• Daftary, Farhad (ed.), Mediaeval Isma‘ili History and Thought. Cambridge: Cambridge Univerity Press 1996.

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  • Synopsis

    This valuable collection of essays on Ismaili themes, focused on the mediaeval period in chronological order, is an indispensable tool for modern historians of the Ismailis, in particular, and for students of Islamic Shi‘i esotericism, in general. It presents a most useful overview of the mediaeval history of this community, containing a wide variety of topics, reflecting diverse disciplines and methodologies.

    Following the editor's comprehensive introduction, the first part of the book - “The Classical Phase” - opens with an English translation of a German article written by W. Madelung some 40 years ago. This study has indeed become a classic treatment of the Qaramatis of Bahrayn and their hostile relations with the Fatimidsinfo-icon. Of the two contributions by Heinz Halm in the first part of the book, his “The Ismaili oath of allegiance (ahdinfo-icon) and the ‘sessions of wisdom’ (majalisinfo-icon al-hikmainfo-icon) in Fatimid times” (pp. 91-115) is a landmark in the field and provides some exceptional, valuable insights into the matter of secret initiation in the early Ismaili community. Poonawala’s chapter on “Al Qadiinfo-icon al-Nu'man and Ismaili jurisprudence” provides a fresh insight into Ismaili fiqhinfo-icon and an excellent historical introduction to Fatimid Ismaili law. Concentrating his thorough scholarship on the services rendered by Qadi al-Nu’man towards the codification of Ismaili law, Poonawala points out that, while “there did not exist a distinct Ismaili law before the establishment of the Fatimid dynasty” (p. 117), following al-Nu’man’s death in 363/974, there ensued “no significant development in Ismaili law”. (p. 131)

    Following Poonawala, the two articles by Azim Nanji and Paul Walker provide a comparative treatment, balancing the specialized focus found in other essays in the volume. They also highlight what one might call the ‘religious inclusivism’ of much mediaeval Ismaili thought. Discussing “Ismaili perspectives on the history of religions” (pp. 153-60) Nanji reveals how the Ismaili philosophers Abu Hatim al-Razi (d. 934) and Abu Ya’qub al-Sijistani (d. 971) “created an inclusive framework for a history of religions, in which they tried to place figures such as Zoroaster and communities such as the Sabeans” which “included a diversity of religions and philosophical traditions”. (p. 158) Similar religious inclusivism appears in Walker's well-annotated discussion of “An Ismaili version of the heresiography of the seventy-two erring sects” (pp. 164-77), devoted to introducing a hitherto unknown book by a certain Abu Tammam whose “effort to understand and explain sectarian differences is admirably thorough and relatively nonpartisan”. (p. 164) Subsequently, P. Walker and W. Madelung published an edition and complete English translation of Abu Tammam's work.

    The second part of the book contains seven essays, four of which are purely historical: Farhad Daftary on “Hasan-i Sabbah and the origins of the Nizari Ismaili movement;” Carole Hillenbrand on “The power struggle between the Saljuqs and the Ismailis of Alamutinfo-icon, 487-518/1094-1124: the Saljuqinfo-icon perspective;” C. E. Bosworth on “The Ismailis of Quhistan and the Maliks of Nimruz or Sistaninfo-icon;” Charles Melville on “The role of the Ismailis in Mamluk-Mongol relations in the 8th/14th century;” and three a mixed group of studies: Hamid Dabashi on “The philosopher, vizierinfo-icon: Khwaja Nasir al-Dininfo-icon al-Tusi and the Ismailis;” Ali Asani on “The Ismaili ginans: Reflections on authority and authorship;” and lastly, Abbas Amanat on “The Nuqtawi movement of Mahmud Pisikhani and his Persian cycle of mystical materialism”.

    Inaugurating the second part, Daftary provides us with a compact study of Hasan-i Sabbah’s religio-political career. His description of the development of Nizari Ismailism, characterized as “another Irano-Islamic revolutionary movement amalgamating aspects of Iranian ‘national’ aspirations with Ismaili Islam...” (p. 200), vis-a-vis the rise of Persian culture under the Samanidsinfo-icon, Buyidsinfo-icon and Saljuqs, documents the historical background of the period very well. Different perspectives on the same time and theme are provided by Carole Hillenbrand who re-examines the Saljuq historical sources from the reign of Barkiyaruq (1094-1105) onwards, and convincingly argues that the Ismaili threat to the Saljuqs and the Saljuqs' military campaigns against the Ismailis were quite exaggerated by later Mongol historians, the true case being, she argues, that “there was lack of real concerted will or effort in the Saljuq empire to deal with the Ismailis.” (p. 218).

    In his account of Nasir al-Din Tus’'s attitude towards Ismaili theology and government, Hamid Dabashi concludes that the great philosopher displayed an independant aloofness from sectarian affiliation to any particular Islamic creed. Ali Asani makes a convincing case for some of the Sufi - or, as Ivanow termed it:‘ SuficoIsmaili’ - background of the Ismaili sacred hymns or ginans, and on the question of their authorship, underlines the importance of the unwritten oral tradition. Abbas Amanat provides a study of a quasi-Sufi movement in 17th century Safavid Iran: the Nuqtavis.

    There are also a number of minor articles which, together with those mentioned above, contribute to the book’s aim of giving the reader a good overview of mediaeval Ismaili history and thought from the pre-Fatimid period down to the Nizari epoch.

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