Beyond the Qur an
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Ismailism, one of the three major branches of Shiism, is best known for ta'wil, an esoteric, allegorizing scriptural exegesis. Beyond the Qur'?n: Early Ismaili ta'wil and the Secrets of the Prophets is the first book-length study of this interpretive genre. Analyzing sources composed by tenth-century Ismaili missionaries in light of social-science theories of cognition and sectarianism, David Hollenberg argues that the missionaries used ta'wil to instill in acolytes a set of symbolic patterns, forms, and "logics." This shared symbolic world bound the community together as it created a gulf between community members and those outside the movement. Hollenberg thus situates ta'wil socially, as an interpretive practice that sustained a community of believers.

An important aspect of ta'wil is its unconventional objects of interpretation. Ismaili missionaries mixed Qur'?nic exegesis with interpretation of Torah, Gospels, Greek philosophy, and symbols such as the Christian Cross and Eucharist, as well as Jewish festivals. Previously scholars have speculated that this extra- Qur'?nic ta'wil was intended to convert Jews and Christians to Ismailism. Hollenberg, departing from this view, argues that such interpretations were, like Ismaili interpretations of the Qur'?n, intended for an Ismaili audience, many of whom converted to the movement from other branches of Shiism.

Hollenberg argues that through exegesis of these unconventional sources, the missionaries demonstrated that their imam alone could strip the external husk from all manner of sources and show the initiates reality in its pure, unmediated form, an imaginal world to which they alone had access. They also fulfilled the promise that their imam would teach them the secrets behind all religions, a sign that the initial stage of the end of days had commenced.

Beyond the Qur'?n contributes to our understanding of early Ismaili doctrine, Fatimid rhetoric, and, more broadly, the use of esoteric literatures in the history of religion.



Publié par
Date de parution 20 octobre 2016
Nombre de lectures 5
EAN13 9781611176797
Langue English
Poids de l'ouvrage 1 Mo

Informations légales : prix de location à la page 0,2350€. Cette information est donnée uniquement à titre indicatif conformément à la législation en vigueur.


Early Ism l Ta w l and the Secrets of the Prophets
2016 University of South Carolina
Published by the University of South Carolina Press Columbia, South Carolina 29208
24 23 22 21 20 19 18 17 16 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data can be found at
ISBN 978-1-61117-678-0 (cloth) ISBN 978-1-61117-679-7 (ebook)
Front cover illustration: Missionaries Teaching Ta wil by Asma Hilali, London, United Kingdom, 2016




Competing Islands of Salvation: The Early Ism l Mission, 870-975
Ism l Ta w l and Da wa Literature
Beyond the Qur n: Prophecy, Scriptures, Signs
The Torah s Im ms

