Academic Article

Spiritual Hierarchy and Gender Hierarchy in Fatimid Isma‘ili Interpretations of the Qur’an


Several authors have noted that the Yemeni Sulayhid Queen Arwa (d. 532 AH / 1138 AH) was a rare, perhaps unique, example of a woman said to hold both spiritual and temporal power in a medieval Islamic context.[2] Queen Arwa, also known as Sayyida Hurra and al-Hurra al-Malika, was the effective head of the Isma‘ili da‘wainfo-icon in Yemen from 467 AH / 1074 to 532 AH / 1138 CE; according to some sources, she was appointed to the spiritual rank of hujjainfo-icon by the Fatimid Isma‘ili caliphinfo-icon-Imaminfo-icon al-Mustansir in 477 AH / 1084 CE.[3] A hujja represented the Imam in a given region, and was therefore the highest Fatimid dignitary in that region, responsible for the spiritual appointment and training of lesser-ranking individuals.


Competing theories have been espoused about the nature of al-Sayyida al-Hurra’s rule, and whether there was anything specific to Fatimid Isma‘ili thought that would allow for a female spiritual leader. Mernissi claims that al-Sayyida al-Hurra’s rule was only temporal, not religious, and that her ability to assume power at all was due to her ethnicity as a Yemeni, rather than anything intrinsic to Fatimid Isma‘ilism.[4] DeSmet and Traboulsi independently examine a treatise written within the lifetime of al-Sayyida al-Hurra, Ghayat al-mawalid by al-Khattab (d. 533 AH /1138–9 CE), in which al-Khattab not only asserts that she is a spiritual ruler, but also defends her right to rule by saying that one’s outward sex is a garment in which is clothed the true spirit, which does not have an inherent gender, but may be described as masculine or feminine depending on spiritual ranking. Both DeSmet and Traboulsi say that al-Khattab’s gendered presentation of spiritual ranking is an innovation. However, in their study, Cortese and Calderini note that it is common for Fatimid Isma‘ilisinfo-icon to describe spiritual rankings as masculine or feminine.[5] Aside from their brief mention of this phenomenon, it has remained unexplored.


This article describes the relationship between gender hierarchy and spiritual hierarchy in the writings of three Fatimid Isma‘ili authors prior to al-Khattab: al-Qadiinfo-icon al-Nu‘man (d. 363 AH /974 CE), Ja‘far b. Mansur al-Yaman (d. 380 AH / 990 CE) and al-Mu’ayyad fi’l-Dininfo-icon al-Shirazi (d. 470 AH / 1078 CE). I show that these authors interpreted references to males and females in the Qur’aninfo-icon as references to spiritual teachers and their students. According to them, verses that, on the outward (zahirinfo-icon) level, speak of the gender hierarchy refer, on the inner (batininfo-icon) level, to the spiritual hierarchy. For them, physical gender matters in the physical realm, and a worldly gender hierarchy exists, but physical gender is not always a defining factor in spiritual rankings. All three of the authors analysed here were prominent in the Fatimid spiritual rankings themselves: Ja‘far b. Mansur al-Yaman was ‘Chief Gate’ (babinfo-icon al-abwab) to the Imam, al-Qadi al-Nu‘man was Chief Judge (qadi al-qudat) and al-Mu’ayyad was both bab al-abwab and Chief Missionary (da‘i al-du‘atinfo-icon); their writings would have been widely known among Fatimid Isma‘ili initiates. The texts analysed here provide a general background for al-Khattab’s explicit and specific assertions that a woman had the right to assume the rank of hujja. This article sheds light on the way in which these prominent Fatimid Isma‘ili thinkers view the base physical realm as a symbolic reference to higher spiritual truths, and give examples of the ways in which specific Qur’anic stories, such as that of Adam and Eve, or Joseph and Zulaykha, are interpreted as referring to the male/teacher and female/student relationship on the spiritual hierarchy.


This article is divided into three parts. It begins by discussing al-Qadi al-Nu‘man’s interpretation of the Adam and Eve story; in his interpretation, Eve (Hawwa’) is not Adam’s physical spouse but one of his hujaj. This theme is later taken up by al-Mu’ayyad. In the second part of the article, we delve more deeply into the question of the spiritual and the gender hierarchy, exploring the relationship between the descriptions of gender hierarchy and spiritual hierarchy in the writings of al-Qadi al-Nu‘man, Ja‘far b. Mansur and al-Mu’ayyad. The ideology that the Qur’an’s references to women could be interpreted as references to students on the spiritual hierarchy was also espoused by the Nusayris, a group founded by Abu Shu‘ayb Muhammad b. Nusayr (d. c. 270 AH / 863 CE).[6] Consequently, for the Nusayris, all people on the spiritual hierarchy were men: women could attain no spiritual rank.[7] On the contrary, the Fatimid Isma‘ili thinkers analysed here allow that women can attain spiritual merit and rank, even above men. The final section of this paper is a re-examination of the originality of the treatise of al-Khattab, Ghayat al-mawalid, in light of the analysis of the previous Fatimid Isma‘ili conceptions of the spiritual and gender hierarchy as espoused by al-Qadi al-Nu‘man, Ja‘far b. Mansur al-Yaman and al-Mu’ayyad.


1. Creation

The narrative of the creation of the first humans is one essential point on which the Isma‘ili doctrine differs radically from that of the mainstream Sunni and Imami Shi‘is. The Qur’an does not mention the method or substance of the creation of the first woman; but in pre-modern Sunni exegesis (tafsir), the creation of Adam and Eve follows the basic Biblical narrative: Eve (Hawwa’) is created from Adam’s rib while he is sleeping. Pre-modern Imami Shi‘i authors of tafsir works mention the rib interpretation; they also include an interpretation that Eve was created from the soil left over after Adam’s creation. Many Sunnisinfo-icon and Imami Shi‘is indicate that they see Eve’s creation as secondary to Adam’s, and that this secondary creation has implications for all women’s status in the world, and for the laws governing their behaviour.[8]


According to al-Qadi al-Nu‘man, the creation of Eve from Adam is a creation of spiritual hierarchy, not a physical creation. In the Fatimid Isma‘ili cosmology, each era has a law-giving prophet (natiq), followed by an executor (wasi). In addition, each natiq has several hujaj, who act as his representatives in the world. Al-Qadi al-Nu‘man clearly states that the mainstream interpretation is false, and that the creation of Eve from Adam is not physical; instead, it is a spiritual fashioning of her as Adam’s hujja, a rank attained by the knowledge she gains through spiritual discipleship:[9]


God, Exalted and Almighty, created Eve from Adam, and that is known from His words created from it its mate [Q. 4:1], and that is the creation of the discipleship (ta’yid), not a bodily creation. That is to say God ordered Adam to undertake the discipleship (ta’yid) of Eve, and her education, and her spiritual enlightenment; and he made her attached to him, and he made her his wife, and she was his ‘proof’ (hujja), which God had given to Adam in place of Iblisinfo-icon. [It is] not as the general populace claims, that God Almighty delivered Adam unto sleep, and he slept, and then He extracted one of his ribs, and created Eve from it.


