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A Resurrection

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For a community assembled outside a mountain fortress in northern Iran, the future suddenly became the past on 17 Ramadan, 559 AH (August 8, 1164 CE). By itself, this should hardly make for a remarkable situation as expected time transforms into experience for all human beings on a constant basis. But this occasion was noteworthy because the event that had purportedly caused the transformation was described as qiyamat, the resurrection, which was supposed to mark the end of time itself. The community involved were the Nizari Isma’ili Shi’is of the fortress of Alamut. The message was delivered by their leader, Imam Hasan (d. 1166), whose name was henceforth given the benediction “Peace be upon his Mention” (Ala Dhikrihi as-Salam).

The resurrection at Alamut is challenging to capture in narrative because of the claim about time embedded in its very idea. Looking upon it in hindsight, when we put a date on it, we immediately nullify its truth claim. If it was an event in the past in the ordinary sense, then it must have been a fraud since time as we understand it did not end in 1164. But if we consider it to be true, then we must rethink how we understand time. If time did end in 1164, then it must be in a dimension apart from ordinary comprehension.

The resurrection of 1164 is a puzzle that can help diversify our views regarding the sequencing of time. Events at Alamut were part of the long and complicated history of Isma’ili Shi’ism, which I cannot engage here in detail. I see the resurrection as a fulcrum in the construction of time that interpreters have represented in opposing ways. For Nizari Isma’ilis since 1164, the resurrection is the moment when the true nature of existence was revealed. This view has important intellectual and social repercussions regarding the past and the future.

While Alamut and their other fortresses in Iran and Syria were destroyed in the thirteenth century, the Nizari Ismai’ili tradition survives to the present. One hallmark of the group is a doctrine rooted in the resurrection: for the world to exist, it must always contain a “Present Imam” (Hazar Imam). Forty-ninth in a line of descent from Muhammad via his daughter Fatima, the current Imam is Prince Karim al-Husayni Aga Khan IV (b. 1936). In the world’s continuation after the resurrection, he and his predecessors and successors contain the past as well as the future in their bodily presence.

In contrast with the Nizari understanding, Sunni Muslims who helped to destroy the community at Alamut (discussed in the section “The Mongol Catalysis” in chapter 3) saw the resurrection as an absurdity, the corruption of an important religious idea. Differently still, modern historians have seen it as a symbolic proclamation of independence by a beleaguered Shi’i minority living amid a severely hostile Sunni majority. Although these two external views are, respectively, censorious and sympathetic, both are dismissals of the event’s claim regarding time. Examining the event’s logic from both inside and outside helps us to see time’s multidimensional possibilities.

Disclosure of Inner Reality

Matching the dramatic nature of the event it hosted, Alamut is in forbiddingly difficult terrain. The location is part of the explanation for the Nizari Isma’ilis’ presence here between 1088 and 1256. The Nizaris are an offshoot of the Isma’ili branch of Shi’ism. During the tenth and eleventh centuries, the Isma’ilis held political power in Egypt as Fatimid Caliph-Imams. They founded Cairo in 969 and established a widespread network of propagators and sympathizers for their understanding of Islam. Nizar was a claimant to the Imamate who lost to a rival in Egypt. One of his Iranian supporters, Hasan-i Sabbah (d. 1124), managed to establish a community in Alamut in 1088, with further outposts in other similarly difficult to access places in the mountains of Iran and Syria. Joined ideologically and politically, the Isma’ili fortress communities existed in a state of precarious military detente with other powers of the area, who were mostly Sunni Muslims, until destruction by Mongol armies in the mid-thirteenth century.

The resurrection enacted in 1164 by Hasan ‘Ala Dhikrihi as-Salam, a successor to Hasan-i Sabbah, was long in the making. It constituted the material activation of a theoretical position developed in Isma’ili thought for centuries before the event. As described in the major early work explaining the resurrection (qiyamat) and the “resurrector” Imam (qa’im) who announces it, the event of 1164 was the end point of a series of temporal cycles:

[E]very 7,000 years the Qa’im of the Qiyamat…becomes manifest, and when this is repeated seven times, the seventh is called the Qiyamat of the Qiyamats.…In our cycle, it is the manifestation of the Qa’im of all Qiyamats in the Qiyamat of all Qiyamats. In the fourth geographical region (iqlim), which is the region of the sun in the land of Babil, in Iran among the mountains of Daylaman in Alamut fortress, may God protect it (Badakhchani, Spiritual Resurrection, 89).

