The Delegation Decoded – Char-Bagh Garden: The Rivers of Paradise

6. The Atrium Floor: The Seven Repeated Ones

The Delegation Decoded

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

A Personal Interpretation by Khalil Andani

7. The Char-Bagh Garden: The Rivers of Paradise

“A Parable of the Garden which the righteous are promised: in it are rivers of water incorruptible; rivers of milk of which the taste never changes; rivers of wine, a joy to those who drink; and rivers of honey pure and clear. In it there are for them all kinds of fruits; and Grace from their Lord.”
– Holy Qur’an 47:15

Delegation of the Ismaili Imamat

The Delegation of the Isma‘ili Imamat actually contains two spaces of symbolic significance: the first is the inner atrium whose symbolism has been explained thus so far. The second is the exterior garden courtyard whose design corresponds to the traditional Persian Islamic design known as the Chahr-bagh.

“The building will rest on a solid linear granite podium. Above it will be a glass dome through which light will illuminate, from multiple directions, two symbolic spaces: an interior atrium and an exterior courtyard landscaped in four quarters, recalling the traditional Persian – Islamic garden, the Chahr-bagh. Nature, through the greenery of trees and flowers, will be on the site, but also in the building, just as we are sometimes able to see leaves and petals captured in rock crystal, but still visible through its unique translucency.”
– 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)

The word chahr-bagh literally means ‘four gardens’ and is based on the verses of the Holy Qur’an which contain symbolic descriptions of Paradise (jannat) – the word jannat also meaning ‘garden’ in Arabic. In order to fully appreciate the symbolism of the Chahr-bagh in the Delegation of the Isma‘ili Imamat, it is necessary to look at the related Qur’anic verses and also understand the concept of Paradise in Isma‘ili theosophy. There are many Qur’anic verses which speak about Paradise and offer very sensual descriptions in terms of Paradise being a garden filled with flowing rivers and also containing fruits, honey, milk, etc. One of the verses which inspire the Chahr-bagh design is as follows:

“A Parable of the Garden which the righteous are promised: in it are rivers of water incorruptible; rivers of milk of which the taste never changes; rivers of wine, a joy to those who drink; and rivers of honey pure and clear. In it there are for them all kinds of fruits; and Grace from their Lord.”
– Holy Qur’an 47:15

The above verse describes four types of rivers which are in Paradise: rivers of water, rivers of milk, rivers of wine, and rivers of honey. It is the notion of four rivers which inspires the four part design of the Chahr-bagh garden. Additionally, some Qur’anic verses suggest the existence of four paradises which is also represented by the Chahr-bagh design.

In Isma‘ili thought, Paradise is not a physical place nor does it possess the same properties of the physical world. Nasir al-Din Tusi argues that if Paradise (and Hell) were to be understood literally as the Qur’an portrays them, then they would not be any different from the physical world. In reality, Paradise is an abode of pure knowledge and pure intellect which enjoys a closeness or proximity to God. The Qur’anic descriptions of Paradise must be understood symbolically and as it will be explained, such sensual descriptions of Paradise found in the Qur’an are not without wisdom. Nasir-i Khusraw explains that Paradise must be an abode of pure intellect because the Universal Intellect is the greatest being in existence and therefore the best reward must be intellectual.

“In essence, Paradise is intellectual and, therefore, all descriptions of Paradise are symbolic and allegorical. In Wajh-i Din, Nasir (Khusraw) says that Paradise is ‘all life and knowledge’. It is only logical that if the intellect is the highest and finest being then the best reward has to be intellectual or related to knowledge. And Paradise has to consist of intellectual favours and pleasures… In physical life, Paradise and Hell are experienced only partially through developing internal peaceful states in the human soul, but the original source of this limited experience is encountered in the life hereafter.”
– Ghulam Abbas Hunzai,
(The Meaning of Pleasure in the Philosophy of Nasir Khusraw, published in Nasir Khusraw: Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow, in Nasir Khusraw: Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow, Khujand, 2005, Publishing House “Noshir”)

