Excerpts from the foreword by Seyyed Hossein Nesr to "Kernel of the Kernel":
(For full text see the Book "Kernel of the Kernel")
........In order to understand what intellectual strand this work represents, it is necessary to delve in a general way into the different manifestations of Islamic esoteric teachings.
The first and best‑known crystallization of the inner or esoteric teachings of the Islamic revelation is of course Sufism, which has produced a vast treasury of writings ranging from practical advice to the lives of saints, from ethical treatises to poetry and from short aphorism and letters to didactic works dealing with Islamic metaphysics, cosmology, psychology, and eschatology along with a number of other subjects. This latter category of writings is associated especially with the intellectual teachings of Sufism, dealing as it does with unitive knowledge known as gnosis or irfan/marifah its greatest expositor was Ibn Arabi many of whose works as well as those belonging to his school have now been translated and studied in many European languages, especially English and French.
A second crystallization of Islamic esoteric teachings is to be found in Ismaili philosophical and theological writings which, despite their special color associated with a particular branch of Shiism, contain many teachings drawn also from the universal sources of Islamic esoterism. In fact historically Ismailism was close to Sufism both in its origin and during its later history after the Mongol invasion when at least in Persia Ismailism appeared often in the dress of Sufism and there appeared Ismaili commentaries to well known Sufi works. During the Qajar period some of the Ismaili imams even received SA initiation. This category of writings is also known in the West and many translations and studies of Ismaili doctrinal works have appeared in various European languages over the years.
A third category is Twelve‑Imami Shiite gnosis (irfan‑i shi'i), which has produced a vast body of works many, but not exclusively, in Persian, by such figures as Sayyid Haydar Amuli, Ibn Turkah, Fayz Kashani and Qadi Said Qummi not to speak of mystical philosophers and theosophers who combined philosophy and gnosis, such as Mulla Sadra and his followers during the past few centuries and down to our day, including Hajji Mulla Hadi Sabzawari who lived in the Qajar period, as well as many of the philosopher‑gnostics of the present century. In fact, as far as Persia is concerned, the School of Tehran founded at the end of the eighteenth century, with the advent of the Qajars possessed two branches from the beginning: one devoted to philosophy especially of the School of Mulla Sadra and the second to pure Islamic esoterism in the form of gnosis. This latter school was founded by Sayyid Radi Larijani who was given the title Malik al‑Batin, the "Possessor of the Esoteric," and was the teacher of the most famous gnostic of the thirteenth/ nineteenth century in Persia, Muhammad Rida Qumshai called the Ibn-Arabi of his day, who was followed by figures distinguished by their mastery of Ibn Arabian gnosis, and Islamic esoteric teaching in general, such as Mirza Nasir Gilani, Mir Sayyid Shihab al‑Din Nayrizi, Mirza Ahmad Ashtiyani and three of my own most eminent teachers in the traditional sciences, Sayyid Muhammad Kazim Assar, Muhyi al‑Din Mahdi Ilahi Qummshai, and Sayyid Muhammad Husayn Tabatabai.........
.............The question arises concerning the source of esoteric knowledge of these men all of whom were pious and many of whom were saintly. Did their knowledge involve only theoretical learning? Were they led by the Hidden imam and/or the mysterious Prophet Khadir? Did they have a human master and receive initiation and spiritual guidance as is the case with Sufism These question have been debated a great deal concerning such famous figures as Mulla Sadra, as well as others. I remember discussing this issue for years with Corbin concerning Mulla Sadra. Corbin believed that he had no human teacher whereas I believed and still believe that he had a human teacher who initiated him into the knowledge of the Divine Mysteries.......
............What has not been studied seriously until now is the presence within Twelve‑Imami Shiism of a fourth category, which includes those who belong to an initiatic chain linking master to disciple but without the formal organization that characterizes the well‑known Sufi orders. This chain may be called a Sufi silsilah, without the name Sufi but involving regular transmission of initiatic power, spiritual direction, spiritual practices and the like all resembling Sufism Such lines of transmission were preserved in secret mostly among the class of Shiite Ulama and are the reason for the appearance of a number of eminent gnostics and saints belonging to the Ulama class. ..............
This regular chain of transmission in Shiism was and remains very hidden. Its methods and disciplines are taught only orally and those who are its masters select a few among their usually large number of religious students to initiate them into this path of spiritual perfection parallel with teaching them the major texts of theoretical 'Irfan. In the various religious schools (huwzahs) of the Shiite world, whether it be in Persia, Iraq, Pakistan, India, or elsewhere a number of students advance enough to be accepted in classes in which the works of Ibn-Arabi, Sadr al‑Din Qunawi and others are taught. But not all students who reach these levels; even those who study the most advanced texts, such as the misbah al‑uns of al‑ are permitted into the inner circle of initiates. In order to receive initiation there is also the necessity of the presence in the being of the disciple of spiritual virtue, spiritual will himmah a deep yearning for the Divine and thirst for the realization of metaphysical knowledge.
The book of allamah Tihrani is a fruit of this hidden tree of Islamic esoterism. Being itself a recension of the oral teachings of his master 'Allamah Tabatabai the work is a fine example of the kind of writing which, in the context of Shiite traditions and commentaries upon the Quran discuss the stages of the spiritual path and reveal glimpses of that unitive knowledge that lies at the end of that path. An earlier example of such a work is the Sayr wa suluk ("Spiritual Wayfaring") by the eminent Qajar religious scholar and authority on esoteric knowledge Bahr al‑Ulum who was also a master of this secret and hidden esoteric chain. Allamah Tihrani himself mentions his esoteric teachers whose chain can be summarized as in the chart that follows.
