Muhammad Al-Shahrastani
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Muhammad Al-Shahrastani
T?j al-D?n Ab? al-Fath Muhammad ibn `Abd al-Kar?m ash-Shahrast?n?
? ?
TitleN?'ib (Deputy) of the chancellery for Sanjar, the Salj?q ruler of Khur?s?n

1086 CE
Shahrist?n, Khorasan (province of Persia)
Died1158 (aged 90)
Shahrist?n, Khorasan
EraIslamic Golden Age
RegionShahrist?n, Khorasan
Main interest(s)History, Theology, Kalam, Philosophy, Historiography, Islamic jurisprudence
Notable work(s)Al-Milal wa al-Nihal (Arabic: ? ‎, The Book of Sects and Creeds)
Muslim leader

T?j al-D?n Ab? al-Fath Muhammad ibn `Abd al-Kar?m ash-Shahrast?n? (Arabic: ? ?‎; 1086-1153 CE), also known as Muhammad al-Shahrast?n?, was an influential Persian historian of religions, a historiographer, Islamic scholar, philosopher and theologian.[1] His book, Kitab al-Milal wa al-Nihal (lit. The Book of Sects and Creeds) was one of the pioneers in developing an objective and philosophical approach to the study of religions.[2]


Very few things are known about al-Shahrast?n?'s life. He was born in 1086 CE A.H., in the town of Shahrist?n, (Khorasan, province of Persia) where he acquired his early traditional education. Later, he was sent to N?sh?p?r where he studied under different masters who were all disciples of the Ash`ari theologian al-Juwayn? (d. 1085). At the age of thirty, al-Shahrast?n? went to Baghdad to pursue theological studies and taught for three years at the prestigious Ash`ari school, al-Niz?miyya. Afterwards, he returned to Persia where he worked as N?'ib (Deputy) of the chancellery for Sanjar, the Salj?q ruler of Khur?s?n. At the end of his life, al-Shahrast?n? went back to live in his native town, where he died in the year 1153.


Al-Shahrastani distinguished himself by his desire to describe in the most objective way the universal religious history of humanity.[3]

This is reflected in his Kitab al-Milal wa al-Nihal (The Book of Sects and Creeds), a monumental work, which presents the doctrinal points of view of all the religions and philosophies which existed up to his time. The book was one of the earliest systematic studies of religion, and is noted for its non-polemical style and scientific approach.[4] A French translation of the book by Gimaret, Monnot and Jolivet was sponsored by UNESCO (Livre des religions et des sectes. Peeters: 1986, 1993).

Al-Shahrastani's philosophical and theological thoughts manifested in his other major works, which include:

  • The Nihayat al-aqdam fi 'ilm al-kalam (The End of Steps in the Science of Theology) presents different theological discussions and shows the limits of Muslim theology (kalam).
  • The Majlis is a discourse, written during the mature period of his life, delivered to a Twelver Shi`ite audience.
  • The Musara`at al-Falasifa (The Struggle with Philosophers) criticizes Ibn Sina (Avicenna)'s doctrines by emphasizing some peculiar Isma'ili arguments on the division of beings.
  • The Mafatih al-Asrar wa-masabih al-abrar (The Keys of the Mysteries and the Lamps of the Righteous) introduces the Qur'an and gives a complete commentary on the first two chapters of the Qur'an.

Religious belief

Al-Shahrastani's own beliefs are difficult to categorize because he juggled many different philosophical and theological vocabularies. He was a clever thinker, demonstrated by the intricacies of many traditions and the Shi`ite notion of the 'Guide' (Imam) found in his thoughts. Al-Shahrastani had many reasons to speak somewhat allegorically. He was a very subtle author who often spoke indirectly by means of symbols. He preferred his own personal vocabulary to the traditional one. For this reason, his position is hard to determine. It may well be that ideological considerations led him to speak indirectly; he perhaps assumed those familiar with the symbols would be able to unravel his elusive ideas. For all these reasons, many scholars who have studied al-Shahrastani were misled concerning his religious identity.

