The Delegation Decoded – Upper Glass Dome: The Lords of Inspiration

2. Jali Screen and Atrium: Exoteric and the Esoteric

The Delegation Decoded

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

A Personal Interpretation by Khalil Andani

3. Upper Glass Dome: The Lords of Inspiration

“Every Imam receives ta’yid from the five hudud, namely, the First, the Second, Jadd, Fath, and Khayal.”
– Sayyedna Nasir-i Khusraw

“Those people whose consciousness behaved as does a [translucent] glass held up to the sun were the Prophets.”
– Sayyedna Nasir al-Din Tusi

Delegation of Ismaili Imamat outside view during the day

The Delegation of the Isma‘ili Imamat has an asymmetrical glass roof which is its most unique feature. The glass roof was designed to imitate the properties of rock crystal. Rock crystal is unique in that it combines both the properties of transparency and translucency in a harmonious yet mysterious manner.

The roof consists of several glass planes which are placed at many different angles by virtue of which they both capture and reflect the sunlight.

“Rock crystal is only a metaphor. It has a very hard surface. It should be reflective to light.”
– Mr. Fumihiko Maki,

(Maria Cook, An Essay in Glass, The Ottawa Citizen, December 6, 2008)

The glass roof of the Delegation symbolizes certain spiritual concepts and principles in Isma‘ili thought. Two great Persian Isma‘ili theosophers – Sayyedna Nasir-i Khusraw and Sayyedna Nasir al-Din Tusi – evoke the imagery of the sun shining its light upon translucent surfaces such as rock crystal and glass as a metaphor for the way in which the light of God shines upon His Creation. There are two esoteric symbolisms of the glass dome which relate to the above concept.

At this point, it would be helpful to summarize the role of the celestial hudud in Isma‘ili metaphysics and cosmology. In Isma‘ili metaphysics, God transcends all positive and negative attributes including even the categories of being and existence; God is above both existence and non-existence, being and non-being. He is beyond all names and qualities as well as the negation of those names and qualities. In other words, human language can only describe God in terms of double negation[1] : He is not merciful and He is not not merciful; He is not powerful and He is not not powerful, etc. He transcends both perfection and imperfection. The first being to come into existence is the Universal Intellect which is originated through the Command (amr) or Word (kalimah) of God. The Universal Intellect is both perfect in potentiality and actuality and encompasses all things in being. From the Universal Intellect there emanates a second entity called the Universal Soul. Like the Intellect, the Soul is perfect in potentiality but is not perfect in actuality having come into being through the mediation of the Intellect. The Universal Soul seeks to actualize its potential perfection and begins the movement and manifestation which leads to the creation of the Universe. The Universal Soul gives rise to Form and Prime Matter from which the physical Universe comes into existence[2]. The Universal Soul also creates individual souls which manifest in the Universe. It is through these souls, and particularly the souls of the Prophets, Imams, and the great souls of mankind that the Universal Soul actualizes its inherent perfection[3]. The Universal Intellect and the Universal Soul are the upper ranks (hudud al-uluwi) of the celestial world while Jadd, Fath, and Khayal are the intermediary ranks which connect the Universal Intellect and Universal Soul to Creation and particularly to the human beings. In Islam, the Creation is a constant and perpetual event occurring at every instant[4]. Therefore, it must be understood that the Universe is continuously being infused with form and being from the Universal Intellect and Universal Soul through the agency of Jadd, Fath, and Khayal.

The largest plane of the glass dome is in the form of a hexagon. This hexagonal plane does not appear horizontally flat but is actually on an incline. This hexagon which has six sides symbolizes the highest ranks (hudud) of the World of Faith. These are the five celestial hudud – the Universal Intellect, Universal Soul, Jadd, Fath, and Khayal – and the highest terrestrial rank (hadd) which is the Prophet or Imam who functions as the Master of the Age (sahib al-zaman).

The Sun symbolizes the Command (amr) of God which is the source and cause of both the celestial and terrestrial hudud. The sunlight symbolizes the light of tawhid (divine unity) and ta’yid (divine inspiration) which emanates from the Divine Command and shines upon the celestial hudud beginning with the Universal Intellect[5]. The ta’yid flows through the Universal Intellect, Universal Soul, Jadd, Fath and Khayal and reaches the soul of the Imam of the time. In this sense, Sayyedna Nasir-i Khusraw writes that every Imam receives ta’yīd from the five hudud – Intellect, Soul, Jadd, Fatḥ and Khayal[6].

