Abu Ya qub al-Sijistani: Intellectual Missionary.(book reviews) Author: Walker, Paul
Reviewed by: Crow, Douglas

This slim volume offers the informed reader interested in better understanding the speculative achievements of Isma ili thinkers an accessible and fairly digestible summary of the thought of the most representative fourth/tenth century theoretician, al-Sijistani (executed 361/971 or 365/975, in Sistan). Citation of sources is avoided since the book, in the form of a general introduction to al-Sijistani's thought, is consciously addressed to a non-scholarly audience. Fortunately, this concession to the intended audience does not extend to the transliteration of Arabic and Persian terms.

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through a good select bibliography, as well as a useful appendix on the works of al-Sijistani, both published and unpublished, containing the tables of contents of the extant treatises (pp. 104-18), including those to al-Sijistani's major work, The Keys (al-Maqalid).(1)

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' s thought.

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 of "intellect."(5)

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.


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 studies.

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.