In Ismaili thought, the Qur’an has both an exoteric outer meaning, called the zahir, and an esoteric inner meaning, called the batin. The Ismailis refer to the process of extracting the inner meaning (batin) of the Qur’an as ta’wil (a word which means “to lead back to the origin”). Throughout Ismaili history, the ta’wil of the Qur’an was often taught by Ismaili thinkers and teachers, called da‘is, who were appointed by the Ismaili Imam of the time to instruct the believers. Thus, Ismaili ta’wil or spiritual interpretation has taken many different forms and articulations through history and has been practiced in a variety of intellectual and cultural contexts. The Ismaili ta’wil of the Six Days of Creation is a consistent theme among numerous Ismaili thinkers throughout history. What follows is a summary of the Ismaili ta’wil or esoteric interpretation of the Qur’anic verses about God creating the heavens and the earth in “Six Days” as mainly presented in the writings of two major Ismaili thinkers – Nasir-i Khusraw (d. 1088) and Nasir alDin al-Tusi (d. 1274), although this general schema is found among multiple Ismaili Muslim authors.
Like the Bible, the Qur’an declares several times (see 32:4, 10:3, 11:7, 25:59, 57:4, 50:38,
and 7:54) that God created the heavens and the earth in Six Days:
“Your Lord is Allah, Who created the heavens and the earth in Six Days, and then
established the Throne.” (Qur’an 7:54)
While the literal understanding and exoteric commentaries of this verse see it as description of God’s creation of the physical world, Ismaili thinkers stress that God’s act of creating the Cosmos occurs without time and is instantaneous since God’s power does not require any periods of time to produce creation. As they note, the Qur’an actually says that God creates by His Word or Command, “Be”, which is instantaneous like “the twinkling of an eye” (Qur’an 54:50). Therefore, this “world” that God creates in six days must refer to something else – a different world from the natural physical universe. In this respect, the Ismailis argued that the “heavens” and the “earth” that God creates in “Six Days” according to the biblical and Qur’anic accounts refer not to the physical world, but rather, to the “World of Faith.” The World of Faith refers to a divinely-ordained institution of spiritual guidance through God’s emissaries – the Messengers, Prophets, and Imams – and their teaching hierarchy as it has operated throughout the history of humankind since time immemorial. The “heavens” of the World of Faith refer to the exoteric teachings (zahir) of religion contained in revealed discourse (tanzil) and the religious law (shari‘ah). The “earth” of the World of Faith refer to the esoteric teachings (batin) of religion in the ta’wil and the spiritual paths (tariqah). Just as the visible heavens encircle and surround the physical earth, the exoteric dimension of religion is the outward dimension (zahir) and the esoteric dimension (batin) of religion is its inner core.
Ismaili thinkers stress that God’s act of creating the Cosmos occurs without time and is instantaneous since God’s power does not require any periods of time to produce creation. As they note, the Qur’an actually says that God creates by His Word or Command, “Be”, which is instantaneous like “the twinkling of an eye” (Qur’an 54:50).
Similarly, as the “days” of the physical world begin and end through the movement of celestial bodies – like the Sun and Moon – the “days” of the World of Faith begin and end with the appearance of God’s Messengers and Imams. The “Six Days” in which God created the heavens and earth of the World of Faith refer to six great Prophets, called natiqs, each of whom received divine inspiration and expressed it as an exoteric revealed discourse (tanzil, i.e. the Torah, the Gospel, the Qur’an) and an ethical-religious law (shari‘ah). These “Six Days” or natiqs were: Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, Jesus and Muhammad.
The Ismailis found this prophetic schema alluded to Qur’anic verses that highlight the role of these six Prophets (see verses 3:33-34, 33:7, and 42:13). In this Ismaili schema of history, the Adam of the Bible and the Qur’an was not the first human being on earth and there were human beings in the world before him for thousands of years (some Ismaili texts even provide the name of Adam’s physical father). The Adam mentioned in the Bible and Qur’an was the first Prophet of the current 7,000 period of human history that began around 4,000 BC, during which spiritual truths are only accessible through exoteric symbols (see note 4). Each great Prophet or natiq appointed a spiritual successor, called the wasi. The role of the wasi, during a Prophet’s lifetime, is to teach the esoteric meaning (batin) of the revelation and the law in the form of ta’wil to an elite group of believers and spiritual seekers. The names of the six successors (wasi) as per Ismaili sources are: Seth (with Adam), Shem (with Noah), Isma‘il (with Abraham), Simon Peter (with Jesus), and ‘Ali (with Muhammad). Each wasi is succeeded by a line of hereditary Imams who interpret the exoteric teachings of the Prophet according to the time/context and disseminate the ta’wil of the Prophet’s revealed discourse (tanzil) and the religious law (shari‘ah). The Ismailis also grounded the idea of a continuous hereditary line of Imams existing between each Prophet in specific Qur’anic verses, which emphasize a divinely ordained series of leaders (imams) in the hereditary lineage of Adam, Noah, Abraham and Imran (see verses 3:33-34, 2:124-133, 21:73, 57:26).
