Possible Ismā‘īlī Influence on Joachim

The opportunity

The Normans had conquered Sicily in the eleventh century from its Muslim rulers but, as a tiny minority in an alien land, they had been keen to encourage co-operation and to preserve the Muslim tradition of religious toleration.  They maintained the hierarchies of both Greek and Latin churches, encouraged Basilian as well as Benedictine monasteries, fostered Muslim scholarship and took on many Arabic customs.  In the twelfth century Sicily became one of the centres for the transmission of Greek and Arabic learning to Latin scholars like Adelard of Bath.[1]

Sicily had belonged to the Fātimid Caliphate of Egypt.[2]  The Fātimids had originally been part of the secret, revolutionary Ismā‘īlī community, which had promulgated an unorthodox and insurrectionary political and religious programme.  The Fātimids had had to compromise on many political issues since coming to power, but they still remained Ismā‘īlī in their basic religious position.  They had always studied Jewish and Christian scriptures as well as their own, preferring an esoteric interpretation of all religion, and they had often made contact with Jews.[3]  There could still have been Ismā‘īlī scholars in Sicily.  It is theoretically possible that their ways of looking at history could have had a bearing on Joachim’s development.

The seven great prophets

It is always difficult to distinguish Ismā‘īlī doctrine at any particular time and place.  This study will begin by considering the evidence from the Book of Righteousness and True Guidance (Kitāb al-Rushd wa’l-Hidāyat), which is dated shortly before the Fātimid triumph in North Africa.[4]

In this book, the writer noted that the Ismā‘īlī belief, that there are 7 great prophets, whose work is continued by 7 a’imma (sing. imām), was confirmed by the way the Qur’ān was structured and by the Arabic letters used in it.  The 7 Arabic letters used in the blessing: “In the name of Allāh, the Compassionate, the Merciful” could be seen to stand for the 7 great prophets, the Nutaqā’ (sing. Nātiq = one who proclaims).[5]  The way that the Qur’ān could be divided into groups of 8 sūras was taken to signify the Nātiq and the 7 a’imma who would carry on his work.  Since the latter completed the prophet’s mission, they were called Atimmā (sing. Mutimm = one who completes).  Each Nātiq introduced a new religious law, which the seven Atimmā helped to complete; the next Nātiq would then update that with his own new religious code.[6]

The seven cycles of religious history

There were thus 7 cycles in universal religious history.  Each cycle was initiated by a prophet, who abrogated the law of the preceding cycle.  Each prophet was accompanied by a Wasī (executor of his will), who would be the first imām of that cycle and so could also be called Asās (foundation: the foundation of the imāmate of that cycle).

The 7 cycles could be tabulated as:

      NĀTIQ:                ASĀS or WASĪ:     

1.   Adam                  Seth    

2.   Noah                  Shem              

3.   Abraham            Ishmael           

4.   Moses                a) Aaron, 

                                b) Joshua (because Aaron died before Moses)

5.   Jesus                 Simon Peter    

6.   Muhammad        ‘Alī     

7.   al-Mahdī             al-Mahdī[7]

Thus the present age was in the sixth cycle, that of Muhammad.  The Mahdī (the Guided One) was the prophet who was expected to inaugurate the final cycle.

The seventh cycle

According to the Book of Righteousness and True Guidance:

“Muhammad predicted the advent of al-Mahdī (may mercy from him be on us!).  He indicated that al-Mahdī will complete both the degrees, namely the degree of Prophethood and the rank of Wasī. […]  In this way al-Mahdī is the highest limit of both degrees, their completer.”[8]

He would be

“the seventh of the Nutaqā’ who is due to come by the commandment of God and the order that is going to be fulfilled.”[9]

In his time there would be:

“the perfect expression of the profession of the oneness of God and perfection of religious beliefs which are (associated with) the time of his manifestation.”[10]

Fātimid changes to these expectations

Ismā‘īlī attitudes to the doctrine of the Mahdī had to change, once the Ismā‘īlī Fātimids had established their own caliphate in North Africa.  The end-time clearly needed a lot more preparation.  The Fātimid qādī (judge), al-Nu‘mān (who died in 974),[11] expected that the sixth era of Muhammad and ‘Alī would be prolonged so that the a’imma could start to redirect the interest of believers away from material and corporeal things to inward and spiritual things, now that thy knew that the Mahdī had already appeared in the person of the first Fātimid Caliph, ‘Ubayd Allāh.[12]

Another Ismā‘īlī thinker, Ja‘far ibn Mansūr, writing in the last decades of the 10th century, kept in some respects to a more traditional Ismā‘īlī belief, that Muhammad ibn Ismā‘īl, the 7th Mutimm imām of the 6th era, was the Nātiq for the 7th era, i.e. the Mahdī.  Yet he could similarly see that, if the 7th era was currently in progress, it had not yet inaugurated a new religious life.  He supposed that this 7th era would be a long process of gradual enlightenment in which all truth would eventually be revealed, leading to the reappearance of Muhammad ibn Ismā‘īl as the Qā’im al-Qiyāma (the Imām of the Resurrection).[13]  The importance of the Mahdī, now an historical figure, was giving way to that of his future incarnation at the end of time, as the Qā’im.

Many Ismā‘īliyya believed that Muhammad ibn Ismā‘īl had gone into concealment.  He would return, after an unspecified lapse of time, as the Mahdī, who would usher in an age of pure spiritual knowledge, a time of peace and harmony, in which there would be no need for religious laws.  He would then preside, as the Qā’im, over the final resurrection.[14]

Back to Joachim

All this may be totally irrelevant to a study of Joachim.  There is no evidence, as far as I am aware, either that Joachim ever had any discussions with Muslims, whether Ismā‘īlī or not, or that he ever considered Muslims in any other way than as persecutors.

If Joachim had come across Ismā‘īlī formulations of the pattern of history, however, he could have agreed with several of their propositions:

– that there is a progressive revelation of God’s plan for his people through history,

– that history fits neatly into 7 ages of religious revelation,

– that each new age brings a more spiritual perception and a deeper insight, 

– and that in the seventh age the religious life will be perfected.

He might also have been encouraged that some Ismā‘īliyya were, like some contemporary Jews and like himself, expecting a great redeeming figure to appear in the near future.



[1] C.Haskins: Studies… (B.111) pp.171-6; P.Wolff (B.52) p.275.
[2] M.G.S.Hodgson (B.85) p.12.
[3] For example, in Syria and in Persia: B.Lewis: Origins… (B.85) p.95.
[4]W.Ivanow: Studies… (B.86) pp.29-30.
[5] ibid. p.33.
[6] ibid. pp.35-41.  See also F.Daftary: The Ismā‘īlīs… (B.85) pp.139-140.
[7] W.Ivanow: Brief Survey… (B.85) p.57;  P.Casanova (B.86) pp.139-140;  F.Daftary: The Ismā‘īlīs… (B.85) pp.139-140.
[8] Kitāb al-Rushd wa’l-Hidāyat as translated in W.Ivanow: Studies… (B.86) p.43.
[9]  ibid. p.36.
[10] ibid. p.41.
[11] F.Daftary: The Ismā‘īlīs… (B.85) p.92.
[12] ibid. pp.177-8 and p.628, notes 64-66, using al-Risāla al-Mudhhiba of al-Nu‘mān.
[13] F.Daftary: op.cit. p.179, using the Shawāhid wa’l-bayān and the Ta’wīl al-zakāt.
[14] F.Daftary: op.cit. p.140.

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