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An Ismaili Interpretation of the Fall of Adam

The Tree of ImmortalityAn Ismaili Interpretation of the Fall of Adam

By Bernard Lewis

B S O S, VOLUME IX: 1937-39.

During a recent stay in Cairo, I found in the Taimuriya library a manuscript copy of an interesting Ismaili work entitled Kitabu'l-idah wa'l-Bayan, by the Yemenite da'i Husain ibn 'Ali.1

The manuscript is of 165 pages, 16 by 23 cms., in two hands-the first till p.70, at 22 lines per page, the second pp.71-165 at 19 lines per page. The first and last lines of each page are in red ink through out. The copy was started by the Sharif 'Abdullah Abu Yusuf, and completed on his death by 'Ali b. Shaikh Ibrahim Al-Haidarabadi. It is dated 22nd Dhu'l Hijja 1286 (=26/3/1870), and was made by order of the chief Da'i Al-Hasan b. Ismaili. As there was no orthodox Da'udi chief Da'i this name at that date, it may be assumed that this copy belongs to one of the minor sub-sects of the Da'udi da'wa, or perhaps to the Sulaimanis.

The work is mentioned in Ivanow's Guide to Ismaili Literature 2 of which it is item 242. Mr. Ivanow gives the following description of the author: "Sayyidna Husain b. 'Ali b. Muhammad b. Al-Walid, the 8th Da'i (of Yemen), died the 22nd Safar 667/31-x-1268." He was probably the son of the famous da'i Sayyidna 'Ali b. Muhammad b. Al-Walid (Ivanow, Guide, xixvii), author of the Risalat Jala'i I-'Uqul, of which there is a manuscript in the School of Oriental Studies, London.3 I have not been able to find any other information regarding the author. There is probably a notice on him in the 'Uyumu'l-Akhbar of the Da'i Idris,4 but I have unfortunately not had an opportunity to consult this work.

In recent years, much Ismaili literature has come to light, thanks to the efforts of the scholars like Massignon, Ivanow, Kraus, Hamdani and others. Yet most of it is still in private collections, usually inaccessible, and the amount available to students in print and even in manuscript is still regrettably small. It may therefore be claimed that the finding of this manuscript and its partial publication do constitute an increase of our scanty supply of this literature.

The book is a compendium of response on theological subjects, in which twenty-five questions are answered in accordance with Ismaili doctrines. A general idea of the character of these questions may be got from Ivanow's note, where a list of the author's other works will also be found. I wish here to draw attention to the ninth question, which, with its answer, is printed below.5 This passage, which deals with the age-old problem of Adam and his fall, seems to me to be of particular interest, for a number of reasons. Although the book as a whole is worthy of publication, I am afraid that there is little likelihood of its being edited for some time to come, and I have therefore thought it worth while to offer this part alone.

The author opens with a series of questions pointing out the inconsistencies and injustices of the Fall story. The manner in which the questions are put, and the customary Muslim answers dismissed, is thoroughly reminiscent of method of "instilling doubt and leaving in suspense" attributed by various Sunni writers to the Ismaili da'is.6

The author asks: if the tree was good, why was Adam forbidden to eat-if evil, why did God wish to have it there? Why was Adam given the free run of the Garden, but refused one tree-would it not have been simpler not to plant it there, especially as God knew beforehand that it would bring about the Fall and suffering of Adam?

If, as some commentators say, it was the wheat-plant, why was it forbidden to Adam in the garden and allowed to his progeny on earth, believers and infidels alike? If, as others says, it was because he had no intestines and the fruit would rot in his stomach and cause him pain -then why that particular tree, for the same is true of any other?

Why did God not place the descendants of Adam in the garden, for they were guilty of no sin? Why should they have been punished for the sins of others? it is not valid to argue, as some do, that God knew beforehand that they would not be worthy ones to Paradise afterwards. He knew beforehand that Adam would rebel, yet He placed him first in the garden. Why should not Adam have been treated like the rest.

The author then proceeds to give two sets of explanations for these events, both true, he tells us. The first of them is in the real or historic world, the second in the Alamu'l-Ibda, or immaterial, pre-existing world which preceded the Creation. Both are highly allegoric, and provide an interesting example of Ismaili esoteric interpretation.

