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Isma'ilism and Its Branches

Imam Ja 'far al-Sadiq had a son named Ismail who was the oldest of his children. Isma'il died during the lifetime of his father who summoned witnesses to his death, including the governor of Medina. 1 Concerning this question, some believed that Ismail did not die but went into occultation, that he would appear again and would be the promised Mandi. They further believed that the summoning of witnesses on the part of the Imam for Ismail's death was a way of hiding the truth in fear of al-Mansur, the 'Abbasid caliph. Another group believed that the true Imam was Ismail whose death meant the Imamate was transferred to his son Muhammad. A third group also held that although he died during the lifetime of his father, he was the Imam and that the Imamate passed after him to Muhammad ibn Isma'il and his descendants. The first two groups soon became extinct, while the third branch continues to exist to this day and has undergone a certain amount of division.

The Isma'ilis have a philosophy in many ways similar to that of the Sabaeans (star worshippers) 2 combined with elements of Hindu gnosis. In the sciences and decrees of Islam, they believe that each exterior reality (zahir) has an inner aspect (batin) and each element of revelation (tanzil) a hermeneutic and esoteric exegesis (ta'wil). 3

The Isma'ilis believe that the earth can never exist without a Proof (hujjah) of God. The Proof is of two kinds: "speaker" (natiq) and "silent one" (s?mit). The speaker is a prophet and the silent one is an Imam or Guardian (wall) who is the inheritor, or executor of the testament (wasi) of a prophet. In any case, the Proof of God is the perfect theophany of the Divinity.

The principle of the Proof of God revolves constantly around the number seven. A prophet (nabs), who is sent by God, has the function of prophecy (nubuwwah), of bringing a Divine Law or Shari' ah. A prophet, who is the perfect manifestation of God, has the esoteric power of initiating men into the Divine Mysteries (wilayah). 4 After him, there are seven executors of his testament (wasi) who possess the power of executing his testament (wasiyyah) and the power of esoteric initiation into the Divine Mysteries (wil?yah). The seventh in the succession possesses those two powers and also the additional power of prophecy (nubuwwah). The cycle of seven executors (wads) is then repeated with the seventh a prophet.

The Isma'ilis say that Adam was sent as a prophet with the power of prophecy and of esoteric guidance and he had seven executors of whom the seventh was Noah, who had the three functions of nubuwwah, wasiyyah and wil?yah. Abraham was the seventh executor (wasi) of Noah, Moses the seventh executor of Abraham, Jesus the seventh executor of Moses, Muhammad the seventh executor of Jesus and Muhammad ibn Isma'il the seventh executor of Muhammad.

They consider the wads of the Prophet to be: 'Ali, Husayn ibn 'Ali (they do not consider Imam Hasan among the Imams), 'Ali ibn Husayn al-Sajjad, Muhammad Ja'far al-Sadiq, Ismail ibn Ja'far and Muhammad ibn Isma'il. After this series, there are seven descendants of Muhammad ibn Isma'il whose names are hidden and secret. After them, there are the first seven rulers of the Fatimid caliphate of Egypt the first of whom, Ubaydullah al-Mandi, was the founder of the Fatimid dynasty. The Isma'ilis also believe that in addition to the Proof of God, there are always present on earth twelve "chiefs" (naqib) who are the companions and elite followers of the Proof. Some of the branches of the Batinis, however, like the Druzes, believe six of the "chiefs" to be from the Imams and six from others.

1 The material of this section is taken from the Kamil, Rawdat al-Safa', Habib al-Siyar, 'Abu 'l-Fida', al-Milal wa 'l-Nihal and some of its details from Tarikh Aga Kh?niyah of Matba'i, Najaf, 1351.

2 Editor's note: Here, Sabaean refers to the people of Harran who had a religion in which stars played a major role. Moreover, they were the depository of Hermetic and Neopythagorean philosophy and played an important role in the transmission to Islam of the more esoteric schools of Hellenistic philosophy as well as astronomy and athematic. They became extinct during the first few centuries of Islamic history and must not be confused with the Sabaeans or Mandeans of Southern Iraq and Persia who still survive.

3 Editor's note: The term, (Ta'wil), which plays a cardinal role in Shi'ism as well Sufism, means literally to return to the origin of a thing. It means to penetrate the external aspect of any reality, whether it be sacred scripture or phenomena of nature, to its inner essence, to go from the phenomenon to the noumenon.

4 Editor's note: The term "wall" in Islam means saint and wilayah as usually narrowed, particularly in Sufism, means sanctity. But in the context of Shi'ism, wilayah (usually pronounced wilayah) means the esoteric power of the Imam whereby he is able to initiate men into the Divine Mysteries and provide for them the key to attaining sanctity. The use of the two terms, therefore, is related, since on the one hand it pertains to the saintly life and on the other to the particular esoteric power of the Imam which leads man to the saintly life. In the case of the Imam, it also has other cosmic and social connotations usually not identified with wilayah in the general sense of sanctity.

Adapted from: "Shi'ah" by: "Allamah Sayyid Muhammad Husayn Tabataba'i"

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