Keywords: Ta’wil, Qur’an, Isma‘ili, tafsir, hermeneutics, al-Kirmani, al-Sijistani, Mu‘tazilite, ays, lays, tawhid, al-khalq, cosmology, Neoplatonic thought, Rahat al-Aql, First Intellect, taqdis, kathrah, and tafawut.
Abstract: This essay explores how writers of the Fatimid period of Ismaili history, during the tenth and eleventh centuries, developed an approach that sought to reconcile an understanding of the transcendent and unique nature of God - embodied in the Quranic concept of tawhid with a view of creation as both produced by, and yet distinct from, God. Such an approach, in common with the general discourse among certain other Muslim schools of thought, was concerned with developing rational tools of comprehension that could be applied to scriptural statements. The set of problems they dealt with had dimensions similar to those faced by other Muslim philosophers and theologians, as well as their Jewish and Christian counterparts, in developing various syntheses with philosophy, particularly in its Platonic, Aristotelian, and Neoplatonic versions. The access to tools of inquiry afforded by the philosophical heritage of antiquity became, for those Muslims committed to rational discourse, a resource and an ally that they willingly co-opted in their quest to decipher truths they believed to be embedded in revelation. The reflexive process engendered by the interaction of the two allowed various Muslim groups to articulate distinctive stances towards the relationship of reason and revelation that in turn led to them being identified with various developing theological orientations. Though in time historical and other factors led to the emergence of one or the other orientation as dominant, it is important to note, during this period, the shared intellectual climate, the commonality of issues, and the existence of a plurality of discourses, which provided the overall context of 'exchange' amongst Muslims, and also between them, the 'People of the Book' and the classical heritage. The 'exchange' also enabled the discussion to take place within a common linguistic framework that had adapted the intellectual tools of discourse and which came to represent, as in the Ismaili case, a point of departure for the expression and elaboration of the received monotheistic doctrine of God.
Professor Azim Nanji serves currently as Special Advisor to the Provost at the Aga Khan University. Most recently he served as Senior Associate Director of the Abbasi Program in Islamic Studies at Stanford University 2008-2010 and also lectured on Islam in the Department of Religious Studies. He was previously the of Director of the Institute of Ismaili Studies from 1998 - 2008. Prior to this, he was Professor and Chair of the Department of Religion at the University of Florida and has held academic and administrative appointments at various American and Canadian universities.
Professor Nanji has authored, co-authored and edited several books including: The Nizari Ismaili Tradition (1976), The Muslim Almanac (1996), Mapping Islamic Studies (1997) and The Historical Atlas of Islam (with M. Ruthven) (2004) and The Dictionary of Islam (with Razia Nanji), Penguin 2008. In addition, he has contributed numerous shorter studies and articles on religion, Islam and Ismailism in journals and collective volumes including The Encyclopaedia of Islam, Encyclopaedia Iranica, Oxford Encyclopaedia of the Modern Islamic World, and A Companion to Ethics. He was the Associate Editor for the revised Second Edition of The Encyclopaedia of Religion. In 1988 he was Margaret Gest Visiting Professor at Haverford College and a Visiting Professor at Stanford University in 2004, where he was also invited to give the Baccalaureate Address in 1995 (see Baccalaureate Address at Stanford University). He has also lectured widely at international conferences all over the world.
Professor Nanji has served as Co-Chair of the Islam section at the American Academy of Religion and on the Editorial Board of the Academy’s Journal. He has also been a member of the Philanthropy Committee of the Council on Foundations and has been the recipient of awards from the Rockefeller Foundation, the Canada Council, and the National Endowment for Humanities. In 2004 he gave the Birks Lecture at McGill University.
Within the Aga Khan Development Network, Professor Nanji has served as a Member of the Steering Committee and Master Jury of the Aga Khan Award for Architecture, Task Force Member for the Institute for the Study of Muslim Civilisations (AKU-ISMC) and Vice Chair of the Madrasa-based Early Childhood Education Programme in East-Africa.