Al-SHAHRASTANI, Abu 'l-Fath Muhammad b. 'Abd al-Karim b. Ahmad, Taj al-Din, thinker
and historian of religious and philosophical doctrines, who lived in Persia in the first half of the
6th/12th century. He received other honorific titles such as al-Afdal or al-Imam. Besides a few
landmarks, little is known of his life. Al-Shahrastani (the customary Arabic vocalisation is
retained here) was born in the small town of Shahristan, on the northern frontier of Khurasan, not far from Nasa, at the edge of the desert of qara qum (currently in the Republic of Turkmenistan) [see shahristan (6)]. His contemporary al-Sam'ani is supposed to have written (according to Ibn Khallikan): 'I asked him the date of his birth, and he told me: 479/[1086-7].' Other ancient authors give the dates 467 and 469, but the testimony of al-Sam'ani seems authoritative. Nothing is known of his family; however, the attribution by Yaqut of a kunya to his father (Abu 'l-qasim) and to his grandfather (Abu Bakr) could indicate a privileged background.
After what was definitely a very substantial traditional education, he was sent to the prestigious metropolis of Nishapur. It was there that he embarked on detailed study of the Islamic sciences. His principal masters are known; most of them were in their turn disciples of al-juwayni. In tafsir, and in Ash'ari kalam, he was the pupil of Abu 'l-qasim Salman b. Nasir al-Ansari (d. 412/1118), who exerted great influence over him. Hadith was taught him by Abu 'l-Hasan 'Ali b. Ahmad al-Madini (d. 494/1100). In Shafi'i fiqh, he was trained by the qadi Abu 'l-Muzaffar Ahmad b. Muhammad al-Khwafi, a friend of al-Ghazali and a judge at Tus (d. 500/1106) and by Abu Nasr 'Abd al-Rahim b. Abi 'l-qasim 'Abd al-Karim al-qushayri (d. 514/1120, son of the eminent mystic). It may be noted that the date of the death of al-Madini is a termnus ad quem for the arrival of al-Shahrastani at Nishapur.
Impelled no doubt by religious motives, but also by the desire to consolidate his reputation, in 510/1117 he made the Pilgrimage to Mecca. On the return journey, he visited Baghdad. His friend Abu 'l-Fath As'ad b. Muhammad al-Mayhani (d. 523/1129 ac-qcording to Ibn al-Athir, x, 660; but 520 according to jalal Huma'i, Ghazzali-nama, Tehran 1318/1939, 308) was then teaching at the Nizamiyya. With Mayhani's assistance, al-Shahrastani obtained a post at the Nizamiyya. For three years, and with considerable success, he devoted himself to teaching, preaching, disputation. Around 514/1120 he returned to Persia.
The Saljuq ruler of Khurasan Sanjar had recently taken there, in 511/1118, the full title of sultan. Marw, his capital, was a magnet. Through the good offices of Nasir al-Din Abu 'l-qasim Mahmud b. al-Muzaffar al-Marwazi, who was wazir from 521 to 526/1127-31 (see Huma'i, ibid.), al-Shahrastani was appointed na'ib of the chancellery (diwan al-rasa'il). He even became a close friend of Sanjar and 'his confidant' (sahib sirrihi). However, al-Shahrastani ultimately returned to his native village. It is not known when, or why. The fact remains that there was a succession of tragic events in the year 548/1153. The sultan was taken prisoner by the Ghuzz [q.v.]. Marw fell six months later, and the Ghuzz advanced on Nishapur. It was then, according to the testimony of al-Sam'ani related by Ibn Khallikan, that al-Shahrastani died in his native village 'towards the end of Sha'ban 548 [November 1153]'.
