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2. Ismaili Beliefs, Prayers and Practices, 4. Quran and Ismailism

Esotericism in the Ismaili Tradition Part II: Tawil of Allah and the System of Four Roots


Esoterism in the Ismaili Tradition Part II Cover

Continuing our research into the deception of esotericism, let us go back to theological sources and find the definitions for both esotericism (the hidden reality) and exoterism (the external or the apparent).

Finding the Definition of Esotericism and Exotericism from Theological Sources

The definitions of exotericism (ẓâhir) and esoteric (bāṭen or taʾwīl) vary, the concepts are full of contradictions and many theologians have tried to explain this concept without using much reason and logic. The following important questions occur for while explaining the concept of taʾwīl :

1. What is taʾwīl or bāṭeni interpretation?
2. Who is entitled to provide taʾwīl or bāṭeni interpretations and what is the source of his authority?
3. To whom the taʾwīl or bāṭeni interpretation is provided?
4. What are the consequences of the answers to the above three questions?

Is Taʾwīl exclusive to Ismāʿīlīsm?

Every major world religion is tainted by esotericism. Thousands of books have been written on Christian esotericism which are of the view that Christianity is a mystery religion. The authors profess the existence and possession of certain esoteric doctorines or practices of which the general public is unaware, but which is understood by a small group of people. This is exactly how the Ismāʿīlīs view themselves as compared to the Muslim ummah.

In reality, Ismāʿīlīs have a conceited view that only the Ismāʿīlī creed is fortunate enough to have a living, divine Imām for the taʾwīl of the bāṭen of the ẓâhiri sharīʿah and that the Muslims have no such ‘facility’.

The synonyms for the word taʾwīl are esoteric, bāṭen, secret, sacred, ramz, reality (haqeeqat), wisdom (hikmah), gnostic and spiritual interpretation and edicts of the Imām.
The salient arguments raised by Dr. Zahid Ali, in his book Hamare Ismaili Mazhab ki Haqeeqat aur Iska Nizam “The Origins of our Ismaili Creed and its System” can be summarized in the following table:




1. Ẓâhir is a dream. Taʾwīl is the interpretation of the ẓâhir dream.
2. Muslims have to believe in the apparent (ẓâhir) since they do not have the miracle of taʾwīl or bāṭen Taʾwīl is exclusive to Ismāʿīlīs and no one else has it.
3. Custom or traditions must be followed in the ẓâhir. There is no apparent or ẓâhir sharīʿah, no customs and no traditions are necessary to follow.
4. Ẓâhir lacks spirituality and depends on mandatory adherence to sharīʿah Bāṭen is spiritual where the effort to follow thesharīʿah is not required.
5. Ẓâhir is material and lacks spirituality Taʾwīl  is virtual image and is totally spiritual
6. Ẓâhiri sharīʿah is the peel of the fruit Taʾwīl  is the reality and is the kernel of the fruit
7. Ẓâhiri knowledge is full of contradictions Bāṭen is free of contradictions and defects.
8. Ẓâhir is mere blind following (taqlid) of a person and devoid of any reason of knowledge. Bāṭen is enlightenment and based on knowledge, reason and of permanent nature.
9. ẓâhir is shirk and kufr. Bāṭen is real tawhid
10. According to Pir Nasir Khusraw those who do not recognize or deny the IsmāʿīlīImāms are donkeys and dogs. According to Pir Nasir Khusraw those who recognize and follow the Ismāʿīlī Imāms are real believers

 Taʾwīl of the word “Allāh”

Now let me start with the taʾwīl of the word Allāh. Paul E. Walker has written two books on him: one on the life and works of Abu Ya‘qub al-Sijistani and other the translation and commentary of the book Wellsprings of Wisdom.

Using Wellsprings of Wisdom and wajh-e-deen by Nāsir Khusraw, the following is what is the taʾwīl of the word Allāh:

The word Allah consists of four (4) letters viz (1) Alif, (2) Lam long, (3) Lam Short, and (4) Ha.

Each letter stands for or symbolizes an entity (had, plural hudood) viz:

  1. alif (ا ) for Universal Intelligence,
  2. laam (ل) longer for Universal Soul,
  3. laam (ل) shorter for Prophet/apostle,
  4. ha (ہ) for Asas followed by Imams.

