Today in history: A majlis al-hikma was delivered at the Fatimid palace

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 Fatimid da’wa (mission) was concerned with educating converts in esoteric doctrines, known as the hikma or ‘wisdom.’ Consequently, a variety of lectures or ‘teaching sessions’ generally designated as majalis (singular: majlis) were organised. There were two basic types of sessions, which subsequently became increasingly specialised, serving different audiences. The private lectures, known as majalis al-hikma or ‘sessions of wisdom’ on Ismaili esoteric teachings were reserved exclusively for the Ismailis, while the public lectures on Ismaili law and exoteric subjects were open to everyone.

The texts read at the majalis al-hikma required approval by the Imam before being delivered by the chief da’i in a special hall in the Fatimid palace. A lecture was delivered at the Fatimid palace on July 12, 1004 during the time of Imam al-Hakim bi amr-Allah (r. 996-1021).

Many of these majalis on Ismailis doctrine prepared by, or for,the various chief da’is were collected and compiled into volumes such as Qadi al Nu’man’s (d. 974) Ta’wil al-da’a’im (the esoteric counterpart to to his exoteric compendium on Ismaili law), and al-Mu’ayyad fi’l-Din al-Shirazi’s Majalis al-Mu’ayyadiyya, a collection of 800 lectures by al-Shirazi (d. 1078) who held the office of chief da’i for twenty years under Imam al-Mustansir bi’llah (r. 1036-1094).

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

The public sessions on Ismaili law were held after Friday prayers at Fatimid mosques including the al-Azhar Mosque and the Mosque of Al Amr in Fustat (Old Cairo), and later at the Mosque of Imam al-Hakim.

The early Fatimids were confronted with the issue of statehood because there did not exist an Ismaili law similar to the Maliki, Shafi’i, Hanafi, and Hanbali law developed by the Sunni Muslims, and the Ja’fari law developed by the Twelver Shi’is. While the Ismailis had observed the law of the land wherever they lived, the need for a code of law arose when they formed the Fatimid state, although Ismailism was never imposed on all subjects of the state.

Although the process of codifying Ismaili law occurred during the time of  Imam al-Mahdi, Qadi al-Nu’man was officially commissioned by Imam al-Mu’izz to prepare a legal set of law. His efforts culminated in the compilation of the Da’a’im al-Islam (The Pillars of Islam), which was endorsed by Imam al-Mu’izz as the official code of the Fatimid state.

In the public sessions, excerpts from al-Nu’man’s Da’a’im al-Islam and other legal texts were read and explained. Separate teaching sessions were held for women at the al-Azhar, while the royal and noble women received instruction at the Fatimid palace.1

1Farhad Daftary, The Fatimid Age,” A Short History of Ismailis, Edinburgh University Press, 1998
Farhad Daftary, Zulfikar Hirji, “Sessions of Wisdom, House of Knowledge,” The Ismailis, An Illustrated History, Azimuth Editions, 2008
Heinz Halm, The Fatimids and Their Traditions of Learning, I.B. Tauris & Co. Ltd. 1997

Compiled by Nimira Dewji

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