These six ranks are in a hierarchy which is symbolized by the fact that the hexagonal plane of the glass dome is on an incline where some of its sides are higher in altitude than others. However, these six ranks function in unity and harmony and this is why all six sides are united in the form of a hexagon.

It is through these hudud that the inspiration (ta’yid) from the Universal Intellect reaches the individual intellect (‘aql al-juz) of man. The five celestial hudud and the Imam of the Time are the Lords of Inspiration (ashab al-ta’yid). The present Isma‘ili Imam spoke of the Universal Intellect (‘aql al-kull) or Divine Intellect as the source of knowledge of the human intellect in a speech made at the convocation ceremony of the Aga Khan University:

“The Divine Intellect, Aql-i Kull, both transcends and informs the human intellect. It is this Intellect which enables man to strive towards two aims dictated by the faith: that he should reflect upon the environment Allah has given him and that he should know himself. It is the Light of the Intellect which distinguishes the complete human being from the human animal, and developing that intellect requires free inquiry. The man of faith, who fails to pursue intellectual search is likely to have only a limited comprehension of Allah’s creation. Indeed, it is man’s intellect that enables him to expand his vision of that creation.”
– Imam Shah Karim al-Husayni Aga Khan IV,
(AKU Convocation Speech, Karachi, November 11, 1985)

There is also a second interpretation of the glass dome which concerns the terrestrial hudud which is the realm of human existence. Sayyedna Nasir al-Din Tusi explains how human souls vary with regards to their receptivity to the lights which shine forth from God’s Command (amr):

“Human souls are therefore varied and differ with respect to their receptivity to the resplendent lights of the Divine Command (anwar-i ishraq-i amr-i ilahi), just as material objects are variously receptive to the physical light of the sun. [Consider] stones, for example: one [kind] is pitch black, while others are progressively less dark, and their essences are more receptive to illumination, up to translucent glass which receives light from one side and emits from the other.”
– Sayyedna Nasir al-Din Tusi,
(Rawda-yi Taslim, trans. S.J. Badakchani as The Paradise of Submission, p. 109)

It is most interesting that Nasir al-Din Tusi speaks of the purest or most exalted human souls as being like ‘translucent glass’ through which light can pass through. The theme of translucency is also the inspiration for the Delegation and particularly its glass dome. Nasir al-Din Tusi further states that the souls which resemble translucent glass are the Prophets:

“In so far as human beings are unable to be receptive to His Almighty Command without mediation, it was necessary that there should be intermediaries vis-à-vis the Divine Command. Those people whose consciousness (khatir) behaved as does a [translucent] glass held up to the sun were the Prophets.”
– Sayyedna Nasir al-Din Tusi, (Paradise of Submission, p. 109)

It was mentioned earlier that according to Isma‘ili thought and conception of religious history, there were six great Prophets (or Natiqs) sent to humanity. According to a second exegesis of the upper glass dome, the hexagonal panel symbolizes these six Natiqs. While the hexagonal jali screen symbolizes the six Natiqs with respect to the shar’iah which they delivered to humanity, the six sides of the translucent hexagonal panel represents the six Natiqs with respect to their purified souls which are like “translucent glass” before the lights of God’s Command. The Six Natiqs, who are the lords of the six major cycles, are completed by the lord of the Seventh Cycle who is the Lord of Resurrection (qa’im al-qiyamah) and he is represented by the transparent centre of the hexagonal panel.

While the Natiqs are the lords of the major cycles (each if which lasts several hundred years), within the major cycle there are smaller periods of duration called minor cycles. The minor cycles consist of a series of six Imams who are completed by the seventh Imam called the Imam of Resurrection – an Imam who brings new teachings and major changes to the World of Faith[7]. Thus, the lords of the minor cycles are the Imams. In this sense, the six sides of the glass hexagonal panel represent the six Imams of the minor cycles and the centre of the panel represents the Seventh Imam of Resurrection. The souls of the Imams, like the Natiqs, are also like translucent glass before the lights of the Divine Command and this is why the rock crystal inspired glass roof of the Delegation serves as an eloquent symbol for the Prophets and the Imams.

