In common with other Shi’ite sects the Isma’ilis were not content to dwell on the surface meaning of the text but made use of a subtle and elaborate method of textual exegesis, called ta’wil. Every verse of the sacred book, indeed every word and even every letter, is found to have an esoteric significance, the batin, which is additional and complementary to the exoteric, surface, meaning, the zahir. This quest for inner meaning in sacred texts was, it is true, a widespread obsession in the Middle Ages, for example in the Qabbalah, and it can be found to some extent in Christianity as well, though it never became institutionalized among Christians as it did among the Isma’ilis.
More on ta'wil here http://www.quran.org.uk/articles/ieb_quran_tawil.htm
The Shi’ite writers speak of there being four levels of meaning in each verse of the Koran: the first is the surface meaning, the second is the level of allusion, the third is the occult sense, and the fourth is the level of spiritual teachings. These four levels are intended for different audiences: the first is for ordinary Muslims, the second is for the elite, the third is for the Friends of God (the ’Inner Circle’ of humanity), and the fourth is for the Prophets. A saying attributed to ’Ali, the First Imam, also gives four levels of meaning as contained in the Koran: the first is for oral recitation, the second is for interior comprehension, the third sets out those things that are allowed and those that are not, and the fourth indicates the effect that God intends to produce in man by the verse in question.
By a typically Isma’ili extension of the idea, the three levels of understanding also have a cosmological reference. The first level corresponds to the physical world and the earth element; the second level to the world of religion and to water; the third to the spiritual world and to air. But even this third level is concerned merely with knowledge of Reality, not with Reality itself; only prophets have access to Reality, through direct acquaintance with theMystery. This faculty depends on the immediate reception of divine inspiration via the brain and corresponds to the fire element, which is too burning for ordinary mortals to withstand.
The Arabic language, being the raw material, so to speak, out of which the Koran was constructed, also contained vital clues to the organization of the universe, and here the analogy with a cipher system is particularly close. for example, the Divine Command which gives rise to creation is represented by the Arabic letters kaf (k) and nun (n). Two letters are needed because all creatures come together in pairs in order to reproduce; this represents a fundamental law of the universe. The letters k and n are chosen because of their numerical values in the ’abjad’ system, according to which each letter in the Arabic alphabet is assigned a number equivalent. The value for k is 20 and that for n is 50, giving a total of 70 (10 x 7, the key Isma’ili number).
The symbolism can be extended further. Between kaf and nun in the alphabet come lam (l) and mim (m). K and n symbolize respectively the First and Second Intelligences (to be discussed shortly), from which proceed Matter and Form, symbolized by l and m. L and m can also symbolize the Prophet and the Imam, or emanation and the return to the source; the list of possible correspondences can easily be extended, but those I have mentioned will give an idea of the Isma’ili method of exegesis. Vital though it was, however, the search for occult significance in the Koran and in Nature was only one aspect of the Isma’ilis’ intellectual activity. Another was the attempt to formulate their insights philosophically, and for this they drew heavily on Neoplatonism.
Creation simply happens, by virtue of a Divine Command (amr) or Word (c.f. the Logos of the Fourth Gospel: ’In the beginning was the Word’). In so far as we can think about God at all, we are compelled to do so in terms of the Word.
A closely related concept is that of the First Intelligence, or Universal Reason. Many Isma’ili authors, in fact, seem to regard the Word and the First Intelligence as identical. The First Intelligence, therefore, is the link between the unknowable Absolute and the universe. But we must not forget that this statement contains a mystery and a paradox, for it is also true to say that no such link exists.
The First Intelligence is not part of creation; rather, it is the act of creation
itself, by virtue of which the universe comes into being. The first manifestation of the universe is the Second Intelligence, also known as the First Emanation and the Universal Soul. Below the Second Intelligence come further Intelligences, giving a total of 10 Intelligences (9 Emanations).
• First Intelligence (Command, Word) = Universal Reason
• Second Intelligence = Universal Soul = First Emanation
• Third Intelligence = Second Emanation
• Fourth Intelligence = Third Emanation
• Fifth Intelligence = Fourth Emanation
• Sixth Intelligence = Fifth Emanation
• Seventh Intelligence = Sixth Emanation
• Eighth Intelligence = Seventh Emanation
• Ninth Intelligence = Eighth Emanation
• Tenth Intelligence = Ninth Emanation