The Art and Material Culture of Iranian Shi'ism: Iconography and
Religious Devotion in Shi'i Islam by Pedram
Khosronejad(Iran and the Persianate World: I.B. Tauris in
association with the Iran Heritage Foundation)
Shi'i Islam has been the official religion of Iran
from the Safavids (1501-1732) to the present day.
The Shi'i world experience has provided a rich
artistic tradition, encompassing painting,
sculpture, and the production of artifacts and
performance, which has helped to embed Shi'i
identity in Iran as part of its national narrative.
In what areas of material culture has Iranian
Shi'ism manifested itself through objects or
buildings that are unique within the overall culture
of Islam? To what extent is the art and architecture
of Iran from the Safavid period onwards identifiably
Shi'i? What does this say about the relationship of
nation, state, and faith in Iran? Here, leading
experts trace the material heritage of Iranian
Shi'ism within each of its political, religious, and
We live in a broken world in which so much human disharmony seems to focus on matters of faith. This conference, on `The Art and Material Culture of Iranian Shi'ism', had its origins in the Ashmolean Museum's Inter-faith Exhibition Service (AIFES), which was an attempt to use art to build bridges between the different religious communities in the UK. Under the curatorship of Dr Ruth Barnes, it put on a successful exhibition, Pilgrimage — The Sacred Journey, in 2006, but sadly was closed down soon after due to lack of further funding.
One of the important academic points which emerged from that initiative, however, was that exhibitions of inter-religious art could not be mounted without the necessary resources to identify the works of art of the religions concerned, and, within each religion, the art of its sects or denominations. There is, of course, a plentiful supply of books about Islamic art available today, but, surprisingly, there is very little written about the art of Shi'ism. Indeed, from the perspective of its plurality, surprisingly little has been written about art in Islam at all. Although Thomas Arnold in his book Painting in Islam published in 1928 includes a chapter on religious art in Islam, his interest focused on the religious people or religious stories which were depicted by Muslim artists, not on what that represented in terms of the different religious streams within Islam. More relevant have been Sarwat Okasha's book, The Muslim Painter and the Divine, subtitled `The Persian Impact on Islamic Religious Painting', and Maria Vittoria Fontana's Iconografia dell'Ahl al-Bayt, which is a study of Persian images from the twelfth to the twentieth century. However, both these studies are limited in their scope, and put their emphasis firmly on painting. More recently there has appeared Paddy Baker's book, The Religious Arts of Islam,' which is the first real attempt to put together a comprehensive and readable work on this general subject, and includes valuable information about Shi'i art.
One dynasty within the Islamic plurality which has received considerable attention is, of course, the Ismaili Fatimid dynasty of Egypt. Here there has been interest in the way architectural forms have been articulated as Ismaili in intent through the development of shrines, through the use of particular Qur'anic inscriptions' and through the use of symbols of different types; e.g. stars, octagons, rayed blind arches and so on. The Fatimids have caught the imagination of art historians too; through their extensive trade networks, their extraordinarily rich treasuries, their fine lustre-ware and their magnificent rock crystals, but there has rarely been any attempt to extract an Ismaili message from such objects — if indeed one exists.'
If we turn to the Deccan, the art and architecture of the great sixteenth-to seventeenth-century Shi'i dynasties of that area — the Nizamshahis of Ahmednagar, the Adilshahis of Bijapur and the Qutbshahis of Golconda and Hyderabad — are much less well known among the generality of Islamic art historians than those of the Fatimids or of the dynasties of Shi'i Iran. This is in spite of the efforts of a small group of twentieth-century scholars and men of the calibre of Dr Naqvi, who was a member of the present conference; so too the eighteenth- to nineteenth-century Shi'i nawabs of Avadh, or Lucknow, in northern India"
When it comes to Shi'i Iran (if we define that as Iran from the accession of Shah Ismail Ito the present day), its artistic and architectural achievements are world famous. Cities such as Isfahan and Shiraz display their elegant minarets, their sumptuous domes and their tiled facades to bus-loads of tourists; coffee-table books allow Western audiences to enjoy these riches without the need to travel; at leading universities throughout the world, Safavid tile-work, painting and other art forms are studied and enjoyed by succeeding generations of students. Yet it is also clear that much of its art and architecture remains disappointingly understudied. True, there have been extensive studies on Safavid painting, but even here such study has not been comprehensive — the later period, post the death of Shah Abbas I, for example, is still relatively little researched, Eleanor Sims' publications being notable exceptions. Provincial Safavid architecture too remains relatively unknown, though the increasing number of Iranian publications devoted to cataloguing the monuments of individual towns is constantly improving our knowledge. In other fields of art, the only major catalogue of part of Safavid Iran's huge ceramic output is Yolande Crowe's Persia and China. For the Qajars we have considerably less, though mention should be made of Layla Diba and Maryam Ekhtiar's Royal Persian Paintings, Julian Raby's Qajar Portraits and of the Khalili collection volume, Lacquer of the Islamic Lands.