All these figures were eminent teachers in Persia and Iraq and respected highly as not only religious scholars, but also as saintly men to some of whom miracles were attributed. But only those who were initiated and guided inwardly by them became aware of their inner reality and were able to gain access to the treasury of Divine Mysteries whose keys they held. 1 studied for sonic twenty years with Allamah tabatabai and became aware through him of the rigorous spiritual discipline that "their path" required and also of the inner reality of at least one of the masters of this "hidden tariqah." He once told me that he had studied the fusus of Ibn-Arabi for years in Persia and thought that he knew this central work of Sufi gnosis well before he set out to continue his studies in najaf .
Mulla Husayn Quli Hamadani
Sayyid Ahmad Karbali
Mirza Ali Qadi Tabatabai Tabrizi
Hajj Sayyid Hashim Haddad & Allamah Sayyid Muhammad Husayn Tabataba'i
(Notice that the chart in original Book was wrong and we correct it.)
Once in that city he decided to attend the private lessons being given by Mirza Ali Qadi on the Fusus. The venerable and saintly 'Allamah Tabataba'i told me that during the first hour of the course his whole state (hal) began to change and he heard the walls of the room echoing Shaykh al-Akbar's words. He realized that until then he had only known the outward meaning of the words of the text and was only now beginning to understand what they really meant. The master later initiated the young Allamah who began to undergo parallel with his formal Studies, rigorous spiritual discipline With long fasts of silence that affected his presence for the rest of his life. One could not be in his presence, even when he was teaching, without experiencing something of the holy silence from which all words worthy of the name proceed and to which they all return.
While teaching at Qum for over thirty years, 'Allamah Tabataba'i taught regular courses on Ibn Sina's Shifa and Mulla Sadra's Asfaar. On weekends he taught a smaller number of students in a private gathering texts of irfan such as the works of Ibn 'Arabi and Ibn Turkah. Then he had an even more select circle of students who were initiated into the mysteries of gnosis and spiritual wayfaring. The book translated here is the recession of the teachings of Allamah Tabatabai in those most intimate gatherings compiled by 'Allamah Tihrani, who as a student in the 1940s and 195os attended those sessions. The work represents therefore the more esoteric aspect of the teachings of 'Allamah Tabatabai whose other works on the Qur'an, Shiism, and Islamic philosophy are well known, some already translated into English. This work in fact reveals the inner aspect of the teachings of one of the greatest Islamic scholars of the twentieth century and is also the first specimen of this kind of writing, belonging to the hidden initiatic line already mentioned, that has been rendered into English.
For historical reasons a word must also be said about Murtada Mutahhari for whom Allamah Tihrani wrote the introduction to this work. Mutahhari was one of the most gifted students of 'Allamah Tabataba'i, and a close friend of mine with whom I participated in many intellectual and religious endeavors. He possessed a keen philosophical mind but was also an activist. .............
...............Early in the 196os, however, he was arrested and imprisoned for a couple of months. Prisoners were allowed to ask for books and the first work that he asked his family to bring to him was the Mathnawi of Rumi Once out of prison, he told me how fruitful and calming that period had been and that an opening had been created in his soul for philosophical contemplation and particularly irfan in both its aspect of theory nazar and practice amal Outwardly he continued to have an active life, which was to lead to direct political participation in the tumultuous events of 1978 and finally to his tragic assassination in 1979. But inwardly he continued to be drawn ever more to the esoteric tradition and the inner teachings of Allamah Tabaitabai, summarized in this short but pithy work, the Lubb al‑ltibib, which is truly the kernel of the kernel of the fruit of revelation and which is given a title that is also used by Ibn 'Arabi in one of his well known works. Something of the inner transformation of the late Murtada Mutahhari is also present in this work and his spirit seems to have inspired his old friend Allamah Tihrani to compile the work in its present form.
Something also needs to be said in this preface about 'Allamah Tihrani himself. The publication of his complete works in recent years reveals his astonishing output in both quantity and diversity. His works range from those dealing with the Qur'an, Imamology, eschatology, and other theological issues to those concerned with the esoteric and mystical dimensions of Islam. In contrast to his teacher' Allamah Tabatabai, who refused to write on current events and politics in the ordinary sense of the term, 'Allamah Tihrani also wrote on contingent problems posed in the early years of the Islamic Revolution in Iran, resulting in certain assertions that were to be challenged and opposed later by other religious authorities in Persia itself. This aspect of his work belongs precisely to the realm of contingency and is quite dated but it should not in any way cast a shadow on the vast body of traditional studies that he has left behind and that represents one of the most imposing bodies of scholarly works produced by a single author in the Islamic world during this century. Also the fact that Allamah Tihrani was so encyclopedic in the scope of his knowledge did not in any way detract from the depth of his scholarship and understanding. He exemplifies a case of a whole category of Islamic writers going back to Farabi, Ibn Sina and Nasir al‑Din Tusi for whom extension of breadth did not mean in any sense the loss of depth.
Aside from its historical and theological significance, the Lubb al‑lubab or Kernel of the Kernel stands by itself as a masterpiece in the field of spirituality and gnosis. While naturally couched in the language and terminology of the Qur'an and hadith it conveys a message of a universal order meant for all human beings. It is a significant work not only because it makes known in the English language a hitherto unknown current of Islamic esoterism and gnosis. It is significant most of all because it deals with the deepest metaphysical and spiritual realities, which should attract all those persons, Muslims and non‑Muslims alike, who are in quest of the spiritual treasures hidden within the inner teachings of revelation that also lie deep within that primordial human nature which, although now hidden and difficult of access to most men, still constitutes the very center of our being.
Seyyed Hossein nasr