The Delegation Decoded – Jali Screen and Atrium: Exoteric and the Esoteric

1. Introduction: The World of Faith

The Delegation Decoded

An Esoteric Exegesis of the Delegation of the Isma‘ili Imamat

A Personal Interpretation by Khalil Andani

2. Jali Screen and Atrium: Exoteric and the Esoteric

“Lo! Your Lord is God who created the heavens and the earth in six days. Then He ascended the Throne…”
– Holy Qur’an 7:54

View of Jali at the Delegation of Ismaili Imamat Building

The interior of the Delegation Building consists of an open atrium which is surrounded by two layers of screens known as jali screens. The presence of the jali screen creates a sense of both transparency and veiling with regards to the atrium. When standing outside the atrium, one can still perceive the light of the atrium and look inside but the view is obstructed by the screen. The jali screen is double layered with the outer layer consisting of small hexagons and the inner layer consisting of larger hexagons and rectangular figures. The atrium is in the shape of a square.

The Jali Screen

The key to understanding the symbolism of the jali screen is the hexagonal pattern. In Islamic architectural symbolism, the figure of the hexagon represents the Heavens (samawah)[1]. In the Isma‘ili worldview, the concept of ‘Heavens’ relates to both the World of Nature (‘alam al-duniya) and the World of Faith (‘alam al-din). In other words, just as there are the Heavens and the Earth of the physical world, there are also the Heavens and the Earth of the World of Faith. In this sense, the twenty-third Nizari Isma‘ili Imam Hasan ala-dhikrihi al-salaam has stated:

“…the esoteric sense (batin) of ‘the heavens and the earth’ is the realm of religion (‘alam-i din), whereas the exoteric sense (zahir) of ‘the heavens and the earth’ is the realm of the world (‘alam-i dunya).”
– Imam Hasan ala-dhikrihi al-salaam,
(Nasir al-Din Tusi, Rawda-yi Taslim, transl. S. J. Badakchani as The Paradise of Submission, p. 124)

The ‘Heavens’ of the World of Faith is the sacred law or shari’ah which is the exoteric (zahir) dimension of Faith while the ‘Earth’ of the World of Faith is the spiritual meanings or haqiqah which is the esoteric (batin) dimension. This may appear counter-intuitive at first, but makes sense when one realizes that the physical heavens surround and protect the physical earth and in the same way, the exoteric surrounds and protects the esoteric which is the inward essence and centre. This is explained by Imam Hasan ala-dhikrihi al-salaam as follows:

“One designates the earth as symbolizing the hidden esoteric sense (batin) because the earth is the centre and the heavens are the circumference. Although in appearance the circumference envelopes the centre, in reality and meaning the centre is the cause of the existence of the circumference, while the circumference is not the cause of the existence of the centre.”
– Imam Hasan ala-dhikrihi al-salaam,
(Nasir al-Din Tusi, Rawda-yi Taslim, transl. S. J. Badakchani as The Paradise of Submission, p. 124)

The Inner Atrium

The inner atrium surrounded by the jali screen represents the ‘Earth’ of the World of Faith, which is the esoteric or batin dimension of Faith and the haqiqah (reality) of the shari’ah. The fact that the atrium is in the shape of a square is also significant as the square is a traditional symbol of the Earth. The four sides or corners represent the four directions (north, south, east, west) of the Earth, the rhythm of the four seasons and the four elements which are the roots of all things in the physical world. The atrium, in contrast to the jali screen, is completely open and consists of vast free space. This symbolizes the fact that the batin or esoteric dimension of Faith is the realm of spiritual freedom and personal search. The Qur’an alludes to the openness and vastness of the esoteric (batin) when it talks about the Earth:

“O’ My servants who believe! Verily, My Earth is spacious: therefore worship me.”
– Holy Qur’an 29:56

Say: “O ye my servants who believe! Fear your Lord, good is (the reward) for those who do good in this world. Spacious is God’s Earth! those who patiently persevere will truly receive a reward without measure!”
– Holy Qur’an 39:10

“It is He Who has made the Earth smooth for you, so traverse ye through its paths and enjoy of the Sustenance which He furnishes: but unto Him is the Resurrection.”
– Holy Quran 67:15

In this sense, the jali screen is to the inner atrium what the zahir of the shari’ah is to the batin of the haqiqah. Just as the jali screen obscures the view of the atrium and protects its privacy, the zahir veils and protects the batin from those not yet ready to receive it. The jali screen is not totally opaque and does allow a limited view of the atrium. Similarly, the shari’ah and the zahir do contain openings by which a seeker can attain a glimpse of the mysteries of the batin if he or she exerts effort in searching for it. The batin contains immutable and eternal truths (haqa‘iq) which are expressed and allegorized in the symbols of the zahir. The relationship between shari’ah and haqiqah, or exoteric and esoteric is summed up by the great Isma’ili da’i and hujjah, Sayyedna Nasir Khusraw.