By and large, the art and architecture of Shi'i Iran has been discussed within its own limits, and all too little has been written about the relationship of Shi'ism to art or to more general material culture in Iran. Consequently, there are all too many questions one would like to pose. Just as an example, in what areas of material culture has Iranian Shi'ism manifested itself through objects or buildings that are unique within the overall culture of Islam?
In the political and religious sphere, Shi'ism has, of course, been the official religion of Iran since the beginning of the sixteenth century; numerous academic studies have focused on this phenomenon, on the Moharram rituals, on the ta'ziyeh plays, on Shi'i theology and, of course, on the post-revolution politics of Shi'i Iran. I shall not attempt to enumerate these. Yet surprisingly little serious study has been done to bring these politico-religious and cultural spheres together, to trace the way in which Shi'i rule and Shi'i theology have interacted with the architecture, art and material culture of Iran during this period. To what extent, for example, are the art and architecture of Iran from the Safavid period onwards identifiably Shi'i, and what does this say about the relationship of nation, state and faith in Iran? A fascinating commentary on this question is to be found in May Farhat's PhD thesis on the shrine of Imam Reza in Mashhad, which has sadly never been published and appreciated by the wider scholarly world.
The year 2006 was not the right one to launch a conference on the art of all the Shi'i areas of the Islamic world: there was neither the funding nor the manpower. Instead, Dr Pedram Khosronejad and I decided to take a small-scale approach and to focus first on Shi'i Iran. Our aim within that brief, however, was broad: we wanted to gather together all those international scholars, or as many of them as possible, who had a serious interest in the artistic output of Shi'i Iran. More than that, we decided not to limit the subject by too close a focus on art and architecture. The words `material culture' provided us with a much broader concept and brought with them the opportunity for a broader spectrum of scholars to participate — historians, anthropologists, ethnologists and folklorists, as well as art and architectural historians. Our aim, therefore, was to provide the opportunity for the sharing of ideas, for interaction between individuals, for the building of contacts and friendships and, above all, the chance to increase understanding of the nature of the art and material culture of Shi'ite Iran.
Naturally, a conference of this type depends on its speakers, and the sessions into which it is organised depend on the topics of their papers. Based on the titles and abstracts of the papers offered, the conference was divided into the following four sections: Shi'ism and Islamic Mortuary Architecture; Shi'ism, Ritual and Material Culture; Shi'ism, Nomadism and Material Culture; and Shi'ism, Symbols and Iconography. It is immediately evident that this conference was, indeed, much broader than those traditionally frequented by art and architectural historians. The result was a conference that forced the boundaries of art historical scholarship, and led to much more penetrating discussions. It was also exciting to see the range of countries represented by the speakers: Iran, India, Uzbekistan, Lebanon, France, Germany, Holland, Norway, the United States and Great Britain. Such diverse scholarly backgrounds greatly enriched our interaction.
The two-day Oxford conference only began to scratch the surface of the subject, but the expectation was that it would provide a starting point, a base line, from which other scholars would be able to develop new ideas and new theories. And, by encouraging students and scholars to look more closely at Iranian art in terms of its faith communities, we were also hopeful that it would provoke a much wider discussion on the role of sectarian art in Islamic culture generally. All the more important is this publication, which will put the conference papers into the hands of the wider scholarly community, and I am particularly grateful to Dr Pedram Khosronejad, who has undertaken the editing of the publication, having also been the organiser of the very successful conference.
I would like to take this opportunity to thank the Middle East Centre of St Antony's College, the Barakat Trust, the British Academy, the Institute of Ismaili Studies, the Iran Heritage Foundation and the Maison Française for their support for the conference.
