The Delegation Decoded
An Esoteric Exegesis of the Delegation of the Isma‘ili Imamat
A Personal Interpretation by Khalil Andani
6. The Atrium Floor: The Seven Repeated Ones
“And We have bestowed upon thee the Seven Repeated Ones and the Great Qur’an.”
– Holy Quran 15:87
The floor of the Delegation building is made up of light coloured maple and consists of forty-nine large squares arranged in a 7×7 pattern. Each of these squares itself contains a forty-nine piece design. On the floor one can observe the unique patterns of both light and shadow which come from above.
According to the esoteric exegesis, as one beholds the Delegation from top to bottom, there is a movement from the heavenly celestial realm of subtlety towards the earthly realm of density. This is also indicated by the materials which have been used to construct the different architectural components. The glass roof is made of the most transparent material, the glass-fibre canopy is somewhat less transparent, and finally the floor is made up maple wood which is opaque. The hierarchical structure of the World of Faith is a spiritual archetype which becomes actualized and manifested in the physical world. The Delegation’s floor is its lowest level and therefore it symbolizes the most earthly and transitory realm of existence which is the ebb and flow of human history. The square patterns formed by the maple flooring are noteworthy because the square is traditionally a symbol of the earth with its four sides representing the four directions of the earth, the four seasons and the four elements.
The forty-nine squares which appear on the maple floor symbolize the forty-nine Imams since the Prophet Muhammad with the present Imam, Shah Karim al-Husayni Aga Khan IV being the forty-ninth Imam. The number of forty-nine Imams has great significance in Isma‘ili thought. It should be recalled that during the Cycle of Imamat, a Minor Cycle consists of Seven Imams – with the Seventh Imam in the series being the Imam of Resurrection who brings great changes to the World of Faith. The coming of forty-nine Imams amounts to seven Minor Cycles of Imams – that is seven sets of seven Imams. As the forty-ninth Imam, Shah Karim al-Husayni Aga Khan IV is the seventh Imam of the seventh heptad and therefore he is an Imam of Resurrection (qiyamah).
Several Isma‘ili theosophers of the Fatimid era wrote that the appearance of forty-nine Imams after Prophet Muhammad would mark the commencement of the Seventh Major Cycle (symbolized by the Seventh Day of Creation) called the Cycle of Resurrection (dawr al-qiyamah) which brings great spiritual and material changes to both the World of Faith and the world at large. In this sense, Sayyedna Hamid al-Din Kirmani quoted the following verse of the Holy Qur’an:
“And We have bestowed upon thee the Seven Repeated Ones and the Great Qur’an.”
– Holy Quran 15:87
According to Hamid al-Din Kirmani, the Seven Repeated Ones refer to the seven cycles of seven Imams who appear in the Cycle of Prophet Muhammad. He wrote that the appearance of forty-nine Imams would mark the commencement of the Cycle of Resurrection when the Ranks of Faith (hudud al-din) would be removed and the knowledge of the divine knowledge would become unmediated.
These signs have appeared as the functions of the hudud al-din, especially the hujjahs, were abolished during the Imamat of Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah Aga Khan III. At the same time, the murids began to have more direct access to the Imam – something which was not the case in previous periods of history.
The Cycle of Resurrection is referred to in the Qur’anic verse of the Days of Creation as the time when God “establishes the Throne”. Isma‘ili da‘is wrote that in the Cycle of Resurrection, justice and equity would be restored to the world and spiritual truths and knowledge would be available to humanity at large.
