The Delegation Decoded
An Esoteric Exegesis of the Delegation of the Isma‘ili Imamat
A Personal Interpretation by Khalil Andani
8. Conclusion: Searching Below the Surface
The aim of this article was to demonstrate how the Delegation of the Isma‘ili Imamat, according to Isma‘ili esoteric exegesis (ta’wil), is an architectural symbol of the World of Faith (‘alam al-din). As one’s gaze moves inward from the periphery to the centre, there is a symbolic journey from the exoteric surface to the esoteric meaning. As one gaze descends from the glass dome to the atrium floor, there is a symbolic descent from the subtle celestial world to the dense terrestrial world.
The jali screen symbolizes the ‘heavens’ (zahir) or the exoteric and the inner atrium symbolizes the earth or the esoteric (batin). The hexagonal shape of the jali screen symbolizes the shari’ah which was delivered by the six great Prophets (Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, Jesus, Muhamad) and the clear opening in the jali screen represents the Lord of Resurrection (qa’im al-qiyamah).
The six sides of the hexagonal upper glass dome represent, in every period, the five celestial ranks (hudud) – the Intellect, Soul, Jadd, Fath, and Khayal – and the highest terrestrial rank who is the Imam in every age. Through these ranks the light of tawhid, represented by the sunlight, reaches the World of Faith. In relation to the major cycles of prophetic history, the hexagonal glass panel in its translucency represents the six great Prophets and the Lord of Resurrection whose souls are like translucent glass held up to the light of the sun. In relation to the minor cycle, the hexagonal glass panel stands for the six Imams and the seventh Imam who is the Imam of Resurrection. It is through the celestial ranks and the terrestrial ranks of the Natiqs and Imams – the Lords of Inspiration (ashab al-ta’yid) – that the light of the Universal Intellect reaches the intellect of man.
The twenty-eight glass fibre panels which hang over the atrium symbolize the twenty-eight hujjahs who receive ta’yid from the soul of the Imam. Just as the fibre glass panels regulate the amount of heat and light which reach the atrium, the hujjahs receive spiritual knowledge from the Imam through ta’yid and pass it on to the lower ranks in the form of instruction (ta’lim). The hujjahs, whose souls are lunar in relation to the solar function of the Imam, are the Masters of Instruction (ashab al-ta’lim).
Each side of the jali screen contains three rows of fifteen columns. The total of four walls of jali screen, each of which contains two layers of the screen, yields a total of three hundred sixty jali screen sections. These sections represent the da‘is (summoners) of the Imam whose number is three hundred sixty. The light of the sun is reflected and refracted through the fibre glass canopy unto the jali screen sections – just as the da‘is receive the light of knowledge from the Imam through the mediation of his hujjahs. The jali screen protects the atrium, creating a sense of privacy and similarly, the da‘is safeguard the faith and knowledge of the spiritual seekers in the World of Faith.
The floor of the atrium features a pattern of forty-nine squares. The floor, being the lowest part of the Building, represents the most earthly level which is the realm of human history in which the World of Faith fulfills its mandate in the physical world. The forty-nine squares symbolize the cycle of forty-nine Imams. The significance of this lies in the fact that over a thousand years ago, several Isma‘ili theosophers prophesized that the appearance of forty-nine Imams would commence a new era in the World of Faith and the world at large. This epoch is called the Cycle of Resurrection (dawr al-qiyamah) and is characterized by great spiritual and physical transformations in which the Isma‘ili Imamat engages humanity at a global level. This period has indeed begun and this is evidenced by, among other things, the numerous activities of the Isma‘ili Imamat, including the very establishment of the Delegation itself.
Adjacent to the inner atrium is an outer courtyard which consists of a traditional Persian Islamic garden known as the chahr-bagh. The four sections of the chahr-bagh represent the four paradises and the four rivers of paradise mentioned in the Qur’an: rivers of water, rivers of milk, rivers of wine and rivers of water. Each river of Paradise is also a Paradise in its own right. In Isma‘ili ta’wil, the four rivers of Paradise stand for the Universal intellect and Universal Soul who are the upper Paradises and the Natiq and Asas who are the lower Paradises. Therefore, the chahr-bagh symbolizes the four ranks of the World of Faith. The presence of nature and greenery in the chahr-bagh is reflected in the greenery and plants which are also found inside the atrium. This symbolizes the Isma‘ili concept of Potential and Actual Paradise. The Isma‘ili Summons (da’wah) is called the Potential Paradise since the spiritual and intellectual knowledge of the Actual Paradise is accessible through the inspired and instructed knowledge transmitted in the World of Faith.
This process of seeking the esoteric exegesis of sacred architecture, such as the Delegation of the Isma‘ili Imamat, can only happen when one goes beyond the surface of things and journeys from the visible appearance (zahir) to the hidden (batin) meaning. This requires a world-view and a spiritual imagination according to which all things in the Universe are but signs – the depths of which contain spiritual meanings which are their hidden treasures. When we undertake this inner journey, we simultaneously penetrate the surface of our own selves and discover within the depths of our souls the channel of ta’yid or Divine inspiration. And on this note we shall conclude with the words of the Isma‘ili Imam:
“And the more we discover, the more we know, the more we penetrate just below the surface of our normal lives – the more our imagination staggers. Just think for example what might lie below the surfaces of celestial bodies all across the far flung reaches of our universe. What we feel, even as we learn, is an ever-renewed sense of wonder, indeed, a powerful sense of awe – and of Divine inspiration.”
– 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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Farhan Devji, Farhan Devji’s Blog
The Aga Khan Development Network
Jay in Canada on Flickr
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Pat McGrath, The Ottawa Citizen
Maki and Associates