In classical Ismaili cosmology, the first Existent Being that gets originated as a result of the Divine Command is Universal Intellect, which is ‘One’ in its absolute form but it also contains in its substance all things in their multiplicity. Intellect is not theoretically defined as God, but much of the language that is used to describe God in conventional theology, actually applies to the Intellect as we can know God only to the extent Intellect knows God. God, in His complete transcendence, remains an incomprehensible absolute Reality that cannot be described through use of human language and discourse. While, God is above the condition of being perfect or imperfect, Intellect is the most Perfect being of the cosmological order. Physical world, on the other hand, remains defective and needs perfection.
As a result of its recognition as One, Intellect emanates Soul. Soul, unlike Intellect, is imperfect in actuality but perfect in potentiality. Intellect is perfect because it results from the Creative Act of God — His Word, ‘Kun‘. But the emanating act of Intellect is not of the same level (in its perfection) to the Divine Act; so, it can be said that the Intellect’s act has some defect when compared with the Divine Act, such that which is caused (by Intellect) is not perfect in actuality. Intellect, therefore, helps perfect the Soul just analogous to the example of a father and son. Just like a father is the one who raises his son and helps him make perfect, so is the Intellect, being source of the Soul, helps it to come back to the perfection. But as has been mentioned earlier, Soul is defective, being not perfect in actuality, it does not has power to effect its action of bringing physical world into existence in a motionless condition. Instead, it can only act through making movements which result in the creation of time. In the other words, it creates this physical world in a time bound fashion. In order to get help from the Intellect, it has to move (or ascend) upwards while in order to create the physical world it has to move (or descend) downwards .
Physical world, in Ismaili writings, is thus a product of desire of Universal Soul to achieve its ontological perfection. It can be seen as a kind of image, having been resulted as an effect of the creative act of defective Soul, thereby, it is perishable, neither stable nor enduring.
The Ultimate Purpose of Natural World:
The ultimate purpose of Soul’s creative act was creation of Man. Soul cannot achieve its purpose of ontological perfection as an intact entity, rather, it has to divide. So, it sends forth into this physical world souls of humans. Human souls are seen as traces from Universal Soul, and share substance with it.
Creation starts with the creation of prime matter and continues with elements, plants, animals and finally humans. For many Ismaili thinkers, including Ikhwan, creation of the physical world occurred through an evolutionary process, although teleological, starting from minerals and ending with humans.
“[For Ikhwan], God does not create something after man as he created man after the animals, because man, by virtue of being able to return to his origin, fulfills the purpose of the whole of creation. All other orders of beings were created in order that this final stage of reunion might take place. Once the reunion has occurred, there is no metaphysical necessity for another form to be created.”
-Seyyed Hossein Nasr, An Introduction to Islamic Cosmological Doctrines,73
Humans appear in the world as a result of an evolutionary process. The order of creation that most Ismaili writings describe is :
- Formation of basic elements which are immobile and non-living. Next to them in the order of creation are Plants representing life, possessing a primary type of soul called ‘vegetative soul’. They, however, cannot move and do not have faculty of ‘feeling’.
- A step higher are animals which posses, in addition to vegetative soul, a second ‘animal soul’. This level of creation contains higher faculties than plants, i.e., they can move, feel, and have desires. They get their nourishment from both plants and minerals.
- The most nobler of the creation are Humans, that belong to animal kingdom (in that they share a body form from animals). They possess vegetative and animal souls, and have faculties of mobility and feeling (like animals), but they also possess a third category of soul – the ‘Rational soul’, which makes them a distinct creation and positions them highest among the terrestrial creatures. It is, infact, ‘rational soul’ which defines them as Humans.
Humans represent the purpose of creation of the entire physical world. Everything in natural world exists and serves for the benefit of humankind. Every individual human also possesses intellect (in addition to rational soul) which is actually a trace of Universal Intellect. Humans thus represent in their selves the whole ‘Cosmos’, whether spiritual or physical. Spiritual in the sense they have traces of Universal Soul and Intellect, and physical in the sense they posses in them all faculties of nature. The Macro-cosm is represented in the person of Man which can be said a Mirco-cosm.
Humans are considered as micro-cosmos, in which they share a part of Soul (Nafs-e-juzv) and a part of Intellect (Aql-e-juzv). Humans, in their utmost rationality, have a direct access to their individual intellects as well and each individual soul is instrumental in moving the Universal Soul closer to its perfection. In conventional theology, both in Islamic and Christian traditions, we find this notion very common that God created humans on His own image:
“So God created human beings in His own image. In the image of God He created them; male and female He created them.”-Genesis (1:27)
“Allah created Adam in His/his image (`ala suratihi)” -Prophet Muhammad,(Al-Bukhaari 6227, and Muslim 2841)
For Ismaili thinkers, this image of God actually implies to the Universal Intellect and Universal Soul, both of which reflect in themselves the Universal Command of God. Man, having been created on the same pattern of spiritual Macro-cosmos, represent Micro-cosmos.