Actual descriptions of the Alamut resurrection come from later sources, indicating that a special ceremony was held on the day of the event. Hasan came down from the castle, greeted the community assembled from various regions, and made a proclamation in Arabic that characterized the resurrection as a radical change regarding matters of interpretation and apprehension:

Stand, all of you, for the resurrection has risen! Now the wait for the sign is exhausted. This is the rising of the resurrection that is the end of all resurrections. Today [things are] not proven through arguments and signs. Today, [things are] not known through signs/verses [of the Quran], discourses, or pointers, and bodies are no longer [subjected to] acts of obedience. Today is the absolute end of all acts, sayings, signs, and pointers. Whoever sees, sees the Essence with the eye. One who sees via the conglomeration of signs/verses and indications—and apprehends it [Essence] via its names and properties—is inverted and is inside out, someone who is [ignorant because] veiled (Quhistani, Haft Bab, 41–42).

Before the event, encountering the world consisted of acts of the mind and body that connected signs to truths. Reading the Quran’s verses and cogitating on them were mediatory processes that led to the knowledge of God’s essence. Similarly, praying while using the body in the prescribed way was a mediatory act indicating acquiescence to God’s authority. The resurrection nullified the necessity of these mediations. It promised that one who possessed the right kind of sight can see God by the eye directly.

While we can understand the distinction that is being made here between pre- and postresurrection viewpoints, what does this actually mean for embodied human beings who exist physically in the world? How is the world different to them before versus after the resurrection? And how are they supposed to conduct themselves in this new dispensation? The answers to these questions differed radically between those who understood the resurrection as a corruption versus the Nizari Imams’ followers.

Resurrection as Unreasonable Falsehood

The resurrection enacted at Alamut is an intellectually complicated business. Its prehistory as well as the justification shared after the event references long-standing intellectual systems preserved in philosophical works that were a part of Alamut’s famed library. The historian ‘Ata-Malik Juvayni, who was severely inimical toward the Nizaris and accompanied the Mongol armies that destroyed Alamut, was allowed to examine the library before it was destroyed. Juvayni’s history of the Mongol conquests contains a long, condemnatory section on the Nizaris in which the resurrection of 1164 features prominently as a nonsensical event whose only purpose could be to sow anarchy and libertinism.

Juvayni’s account of the event is largely the same as what is given in Nizari sources, although he adds expressions of censure and surprise. His interpretation of the event states the following:

Following the philosophers’ view, they said the world was pre-eternal, time was unending, and the return [back to life after death] was spiritual. They have interpreted paradise and helland what is in them, such that these are spiritual [entities].

Based on this foundation, they also said that the resurrection was to be the time when people would reach God, and the interiors and full realities of created beings would become apparent. Actions denoting servitude would be lifted since, in the [preresurrection] world, everything was action, without recompense [being visible], and in the other [postresurrection] world, everything is recompense, and no action, this being a spiritual matter. And the resurrection that is promised and expected by all nations and paths was that which Hasan revealed.

On this account, shari’a obligations have been lifted from people, since, in this time after the resurrection, everyone must turn the face toward God [alone] in all respects, forsaking customs of the shari’a and time-bound acts of worship (Juvayni, Tarikh-i Jahangushayi, 819).

Juvayni’s description captures the gist of the claim made for the resurrection by the Nizaris correctly. However, the context in which this statement is placed makes it clear that he regards the claim as being absurd, a contention on the basis of which the Nizaris have caused themselves to be condemned on a self-evident basis.

In Juvayni’s view, unmediated access to true realities while one exists in the material world has no intellectual credence. States of being in paradise and hell violate senses of experience we have of the material world. To interpret the promised resurrection, and the ultimate reward and punishment, as spiritual events is nonsensical. Moreover, it is an invitation to the destruction of Islam’s moral and ritual order in the world.

The resurrection, for Juvayni, implies that human beings are no longer bound to prescribed acts of worship and the division of things between good and bad, permissible and forbidden. This is the very end of Islam, marking the Nizaris as an ultimate form of dangerous heresy. As discussed in chapter 3, Juvayni’s view of the Nizaris was severe enough that even the untold misery that had been brought on all Muslims during the Mongol invasions was justifiable because they had eliminated Alamut and other Nizari centers.

The Imam’s Eternal Presence

Contrary to Juvayni’s interpretation, Nizari works on the resurrection give no indication that the event was meant to inaugurate an era where everyone could do whatever they wanted. The lifting of the duty to perform shari’a rituals was replaced by other intellectual, social, and moral burdens that demanded a tremendous amount from the believer. Juvayni’s condemnation works only in the abstract, appealing to his coreligionist critics of the Nizaris. It does not, however, represent anything regarding the actual religious and communal life established in Alamut and other places after the resurrection.

Looking back at the statement attributed to Hasan at the resurrection, we note, in postresurrection time, a crucial distinction between those who can see and others who are veiled. The seeing ones can see God in the world directly (hence they are in paradise), while the veiled ones are lost (and are therefore in hell). How does one get designated as someone who sees? This is not something external since seeing is not an act that can be judged by an outsider, something emphatically the case after the declaration of resurrection.