Al-Shahrastani was responsible for a score of works. See the precise and detailed study by Na'ini, Sharh-i hal..., also Danish-pa¼huh, Nama..., vii, 72-80, viii, 61-5. The twelve most important works, beginning with those which can be dated, are:
1. al-Milal wa 'l-nihal, which, according to the author, was written in the year 521, i.e. 1127-8 (ed. Badran, i, 630 (cf. 358) = Livre, i, 662 (cf. 503)). There are numerous editions, including two semicritical ones: W. Cureton, 2 vols., London 1842-6; and Muhammad Fath Allah Badran, 2 vols., Cairo 1370-5/1951-5 (Shaykh Badran has published, in small format, without critical apparatus but with a thorough introduction, a second edition, 2 vols., Cairo 1375/1956). At least two Persian translations exist: by Turka-yi Isfahani (in 843/1440), Tehran 1321/1942, 3rd ed. 1350/1972, and by Mustafa b. Khaliqdad (in 1021/1612), Tehran, 2nd ed. 1358/1979. Turkish translation by Nuh b. Mustafa (d. 1070/1660), Cairo 1263/1847, then Istanbul 1279/1862. German translation by Th. Haarbrücker, Religionspartheien und Philosophenschulen, 2 vols., Halle 1850-1, repr. Wiesbaden 1969. French translation with introduction and notes by D. Gimaret, J. Jolivet and G. Monnot, Livre des religions et des sectes, 2 vols., Louvain 1986-93. There are also partial translations.
This monumental work aspired to present 'the doctrinal opinions of all the world's people', i.e. to reveal the entirety of religions and philosophies, past or present. To what extent it succeeded will be seen at a later stage.
2. Nihayat al-aqdam fi 'ilm al-kalam, later than the Milal which it mentions several times (e.g. 5, 1.10; 377, l. 17). The title is given at the end of p. 4. The vocalisation of the second word (and not al-iqdam as Guillaume writes; this has already been noted by P. Kraus) clearly results from the parallellism between nihayat (note the plural) aqdam ahl al-kalam and nihayat awham al-hukama' al-ilahiyyin (503-4). English edition and translation by Alfred Guillaume, The Summa Philosophiae...,
Oxford 1934; Arabic text alone repr. Baghdad n.d. The edition is mediocre; the 'translation' is not always worthy of the name.
The book is divided into 20 chapters, each of which examines discussions of one of the 'foundations' (qawa'id) of theological science. This classic work has been understood as reviewing the attainments of Muslim theology. In fact, it sets out to show its limits. 'The furthest steps of the people of kalam' cannot be exceeded. Should the sum total of theology not be an admission of failure?
3. Mas'ala fi ithbat al-jawhar al-fard. A brief monograph on the concept of the atom (al-juz' alladhi la yatajazza'), edited by Guillaume at the end of the Nihaya (505-14).
4. Musara'at al-falasifa, ed. Suhayr Muhammad Mukhtar, Cairo 1396/1976. Explicitly posterior to the Milal (14), this little book is dedicated to Majd al-Din Abu 'l-qasim 'Ali b. ja'far al-Musawi, chief (naqib) of the Imami Shi'i community of Tirmidh. This is a thorough criticism of Avicennan philosophy. It is supposed to comprise seven 'questions', but at the end of the fifth (118), the author bemoans the serious troubles of the time and comes to an abrupt end. The circumstances evoked could be the defeat of Sanjar by the qara Khitay in 536/1141.
5. Mafatih al-asrar wa-masabih al-abrar, edited facsimile of the unicum, with introduction and index, 2 vols., Tehran 1409 A.H./1368 A.H.S./1989. The text comprises 434 folios, or 868 pages with 25 lines. It is a qur'anic commentary. After an autobiographical preface come the 12 chapters of an introduction to the study of the qur'an, then a complete commentary on the first two suras. The first volume (up to II, 122) of the lost autograph manuscript had been composed between 538 and 540. It is not known whether, as is probable, the author continued beyond Surat al-Baqara.
6. Majlis on the Creation and the Order (al-khalq wa 'l-amr). This remarkable set speech, in Persian (whereas all the other known works of this author are in Arabic) was delivered in Khwarazm; it is not known when. It was edited (in 38 pages) by Na'ini at the end of his Sharh-i hal and then in his Du maktub, Tehran 1369/1990.
