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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.

Although Smirnov 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.

In his 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.

Smirnov also 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.

Smirnov offers 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.

Smirnov also 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.

Despite the 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  Ismaili studies.