This first is briefly as follows. The tree, he tells us has two aspects, one good, one bad. In the good sense the tree is the Ilm Haqiqi,7 or true knowledge, the divulgence of which (to unqualified persons) is forbidden. It is the Qoranic tree of immortality i.e. of immortality 8 attained through knowledge of and faithfulness to the Imams.9 Some say that the tree represents the rank of the Qa'im, who brings the absolute true knowledge, others that the tree is the Wasi of Adam, who brings the Ta'wil, or esoteric interpretation of his (Adam's ) Shari'a.

Iblis, by posing as a prospective convert, succeeded in obtaining from Adam the secret knowledge as to the identity of Adam's wasi. Being told that it was Abel-Al-Qa'im bi-rutbati'l - Batin wa't- ta'wil he sowed dissension between the brothers Cain and Abel, making the former jealous of the latter's Wasaya, and thus inciting the murder of Abel. Here occurs the curious phrase describing the murder of Abel by Cain - qatalahu qatlan diniyan waba'da dhalika tabi'iyan he killed him first in the religious then in the natural sense.10

The evil aspect is as follows. Iblis is the tree, Adam being forbidden to disclose to him the true secret wisdom. The fact that the tree, although evil, is in the garden is explained by the statement that Iblis was formerly a da'i of some rank, but had been expelled for his arrogance and his rebelliousness.

The second main objection-namely the injustice of excluding the innocent descendants of Adam from the Garden-is answered as follows. The garden in reality means the daru'd-Da'wa, the mission, which is a potential paradise. The dictum that the Garden is in Heaven refers to a higher grade of the da'wa -each grade being as Heaven relative to the lower ones, or as earth relative to the higher ones, the highest being Heaven, and the lowest earth for all the other.

Adam was in the highest grade-that of Ta'yid, and the Fall means his successive relegation to the lower rank of Ta'lim and then to the simple status of Mustajib. Here the author notes that Ta'lim is the rank of teachers, whose duties are to instruct and aid the Mustajibun, the simple converts without rank in the da'wa, those who owe simple, uncomprehending obedience to the externals of the law, pending their elevation to higher grades.

The descendants of Adam -his dhurriya- are his converts and followers-al-mustajibuna li da-watihi I-mutaqalliduna li'ahdihi wabay'atihi.

Their being on earth refers to their literal fulfilment of the externals of the Shari'a without understanding its inner significance, during the first stage of their conversion through which they must pass before being initiated into the secret knowledge.

The reasons for Adam's receiving a different treatment is that he was the last of the preceding cycle of Kashf, and the initiator of a new period of Satr.11 He thus possessed the secret knowledge, and did not have to pass through the stages of initiation like his disciples. This is the meaning of his being in the garden.

This then concludes the first interpretation. The second lifts the events of the story from the historic to the cosmic plane, and places them in the Alamu'l-lbad, or pre-existing immaterial world. Adam represents the living Intelligence, which first created the world and is known as Adam Ruhani, spiritual Adam, because of his freedom from denseness or matter. The Garden is the 'Alamu'lbda' in which he was, together with the remaining seven intelligences. The good aspect of the tree, which he might not approach, is the rank of the First Emanation. His Iblis is his evil imagination and his ambition to attain equality with the first emanation. The prohibition is his knowledge of the obedience due to the Sabiq, or Pre-existent, from the Tali and likewise from himself the Tali is his God forbidding him to commit the above-mentioned offence.

This duty was thus to imitate in his relation with the Tali, the attitude of the Tali in its relations with the Sabiq. His eating from the tree means his ambition to attain equality of rank. So he fell into sin and was expelled from the garden, i.e. lost his rank and his pre-eminence over the remaining seven intelligences,13 so much so that they preceded him in obedience and materialization. These seven intelligences, we are told, are the Words (Kalimat) of Qur'an, 11:35. With these words Adam then supplicated his God, i.e. the Tali who ruled his fate, and was purified and restored to the garden, that is, to his former position of eminence near the Tali. Through them (the words) he was materialized. His descendants (dhurriya) are the people on earth who imitated him and were misled by him into arrogance and error. Iblis, who is his evil imagination and ambition, fell to earth, and did not return to the garden in which he had formerly been with Adam, whose fall he had caused. He (Iblis) remained of the fallen and a permanent corrupter.

