning (Shah, 2005).

With the entire movement being premised on the concept of knowledge, it was in this sense that the Ismailis designated their early mission as the daʿwat al-haqq (summons to truth) or simply, the daʿwa (Daftary, 2007). This institution has been variously defined as being the official religio-political movement of the Fatimids which propagated their cause and mission, and as such, its success or failure was inevitably linked to the success and failure of the Fatimid Ismaili mission in both its religious and political sense, especially since the leaders of the dynasty were ruling as both Ismaili Imams (spiritual authorities) and Caliphs (political heads of state) (Walker, 1993).

From this we get an early glimpse into the centrality of knowledge within the early Fatimid tradition. In the course of summarily providing an overview of one of the earliest extant Ismaili treatises entitled Kitab al-ʿAlim waʿl Ghulam attributed to the Ismaili daʿi Jaʿfar b. Mansur al-Yaman (Morris, 2005), Halm (1997) succinctly describes the entire Ismaili idea of teaching, learning and knowledge: “Knowledge means life; learning means resurrection from the death of ignorance; knowledge is a good entrusted (amana) by God to human beings who must not selfishly keep it to themselves but instead pass it on. Learning and teaching are a divine mission” (p. 20). Thus, what we see from this provides further support for the view that, from its very inception, the entire Ismaili movement was seen, as noted above, as a religio-political mission with knowledge at the centre of Ismaili doctrine. What works like those attributed to Jaʿfar b. Mansur al-Yaman show however, is that this knowledge was not simply to be likened to knowledge of the physical (exoteric) world, but rather, dealt with the spiritual (esoteric) world also. In this sense, the zahir/batin paradigm mentioned above comes to the fore once more. Knowledge was to be seen as not simply that which could assist one in this world but also, if understood correctly and internalised, could aid one in achieving a state of true worship, with the Imam as the spiritual guide par excellence, thereby benefitting the believer in the spiritual world of the hereafter.

The very existence of multiple levels of meaning thus necessitated the existence of one who would have the authority and more importantly the ability to explicate the meanings of both aspects; namely, the Imam (Daftary, 2007). However, we must again underline the importance of the accompanying hierarchical daʿwa structure which, through the Imams appointed daʿis, served to filter the Imams teachings downwards to the believers (Nasr, 2008). Reflective of the Prophetic hadith in which the Prophet Muhammad was reported to have said of the Prophets that they spoke to people in the measure of their intelligences i.e. in a way which was palatable to their very own individual level of understanding, in a similar manner, the Ismaili Imam considered the “various levels of the comprehension of the believers [and provided knowledge] subject to the required level of comprehension” (Shah, p. 121).


As mentioned above, the early 10th century was a period in which there was great intellectual ferment in Islamic thought. (Esmail, 2000) As many different groups sought to respond the questions of how to respond to the Islamic message, the Ismailis had their place among the intellectuals of their time, seeking to do precisely the same thing. One of these long drawn-out debates centred on the compatibility of reason with revelation and was fought on the intellectual field of battle between the falasifa (the philosophers – those who were proponents of falsafa – rendered in English as philosophy) and the mutakallimun (the theologians – those who were proponents of kalam – rendered in English as theology). Within all of this, “the Ismailis proposed their own solutions and fought hard to have them accepted. Rather than shy away from the great debates, they entered the fray and became a party to the conflicts and contentions of these other scholars” (Walker, 1996, p. xii). At its crux, the Ismailis proposed to settle the debate between reason and revelation within a distinctly Shia Ismaili worldview and framework; one within which, the Ismaili Imam was positioned as the manifested “source of all knowledge [and] living repository of divine truths” (Halm, 1997, p. 21). A major Ismaili daʿi and intellectual who uncompromisingly saw no conflict between the two was Abu Ya’qub al-Sijistani whose ideas regarding the sources of knowledge – or “wellsprings” as he prefers to describe them (Walker, 1996) – shall be discussed later. For the Ismailis, whilst reason and revelation were both sources of knowledge too, these were subsumed within the figure of the Imam, the sole legitimate interpreter of the Qur’an, and it was only through the divinely-appointed Imam that the believers could access the reality and truth of all knowledge (Hunzai, 2005) (Daftary, 2000).