Just like Natural things of the physical world follow laws of physics without consciously knowing, as they do not know what they do, similarly humans can live obeying law of religion blindly without using intellect and not having any desire for the knowledge. So it is inherent potential in humans either to live like animals or use their intellect and nourish their souls with the food of knowledge. Through nourishing their intellects with knowledge, they can reach the higher spiritual world and likewise obtain benefits emanating from the Universal Intellect.
Religion – A Road to Salvation:
Human intellect and soul represent only a trace from higher Spiritual beings but they are created on the desire of Universal Soul to become perfect like Intellect. So humans serve as a vehicle for Universal Soul to fulfill its desire, although in parts.
In Ismaili writings, salvation actually means acquisition of knowledge, and reaching perfection of the Intellect. But they cannot learn that knowledge without a teacher or instructor. So Universal Soul also sends down perfect and subtle souls of the prophets and imams, who due to their perfection, posses a direct spiritual inspiration from the Universal Intellect and Universal Soul. This Inspiration from the celestial world is bestowed upon them in the form of ‘Holy Spirit’.
Human history comprises of seven periods which together make up a one big era. In each period, God sends down prophets and imams for guiding mankind towards right path. Each period begins with a Natiq who is the speaking Prophet who enunciates tanzil in the form of symbols and metaphors of a law (shariah). He uses a symbolical language to the subtle truths of haqiqah (an act which is termed as ‘taleef’), just analogous to the function of Universal Soul which creates the dense realm of physical world out of subtle realm. Asas, the foundation of religion, is Natiq’s executor who succeeds him and continues the function of bringing tawil (esoteric interpretation) of the shariah the form of ‘tawil’, that helps his murids to go back to the origins of the subtle truths behind symbols and metaphors. This function of Asas continues through his descendants who are called Imams. Each of the holders of these three offices gets inspiration from the Holy Spirit and is thus charged with the responsibility of conveying benefits emanating from the Celestial world to mankind, and therefore, each individual man must know his ‘master of time’ (sahib al-zaman), who governs his own time for it is from him that these blessings flow.
The Prophet Muhammad is the Natiq of the current period. He, like previous natiqs, was the most perfect in his knowledge which enabled him to receive emanations from the celestial angels. He possessed a spiritual inspiration from the celestial world, which he received in the form of Holy Spirit.He appointed Mowlana Ali as the Foundation of Religion (Asas) and called him a Gate to his knowledge:
“I am the city of knowledge and ‘Ali is its gate” (The Prophet Muhammad)
In Ismaili thought, knowledge of a prophet is not an ordinary one but unique and not shared by the common people. He receives emanations coming from the world of ‘Ibda’. People, however, need to seek those blessings in the form of knowledge, required for their salvation, through the Prophet and after him through the Imam. Prophets are divinely bestowed with sacred knowledge which they obtain through ‘inspiration’ which is different from the knowledge that is ‘knowledge by instruction’. Their souls are perfect enough to reflect the emanations from the spiritual world to the physical world. Soul of believer, however, is not perfect, so it needs continuous training through following religious duties and law set forth by the religion to obtain benefits from the knowledge of prophet. As the prophet cannot live among people at all times until the arrival of Messiah, reason requires that this flow of blessings emanating in the form of knowledge from the Celestial world should not break with the material world. So this function continues through the progeny of the prophet – Imams, who serve as gates to reach the knowledge that the prophet possessed and blessings in the form of the Holy Spirit.
Humans, thus, need a training to receive benefits that emanate from the celestial world through Imams. This training is possible through following the law and regulations laid down by the prophet in the form of Sharia. Following Zahiri form of religious duties leads a follower to his spiritual awakening, as he becomes recipient of the knowledge.Thus, by following religious duties and obligations set forth in the Shariat and Tareeqat, and by seeking knowledge from Imam of time, an individual can reach the perfection of his soul. For Nasir khusrau, nothing in this world can come more nobler than human beings, for they are the only creation where mineral, vegetal, animal and rational souls can come together; and it is the only creation in this entire world of creation that can have spiritual inspiration emanating from the Universal Intellect. Thus, man represents the whole cosmos and each individual soul plays an instrumental role for Universal Soul in reaching its ontological perfection.
“…when the effect of the (activity of) the Nafs-i Kull is manifested in the human body, and when the latter gets its “food” from the ‘Aql-i Kull, by acquiring the knowledge of its own origin (asl), by knowing and recognizing the oneness of God (tawhid), then, through all this, the (human) soul in the body ‘becomes similar to the Nafs-i Kull, …..when that soul receives “food” from the ‘Aql-i Kull, and, having become similar to the latter, returns to the Nafs-i Kull, it attains eternal bliss when the Nafs-i Kull itself re-joins the ‘Aql-i Kull. “
-Sayyidina Nasir khusrau (Shish fasl, Ivano trans, The Fourth Chapter, on the Creation of the Human Soul in the Material World)