Walāyah in the Fātimid Ismā'īlī Tradition

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Elizabeth R. Alexandrin
  • Albany, NY: 
    State University of New York Press
    , September
     376 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The Fāṭimid caliphate was the apogee of Shīʿī Ismaili political successes. Among the dynasty’s most illustrious dāʿīs, or “inviters,” was al-Muʾayyad fi’l-Dīn Shīrāzī (d. 470/1078), whose writings are a milestone in Islamic intellectual history. His poetry and autobiography were both edited in 1949 and the first few volumes of his eight hundred lectures at the Ismaili “sessions of wisdom” began to be published in 1974 by various editors. 

Verena Klemm’s Die Mission des fāṭimidischen Agenten al-Muʾayyad fī d-dīn in Šīrāz (Peter Lang, 1989) and Memoirs of a Mission (I.B. Tauris, 2003) shed much light on the biography of this talented personality, and Tahera Qutbuddin’s al-Muʾayyad al-Shīrāzī and Fatimid Daʿwa Poetry (Brill, 2005) is a penetrating study of his poetic omnibus. Though a small handful of scholars, including Henry Corbin, Mohammad Ali Amir-Moezzi, and this reviewer have previously written about selections of al-Muʾayyad’s lectures, Elizabeth R. Alexandrin’s Walāyah in the Fāṭimid Ismāʿīlī Tradition is the first book-length study dedicated to this major collection of Islamic esoteric thought. Based in part on her 2006 doctoral dissertation, the volume specifically focuses on al-Muʾayyad’s understanding of walāyah, the concept of divine authority and leadership. It includes an introduction, four chapters, and a conclusion, along with extensive notes, a list of works cited, and three indices. 

The first chapter, “Walāyah in Practice,” sets the stage by examining the works of two Ismaili predecessors, Abū Yaʿqūb Sijistānī (d. after 361/971) and al-Qāḍī al-Nuʿmān (d. 363/974), as well as the writing of Ḥakīm al-Tirmidhī (d. ca. 300/912), sometimes considered a “proto-Sufi.” The second chapter, “The Majālis al-Muʾayyadiyyah,” discusses the composition of al-Muʾayyad’s lectures, along with the Ismaili mode of spiritual interpretation, or taʾwīl, particularly of the Quran’s “Light Verse.” The third chapter, “The Sphere of Walāyah,” discusses typologies of the Imam, and al-Muʾayyad’s anthropology. The final chapter, “Sealing Walāyah and Spiritual Resurrection,” goes into more nuanced details about the concept of divine authority, including the roles of the Prophet Muḥammad and his legatee ʿAlī, God’s names, the esoteric interpretation of the month of Ramaḍān, and al-Muʾayyad’s doctrine of the Imam of the Resurrection. 

Alexandrin’s book is an important intervention in the field. Walāyah, considered one of the “Pillars of Islam” in Ismaili Shiism , is extensively explored in the writings of Ismaili authors. However, academic studies of walāyah rarely consult these texts. Alexandrin is to be commended for her solid grasp of the primary and secondary sources. Her arguments are well documented, she provides improved readings of some primary texts (e.g., 278 n106), and copious notes occupy over eighty pages of the volume. 

With its level of detail and style of presentation, the study is clearly intended for specialists. As a concomitant to this choice of audience, certain difficult concepts (such as the ḥudūd, or spiritual hierarchy) are not separately introduced. Similarly, Arabic terms are often left untranslated. 

For the most part, Alexandrin’s translations are faithful, though there are occasional lapses. For example, a hadith rendered as, “I am and you are, oh ʿAlī, the Father of the Believers” (165, 209 (fathers), 273, 292) is actually in the dual not the singular, and should be “parents of the believers.” Similarly, on page 197, “the totality of the amount is divided into four sections” is better understood as four different “place values” in mathematics: the ones, tens, hundreds, and thousands (cf. Nāṣir-i Khusraw, Wajh-i Dīnguftār 33). Occasionally, infelicities exist in Romanization (sifliyyah/siflī (44, 51), yadd (51) and zajājah (102, 105), for example,should be sufliyyah/suflīyad and zujājah). The author’s adopted transliteration system requires tā marbūṭah to be rendered as at in construct state (x), but this is rarely followed (e.g., daʿwah al-ḥaqq (4), ṭurfah [sic, ṭarfahal-ʿayn (28), shajarah al-khuld (104), and so forth.

Alexandrin’s study is based primarily on three published volumes of al-Muʾayyad’s Majālis. To her credit, she also refers to manuscripts of several of the unpublished volumes. She provides a useful overview of the existing editions (81-82), indicating her preference (with which I concur) for Ḥamīd al-Dīn’s critical edition. She writes that she will provide “a more thorough review of the aforementioned available editions … as a separate section” (82), but I was unable to locate the promised critique. 

There are a few oversights that should be addressed. The author regularly uses expressions such as “similarities between Shīʿī and Ismāʿīlī doctrines of walāyah exist,” (15), though Ismailis are very much Shia themselves (cf. 10 where  Ithnā ʿAsharī Shī'ism is specified). Referring to Qutbuddin’s aforementioned decade-old study as “recently published” (323) is unusual, as is the omission of any reference to Mohamad Adra’s 2011 translation of al-Muʾayyad’s Dīwān.

In referring to the endnotes, I often had difficulty correlating them with the text of the work. Later, I discovered that in chapter 1, the notes have been incorrectly numbered, as there are 251 in the text, but only 250 in the notes section, something the copy editor might have addressed. This disconnect occurs in other chapters as well, though the numbering appears correct. In chapter 3, on page 133, for example, the phrases “seal of the cycles” (khātam al-adwār) and “seal of the imāms” (khātam al-aʾimmah) are followed by an endnote. Neither of the two expressions occur on the pages cited, and the page number of one of the citations is not from the majlis mentioned. Similarly, “the interpretation of the ‘elite’” (tafsīr al-khāssah, sic, al-khāṣṣah) is referred to on page 138. However, the corresponding reference, while having the word tafsīr, doesn’t mention the tafsīr al-khāṣṣah

These concerns, of course, are minor in the context of Alexandrin’s excellent, thoroughly researched contribution to the field of Islamic intellectual history. Hers is the most extensive study to date of the concept of walāyah in the writings of al-Muʾayyad. The work is a must-read for scholars seeking to understand the nature of divine authority and leadership in Islam, particularly in Shia and Sufi contexts.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Shaifque N. Virani is Distinguished Professor of Islamic Studies at the University of Toronto.

Date of Review: 
September 6, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Elizabeth R. Alexandrin is associate professor of Islamic studies and senior fellow at St. John’s College, the University of Manitoba, Canada.

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