From its very earliest stages, the nascent Ismaili intellectual tradition engaged head on with the philosophical tradition of Greek and Hellenic thought (Walker, 2005) and Daftary (2000) notes that, not only did the Ismaili daʿis elaborate “distinctive intellectual traditions, amalgamating different philosophical traditions with Ismaili theology” (p. 94) but that “they chose to express their theology in terms of the then most modern and intellectually fashionable philosophical themes, without compromising the essence of their religious message which… revolved around the Shia doctrine of the imamate” (p. 94). This was not however a wholesale adoption of all forms of philosophy and all philosophical systems and as Madelung (1977) states, the Ismailis “did not borrow indiscriminately but rather selected what it found to be congenial to its basic conventions and amalgamated it into a coherent synthesis of its own.” (p. 54)

In this period of the early 10th century, the philosophical thought from the Greek Hellenistic tradition which the Ismailis selected as their medium through which to spread the daʿwa was Neoplatonism. According to Walker (1993), the first to attempt this successfully was the Iranian daʿi was Muhammad al-Nasafi, followed then by his student and successor al-Sijistani who continued this legacy. What is interesting to note here is that, during this early period of Ismaili thought, there was back and forth between a number of the Ismaili daʿis themselves as they differed on various aspects of doctrine in regards to such issues as prophecy, the nature of being, doctrines pertaining to the intellect and soul etc. In this regard, the first name would be Muhammad al-Nasafi (d. 934) who began the discussion and has been credited as being the pioneer so-to-speak in his decision to adopt Neoplatonic thought into his articulation of the Imamate. His views however, were later rejected and refuted by the second major figure, Abu Hatim al-Razi (d. 943), in his own Kitab al-Islah (The book of Correction). Al-Sijistani as the third then entered the fray, and disagreed with al-Razi siding with his teacher and mentor al-Nasafi. In the closing, it was the intellectual and prominent figure of Hamid al-Din al-Kirmani (d. after 1021) who synthesised the debates and positions held by the former three (Daftary, The Ismailis: Their History and Doctrines, Second Edition, 2007) (Walker, 1993). The figure of al-Sijistani was thus at the centre of these debates, and at this juncture, it is to the examination of his ideas surrounding knowledge and its origins that our attention will now turn.

3.1. Abu Ya’qub al-Sijistani and the Sources of Knowledge

We have seen above that the Fatimid Ismailis fully engaged with intellectual tradition and development of ideas which was taking place within Muslim societies at the time in which they were themselves. One form in which this manifested was that of Neoplatonic thought. But let us say just a few words here regarding the Ismailis and their engagement with the Greek philosophical tradition. First and foremost, they were a community of believers who belonged to the Islamic tradition and so their mission was at its very base grounded in a theology and this theology was specifically Shia in nature. What this means is that its mission or daʿwa existed and was established by the Ismaili Imam in order, not only spread the intellectual message of the Ismaili interpretation of Islam which premised itself on the need for a divinely guided Imam from the progeny of the Prophet to lead the Muslim communities, but also in order to spread in terms of geography also. The idea was therefore to maximise both the religious and the political appeal of the Ismaili message and it is in this sense that we have described their mission as a religio-political one.