In this passage, al-Qadi al-Nu‘man explains that Eve was given to Adam as a replacement for Iblis. The Qur’an describes how Iblis, alone of all of the angels, refuses to bow down to Adam, because of his pride. Twice in the Qur’an he is reported to say to God “I am better than him [Adam]: You created me from fire, while You created him from clay (Q. 7:12; Q. 38:76). For al-Qadi al-Nu‘man, Iblis had been designated as Adam’s hujja, but because of his refusal to bow down and accept Adam’s authority, he is rejected by God.[10] Q. 2:34 (We said to the angels: Prostrate yourselves to Adam, and they did, except Iblis, who refused and was proud, and became a denier) describes this moment of Iblis’ pride, and then says that Adam Spiritual Hierarchy and Gender Hierarchy and his wife were sent to live in the Garden. This is interpreted by al-Qadi al Nu‘man to mean that Eve became Iblis’ replacement in the spiritual hierarchy.


This interpretation shows that many aspects of spiritual lineage are passed down not through physical descent, but through ta’yid, a term that literally means ‘strengthening’ but that I have translated above as ‘discipleship’, because it entails the passing on of specialised knowledge. Eve becomes Adam’s hujja because of the knowledge that he imparts to her. Nor is Adam born into this knowledge; he is taught it by God, as in Q. 2:31, then He taught Adam all of the names. The knowledge imparted to Adam by God is understood by Fatimid Isma‘ilis to consist of knowledge of higher truths. In the Qur’an, when God teaches Adam all of the names, He gives him knowledge that is unknown to the angels; they must ask him for it. It is this knowledge, taught by God, that distinguishes Adam as a natiq prophet. Similarly, in a later age, Muhammad is distinguished from other humans by his knowledge, imparted by God.[11] The particular knowledge of prophets is described by Ja‘far b. Mansur al-Yaman.[12] Not only does knowledge distinguish prophets, but it creates the bond between prophets and their disciples. Thus, the relationship of discipleship between Adam and Eve is not that of a physical lineage; it is the relationship of shared knowledge, the specialised knowledge from God that Adam imparts to Eve through his mentorship and through her acceptance of ta’yid.


For al-Qadi al-Nu‘man, the physical realm is used as a marker of a deeper spiritual truth; this particular interpretation of the physical creation, where Eve is created from Adam’s rib is a means of expressing the spiritual creation stemming ultimately from Adam. The natiq prophets are usually identified as Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, Jesus and Muhammad.[13] Since Adam is the first natiq, he is the spiritual father of all subsequent nutaqa. Just as in mainstream Sunni and Imami interpretation Adam is understood to be the ultimate physical parent of all of humankind, in the Fatimid Isma‘ili doctrine he is the ultimate spiritual parent of the sons of Adam. His spiritual children are those who believe in Adam as a spiritual predecessor of the nutaqa and who believe in tasalsul, the spiritual lineage, down to the Imam of their current time.[14]


The zahir of verses that mention the creation of Eve, such as Q. 4:1, Fear your Lord, who created you from a single soul, and created from it its mate, is that Eve was created from Adam; but beyond that, the text is silent, creation from a rib is not mentioned in the Qur’an. The creation from a rib symbolically expresses the spiritual creation of humankind and the ultimate spiritual lineage; but it is an incomplete version of the story. Because they have only heard a part of the true interpretation, and have misunderstood it, the majority understand the creation of Eve as a creation from one rib, and as a physical creation. Instead, al-Qadi al-Nu‘man says, the human ribs are the physical structure corresponding to the nuqaba’, the representatives of the natiq, and it is false to say that this is a physical creation of one being from another’s rib.[15] Each age has a natiq, and each natiq has representatives, nuqaba’, who operate on his behalf. Twelve of these undertake the teaching of the batin knowledge, while twelve undertake the teaching of the zahir, the manifest worldly instructions. The human body, with its twelve ribs on each side, is the physical representation of this religious truth, and therefore, the story of creation from a single rib is simply an incomplete version of the true rib-creation narrative. Complete spiritual creation was from all twelve ribs on each side, meaning the 24 representatives of the natiq, twelve acting in the world and twelve hidden. The true interpretation refers to God’s knowledge, passed from the natiq to his wasi and from the natiq’s nuqaba’ to the populace.[16]


Al-Mu’ayyad’s sermon 79 also incorporates the idea of the physical world and physical lineage as a symbolic expression of the spiritual world and spiritual lineage. After the opening invocation, the sermon begins with the concept of tasalsul, or spiritual lineage, which says that every prophet is Adam in his turn, progenitors of a spiritual lineage just as Adam was the progenitor of a physical lineage.[17] The prophet is the spiritual father, the wasi is the spiritual mother, and the progeny of the spiritual marriage between them are the spiritual children, who are the followers of the prophet and the wasi. The notion of spiritual parents, with a spiritual lineage that parallels the physical lineage, is exemplified in a hadithinfo-icon:[18]


The attestation of [the spiritual lineage] is found in the words of the Prophet (peace be upon him) to Ali (upon him peace) ‘You and I, Ali, are the fathers of the believers’, indicating the spiritual sonhood, how it exists, and that it is in the domain of the Godly word (kalimat ilahiyya) which is one of the remnants of the power of the Messenger, just as there exists a physical sonhood in the domain of sperm, which is one of the remnants of the power or manhood. Since the sperm exists as a measure of the connection of lineage between a father and son, the word of God Exalted, which is the truest and foremost remnant of the power of the Messenger, exists as a measure of what is between the Prophet (peace be upon him and his family) and the community.


