The Inner Meaning (Ta'wil) of 'Heavens and Earth' in the Qur'an
'Heavens and Earth' are signs (ayat) that figure prominently in the Qur'an (30:25, 3:190, 65:12, 31:20, 31:10 to cite just a few). Below it will be seen that, according to one esoteric interpretation, these are symbols for the “Hudud al-Din” (the Ranks of Faith) of the "Da'wat al-Haqq" (Summons to the Truth):
Throughout history, the Ismaili da‘wah consisted of a formal hierarchy of spiritual teachers and scholars working under the Imam of the Time. The most basic form of the Ismaili da‘wah hierarchy is as follows:
2. Bab (Gate)
3. Hujjah (Proof)
4. Da‘i (Summoner)
5. Ma’dhun Akbar (Senior Teacher)
6. Ma’dhun Asghar (Junior Teacher)
7. Mustajib (Respondent or Initiate)
It must be remembered that the Ismaili Da‘wah hierarchy is based on esoteric ‘ilm (knowledge) and gnosis (ma‘rifah), not material wealth or political power. The concept of the ranks of knowledge is found in the several verses of the Holy Qur’an:
We raise in ranks ( darajat) whom We please; and over every possessor of knowledge is a possessor of knowledge. (Holy Qur’an 12:76)
It is God who has created seven heavens and of the earth, the like of them. The Command descends among them so you may know that God is powerful over all things and that God has encompassed all things in knowledge. (Holy Qur’an 65:12)
The above seven Da‘wah Ranks are called the “Hudud al-Din” (the Ranks of Faith) in Ismaili terminology. Together, these seven Dignitaries are the “Seven Heavens” and “Seven Earths” mentioned in the Qur’an. This means that each Rank from the Imam to the Mustajib is a “Heaven” for the rank immediately below; likewise, each Rank from the Bab to the Mustajib to the person outside the Da‘wah Hierarchy is an “Earth” for the Rank immediately above it. For example, the Bab is an “Earth” compared to the Imam and a “Heaven” compared to the Hujjah. The Mustajib is an “Earth” compared to the Ma’dhun Asghar and a “Heaven” compared to those outside the Ismaili Da‘wah.
The above Ismaili Da‘wah Ranks exist and are active in every age and time – both before Prophet Muhammad and after him. Prophets of past periods used to receive spiritual training and initiation into prophethood from the dignitaries of the Da‘wah. For example, Prophet Muhammad himself was spiritually initiated by Imam Abu Talib and his Bab, Hazrat Khadijah al-Kubra; Prophet Adam was spiritually initiated by Imam Hunayd. Prophet Jesus was spiritually initiated by Mary, the Bab of the Imam Khuzaymah. Prophet Abraham was spiritually initiated by Imam Malik al-Salam (called Melchizedek in the Bible).
At another level of esoteric interpretation, Heavens and Earth represent something else which are still related in a sense to the above hierarchy:
The highest level (hadd) of the spiritual world is variously called the Universal Intellect (Aql-i Kull), the Throne (arsh), Heaven, the Light (Nur) of Imamat, the First Intellect, the Pen, etc. According to Nasir Khusraw, the Universal Intellect is the real paradise or heaven. Under the Universal Intellect, the second level (hadd) is the Universal Soul. In the Wajh-i Din, Hujjat Nasir-i Khusraw writes that the "earth" symbolizes the Universal Soul, and that just as the physical earth is the sustainer of all bodies, the universal soul (which we can think of as the spiritual earth) is the sustainer of all souls.
Below these there are various angelic levels which coincide with the levels of Paradise [the seven paradises, for example], and eventually this hierarchy begins to "densify" and we reach physical reality as we know it. In between, there are numerous levels, and each level is like its own "world" and only God knows the innumerable realms and worlds between physical reality as we know it and the highest Universal Intellect. God Himself, in the classical Isma'ili perspective, occupies no "level" as He is too great to be limited to any level and His single Command - which keeps everything in being - also encompasses all these levels and worlds.