In order to spread however, the Fatimid Ismailis also had reconcile their theological message of the divinely inspired Imam with the intellectual and philosophical debates which were ongoing during the period in which they were on the rise. Their appeal – grounded in theology as it naturally was – had to be situated within a milieu in which the major talking point was about the role of philosophy, with its emphasis on reason and intellect as the solely required tools to arrive at the truth, in the Islamic intellectual tradition. In doing this, the Ismailis would have sought to answer one main question: Where does truth lie in philosophy, if at all and if it can be found, how does this truth relate to the revelation? The task of the Ismailis was “more than to understand the role of reason in religious affairs and in determining universal truth. It was also to confront philosophy and to resolve the discrepancy between a ‘foreign’ science with its own claims to truth and an ‘indigenous’ religion in the form of the Islamic revelation” (Walker, 1996, p. 11)

One of the great figures within the Ismaili tradition who attempted to engage with the philosophical tradition in order to show its compatibility with the theology of Shia Islam, was Abu Ya’qub al-Sijistani (d. after 971) who represents one of the earliest and most important exponents of Ismaili philosophical doctrines (Nasr, 2008). Al-Sijistani was active during the tenth century, and was a leading figure of what has been referred to as “the Persian School” of Ismaili philosopher-daʿis (Stern, 1983) (Halm, 1997). The works of this daʿi were so numerous and his thought so broad that we will be forced to limit our own exploration of al-Sijistani to his ideas regarding the origins and sources of knowledge; what he calls, the ‘Wellsprings of Wisdom’ (Walker, 1994).

In al-Sijistani’s thought, the understanding, the ‘wellsprings’ are the sources from which human society receives its knowledge. He reasons that if there is order within the universe – which is a given for him – then there must be an ultimate source from which this order has been conceived and given life. This, in al-Sijistani’s view, is God. However, as God is completely and utterly transcendent, he cannot even be confined within the category of ‘being’, for the simple fact that even the concept and reality of being was created by God himself. And if there exists being, there must also exist its counterpart ‘non-being’. For al-Sijistani however, this is unacceptable. To place God within a category which must also have an exact opposite would be to place God within a system of duality which he himself created, and for al-Sijistani, this would lead one to unbelief. How does he resolve this then? Quite simply, he argues, God must be above the categories of both being and non-being and in doing so attempts to successfully to maintain the utter transcendence and absolute oneness of God, what in the Islamic tradition is referred to as tawhid. (Madelung, 1977) This however raises another question? If God is so utterly transcendent that human beings can never truly comprehend him, how is he then to be understood? How does His message reach humankind? This, al-Sijistani reasons, necessitates the existence of a hierarchy and “it is this structure that must answer to the individuals query; it contains the sources of all knowledge, divine and otherwise.” (Walker, 1996, p. 27)

In this structure exists four wellsprings, from which knowledge is obtained. At the very top resides the Universal Intellect, perfect in its being, whilst below it on equal footing you have the Universal Soul, perfect in potentiality but not actuality, and the Prophet. Finally and at the bottom is the Imam who serves as the main intermediary on earth between mankind and the Universal Intellect. Whilst the role of the Prophet according to al-Sijistani, requires him to put into human physical language, the deeper realities truths which flow from the intellect, a process which he calls talif, the Imam is tasked with the ta’wil, an esoteric interpretation of these same words in a bid to uncover the meanings within thereby taking believers to the very truths which the Prophet was required to couch in symbolic language, allegory and metaphor. For al-Sijistani however, “the search for truth leads ever deeper as the layers of exterior symbols are stripped away. Behind one level lies another.” (Walker, 1996, p. 56)

The former three all filter this knowledge downwards so to speak, whilst the fourth of these, the Founder, here identified with the Imam is tasked with providing knowledge to those around him in order that they can reverse the order and ascend back upwards towards the Intellect. This is theoretically carried out through the process of esoteric interpretation, or ta’wil of the sacred laws of Islam, by the Imam himself as the source of all knowledge on earth in the absence of the Prophet. Practically though, it is though the daʿwa structure that this knowledge reaches the ordinary believers. In this way, knowledge, according to al-Sijistani permeates all levels of being. The Ismaili intellectual tradition which he represented therefore in this early period was clear on its stance towards the philosophy of the Greeks which had been whole-heartedly been taken on by others; there was no conflict for them, between philosophical notions and theological ideas. The former were simply another way in which to articulate a distinctly Shia concept of Imamate.