Al-Mu’ayyad draws a parallel between physical lineage, perpetuated by sperm, and spiritual lineage, perpetuated by the Godly word: sacred teachings are passed from teachers to students throughout the generations, creating a spiritual family. This passage also hints at the audience to which these sermons were delivered: it seems likely that the audience are those very beneficiaries of knowledge mentioned here, who were already of a certain rank within the Isma‘ili hierarchy.[19] The idea of the Spiritual Hierarchy and Gender Hierarchy spiritual parents is explained elsewhere in al-Mu’ayyad’s writings, in which the spiritual guide takes on the role of parent: rather than a physical being, he makes a spiritual being. He sets up the idea of a subtle natural hierarchy in this lineage, with hints of the love and affection that occur between fathers and sons.


The notion that Adam’s lineage is spiritual, and that references to Eve are really references to his hujja or wasi, means that although Eve is referred to using a female pronoun, and is referred to as a wife, Adam’s hujja is not necessarily a woman at all. The female pronoun is used here, and is able to be used, because the spiritual marriage that occurs between a disciple and a teacher is in parallel to the physical marriage between a husband and wife. That is because, for these three Fatimid Isma‘ili thinkers, many of the Qur’an’s references to the gender hierarchy are actually references to the teacher-student hierarchy.


2. Gender Hierarchy as a Parallel for Spiritual Hierarchy

The Fatimid Isma‘ili thinkers analysed here draw a parallel between the hierarchical relationship between men and women as expressed in the Qur’an and the hierarchical relationship between teachers and students. References to men and women in the Qur’an are alluding not only to the physical gender hierarchy, but also to teachers and students, or, in the words of Ja‘far b. Mansur al-Yaman, ‘he made those things pairs, male and female, and I don’t mean by that masculine and feminine but rather paired in terms of greater and lesser excellence and merit’.[20] As described above, excellence is acquired through knowledge, passed down from God through his natiq prophets, and from the natiq prophets to their hujaj and nuqaba, and from them to the wider populace. Thus pairings between those with greater and lesser excellence, merit and learning, occur at every stage of the learning hierarchy, from God and the natiq prophets on down. These hierarchies are the true spiritual essence of the merely physical hierarchy expressed in gendered terms in the Qur’an. The example given above, of the true meaning of the story of Adam and Eve, a male and female pair, actually referring to Adam and his hujja, is by no means isolated or unique in Fatimid Isma‘ili writings.


Another example of a woman in the Qur’an being treated figuratively occurs in al-Qadi al-Nu‘man’s interpretation of the story of Joseph. In Surat Yusuf, there is an incident which seems to refer to Joseph’s interaction with the wife of the person who has taken Joseph into his house. She is known by later commentators as Zulaykha, and her husband is called al-Aziz or Potiphar. In the Qur’an, she seems to be enchanted with Joseph and to wish to seduce him. Q. 12:23–5 reads:


But she in whose house he was sought to turn him from himself; she fastened the doors and said ‘Come here, you’. He said ‘God forbid! He [your husband] is my lord!’…and she desired him, and he desired her, except that he saw the evidence of his Lord, thus that We might turn away from him all evil and lewdness, indeed he is one of Our sincere servants. So they raced one another to the door, and she tore his shirt from behind.


These verses are widely understood to refer to Zulaykha’s attempt to seduce Joseph, and to his interest in her, but his refusal of her. Al-Qadi al-Nuʿman offers a different interpretation. He says that the incident refers to Joseph’s interaction with a potential disciple, who was interested in Joseph’s knowledge. She desired him and he desired her ‘means she desired that he should disclose to her the true knowledge, and he desired that he could deliver that to her’.[21] However, to do so would have been outside of the proper boundaries and limits of that knowledge, which must only be passed down in strict sequence, between specific persons who have taken a covenant. Al-Qadi al-Nu‘man justifies his interpretation on the basis that the majority’s interpretation of the verse would attribute to a prophet an improper emotion:[22]


As for what the ahl al-zahir have attributed to him, regarding the wife of the king. In the zahir, she was his [actual] wife. She desired him, and he desired her, in other words he reached a state of excitement regarding her, and he was prepared to commit unseemliness because of her (qa‘da minha maq‘ad al-khina’). [But] God has preserved His friends from that, which is blatant fornication. And they raced one another to the door, meaning that each one of them tried to reach the door of the owner of that place first, in order to inform him about what had occurred between the two of them. And she ripped his shirt from behind, God says she cast dishonour on his character and so he exposed her.


Thus the story about a man and a woman becomes about a potential student and his teacher. Rather than being subject to the type of temptation that would lead to the sin of fornication, which is unthinkable for a prophet, instead Joseph is tempted to share his knowledge; but he does not: the proof that he was correct is in the indiscretion of the potential student, who is eager to reveal his secrets. The story that seems to be about a man and a woman is really about two men; the secrets between them are not sexual, but secrets of knowledge and identity.[23] In this case, as in the case of the Adam and Eve story, the zahir of the verse is not as the majority have interpreted it. The batin interpretation is the true interpretation, because the words of the verse as they are normally interpreted would entail an unacceptable result.


