The Delegation Decoded
An Esoteric Exegesis of the Delegation of the Isma‘ili Imamat
A Personal Interpretation by Khalil Andani
DOWNLOAD Complete Publication.
In December 2008, His Highness Prince Aga Khan IV, the 49th hereditary Imam (spiritual leader) of the Shi‘a Isma‘ili Muslims, along with the Prime Minister of Canada, formally inaugurated the Delegation of the Isma‘ili Imamat in Ottawa.
The Delegation was described by the Prime Minister as an “architectural masterpiece”. It would be no exaggeration to suggest that the Delegation was designed to serve as an expression of esoteric knowledge rooted in Isma‘ili thought and tradition. This appears to be confirmed by the Isma‘ili Imam in his speech made at the Inaugural Ceremony:
“This new Delegation of the Ismaili Imamat, like the Ismaili Centre and the Aga Khan Museum to be built in Toronto, reflects our conviction that buildings can do more than simply house people and programmes. They can also reflect our deepest values, as great architecture captures esoteric thought in physical form.”
– Imam Shah Karim al-Husayni Aga Khan IV
(Address at the Inaugural Ceremony of the Delegation of the Ismaili Imamat, Ottawa, Canada, December 6, 2008)
In the last few months, the Delegation has been open to public viewing where one can admire and contemplate its unique and mysterious architecture firsthand. When the Isma‘ili Imam first requested the design of the Delegation, he wrote a letter to the architects which described his vision of the building:
“The goal is to create a building which causes the viewer to wonder how different elements and different planes relate to each other, how they work together to tickle the eye…In a rock crystal the cuts and angles permit both transparency as well as translucency. It pleases and confuses the eye by its internal planes running at different angles, creating a sense of visual mystery. The building in a sense should be somewhat mysterious and visually nearly esoteric. It should not be blatant but ethereal, not obvious but difficult to captivate.”
– Imam Shah Karim al-Husayni Aga Khan IV
(Letter to Fumihiko Maki, quoted in Maria Cook, An Essay in Glass, The Ottawa Citizen, December 6, 2008)
The Isma‘ili worldview, as articulated and expressed in the last fourteen hundred years, is an esoteric one which views all things that exist in both the World of Faith (‘alam al-din) and natural world (‘alam al-dunya) as symbols expressing hidden meanings. In Isma‘ili thought, the process of uncovering the meanings embedded in the symbols is called ta’wil and this method of esoteric interpretation or exegesis was used specifically to interpret the verses of the Holy Qur’an.
The ‘esoteric thought’ is represented by the Delegation’s unique architecture which tends to tease the eyes of its beholder and is difficult to comprehend. One can only understand and decode the Delegation’s architecture by contemplating it with the eyes of ta’wil or esoteric exegesis. Only then will the esoteric thought captured within the architecture be set free for one to see.
This article is a humble attempt to offer an esoteric exegesis or ta’wil of the interior architecture of the Delegation of the Isma‘ili Imamat. It seeks to explain the symbolism of the architecture in light of Isma‘ili thought and philosophy rooted in the intellectual traditions of Isma‘ilism. Indeed, the Isma‘ili Imam indicated that the Delegation’s architecture constitutes a ‘translation’ of both exoteric and esoteric concepts from Isma‘ili history. This article will shed light on some of these concepts.
“The architectural planning has been entrusted to the capable hands of Fumihiko Maki, an architect of world standing. Maki and Associates have my enthusiastic admiration for addressing, with tact and empathy, challenges of design which are difficult and subtle. They call for translating concepts that have a context in our faith and our history, yet stride boldly and confidently ahead, into modernity; for expressing both the exoteric and the esoteric, and our awe and humility towards the mysteries of Nature, Time and beyond.”
– Imam Shah Karim al-Husayni Aga Khan IV,
(Address at the Foundation Ceremony of The Delegation of the Ismaili Imamat, Ottawa, Canada, June 6, 2005)
1. Introduction: The World of Faith
“…the World of Faith and the material world are the dual responsibilities of humankind.”
– Imam Shah Karim al-Husayni Aga Khan IV
The Delegation of the Isma‘ili Imamat, according to an esoteric reading of its architecture, is essentially a symbol of what Isma‘ili theosophers call the “World of Faith” (‘alam al-din). While it is difficult to provide a comprehensive definition of this term as used by Isma‘ili theosophers what follows is a brief overview.