From the very earliest period following the death of the Prophet Muhammad, when the Islamic empires were expanding into foreign lands, Muslims began to come into contact with peoples of other races, ethnicities, castes and creeds, dogmatic systems of belief in addition to a variety of religious, cultural and intellectual traditions, all of which posed a series of questions for the Muslims; most importantly was the stance to be adopted with regards to this ‘new’ knowledge. Was it to viewed as ‘un-Islamic’ originating as it did from beyond the Islamic traditional sources, and thus to be discarded? Or could it be engaged with, adapted and appropriated in such ways so as to be able to articulate the Islamic message within a more palatable framework for the societies in which they had come to inhabit? As Leamen (2000) notes, it was the latter path which was to be trodden, and what resulted from this active engagement with new forms of knowledge was “an extremely rich symbiosis of cultures and religions, once which produced great scientific and philosophical riches” (p. 31)

This paper has simply served to highlight the intellectual achievements and traditions of one such community within the rich tapestry of the Muslim umma who, in a similar vein to others around them, actively pursued the acquisition of knowledge in order to better understand the Islamic message. What was unique about the Shia Ismailis however was their understanding of Islam which meant that knowledge was not only a key part of their intellectual tradition, but was the foundation of their entire religious and political mission; prominent at every level. As mentioned above, the hierarchical nature of their daʿwa system was premised on the idea that knowledge permeated all aspects of their teachings. If we take the analogy of an abundantly flowing river of knowledge, the Ismaili Imam would assume this position, being seen as the source of all knowledge (ʿilm) and wisdom (hikma). This river of knowledge would gradually filter downwards spreading into a vast multitude of oceans which would represent the hierarchy of daʿis within the daʿwa structure, from the highest ranking official to the lowest. Finally, this would eventually filter down further and end with the trickling streams, representative of the initiated believers in the Ismaili community. This analogy we feel accurately reflects the stance towards knowledge which the Fatimid Ismailis held, and also allows for a reversal whereby the streams eventually return to their source, namely the river, in a similar way to that in which the Ismaili believers would gradually traverse the stages of knowledge further and further until they would be completely immersed within the immutable esoteric truths and realities (haqaʿiq) of the faith.

As we have seen, the Isma‘ilis have historically attached great importance to the role of the Imam, not merely as executor of the Prophet’s law but -– viewed in more philosophical terms –- as a manifestation of the First or Universal Intellect, and the one who has been entrusted -– through ta’wil –- with the task of elucidating the batin of the revealed law from its zahir within which the spiritual realities and totality of all knowledge has been enshrined (Shah, 2005) (Walker, 1996). Makarem (1967) appropriately explains the Isma‘ili significance of the Imam in the Fatimid phase of Isma‘ilism, during which the Isma‘ilis created a synthesis which Walker (1993) has dubbed “Isma‘ili Neoplatonism”. This merging of Ismaili theology with Neoplatonic thought from the Greek Hellenistic tradition is indicative of the Shia Ismaili attitude towards the validity of knowledge and its sources. The Ismaili daʿis, in an al-Kindian spirit one could say, unhesitatingly, actually adopted this worldview, moulding and adapting it within the framework of a distinctly Shia Ismaili worldview; one which positioned the Ismaili Imam, beyond all else, as the axis point from which all Ismaili doctrine stemmed (Corbin, 1983).

As Walker (1996) explains, “[t]heir aim was a complete integration of all knowledge, of each and every science and its formal reasoning into one common universally valid truth, a truth that is… equivalent to the religious reality that flows from the divine sources” (p. 4). From this, it is not at all difficult to understand the way in which the Ismailis understood their responsibility towards knowledge -– pursuit of it was a divine imperative and, thus, when the philosophy of the Greeks came along, it was viewed as another avenue towards the truth, and therefore, whilst certain other Muslims of the time may have felt threatened by this new knowledge rooted in the non-Islamic sciences, the Ismailis did not. Knowledge was to be pursued actively with fervour, religious or otherwise and this knowledge which they encountered from beyond the Islamic tradition, the so-called non-Islamic sciences were engaged with. In the final analysis, the Ismailis saw this knowledge as worthwhile and in line with others of the Muslim communities of the time who “chose from the classical Greek heritage what they believed to be useful” (Kennedy, 2000, p. 26), the Ismailis not only did the same, but took this a step further; they appreciated it and as Walker (1996) most perfectly puts it, “embraced [it], studied it, mastered it and incorporated it as if it had belonged all along.” (Walker, 1996, p. 4)

Date posted: Monday, August 4, 2014.