Though al-Shahrastani is generally regarded as a Sunni-Ash'ari theologian, he had been accused by his contemporaries, al-Khwarazmi and al-Sam'ani, of being drawn to the "people of the mountain fortresses", i.e. the Nizari Isma'ilis of Alamut (See: Hassan-i Sabbah and the Hashshashin).[] This view is supported by modern scholars, such as Muhammad Rid? Jal?l? N?'?n?, Muhammad Taq? D?nish-Pazh?h, Wilferd Madelung, Jean Jolivet, Guy Monnot, and Diana Steigerwald who characterize his works as belonging to the Isma'ili tradition, while attributing his public Ash'arism and Shafi'ism to the practice of taqiyya (religious dissimulation), since Ism?`?lis were persecuted during that time.[5]

Among the Sunnis apparently attracted by the "new preaching" was the heresiographer and Ash'ari theologian Al-Shahrastani (d. 1143). Although he kept his relations with the Nizariyah secret, they were revealed by his student Al-Sam'ani. Among his extant writings are some crypto-Ismaili works including an incomplete Qur'an commentary in which he used Ismaili terminology and hinted at his conversion by a "pious servant of God" who had taught him the esoteric principles of Qur'anic exegesis. Most notable, however, is his refutation of the theological doctrine of the philosopher Ibn Sina (Avicenna) from a concealed Ismaili point of view, entitled Kitab Al-musara'ah (Book of the wrestling match). Here he defended the Ismaili thesis that God, as the giver of being, is beyond being and nonbeing, rejected Avicenna's description of God as the involuntary necessitating cause of the world, and suggested that the Active Intellect which brings the human intellect from potentiality to actuality is the prophetic intellect rather than the intellect of the lunar sphere as held by the followers of Avicenna.


As opposed to Ash'arites, al-Shahrastani presents a gradation in the creation (khalq). He gives a definition of the Prophetic Impeccability (`Isma) opposed to the Ash`arite tradition, maintaining that it subsists in the Prophet as part of his real nature. As did al-Ghazzali, al-Shahrastani harshly criticizes Avicenna's Necessary Being who knows the universal but not the particular. Al-Shahrastani, particularly in the Musara`a al-Falasifa, has an Isma'ili conception of the Originator (Mubdi`) beyond Being and non-Being. He argues convincingly for the existence of Divine Attributes, but he does not ascribe them directly to God. True worship means Tawhid - declaring the Unicity of God. This includes the negation of all attributes which humans give to God, the Ultimate One who is totally transcendent. God is Unknowable, Indefinable, Unattainable, and above human comprehension.

As for the theory of creation, in the Nihaya, al-Shahrastani insists that God is the only Creator and the only Agent. He also develops a different interpretation of ex-nihilo creation which does not mean creation out of nothing, but creation made only by God.[6] In the Majlis and the Mafatih al-Asrar, the angels play a dominant role in the physical creation.[7] His theory of the Divine Word (Kalima) has a convincing Isma'ili imprint; for example, his hierarchy of angels and Divine Words (Kalimat ) are conceived as being the causes of spiritual beings. Al-Shahrastani in the Nihaya writes:

"... his [Divine] Command (Amr) is pre-existent and his multiple Kalimat are eternal. By his Command, Kalimat become the manifestation of it. Spiritual beings are the manifestation of Kalimat and bodies are the manifestation of spiritual beings. The Ibda` (Origination beyond time and space) and khalq (physical creation) become manifested [respectively in] spiritual beings and bodies. As for Kalimat and letters (huruf), they are eternal and pre-existent. Since his Command is not similar to our command, his Kalimat and his letters are not similar to our Kalimat. Since letters are elements of Kalimat which are the causes of spiritual beings who govern corporeal beings; all existence subsists in the Kalimat Allah preserved in his Command."[8]

In the Majlis, al-Shahrastani divides the creation into two worlds - the spiritual world (i.e. the world of the Origination of spirits (Ibda'-i arwah)) in an achieved (mafrugh) state and the world of physical creation (khalq) in becoming (musta'naf). He shares an Isma`ili cosmology in which God has built his religion in the image of creation.