The World of Faith consists of two realms: an upper celestial realm and a lower terrestrial realm each of which contains a number of ranks (hudud). The terrestrial realm consists of the Prophets, the Imams, the teaching hierarchy over which they preside known as the ‘Ranks of Faith’ (hudud al-din), the initiates (murids) who receive and respond to their teaching and the very substance of the knowledge and gnosis which is transmitted through the Ranks of Faith. Isma’ili theosophers referred to the terrestrial part of the World of Faith, which includes the hierarchy of human instructors, as the Summons to the Truth (da’wat al-haqq) or the Summons (da’wah).
The Summons is a hierarchy of spiritual guides and teachers whose highest rank (hadd) is the Prophet Muhammad in his time, his wasi (legatee) Imam ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib after him, and each succeeding Isma‘ili Imam in his respective period. Under the Prophet or Imam, who is the master of the age and the time (sahib al-zaman wa’l-asr), there are ranks of individuals known as the hujjah (“proof”) of the Imam. Under the hujjah is a rank called the da’i (“summoner”) after which are lower ranks known as mu’allim (teacher), mahdun (“receiver of the oath”) and mustajib (“respondent”). The concept of the ranks of knowledge is found in the several verses of the Holy Qur’an one of which is below:
“We raise in ranks (darajat) whom We please; and over every possessor of knowledge is a possessor of knowledge.”
– Holy Qur’an 12:76
Number symbolism also plays a major part in the structure of the hudud al-din. There is one Imam in every age but the ranks (hudud) below him comprise a multiplicity of individuals. Immediately under the Imam is a special class of four hujjahs, known as the hujjahs of proximity or the ‘gates’ (abwab, sing. bab). One of these hujjahs is known as the supreme hujjah (hujjatu’l-azam) or the greatest bab.
“There are four stopping places (miqat) for changing into pilgrim clothes along the way to the Ka’ba, which correspond to the four hujjats who never leave the side of the Imam and who take knowledge from the Imam and transmit it to the common people. For Nasir, no one may reach the stage of receiving words from the Imam except through one of these four hujjats, just as whoever wants to reach the Ka’ba has to pass through one of the four miqats.”
– Alice Hunsberger, (The Ruby of Badakhshan, p. 190)
Below the four great hujjahs is a group of twenty-four hujjats who are divided into two sets – twelve hujjahs of the day and the twelve hujjahs of the night. A pair of hujjahs, one of the day and one of the night, are spread through the twelve regions of the world where they dispense knowledge and wisdom to the people of their communities.
“Understand that for each Imam there are twelve visible diurnal hujjas and twelve concealed and hidden nocturnal hujjas…they are the veil of the Imam and are his mouthpieces and gateways, his deputies and the messengers from him to the da‘is, who in turn convey the message to the believers.”
– Sayyedna Ibn al-Haytham, (The Advent of the Fatimids, p. 97)
In total, there are twenty-eight hujjahs below the Imam who receive knowledge from the Imam through spiritual assistance (ta’yid) and spiritual imagination (khayal) as opposed to verbal or written instruction (ta’lim). The number twenty eight is rich in symbolism and corresponds to the number of lunar stations or mansions and the length of the lunar cycle. Operating under each of the twelve pairs of the hujjahs are thirty da’is. There are a total of three hundred and sixty da‘is – a highly symbolic number corresponding to the number of degrees in a circle and the number of days in a single year according to some traditional calendars. Below is a summary of the terrestrial hudud of the World of Faith:
Ontologically above the terrestrial realm of the World of Faith is the celestial realm. The celestial realm, according to Isma‘ili theosphers, consists of five ranks (hudud) which are the Universal Intellect, Universal Soul, Jadd, Fath, and Khayal. These five hudud were originated by God’s creative Command (amr) while God Himself transcends both the terrestrial and celestial hudud and is ontologically above both realms.
“The Universal Intellect, the Universal Soul, jadd, fath and khayal, also known as the Pen, the Tablet, Seraphiel, Michael and Gabriel, are the five spiritual hadds who are eternal and unchanging. They are ontologically beyond the world of cycles.”
