Shahrastani’s Ismaili Source as Nasir-i Khusraw: Iranian Studies Conference Paper
Updated: Aug 5, 2018
On August 15, 2018, I will be presenting on a panel alongside distinguished Ismaili Studies scholars at the biennual Association for Iranian Studies Conference taking place at UC Irvine.
Panel Title: Messianic Eschatology of Nizari Ismailis: Reassessment and Frameworks of Interaction
Convenor: Daryoush Mohammad Poor, Institute of Ismaili Studies
Chair: Elizabeth Alexandrin, University of Manitoba
Khalil Andani, Harvard University:
“Reconciling the Two Wisdoms (al-hikmatayn): The Source of Shahrastani’s Ismaili Teachings in Nasir-i Khusraw”
Daryoush Mohammad Poor, Institute of Ismaili Studies:
“Shahrastani’s Role in the Articulation of the Doctrine of Qiyamat among Nizari Ismailis”
Karim Javan, Institute of Ismaili Studies:
“Hasan ‘ala Dhikrihi al-Salam and His Proclamation of Resurrection”
Sayyed Jalal Hosseini Badakhchani, Institute of Ismaili Studies:
“Hasan-i Mahmud-i Katib and His Vision of the Preachings of the Resurrection”
Below is a summary of my paper and the main points of my presentation. I try to keep these blog posts to around 2,500 words, so if you wish read the full paper, you may contact me.
Taj al-Din Abu l-Fath Muhammad b. ‘Abd al-Karim al-Shahrastani (1086-1153), i.e. “Shahrastani”, was the famed author of the famous Muslim doxography titled al-Milal wa l-Nihal and regarded as a foremost Sunni Ash‘ari theologian with Shi‘i sympathies. But a great deal of research over the last few decades by Jalali Na’ini, Danish-Pazuh, Monnot, Madelung, Steigerwald, and Mayer has succeeded in demonstrating how Shahrastani in fact adhered to and expounded several theological, philosophical, and hermeneutical positions that match contemporary Ismaili theology and doctrine. These scholars have studied several of Shahrastani’s works in detail, including: his Persian sermons known as Majlis-i maktub, his esoteric Qur’ān commentary (covering Surat al-Fatiha and Surat al-Baqara) entitled Mafatih al-asrar, and his philosophical refutation of Ibn Sina’s metaphysics known as Kitab al-musar‘at al-Falasifa. Shahrastani also seems to have played a pivotal role in the transmission of Ismaili philosophy and theology in the Alamut period, as Nasir al-Din al-Tusi refers to Shahrastani as da‘i al-du‘at (lit: “the summoner of summoners”), i.e. chief da‘i in his spiritual autobiography Sayr wa suluk and seems to echo many of his theological positions.
These findings about Shahrastani’s theological positions have led to a debate about his religious identity – with Steigerwald and Mayer making the case that Shahrastani was a Nizari Ismaili who recognized a living Imam present on earth (as opposed to a hidden Imam) and Ozturk (“The Different Stances of al-Shahrastani”, 2010) arguing that Shahrastani’s beliefs were closer to Twelver Shi‘ism. In my view, this debate is less important than the question of whom or what was Shahrastani’s source for his Ismaili theological knowledge. Whatever his precise religious affiliation, Shahrastani must have acquired knowledge of the Ismaili doctrines presented in his own writings from somewhere. My paper is a contribution to this question: I submit that Shahrastani derived his knowledge of Ismaili doctrine in large part from the writings of Nasir-i Khusraw (d. ca. 1070-1088), the eleventh century Persian Ismaili chief da‘i of Khurasan and Badakhshan.
Nasir-i Khusraw remains generally understudied in modern scholarship and there is only one English language monograph about his life and teachings (Hunsberger 2000) and a couple of edited volumes (Niyozov & Nazariev 2005, Hunsberger 2012), despite the fact that several of his theological/philosophical treatises are published (in Persian editions and some in English translations) along with his Divan of Persian poetry. He was the last major Fatimid da‘i of the so-called “Persian School” of Ismaili Neoplatonic thinkers that includes Muhammad al-Nasafi (d. 943), Abu Hatim al-Razi (d. 934), Abu Ya‘iqub al-Sijistani (d. after 971), Ahmad al-Naysaburi (d. after 1021) and Hamid al-Din al-Kirmani (d. after 1021). I plan to devote some of my post-dissertation research agenda to Nasir-i Khusraw’s philosophical teachings and intellectual biography.
