Lectures delivered at the majalis al-hikma were pre-approved by the Imams

Page from the 10th majlis from al-Numan's Ta'wil da'a'im al-Islam and forms part of a manuscript copied in 1858. Photo: The Ismailis: An Illustrated History
Page from the 10th majlis from al-Numan’s Ta’wil da’a’im al-Islam and forms part of a manuscript copied in 1858. Photo: The Ismailis: An Illustrated History

The teaching sessions related to the esoteric Ismaili doctrines, or hikma, were designated as majalis al-hikma, or “sessions of wisdom.” Under the Fatimids, these private lectures developed into an elaborate programme of instruction for a variety of audiences including the initiates, courtiers, high officials, and women.

The private lectures were delivered by the chief da’i in a special hall of the Fatimid palace. The texts for the these lectures, addressing a wide variety of  theological, philosophical, and ethical issues as well as the esoteric interpretation (ta’wil) of the Qur’an, were pre-approved by the Imams.

The external law was accessible to all as it was the legal basis for the daily life of the citizens. But since it was new – the qadi al-Numan (d. 974) himself had compiled it based on the Shi’i tradition – it had to be made known to everyone at public teaching sessions on Fridays after the midday prayer at the mosque in North Africa, and subsequently at the Al-Azhar in Cairo or at the Mosque of Amr in Fustat, and later at the Mosque of al-Hakim.

In these sessions, excerpts from al-Numan’s Da’a’im al-Islam, which served as the religious and civil code for the Fatimid administration, were read and explained. The Da’a’im’s esoteric counterpart, better known as Ta’wil da’a’im al-Islam (Hermeneutics of the Pillars of Islam) comprises 120 lectures, or majalis. 

Pages from al-Majalis of the da'i al-Mu'ayyad al-Shirazi. Photo: The Ismailis: An Illustrated History
Pages from al-Majalis of the da’i al-Mu’ayyad al-Shirazi. Photo: The Ismailis: An Illustrated History

This tradition of learning culminated  in the al-Majalis al-Mu’ayyadiyya, a collection of eight volumes comprising one-hundred lectures in each volume. This work was composed and delivered by Al-Mu’ayyad al-Shirazi (d. 1078), chief da’i during the time of  Imam al-Mustansir bi’llah (r. 1036-1094).

Sources:
Farhad Dafary, Zulfikar Hirji, The Ismailis: An Illustrated History, Azimuth Editions
Heinz Halm, The Fatimids and their Traditions of Learning, I.B. Tauris, London, 1997

Compiled by Nimira Dewji

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