---by James W. Allan
Religious meanings are not merely inherited or simply accessed through the intellect. Orthodox statements of belief and formal rituals, as McDannell (1998) proposes, form only one part of the complicated structure of religion. Religious meanings must be constructed and reconstructed over and over again. Amid the external practice of religion — which utilises artefacts, art, architecture and landscapes — comes the inner experience of religion. We can no longer accept that the appearance of religion is inconsequential to the experience of religion. McDannell argues that the sensual elements of a religion are not merely decorations that mask serious belief; it is through the visible world that the invisible world becomes known and felt 41 Religion, as he proposes, is more than a type of knowledge acquired through reading holy books and listening to holy men. People build religion into the landscape, they make and buy pious images for their homes, and they wear special reminders of their faith next to their bodies.42 In addition, people learn the discourses and habits of their religious community through the material dimensions of their religions, including (art) objects.
When we look carefully at the interaction between people and religious artefacts, architecture and environment, we see that the practice of one religion is a subtle mixture of traditional beliefs and personal improvisations (McGuire 2005). Religions, as Orsi (2005) points out, are often inconsistent, even contradictory, and always include forbidden and outlawed beliefs and practices as well as those that are sanctioned The relation of art to religion is a complex issue. Universally, art objects have seemed to serve religion functionally and, conversely, to have drawn upon it for themes. In this view, religious art and material culture reinforce conceptual patterning of a mystical order through other media.
It is worth asking, what does a study of religion look like that takes material culture for its starting point, and not texts? Based on the chapters in this book, we think it will be a useful exercise to attempt the study of a living tradition, for which we have an adequate textual and ethnographic record, by using material culture as a starting point. As Cort (1996) points out, if we look first at the objects, and base our attempts at understanding on them, will we emerge from our study with a different view of the tradition?
In most of the following chapters, this is an essential question. The chapters in this volume provide an introduction to the interdisciplinary study of the material culture of religion (Shi'ism), reflecting the richness and variety that characterise Iranian religiosity and its materiality today, as well as those of other Shi'i communities elsewhere. While the chapters mostly concentrate on different themes of Shi'i devotional art and material culture, together they cover a wide theoretical and cultural range. The studies are simultaneously concerned with the Shi'i religious and social practices in which material culture is embedded, and, as Leite (2004) proposes, in a quite new direction, with the dynamics of recontextualisation, valuation and reinterpretation that devotional objects undergo through different cultural and historical contexts.
In one word, this book is about pious artefacts — things that Shi'ism somehow had direct influence over in their creation, function and circulation. In this regard, one may call these things the art and material culture of Shi'ism. In this collection, contributors work on artefacts with different angles:
Amir-Moezzi discusses the role of material culture — popular religious art objects — in Sufi practices, Khosronejad reflects on the material culture of death and dying among tribal societies, Suleman focuses on the meaning and function of iconography in art objects, Gleave observes the interplay between pious object and religious text, and Vesel analyses different aspects of talismans as magic objects. Additionally, Gruber analyses the image as a mode of symbolic communication, Marzolph reflects on book illustrations as visual representations of religious themes, Zarcone and Shani present iconography and calligraphy as two modes of religious symbolism, Flaskerud discusses votive images as ritual objects, and Frembgen focuses on religious posters as devotional iconography.
What meanings do these religious material culture and pious art objects hold for Shi'i believers? Why do they (Shi'a) feel compelled not only to uphold the tenets of their faith, but to use artefacts that reflect and secure their beliefs?
Miller (1998) argues that `objects may not merely be used to refer to a given social group, but may themselves be constitutive of a certain social relation', calling this phenomenon `the cultural nature of the subject-object relationship'." Graburn's findings (1976) and Miller's argument (1997) suggest that art objects cannot simply be regarded as reflections of fixed identities.
Shi'i communities, like any other religious society, learn the discourses and habits of their religious community through the artefacts and material culture of their religion. `Religious material culture does not simply reflect an existing reality. Experiencing the physical dimension of religion helps bring about religious values, norms, behaviours and attitudes. Practising religion sets into motion ways of thinking. It is the continual interaction with objects, images and symbols that makes one religious in a particular manner' (McDanell 1998). McDannell (1998) proposes that the symbolic systems of a particular religious language are not merely handed down; they must be learned, through doing, seeing and touching.