The hatred of Iblis for Adam and his progeny after his expulsion means the strength of their rebelliousness and arrogance.

Their being on earth is interpreted as meaning a world lower than that of the High Heavens, even though they were all in the Alamu'l Ibda together. Those among the progeny of Adam who repented came gradually to the garden again as did their father Adam. Those who did not were numbered among the party of Iblis, and fell with him to hell. This is the meaning of their being on earth. Summing up, the good aspect of the tree is the Tali, the evil one is arrogance.

The work from which this extract is taken is of particular interest, for the following reasons. In the first place, unlike the Persian Nizari, Ismaili texts edited or analyzed by Ivanow,14 it is of the unreformed Fatimid Da'wa the Da'wa Qadima of Shahrastani's classification,15 and thus represents an earlier and purer Ismaili tradition than do they. Even as against Fatimid works like the Taju'l-Aqa'id,16 the A'lamu-n-Nubuwa,17 or the Da'a'imu'l-Islam,18 it is perhaps more reliable, in that these works are popular, exoteric compendia for general consumption, whereas our book is a secret work on Ta'wil reserved for the initiate. It thus compares among published or analyzed Ismaili texts only with Zahru'l Ma'ani of the Da'i Idris,19 another secret work produced by a Yemenite Da'i some two hundred years after our author. The points of similarity, especially as regards cosmogony, between the two works are at once obvious.

Doctrines of a nature strikingly similar to that of our text are also to be found in one of the Druze epistles, the Risala Mustaqima bi Sha'ni'l'Qaramita.20 Here the rather shadowy figures of the story in our text are given a local habitation and a name and the events are described with a wealth of detail missing here. The general conception, however, is not so clear, and the division between the two interpretations, the historic and the cosmologic, not made. It would seem that our text is but a resume of a fuller version of which the Druze epistle represents an earlier recension.21

On reading this treatise one is immediately struck by the extreme allegoric character of the interpretation, and by the characteristic mingling of rational and gnostic ideas read into the Qoranic text by means of it. The explaining away of the Garden, the Tree, and Iblis as symbolic figures, immediately distinguishes the Ismailis sharply from orthodox Islam. Nowhere except in the Druze epistle, is the denial of the literal meaning of the Qoranic text carried so far. Even the Nizari texts do not go beyond vague hints in this direction.

Three points in this text are of special importance. The first of these is the clear and explicit recognition of the existence of grades of initiation, three being mentioned by name. The three terms employed, Ta'yid, Ta'lim, and Mustajib, all occur in the Kalam i Pir,22 but in a vague and spiritual sense, with nothing like the clear indication of an organized hierarchy that we find here. This does not prove correct the nine grades of initiation mentioned by Akhu Muhsin,23 Baghdadi,24 Ghazali,25 and others-they have nine, as against three here, and moreover the stages they mention do not include any of the three named here-but it may be taken to show that some such system was in existence at some period of Ismaili history.

The Second point of note is the explanation of the word Dhurriya, progeny, as referring to disciples. This is no isolated reference, but is in accordance with the general Ismaili doctrine of Nasab Ruhani, or spiritual descent, which is expounded in detail in the Rasa'il Ikhwani's Safa 26 and implied in many Ismaili and Druze works.27 The relevance of this doctrine, whereby a man's disciple is his son in a truer and deeper sense than is his physical offspring, to the vexed problem of Fatimid ancestry will readily be seen.28

In the third place it is to be noted that by speaking of Adam as a the last of a preceding era of Kashf, the author clearly accepts the doctrine of which Ismailis were accused by many Sunnni writers,29 namely the admission of men before Adam.