Most importantly, the Ismailis held that the exoteric (zahir) or outward forms of each Prophet’s revelations, rituals, and laws differ from one another because of the different times and cultures each Prophet operated in. But the esoteric (batin) meanings and spiritual truths behind what the Prophets taught is the same. The goal of spiritual interpretation or ta’wil is to resolve such differences and unveil the spiritual unity within God’s revelations. Thus, when the Qur’an mentions “the Book (al-kitab)” (2:2, 2:213, etc.), the “luminous Book” (31:20), the “hidden Book” (56:78), the “Mother of the Book” (13:39), or the “Guarded Tablet” (85:22), these terms all refer to common spiritual meanings behind all the prophetic revelations, and not to physical scriptures themselves.
Thus, God “created the heavens and the earth” of the World of Faith “in Six Days” or Six Periods of Prophecy, each lasting about a 1,000 years: the “First Day” or First Cycle began with Prophet Adam and continued for about 1,000 years through his successors from Seth and the Imams descended from Seth, until the appearance of Prophet Noah, who began the “Second Day.” Both the Bible (Genesis 9:28-29) and the Qur’an (29:14) literally state that Noah lived among his people for 950 years. According to the Ismailis, this number actually means that Noah’s prophetic “cycle” or “period,” which includes his mission and the entire succession of Imams from Noah’s progeny, lasted for 950 years until the coming of Prophet Abraham.
The “Sixth Day”: The Day of Assembly
The Prophet Muhammad’s mission marked the end of the “Fifth Day” (the cycle of Prophet Jesus and his successor-Imams) and the beginning of the “Sixth Day.” In this Ismaili view of religious history, the true Imams from the lineage of Isma‘il son of Abraham were the ancestors of the Prophet Muhammad and the Light (nur) of divine inspiration (ta’yid) and guidance had been transmitted directly through their lineage. The general notion of spiritual authority dwelling among specific descendants of Abraham through Isma’il is alluded to in Qur’an 2:124-133, while the idea of the prophetic Light (nur) being transmitted among the Prophet’s ancestors is attested to in several early Shi‘i and Sunni sources as well. The Prophet’s grandfather ‘Abd al-Muttalib, and his uncle Abu Talib [the father of Imam ‘Ali], were the Imams of their respective eras and responsible for physically raising and spiritually training the Prophet Muhammad for his future mission. Abu Talib (his proper name, Imran, is mentioned in Qur’an 3:33-34) was the last Imam of the “Fifth Day” (the Period of Jesus), and he protected and sheltered the Prophet Muhammad in the early days of his mission in Mecca. While Muhammad was the final prophet, the office of Imamat continues in his family after him. Prophet Muhammad’s legatee and successor was his cousin and son-in-law, ‘Ali b. Abi Talib, the first Imam of the “Sixth Day,” who taught the esoteric interpretation (ta’wil) of Muhammad’s revelation to the believers. Prophet Muhammad and his mission correspond to Friday, the “Day of Assembly” (yawm al-jumu‘ah), and the special Islamic congregational prayer on Fridays alludes to his cycle. The Ismaili Imams descended from ‘Ali are the Imams of the Sixth Day, the cycle of Muhammad, and their lineage leads to the awaited “Seventh Day.”
The “Seventh Day” : The Day of Sabath
The “Seventh Day” is the Sabbath and the “Day of Resurrection” (yawm alqiyamah): the final period in which a messianic figure descended from Prophet Muhammad and the Imams, called the Lord of Resurrection (qa’im al-qiyamah), is expected to establish justice in the world and reveal the esoteric meaning of all religions and revelations. This is the esoteric meaning of the qiyamah or the day of resurrection when the heaven and earth are transformed into a new heaven and earth (Qur’an 14:48)
“The Cycle of every prophet is his ‘day’. The time in which we are now – I mean, the time after the Messenger, [Muhammad] al-Muṣṭafa, was sent forth up to the time of the Resurrection – is the ‘day’ of our Messenger. The days of Moses, Jesus, and the other prophets are past… God the Exalted created the lifetime of this world during the span of the prophethood of six prophets, each of whom had his cycle (dawr) and his summons (da‘wat) in his ‘day’ (rūz), and during his day the Emissary summoned people to God… If people were to examine this interpretation, each prophetic community would occupy the position which it indeed occupies: the Christians established on the fifth day, the Jews on the fourth day, the Mazdeans on the third day.”
(Nasir-i Khusraw, Between Reason and Revelation, tr. Eric Ormsby, 152-153)
In conclusion, through the process of ta’wil or spiritual interpretation, the Ismailis read the Qur’anic account of God creating the world in Six Days as a symbolic account of God establishing the “World of Faith” through Six Periods of Prophecy and Imamat. While God creates and sustains the Cosmos continuously, the Six Days of creation thus refer to humankind’s spiritual history. In the esoteric worldview of the Ismailis, the World of Faith extends from Adam, the first Prophet, through a long and unbroken hereditary line of Prophets and Imams up to the present day.
* This article was prepared as introductory educational material for the non-academic reader. The article summarizes some of the current and upcoming research of the author.
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About the Author:
Khalil Andani is a doctoral (Ph.D) candidate and an SSHRC Doctoral Fellow (2014-2019) at Harvard University specializing in Islamic intellectual history, theology, philosophy, and mysticism and also holds a Master of Theological Studies degree (2014), specializing in Islamic philosophy and Ismaili thought, from Harvard University. He is a Chartered Professional Accountant (CPA) and completed Bachelor of Mathematics (BMath) and Master of Accounting degrees at the University of Waterloo (2008). Khalil’s publications include a book chapter on Nasir-i Khusraw’s philosophical thought in the Oxford Handbook of Islamic Philosophy and articles in Sacred Web, and The Matheson Trust.