As I showed in a lengthy study published earlier this year (“The Merits of the Bāṭiniyya: Al-Ghazālī’s Appropriation of Isma‘ili Cosmology, JIS 2018) it is very likely that Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (d. 1111) had access to Nasir-i Khusraw’s teachings (either directly or through informants) as the basis for his own knowledge of Ismaili philosophy and that Ghazali even adapted some of Nasir-i Khusraw’s Neoplatonic theology into his own esoteric works like The Niche of Lights (mishkat al-anwar). Thus, Nasir-i Khusraw is a very important figure if one wishes to chart the intellectual genealogy of both Ghazali and Shahrastani. As the chief da‘i or hujja of Khurasan, Nasir-i Khusraw was responsible for instructing all the Ismailis in the region and we can be sure that his writings and teachings were in circulation; his influence upon al-Ghazali makes it more likely that Shahrastani was also familiar with his works.
In the Conference Paper, I offer three arguments in favour of my thesis:
A. Shahrastani evidently did not receive Ismaili instruction from the “New Summons” (al-da‘wa al-jadida) of Hasan-i Sabbah and his partisans. Shahrastani instead adhered to the doctrines of the “classical Ismailis” (al-Isma‘iliyya al-qadima) or the “Old Summons” (al-da‘wa al-qadima), which Hasan-i Sabbah’s party did not teach and actually refused to discuss with him. As it turns out, the last exponent of the “Old Summons” of Ismailism in Persia was Nasir-i Khusraw. There are three reasons behind this claim:
First, Shahrastani admits in the introduction of his Qur’ān commentary that “the study of the noble words from the Ahl al-bayt and their friends disclosed to me the hidden secrets and firm principles in the science of the Qur’ān” (thumma aṭla‘anī muṭāla‘at kalimāt sharīfa ‘an Ahl al-bayt wa-awliyā’ihim ‘alā asrār dafīna wa-uṣūl matīna fī ‘ilm al-Qur’ān) [Shihadeh’s translation in his review of Keys to the Arcana]. Mayer previously read the passage differently (see his Introduction to Keys to the Arcana, 2009) to argue that Ansari taught this knowledge to Shahrastani but has since amended his reading to match that of Ayman Shihadeh. This passage suggests that Shahrastani was reading and studying something from the Shi‘i Imams and their awliya’ – the latter term also being a designation for members of the Ismaili da‘wa (in this period, the Ismailis did not self-designate using the term “Ismaili”).
Second, Shahrastani’s various statements make it clear that he was not instructed by Hasan-i Sabbah. Several scholars including Mayer, Hodgson, and Kraus suspected that Hasan-i Sabbah or a member of his circle ultimately taught Ismaili doctrines to Shahrastani, but this claim is not backed by any evidence. In fact, the textual evidence from Shahrastani’s works suggests quite the opposite. Shahrastani related in his al-Milal how the Ismailis of the “Old Summons” taught a hyper-negative theology, a Neoplatonic metaphysics, and a correspondence theory of esoteric interpretation where various patterns in the Qur’an, Muslim ritual, and the Cosmos were interpreted in reference to cosmological principles and Ismaili teaching ranks. Most importantly, Shahrastani further wrote that “the partisans of the New Summons (aṣḥāb al-da‘wa al-jadīda) turned away from this method when Hasan b. al-Sabbah revealed his summons and restricted himself to forceful arguments” (al-Milal wa l-Nihal, Section on the Ismailis). Shahrastani was quite familiar with the famous ta‘lim argument of Hasan-i Sabbah and remains the main source for it; but he is clear that Hasan’s party did not expound the classical Ismaili theological, cosmological, and hermeneutical teaching and instead opted to present arguments for the authority of the Imam. In a tone resembling a complaint, Shahrastani personally testified how Hasan b. al-Sabbah refused to discuss theology or metaphysics with him. So whatever knowledge Shahrastani possessed of Ismaili theology, philosophy, and hermeneutics must come from other than Hasan-i Sabbah.