“Positive religion (shari’at) is the exoteric aspect of the spiritual Idea (haqiqat), and the spiritual Idea is the esoteric aspect of the positive religion; positive religion is the symbol, the spiritual Idea is that which is symbolized.”
– Sayyedna Nasir-i Khusraw,
(Henry Corbin, Swedenborg and Esoteric Islam, pp. 92)

detailed view of the Jali at Delegation of Ismaili Imamat Building

The six sides of the hexagon also hold particular meaning in Isma’ilism. In the Isma’ili conception of sacred history, God has sent six major Prophets to guide humankind: Adam, Noah (Nuh), Abraham (Ibrahim), Moses (Musa), Jesus (Isa), and Muhammad. Each of these Prophets delivered a shari’ah and a sacred Book to humanity and is called a Natiq (proclaimer) in Isma‘ili terminology. The appearance of each Natiq marked the beginning of a new cycle or era (dawr) of sacred history – with six cycles corresponding to the six Natiqs and each cycle lasting several hundred years. The six cycles are called the Six Days of Creation in the Bible and the Qur’an:

“Lo! Your Lord is God who created the heavens and the earth in six days. Then He ascended the Throne…”
– Holy Qur’an 7:54

The creation in the above verse refers to the creation of the World of Faith (‘alam al-din) whose ‘Heavens and Earth’ – the exoteric (zahir) and esoteric (batin) dimensions – were established during the six cycles of prophecy.

The reason for there being six Natiqs (as opposed to any other number) is that physical space contains six directions (up, down, left, right, front, back) and each Prophet commanded humanity to perform certain acts in the physical world. Sayyedna Nasir-i Khusraw explains this in his ta’wil masterpiece Wajh-i Din:

“Since the human body, which is the worker, has six sides, i.e. front, back, right, left, above and beneath, God, may He be exalted, sent six instructing messengers. They are: Adam, came to mankind from above; Nuh, came to them from the left; Ibrahim, came to them from the back; Musa, came to them from beneath, opposite to Adam; Isa, came to them from the right, opposite to Nuh;, and Muhammad, may peace be upon him and his progeny, came to them from the front, opposite to Ibrahim.”
– Sayyedna Nasir-i Khusraw,
(Wajh-i Din, Chapter VII, transl. Al-Wa’z Dr. Faquir Muhammad Hunzai, Ilm Magazine, Vol. 11, No. 4/3, December 1987 / March 1988, p. 34)

Therefore, the jali screen of hexagons symbolizes the shari’ah and the zahir dimension of Faith and the six sides of the hexagon symbolize the six great Prophets or Natiqs who delivered the shari’ah and the zahir to humanity throughout the six cycles. Prophet Muhammad is the last of the Prophets because he is the sixth Natiq – corresponding to the six directions of physical space – and in accordance with this reality no new Prophet will come. Sayyedna Nasir-i Khusraw explains in the following quote:

“We say that, since man has six sides with respect to the body and it is the body which is the worker and since from each side of it an instructor came (to instruct man to work), then, according to intellectual judgment, it follows that no other instructor will come to mankind. Therefore, the decisive proof which we have shown according to intellectual judgment, establishes that after Muhammad, may peace be upon him and his progeny, there will not come any other Prophet in the future.”
– Sayyedna Nasir-i Khusraw,
(Wajh-i Din, Chapter VII, transl. Al-Wa’z Dr. Faquir Muhammad Hunzai, Ilm Magazine, Vol. 11, No. 4/3, December 1987 / March 1988, p. 35)