Copyright: Nadim Pabani, 2014.



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  17. Shah, B. (2005). Al-Qaḍi al-Nuʿman and the Concept of Batin . In T. Lawson, Reason and Inspiration in Islam: Theology, Philosophy and Mysticism in Muslim Thought (pp. 117-126). New York: I.B. Tauris & Co Ltd in association with The Institute of Ismaili Studies.
  18. Stern, S. M. (1983). Studies in Early Isma‘ilism. Jerusalem: Magnes Press; Leiden: Brill.
  19. Walker, P. E. (1996). Abu Ya‘qub al-Sijistani: Intellectual Missionary. London: I.B. Tauris in association with The Institute of Ismaili Studies.
  20. Walker, P. E. (1993). Early Philosophical Shiism: The Ismaili Neoplatonism of Abu Ya‘qub al-Sijistani. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  21. Walker, P. E. (1993). The Ismaili Daʿwa in the Reign of the Fatimid Caliph Al-Hakim. Journal of the American Research Center in Egypt , 161-182.
  22. Walker, P. E. (2005). The Ismaʿilis. In P. Adamson, & R. C. Taylor (Eds.), The Cambridge Companion to Arabic Philosophy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  23. Walker, P. E. (1994). The Wellsprings of Wisdom: A Study of Abu Ya’qub al-Sijistani’s Kitab al-Yanabiʿ. Salt Lake City: The University of Utah Press.


About the author: Nadim Pabani graduated from City University, London with an Undergraduate degree in Law and Property Valuation (LLB), following which he went on to complete his Masters Degree in Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies from the University of Edinburgh. Whilst there, he completed his MSc thesis “The Qa’im and Qiyama Doctrines in the Thought of Fatimid and Alamut Isma’ilism: The Evolution of a Doctrine” which sought to explore the doctrinal evolution of one of the most central doctrines of Isma’ili history and thought in the pre-Fatimid, Fatimid and Alamut phases of the community’s history. Currently, Nadim is completing his double Masters degree as part of the Institute of Ismaili Studies’ (IIS) Secondary Teacher Education Programme (STEP), following which, as a qualified graduate teacher, he will be responsible for implementing and delivering the new Secondary curriculum as part of the STEP endeavour

The author can be contacted via email at

A selection of articles by Nadim Pabani on this website:

  1. The Common Word for a Common Humanity: The Underlying Essence of the Message as Rooted in the Holy Scriptures of Islam and Christianity
  2. Imam Jafar al-Sadiq’s Legacy to the Community


We welcome feedback/letters from our readers. Please use the LEAVE A REPLY box which appears below. Your feedback may be edited for length and brevity, and is subject to moderation. We are unable to acknowledge unpublished letters. Please visit the Simerg Home page for links to articles posted most recently. For links to articles posted on this Web site since its launch in March 2009, please click TABLE OF CONTENTS.

3 thoughts on “The Intellectual Tradition of Shia Ismaili Islam – The Fatimids and their Approaches to Knowledge

  1. An excellent reflection of Ismailism with reference to the significance of seeking & sharing of Knowledge, and of its centrality, through the Quran and the continuiity of its Tawil and Talim by Imams, in the context of the duality being, integral parts of the sum total of all knowledge. Excellent analogy of the river of knowledge. Thank you for sharing this knowledge with us.

  2. God bless you, and thank you Mr. Nadim Pabani for this valuable material and information about the Isma’ili doctrine and knowledge. Hope you give and write more.

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