The words ‘intellect’ and ‘intellectual’ must not simply be equated with the mental and rational faculties – in this context they have far greater meanings. In the context of spirituality and philosophy, the intellect was understood as a spiritual faculty which knows and apprehends realities in a direct and unmediated fashion. This intellect (‘aql) resides in the heart or the centre of the human soul, and is the organ capable of spiritual vision and in the highest sense, the beatific vision of the Divine. Unlike human reason which perceives knowledge in conceptual and mental formulations, the intellect perceives knowledge in a direct manner without the sequential limits of thought and reasoning. As such, there is an ontological realm which is the proper field of vision for the intellect and this is properly called the celestial World of Intellect and corresponds to what Plato called the World of Forms. What this means is that every existent in the Universe is a reflection, albeit a limited one, of a celestial archetype which is pure intellect and these celestial archetypes or intellectual forms are what the human intellect is capable of perceiving directly. The celestial archetypes are themselves diverse reflections of the Universal Intellect. The direct contemplation of these celestial realities results in ecstatic joy and bliss for the contemplator and this is precisely why the exoteric religious formulations refer to this intellectual vision as ‘paradise’ or ‘heaven’. The reason why the Qur’an offers such sensual descriptions of Paradise – comparing it to things such as fruit, honey, milk, water, trees, etc is because truly intellectual knowledge has a sense of directness which mental knowledge lacks. This direct and unmediated nature of intellectual knowledge is reflected in the experience of man’s physical senses such as touch, smell or taste. It is quite different to think about a fruit and taste that same fruit – in a certain fashion, to taste something is to make it one with yourself. Intellectual knowledge operates in the same way.

While the intellectual Paradise itself belongs to the celestial realm, it is quite possible for it to be represented and symbolized in the physical world. Indeed, this is one of the functions of Islamic architecture – to create symbols and thereby remind man of the transience of this world and the greatness of the hereafter. The Chahr-bagh is designed to do exactly this. In fact, when the Isma‘ili Imam inaugurated the Burnaby Isma‘ili Centre, he referred to this particular function of Islamic architecture:

“In Islam man is answerable to God for whatever he has created and this is reflected in its architectural heritage. Many of the greatest architectural achievements in Islam were designed to reflect the promises of the life hereafter, to represent in this world what we are told of next. Since all that we see and do resonates on the faith, the aesthetics of the environment we build and the quality of the social interactions that take place within these environments reverberate on our spiritual life.”
– Imam Shah Karim al-Husayni Aga Khan IV,
(Foundation Ceremony of Burnaby Jamat Khana, 1982)

The four parts of the Chahr-bagh symbolize and serve to represent the four rivers of Paradise mentioned in the previously quoted Qur’anic verse:

“A Parable of the Garden which the righteous are promised: in it are rivers of water incorruptible; rivers of milk of which the taste never changes; rivers of wine, a joy to those who drink; and rivers of honey pure and clear. In it there are for them all kinds of fruits; and Grace from their Lord. (Can those in such Bliss) be compared to such as shall dwell for ever in the Fire, and be given, to drink, boiling water, so that it cuts up their bowels (to pieces)?”
– Holy Qur’an 47:15

In Isma‘ili thought, the Four Rivers of Paradise have an esoteric exegesis (ta’wil) and refer to four specific beings or entities. Nasir-i Khusraw’s esoteric exegesis of the Four Rivers is summarized in the following paragraphs.

The River of Water stands for the Universal Intellect. The Universal Intellect is the first existent to be originated by God Himself and is the source of all knowledge. Just as water is the source of all physical life, the knowledge and ta’yid of the Universal Intellect is the source of all spiritual life. Water nourishes various kinds of vegetation in the earth and similarly, the ta’yid of the Universal Intellect nourishes the various souls in the World of Faith, including the souls of the Prophets, Imams, and hujjahs.