The period of forty-ninth Imam is the beginning of the Cycle of Resurrection. The previous Imam, Sir Sultan Muhammad Shah Aga Khan III, alluded to the coming of the new cycle in his last will as the main reason why he was succeeded as Imam by his grandson Shah Karim al-Husayni:
“…and in these circumstances and in view of the fundamentally altered conditions in the world in very recent years due to the great changes which have taken place including the discoveries of atomic science I am convinced that it is in the best interest of the Shi‘a Moslem Ismailian Community that I should be succeeded by a young man who has been brought up and developed during recent years and in the midst of a new age and who brings a new outlook on life to his office as Imam. For these reasons and although he is not now one of my heirs, I APPOINT my grandson KARIM, the son of my son, ALY SALOMONE KHAN to succeed to the title of AGA KHAN and to be the Imam and Pir of all my Shia Ismailian followers…”
– Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah Aga Khan III, (Last Will, Willi Frischauer, The Aga Khans, p. 208)
The period of Resurrection is one in which the activities of the Imamat extends to a global scale. One of the functions of the Imamat in this cycle is to help restore peace, justice and equity to the world. This was promised centuries ago by the Prophet Muhammad:
“If there were to remain of time but a single day, God would prolong that day until there would come a man from among my descendants who would fill the earth with equity and justice even as it has been filled with oppression and injustice.”
– Prophet Muhammad, (Abu Dawud, Sahih, Vol. 2, 5, p. 207)
The above hadith foreshadows the present day development activities of the Isma‘ili Imamat. Through the Aga Khan Development Network, the Imamat has developed the institutional capacity to raise the quality of life of humanity in numerous spheres of human activity: poverty alleviation through the Aga Khan Foundation, the restoration of culture through the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, the encouragement of human enterprise and economic prosperity through the Aga Khan Fund for Economic Development, the advancement of health and science through the Aga Khan Health Services, the spread of knowledge and education through the Aga Khan Academies, the Aga Khan University and Aga Khan Education services, and many more endeavors. All this work of the Imamat is not merely philanthropy but stems from the Imamat’s divinely ordained mandate, as described by the present Imam in one of his speeches:
“I am fascinated and somewhat frustrated when representatives of the western world — especially the western media — try to describe the work of our Aga Khan Development Network in fields like education, health, the economy, media, and the building of social infrastructure. Reflecting a certain historical tendency of the West to separate the secular from the religious, they often describe it either as philanthropy or entrepreneurship. What is not understood is that this work is for us a part of our institutional responsibility — it flows from the mandate of the office of Imam to improve the quality of worldly life for the concerned communities.”
– Imam Shah Karim al-Husayni Aga Khan IV, (Address to the Tutzing Evangelical Academy Upon Receiving the Tolerance Award, Tutzing Germany, May 20, 2006)
The Cycle of Resurrection is also characterized by the availability and amassment of human knowledge in a way never experienced before. The accumulation of knowledge almost appears like a ‘flood’ which brings both new benefits and new challenges. In this sense, the Isma‘ili da‘is referred to the period of Resurrection as the Epoch of Knowledge (dawr al-‘ilm). The present Imam appears to use similar words in his 2006 Convocation Address at the Aga Khan University when he described the new era as the Knowledge Society:
“All of these changes suggest that we are moving into a new epoch of history, a new condition of human life. Many observers describe this new world as the “Knowledge Society” – contrasting it with the Industrial Societies or the Agricultural Societies of the past. In this new era, the predominant source of influence will stem from information, intelligence and insight rather than physical power or natural resources. This Knowledge Society will confront people everywhere with new challenges—and new opportunities.”
– Imam Shah Karim al-Husayni Aga Khan IV, (AKU Convocation Address, Karachi, December 2, 2006)
One of the great benefits of the Epoch of Knowledge is the fact that not just material knowledge but spiritual and esoteric knowledge is becoming more and more accessible. In the past centuries, the esoteric truths of various religions remained restricted to spiritual orders and their adepts. However, this is no longer the case as the mystical texts and rituals of many religions are being studied and analyzed in depth through academic endeavors. As a result, more people are gaining direct access and participation in mystical and sacred texts through publications and translations. This presents a unique opportunity in the history of religion and culture for people to come to an understanding of spiritual truths which lie at the heart of all things.
The Delegation of the Isma‘ili Imamat embodies the ideals of the Cycle of Resurrection in the way its architecture declares esoteric knowledge openly in the world. As the Isma‘ili Imam stated and this article seeks to demonstrate, the Delegation’s architecture ‘captures esoteric thought in physical form.’