Shi'i believers use devotional and pious things and objects in a variety of ways. Meanings may be directed and articulated by a controlling institutional body with a long history of customs and traditions. Such meanings do not, however, always help us to understand the personal meanings that people find in their daily use of religious material culture. Furthermore, individual meanings do not merely mirror the `intentions of a clerical elite, nor do they express the idiosyncratic whims of the masses' (McDanell 1998).
In his chapter, Amir-Moezzi discusses how `the pocket pious image', a devotional object, could carry sanction and protection to its proprietor. The `pocket shama'il', according to Amir-Moezzi, creates a strong linkage between religious pictorial art and the mystical brotherhood. Pious images and devotional objects help people contemplate the divine and teach the true faith because not everyone can approach God through the intellect. When one concentrates on a religious image, the soul could eventually be inflamed with love for the divine. Through contemplating the signs of God (or saints), the mind and spirit of the believer ascend from the visible to the invisible; from the sign to the referent. Devotional pictures and objects, as McDannell (1998) argues, bridge the gap between the human and divine and evoke emotion in the viewer. From the emotion comes the desire to live a better life, pray more devotedly, or feel healing comfort.
The importance of the visual — as material culture — in the study of religion has been highlighted in several studies. The chapters in our book proceed along similar lines by focusing on visual art as a unique category of material object, a category characterised by the special ability to mediate imaginary, linguistic, intellectual and material domains. They argue in a number of contexts that this ability gives the image (e.g. illustrations, iconographies) a particular power in the dialectical movement from externalisation to objectivation to internalisation.
Gruber's chapter is of particular importance for this collection and its readers. She reflects on how the Safavids, in order to secure their religiopolitical legitimacy, patronised paintings and manuscript illustrations with religious themes. She argues that these visual materials served as bridges between the earliest Shi'i illustrated manuscripts and later Safavid exegetes; therefore, they must be seen as cultural products that are historically contingent and laden with very particular symbolic overtones.
By approaching these visual materials, Gruber argues that we should also heed historical evidence and data as a means of understanding Shi'i artefacts as cultural products. Rather than restrict imagery to the rarefied state of aesthetic contemplation, or submit it to theological critique or application, Morgan (1999) argues that we need to `examine imagery in terms of the social worlds of those who make, merchandise, purchase, and use it'.
In his chapter, Marzolph presents and analyses different types of religious illustrations in lithographed books of Qajar periods in Iran. He reflects on the ability of such lithographed books and their images to contribute to the popularisation of quintessential religious concepts while drawing on popular imagery and furthering the stereotypical representation of themes lying at the core of Shi'i self-definition. In these chapters we will also see how the material culture of religion is widely understood to sacralize space, to delineate in spatial parameters the site or point at which the holy is manifested and made to communicate to believers the crucial signifiers of their identity as believers. The sacred is therefore experienced as invested in a place — a saint's shrine or a devotional object and image, for example — as concrete expression of a community's relationship to the divine.
In her chapter, Flaskerud presents how in Shiraz votive images — pseudo-portraits of holy personages, narrative images, representations of holy places and portraits of living and deceased members of the local community in contemporary Shi'i devotional practices and ritual performance — are employed and why these are regarded as effective and adequate vehicles for invoking favour and giving thanks.
According to Freedberg (1991), votive images are realistic because we see a sound replica of the body, or part of it; we respond to it as though it was real, and its soundness (or sometimes its sheer preciousness) reassures us of the fact of healing and deliverance to safety.54 The ex vows were placed in religious places after miraculous healing and are material reminders of the possibility of the sacred breaking into the world of nature.
These Shi'i posters and many like them have served as powerful symbols in Shi'i piety because believers have learned from childhood to regard them as illustrations, as untrammelled visualisations of what they profess. Understanding why this is so and how it occurs requires that we see popular religious imagery as part of a visual piety, by which Morgan (1999) means the visual formation and practice of religious belief. In so doing, we must attend not only to those religions that actively employ imagery, but also to the largely unwritten cultural history and aesthetics of religious popular art. Only then can we begin to understand how images articulate the social structure of a believer's world.
Accordingly, Frembgen's study explores how Shi'i religious performances in Pakistan and India open a ritual space for a collective liminal experience: `They are focused on the commemoration, recall and re-enactment of Shi'i Heilsgeschichte and spirituality, where material manifestations of religion play a key role in an intense communication with the divine.'