Third, Shahrastani’s account of the teachings of the Ismailis of the “Old Summons” in his al-Milal match the very theological positions he himself took and argued for in his other writings – including his refutation of Ibn Sina, his Majlis, and his Qur’an commentary. In other words, Shahrastani firmly subscribed to and internalized the teachings of the classical Ismailis of the “Old Summons”. This means that the source of Shahrastani’s Ismaili knowledge must be a member of the Fatimid Ismaili da‘wa and certainly not the “New Summons” of Hasan b. al-Sabbah. This narrows the possible sources of Shahrastani’s Ismaili knowledge to a few Ismaili da‘is active in Persia: Razi, Sijistani, Kirmani, and Nasir-i Khusraw with the latter coming closest to Shahrastani’s own period of activity.
B. Shahrastani’s hermeneutical project of integrating “the Twin Wisdoms” (al-hikmatayn) – the Wisdom of Prophecy (ḥikmat al-nubuwwa) and the Wisdom of the Philosophers (hikmat al-falasifa) – was directly inspired by Nasir-i Khusraw’s last work, Jami‘ al-hikmatayn (The Integration of the Two Wisdoms). I have only seen these two Ismaili thinkers – Shahrastani and Nasir-i Khusraw – use the term “the Twin Wisdoms” (al-hikmatayn) in this way and they provide near identical expositions of the word. Both of them describe hikmat al-falasifa as the science of “creation” (khalq), namely logic and the natural sciences, while defining the hikmat al-nubuwwa as the revealed teachings of the Prophets and Imams that pertain to God’s “Command” consisting of metaphysics and ta’wil (the inner meaning of revelation). For example, Shahrastani mentioned the “Twin Wisdoms” in his Qur’an commentary as follows:
Whoever positions himself on the two wisdoms (al-ḥikmatayn) – I mean the wisdom of the philosophers (hikmat al-falasifa) in confirming the celestial effects and the wisdom of prophecy (ḥikmat al-nubuwwa) in confirming the effects relating to the Command – knows that the difference between the two of them is like that between the hoof-print and the hoof and the exchange between them is like that between the pendant and the porcelain [it is made from]. (Mafatih al-asrar, p. 202 in Mayer, “The Cosmogonic Word”, p. 28)
As evidenced in his own work and reported by his contemporary al-Bayhaqi (1097-1169), Shahrastani was attempting to integrate philosophy (hikma) with revelation, i.e. the tafsir and ta’wil of the Qur’an. In Mayer’s words, Shahrastani found this in “some kind of Ismāʿīlī teaching, with its definitive aspiration to be ‘the merger of the two wisdoms’ (jāmiʿ al-ḥikmatayn): the wisdom of prophecy and the wisdom of philosophy” (Mayer, “The Cosmogonic Word”, p. 2).
As it turns out, effecting a merger between ḥikmat al-falāsifa and ḥikmat al-nubuwwa was the express purpose of Nāṣir-i Khusraw’s last known work titled Jami‘ al-hikmatayn (The Reconciliation of the Twin Wisdoms). I am not aware of any Ismaili da‘i prior to Nasir-i Khusraw who attempted this feat; we do not see Sijistani or Kirmani involved in this kind of project. The evidence suggests that Shahrastani obtained the idea of reconciling the “Twin Wisdoms” (al-ḥikmatayn), namely the knowledge of creation (khalq) with the knowledge of God’s religion (dīn) or Command (amr), by way of reconciling falsafa with the ta’wīl of the Qur’an and the sharī‘a from Nasir-i Khusraw’s works. For example, Khusraw explains the main reason for his composing the Jāmi‘ al-ḥikmatayn as follows:
In this region nobody is left who has retained in his mind how he might reconcile the “science of true religion” (‘ilm-i dīn-i ḥaqq), which is one of the products of the Holy Spirit, with the “science of creation” (‘ilm-i āfarīnish), which is one of the necessary concomitants (‘alā’iq) of philosophy (falsafa). (Between Reason and Revelation, tr. Ormsby, 31)
The terms used by Nasir-i Khusraw – the science of the true religion (‘ilm-i dīn-i ḥaqq) and the science of creation (‘ilm-i āfarīnish = khalq) – closely match Shahrastānī’s ḥikmat-i nubuwwa and ḥikmat al-falāsifa that respectively pertain to the world of the Command (synonymous with the world of religion) and the world of Creation.