Epilogue: After the End of Days-From Imminent to Immanent Apocalypticism

Appendix: Abbreviated Titles of Dated Sources Used in Chapter 3, Rearing



Ism lism, one of the three major branches of Sh ism, is best known for ta w l , an allegorizing scriptural exegesis. Using ta w l, Ism l missionaries claimed to derive secret, hidden truths behind the Qur n s exterior sense. While scholars have long mined Ism l ta w l as a source for Ism l doctrine, surprisingly few articles have been dedicated to the genre and practice with which Ism lism is closely associated. 1 Focusing on the mission from its rise in the mid-ninth century through the reign of the F imid Caliph al-Mu izz li-d n All h (d. 975), this book addresses this lacuna.
The bulk of early Ism l ta w l that is extant was composed by missionaries during the late ninth and tenth centuries. Ta w l was the vehicle through which salvific knowledge was disseminated. According to the sources, this knowledge flowed from God, through the rightly guided Im ms, to the missionaries. This saving knowledge transformed the initiate, binding him to the call ( da wa ) on behalf of the rightly guided Im m who would rule the world with justice just as it is now beset with tyranny. The da wa was both a call on behalf of the Im m and a term for the organization who worked on his behalf. Ta w l bound the believers to the da wa by training them in an entirely new way of reading (in the broad sense of the word, as interpreting ). The habits of mind inspired by this rearing bound the believers together and differentiated them from those outside the movement.
Working in small secret groups in conjunction with a larger movement, missionaries at the beginning of the movement in the late ninth century used ta w l to sow the mission among the semiliterate populations in agricultural regions such as the Yemeni highlands, the Caspian Sea region in northwest Iran, the Berber mountain territories in North Africa, and the Saw d (agricultural region) of Kufa. Missionaries taught converts that there was a secret sense behind passages of the Qur n, ritual, tradition, and realia . Read properly, underlying all these objects of interpretation are patterns of aq iq (eternal truths), archetypes of reality in its pure, unmediated form. These aq iq are manifest in their purest form in the F imid mission itself, the hierarchy from the Im m to the missionary, to the new acolyte.
Acquisition of this saving knowledge through ta w l entailed, then, more than different interpretations of particular Qur nic verses. It was an entirely new mode of interpretation. Through the prism of da wa knowledge, the entire world could be viewed in its divinely ordered patterns and forms. In the sources the believer s gradual acquisition of this gnosis is referred to as rearing ( tarbiya ).
This notion of being reared in knowledge is one of many life-cycle metaphors that recur in ta w l. The initiate s taking the oath of allegiance to join the mission is referred to as birth ( tawallud ) or creation ( fi ra ). The believer is spiritually circumcised when he learns the identity of the Im m of the age. He is suckled in this secret knowledge and gradually ascends through the ranks of the mission. Eventually he learns to speak, that is, he has sufficiently internalized the language of the mission to become a missionary with the capacity to proselytize others. Warnings against transgressing one s proper rank in the da wa hierarchy are also expressed in these life-cycle terms. In his treatise Ta w l s rat al-nis (Interpretation of the Qur nic Chapter Women ), Ja far ibn Man r al-Yaman interprets Qur n 4:23, a verse in which God prohibits a man from marrying various classes of relatives (mothers, daughters, sisters, and nieces), to refer to missionaries improper disclosure of knowledge that they are not yet entitled to access or disclose. 2
The extended life-cycle allegory-from birth, to maturity, to heavenly reward-implies a complete transformation, but one that requires many steps. The saving knowledge on which the acolyte is weaned is disseminated gradually. As we learn from anecdotes within Ism l literature, the strategy of revealing and concealing knowledge according to rank was meant to produce a particular affect: the experience of epiphany or anagnorisis, the sense that the veil of ignorance has been lifted. 3 For the Ism l believer, it was not acquisition or mastery of the secret knowledge alone that was crucial; it was the awareness of a vast imaginal world of transcendent noumena glimpsed only in fragments, and to which the believer currently had but limited access. 4 A dynamic of concealment-even from the believers who had formally joined the movement-was conducive to maintaining the sense of continual anagnorisis, of recognition that one was continually at the beginning of an ever-widening vista.
Ta w l s form and style facilitated this experience of epiphany. Ism l ta w l s two most prominent stylistic techniques are, first, its broad and unconventional range of objects of interpretation, and second, its view of them as components of a small number of schema and themes. Decontextualized and emptied of their original intellectual content, familiar Islamic sources are shown to be apposite to symbols anathema to the Islamic tradition. Thus Islamic material such as verses from the Qur n, the testimony of faith in God ( shah da ), and sayings of the family of the Prophet were shown to have hidden parallels to the Christian cross, the church hierarchy, stories in the Torah not found in other Islamic sources, and doxographies attributed to the ancient Greek luminaries Aristotle, Plato, and Euclid. 5 Through their pairing, the missionaries demonstrated that both familiar and exotic sources alluded to the same hidden schema-the pleroma beyond the material world, and the cyclical hierohistory and mission hierarchy within it. By harmonizing these culturally dissonant sources, the missionaries created a bricolage that incorporated foreign elements and exoticized familiar ones by reducing them to the same underlying schema. Through disclosing the secrets of sources closed to non-Ism l s, the missionaries were abe to provide the believers access to knowledge reserved only to the elite ( kh a ).
Needless to say, this unconventional mode of interpretation made Ism lism anathema to medieval Muslim scholars. And this may, in fact, have been the point. Sociologists of sectarianism have shown that for sects to thrive, they must create a sense of tension with those outside the sect. Bryan Wilson writes that one crucial trait of sectarian movements is their intentional differentiation from the prevailing patterns of the dominant tradition. 6 Placing the sectarians in a state of tension with the surrounding society raises their sense of commitment and allegiance to the group. 7 For some groups this can take the form of antisocial behavior, distinctive clothing, and the flouting of mores in public-in Islam a phenomenon represented by the dervish groups after the twelfth century. 8 In covert movements sectarians maintain this dynamic through the adoption of materials known to be beyond the pale of acceptability. I suggest that for Ism l missionaries, the ta w l of aberrant materials such as the Christian cross, the church hierarchy, the Eucharist served this purpose. Embracing such exotic materials as the source of secret knowledge put the members of the sect in tension with those outside the movement and perpetuated their sectarian ethos.
A significant component of ta w l entailed the recital of schema of the mission hierarchy and cosmogony. Ta w l s penchant for repeating the same schema again and again and its missionary context call for an interpretive approach different from the classical Islamic exegesis of the traditional scholars ( ulam ). I suggest that ta w l was meant to habituate its audience to new habits of mind. Scholars of sectarianism in Second Temple Judaism such as Ilkka Pyysi inen and Jutta Jokiranta have shown the utility of cognitive models for textual analysis in order to appreciate the organizing principles of mind expressed in literary forms. 9 This theoretical shift from text to mind also informs Tanya Luhrmann s recent ethnography of the Vineyard, a renewalist Protestant church in Chicago. She observes that the congregants internalization of the language of faith and practices of prayer shapes the congregants understanding of their own experience, as well as the experience itself. 10
In the study of religion, the implications of what we might call the cognitive turn of textual analysis reflected in these studies were anticipated by Ernst Cassirer s philosophy of symbolic forms in the early twentieth century. Because the literary material with which Cassi

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