The hexagons of the jali screen contain openings in their centres through which one can see into the inner atrium. This indicates the presence of a hidden seventh component to the hexagon which is not explicit but nevertheless present. In the Bible and Qur’an, the Six Days of Creation were succeeded by the Seventh Day or Sabbath in which God established His Throne (as per the Qur’an) and rested (as per the Bible). Similarly, the six great Prophets and their cycles of prophecy culminate in the appearance of a seventh Natiq called the Lord of Resurrection (qa’im al-qiyamah) whose advent begins the seventh cycle of sacred history. Unlike the six Prophets, the Lord of Resurrection does not bring a shari’ah or reveal a new message, but rather, his role is to unveil and disclose the spiritual meanings of all the previous prophetic revelations and faiths. In the seventh cycle, which is the Cycle of Resurrection, spiritual truths and esoteric knowledge are revealed openly to humanity. While the Prophets came to earth to command the people to work, the Lord of Resurrection does not command, he dispenses reward and retribution for all the work done throughout the cycles.

“The Jews respect Saturday and do not work on it because of this, i.e. God has rested on this day. But they do not know that when the Messengers told people this, they meant that the people should know that, by the command of God, there will come to this world six Messengers who will instruct the people (to work). When the seventh will come, he will not instruct, rather, he will give them the reward of their work. And they called it Saturday and said to respect it and that day is the day of the Lord of Resurrection (qa’im-i qiyamat), may peace be upon him.”
– Sayyedna Nasir-i Khusraw,
(Wajh-i Din, Chapter VII, transl. Al-Wa’z Dr. Faquir Muhammad Hunzai, Ilm Magazine, Vol. 11, No. 4/3, December 1987 / March 1988, p. 36)

The centre part of the hexagonal jali screen through which one can look into the inner atrium represents the Lord of Resurrection through whom humanity can perceive the spiritual meanings which are veiled by the shari’ah and the exoteric dimension. The batin is available to mankind throughout the prophetic cycles since each great Prophet was accompanied by a spiritual legatee (wasi) or successor, called the Asas (“foundation”), who taught the inner meaning of the Natiq’s revelation to those had the capacity to understand it. The first six legatees (awsiya) of the six cycles were Seth (Shith), Shem (Sam), Ishmael (Isma‘il), Aaron (Harun), Simon Peter (Shamun al-Safa), and ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib[2]. Each legatee was succeeded by a series of Imams until the end of the prophetic cycle and the appearance of the next Natiq. As Muhammad is the last of the Prophets, his legatee Imam ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib and the Imams after him hold a special place as their cycle leads to the coming of the Lord of Resurrection. Therefore, the Imams succeeding to the Prophet Muhammad are both the successors of Prophet Muhammad as well as the vicegerents (khulafa)[3] of the Lord of Resurrection as they begin the process of disclosing the esoteric meanings through ta’wil, which reaches its climax with the appearance of the Qa’im and his cycle.

Jali view at the Delegation of Ismaili Imamat with visitors in the background

In summary, the hexagonal jali screen symbolizes the ‘Heaven of Faith’ (sama al-din) which is the shari’ah and the exoteric (zahir) dimension while the square inner atrium represents the ‘Earth of Faith’ (ard al-din) which is the haqiqah and the esoteric (batin) dimension. The six sided hexagon represents the six great Prophets or Natiqs who deliver the shari’ah through the six cycles of prophecy while the open centre of the hexagon represents the Lord of Resurrection (qa’im al-qiyamah) who unveils the haqiqah and begins the seventh cycle.

NEXT: 3. Upper Glass Dome: The Lords of Inspiration

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The Delegation Decoded – Khalil Andani

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Footnotes

[1]See Keith Critchlow, Islamic Patterns: An Analytical and Cosmological Approach, according to which the hexagon symbolizes the Heavens and the square symbolizes the Earth.[back]

[2]The list of the six awsiya or Asases appears in many Isma‘ili sources. See, for example, Henry Corbin, Cyclical Times and Isma‘ili Gnosis, pp. 96-97. There are also some minor variations in these lists.[back]

[3]Imam al-Mu’izz and Qadi al-Nu’man speak of the Imam as the khalifa (vicegerent, deputy, substitute) of the Lord of Resurrection in their writings. See Farhad Daftary The Ismailis: Their History and Doctrines, pp. 164-165.[back]

Author: ismailimail

Independent, civil society media featuring Ismaili Muslim community, its achievements and humanitarian works.

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