Each one has special function to perform:

  1. Universal Intelligence here after to be referred as UI, functions as tayed    
  2. Universal Soul to be referred as US functions as tarkib
  3. Prophet/Apostle functions as talif and
  4. Asas functions as taʾwīl. These hudood are also called the roots of truth.
# Letter Stands for hudood / roots / wellsprings  fx Origin Certain elucidation Element
1 alif Universal Intelligence / U.I. / Preceder tayed Amr Allah To help the following hudood Fire
2 laam (long) Universal Soul / U.S. / Follower tarkib UI Creation of physical & spititual universe Air
3 laam (short) Apostle / Speaking Prophet /Natiq talif US To author or compile Qur’ān Water
4 ha Assas / Founder (followed by Imams) tawil UI + US To elucidate the Secret/bāṭenimeaning Earth

The following is mentioned by al-Sijistani, Wellsprings of Wisdom, p.7:

“The whole system is impressive, especially in its remarkable symmetry.  At the top is intellect. Intellect holds the highest rank of originated being, at the summit of all the knowledge. It is the beginning and final end of all the principles. God does not enter the system because He is utterly and unqualifiedly transcends it. God is beyond both being and nonbeing, outside of all relationship to anything in the cosmos, whether that thing is sublime or mundane. Therefore, the God is not technically a “source’ or “wellspring” of knowledge, although the origin of that knowledge is an origination. As knowledge, however, the originating, and even the identity of God Himself, is nothing other than intellect. Knowledge is intellect: a simple tautology.”

Note the absence of Allāh from this hierarchy, there is nothing but the Imām.

The following is mentioned on p. 49:

“The Alif is the analogue of the Preceder, who is the well spring of divine inspiration; the first lam is the analogue of the Follower who is the wellspring of Physical composition; the second lam is analogue of the Speaking-Prophet, who is the wellspring of scriptural compilation; and the round spherical ha is the analogue of the Founder, who Is the well spring of interpretation.”

Note that the four letters in the word Allāh are the four roots or wellsprings or Hudod.

“As in the belly of the Earth, Water, Air and the Fire are all concealed, so likewise in the person of the founder (Asas/Imam), the divine inspiration of the preceder, the providence of the follower, and instructions of the Speaking- Prophet are merged together.” (ibid., p. 47)

Note that the system of all these four roots is merged in Assas and his progeny Imāms.

“Because there is no other intellect, it cannot be affirmed to be in another intellect, it follows then that intellect does not corrupt. And this is as God says, “all things perish, except His face.” (al-Qur’ān 28:88). The Preceder is God’s face, which does not perish and it is not destroyed. God has indeed removed from Himself all relationships. (ibid., p. 58)

Note that in Universal: the first Root is the face of God. Imām-e-Hazir which means that the Imām is the face of Allāh. The following is provided as a definition of the word ta’til:

“The Arabic word translated here is a “stripping away positive attributes” is in one place ‘mu’atil and the other ta’til. These are technical terms that cannot be adequately translated with adding explanatory language.” (ibid., p. 146)

It is very important to know that there is no position of Allāh in the bāṭeni Ismāʿīlī hierarchy. Everything which Allāh stands for, translates into the Imām, leaving no place for Allāh in the hierarchy. Therefore this bāṭeni interpretation implies that all power of the supreme creator, Allāh are vested into the Imām – so much so that Imām himself is Allāh. The following writings by al-Sijistani attest to this. In the same book (p. 27), he writes:

“God is not a knowable existent, even by mystical means. God does not respond to temporal appeals, but rather has already put in place existing structure, a divine structure, a divine hierarchy that rules the cosmos. It is this structure that must answer to the individual’s query; it contains the sources of all knowledge, divine and otherwise. Were this not so, he would have no order and would be incomprehensible, a mere chaos. The roots of certainty are not thus vague wisps of imagination and fantasy but the hard realities of scientific regulations and laws.”

Also, on p. 30, al-Sijistani writes:

“Significantly, God is not a member of this structure, nor for that matter is the divine command by which He initiates it and brings it into being from nothing.”

“The four roots are each responsible for one of these four functions. Intellect controls ta’yid; it inspires. Soul composes in the sense of tarkib it is the animating force that combines the physical elements in the natural universe into being that move and act. The Speaking –prophet, similarly, composes scripture and creates law, the act of ta’lif. The Founder interprets (provides taʾwīl of) what the other composes.” (ibid., p. 31)

Note: Here are the functions of the four Roots/Hudood/Wellsprings.