The centre of Frembgen's ethnographical approach is one of the many zoomorphic symbols of Shi'ism, Zoljanah, the white stallion of Imam Hoseyn in the battle of Karbala. Frembgen's chapter draws our attention to the plurality of visual practices, distinguished from each other by the history of Shi'ism, cultural politics and the ritual uses of devotional images, all of which are, in turn, keyed to the image's style and iconography and the historical circumstances of its production and reception.
In addition, Zarcone and Shani observe in their chapters the image of the lion, another Shi'i zoomorphic symbol, as a representation of Imam Ali. While Zarcone follows the iconography and symbol of the lion in poetry and sacred texts (calligraphic lions) attached to the rituals of Bektashi and Alevi Sufi orders in Turkey, Shani deals only with calligraphic lions, whose bodies are shaped by sacred formulas related to Imam Ali with a hidden message.
These two scholars argue that these religious images and sacred calligraphies, founded by Shi'i Sufi ideologies, show us a world but not the world itself. These pictorial calligraphies are not the things shown but representations thereof: representations. `Representation is a complex term. It implies that images and texts do not reflect their sources but refashion them according to pictorial or textual codes, so that they are quite separate from, and other than, those sources' (Chaplin 1994: 1).
Further than this, Chaplin (1994) proposes that representation can be understood as articulating and contributing to social processes. These social processes determine the representation but are also consequently influenced and altered by it. Thus, `representations articulate not only visual or verbal codes and conventions, but also the social practices and forces that underline them and with which we interpret the world. Finally, a recipient is implied: someone to whom the representation and its realisation are addressed.'
`Indeed, what images represent may otherwise not exist in reality and may instead be confined to the realm of imagination, wish, desire, dream, or fantasy. And yet, of course, any image exists literally as an object within the world to which it is, one way or another, engaged. That is, images are not mined like ore — they are constructed for the purpose of performing some function within a given sociocultural matrix.' Leppert (1996) believes we should not forget the fact that in most cultures, seeing requires certain skills that are, in part, historically and culturally specific. Thus, every image embodies a way of seeing. Or better still, each image embodies historically, socially and culturally specific competing, and contradictory, ways of seeing.
The lion as a zoomorphic symbol continues its presence in Khosronejad's chapter, where he illustrates historical and religious meanings and social functions of this symbol in oral tradition, funeral ceremonies and the material culture of death and dying among Bakhtiari nomads in southwest Iran. Khosronejad argues: `Continued analysis of the contemporary oral and funerary traditions in Bakhtiari society will create a rich structure of detailed ethnographic and anthropological evidence for anthropologists interested in nomadic life in Iran.'
In Suleman's essay, by investigating the iconography of the lion through different art objects and material manifestations of Shi'ism in different periods, she demonstrates the relationship among this zoomorphic symbol, Imam Ali and Shi'i devotional beliefs. Her comparative studies can show us the way in which this symbol was created, functioned and circulated in the Islamic world.
In her study on Christian iconography, Kenna (1985) proposes that the icon is a microcosm of the relationship among the material world, human beings and the divine power. More than this, it is a sacramental form of communication with that divine power. In other words, an icon is not just a picture, not simply a copy or a reminder of an original; by representing that original in a particular way, it maintains a connection with it, as a translation does with the original text.
In different cultures, while some objects have only utilitarian functions, others seemingly possess power and energy. We are not saying that power resides naturally in certain things and not in others. What we should explore is how people activate or enliven objects so that an object's influence can be felt. The nature and extent of affecting presence or power may differ, but even commercialised objects that are no longer used in a religious context still have religious associations because their iconography originated within particular religious communities. By exploring the diverse ways that objects participate in and express changing notions of power, we can chart the various meanings of religious objects.
Vezel's essay explores one of the most interesting material objects of religion: talismans. While the purpose of her observation is limited to the description of figurative representations — humans, animals, plants — with talismans, she tries to show why, where and how some of these objects show Shi'i or Iranian characters. She argues:
Iranian popular talismans that do not have an obvious Shi'i character are founded on the common learned basis of occult sciences and also benefit from a long Iranian tradition of the illustrated book. Nevertheless, some of these materials display truly Shi'i aspects ... [that are] religious-commemorative objects with protective and talismanic power.