The River of Milk stands for the Universal Soul. Traditionally, the milk of the mother is the source of strength and nurturing for a child. Similarly, the creative act of the Universal Soul is like milk in the sense that the Universal Soul produces and nurtures individual souls which are like its children.

The River of Wine stands for the figure of the Natiq or the Prophet of a major cycle. Wine has the effect of perplexing and confusing those who consume it when they become intoxicated. Similarly, the Natiq’s revelation (tanzil) consists of symbols, allegories and parables which, when understood in the literal sense, can be confusing and ambiguous to people.

The River of Honey stands for the Asas – who is the Imam that accompanies the Natiq and succeeds to his authority. Honey is distinguished by its sweetness and pleasantness and its ability to promote health and prevention of some diseases. In a similarly sense, the esoteric exegesis (ta’wil) taught by the Asas is sweet for the intellect of the seeker and prevents the soul from spiritual sickness.

Each river is a part of the absolute Paradise and can be conceived as being a Paradise in itself. This is why other verses of the Qur’an appear to speak of four paradises – two upper paradises and two lower paradises:

“But for such as fear the time when they will stand before their Lord, there will be two Paradises (jannatani).”
Holy Qur’an 55:46

“And besides these two, there are two other Paradises.”
Holy Qur’an 55:62

The two upper paradises are the Universal Intellect and the Universal Soul. All existents were prefigured in the Universal Intellect and Universal Soul before receiving concrete existence and being manifested in the Universe. The souls of all human beings are created from the Universal Soul like drops from an ocean and all souls seek to return to their original abode. The Universal Soul itself comes into being from the Universal Intellect and eternally seeks to unite with the Intellect from which it emanated.

The two lower Paradises are the Natiq (major Prophet) and the Asas (his successor-Imam) in the major cycle and the Imam and his supreme Hujjah in the minor cycle. The Natiq and Asas in their time, and the Imam and Hujjah thereafter, are places of manifestation (mazahir) of the Universal Intellect and Universal Soul respectively. They are the branches of the two upper Paradises mentioned in the Qur’anic verse:

“Those two [Paradises] have branches.”
– Holy Qur’an 55:48

The Imam and the Hujjah are called the lower Paradises because they are the gates of the upper Paradises which are the Intellect and Soul. The murids can attain the recognition of the Intellect and Soul through the recognition of the Imam and Hujjah. It may seem strange for the term Paradise (jannat) to be applied to a human person. But this must be understood in the sense that the souls of the Natiq, Asas, Imam and Hujjah are like a mirrors upon which the radiance and blessings of the higher Paradises shine. The souls of these hudud, although embodied in the physical world, have already reached the paradiscal state. The first Imam, ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib, refers to such persons as those whose “bodies keep company with the world, while their spirits are tied to the transcendent realm.”[1] The Qur’an indicates the truth of this when it uses the word jannat to describe human beings[2]:

“And the likeness of those who spend their wealth, seeking to please Allah and to strengthen their souls, is as a Paradise (jannatin), high and fertile: heavy rain falls on it but makes it yield a double increase of harvest, and if it receives not heavy rain, light moisture sufficeth it. Allah seeth well whatever ye do.”
– Holy Qur’an 2:265

The above verse compares an exalted human soul to a Paradise or Garden which receives heavy rain and is always moist. According to Nasir Khusraw, the esoteric exegesis of a land watered by rain or streams means a hadd or soul which receives ta’yid from the celestial world – namely, the Natiq, Asas, Imam and Hujjah.[3] The double increase of harvest refers to the ta’yid and ta’wil which these ranks possess.

The lower Paradise, embodied in the Imam and the Hujjah, is the gateway and means of attaining the higher Paradise. This is alluded to in a well-known Qur’anic verse which describes the soul’s entrance into Paradise, to whom God says:

“O soul at peace! Return unto thy Lord,- well pleased and well-pleasing unto Him! Then enter in (fee) My Servants (‘aibadee)! And, enter My Paradise (jannatee)!”
– Holy Qur’an 89:27-30

In verse 89:29, the word fee is used which literally means “in”. Therefore, this verse is stating that the soul literally enters in God’s Servants – that is, in the lower Paradise of the Imam and Hujjah. The next verse then states “enter My Paradise”. This means that the soul must first become annihilated (fana) in the souls of the Imam and Hujjah, the lower Paradises, before finally entering the upper Paradises of the Universal Intellect and Universal Soul.