The key to seeing is acknowledging the Imam present in front of one’s eyes. In the postresurrection Nizari system, this requirement comes with heavy intellectual and practical obligations, in effect replacing the kind of burden that someone like Juvayni associates with the shari’a. The first issue is to understand the Imam correctly, a matter that is keyed to the correct understanding of time:

All the Imams are just the same as ‘Ali, prostration and prayer be upon mention of him. It is he, who has neither a beginning nor an end, but in relation to the people he may appear as a father, as a son, or as a grandson. Sometimes he appears as a young person, as a child, or in a mother’s womb, [sometimes] in concealment or manifest, as a king, in poverty or oppression, or forgiving and merciful. He makes all these appearances to human eyes from a physical perspective, so that all creatures may sustain their existence.

In relation to time, he [the Imam] makes an appearance today, as he has in the previous year or the year before last. People may say, for example, that 1,000 years ago there was such a person, and a 1,000 years from now there will be such a person, but no one says that at present too there is such a person in the world. [Similarly] in relation to place, he may sometimes appear in the east, sometimes in the west, sometimes in the north and sometimes in the south, sometimes in this city or another. All these appearances belong to one and the same person, but because of the order of relative existence (hukm-i idafa) and physical vision (nazar-i khalqi) he appears multiple (Badakhchani, Spiritual Resurrection, 63).

This important statement stems from a particular view of the relationship between human beings and the universe as, respectively, microcosm and macrocosm: “The universe is the human being dispersed, and the human being is the sum of the entirety of the universe” (74). While all human beings are a part of the microcosm-macrocosm relationship, the living Imam is its full manifestation. In the postresurrection period, acknowledging the Imam in this way is coming to see the universe. The Imam’s presence is a kind of portal that allows one to see through the contingent, relative, time-bound existence in which one is mired. This presence has been there in all times, but it was hidden until the resurrection. The resurrection has revealed the Imam as the macrocosm/universe, which is also the manifest form of God. Knowledge of this universal being is the same thing as its direct apprehension (since mediation has ended). If one has this knowledge, one is in paradise. Otherwise, one is in hell. For the one in paradise, physical death is immaterial. It is just a matter of shedding the body while one remains unmediatedly connected to the truth that is the Imam. For those in hell, physical death is the utter end; eternal perdition means to pass into nonexistence upon physical death.

It is important not to confuse the sense of identification between God and the Imam as a case of divine incarnation. That would mean, erroneously, that God is something other than material, who can impregnate a material body in the form of a spirit. This is why, in the statement above, the author states that no one says that the Imam is only “here.” The resurrection’s claim is that there is no duality between the Imam and the world. If we believe the world exists, then it is the same essential entity as the Imam, present without reference to time. The material bodies of particular Imams are born and die without a problem for the system. If divinity is material—that is, it is the Imams’ continual presence into the everlasting future, irrespective of changing bodies—normal life cycles simply mimic the presence as Truth that has become available for direct apprehension after the resurrection.

The work I have cited to explain the doctrine of resurrection was composed about forty years after the declaration of resurrection. The author of this also left a collection of Persian poetry dedicated to the Qa’im, the Nizari Imam in the postresurrection period. In one poem, he addresses the Imam as follows:

Interview with Aga Khan IV discussing the relationship between religious belief and acting in the world.

Your resurrection is manifest! Our necks

in the snare of your proof, we have come.

Though evil deeds we have surely done, your dignity

drives us to come, bearing a thousand shames.

We have come, uttering not a word to anyone,

as we are among peoples of the time of resurrection.

A bare kind command is sufficient for us,

burdened with sins and deceit, as we have come.

Recognizing no lord other than you,

we have come undoubting, unsoiled by distrust (Katib, Divan-i Qaʼimiyat, 307).

Evident in these verses and postresurrection Nizari literature in general, the believer’s relationship with the Imam requires complete devotion and dependence. It involves acknowledging a sense of insufficiency and sinfulness, which is corrected through direction received from the Imam.

The Nizari worldview differs from many other forms of Islam is that, after the resurrection, the physical world is understood as the sole theater of cosmic activity. To remain existing past physical death means to recognize the Imams and to strengthen the relationship to them, both intellectually and emotionally. The same obligation works in reverse as well: living Imams become available to those who recognize them and provide guidance. In modern times, the guidance on this score has included not just religious instruction but also material betterment through economic development and the expansion of social support systems. This is plausible within the logic of the 1164 resurrection. Since that time, the future has been an issue focused on the world apprehended through the senses. But the path to a future of eternal salvation or perdition depends on how one is positioned with respect to the present Imam.

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