Gleave's chapter focuses on the examination of formal descriptions of belief systems found in religious texts to draw conclusions relating to the artefacts. His chapter flows in a direction contrary to the assumptions of material culture studies; rather than analysing an object to inform the understanding of belief systems, he examines the formal description of a belief system through religious texts and attempts to draw conclusions relating to the object without its (the object's) direct examination. His attention is focused precisely on religio-legal regulations related to the paraphernalia of devotion. His essay examines the variety of surfaces upon which normative prayer might be performed, the substance upon which prostration takes place and stone praying.
Knowledge of the historical text and literary sources is not available to all scholars. Gleave's chapter shows us how important an examination of religious textual traditions is to assess how people in different societies use different sociocultural media, objects and symbols to express concretely, and integrate into their culture, the specific religious prescriptions and beliefs that are being investigated.
The intention of our collection is to emphasise that the study of the material dimension is as fundamental to understanding culture as a focus on language; social relations; time; space; representations; or relations of production, exchange and consumption. Material culture studies, as our essays propose, may be held simultaneously to intersect with, and transcend, the special concerns of these and other disciplines. Such an intellectual field of study is inevitably eclectic: relatively unbounded and unconstrained, fluid, dispersed and anarchic rather than constricted. In short, it is un- 'disciplined'. In our collection, we regard this as a strength rather than a weakness, and an alternative to the inevitable disciplinary restrictions with regard to research that is validated or, otherwise, valuable, serious or appropriate.
Material culture, as our chapters suggest, in itself has no intrinsic meaning of its own. Our Shi'i objects and artefacts are understood and gain significance when their `human' (Shi'i believers) elements can be deciphered. Shi'i objects and things become meaningful within patterns of relationships. It is only through an examination of the historical and present context of material culture that it can be 'read' .
We also try to show that different people will use Shi'i artefacts or experience environment in different ways: meaning is culturally contingent. There will sometimes be conflicts of meaning and function. People enliven material culture and art objects through use, but we as scholars are not always privileged to observe that intention. There are times when we are left alone with the silent object and no documentation. At that point, it is even more imperative to place material culture in the society that produced it.
The possibility of material culture studies lies not in method but, rather, in an acknowledgement of the nature of culture, as understood by theorists such as Simmel (1968).63 We as academics can strive for understanding and empathy through the study of what people do with objects, because that is the way people create a world of practice. As Simmel argues, human values do not exist other than through their objectification in cultural forms.
In short, I do not think it is easy to say what these Shi'i artefacts mean. A good reading of these devotional objects of popular culture requires an eye for objects and a taste for theory. The study of material culture, McKeown (1997) argues, is especially challenging when the materials in question are religious things. In such a case, interpreters must address the complex category of `religion' and acquaint themselves with a variety of particular and highly defined traditions of doctrine and practice. A richer and more varied understanding of religious practice will unfold in the study of the material culture of religions.
By bringing together a wide range of approaches to the material culture of Shi'ism, our volume seeks to sharpen scholarly awareness of the nature of materiality and its implications for Shi'i cultural, social and historical knowledge. This collection is far from providing complete answers to all the questions that one can raise in this field, and far, for that matter, from offering a complete view of what are complex and heterogeneous fields of Shi'i devotional art and material culture in Iran. However, we hope that the following collection will not only serve to illuminate some of the general aspects of this field of reach for both specialist and lay reader, but also pave the way for further scholarship in these areas.
Pillars of Islam (Daaim al-Islam of al-Qadi al-Numan)
translated by Asaf A.A. Fyzee, completely revised, annotated and edited by
Ismail Poonawala (Oxford University Press) To understand Ismaili Shiite
family law and custom this volume is an essential guide for Islamicists and
anthropologists seeking the sources of current folkways and custom in India and
The Da'a'im al‑Islam, composed by al‑Qadi al‑Nu'man around the year 349/960, was the official code of the Fatimid State. It was commissioned by the Fatimid caliph al Mu'izz li‑Din Allah, both for the use of the State as well as the Isma'ili community. Imam al‑Mu'izz scrutinized the entire work chapter by chapter and section by section. It is therefore not surprising that the text is considered by the Musta'li‑Tayyibi Bohras as the greatest authority on Isma'ili law up to the present day and it remains a source of supreme authority in their legal matters. Courts in the subcontinent also apply it in personal and family matters as the Isma'ili law manual.