7. al-Manahij wa 'l-ayat. Mentioned by Bayhaqi. Apparently lost.
8. qissat Musa wa 'l-Khadir. Mentioned by Bayhaqi. Apparently lost.
9. Risala on the knowledge possessed by the Necessary Being, addressed to Sharaf al-Zaman Abu 'Abd Allah Muhammad b. Yusuf al-Ilaqi. The latter, a philosopher and physician of renown, died in 536/1141 at the Battle of qatawan, facs. ed. of the unicum in Na'ini's Du maktub.
10. Risala to the qadi 'Umar b. Sahl (or Sahlan?) against Avicenna. Manuscript.
11. Risala to Muhammad al-Sahlani. Manuscript.
12. Sharhsurat Yusuf. Mentioned by Yaqut. Manuscript.
The contribution of this vast corpus is twofold. In the first place, this author has transmitted and presented to generations of readers a mass of information on previous opinions and doctrines, in numerous domains. First, the doctrines of sects or persuasions internal to Islam. It is with these that the Milal begins, at length, to be completed, in quite another way, by the Nihaya. The overall picture is impressive, although containing inaccuracies. 'In terms of the scale of the text, they represent little that is of importance. But they encourage circumspection' (D. Gimaret). Now the detailed survey of philosophers occupies the longest section of the Milal, and great hopes could be placed in it. In fact, it derives principally from two sources: the ‘iwan al-hikma and the Ara' al-falasifa of pseudo-Ammonius. Above all, he projects on to the majority of articles the religious vision of the Muslim thinkers. At a deeper level, and despite appearances, al-Shahrastani is hostile to philosophy. But the Milal has yet another object. Up to and including the present day, this book owes its immense reputation to the treatment of religions external to Islam: Christians and Jews, Mazdaeans and Manichaeans, hermeticist Sabians, disciples of ancient Arab cults and of Hindu sects, etc. Not one of these chapters is of inferior quality. As a carefully crafted whole, they remained, until the 18th century, totally unique. They represent the high point of Muslim histories of religion. Finally, the rediscovery of
the Mafatih al-asrar should be taken into account. Each verse, before being clarified by the corresponding 'mysteries', is initially the object of a commentary which could be described as classical. This tafsir is situated in the very first rank of qur'anic commentaries, equal and sometimes superior to those of al-Tabari or al-Razi in terms of precision, breadth, antiquity and variety of sources quoted; lists of the suras in pre-'Uthmanic collections, Sa'id b. jubayr, al-Hasan al-Basri, al-Kalbi, Abu 'Ubayda, al-Farra', al-Zajjaj and many others.
Al-Shahrastani does not only expound the thought of others. He has his own, which is immediately apparent in the refutation of Ibn Sina; he devotes numerous monographs to this purpose, attacking the philosopher from every angle. But the full expression of al-Shahrastani's thought is to be sought elsewhere, sc. in the Mafatih al-asrar. Usually, in fact, the above-mentioned long classical commentary is followed by the unfolding of 'mysteries' (asrar). The author insists on presenting them as received from a tradition, but the manner in which they are set forth bears the distinct mark both of his personal genius and of his deep-rooted conviction. These, scattered amongst consistent passages, written in a compact, sometimes vehement style, permit the reconstruction of a vision of the world.
At the summit is God, the One, of Whom we know nothing of the qualities except the ipseity (huwiyya). The world of the Divine Order is prior to the world of Creation, and traverses it, in seven cycles, passing from the universe of Laws (domain of the inchoative, musta'naf) to that of Resurrection (domain of the concluded, mafrugh). The divine and eternal letters and names, the origin of everything, set out their manifestations (mazahir) according to two parallel lines: verbal allocutions (kalimat qawliyya), meaning the text of the Scriptures, and active allocutions (kalimat fi'liyya), meaning the corporeal individuality (ashkhas) of the prophets, the imams and their heirs. This dynamic vision is dominated by two principles: the hierarchy (tarattub) of beings, and the opposition (tadadd) which pits the side of evil against the side of good.
