Recommended Book: The Master and the Disciple

James W. Morris

This volume presents a fully annotated English translation and critical edition of the Arabic text of the Kitab al–‘Alim wa’l Ghulam (The Book of the Master and the Disciple), one of the earliest Ismaili Shi‘i writings by the famous AH 4th/10th century CE Yemeni author, Ja‘far b. Mansur al–Yaman. It preserves in authentic form a glimpse of the character of Ismaili thought and activities in the period prior to the establishment of the Fatimid state in AH 296/909 CE.

The Master and the Disciple is presented as an old and timeless story of one seeker’s quest for and gradual realisation of the truth – the spiritual knowledge and eternal life of the true ‘knowers, ’ the ‘friends of God’ – and the ongoing story of their necessary return to this world in order to fulfil their responsibility to transmit that divine trust and discovery to their fellow human beings, to their family and other members of their wider community. Like its source of inspiration, the Qur’an and hadith, this story acts as a map, a guide and a reminder that readers must follow and interpret in their own way, in the light of their own experience and insight.

In addition to being a key source of pre–Fatimid Ismaili thought, this book is uniquely important as an elaborate example of the narrated dialogue form in Arabic literature. It consists of a series of dramatic dialogues between the ‘Master’ or ‘Knower’ (‘alim) and his young disciple (ghulam), and their own encounters with other seekers of truth and justice. These archetypal encounters, reminiscent of the Platonic dialogues (although probably unknown to the author), underline the full variety of human capacities and the corresponding methods of spiritual pedagogy and guidance.

The Master and the Disciple also contains a number of similarities in its ideas and approaches with certain aspects of later Sufism, parallels which owe a great deal to their common sources and spiritual inspirations in esoteric Islam. In this respect, the work vividly illustrates the processes in which early esoteric Shi‘i ideas and institutions eventually contributed to the evolution of the more familiar forms of Sufism in the Muslim world.

Within the Ismaili tradition, Ja‘far b. Mansur al–Yaman is recognised as a master of ta‘wil (esoteric interpretation of the Qur’an). This reputation is amply reflected in his complex integration and existential elaboration of Qur’anic themes illustrated throughout the dialogue. The numerous allusions to the Qur’an embedded in the text, both explicitly and implicitly, serve to illuminate the correspondence between the underlying principles of the sacred book and the structures of one’s own spiritual life.

The work also provides a general understanding of the early stages of Ismaili Shi‘ism and the Fatimid da‘wa, which are still too often the subject of many highly inaccurate myths and stereotypes, as well as the still relatively unstudied religious history of the Musta’li branch of Ismailism.

The Master and the Disciple will be of interest to students and scholars of Islamic Studies and Comparative Religions, as well as individuals interested in esoteric and spiritual literature in general.

Institute of Ismaili Studies



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