In summary, the Chahr-bagh of the Delegation of the Isma‘ili Imamat represents the Four Paradises or the Four Rivers of Paradise mentioned in the Holy Qur’an. According to Isma‘ili esoteric exegesis, the Four Rivers or Paradises stand for the Universal Intellect, Universal Soul, Natiq, and Asas – with the Imam and the Hujjah taking the place of the Natiq and Asas in their respective periods.

At this point it serves to re-visit the Imam’s speech which describes the relationship between the Chahr-bagh and the rest of the Delegation Building:

“The building will rest on a solid linear granite podium. Above it will be a glass dome through which light will illuminate, from multiple directions, two symbolic spaces: an interior atrium and an exterior courtyard landscaped in four quarters, recalling the traditional Persian – Islamic garden, the Chahr-bagh. Nature, through the greenery of trees and flowers, will be on the site, but also in the building, just as we are sometimes able to see leaves and petals captured in rock crystal, but still visible through its unique translucency.”
– 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)

The architecture is intended to create a sort of semblance and correspondence between the Chahr-bagh Garden and the building itself through the appearance of nature in both places. One can also observe images of the Chahr-bagh Garden and its greenery captured in the glass which adorns the atrium.

Delegation of Ismaili Imamat

It has already been shown that the Delegation Building is a symbol of the World of Faith and the Chahr-Bagh Garden is a symbol for Paradise. While Paradise itself is a purely intellectual reality and belongs to the realm of the spirit, the benefits and joys of Paradise can be experienced, in a limited fashion, in the World of Faith. The Isma‘ili hujjah al-Mu’ayyad describes the World of Faith, and particularly its terrestrial aspect which is the Isma‘ili Summons (da’wah), as the Paradise in Potentia or ‘Potential Paradise’ (jannat bi’l-quwwah) through which one can experience a foretaste or preview of the Actual Paradise.

“There are two forms of Paradise: the potential Paradise and the actual Paradise. The potential Paradise is embodied in the Summons of Truth (da’watu’l-haqq), the teachings of the Imam of the Time. The Summons (da’wah) is the substance of the Qur’anic teachings and the extract of everything that pertains to faith. When a mu’min is initiated into the mystery of this faith, he is being prepared, stage by stage, by the knowledge acquired through the Imams and his living a straight life: for the second Paradise – the actual Paradise. He cannot enter this Paradise unless he gets over his animal nature by this process.”
– Sayyedna al-Mu’ayyad fi’l-Din al-Shirazi,
(Majalis al-Mu’ayyadiyyah, Jawad Muscati and A. M. Moulvi, Life and Lectures of Al-Muayyad fid-din al Shirazi, Ismailia Assoc. Pakistan, 1950)

It is for this reason that the Delegation’s architecture creates a sort of resemblance between the Chahr-Bagh garden and the atrium – which are the two symbolic spaces referred to by the Imam in his speech. It is to illustrate the fact that the intellectual knowledge of the Actual Paradise is reflected in the inspired knowledge (‘ilm al-ta’yid) and instructed knowledge (‘ilm al-ta’lim) transmitted in the World of Faith which is the Potential Paradise.

NEXT: Conclusion: Searching Below the Surface

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The Delegation Decoded – Khalil Andani

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Footnotes

[1]Reza Shah-Kazemi, Justice and Remembrance: Introducing the Spirituality of Imam ‘Ali, London, 2006, p. 55[back]

[2]This verse was brought to my attention by my friend Khayal ‘Aly Dhanidina.[back]

[3]Nasir-i Khusraw, Wajh-i Din, Discourse 31[back]

Author: ismailimail

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

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