Anthologies as Educational Tools in the Tayyibi Ismaili Tradition

By Samer Traboulsi
Submitted to Session P5894 (Beyond Sectarianism: Medieval Shi'ism Reconsidered, 2020 Annual Meeting
Islamic Studies;
Scholars in the field of Fatimid and Ismaili studies have traditionally approached ?ayyib? anthologies as a depository of Ismaili literature. By focusing on individual texts instead of the compilation as a whole, they overlooked the authorship of the compiler, the intended readership, and the historical context in which the anthologies were produced.
In this essay, I examine ?ayyib? anthologies as educational tools meant to guide the neophytes through a long and gradual path to acquire the knowledge of the outer and inner meaning (??hir and b??in) of the faith. The selection of texts included in the anthologies reflects the compilers’ conception of a curriculum for beginner students. Additionally, ?ayyib? anthologies provide an alternative to the conventional course of study that covers ??hir? literature, at first, and slowly progresses to b??in? texts on ta?w?l and ?aq??iq (eternal b??in? truths) that correspond to the initiate’s degree of knowledge.
I will focus on four types of anthologies covering the period from the inception of the da?wa in the 12th century in Yemen to 20th century India. Interestingly, not only do the anthologies inform our understanding of the transmission of knowledge within the community in Yemen and India, they also mirror the political and intellectual developments that continuously challenge the da?wa and shape its course. The two-volume Majm?? al-tarbiya by Mu?ammad b. ??hir al-??rith? (d. 585/1188) is the product of the early formative period when the new ?ayyib? da?wa was setting the doctrinal and intellectual foundations of the faith. The growth of the da?wa and the increased involvement of its Indian followers is reflected in the seven-volume anthology, Kit?b al-azh?r wa-majma? al-anw?r by the Indian merchant and scholar, ?asan b. N?? al-Bh?r?ch? (d. 939/1533). Later in India, the rise of a decentralized class of scholars, who defended the office of the d??? during periods of internal dissent, is reflected in the production of numerous majm??as devoted to specific fields of study that were used in private learning circles. Finally, the consolidation of power in the office of the d??? and the centralization of the educational system under the 51st d??? ??hir Sayf al-D?n (d. 1965) is apparent in his 47-volume al-Ras??il al-Ramadaniyya, which became the main source of religious knowledge for the present-day ?ayyib? Bohra community.