I recently had the honour teaching one term of Ta’lim four BUI: based on the curriculum by the Institute of Ismaili Studies. (Side note: I must’ve done a good job, because they immediately took me out of the classroom and onto the Administrative Team) I started off the class making sure the students knew that “what you’re about to learn is the most important thing you will ever learn in your life.” And then, without a twinge of irony, I proceeded to tell this story:
Once upon a time, some shapes were drawn onto a sheet of paper. Once drawn, they bounced to life and started coming together. They held onto each other to make larger, more complex shapes like houses and rocket ships. But soon, the shapes grew tired and started to explore the vast sheet of paper on which they resided. Once they’d explored all four corners, they turned once again to each other and started to talk about their own existence. The shapes began to wonder where they came from and how they came to be. “Obviously,” said one of the shapes,” there must be someone who created us. “Of course,” the other shapes agreed. “But where is this Creator?” The shapes began to question and look around.
“The Creator must be somewhere on this page,” claimed Square. “For this page is all that exists.”
“But we’ve already explored this whole page,” protested Triangle. “And we haven’t found Him. Therefor, the Creator must reside outside of this page.”
“What if,” tried Circle, who had been quiet until now. “What if the Creator lives inside of us.”
Now, my first time reading it through, I thought this was a stupid story: shapes, first of all, don’t talk. But what the story introduces is far more meaningful than the story used to tell it. This acid trip brings up the three types of questions that we all ask (and also, the essence of Isma’ili thought. More on that later).
Questions of Science
Square, in the story, was looking for answers in the world around him. In the case of the story, the sheet of paper on which the shapes existed and to which they were limited is analogous to the universe in which we exist and to which we are limited. If we were like Square, we’d look for all of our answers in the world around us. We have a word for that kind of search, it’s called:
Science takes the world around us, and shows us the patterns interwoven throughout. Science fulfils itself on the hard, the real, the replicable. Actual scientists will disagree with my phrasing when I say that science deal with objective truths, but the fact is that once something is proven enough to become a Scientific Law, there’s no justifiable reason to believe it’s not true (until evidence surmounts to the opposite, but that’s a long complicated process). If you want to know anything about the world around you, you turn to science. Confusingly, this also applies to questions of history, but that’s more to do with documentation. Some example questions can include:
- When was the Earth formed?
- What colour is the sky?
- How can birds fly?
Questions of Psychology
In class, the questions Circle asked were called “Questions of Art” because that’s what the book said, and my students were ten. But these are basically questions about feelings, and preferences. These are questions about you. When you’re compiling your knowledge of the universe, you shouldn’t forget to include questions about yourself. Human consciousness (aside from being impossible to spell correctly the first time through) is an extremely complicated thing. It’s one of the few things that we can’t replicate in a lab, and we’ve replicated the beginning of the whole Universe.
A great way to get some answers to these psychological questions is with introspection. With introspection, you basically look at the way you think and try to figure out where you get your thoughts from. Introspection is easy enough to start. Just ask yourself:
However, once you get started, it’s pretty hard to stop (unless you either give up or scare yourself away). You’ll begin to learn more and more about what makes you tick, why you like what you like, and why you just can’t say no to one more s’more. Some examples of these questions can be:
- Why does shredded cheese taste better than sliced?
- Why do you keep driving away everyone that you care about?
- Why do I like blue more than green?
Questions of Faith
Technically, all of the shapes were asking questions of their own faith. But, Triangle was the one to actually look outside of everything that she had ever known to find something else. On the surface, this may seem a little far-fetched, but it sits well with 84% of the world’s population (according to Pew).
These are the types of questions that have been answered for centuries by ancient tomes and old people in funny hats. And the book made it very clear that we cannot answer these questions through observation or introspection; we need someone else to answer them. In Islam, that someone else is whatever Imam you follow. In Catholicism, that’s the pope. In the Yaohnanen tribe off the coast of Australia, that’s Prince Phillip for some reason. Either way, the kind of knowledge isn’t something you can just get with a quick Google search. Questions of faith can include:
- What is my purpose?
- What’s right and wrong?
- What’s the easiest way to get into heaven?
While all these questions are equally important to understanding as much as we can about our existence, science is clearly winning.
In addition to the physical world around us (and documented history fits into this category, too), science is encroaching on the other subjects as well. Advances in neurology and biology are giving us scary accurate insights into our own behaviour. Something that was once was thought to be something outside the realm of the natural world, like thinking and dreaming, are now known to be caused by chemical reactions. There’s still questions of the “mind” but that mostly just boils down to semantics. What is a mind, really?
Religion and Science constantly come into conflict. And unless you’re a religious revisionist, fossil records blow almost anything written in scripture out of the floodwaters. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to reconcile what’s written in the books to what’s written in stone below our feet. More people are becoming atheist than ever in recorded history, because they’re abandoning thoughts that don’t fit with the actual world in which we live. But this kind of reconciliation between what we know and what we don’t all comes down to one Arabic word.
I wish this word’s translation was straightforward
But it never is, with Arabic. In Isma’ilism (see? I told you we were gonna get to that), ‘ilm is often used to refer to a Divine Knowledge. This is a knowledge that only the rightful Imam has, and it’s his (or her, fingers crossed) direct link with Allah. This is the whole reason they’re allowed to lead the Jamat: because they have the Divine Knowledge. And the Imam got this Divine Knowledge, through their lineage, from the Prophet. If you want more detail, check out Ismaili Gnosis: they did a whole thing on that.
But let’s take a look at that Google Translate above. It says that “‘ilm” means “science.” And that little green check box means it’s verified by the Google Translate community, so you know it’s legit. Even the alternative translations carried strong correspondence to knowledge or the passing of knowledge. (Side note: there was also a correspondence to flags and banners, which just validates people like Sheldon Cooper, CGP Grey, Roman Mars, and myself).
As is usually the case with Arabic, the word means both. ‘Ilm describes the knowledge we can ascertain from the world around us, through Questions of Science, and the world within us, through Questions of Psychology. But it also describes the knowledge that we can’t quite get. Knowledge that has evaded mankind since before Plato talked about a cave that I didn’t think was that weird until I had to explain it to children. Now, if this Ta’lim book (Ta’lim is also derived from ‘ilm) is to be believed, we can get that knowledge by following the Imam of the time. And since I still practice this religion, I’m not going to comment on that sentiment.
It was during the Alamut period that the Isma’ili Ta’lim, now in colourful books, was instituted. These teachings accentuated the esoteric beliefs already a part of Shia Islam. Among these beliefs were the interconnectivity of the physical and the metaphysical. If you’re Ismaili, you might know it as the terms: Din and Duniya, the spiritual and physical respectively. One of the points the Imam has been trying to drive home is that the two are “inextricably linked” (his words, not mine), that they are not two sides of the same coin, but the same side of a unidimensional, one-sided coin. I’ll admit, it’s hard to make a metaphor for that.
The word ‘Ilm plays both ends of that dynamic. The knowledge of the world is also the knowledge of the Divine, you can’t have one without the other. Delving into one is delving into the other. It’s this notion that have driven Isma’ilis in history to pursue the physical sciences like crazy during the Fatimid Empire, and run the world’s greatest [real] library while in hiding, during the Alamut period.
There’s an awesome quote that I started this class with, and with which I wanted to end this blog post, but I’m not allowed to post it publicly. So, if you have a chance, look up the farman from Calgary: April 23rd, 1983. You’ll see what I’m talking about. Until then, I’ll tell you what I kept telling my students: never stop asking questions (and shut your face, Sarvech).