Abu Yakub al-Sijistani: Intellectual Missionary

Excerpt from the book “Abu Yakub al-Sijistani: Intellectual Missionary”, written by Paul Walker, historian of ideas currently affiliated with the University of Chicago; published by the Institute Of Ismaili Studies, 1996:

From Easy Nash:

“For al-Sijistani, the truth is known and its roots are four. Between God and the individual human thinker, there are exactly four sources that provide truth, that define and give meaning to existence and that keep the whole universe-from the smallest particle to the grandest creation-in place and continuing to do what each was intended to do. These four are the pillars for the architecture of the intelligible universe as he, and the Ismailis who followed him, saw it. His vision is thus comprehensive and inclusive. Studying al-Sijistani’s thought is inherently interesting if only for the breadth of his aspirations and the complexity of his way of viewing the structure of truth.

The four wellsprings, then, are in descending order of rank:

first, the intellect, which in other terms could be called universal reason or the mind;

second, soul and,

third, legislating prophecy, these latter two occupying parallel but distinct positions;

and, finally, at the base, in fourth place, the Founder of interpretation.

The preceding approach is, of course, rather abstract. In more ordinary terms the four wellsprings are intellect, soul, Speaking-prophet and his executor.

In the Islamic period, the latter two are the Prophet Muhammad and Ali ibn Abi Talib, his cousin and successor. In another, earlier, era they would have been the founding prophet, as for example, Moses or Jesus, and an executor for the religions instigated by each in turn.

Of the four wellsprings, intellect is the least comprehensible in modern terms; it was the most abstract even for the Neoplatonists who accepted it as a philosophical principle. In strictly Ismaili language the intellect is more often called the Preceder (al-Sabic), a term which indicates its pre-eminent rank rather than what it is.

Soul, which like intellect nears a name that both suggests what it is and yet might be confused with many other notions of soul, is also known as the Follower (al-Tali) to show its close association with intellect as the Preceder. Speaking-prophet is a translation of the Arabic word natiq. It denotes a special type of prophet who conveys God’s revelation by composing a law. Other prophets might merely provide wisdom orally but not in written form. The latter function, as formally present in the system of roots, belongs to the Speaking-prophet’s executor, the Founder, who is resposible for the creation of an explanatory teaching to accompany the written scripture.

Much more needs to be said about these four wellsprings. The details of what they do and how they do it forms, after all the basis both of religion and of science. Prior to that, however, it is useful to emphasize the structure of the system as a whole.

Significantly, God is not a member of this structure, nor for that matter is the divine command by which He initiates it and brings into being from nothing. Discussions that concern either God or the divine command fall outside intellectual reality and are not, therefore, a subject for science. What can and should be said must be dealt with separately.The system itself with its four foundations does not have a visual image, nor should it. Intellect is, as it were, more encompassing than the others. Soul and Speaking-prophet function at a lower rank each parallel to the other and, at the base, the Founder is literally the point of contact for ordinary mortals. He is their primary means of access to the system as a whole.

Al-Sijistani employs four Arabic terms for the roots which are each a part of a technical vocabulary designed to explain the respective functions of these four source. They are ‘tayid’, ‘tarkib’, ‘talif’ and ‘tawil’. These terms belong, in all likelihood, primarily to the Ismaili tradition and not to philosophy. Each has an origin in Quranic materials. ‘Tayid’ means to provide support, corroboration, inspiration, or an infusion of spirit. Jesus, as an example, is, according to the Quran, ‘infused with the holy spirit'(muayyad bil-ruh al-quds). ‘Tarkib’ is composition as in the compounding of elements in the process of making more complex things, that is, of adding together two things to form a synthesis, a compound. ‘Talif’ is composition in another sense; it is to compile words into a scripture or a religious law, to compose as in writing, that is, to add together words in order to express complex meanings. Finally, ‘tawil’ is interpretation.

The four roots are each responsible for one of these four functions. Intellect controls ‘tayid’; it inspires. Soul composes in the sense of ‘tarkib’; it is the animating force that combines the physical elements of the natural universe into beings that move and act. The Speaking-prophet, similarly, composes scripture and creates law, the act of ‘talif’. The Founder interprets(‘tawil’) what the others compose.Note how the four functions are related. The infusion or inspiration of intellect stands at the top; all beings below it receive its benefits, though some in greater proportion than others. The two parallel sources, soul and Speaking-prophet, as the sources closest to intellect, most perfectly acquire that benefit. They are as infused with reason as any being can be that is not itself pure intellect. Since there is no other intellect, they are as near to perfect as possible. Both of these parallel sources act on what is less than they by incorporating what they have received from intellect. Incorporating is an especially apt word in this instance. It means to turn something into a body, as in ‘composing’. But it is actually the conversion of an intellectual object, a thought, into a physical thing. Soul acts by incorporating reason into physical objects, the natural matter of the universe and all the things composed of it. The Speaking-prophet creates law and law is an embodiment of reason; the scripture of a messenger-prophet is therefore an incorporation of intellect also.

At the base of the system, a slight alteration occurs. Each of the higher three forces influence the lower ones. They instil the benefits that they each provide downward through the system until reaching the base. The Founder, from the bottom, so to speak, looks upward. The Founder must direct the thoughts of creatures upward and must guide them in reverse. The function of ‘tawil’ is to move back up the system, to ‘un-incorporate’ what has become physical by removing its body and finding the spiritual reality of its origin.

In his book ‘The Wellsprings’, al-Sijistani offers a stunning- all the more so for being ecumenical -iconic image of this system of roots. The Christian cross, he says, resembles the four points defined by the four roots. At its base fastened in the ground is the Founder, its foundation, the symbolic access for ordinary humans. Above to the left and to the right are the associated members, soul and Speaking-prophet. At the top is the intellect.”

Source

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