The conception of Prophecy developed in the Nihaya is closer to that of Isma`ilis and Falasifa (Islamic philosophers) than to Ash`arites, because al-Shahrastani establishes a logical link between miracles and Prophetic Impeccability (`Isma). For al-Shahrastani, the proof of veracity (sidq) of the Prophet is intrinsic to his nature and is related to his Impeccability.[9] He develops the concept of cyclical time explicitly in the Milal, the Majlis, and the Mafatih and implicitly in the Nihaya. In the Majlis, his understanding of the dynamic evolution of humanity is similar to Isma`ilism, in which each Prophet opens a new cycle. Al-Shahrastani recovers the mythical Qur'anic story of Moses and the Servant of God inspired by Al-Risala al-Mudhhiba of al-Qadi al-Nu'man (d. 974).

Al-Shahrastani was an able and learned man of great personal charm. The real nature of his thought is best referred to by the term theosophy, in the older sense of "divine wisdom". However, al-Shahrastani was certainly not totally against theology or philosophy, even if he was very harsh against the theologians and the philosophers. As he explained in the Majlis, in order to remain on the right path, one must preserve a perfect equilibrium between intellect (`aql) and audition (sam`). A philosopher or a theologian must use his intellect until he reaches the rational limit. Beyond this limit, he must listen to the teaching of Prophets and Imams.

His works reflect a complex interweaving of intellectual strands, and his thought is a synthesis of this fruitful historical period. In his conception of God, Creation, Prophecy, and Imama, al Shahrastani adopted many doctrinal elements that are reconcilable with Nizari Isma'ilism. The necessity of a Guide, belonging both to the spiritual and the physical world, is primordial in his scheme since the Imam is manifested in this physical world.

Christian commentary

In Kitab al-Milal wa al-Nihal, al-Shahrastani records a portrayal of Christianity very close to the orthodox tenets while continuing the Islamic narrative:

"The Christians. (They are) the community (umma) of the Christ, Jesus, son of Mary (peace upon him). He it is who was truly sent (as prophet; mab'uth) after Moses (peace upon him), and who was announced in the Torah. To him were (granted) manifest signs and notable evidences, such as the reviving of the dead and the curing of the blind and the leper. His very nature and innate disposition (fitra) are a perfect sign of his truthfulness; that is, his coming without previous seed and his speaking without prior teaching. For all the (other) prophets the arrival of their revelation was at (the age of) forty years, but revelation came to him when he was made to speak in the cradle, and revelation came to him when he conveyed (the divine message) at (the age of) thirty. The duration of his (prophetic) mission (da'wa) was three years and three months and three days."[10]

Al-Shahrastani also explains the differences between Christians in Kitab al-Milal wa al-Nihal regarding the incarnation (tajassud):

"They affirmed that God has three hypostases (aqanim). They said that the Creator (may he be exalted) is one substance (jawhar), meaning by this what is self-subsistent (al-qa'im bi-n-nafs), not (what is characterized by) spatial location and physical magnitude; and he is one in substantiality, three in hypostaticity (uqnumiyya). By the hypostases they mean the attributes (sifat), such as existence, life and knowledge, and the father, the son and the holy spirit (ruh al-qudus). The (hypostasis of) knowledge clothes itself and was incarnated, but not the other hypostases."[11]


  1. ^ Schimmel, Annemarie (1992). Islam: An Introduction (Translation of: Der Islam). SUNY Press. ISBN 0-7914-1327-6. OCLC 25201546. p. 86
  2. ^ Watt, William Montgomery (1991). Muslim-Christian Encounters: Perceptions and Misperceptions. London and New York: Routledge. ISBN 0415054109.
  3. ^ Watt 1991, p. 68.
  4. ^ Watt 1991, p. 68.
  5. ^ (Steigerwald 1997, pp. 298-307)
  6. ^ (al-Shahrastani 1934, pp. 18-9)
  7. ^ (al-Shahrastani 1998, p. 82); (al-Shahrastani 1989, vol. I: 109 verso line 24 to 110 recto line 1)
  8. ^ (al-Shahrastani 1934, p. 316)
  9. ^ (al-Shahrastani 1934, pp. 444-5)
  10. ^ Watt 1991, p. 68.
  11. ^ Watt 1991, p. 69.