Sayyedna Nasir-i Khusraw also uses the same example of the sun shining upon rock crystal to explain the relationship between the Universal Intellect, Universal Soul and the perfect human soul.

“Similarly, when the effect (athar) of the the Universal Soul is manifested in the human body and when the latter gets its “food” from the Universal Intellect, by acquiring the knowledge of its own origin (asl), by knowing and recognizing the oneness of God (tawhid), then, through all this, the soul in the body becomes similar to the Universal Soul, its origin, just as the effect of the sunshine in the crystal or mirror would appear similar to the sun itself.”
– Sayyedna Nasir-i Khusraw,
(Shis Fasl, transl. Ivanow as Six Chapters, Chapter 4 translated by V. Ivanow, The Ismaili Society, Bombay)

In the above passage, Sayyedna Nasir refers to the reflective aspect of crystal or mirror. The human soul purified by the knowledge of God’s Unity (tawhid) comes to resemble the Universal Soul on high – in the same way that the reflection of the sun appears in rock crystal and there is resemblance between an image and that which it reflects. Such a purified soul, illuminated by the Universal Soul, also serves as a beacon of truth and knowledge to other souls. The glass dome reflecting and shining with sunlight symbolizes the purified soul – both illuminated (by the Universal Soul) and illuminating (other souls). Such a soul serves as the mazhar – the ‘locus of manifestation’[8] – of the Divine Names and Attributes – in the manner of a mirror or rock crystal with regards to the light of the sun. It must also be noted that the soul which serves as God’s mazhar is completely submitted and humble before the Divine – just as a mirror or crystal is empty and devoid in and of itself and must be illuminated from another source. In this sense, the Imam stated that the Delegation building is a symbol of both enlightenment and humility – as the two must always co-exist.

“The building will be a metaphor for humanism and enlightenment and for the humility that comes from the constant search for answers that leads inevitably to more questions.”
– 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)

In Isma‘ili thought, the foremost example of this purified soul is what Sayyedna al-Mu’ayyad fi’l-Din Shirazi calls the ‘Absolute Man’ (al-insan al-mutaliq)[9]. The Absolute Man, in Isma‘ili theosophy, is the Prophet Muhammad in his age, his wasi Hazrat ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib in his epoch and each Imam in his time.

Delegation of Ismaili Imamat outside view during the night

Just as the glass dome is the highest part of the Delegation which receives the direct sunlight and illuminates the rest of the building, the Prophets and the Imams are the highest hudud in the World of Faith and their souls receive the divine inspiration (ta’yid) directly form the celestial hudud before conveying it to the rest of the terrestrial hudud. Thus, the celestial hudud¸ the Natiqs and the Imams are the “Lords of Inspiration” (ashab al-ta’yid). Sayyedna Nasir al-Din Tusi describes the transmission of the lights of divine inspiration from the Imam, the Lord of Inspiration (sahib al-ta’yid), to the hudud of the World of Faith:

“The lights of the divine creative volition (anwar-i amr-i ibda’i), by his [the Imam’s] command, shine upon those souls who harbour an aptitude to apprehend the perfection of the Divine Command, taking the form of distinctive and true gnosis, love, obedience and devotion.”
– Sayyedna Nasir al-Din Tusi, (Paradise of Submission, p. 111)

NEXT: 4. Inner Glass Fibre Canopy: The Masters of Instruction

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The Delegation Decoded – Khalil Andani


[1]Azim Nanji, Transcendence and Distinction: Metaphoric Process in Isma‘ili Muslim Thought, published in God and Creation: An Ecumenical Symposium edited by David B. Burrell and Bernard McGinn, University of Notre Dame, 1990, pp 304-315. Available online at the Institute of Ismaili Studies Website:[back]

