Sijistānī and The Tearing of the Veils

  January 18, 2022   Read time 2 min
Sijistānī and The Tearing of the Veils
Abū Yaʿqūb Isḥāq ibn Aḥmad Sijistānī was a central figure in the early period of Ismaili thought in Persia. Some scholars have even identified him as the leading philosopher of the ‘Persian School’ of Ismaili intellectual thought.

Reports of his life in the literature of the period are sketchy at best. His date of birth is unknown and the only evidence we have of the date of his death is found in Rashīd al-Dīn Faḍl Allāh’s Jāmiʿ al-tawārīkh (Collection of Histories) where it is said that he was executed by Amīr Khalaf ibn Aḥmad of the Ṣaffārid dynasty, i.e., before 393/1002. He was a younger contemporary of Fārābī and may have succeeded Abū Ḥātim Rāzī as the dāʿī in Rayy and Muḥammad Nasafī as the person in charge of the daʿwah in Khurāsān and Transoxania.

Sijistānī appears to have been well-versed in the body of Islamic thought available at the time, as well as in Greek philosophy and Neoplatonism. While philosophically he makes use of the ideas of Abū Ḥātim Rāzī and Muḥammad Nasafī, except in a few minor cases he does not acknowledge their contributions. Sijistānī did not compose any work on the doctrine of the Imamate, nor did he emphasize the direct and personal authority of the living Imam as so many Ismaili authors have done. Instead, he wrote on prophecy and the need to use philosophical arguments.

In the translations we have included here are several sections of Sijistānī’s most significant works, Kashf al-maḥjūb (The Unveiling of the Hidden) and Kitāb al-yanābīʿ (The Book of Wellsprings). The Kashf al-maḥjūb, perhaps Sijistānī’s magnum opus, is an important source book for the Ismaili thought of the Fatimid period. It appears almost in its entirety in this chapter accompanied by Hermann Landolt’s introduction to his translation as prepared for this Anthology.

The Kitāb al-yanābīʿ consists of forty wellsprings (yanābīʿ). It begins with the meaning of ‘wellspring’, the rigorous affirmation of divine unity, and the absolute purity of God who stands above all attributes of being and nonbeing. The central thesis of this treatise addresses the problem of the Intellect and epistemology. It also covers such themes as the Intellect’s imperishability, its tranquillity and quiescence, its position as the first originated being prior to which nothing can be conceived, its immateriality, how it communicates with the soul, and several categories of its properties.

In short, the Intellect, according to Sijistānī, is the sum of existent beings to which he refers as al-sābiq (the Preceder), a standard term in the Ismaili metaphysical literature with its cosmological doctrine. The soul emanates from the Intellect and is regulated and directed by the Intellect. Through the persisting influence in the soul, the Intellect comes into the beings engendered by the soul. Thus nature, which has an effect on the soul, preserves in itself rational qualities, and man obtains the benefits of the Intellect through the part of the soul in him that ‘contains’ the Intellect.

When guided exclusively by the Intellect, the soul returns to an intelligible or spiritual world; therefore knowledge for Sijistānī comprises more than instinctual and learned apprehension of intelligible matter. Besides these two categories of knowledge there exists a special category of inspired or revealed truth granted exclusively to the muʾayyadūn (divinely guided, or inspired individuals, namely the prophets) so that they can guide human souls to come closer to the intelligible or spiritual world.