The author aims to examine al-Sijistani's "thought as a coherent whole
without special regard to his own discussions of precise details or
controversial aspects of individual doctrines," by rearranging al-
Sijistani's own statements to form "a picture of the whole cosmic
system that he was trying to describe" (p. xv). This new approach
seeks to arrive at "one complete system" through "reflections about
what he wrote and why he said what he said" (p. xv). Yet the work
does provide further guidance through a good select bibliography,
as well as a useful appendix on the works of al-Sijistani, both published
and unpublished, containing the tables of contents of the extant treatises
(pp. 104-18), including those to al-Sijistani's major work, The Keys
Walker has recently published two major studies on al-Sijistani, which
focus on the impact of Arabic Neoplatonism on his Shi i religious
system.(2) The present work thus provides the reader an opportunity
to review several main areas of the author's contribution. The first
two chapters deal with the Shi i intellectual renaissance of the fourth/tenth
century and the early Isma ili mission, and with the four "wellsprings"
of knowledge - intellect, soul, natiq and ta lif, and asas and ta
wil. Those familiar with Walker's other works may be more interested
in his treatment of certain major topics which are here situated in
a wider Islamic context, covering salvation "hiero-history" and the
creation theology of tawhid (chapters three and four) in al-Sijistani'
This book is an engaging and generally convincing interpretation of
this important Isma ili da i, "missionary," whom V. Ivanow and then
H. Corbin reintroduced to the twentieth century. The lofty social,
intellectual, and cultural milieu within which the Persian Isma ili
agents operated, as heads of their regional communities, is emphasized
by the author through the notion of an "Isma ili culture" when he
asks "why a revolutionary quasi-political appeal for new leadership
of the Muslim community should promote also a new understanding of
how religious and scientific truth coincide . . ." (p. 7). It was
the da is who gave speculative construction to the "inner truths"
of the haqa iq, yielding a productive synthesis of batini Shi i Islam
and Arabic Neoplatonism, wherein prophecy and intellect (al-aql) coalesce
at the supreme limit of originated being.
The author balances the conceptual issues of al-Sijistani's appropriation
of Neoplatonism, with equal weight given to historical and theological
concerns - which probably were more important for the intellectual
mission of the da is. Walker has already made clear that by manipulating
and filtering falsafah to accord with his Islamic Shi i legacy, al-
Sijistani demonstrates "how philosophy served a non-philosophical
purpose."(3) The specific Neoplatonic notions absorbed by early Isma
ili thinkers were chosen more for their relevance to the initiative
hierarchy of the da wah and for theosophical concerns. The space devoted
to al-Sijistani's theology touching on a variety of issues (chapters
three and four), keeps to the aim of presenting a coherent, whole
view of the man's thought. The author accomplishes this by giving
pertinent background from the wider Islamic context for specific Isma
ili terms and notions, e.g., Mu tazili and Ash ari kalam, or Twelver
and Zaydi Shi ism and Sufism.
A concern with defining technical terms and consistency in employment
of terminology is a commendable feature of this work (see, e.g., pp.
94ff.). Precision in comprehension of philosophical and theological
ideas requires this, especially when addressing a general audience.
Al-Sijistani's "intellectual mission," his speculative and doctrinal
activities, are viewed within the frame of the Isma ili mission as
"an intellectual movement, one that urges a different fundamental
concept of the relationship of reason and revelation" (p. 8; see also
pp. 10-25).(4) The prominence of the rational approach to a universal
scientific spirit in the Shi i intellectual renaissance marked by
embracing the primacy of reason thus becomes the central lens for
the author's portrait of al-Sijistani. This use of the term "intellectual"
is perfectly in keeping with contemporary notions common to vernacular
discourse and print, and reflects the post-Cartesian understanding
Yet a certain miscomprehension may arise regarding the use of the
term "intellectual" when employed by the author in discussing aspects
of al-Sijistani's cosmology and psychology. Here the pre-Cartesian
and pre-Scholastic comprehension of "mind" or "intellect," where nous
is an organ for higher cognition or apprehension, is intended by the
term "intellectual" ("I think, therefore there is that which I think"
). The Platonic view held that what one thinks are the objects of
thought existing in a higher and more real world (e.g., pp. 32-39).
The Greek nous and Arabic aql of Islamic Neoplatonizing circles thus
convey a fundamentally different connotation than our current English
term "intellectual." In this respect, the frequent nexus in batini
Shi ism of the term aql with the notions of spirit and light (ruh
and nur) in the anthropocentric operation of divine aid and energy
(ta yid - see pp. 31, 37-39, 48, 69) points to a synergistic conception
of "intellect." "Understanding" is frequently compared to vision or
perception in the intelligible realm, distinct from mere mental thought.(6)
Walker's adjectival employment of "intellectual" (especially in chapters
two to four) may inadvertently lead to confusion between these two
approaches to aql "mind/intellect" (e.g., pp. 28, 80-81). If he had
provided, at the start, a clear statement of the differing meanings
carried by "intellectual," this danger could have been averted and
his meaning better comprehended by his intended audience. Perhaps
this explains why he sometimes feels the need to qualify "intellectual"
by other terms such as "spiritual" (pp. 61, 91), as well as "cognitive"
or "mental perfection." Whatever shortcomings are inherent in any
attempt to extract a consistent system from the extant corpus of al-
Sijistani's writings, this book offers ample food for thought and
several challenging assessments (such as al-Sijistani's method of
tawhid by twofold negation, in chapter four). In terms of the contemporary
progress in Isma ili studies, the publication of this work in the
freshly inaugurated Ismaili Heritage Series is a welcome addition
for both the interested public and specialists.
Reviewed by: DOUGLAS CROW MCGILL UNIVERSITY
1 For this work see Ismail Poonawala, "Al-Sijistani and his Kitab
al-Maqalid," in Essays on Islamic Civilization Presented to Niyazi
Berkes, ed. D. P. Little (Leiden, 1970), 274-83. A critical edition
of the Maqalid is the most important desideratum for al-Sijistani
2 Early Philosophical Shiism: The Ismaili Neoplatonism of Abu Ya qub
al-Sijistani, Cambridge Studies in Islamic Civilization (Cambridge:
Cambridge Univ. Press, 1993); and his annotated translation of Kitab
al-Yanabi: The Wellsprings of Wisdom (Salt Lake City: Univ. of Utah
Press, 1994). Walker's previous articles on al-Sijistani are listed
in the bibliographies of all three works. See, also, his doctoral
dissertation, "Abu Ya qub al-Sijistani and the Development of Ismaili
Neoplatonism" (Univ. of Chicago, 1974).
3 Philosophical Shiism, 154; also 46-63 and 149-55, where he depicts
the Isma ili attitude to falsafah as one of co-opting and control.
Further, in the work under review, pp. 10-14.
4 Walker has addressed the philosophic dimensions of this topic in
more detail in Philosophical Shiism, 30-44, 46-63, and the Epilogue
on "The Use and Control of Reason," 143-56. In the present work, he
underlines the approach of the Mu tazilites to reason (index, s.v.).
5 "I think, therefore I am" - there must be an "I" to engage in the
activity of thinking. Contemporary usage commonly construes "intellectual"
as connoting that what one thinks is a process taking place in one'
s head, i.e., a "brain" conception.
6 Just as nous is the eye of the "heart/mind" in late Hellenic mysticism
and Eastern Christian teachings.