The stories of Adam and Joseph highlight the complex relationship between the batin and the zahir. Fatimid Isma‘ilis are not antinomian: al-Qadi al-Nu‘man, for instance, stresses the importance of adhering to the zahir laws. The physical laws of the world Spiritual Hierarchy and Gender Hierarchy represent base physical existence, and are really a sign for deeper spiritual truths, but nevertheless those physical worldly laws exist: the sun rises and sets, the stars and the moon shine at night, and just because these physical phenomena have a deeper significance it does not detract from the reality of their existence. Likewise, humans must obey the laws of prayer, fasting, religious tax (zakatinfo-icon), and so on; but all of these laws also have a deeper significance.[24] Ja‘far b. Mansur al-Yaman says that the batin is the religion of God, while the outer aspect is the ‘revealed paths of religion and its symbols’.[25] The inner and outer aspects of the religion not only support each other, but are essential for each other.[26] But there are verses of the Qur’an that do not speak of the zahir law, and of these verses, there are some which are symbols for inner meanings. In some of these symbolic verses, the outward (zahir) meaning is not valid. Such was the case in the story of Joseph. Al-Qadi al-Nu‘man comments, with regard to the verse We have propounded for men in this Qur’an every kind of example (mathal) (Q. 30:58; Q. 39:27):[27]


It is not the way of the zahir and the batin that the example (mathal) and that which is exemplified (mamthul) are both fixed principles (mafrudayn thabitayn); rather, the fixed and the necessary is that which is exemplified. Like the example of His words, Guide us on the straight path, the path of those with whom You are pleased, not those with whom You are angry, nor the misguided. The ‘path’ linguistically means a road and the ‘road’ here indicates the Imam, because it is requisite for the path not to be misguided, and likewise it is requisite that the Imam is not misguided. And the intention of ‘path’ here is the Imam, not the road which is a way of going upon the earth.


Thus it is that the words of the Qur’an may be symbolic representations, and that which is exemplified is the true meaning and intention of the words. The true meaning is understood not with reference to grammar and linguistic interpretation, as in works of tafsir, but rather with knowledge known only to initiates. The explanations of the true interpretation often appeal to reason. Because in the case of the Fatiha the path on which believers are guided must be unerring, it must not be a real, physical road, but rather the Imam, who does not err. The idea that the Qur’an’s language is at times allusive explains how it could refer to women, either in general or specifically, and actually be gender-neutral. In each case, there is a logical reason why a sexual relationship cannot be indicated, as in the case of Zulaykha and Joseph, and the impossibility of his feeling lust for her.


The law always stands, and it also has an underlying meaning. The outer law must be obeyed, but its inner aspect is the true essence, which makes the outer law meaningful. Al-Qadi al-Nu‘man explains that women must not lead prayer for men.[28] But the underlying meaning of this law is that prayer stands for the da‘wa, the call to religious truth. Here the student (mustafid) cannot call the teacher (mufid) to religious truth; the teacher must be the one who calls the student.[29] In this case, women in general stand for beneficiaries of knowledge (mustafid), and men stand for their benefactors (mufid), those who are knowledgeable and their teachers.[30] This representation is used because the teacher deposits knowledge in the student as the man deposits sperm in the woman. Thus the outward, zahir, law of women not leading prayers for men is adhered to, but its deeper, spiritual meaning exemplifies its true significance. The idea that ‘women’ can stand for students, disciples, or the mustafid, while men stand for the mufid appears in numerous places in al-Qadi al-Nu‘man’s Asasinfo-icon al-ta’wilinfo-icon and his Ta’wil al-da‘a’im. These instances preserve the notion of a natural physical hierarchy as representative of the spiritual realm: the term ‘women’ always stands for students and beneficiaries, not the teachers. The interpretation of ‘women’ and ‘men’ as a symbolic representation indicating rankings on the spiritual hierarchy is a different level of meaning that no longer has to do with actual physical gender. Therefore, although women may not lead prayers for men, this does not stop them from attaining spiritual ranking: al-Qadi al-Nu‘man includes women in the spiritual hierarchy in his book Iftitah al-da‘wa, where he references women in his own times who were du‘at.[31]


The physical coupling between a man and a woman also has a spiritual parallel. Al-Mu’ayyad explains the way that the spiritual lineage passes from the prophets to the believers through the relationship between the mufid and the mustafid, with reference to Q. 4:1, Fear your Lord, who created you from a single soul, and from it created its mate, and spread forth from the two of them many men and women:[32]


Regarding God’s words created you from a single soul, the single soul from which we were created as a people of religion is the Prophet (peace be upon him and his family, the pure ones), thus the souls were fashioned in the image of the Final Abode from his origins, and from the remnants of what was revealed to him they rose and streamed forth. The ‘mate’ created from him, a rib from one of his ribs, as the being of Eve was created from one of the ribs of Adam, is the intermediary [Ali] (the prayers of God be upon him), who was one of the proofs, and became a mate to the Prophet, pregnant with his knowledge, treasure-keeper of his secret, repository for his knowledge and his wisdom. And spread forth from the two many men and women, men, the possessors of knowledge and benefactors (al-‘ulamainfo-icon’ al-mufidun), and women, the seekers of knowledge and its beneficiaries (al-muta‘allimun al-mustafidun).


Because each prophet is an Adam in his turn, like Adam every prophet has a mate created from him; that mate then becomes pregnant with his knowledge, to pass this along to the community of believers through the spiritual hierarchy. Therefore, Ali is Muhammad’s mate, created from his ‘rib’, who then becomes pregnant with the knowledge imparted by Muhammad. The ‘single soul’ and the ‘mate’ are terms that refer to the relationship between the natiq prophet and his wasi; so these terms may refer to the relationship between Adam and Eve, or between Muhammad and Ali: just as Eve was created as a spiritual being from Adam’s knowledge, Ali was created as a spiritual being from Muhammad’s knowledge.


The terms ‘men’ and ‘women’, those who were spread forth from the union of the single soul (Adam/Muhammad) and its mate (Eve/Ali), are teachers and students, the mufidun and the mustafidun. The mufidun are those who have specialised knowledge, and who are given permission by the Imam to disseminate that knowledge to certain people, the mustafidun; some of the latter group may then acquire enough knowledge to become mufidun themselves. The mufid is thus akin to a mentor, or an advisor, of students, guiding them through knowledge of the zahir laws and interpretations into the batin laws and interpretations.[33]


In the works of al-Qadi al-Nu‘man, Ja‘far b. Mansur al-Yaman and al-Mu’ayyad, the natural physical hierarchy between men and women in this world is a representation of the spiritual hierarchy between teachers and students; however, there is a difference between these two types of hierarchies. The gender hierarchy is a fixed physical principle, whereas the spiritual hierarchy is based on knowledge and can be acquired. At its highest ranks that knowledge is imparted directly to the natiq prophets by God, and from the natiq prophets to their awsiya; these rankings are chosen from above and cannot be attained by striving. However, the rankings below these highest are, in theory at least, based on the acquisition of knowledge from teachers to students, and therefore the apt student, by virtue of his own acquisition of knowledge, may move up the rankings to a certain point.