Works and studies in English
  • al-Shahrast?n?, The Summa philosophiae, (Kit?b Nih?yatu 'l-Iqd?m f? ?Ilmi 'l -Kal?m), edited with a translation by Alfred Guillaume, London, Oxford University Press 1934.
  • Muhammad b. 'Abd al-Karim Shahrastani, Muslim Sects and Divisions. The Section on Muslim Sects in Kitab al-Milal wa 'l-Nibal, translated by A. K.Kazi and J. G.Flynn, London, Kegan Paul International 1984 (reprint New York, Routledge 2013).
  • al-Shahrast?n?, Struggling with the Philosopher: A Refutation of Avicenna's Metaphysics, translation by Wilferd Madelung and Toby Mayer of Kit?b Mura?at al-fal?sifa, London, Tauris, 2001.
  • al-Shahrast?n?, Keys to the Arcana: Shahrast?n?'s Esoteric Commentary on the Qur'an: A Translation of the Commentary on S?rat al-F?ti?a, by Toby Mayer; with the Arabic text reproduced from the edition by M.A. Adharshab, New York, Oxford University Press, 2009.
  • Bruce B. Lawrence, Shahrastani on the Indian Religions, Preface by Franz Rosenthal, The Hague, Mouton, 1976 (with the translation of Shahrastânï's Kitäb al-milal wan-nihal Part II, Book III, Section ? 'Ära al-hind'l, The Views of the Indians, pp. 33-62).
  • Steigerwald, Diana, "The Divine Word (Kalima) in Shahrastani's Majlis." In Studies in Religion/Sciences religieuses, vol. 25.3, 1996, pp. 335-52.
  • Steigerwald, Diana, "Al-Shahrast?n?'s Contribution to Medieval Islamic Thought." In Todd Lawson (ed.), Reason and Inspiration in Islam: Theology, Philosophy and Mysticism in Muslim Thought. Essays in Honor of Hermann Landolt. London: I.B. Tauris, 2005, pp. 262-273.
Works and studies in French
  • Al-Shahrast?n?, Livre des religions et des sectes, traduction par Daniel Gimaret, Guy Monnot, Jean Jolivet, Louvain, Peeters et UNESCO, 1986-1993 (two volumes)
  • Al-Shahrast?n?, Majlis: Discours sur l'ordre et la création. (Majlis-i maktub-i Shahrast?ni-i mun?aqid dar Khw?razm. Edited by Mu?ammad Ri R. Jal?li Na?ini) traduction française de Diane Steigerwald), Sainte-Foy (Québec): Les Presses de l'Université Laval 1999.
  • Jolivet, Jean, "Al-Shahrastânî critique d'Avicenne dans la lutte contre les philosophes (quelques aspects)," Arabic Sciences and Philosophy, 2000, vol. 10, pp. 275-292.
  • Monnot, Guy, "Islam: exégèse coranique." Annuaire de l'École Pratique des Hautes Études. Section des sciences religieuses, sur Shahrastani:
    • "L'Introduction de Shahrastâni à son commentaire coranique inédit", Tome 92, 1983-1984. 1983. pp. 305-316;
    • "La Sourate d'ouverture dans le commentaire coranique inédit de Shahrastânï", Tome 93, 1984-1985. 1984. pp. 293-303;
    • "Le commentaire coranique inédit de Shahrastânî (suite)", Tome 94, 1985-1986. 1985. pp. 347-351;
    • "La Sourate de la Vache dans le commentaire coranique inédit de Shahrastânî", Tome 95, 1986-1987. 1986. pp. 253-259;
