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Ismaili History 558 - Foundation of Dar al-Hikmah

Amid the surging splendour, al-Hakim emerges as an unusual personality judged by any standard. He founded Dar al-Hikmah (House of Wisdom), also known as Dar al-Ilm (House of Knowledge) in 395/1004, where the sciences including astronomy, logic, philosophy, mathematics, history, theology, languages and medicines were taught and the Shiite esoteric interpretation propagated. Qadi Abul Aziz bin Muhammad bin Noman was its first supervisor. This academy was connected with the royal palace, enriched with a huge library, and distinct conference rooms and chambers. Scholastic activities were conducted by the scientists, philosophers, professors, theologians, scholars etc. Staff of clerks and servants were employed for the upkeep of the institution. Scientists, professors and learned men were employed as lecturers. Wustenfeld writes in his 'Akademien der Araber' (Gottingen, 1837, p. 67) that, 'It was in reality the first Lay University, where also Mathematics, Astronomy, Medicine and Methaphysics were taught.'
The Dar al-Hikmah was founded to facilitate the working of the Ismaili mission too, and became rapidly a cultural centre. It attracted the students from all parts of the Muslim world, where the Imam would himself often visit the lecture-halls, joining debates and granting generous gifts to encourage notable proficiency. The lectures delivered by the dais were known as majalis and were given at different levels according to the intellectual capacity of the audience. Some were designated as majalis al-khassa (sessions for the selected) and others as majalis al-amma (sessions for the public). From the picture drawn by Musabbihi and Ibn Tuwayr, both quoted by Makrizi in his 'Khitat' (1st vol., p. 391), it would appear that the majalis al-khassa were attended only by the Ismailis. In the others, the lectures read were merely explanations of the doctrines which concerned the meaning of Imam, the theological differences between the Shia and Sunni laws and their historical background. In al-Hakim's time, the majalis expanded in an endeavour to reach every group of people including even visitors to the country and women. Special meetings were divided into two. One was for the high officials and learned men and was known as majalis al-awliya and the other was for the ordinary officials and the branch of it was specially for women of the palace. The public sessions were divided into three - one for men of the general public, one for the women and one for the visitors to the country.

By the end of the 4th/10th century there were also regular assemblies on every Thursday and Friday for the reading of majalis al-hikmah(lectures on wisdom), which was flourished to its zenith. Makrizi quotes in his 'Khitat' (1st vol., p. 391) al-Musabbihi (d. 420/1029) as giving some details of these majalis. According to him, 'The dai gave many lectures in the palace, lecturing separately to the adepts, the members of the court, the common people and strangers. To women, he lectured in the Jam-i Azhar, where a separate chamber was alloted to the women of the court. The dai prepared the lecture in his house, after being presented its text to the Caliph, a neat copy of the lecture was prepared. The contributions (najwa) of the Ismailis were also collected during these lectures, which were called majalis al-hikmah.' The fixed monetary contribution (najwa) was collected from the individual Ismailis during the majalis al-hikmah, and the lists of the contributors were kept by a special secretary (katib al-dawa) appointed by the chief dai. Makrizi writes that the wealthy Ismailis made substantial voluntary donations.

It should be noted that the term najwa evidently refers to the Koranic verse (58:12), which reads:- 'Ye faithful! If you have something confidential to discuss (najaytum) with the envoy, then prior to your confidential discussion (najwakum) pay some alms in anticipation.' So the najwa was a fee that the followers had to pay for being introduced into the secret assembly.

Ibn al-Tuwayri (d. 617/1220) describes the preparation of the text of the majalis differently. According to him as quoted by Makrizi (Ibid.), 'The Ismaili theologians, housed in Dar al-Hikmah, met on Monday and Thursday and agreed on the text of a booklet called majalis al-hikmah. A clean copy was brought to the Chief Dai, who after checking it, presented it on to the Caliph. If possible, the Caliph read it; at any rate he put his signature on it. The Chief Dai then read the lectures in the palace in two different places - for men, sitting on the chair of the dawat in the great hall, for women, in his own audience-chamber. After the lecture the believers came up to kiss the hand of the Chief Dai, who stroked their heads with the booklet, so that the signature of the Caliph touched their heads.'

It must be known that the majalis al-hikmah were interrupted in 400/1010 for some reasons. It was reopened very soon, but cancelled once again in 401/1010. It was again interrupted for the third time at the end of the year 405/1015 after the nomination of Ahmad bin Muhammad bin Awam as a chief qadi. Heinz Halm however writes in 'The Ismaili Oath of Allegiance and the Sessions of Wisdom in Fatimid Times' (cf. 'Mediaeval Ismaili History and Thought' (New York, 1996, p. 107) that, 'We fail to learn precisely what the reasons were, but this closure seems to be connected with the Druze trouble, which began about this time.' Al-Hakim however bestowed the title of chief dai on Khuttakin al-Dayf, entrusting him with the control of the room, so that it was used for the customary proceedings. Later, he also granted him the title of al-Sadiq al-amin. Ibn Muyassar writes in 'Akhbar al-Misr' (pp. 166-7) that, 'Khuttakin al-Dayf subsequently proved to be the most embittered opponent of the Druzes. When the followers of Hamza and those of Khuttakin met, they cursed each other.'

Heinz Halm concludes that, 'So it is quite possible that al-Hakim had the majalis closed either in agreement with the Ismaili dais or yielding to their pressure, in order to forestall the appearance of the Druze dissidents among them' (Ibid).

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