– Dr. Shafique Virani,
(The Days of Creation in the Thought of Nasir-i Khusraw, in Nasir Khusraw: Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow, Khujand, 2005, Publishing House “Noshir”, pp.74-83)
The terrestrial hudud receive ta’yid (spiritual assistance and inspiration) from the celestial hudud. The highest hadd, who is the Prophet or Imam of the time, receives the ta’yid directly from the celestial hudud while the hujjahs receive the ta’yid through the mediation of the Imam. Dr. Shafique Virani describes the status of the hujjahs as follows:
“They do not receive their knowledge by instruction (ta’lim), as do the lower ranks. Rather, their knowledge is by a type of inspiration from on high, a support (ta’yid) that the text explains to be the power of the divine light (quwwat-i nur-i ilahi). A couplet found in this text as well as in many other Ismaili treatises, but of unknown authorship, explains this inspiration as follows:
A path exists from the hujjat to the Imam
He becomes aware by the divine support (ta’yid) of his heart
– Dr. Shafique Virani, (The Ismailis in the Middle Ages, p. 74)
The World of Faith is not limited to the Isma‘ili community but reaches and extends to people of all faiths. All human beings have a connection to the celestial realm of the Intellect, Soul, Jadd, Fath, and Khayal through their individual soul and intellect. The twelve hujjahs of the night are not formally part of the Isma‘ili jama‘at but reside in other religious communities to whom they provide the light of knowledge like stars in the night. Thus, the Summons (da’wah) of the World of Faith is rooted in the realm of universal spirituality and embraces people of all faiths and cultures, whether it be in a direct or indirect fashion. There is also a symbolic correspondence between the World of Nature (‘alam al-dunya) and the World of Faith (‘alam al-din). The World of Nature includes the visible heavens, the earth, time and various celestial bodies – and each of these correspond to a rank (hadd) or reality in the World of Faith. The below hadith of the Prophet Muhammad, quoted by Nasir al-Din Tusi, explains the reason for this:
“God, the Blessed, the Exalted, has based His religion (din) on the likeness of His creation, so that they might find His creation a sign indicating His religion, and His religion a sign indicating His unicity (wahadaniyyat).”
– Prophet Muhammad, (quoted in Nasir al-Din Tusi, The Paradise of Submission, p. 138)
It is most appropriate to refer to this entire structure as a ‘world’ (‘alam) since the Arabic word for ‘world’, ‘alam, comes from the word ‘ilm (knowledge). The World of Faith (‘alam al-din) facilitates the transmission of knowledge (‘ilm) and gnosis (ma’rifah) from the Universal Intellect to the hearts and minds of humanity.
What follows is an esoteric interpretation (ta’wil) of the interior architecture of the Delegation of the Isma‘ili Imamat. The symbolism of its various components will be discussed in separate sections and accompanied by photos. The article consists of the following sections:
- Introduction: The World of Faith
- Jali Screen and Atrium: Exoteric and Esoteric
- Upper Glass Dome: The Lords of Inspiration
- Lower Glass Fibre Canopy: The Masters of Instruction
- Jali Screen Sections: The Summoners of Knowledge
- Atrium Floor: The Seven Repeated Ones
- Char-bagh: The Rivers of Paradise
- Conclusion: Going Beyond the Surface
- Appendix: Diagrams of Ta’wil
The Delegation of the Isma‘ili Imamat, according to the esoteric exegesis of its architecture, serves as visual and geometric symbol of the World of Faith (‘alam al-din) and its various ranks (hudud). Moving inwards from the jali screen and to the atrium represents the journey from the exoteric (zahir) to the esoteric (batin). Moving downwards from the upper glass dome to the floor of the atrium represents the descent of divine inspiration and knowledge in the World of Faith from the celestial realm to the terrestrial realm.
The Isma‘ili Imam referred to the role of the Imamat with regards to the World of Faith in his recent speech made at the opening of the Isma‘ili Centre in Dushanbe, Tajikistan:
“We will seek to demonstrate that spiritual insight and worldly knowledge are not separate or opposing realms, but that they must always nourish one another, and that the World of Faith and the material world are the dual responsibilities of humankind.”
– Imam Shah Karim al-Husayni Aga Khan IV,
(Speech at the Opening Ceremony of the Dushanbe Ismaili Centre, October 12, 2009)
DOWNLOAD Complete Publication.