    • "« Les clefs des mystères » de Shahrastânî", Tome 96, 1987-1988. 1987. pp. 237-243;
    • "« Les clefs des mystères > de Sharastânî (suite)", Tome 97, 1988-1989. 1988. pp. 249-255.
  • Monnot, Guy, 1996 «Shahrastani», su: Encyclopédie de l'islam, 1996, vol. 9, pp. 220-22.
  • Monnot, Guy, 1999 Book review of La pensée philosophique et théologique de Shahrastani (m. 548/1153) by Diane Steigerwald in: Bulletin critique des annales islamologiques, vol. 15, pp. 79-81.
  • Monnot, Guy, 2001 Book review of Majlis-i maktub-i Shahrastani-i mun'aqid dar Khwarazm. Ed. Muhammad Rida R. Jalali Na'ini and translated into French by Diane Steigerwald in Majlis: Discours sur l'ordre et la création. Sainte-Foy (Québec): Les Presses de l'Université Laval in Bulletin critique des annales islamologiques, vol. 17.
  • Steigerwald, Diana, 1995 "L'Ordre (Amr) et la création (khalq) chez Shahrastani." Folia Orientalia, vol. 31, pp. 163-75.
  • Steigerwald, Diana, 1997 La pensée philosophique et théologique de Shahrastani (m. 548/1153). Sainte-Foy (Québec): Les Presses de l'Université Laval.
  • Steigerwald, Diana, 1998 "La dissimulation (taqiyya) de la foi dans le shi'isme ismaélien." Studies in Religion/Sciences religieuses, vol. 27.1, pp. 39-59.
Works and studies in German
  • Al-Shahrast?n?, Ab? al-Fat? Ibn ?Abd al-Kar?m, Religionspartheien und Philosophen-Schulen, traduzione di Kit?b al-Milal wa al-Ni?al a cura di Theodor Haarbrücker, Halle, Schwetschke, 1850-1851 (due volumi).
  • Madelung, Wilferd, "Ash-Shahrastanis Streitschrift gegen Avicenna und ihre Widerlegung durch Nasir ad-din at-Tusi." Akten des VII. Kongresses für Arabistik und Islamwissenschaft, Abhandlungen der Akademie des Wissenschaften in Göttingen, 1976, vol. 98, pp. 250-9.
Works in Arabic
  • Al-Shahrast?n?, Ab? al-Fat? Ibn ?Abd al-Kar?m, 1923 Kit?b al-Milal wa al-Ni?al. Ed. William Cureton in Books of Religions and Philosophical Sects. 2 vols. Leipzig: Otto Harrassowitz (reprint of the edition of London 1846).
  • Danish-Pazhuh, Muhammad Taqi, "Di al-dut Taj al-din-i Shahrastana." Nama-yi astan-i quds, 1968. vol. 7, pp. 77-80.
  • Danish-Pazhuh, Muhammad Taqi, "Di al-dut Taj al-din-i Shahrastana." Nama-yi astan-i quds, 1969, vol. 8, pp. 61-71.
  • Na?ini, Jal?li, 1964 Sharh-i l wa Athar-i ?ujjat al-?aqq Abu al-Fat? Mu?ammad b. ?Abd al-Karim b. A?mad Shahrast?ni. Tehran.
  • al-Nu?m?n, Ab? ?an?fa, 1956 Al-Ris?la al-Mudhhiba. In: Khams Rasil Ismliyya. Ed. rif T?mir, Beirut.
  • Al-Shahrast?n?, Ab? al-Fat? Ibn ?Abd al-Kar?m, 1366-1375/1947-1955 Kit?b al-Milal wa al-Ni?al. Ed. Mu?ammad Fat? All?h Badr?n, 2 vols. Cairo.
  • Al-Shahrast?n?, Ab? al-Fat? Ibn ?Abd al-Kar?m, 1396/1976 Mura?at al-fal?sifa. Ed. Suhayr M. Mukht?r. Cairo.
  • Al-Shahrast?n?, Ab? al-Fat? Ibn ?Abd al-Kar?m, 1989 Maf?t al-asr?r wa-mas?b al-abr?r. Tehran.

See also



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