“With respect to God, more needs to be said. One area not yet explained is the role of revelatory knowledge. In a sense, al-Sijistani dares deny the connection between God and being because he believes that institution of root sources assumes knowledge of God in and of itself. Humans derive truth from these sources and only from them. God’s position is properly defined only by them and not by extra-systematic perceptions or personal fantasy. Therefore the most accurate understanding of God – in fact, the only valid means to it – is contained in the law and in the pronouncements of the Imam. What the law says is how God is to be known. This is, in the end, a total affirmation of Islam and its teaching of God. It is likewise, in this case, not an appeal to reason or rationality at all. Connecting God, reason is caught between attempted affirmation and repeated denial; it is thus impotent in this one respect.” (ibid., page 94)

The notable point from al-Sijistani’s writing is that there is no Allāh in the Ismāʿīlī hierarchy or the system of four Roots of Truth or four Hudood. What can be the reasons for this: The word Allāh can be only a symbol and each one of the letter can be a symbol for respective root of the truth viz Preceder, the Follower, Natiq Prophet and the Founder meaning Assa’s followed by Imams by heredity. And this is how a system of four roots of truths takes place to perform all the functions of Allāh.

As the word is only a symbol then this is a denial of Allāh; this is total Atheism. Therefore, whole of this system is out of the orbit of ʾIslām.

Denial of Allāh’s universal role in Ismāʿīlīsm

The doctrine of Ta’til says that Allāh is there but He has entrusted all His functions and attributes including and attributive (sifati) names to this system of four roots of truth. All the four roots are merged in the founder meaning Assa’s with following hereditary Imāms. This means that the present Imām is bestowed with all the functions of Allāh. Therefore, the Imām is de facto Allāh. This is therefore complete denial of Allāh’s active role in the universe. In Ismāʿīlīsm, Allāh himself has delegated absolutely everything to the Imām.

Ismāʿīlī history has shown that they have always tried to plant divinity in the Imāms through various means.

The Messenger is the ‘author’ of the Qur’ān in Ismāʿīlīsm

Now, let us consider the Qur’ān  in this system of four roots of truth or hudood. In this system it is not Allāh that revealed Qur’ān to the blessed Apostle Muhammad. According this Ismāʿīlī system the Apostle of Allāh is the author or compiler of the Qur’ān. This is the reason why Allāh has ordained in the Qur’ān to seek the protection of Allāh, before anyone begins to recite the Qur’ān. Allāh narrated in the Qur’ān, more than scores of times that He has revealed the Qur’ān to His Blessed Apostle. Now, should a person have faith in Allāh or these four roots of the so-called ‘truth’ of Ismāʿīlīsm?

This sort of propaganda was a powerful storm against Islam. The main point in this propaganda was that ʿAlī bin Abi Talib had deputed Salman Farsi as his Hujjat to reveal Qur’ān to Muhammad the Apostle even during the tenure of the final Prophet. The effect of this was to falsify (a) Allāh who reveals and (b) that Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) was not telling the truth. This is how the propagandists tried in vain to torpedo both pillars of Islam but Allāh did perfect His Islam. He took the cognizance and revealed in the following:

“When we send down one verse to elaborate the other and Allāh knows best what to send down, they say “you forge this Qur’ān yourself.” The fact is that most of them do not know the reality.

Tell them, “The Holy Spirit has brought it down piecemeal intact from my Lord so that He make firm the faith of those who have believed, and to show the Right Way, and to give good news, to those who surrender themselves to Allāh.

We know very well what they say about you: “surely a certain person teaches him.” But the person whom they allude speaks a foreign tongue, and this (Qur’ān) is in plain Arabic.

(Qur’ān Surah Nahl, Verses 101-103)

In the next episode, we will quote from other Ismāʿīlī sources and see further how the Imām is positioned above all else in Ismāʿīlīsm. We will quote references from  Dr. Marakem and al-Kirmani which are respected sources in Ismāʿīlī esotericism. May Allāh guide us all and enable us to practice ʾIslām as it was practiced by the Prophet (pbuh).

About Akbar Khoja

Giving out free #LessonsInIsmailism.


One thought on “Esotericism in the Ismaili Tradition Part II: Tawil of Allah and the System of Four Roots

  1. Reblogged this on Ismaili to Islam | i2i.


    Posted by Akbar Khoja | May 2, 2016, 2:08 pm

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