Adamic Creation as Prophetic Initiation: Ismaili Exegesis (ta’wil) of the Quranic Adam Story

By Khalil Andani
Submitted to Session P6425 (Islamic Esotericisms: From Theology to Exegesis, 2021 Annual Meeting
Rel Stds/Theo
7th-13th Centuries;
LCD Projector without Audio;
The academic study of Ismaili Quranic ta’wil – often translated as “esoteric interpretation”, “allegorical interpretation”, or “spiritual exegesis” – is in the early stages with just one monograph by Hollenberg published on the topic. In that monograph, the author argues that medieval Ismaili ta’wil is meant to induce “new habits of mind” and sectarian loyalty among members of the Ismaili movement and launch subtle polemic against other Shi‘i groups. Accordingly, Hollenberg interprets the Fatimid Ismaili ta’wil of the Quranic story of Adam as a veiled polemical referring to Eastern Ismaili da‘wa that failed to recognize the Fatimid Imam-Caliph; in his reading, the Adam figure alludes to the first Fatimid Caliph al-Mahdi while Iblis refers to the da‘i who had betrayed him. Even though ta’wil in Ismaili thought is supposed to orient and lead the believer to his/her spiritual origin, Hollenberg’s thesis diverts the stated goal of Ismaili ta’wil back to socio-political events. In this study, I offer an alternative perspective to Hollenberg’s reading by proposing that the Ismaili exegesis of the Adam story was coined to address entirely different concerns – which has implications on the nature of Ismaili ta’wil more generally. My method is to analyze the Ismaili ta’wil of the Adam story as found in four sources: Sara’ir wa-asrar al-nutuqa by Ja‘far b. Mansur al-Yaman, Asas al-ta’wil by al-Nu‘man (10th CE), Rawda-yi Taslim by Nasir al-Din Tusi (13th CE), and Zahr al-ma‘ani by Idris Imad al-Din (15th CE). In doing so, I note core similarities of the Ismaili exegesis as presented over four centuries of sources. I argue that the Ismaili interpretation of the Adam narrative is primarily concerned with four theological claims: 1) safeguarding the absolute transcendence of God above all anthropomorphic qualities, such as vocal speech and breathing; 2) interpreting the creation of Adam from water/clay as his prophetic initiation as opposed to physical creation, so as to affirm Adam’s natural birth from human parents; 3) establishing the concrete existence of the Imam and his da‘wa as a metahistorical channel of divine guidance on earth both before Adam and in direct succession from Adam to the present day; 4) positing Iblis as a renegade teacher who reappears in every prophetic cycle, including that of Muhammad, to violate the protocol of taqiyya. I thereby argue that the Ismaili ta’wil of the Adamic creation story is primarily concerned with interpreting Quranic narrative in harmony with Ismaili theology, cosmology, and sacred history.