In Shi‘a Islam, the term Imam refers to the hereditary spiritual leaders directly descended from the Prophet Muhammad through his cousin and son-in-law, Hazrat ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib, the first Imam, and Hazrat Bibi Fatima, the Prophet’s daughter. His Highness Prince Karim Aga Khan IV is the 49th hereditary Imam of the Shi‘a Imami Isma‘ili Muslims, tracing his descent from Hazrat ‘Ali through Hazrat Isma‘il ibn Ja’far.[back]
Further reading on the Isma‘ili concept of the ‘world of religion’ (alam al-din) can be found in an article by Simonetta Calderini titled ‘Alam al-din” in Isma’ilism: World of Obedience or World of Immobility?’, Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. Vol. 56, No. 3 (1993), pp. 467. We also deal with the concept of ‘alam al-din in the following paragraphs.[back]
In August 2009, I visited the Delegation accompanied by some close friends. We were able to examine its architecture up close and contemplate it in light of Isma‘ili ta’wil. The present article is the fruit of the many discussions I had with my friends during our visit and I would like to acknowledge their help and encouragement. I would like to especially thank Haafiz Alibhai for editing the drafts of this article.[back]
In Isma‘ili thought and history, there are two types of ta’wil (esoteric exegesis). The supreme ta’wil can only be disclosed by the Isma‘ili Imam himself and is entirely his prerogative. However, there is a second type of ta’wil which can be performed by any individual member (murid) of the Isma‘ili Tariqah according to one’s own level (hadd) of knowledge. Accordingly, there are many levels of this ta’wil and therefore many layers of meaning to be sought. Presented in this article is but one approach which reflects our personal ta’wil and symbolic understanding. It is entirely natural and expected that others will interpret the same symbols quite differently. However, the ta’wil presented in this article is by no means arbitrary and draws upon knowledge which is firmly rooted and established in Isma‘ili theosophy and history.[back]
This description of the World of Faith is based upon the description given by Sayyedna Nasir-i Khusraw which is summarized in an article by Dr. Shafique Virani, The Days of Creation in the Thought of Nasir-i Khusraw, published in Nasir Khusraw: Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow, Khujand, 2005, Publishing House “Noshir”, pp.74-83. [back]
The terms ‘celestial’ and ‘terrestrial’ should not simply be equated with the ‘spiritual’ and the ‘physical’. The celestial realm consists of spiritual beings which are universal and supra-individual, such as the Archangels, the Divine Forms, and the higher Paradises. The terrestrial realm includes the spiritual world of individual souls, the imaginal world of subtle bodies, and the corporeal world of physical bodies. These realms are called ‘terrestrial’ or ‘earthly’ because they are ontologically lower than the celestial realm and receive their form and qualities from that realm. In contrast to the celestial realm, the terrestrial realm consists of beings which possess individuality – such as angels, jinn, human souls, etc.[back]
The term hadd (plural: hudud) is an Arabic word which means ‘limit’, ‘horizon’, or ‘rank’. In the religious and spiritual context, every being in the World of Faith has its own hadd in gnosis – its spiritual limit or horizon – and the arrangement of such beings is known as the hudud. Every soul in the spiritual world has its own hadd based on its purity and rank of knowledge. This system of spiritual ranks was formalized where certain ranks undertook specific functions in the World of Faith – such as the Prophet (natiq), Legatee (wasi), Imam, bab, hujjah, da‘i and others.[back]
The term sahib al-zaman wa’l-asr literally means ‘master of the age and the time’. The guardianship (walayah) of the Master of the Ages includes the spiritual realm of individual souls and the physical world of material affairs. The Master of the Age is the individual who holds the rank of Imam in every age including instances where the Prophet also held the rank of Imamat such as Prophet Muhammad.[back]
The concept of ta’yid must not be confused with prophetic revelation (wahy) by which the revealed Book is sent down to the Prophets. Ta’yid is a continuous stream of divine assistance and inspiration which infuses the soul of the mu’ayyad (recipient of ta’yid) with inspired knowledge (‘ilm). In contrast, the prophetic revelation comes down to the prophet at a specific intervals and results in the revealed discourse which becomes a sacred Book.[back]