Khusraw goes on to explain his use of the title Jāmi‘ al-ḥikmatayn for his book and his view that the ḥikmat-i dīn comes from the Prophets while the ancient philosophers only possess a “whiff” of this prophetic wisdom:
Since the foundation of this book lies in the resolution of religious problems and philosophical perplexities, I have entitled it the reconciliation of the two wisdoms (Jāmi‘ al-ḥikmatayn). In it I have spoken both to the sages of religion (ḥukamā-yi dīn), using verses from God's Book and from the Traditions of His Prophet, and to the sages of philosophy (ḥukamā-yi falsafī) and the experts in logic, employing rational proofs together with premises leading to satisfying conclusions. (Between Reason and Revelation, tr. Ormsby, 33)
Finally, Nasir-i Khusraw’s strategy for reconciling the “two wisdoms” consists of integrating the teachings of the falāsifa with the ta’wīl of the Qur’an and the sharī‘a per Ismaili teachings – this being the very same strategy followed by Shahrastānī in his Qur’an commentary.
I had already made a study of the writings of the masters of philosophy (kutub-i ‘ulamā-yi falsafa), and I had a sound grasp of the science of true religion (‘ilm-i dīn-i ḥaqq), which is that spiritual exegesis (ta’wīl) and esoteric meaning (bāṭin) of the Book [and] the Sacred Law (sharī‘a). (Between Reason and Revelation, tr. Ormsby, 32)
A comparative look at the respective goals of Shahrastani and Nasir-i Khusraw reveal a common objective between them and I believe that Shahrastani’s understanding of the proper integration of what he termed “the two wisdoms” (al-hikmatayn) – hikmat al-nubuwwa and the hikmat al-falasifa – was lifted directly from Nasir-i Khusraw’s Jāmi‘ al-hikmatayn. The commonality between their views not only pertains to such terminology but also extends into their cosmological framework and hermeneutical method, which is the next argument.
C. Shahrastani’s worldview and hermeneutical method based on the two realms of “Creation” (khalq) and “Command” (amr) matches exactly with that of Nasir-i Khusraw. The hermeneutical principle that both thinkers use to interpret the Cosmos and the Qur’an is the symbolic correspondence (muwazana) of the World of Religion/Command and the World of Creation.
Without going into details, both Nasir-i Khusraw and Shahrastani subscribe to the same classical Ismaili Neoplatonic cosmological model featuring God issuing His pre-eternal (azali, qadim) Command, which produces the Universal Intellect; the Intellect emanates the Universal Soul and the Soul emanates Prime Matter and projects intelligible forms upon the latter, giving rise to the principle of Nature and the Universal Body. The latter receives the power of Nature to give rise to the four natures, the spheres, the elements, and the kingdoms (minerals, plants, animals). This constitutes the hierarchy of Creation. At the same time, a parallel hierarchy of the world of Command exists, consisting of three archangelic hypostases called Jadd, Fath, and Khayal, and the Ismaili hierarchy of religious dignitaries consisting of the Speaker Prophet (natiq), the Legatee (wasi), the Imam, the Hujja (proof), the Da‘i (summoner), and lower ranks. (Based on the structure of his cosmological framework, we can already rule out Kirmani and his Farabian Ten Intellect cosmology as Shahrastani’s Ismaili source.)
The World of Creation and the World of Command symbolically correspond to one other: the Speaker Prophet and Legatee symbolically manifest the Universal Intellect and Universal Soul and serve as the spiritual parents of the believers. The seven Speaker Prophets symbolize the seven planets. The “correspondence” (muwazana) or “balance (mizan) between the Creation and the Command forms the bedrock of Nasir-i Khusraw’s and Shahrastani’s hermeneutics of ta’wil. They each quote the same prophetic tradition (hadith) to support their worldviews: “God (Exalted is He) founded His religion after the model of His creation, so that one might infer His religion from His creation, and His uniqueness from His religion” (inna Allāha assasa dīnahu ‘alā mithāli khalqihi, li-yastadilla bi-khalqihi ‘alā dīnihi wa bi-dīnihi ‘alā waḥdāniyyatihi).
The arguments in my paper, however, are only the beginning. I have charted out a detailed trajectory of research covering more theological and philosophical commonality between Nasir-i Khusraw and Shahrastani, including negative theology, cosmology, ontology, and their theologies of prophecy and revelation. My long-term plan is to compose and publish 3 separate articles on this subject.