This is evidently a Nizari Isma'ili doctrine. Al-Khwarazmi and al-Sam'ani, contemporaries of al-Shahrastani, had already accused him of Isma'ilism. But later, he was generally considered to be a spokesman for Ash'arism. In recent times, Na'ini has re-opened the debate. Decisive clarification is finally given by the Mafatih al-asrar. Al-Shahrastani fully adheres there to the positions described above, and some more particular points establish beyond doubt that his thought was at that time Isma'ili. He does not confine himself, either to recognising the prerogatives of the Ahl al-Bayt with regard to the qur'an, or to integrating Isma'ili elements into a Sunni theology. He propounds a global religious view, which he has received and accepted. Since when? A long time ago. It is not only the Majlis and the Musara'a which are impregnated with Isma'ilism, but the Milal and the Nihaya also bear subtle hints of it.
Should our author therefore be seen as a secretqbut licensed member of the Alamut organisation? Nasir al-Din al-Tusi, in a pro-Isma'ili monograph (Sayr al-suluk, in Majmu'a-yi rasa'il, Tehran 1335/1956, 38), writes that his great-uncle must have been a pupil of the 'da'i 'l-du'at Taj al-Din Shahristana-i". But this title does not seem to have been employed by the Isma'ilis of Persia (cf. Daftary, 227, 336, 394). The incidental and belated statement of Tusi is thus to be treated with caution.
1. Principal older biographical notices. Bayhaqi, Ta'rikh hukama' al-Islam (= Tatimmat ‘iwan al-hikma), Damascus 1365/1946, 141-4
Yaqut, Mu'jam al-buldan, Beirut 1376/1957, iii, 377
Ibn Khallikan, Wafayat al-a'yan, Cairo 1367/1948, iii, 403 ff. (no. 583)
Jahabi, al-'Ibar, Kuwait 1961-3, iv, 132
Subki, Tabaqat al-Shafi'iyya al-kubra, Cairo 1388/1969, vi, 128-30.
2. Studies. M.R. jalali Na'ini, Sharh-i hal u athar-i... Shahrastani, Tehran 1343/1964
M.T. Danish-pazhuh, Da'i'l-du'at Taj al-Din Shahristana-i, in Nama-yi Astan-i quds, vii-viii, Mashhad 1346-7/1967-8
W. Madelung, Al-Sharastanis Streitschrift gegen Avicenna und ihre Widerlegung durch Nasir al-Din at-Tusi, in Akten des VII. Kongresses für Arabistik und Islamwissenschaft, Göttingen 1974 (Abhandlungen der Akademie der Wissenschaften in Göttingen, Phil.-Hist. Klasse, Dritte Folge, no. 98), 250-9
G. Monnot, analyses of the Mafatih al-asrar in Annuaire de l'Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes, Section des sciences religieuses, Paris, xcii-xcvii (1983-9)
idem, Islam et religions, Paris 1986
idem, L'univers religieux d'al-Shahrastani, in Annuaire..., ci (1992-3), 198-201
idem, Les controverses theologiques dans l'oeuvre de Shahrastani, in La controverse religieuse et ses formes, ed. A. Le Boulluec, Paris 1995, 281-96
M. 'Ali Adharshab, al-Shahristani wa-tafsiruhu, in al-Tawhid, no. 26, Beirut 1407/1987, 43-64
J. Jolivet, analyses of al-Musara'a, in Annuaire..., xcvii-c (1988-92)
Angelika Hartmann, Isma'ilitische Theologie bei sunnitischen 'Ulama' des Mittelalters?, in 'Ihr alle aber seid Brüder'. Festschrift A. Th. Khoury zum 60. Geburtstag, ed. L. Hagemann and E. Pulsfort, Würzburg 1990, 190-206
Farhad Daftary, The Isma'ilis, their history and doctrines, Cambridge 1990
D. Gimaret, art. al-milal wa 'l-nihal.
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Source: from the Encyclopedia of Islam --© 1999 Koninklijke Brill NV, Leiden, The Netherlands