Beyond the Quran

Early Ismaili ta’wil and the Secrets of the Prophets

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David Hollenberg
  • Columbia, SC: 
    University of South Carolina Press
    , October
     192 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


David Hollenberg provides us with a welcome addition to the scholarly literature on early and medieval Isma`ilism in Beyond the Quran. This group—one of the three major branches of Shi`ism—stressed the esoteric interpretation (ta’wil) of both word and world. Using this method of interpretations, Isma`ili missionaries claimed knowledge of spiritual truths, which then figured highly in their proselytizing activities (da`wa) among non-Isma`ilis. Within this context, Hollenberg offers one of the first full-scale analyses of the genre of ta’wil, a hermeneutic that the missionaries believed to derive from God through the mediation of the Rightly Guided Caliphs, from its origins in the mid-ninth century through to the reign of the Fatimid Caliph al-Mu`izz li-din Allah (d. 975).

Chapter 1 examines the early Isma`ili mission. It offers a brief summary of the history of da`wa in early Shi`ism, showing how missionaries played a crucial role in the spread of Isma`ili propaganda. Hollenberg does well to note how the missionaries were able to smooth over the tensions that emerged with the rise of Isma`ili political power associated with the rise of the Fatimid Empire in 909. This now meant that the Fatimid ruler assumed two potentially contradictory roles: the spiritual leader of humanity as well as the political ruler of the empire. The missionaries, Hollenberg argues, were the ones who were able to smooth these tensions over by recourses to ta’wil, or allegoresis. Political power, thus, could be read as not simply a mundane phenomenon.

Chapter 2 provides a history of the term ta’wil and then offers a helpful list of Fatimid and pre-Fatimid literature. Chapter three then examines the “habits of mind” (53) that make particular interpretations possible. Here Hollenberg relies on theories of cognition derived from cognitive science to interpret these literary sources. He analyzes these sources, in his own words, “as exemplars of symbols, patterns, and logics—the consciousness—that made their composition possible” (53). The Isma`ili missionaries, on his reading, succeeded in creating “new cognitive worlds” for their students. I’ll address his use of cognitive science below, but it should suffice for now that there are potential problems of using contemporary ethnographic anthropological data—often divorced from historical and literary contexts—and then projecting this retroactively back onto the premodern world.

Chapter 4 is devoted to showing how Isma`ilism, as a sectarian movement, created a profound sense of trust among its adherents. Much of this was challenged, again, on account of Fatimid political success. Once again, it was the Fatimid missionaries who were responsible for marginalizing these challengers as apostates. In this, the missionaries were facilitated by Ja`far ibn Mansur al-Yaman’s theory of prophecy—which Hollenberg subjects to a close reading. This theory, he argues, recognized that previous prophets, on account of their lack of political success, were forced to deposit supernal signs in other forms, which included rituals and institutions. The Fatimid ruler could thus do what previous prophets could not: provide a safe haven for his followers. It also meant—and this was contrary to Sunni legal thinking—that the divinely-aided Imams, including their missionaries, could recover these supernal traces in sources such as the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament.

Chapter 5 breaks with received opinion that imagines Isma`ili missionaries as subjecting the Hebrew Bible to ta’wil as a way to convert Jews to their message. Instead, Hollenberg argues that these missionaries engaged in such practices as a way to show that they were in possession of secret teachings outside of the Muslim mainstream, and that they could provide such hidden and forbidden wisdom to their followers. This was also a way to maintain Isma`ili and Fatimid legitimacy in the face of detractors.

On the whole, the argument is successful and Hollenberg is to be congratulated for bringing Isma`ili taw’il to light, and for subjecting it to non-indigenous categories of analysis. However, and relatedly, one of the least successful aspects of the book—to which I alluded above—is when Hollenberg brings in theoretical insights supplied by cognitive science. He does not elaborate enough to appease the theoretician, and probably provides too much theoretical information for the specialist in the medieval Arabic manuscript tradition. Hollenberg’s theoretical insights, while making him appear au courant to those of us in religious studies, will undoubtedly put off those who work on these texts and are not scholars of religion. Indeed, I assume it would be the latter who would be his main audience. In like manner, the highly technical aspects of this literature—and, indeed, of the book under review—make it seem, despite his theoretic interventions, foreign to many scholars of religion. This is the unfortunate lot of those whose do important work, but do so in “non-normative” traditions. This, of course, says more about the field than it does Hollenberg’s analysis.

Regardless, this is an important work that illumines a particular aspect of Isma`ilism and, I would hope, provides insights to others working with medieval esoteric literature.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Aaron W. Hughes is Philip S. Bernstein professor of religion at the University of Rochester.

Date of Review: 
June 13, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

David Hollenberg is Assistant Professor of Arabic and Islamic studies at the University of Oregon. He has authored articles on Ismailism and is the coeditor of The Yemeni Manuscript Tradition. Hollenberg is the founder of the Yemen Manuscripts Digitization Initiative, a collective of scholars and librarians devoted to preserving the manuscripts of Yemen.


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