What are the Universal Intellect and Universal Soul?
“The first thing created by God was the Intellect; The first thing created by God was my Light.”
– Prophet Muhammad,(Willam Chittick, The Sufi Path of Love, State University of New York Press, New York 1983, p. 66)
The Universal Intellect ( ‘Aql-i Kull) is the first being originated by God and the noblest of all existents. Intellect is a spiritual being of light (nur) – it is therefore called the Muhammadan Light, the Light of Imamat, the Heaven, the Throne ('Arsh), the Sun, the Pen (Qalam), etc.
In classical Isma‘ili philosophy, God Himself transcends all attributes, descriptions, and names including the categories of space and time, being and non-being, unity and multiplicity, and even existence and non-existence. God Himself or the Ultimate Reality is referred to simply as ‘He who is above all else’ because He transcends and is prior to the distinction between subject and object and thus outside the range of human knowledge.
In the Isma‘ili metaphysical worldview, all of the attributes and qualities of greatness, majesty and perfection, particularly those of an anthropomorphic nature, pertain to the Universal Intellect or Light of Imamate while keeping in mind that ‘He who is above all else’ is beyond all such qualities. The Universal Intellect includes all divine attributes and is, technically speaking, the ‘First Cause’ and the ‘Necessary Being’ ( wajib al-wujud) of the onto-cosmological hierarchy which gives rise to the physical world. The Universal Intellect encompasses all things and all being within itself for it is the first and most perfect entity originated by God.
" The [Universal] Intellect is complete and perfect. It knows all things, and knows them all at once; there is nothing for it to know later or better. There is no motion or time within the Intellect or within which the Intellect functions, for time and motion have not yet come into existence in the realm of the Intellect. Not only does the Intellect know all things; it encompasses all beings, material and spiritual. In fact, following the Command ‘Be!’, the Intellect is all being; there is nothing outside of itself. The Intellect also lacks nothing and needs nothing, because there is nothing other than its actual perfection."
(Alice Hunsberger, The Ruby of Badakhshan, p. 159)
The human intellect (‘ aql al-juz) in each person is a trace or reflection of the Universal Intellect. It is human intellect which connects man to the source of all being and distinguishes him from the rest of the physical world.
The Isma‘ili Imam is the locus of manifestation ( mazhar) of this Universal Intellect or Light of Imamate. The term mazhar suggests the idea of a mirror which reflects or manifests an object without actually incarnating it physically or causing any change or alternation to the object. Accordingly, it is the pure human soul of the Imam which serves as this mirror or mazhar of the Universal Intellect which is reflected in the Imam’s soul without actually or materially descending into the person of the Imam. It is only in this sense that the Imam is called the ‘bearer of the Light’. Universal Intellect remains transcendent in the higher spiritual realm and manifest in the created world while never materially descending into it.
The concept of the Universal Intellect as the source of the human intellect continues to hold relevance today – as mentioned by Mawlana Hazar Imam at the inauguration of the Aga Khan University:
“ The Divine Intellect, ‘Aql-i Kull, both transcends and informs the human intellect. It is this intellect which enables man to strive towards two aims dedicated by the Faith: that he should reflect upon the environment Allah has given and that he should know himself. It is the light of intellect which distinguishes the complete human being from the human animal and developing that intellect requires free enquiry.”
- Imam Shah Karim al-Husayni Aga Khan IV, Aga Khan University Inauguration Address, Karachi, November 11, 1985
The Universal Soul, referred to as the Earth and Guarded Tablet ( lawh mahfuz), emanated from the Universal Intellect and created the Cosmos as a whole in order to achieve and actualize its perfection so it can return to the Universal Intellect. The Universal Soul accomplishes this task by means of creating perfect souls including the souls of the Prophets, Imāms, and the Ḥudūd al-Dīn (Ranks of Faith) who provide the Da‘wat al-Haqq (Summons of Truth) in each age to guide humanity.