In his treatise on the relationship between student and teacher, Ja‘far b. Mansur al-Yaman describes how any person can rise up through the levels of the hierarchy by striving truly.[34] Another description of rising through the ranks is provided indirectly by al-Qadi al-Nu‘man. In the batin interpretation of who can lead the prayer, he explains the significance of the ‘problematic’ hermaphrodite, in other words the hermaphrodite whose true gender is unknown. He says that, in the zahir law, the problematic hermaphrodite is unable to lead prayers for men because it is unknown whether he has reached a state of manhood or not; in the batin interpretation of this ruling, if a student is unsure of whether he has reached the stage of the mufid, he should not lead prayers for those who are already mufidun as this may entail a forbidden result, namely the student leading the teacher in prayers.[35] This statement about the shift between the mustafid and the mufid indicates that students can become teachers, they can become the ones who impart knowledge; and that differentiates the gendered language of the spiritual hierarchy from the worldly, physical gender. The strict rankings of the spiritual hierarchy indicate that a person may be, spiritually, both ‘male’ and ‘female’: a hujja is female in relation to the Imam, who is above him in spiritual rank, but male in relation to a da‘iinfo-icon, who would be below him on the spiritual ranking.


The Nusayris also use gendered language to describe the teacher-student relationship, and one of their leading authors, Maymun b. Qasim al-Tabarani (d. 426 AH / 1034 CE), has a detailed explanation of the parallels between gender and spiritual hierarchies. Tendler Kreiger explains that al-Tabarani uses the language of the birth cycle to describe religious initiation. He speaks of intercourse, impregnation, gestation, birth itself, suckling, and finally motherhood, which is when a man becomes the mentor of another man. The cycle creates ‘true kinship as opposed to biological consanguinity’; in this, their creed parallels that of the Isma‘ilis. The Nusayris also interpreted the

Qur’an’s references to men and women to mean teachers and students, just as did the Isma‘ilis. Through this initiation cycle, Kreiger explains, men take on feminine roles, and women are excluded from the spiritual community. By taking on both masculine and feminine roles, a man can become the complete and pure believer.[36] It is plausible to posit that there was some interaction between the Nusayris and the Isma‘ilis, or that they had a common source for their ideas of sex, gender and the spiritual hierarchy.


Despite some shared vocabulary and concepts between these groups, they differ in that the Nusayris exclude women from any spiritual attainment, while the Fatimid Isma‘ilis do not. In his interpretation of Q. 4:34, Men are qawwamun over women, with what God has given the one more than the other, and with what they spend of their wealth, al-Mu‘ayyad speaks of the need to adhere to the zahir law of marriage – women should obey their husbands. He then admits that there is a weakness in this zahir law, because many women are spiritually better than their husbands:[37]


Exalted God has said men are in charge (qawwamun) of women, with what God has made the one superior to the other (Q. 4:34), meaning that the possessors of knowledge (al-‘ulama’) are in charge (qawwamun) of the seekers of knowledge (al-mutallimin). God has made their superiority over them manifest, and He has made the seekers of knowledge cleave to them with the attachment of a wife to her husband. The Messenger of God (peace be upon him) said, ‘If it were permissible for anyone to prostrate themselves to anyone other than God, I would have ordered that woman prostrate herself before Spiritual Hierarchy and Gender Hierarchy her husband.’ In its outward meaning (zahirihi) this is an obligatory ruling, despite the weakness that enters into certain aspects of it: how many women are better than their husbands, fear God, and are stronger preservers of the limits imposed by God? Thus the doctrine is taken according to the aspect of [inner] wisdom which secures it from its defectiveness and faults; for the being of the possessor of knowledge is superior to the seeker of knowledge in all aspects, and the Prophet said ‘the possessors of knowledge are almost Lords (kada al-‘ulama’ arbaban).’


In most contemporary Sunni and Imami Shi‘i works of tafsir, the exegetes seek to confirm the outward meaning of Q. 4:34 by explaining the intrinsic mental and physical differences between the sexes. Al-Mu’ayyad, however, admits to weaknesses and faults in the logic of the notion that women should always be subservient to men, and especially in the apparent meaning of the hadith that implies the husband’s spiritual superiority by saying that if women were ordered to bow down before anyone, they should bow down to their husbands. This is weak, he says, because many women are better than their husbands and more pious. The batin of this verse, which refers to the hierarchical relationship between teachers and students, is thus more true and correct than its zahir aspects, although the verse still indicates a ruling that is obligatory in its zahir sense, which is that women must be subservient to their husbands.


3. Justifying a Female Spiritual Leader: The Ghayat al-mawalid by al-Khattab

In 467 AH / 1074 CE, three years before the death of al-Mu’ayyad, the Yemeni Queen Arwa, al-Sayyida al-Hurra, gained power; she is said to have been made hujja in 477 AH / 1084 CE. The question of whether or not al-Sayyida al-Hurra was a hujja is one with important political, not just religious, implications. The time in which she was Queen in Yemen was one of political turmoil for the Isma‘ili community; the split in the community over the succession to the caliph-Imam al-Mustansir was in 487 AH / 1084 CE, twenty years after she began her political rule over Yemen.[38] Al-Sayyida al-Hurra supported the succession of al-Mustansir’s son al-Musta‘li, along with the majority of Isma‘ilis in Yemen, Egypt, Syria and Gujrat, while the eastern Isma‘ilis, in Seljukinfo-icon areas, supported the succession of al Mustansir’s son Nizar.[39] Some years later, the Musta‘lisinfo-icon in Yemen and Gujrat became known as Tayyibisinfo-icon, because they followed Musta‘li’s grandson al-Tayyib.


Cortese and Calderini have suggested that political affiliation divides the accounts describing the nature of al-Sayyida al-Hurra’s rule: while some sources refer to her using the term malika (‘queen’), others use the term hujja (‘spiritual leader’); Cortese and Calderini suggest that those who use hujja did so in order to support Tayyibi claims to legitimacy. [40]However, it should be noted that their argument rests on either the presence or absence of the term hujja in different accounts of her rule, not on any positive arguments against her as a spiritual leader. According to the sources naming her as a hujja, after Imam Tayyib is said to have gone into seclusion, al-Sayyida al-Hurra used her spiritual authority as hujja to appoint a representative of the absent Imam, called the da‘i mutlaq. The office of da‘i mutlaq is one that still persists in the Tayyibi branch of Isma‘ilism.


