Friday, March 2, 2007

135)The uninterrupted thread of the search for knowledge of all types from the Prophet Mohammed right up to the 49th and present Imam, Aga Khan IV.

This post is a modification of an earlier post(no. 55) to highlight, once again, the great importance given by our Imams to the acquisition of knowledge of all types by their followers throughout the ages, something that makes Shia Ismaili Muslims distinct among interpretive communities in Islam.

The Shia Ismaili Muslims, as far as my readings tell me, have always taken a different course right from Islam's inception. Early Muslims took very seriously exhortations from the scripture(some have estimated that as much as 25% of the Quran talks about phenomena of nature, referring to them equivalently as 'ayats' or 'signs' just as the actual verses are known as 'ayats') as well as various well-authenticated utterances of the Prophet Mohammed, such has 'Seek knowledge, even in China', 'Seek knowledge from the cradle to the grave' and 'One hour of contemplation on the works of the Creator is better than a thousand hours of prayer', and acted on them.

A close study of Ismaili Muslim history reveals that they have woven a rich tapestry of involvement around the acquisition of rational knowledge, in harmonious balance with that of the revelational, that has its original inspiration from both the scriptural and prophetic exhortations mentioned above. The record shows that, when the Ismaili Muslims were not trying to protect themselves from the genocidal impulses of others, they got busy building institutions of learning and wisdom to entrench this delicate, harmonious balance between knowledge that comes down from revelation and that which man acquires through the use of his own rational intellect. Hence we have the world's first ever university, Al-Azhar, built in Cairo by the Fatimid Ismaili Muslim Caliph-Imam Al-Muiz in 980AD(as opposed to the first ever university in the west, the University of Bologna in 1088AD). The Ismaili Muslim ethos has always placed the greatest emphasis on the development of intellect in both rational and transcendant realms of knowledge:

We can, in fact, trace a thread that begins with the Prophet Mohammed and the first Shia Imam Ali and it will take us first to the Mutazila, early proponents of rational knowledge:

then on to the Ikhwan Al-Safa, the original encyclopedists, who flourished predominantly during the times of the 4th and 5th Ismaili Imams Muhammad Al-Baqir and Jafar Al-Sadiq(around 750 AD) and later. These were a group of predominantly Ismaili Muslim thinkers, operating in secret, who wrote a 52-volume encyclopedia cataloguing all the types of knowledge available to man, ranging from the divine to the secular:

and they represented one of the first attempts to create a harmonious balance between revelation and reason in Islam. The thread continues onwards to the Fatimid Caliphate in Egypt(909AD-1171AD) during the times of the 11th to 18th Ismaili Muslim Imams, during which flourished philosophers, cosmologists and scientists like Al-Sijistani:


Nasir Khusraw:

Ibn Sina, aka Avicenna:

among others, such as Ibn Rushd, aka Averroes, who was not Ismaili Muslim and flourished in Umayyad Islamic Spain along with Jewish Neoplatonic philosopher Moses Maimonides

Al-Shahrastani from Central Asia:

Nasir-ud Din Tusi, a theologian, philosopher and astronomer who flourished during the times of the 19th to 23rd Ismaili Muslim Imams(circa 1236AD) during the post-Fatimid Alamut period in the Elburz mountain fortresses of Northern Iran:

and the Ismaili Muslim Pirs, who travelled from Persia to the Indian Subcontinent during the times of the 29th to 32nd Imams(circa 1430AD) and taught about esoteric knowlegde of the highest order, exploiting commonalities between the gnostic traditions of Islam and Hinduism and using remarkable and unique compositions called ginans.

As the thread continues we eventually come into the modern era, typified by the mandates of the 48th and 49th Imams(the present Imam and his predecessor), occupying the period 1885 to the present, during which time they have spearheaded the creation of 3 universities(Aligarh University in India, The Aga Khan University in Karachi, Pakistan, with satellite campuses in East Africa, and the University of Central Asia, with campuses in Tajikistan, Kyrgistan and Kazhakstan, the latter university to serve the needs of high mountain societies in the region). There have been the creation of hundreds of elementary and secondary schools in the developing world as well as, recently, highly specialised academies of excellence along the eastern seaboard of Africa from South to East Africa, the Middle East and Asia. These academies of excellence are secondary schools that offer the International Baccalaureate(IB) Diploma and therefore have joined the academic sisterhood of IB Canadian high schools like Pearson College in Victoria, Upper Canada College and the Toronto French School in Toronto, among many others.

The tradition of the search for knowledge of all types in the Shia Ismaili Muslim interpretation, ranging from rationally acquired knowledge to the transcendental knowledge of the divine, reveals a history that goes back to the very beginnings of Islam.


Islam, eminently logical, placing the greatest emphasis on knowledge, purports to understand God's creation:Aga Khan 4.
The God of the Quran is the One whose Ayats(Signs) are the Universe in which we live, move and have our being:Aga Khan 3