|This review was published in:
Bulletin of the School of Oriental & African Studies, Vol.62, Num.2, 1999, p.334-335
A .V. SMIRNOV (ed. and tr.): Hamid al-Din al-Kirmani, Rahat al-‘aql/ Hamid al-Din al-Kirmani. Uspokoenie razuma, predislovie, perevod s arabskogo i kommentarii A. V. Smirnova. (Ex Oriente Lux.) 510 pp. Moscow: Ladomir, 1995.
Very little is known about the life of the prominent fourth-fifth/tenth-eleventh-century Ismaili thinker Hamid al-Din Ahmad b. 'Abd Allah al-Kirmani. As his nisba suggests, he probably originated from the Iranian province of Kirman. He spent many years as a Fatimid da'i in the missionary district (jazira) of Iraq which also included parts of Iran. In the beginning of the fifth/eleventh century, at the invitation of the Fatimid da'wa organization, al-Kirmani travelled to Cairo where he participated in the controversial disputes concerning the nature of the imamate of al-Hakim. As his work testifies he upheld the view that the theory advocating the divine nature or al-Hakim was incompatible with Ismaili doctrine. After a long spell in Egypt, al-Kirmani returned to Iraq where in 411/1020-21 he completed his magnum opus, Rahat al-'aql. This treatise is the first known attempt to present a systematic view of the Ismaili philosophy. The book targeted the highly-advanced Ismaili adepts who had completed their initial intellectual and moral perfection through the study and observance of the religious sciences.
The structure of
the Rahat al-'aql is of symbolic significance since chapters and .sections
are described as ‘walls’ (aswar) and ‘crossroads’ (mashari')
of the allegorical city of gnostic knowledge. By travelling through the 56
crossroads within the seven walls of the city (corresponding to the traditional
symbolism of the number seven as well as the Ismaili concept of seven cycles
of history) the searching soul grasps the knowledge of the real nature and
structure of the universe.
Despite the tremendous importance of the Rahat al-'aql for
an understanding of the Fatimid
Ismaili system of thought, this Arabic text has never been translated into any
other language. Thus A. V.
Smirnov's attempt to render this treatise into Russian is a long awaited and
welcome contribution to the study of Islamic thought. It also breaks new ground
in the Russian tradition of translating early Arabic sources. Smirnov skillfully
combines archaic forms with neologisms (sometimes a little awkward according to
the norms of standard Russian, but rendering the exact meaning of the Arabic
terms). Previously translations have been done in standard modern Russian.
Smirnov carefully arranges the structure of his sentences (Russian has a
rather flexible sentence structure) in order to convey al-Kirmani's style.
Indeed, sometimes the reader has the impression that al-Kirmani is speaking to
him direct without any Russian mediator. Although it occasionally makes reading
more difficult this is obviously an advantage. particularly for specialists in
the field of Ismaili studies.
provides useful glossaries of some of the technical terms and explains them in
his commentaries, it would have been helpful if he had provided Arabic
equivalents in the text each time a new term is introduced. His linguistic
commentaries are admirable. In explaining the meaning of obscure Arabic words
and sentences he collates the Rahat al-'aql with the Quran, hadith,
early Arabic works and proverbs. However, Smirnov uses an unusual system of
transliteration for Arabic words; although it serves well for the rendering of
Arabic pronunciation, it would have been more convenient for the reader if he
had employed a more conventional system of transliteration.
introduction Smirnov briefly deals with the political history of the Ismailis
and their practice of disseminating knowledge. He concentrates on the Ismaili
concept of cyclical and hierarchical progression as well as numerical symbolism.
He notes the changing pattern of
Ismaili organization and propaganda and mentions that various sources provide
difficult accounts of the structure of the Ismaili da'wa. Unfortunately,
he does not give the sources he refers to. In this respect some bibliographical
notes might have been helpful for the student of Ismailism.
considers the symbolical significance of the composition of the Rahat
al-'aql. He argues that al-Kirmani's cognitive technique (balancing—muwazana
in al-Kirmani's words) entails the comprehension of the cyclical hierarchical
structure of the universe and human history through the study of the known phenomena,
i.e. the analogical relationships between the metaphysical world, the physical
world, human beings, and in particular, the Ismaili community. According to
Smirnov, the main shortcoming of al-Kirmani's method of comparing these
structural analogies is that it is bound to a retrospective analysis of existing
knowledge which is unable lo deal with the as yet unknown. The main reason for
this endemic defect is a failure to elaborate the 'technology' of transition
from the known phenomenon to the unknown. This method, with all its advantages
and shortcomings, stemmed from the theoretical assumption which is
characteristic of al-Kirmani's thought, viz., that the available knowledge is
almost complete and needs only proper systematization. In order to elucidate the
techniques of the obscure transition from the known (systematized) to the
unknown (unsystematized), Smirnov
might have employed
‘the mirror-trick’ first described by W. Skalmowski ('Wheel within wheel:
remarks on Bundahisn', International Symposium on Middle Iranian Studies,
Leuven, 1984, 296-98). Although he may not support this theory, a few remarks on
its applicability to the Rahat al-'aql would have been useful.
an interesting interpretation of Ismaili dialectics and its categories. He
implies that the end of history, i.e., the ultimate completion of creation
through the perfection of mankind, can be achieved only by the process of
hierarchical, cyclical, progressive development which harmonizes the isomorphic
structures of the Universe. Smirnov thinks that this view of cyclical
perfection, which by definition must encompass all human achievements,
explains the universalist, inclusive approach of many Ismaili thinkers, who tend
to consider many prominent non-Ismaili figures as their co-religionists.
provides a detailed commentary tracing the quranic references in al-Kirmani's
work. He establishes certain
similarities between aI-Kirmani's thought and Neoplatonic ideas and puts the
work of ‘the shaykh of Ismaili philosophers’ into the broader Ismaili as
well as general Islamic context.
obvious limits imposed by
the nature of the work of a translator and commentator, Smirnov has
managed to invest a good deal of individuality into this work. Thus, his
translation and commentaries will be of interest
to those involved in the growing field of