Each of the forty nine squares stands for one of the forty-nine Imams but it is curious that each larger square also contains forty-nine smaller squares. This pattern serves to express the spiritual and ontological relationship between each of the forty-nine Imams.
All the Imams are the loci of manifestation (mazahir) of a single reality (haqiqah) which is the Universal Intellect (‘aql al-kull), also called the Muhammadan Light or the Light of Imamat. But each Imam possesses a unique individual soul and person which renders each Imam as being different from the others. The sequence of the Imams should not be perceived as ‘reincarnations’ of one and the same individual soul, but rather an epiphanic succession where each soul serves as a unique individuation and epiphanic form (mazhar) of the same one Light – in the manner of a single light being reflected in multiple mirrors, one mirror after another in succession.
The fullness of the Light of Imamat is not fragmented by the plurality of the Imams – it is simply manifested diversely in each of them. Each Imam reveals the fullness of the Light and integrates the virtues and qualities of all the Imams – each one reflects the all. But at the same time, each Imam displays these virtues and qualities in a unique fashion due to his individuality. This is why each of the larger forty-nine squares on the atrium floor contains a smaller pattern of forty-nine squares. This symbolizes the fact that a single Imam contains the history, virtues, and qualities of all the Imams in his personal world. This can be imagined in the sense of forty-nine mirrors being placed next to each other in a circular pattern with a light being shined upon the mirrors. In a single mirror, one can observe the reflection of the light as well as the reflections of all the other mirrors.
In summary, the floor of the atrium symbolizes the earthly realm of human history where the mission of the World of Faith is carried out. The forty-nine squares on the flooring represent the great cycle of forty-nine Imams. The number of forty-nine Imams was indeed prophesized by Isma‘ili theosophers over a thousand years ago as indicating the beginning of a new epoch or period of human history called the Cycle of Resurrection. It is through the course of this cycle, in which we find ourselves today, that the mandate of the Imamat is to bring great material and spiritual transformation in the establishment of a ‘better world’:
“It is our prayer that the establishment of the Delegation will provide a strongly anchored, ever-expanding opportunity for rich collaboration – in the devoted service of ancient values, in the intelligent recognition of new realities, and in a common commitment to our shared dreams of a better world.”
– 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)
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Farhad Daftary, The Ismailis: Their History and Doctrines, p. 218 (Second Edition) where he refers to the prediction made by the Syrian da‘i Muhammad b. al-Suri and the Fatimid qadi al-Maliji.[back]
Simonetta Calderini, ‘Alam al-din in Isma’ilism: World of Obedience or World of Immobility, Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, Vol. 56, No. 3, pp. 467: “Kirmani firmly rejected Druze statements about the imminent advent of the Qa’im by reiterating that the Qiyama was not near, but was to take place in the distant future when the long cycle of 49 imams was concluded.”[back]
There is some ambiguity about whether the forty-ninth Imam in Fatimid enumeration refers to Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah or Imam Shah-Karim al-Husayni. In some lists of the Fatimid list of Imams, Imam al-Hasan was counted as the second Imam while in other lists Imam ‘Ali was not counted and given the higher rank of Asas and Imam al-Hasan was counted as the first Imam. Therefore, the forty-ninth Imam would either be Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah or Imam Shah Karim al-Husayni. Regardless, both interpretations indicate that the Cycle of Resurrection has already begun.[back]
Nasir al-Din Tusi states with regards to the differences among the various Imams:
“The principle of relative and real existence (hukm-i idafa wa haqiqat) must be kept in mind…as there are diverse degrees of truth and each Imam manifests a different degree [of truth], a different mystery, a different benefit (maslahat) which they detail and elucidate [for people]…But insofar as the Divine Truth has a unity wherein all these stages are one, and the Imams are all one in reality (haqiqat), so that their persons (shakhs) are not separate from each other nor their spirits.”
(Nasir al-Din Tusi, Rawda-yi Taslim transl. S.J. Badakhchani, The Paradise of Submission, The Institute of Ismaili Studies, London, p. 127)[back]