In this he is at one with Nasiru'd-Din Tusi 30 and the Druze epistle, the latter even going so far as to say that it is a monstrous blasphemy to maintain that Adam was literally without parents-the scriptural statement to that effect meaning that he was Imam of his own accord, i.e. without a teacher or predecessor.31

The second interpretation, that dealing with Cosmogony, closely resembles the Zahru'l-Ma'ani.32 It is curious in that it links up the Neoplatonic system of emanations imported into Islam, with some modifications, by two lines of philosophic tradition-Pseudo empedocles and Ibn Masarra on the one hand, and the Theology of Aristotle, Farabi and Ibn Sina on the other-and incorporated with further modifications into the Ismaili system by the early Fatimid philosophers, with yet another gnostic conception, namely that of the Primal man (Adam Ruhani, Insan Qadim, Adam Qadmon).33 This figure, which can be traced in the writings of Philo, passes through Midrashic, Christian, Clementine, Mandaean, Manichean, and Qabbalistic literature, and is here identified with the living intelligence, the third emanation of the Ismaili form of Neoplatonism.34

1. Taimuriya. Aqa'id, 277.
2. London, 1933, p.60.
3. Tritton, Notes on some Ismaili MSS.m, BSOS., VII, p37.
4. Ivanow, Guide item 258.
5. MS., pp.58ff.
6. Baghdadi, Al-Farq bina-I- Firaq, Cairo, 1910 p.282, Engl. Transl. Halkin, Tel-Aviiv, 1935, p. 138. Goldziher, Streitschrift des Gazali gegen die Batinijaa-Sekte, Leyden 1916, pp. 40ff.
7. Cf. Kalam i Pir, Bombay 1935, p. 105 and Ivanow. An Ismailitie Work by Nasiru-d-Din Tusi, JRAS., 1931. p.549.
8. Qur'an xx, 118.
9. In the text we have "Some of the Hudud", a word apparently describing an order of priesthood, see Kalam i Pir, xliv.
10. A parallel to this will be found in the Druze Epistle ......
MS., Paris, 1408 fol.79 v., where the relationship of the third Adam to he second is described as follows:...... he was religious, not a natural child.
11. Ivanow, JRAS., 1931, p. 549.
12. On the Sabiq and the Tali, see Silvestre de Sacy, Expose de la Religion des Druzes, Paris, 1838, i, Introduction exxi.
13. There are thus ten in all.
14. Kalam-i-Pir, Bombay, 1935. An Ismaili Work, JRAS., 1931 p.527. Two early Ismaili Treatises, Bombay, 1933.
15. Ed, Cureton, p. 150 4. A creed of Fatimids, Ivanow, Bombay, 1936.
16. A creed of Fatimids, Ivanow, Bombay, 1936.
17. Kraus, P., Raziana ii, Orientalia v.
18. MS. in school Oriental Studies Library, London, see Tritton in BSOS., VII p. 35.
19. Hamdani, "A compendium of Ismaili Esoteric." Islamic Culture xi p. 210.
20. V. Supra.
21. Doctrines regarding Adam which bear some affinity with these will also be found in the Ummu'l-Kitab of the Ismailis of Central Asia. (Der Islam 23, 1/2; REI., 1932, 419H, see index under Adam.)
22. See index of terms.
23. De Sacy, 1, Ixii, Maqrizi, i, 291-5 (Casanova, BIFAO., Xvlii, 120ff).
24. p.280 ff= Halkin, p. 138.
25. Streitschrift, 40ff.
26. Cairo Ed., iv113-16.
27. I had recently the opportunity of hearing a lengthy explanation of the doctrine by the Ismaili Imam of Masyaf.
28. Cf. Massignon, Art. Karmatians in Encycle. of Islam, and Salman Pak, Paris, 1934, p. 19.
29. e.g. Baghdadi, 280 = Halkin, 135; "I bid you further urge them to accept the view that a multitude of men existed before Adam; this will be of assistance to you in teaching the pre-existence of the world." An oral tradition still in circulation among Indian Ismailis attributes to 'Ali the saying that there were many men before Adam.
30. Ivanow, JRAS., 1931, p. 548.
31. Fol 77, r., ......
32. Hamdani, IsI Culture xi 214.
33. See article Adam Kadmon in Jewish Encyclopedia.
34. It should be noted that this third emanation is apparently a later addition to the ismaili system, probably due to the Fatimid philosophers. In the earlier sources there are only two emanations, the Sabiq and the Tali, corresponding to the universal intelligence and the universal soul of the Rasa'il Ikhwani-s-Safa. See Hamadani, op.cit.

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Rasail Ikhwan al Safa - Pages of Medieval Mideastern History by Eloise Hart
Risala dar Haqiqati Din - The True Meaning of Religion by Shiabudin Shah
The Importance of Studying Ismailism by Professor W. Ivanow

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