Al-Sultan al-Khattab, in whose lifetime these events occurred, was an ardent supporter of Tayyibi Isma‘ilism. In his treatise Ghayat al-mawalid, he defends al-Tayyib’s Imamateinfo-icon, in the course of which he spends several pages defending al-Sayyida al-Hurra’s right to spiritual leadership of the Yemeni community. As described above, Fatimid Isma‘ili thinkers had indicated that women could attain a spiritual rank: al-Qadi al-Nu‘man mentioned, by name, women du‘at, and al-Mu‘ayyad said that wives might be more spiritually correct than their husbands. But Ghayat al-mawalid appears to be the first direct defence of a woman’s right to hold a spiritual ranking. The question remains to what extent this defence is in line with previous elements of Fatimid Isma‘ili thought, and to what extent it presents new ideas.


Al-Khattab begins his defence of al-Sayyida al-Hurra by describing the way she is perceived by her subjects. He speaks of the honourifics accorded to her, while assuring the reader that these are not merely whimsical, but accorded because they are appropriate descriptions: ‘the Pure’ and ‘the One of the Age’ (wahidat al-zaman), ‘the Support of Islam’ (‘umdat al-Islam). He says that they also pay their religious tax (zakat) to her.[41] This is an indication that they perceive her as a spiritual leader.


He goes on to say that al-Sayyida al-Hurra is the protector (kafila) of the people, and that whoever denies her rank has denied a God-given truth. The denier, he says, cites as proof that women do not deserve the rank of hujja. To assert this, he says, is to deny the orders of the Imams, and to ‘exit the circle of obedience to them and to deny their deeds’; he goes on to mention many women who have been in the spiritual ranks, including Fatimainfo-icon al-Zahra al-Batul (the daughter of the Prophet Muhammad), Fatima, the daughter of Asad (the mother of Ali), Khadija (the wife of Muhammad), Safiyya, daughter of Abd al-Muttalib (grandfather of the Prophet), Maryam, the daughter of Imran, and Sarah, daughter of Aaron.[42] These are women from the age of prophets: relatives of the Prophet Muhammad, as well as the daughters of other prophets. Cortese and Calderini show that Fatima and other women of the Prophet Muhammad’s household were often referenced by Fatimid authors; Fatima herself was mentioned on a coin.[43] Al-Khattab’s listing of these women implies that they have a spiritual rank.


Following the list, al-Khattab reaches the heart of his argument (this part of the manuscript has been published by Poonawala and described by Traboulsi[44]). Spiritual Hierarchy and Gender Hierarchy Al-Khattab explains that the bodily form is like a garment (qamis) rather than the intrinsic essence of a person; what matters are the good deeds rather than the bodily form. Many women have been better than men, such as the Prophet Muhammad’s daughter Fatima.[45] He then says that when a woman acquires certain excellences, she may be considered to be masculine on the spiritual hierarchy, although her bodily form is that of a woman:[46]


Masculine and feminine are human garments (al-qumus al-bashariyya) that do not express the truth nor do they lead to His path … Femininity and masculinity are not [truly] in the aspect of bodies, which are the garments that they have, but rather in the aspect of benefit and the beneficiary only … and, in short, the female is always the beneficiary (mustafid) and the male is always the benefactor (mufid).


Various arguments have been applied to these statements of al-Khattab. DeSmet claims that, although al-Khattab was inspired by previous Isma‘ili authors, in this treatise he breaks with ‘orthodox’ Fatimid Ismaʿilism: by comparing the body to a shirt, he implies an extremist view of ‘incarnation’ (hulul); the work, according to DeSmet, is a kind of proto-Druzeinfo-icon ideology.[47] The text, however, does not mention incarnation. Indeed, Traboulsi’s analysis shows not only that it cannot be Druze, but also that the ‘male’ and the ‘female’ represent stages on the religious hierarchy, with the male more advanced than the female.[48] However, he has noted only ‘vague antecedents’ in earlier Fatimid writings, and claims that, in essence, the idea of becoming spiritually male was devised to support the reign of al-Sayyida al-Hurra. This study shows that al-Khattab’s language, and the doctrine of the masculine mufid and feminine mustafid as stages on the spiritual hierarchy, is well established and not new. What is new here is the application of the doctrine to a real woman, and the explicit assertion that, in the spiritual hierarchy, outward maleness and femaleness do not matter.[49] Al-Khattab himself states that he is writing in defence of al-Sayyida al-Hurra because of those who would argue against her: his statements about women’s spiritual potential are not disinterested or apolitical.[50] However, the sentiments that he expresses could be considered as a development of, rather than a radical break from, previous Fatimid Isma‘ili writings, which consider the spiritual hierarchy as being more important than the worldly gender hierarchy.



Although women’s gender forms a category within zahir law that must be adhered to, as in the instance of women not leading prayers for men, for the Fatimid Isma‘ilis analysed here, physical gender is a part of the base, worldly realm, and is transient. For al-Mu’ayyad and other Fatimid Isma‘ili thinkers, the spiritual hierarchy was one Journal of Qur’anic Studies in which the ranks, to a point, could be acquired through knowledge and were open to women. The idea that this worldly realm is of less importance than the spiritual pervades the work of Fatimid Isma‘ili thinkers prior to al-Khattab, such as al-Mu’ayyad.[51]


The Qur’an interpretations in these Fatimid Isma‘ili texts bear little relationship to the works of Sunni and Shi‘i tafsir of the same period. The genre of tafsir (exegesis) with its specific aims and methods, reveals specific aspects of interpretation, and although it often seems to elaborate on all interpretations of a verse, it was actually circumscribed. The works studied here show that, in order to appreciate the full extent of Muslim interpretations of the Qur’an, it is necessary to go outside of the genre boundaries of the tafsir tradition.