[2]The manifestation of the physical Universe from Form and Prime Matter (hayula) is not described in detail by Isma‘ili theosophers who instead seem to focus on the overall ‘big picture’ cosmology. Nasir-i Khusraw (Knowledge and Liberation, p. 57) distinguishes between two types of matter – relative and absolute. The relative matter is found in the physical world such as the wood of a chair or the metal of a ring. The absolute matter is not perceptible to the senses but only knowable by the intellect, therefore it is an intellectual substance belonging to the celestial realm of intellect. A more detailed cosmology follows: from the Universal Soul there proceeds the Holy Spirit which generates the celestial world of forms (identical with Plato’s World of Forms) which is the realm of pure intellect. The passive and receptive pole of the celestial world consists of the Prime Matter (hayula) upon which the intellectual forms are inscribed by the Holy Spirit. The subtle world of individual souls, the imaginal world and the physical world are created from the Prime Matter whereby the intellectual forms of the Prime Matter are manifested in subtle forms in souls which are in turn manifested in physical form in the physical world. The creation of souls from Prime Matter also explains why in certain hadiths the Shi‘a Imams describe their souls and bodies as being created from a pure clay known as Illiyyin. The details of the above can be found in Frithjof Schuon, Survey of Metaphysics and Esoterism, World Wisdom, p. 61.[back]

[3]Nasir-i Khusraw writes in Rawshana‘i Nama also known as Shis Fasl, transl. Ivanow, Chapter 3:
“It is the [Universal] Soul which started the movement of this world. The purpose of that activity which it develops is the search for its perfection, and this attained in the eminent persons (nafs-ha-y-i buzurgwar) who appears in this world, such as the souls of the Natiqs, Asases, Imams, hujjats, da’is, ma’dhuns and mustajibs. The object of its producing this world was to produce souls (nafs-ha), in order that in them the [Universal] Soul itself would become perfect, and ultimately attain the position (darja) of the [Universal] Intellect.”[back]

[4]See Aga Khan III, Islam: The Religion of My Ancestors, Extract from World Enough and Time: The Memoirs of the Aga Khan: “There is a fundamental difference between the Jewish idea of creation and that of Islam. The creation according to Islam is not a unique act in a given time but a perpetual and constant event; and God supports and sustains all existence at every moment by His will and His thought. Outside His will, outside His thought, all is nothing, even the things which seem to us absolutely self-evident such as space and time. Allah alone wishes: the Universe exists; and all manifestations are as a witness of the Divine will.”[back]

[5]Nasir-i Khusraw, Wajh-i Din, Discourse 20[back]

[6]Nasir-i Khusraw, Wajh-i Din, Discourse 47[back]

[7]Nasir-i Khusraw writes that every seventh Imam has the rank of Resurrection (qiyamah) and Nasir al-Din Tusi states that the term Resurrector (qa’im) is used to denote an Imam who introduces a major change in the religious law (shari’ah). The Tayyibi Isma‘ili da‘i Idris Imad al-Din writes about every seventh Imam of a minor cycle: “He is endowed with a power that preceding Imams do not have.” (Sami Makarem, Al-Qasida ash-Shafiya (The Healing Poem) of Shihab ad-Din Abu Firas Edited and Translated with a Commentary, The University of Michigan, Ph.D, 1963, P. 241)[back]

[8]The term mazhar often gets mistranslated by polemicists as “incarnation” or “copy” which is totally inaccurate. We have followed the translation of the word mazhar as ‘locus of manifestation’ given by Dr. Reza Shah-Kazemi of the Institute of Ismaili Studies in Third Chapter of his book titled Justice and Remembrance: Introducing the Spirituality of Imam ‘Ali. It is recommended that this chapter be read to fully understand the relationship between the mazhar and the Names of God. The late Henry Corbin has translated mazhar as ‘epiphanic form’ in his book Cyclical Times and Ismaili Gnosis and this meaning has the same conceptual implications as Shah-Kazemi’s translation.[back]

[9]A detailed discussion of al-Shirazi’s conception of the insan al-mutaliq can be found in the PhD Thesis entitled The Sphere of Walaya: Ismaili Tawil in Practice According to al-Muayyad by Elizabeth R. Alexandrin, April 2006, McGill University.[back]

Author: ismailimail

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

One thought

  1. >>In other words, human language can only describe God in terms of double negation<<

    Double negation is indeed a very interesting way of understanding the (transcendent) nature of God.

    Thanks for sharing.


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