Al‑Qadi al‑Nu'man served the first four Fatimid caliphs successively in various capacities. He reached the apogee of his career during the reign of Imam al‑Mu'izz; he was elevated to the highest judicial office in the Fatimid Empire. He was authorized by the caliph to conduct the 'wisdom sessions' every Friday, to instruct the congregation on the religious sciences of the da'wa.
The Pillars of Islam is the first authoritative English translation of the Da'a'im. This first volume discusses faith, devotion, ritual purity, prayer, funerals, alms tax, fasting, pilgrimage, and jihad. The second volume deals with a wide range of subjects such as food, dress, medicine, oaths, hunting, ritual slaughter, business transactions, marriage, divorce, inheritance, criminal punishments, etc.
In preparation for many years and long awaited, this book will be invaluable for lawyers and judges who so far had only secondary sources or local translators to depend on. It will also be immensely useful for scholars of religion and socio‑legal studies.
From editors introduction: Since its composition and proclamation as the official code of the Fatimid State by the Caliph al‑Mu'izz li‑Din Allah, around the year 349/960, the Da'a'im has remained the greatest source of authority on Isma'ili law up to the present day. A book of such importance and prestige was copied diligently, studied assiduously, and transmitted from one generation to another by the learned of the Musta'li‑Tayyibi branch of the Isma'ili da'wa, which was based first in the Yemen and then in India after the collapse of the Fatimid State in Egypt. This tradition of teaming, transcribing, and collating manuscripts was actively pursued until very recently in circles of learning, which revolved around a single shaykh. The critical edition of the first volume of the Da'a'im, prepared by Asaf Ali Asghar Fyzee from eight manuscripts, the oldest of which is probably of Yernenite provenance, was published in Cairo, Egypt, in 1951.
The first complete Urdu translation of this volume, by Mulla Yunus Shakib Mubarakpuri, was published in 1964 in Surat, India. Six years later he followed it up by a Gujarati translation. Both these translations were meant primarily for the internal use of the Bohra community. Not only do they contain numerous errors and a few omissions, but both translations lack explanatory notes, which make it even more difficult for the layman to follow what Nu'man is saying.
A scholarly but readable translation into modern English idiom for the benefit of non‑Arabists and the western educated members of the Ismaili community living in the Indian subcontinent, as well as the growing diaspora community in the West, was a desideratum. In addition, the Da'a'im is recognized by all courts in the Indo‑Pakistani subcontinent in personal and family matters as the definitive source of Ismaili law
Although there is no external or internal evidence for determining the exact date of the Da'a'im's composition, as discussed elsewhere, I am inclined to assume that it was composed around 349/960.14 Unlike in his other works, Nu'man mentions neither his name in the introduction to the Da'a'im, nor refers to his previous works in it. The apparent reason for this is that the Da'd'im was commissioned by al‑Mu'izz and was proclaimed as the official code of the Fatimid State. The composition of the Da'a'im was the culmination of Nu'man's efforts to codify Isma'ili law more than thirty years after he had began the compilation of his voluminous Kitab al‑idah and several abridgments of it.
The Fatimid historian and chiefIdris'imad al‑Din (d. 872/1468), describes the circumstances under which the Fatimid caliph al‑Mu'izz commissioned NU'man to compile the Da'a'im as follows: Once there was a large gathering of the da'is at the court of the Caliph‑Imam al‑Mu'izz. During the meeting of that auspicious assembly the subject of conversation turned to the fabrication of traditions, and differences of opinions among the Muslims, which led to the division of the Muslim community (umma) into different sects. Thereupon al‑Mu'izz, very aptly, remembered the tradition of the Prophet, which stated, 'You [Muslims] will surely follow the paths of the communities before you as a horseshoe upon a horseshoe and an arrow feather on an arrow feather, to the extent that if they had entered a lizard's hole, then you too would surely have done the like.' Then the Imam recalled another tradition wherein the Prophet is reported to have stated, 'When [harmful] innovations appear in my community, let the learned man make manifest his knowledge, but if he does not do so, the curse of God be upon him.'