Though the interpretations discussed in this article did not appear in works of tafsir before, during, or after the period in question, the concept of the gendered relationship between teacher and student lives on in subsequent Sufi works.[52] As in the writings of the Fatimid Isma‘ilis studied here, for the Sufis a shaykhinfo-icon’s spiritual lineage was important. The training and discipleship of the spiritual novice is referred to as a ‘spiritual birth’.[53] Sufi shaykhs are variously described as mothers or lovers, and ‘marriage and sexual intercourse are imbued with cosmological significance’.[54] The idea of spiritual lineage appeared long before the Fatimid Isma‘ilis, in the writings of the Christian Gnostics. Further investigation may establish the exact linkages between the gendered vocabulary and ideas in the writings of Gnostics, Nusayris, Fatimid Isma‘ilis and Sufis, and therefore trace the growth and development of these concepts through time and space.




[1] I am deeply grateful to Abedeali Qutbuddin for his help on all aspects of this article, and particularly for his careful reading of several drafts. I would also like to thank Husain Qutbuddin and the anonymous referees for their helpful comments on earlier drafts of this piece.

[2] These authors include Delia Cortese and Simonetta Calderni, Women and the Fatimidsinfo-icon in the World of Islam (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2006), pp. 127–38; Farhad Daftary, ‘Sayyida Hurra: The Isma‘ili Sulayhid Queen of Yemen’, first published in Gavin R.G. Hambly (ed.), Women in the Medieval Islamic World: Power, Patronage, and Piety (New York: St Martin’s Press, 1998), accessed online at:; Daniel DeSmet, ‘Une Femme Musulmane Ministre de Dieu Sur Terre? La réponse du daʿi ismaélien al-Ḫattab (ob 1138)’, Acta Orientalia Belgica 15 (2001); Fatima Mernissi, The Forgotten Queens of Islam (Minneapolis: The University of Minnesota Press, 1993), ch. 7; and Samer Traboulsi, ‘The Queen was Actually a Man: Arwa bint Ahmad and the Politics of Religion, Arabica 50:1 (2003), pp. 96–108.

[3] Daftary, ‘Sayyida Hurra’, pp. 4–5.

[4] Mernissi, The Forgotten Queens of Islam, p. 154, p. 157.

[5] Cortese and Calderini, Women and the Fatimids, p. 35.

[6] Bella Tendler Kreiger, ‘Marriage, Birth, and Batini Ta’wilinfo-icon: A Study of Nusayri Initiation Based on the Kitab al-Hawi fi ʿilm al-fatawi of Abu Saʿid Maymun al-Tabarani’, Arabica 58 (2011), pp. 53–75.

[7] Tendler Kreiger, ‘Marriage, Birth, and Batini Ta’wil’, p. 61.

[8] On Sunni and Imami Shiʿi interpretations of verses on women’s status, see Karen Bauer, ‘Room for Interpretation: Qurʾanic Exegesis and Gender’ (unpublished PhD dissertation: Princeton University, 2008).

[9] Al-Qadi al-Nu‘man, Asas al-ta’wil, ed. and intr. Arifinfo-icon Tamer (Beirut: Dar al-Thaqafa, 1960), p. 58.

[10] Al-Qadi al-Nuʿman, Asas al-taʾwil, p. 55, p. 58.

[11] In two instances in the Qur’an, Muhammad is commanded to admit that he is a person, like other people; but in both instances he is distinguished by wahy, revelation from God (Q. 18:110, Say: I am only a man like you, but it is revealed to me (yuhy) that your God is one God; Q. 41:6, Say: I am only a man like you, it is revealed to me that your God is one God).

[12] Ja‘far b. Mansur al-Yaman, Master and Disciple (Katab al-‘alim wa’l-ghulam), ed. And tr. John Morris (London: I.B. Tauris, in association with the Institute of Ismaili Studies, 2001), p. 95.

[13] Al-Qadi al-Nuʿman, Asas al-taʾwil, p. 41.

[14] The spiritual lineage from Adam is also explained by al-Mu’ayyad, Sermon 77, al-Majalisinfo-icon al-Mu’ayyadiyya, ed. Hatim Hamid al-Dininfo-icon, 2nd edn (Mumbai: Leaders Press Private Ltd., 2002), vol. 1, pp. 375–6.

[15] ‘They [the mainstream] have only heard a part of the ta’wil, and they do not know it. They have heard that God exchanged one of Adam’s ribs, and from that rib He made Eve. But the matter is not like that; rather, God gave Eve to Adam in exchange for Iblis, who was the appropriate person to be Adam’s hujja, as we have said. And he made him one of the twelve nuqaba’, because their representation in the outward creation of humans is the ribs of the body, because the human has twelve ribs on each side, and the right side is the representation of the inward knowledge, while the left side is the representation of outer knowledge, and the nuqaba’ of the inner knowledge are twelve, and likewise the nuqaba of the outer knowledge’ (al-Qadi al-Nu ‘man, Asas al-ta’wil, p. 59).

[16] This is clearly explained by Ja‘far b. Mansur al-Yaman in The Master and Disciple, p. 82–3. He speaks of the nutaqa, the hujaj and the nuqaba’, the duʿat and the ‘ulama’ as different ranks among knowers.

[17] Al-Mu’ayyad, al-Majalis, vol. 1, p. 383. Al-Muʾayyad also mentions each prophet being an Adam in his age in Sermon 77.

[18] Al-Mu’ayyad, al-Majalis, vol. 1, p. 384.

[19] Tahera Qutbuddin explains the probable audience for the sermons in the Majalis. She explains that there were different types of lesson on different days, and that the sermons from the Majalis were probably read on a Thursday. She says: ‘Admission to the higher level of majlis was probably considered an honour; al-Mu’ayyad calls this admission a rutba (‘spiritual rank’) which would seem to indicate that there was some special significance to the majlis held on this day’ (Tahera Qutbuddin, al-Mu’ayyad al-Shirazi and Fatimid Da‘wa Poetry: A Case of Commitment in Classical Arabic Literature (Leiden: Brill, 2005), p. 86).

[20] Al-Yaman, Master and Disciple, p. 81, para 89. Elsewhere, the teacher refers to himself as the student’s spiritual father, or the boy is referred to as a son (p. 64, para. 76); and the young man says he is young and needs to be raised and educated (p. 71), and he compares proper and improper initiation to the difference between ‘fornication and marriage’ (p. 78). Proper initiation is that which takes place with the requisite permission to impart knowledge from the Prophet, wasi or the Imam.

