The Ismailis and the Qur'an: Is there an Ismaili Ta'wil?

A lecture by Dr. Omar Ali-de-Unzaga, Research Associate, The Institute of Ismaili Studies, London. Part of the conference "Reflections on Ismaili Studies: Standing on Poonawala's Shoulders."

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Duration: 41:35

One of the many subjects covered by Professor Ismail Poonawala in his long and fruitful career has been the Ismaili’s interaction with the Qur’an. This is a topic that, however, continues to be largely misunderstood given the little research that has been carried out on it. One of the reasons for this might be that recent scholarship has tended to focus on the formal genre of Qur’anic commentary (tafsir). Exegesis of course, took place in numerous other genres. In fact, Ismaili works abound with not only scriptural exegesis (of the Qur’an by also of Biblical material), but also with what may be termed ‘ritualistic’ exegesis and ‘cosmographic’ exegesis.

This lecture will consist of two parts: firstly an examination of Prof. Poonawala’s contribution to our understanding of the Ismailis’ approaches to the Qur’an, and secondly a rumination on the pervading myths and misunderstandings concerning this issue. In particular, Ali-de-Unzaga will focus on what may be termed the “paradoxes” that arise when we compare the average understanding of the Ismailis’ attitude to the Qur’an and the historical sources. Some of this paradoxes can be best tackled if expressed in the form of questions, such as: is there such a thing as an (or one) Ismaili interpretation of the Qur’an, or even an Ismaili perspective on how to interpret the Qur’an? In Ismaili Shi‘ism, is the Imam the only rightful interpreter? Why did the Ismailis not engage in tafsir? (or did they)? According to the Ismailis, does the esoteric interpretation (taʾwīl) of the revelation invalidate the literal sense (ẓāhir)? The lecture will be an attempt to unravel the apparent paradoxes in answering these questions.


Dr. Omar Ali-de-Unzaga is the Academic Coordinator of the Qur’anic Studies Unit and a Research Associate in the Department of Academic Research and Publications. He was a recipient of the IIS PhD Scholarship in 1999, and is currently involved in a number of research programmes and publications at the IIS.

Dr Ali-de-Unzaga completed a PhD at the University of Cambridge, on the use of the Qur’an in the Epistles of the Pure Brethren (Ikhwan al-Safa). His thesis analyses the classical sources that dealt with the authorship, influence and criticsm of the Epistles, and provides a study on the exegesis of the Epistles most quoted Qur’anic verses, as well as a discussion on the hermeneutical theory of the Ikhwan al-Safa. It also includes an annotated index of more than nine hundred Qur’anic quotations found in the Epistles.

Omar obtained a BA in English Philology from the Universidad Complutense of Madrid. He graduated from the Institute's Graduate Programme in Islamic Studies and Humanities in 1997. He completed his MPhil at the University of Cambridge, writing his dissertation on the 11th century poet Abu'l-Ala' al-Ma‘arri.

Dr Ali-de-Unzaga has taught a course at the University of Cambridge on the Ethics of the Ikhwan al-Safa. He is currently preparing a publication under the working title: A Philosophical Reading of Scripture: The Qur’an in the Epistles of the Pure Brethren, as well as a critical edition of the Arabic text, and an English translation, of the Epistle on Character Traits (al-Risala fi'l-Akhlaq) of the Ikhwan al-Safa' for the IIS/OUP Brethren of Purity Series. He has recently edited the volume Fortresses of the Intellect: Ismaili and Other Islamic Studies in Honour of Farhad Daftary (2011).