Subsequently, turning to Nu'man, al‑Mu'izz said, 'You, O Nu'man, are the one meant by the latter tradition in these times.' The Imam, thus, commissioned Nu'man to compose the Da'a'im, and he expounded the principles of jurisprudence, deduced its branches, and related to Nu'man the authentic traditions of the Prophet on the authority of his forefathers. When Nu'man completed the compilation as described by the Imam, alMu'izz revised it, chapter by chapter and section by section, confirming what was firmly established and authentic practice of his forefathers, polishing its rough edges, and filling in the gaps.
The structure of the Da'a'im must have evolved in Nu'man's mind over a period of time as I have noted elsewhere. When al‑Mu'izz commissioned him, it was, for Nu'man, simply a matter of putting into writing what had already crystallized in his mind. How Nu'man conceived the Da'a'im 's structure, which is quite novel compared to other hadith collections, is difficult to determine. But his involvement in the controversy of the imamate and his refutations of various Sunni schools of jurisprudence must have given him the stimulus to reflect on the subject. His keen intellect and extensive knowledge of the law made him eminently qualified to search for the interrelationships of the principles of faith, the sources of law, and the exposition of the sharia.
The juridical and legal system constructed in the Da'a'im, both for the use of the state as well as the Isma'lli community is, therefore, unique, and Nu'man is rightly regarded as its founder. The title of the book itself is revealing and it is very appropriately chosen. Accordingly, Islam is founded on seven pillars, viz., wallaya (devotion and loyalty to the Imams of the ahlal‑bayt), tahara (ritual purity), salat (ritual prayers), zest (alms giving or welfare tax), sawm (fasting in the month of Ramadan), halj (pilgrimage to Mecca), and jihad (holy war). The first pillar is the most important and key to the understanding of the rest. The structure seems fairly sound and logical, and it covers all aspects of religious, political, and civil life.After a brief introduction, Nu'man begins the book with the discussion of iman (faith). Following his careful review of its definition as given by various factions, Nu'man endorses a threefold basis of faith: first, verbal expression; second, sincere resolve; and third, the actual performance of recommended acts, each closely interrelated with the other two. The intention is not to present here either a summary or detailed analysis of all the chapters, but rather to pose a question: What is it that makes the Da'a'im so unique that its fame has endured for over a millennium and it continues to be rewarded as the primary source of Ismaili law?
Nasir Khusraw: The Rudy of Badakhshan : A Portrait of the Persian Poet, Traveller and Philosopher by Alice C. Hunsberger (The Ismaili Heritage Series: I.B. Tauris) One of the foremost poets of the Persian language and a major Ismaili thinker and writer, Nasir Khusraw has attracted passionate attention, from admirers and critics alike, for nearly a thousand years. Celebrated for a poetry that combines art with philosophy, trusted for the details of his travels throughout the Middle East, revered and criticized for his theological texts, Nasir Khusraw remains one of the most fascinating figures in Islamic history and literature.
Born in 1004 in the eastern Iranian province of Khurasan, Nasir Khusraw rose to prominence in the courts of the Ghaznavids and the Saljuqs. Amidst this overwhelming pomp and luxury, he began to question his surroundings and search for a truth that would transcend life's outward form. Following a spiritual crisis (which he relates in the most beautiful prose and poetry), he converted to Ismaili Shi' ism and set off on a journey to Mecca that was to last seven years. He spent three of those years in Cairo, then under the rule of the Fatimid Caliph‑Imams, where he was appointed the hujjat or head of the Ismaili da`wa (mission) to Khurasan. Returning home, Nasir Khusraw encountered severe persecution from anti‑Ismaili religious scholars, which compelled him to seek refuge in a remote part of the Pamir Mountains in Badakhshan, where he composed most of the works that we have today.
This is the first comprehensive study of Nasir Khusraw to appear in English. Structured around the progress of his journey, and drawing extensively on Nasir Khusraw's own philosophical and poetic writings, it provides a highly readable and insightful account of this great scholar, sage and traveller. His writings, many of which are translated here for the first time, reveal a man of intense emotion and deep attitude to his faith, whose social awareness, cultural commitment to his homeland, and unstinting pursuit of excellence form the human backdrop to what was also a literary genius and a brilliant mind.
Nasir Khusraw will appeal to students and scholars of Ismaili studies and Persian literature, as well as those interested in early Islam, world religions, literature, medieval history and early travel writing.
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