[21] Al-Qadi al-Nu‘man, Asas al-ta’wil, p. 142.

[22] Al-Qadi al-Nu‘man, Asas al-ta’wil, p. 142.

[23] Another example of specific women in the Qur’an being interpreted as references to men is that the wives of the Prophet Muhammad are interpreted as being his hujaj (al-Qadi al-Nu‘man, Asas al-ta’wil), p. 328.

[24] Al-Mu’ayyad mentions these examples in Sermon 64, al-Majalis, vol. 1, p. 305–9, which is a refutation of those who say that a person who knows the deeper significance of the laws does not need to obey them.

[25] Al-Yaman, Master and Disciple, p. 83.

[26] See, for instance, al-Yaman, Master and Disciple, p. 102.

[27] Al-Qadi al-Nu‘man, Asas al-ta’wil, p. 61.

[28] Al-Qadi al-Nu‘man, Ta’wil al-da‘a’im, ed. Muhammad Hasan al-A‘zami (Cairo: Dar al-Ma‘arif bi-Misr, n.d.), p. 240.

[29] Al-Qadi al-Nu‘man, Ta’wil al-da‘a’im, p. 241.


[30] Al-Qadi al-Nu‘man, Ta’wil al-da‘a’im, p. 241.

[31] ‘There were women who accomplished such work and devoted themselves to it, seeking thereby to gain reward for it, such as the wife of Yahya b. Yusuf … she adhered to the da‘wa and her conduct was good. She brought the money and presented it to him, informing him of the last wishes of her husband. She had money which she expended for jihadinfo-icon. She would prepare food with her own hands for fighters, for poor believers and for those of them who stopped by her family, to the extent that her hands would bleed from grinding and handling food for them. There were other women like her whose account would only lengthen this book. They attended instructional sessions (majalis) and listened to words of wisdom. There were some old women, who followed these sessions and rose to the rank of da‘is (haddinfo-icon al-da‘wa). Among them were Umm Musa, daughter of al-Hulwani, whom we have mentioned before, and other old women of the Kutama. They also rendered services to the believers, looked after the sick and treated the wounded with devotion and insight, because these women, as well as the men whom we have mentioned before, listened to admonishment and wisdom, and were strengthened with education and right conduct’ (Hamid Haji, Founding the Fatimid State: The Rise of an Early Islamic Empire, an Annotated English Translation of al-Qadi al-Nu‘man’s Iftitah al-Da‘wa (London: I.B. Tauris, in association with the Institute of Ismaili Studies, 2006), p. 109.

[32] Al-Mu’ayyad, Sermon 79, Majalis, vol. 1, pp. 384–5.

[33] Thus the translation of ‘ulama’ in this context is best rendered as ‘possessors of specialised knowledge’, though it is an awkward phrase.

[34] Abu Ja‘far al-Yaman, Master and Disciple, pp. 106, p. 96.

[35] Al-Qadi al-Nu‘man, Ta’wil al-da‘a’im, p. 241.

[36] Tendler Kreiger, ‘Marriage, Birth, and Batini Ta’wil’, p. 61.

[37] Al-Mu’ayyad, al-Majalis al-Mu’ayyadiyya, vol. 1, pp. 382–5.

[38] Daftary, ‘Sayyida Hurra’, p. 5.

[39] Daftary, ‘Sayyida Hurra’, p. 6.

[40] Cortese and Calderini, Women and the Fatimids, p. 136.

[41] Institute of Ismaili Studies Hamdani Collection MS 1496 (Handlist 67), p. 19. Note that the page numbering in this manuscript does not follow the usual pattern; instead each individual page is numbered like a book, so there is no r. or v.

[42] IIS Hamdani MS 1496, p. 20.

[43] For example, they refer to ahadith cited by al-Qadi al-Nu‘man extolling Fatima (Cortese and Calderni, Women and the Fatimids, p. 7), and to her name being used on a coin (Cortese and Calderni, Women and the Fatimids, pp. 106–7).

[44] Ismail Poonawala, Sultan al-Khattab hayatuhu wa-shi‘ruhu (Cairo: Dar al-Ma‘arif bi-Misr, n.d.), pp. 315–18; Traboulsi, ‘The Queen was Actually a Man’.

[45] IIS Hamdani MS 1496, p. 23. Poonawala, p. 316, has omitted mention of the names of the women who are the ‘lowest of the low’, or his MS omitted those names.

[46] IIS Hamdani MS 1496, pp. 24–5.

[47] DeSmet, ‘Une Femme Musulmane Ministre de Dieu Sur Terre?, p. 160.

[48] Traboulsi, ‘Arwa bint Ahmad’, p. 105.

[49] As Traboulsi argues, it seems that this argument is brought forth explicitly at this time in order to justify the rule of al-Sayyida al-Hurra, the queen to whom al-Khattab was allied.

[50] Thus al-Khattab in a sense confirms Traboulsi’s argument that he is writing out of political concern.

[51] ‘We say with reference to His words the earth is built that the sky is to the earth in the place of the male to the female, in both the physical and the rational/spiritual realms, because the sky provides the benefit (ifada) and the earth accepts the benefit and is the beneficiary (istifada) …’ (al-Mu’ayyad, Sermon 80, al-Majalis, vol. 1, p. 390).

[52] Margaret Malamud, ‘Gender and Spiritual Self-Fashioning: The Master-Disciple Relationship in Classical Sufisminfo-icon’, The Journal of the American Academy of Religion 64:1 (1996), pp. 89–117.

[53] Malamud, ‘Gender and Spiritual Self-Fashioning’, p. 95.

[54] Malamud, ‘Gender and Spiritual Self-Fashioning’, p. 99.

This is an edited version of the article Spiritual Hierarchy and Gender Hierarchy in Fatimid Isma‘ili Interpretations of the Qur’aninfo-icon originally published in Journal of Qur’anic Studies, 14. 2 (2012), pp. 29–46

This article explores gender and spiritual hierarchy in the writings of three prominent Fatimid Isma‘ili thinkers who interpret verses of the Qur'an on the outward (...