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Discours sur l'Ordre et la création - Review

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Publication Type  Book Review
Year of Publication  1998
Authors  Daftary, Farhad
Original Authors  Steigerwald, Diane
Key Words  English; Full Text Online
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Journal of the American Oriental Society
(Jul-Sep2002, Vol. 122.3, pp. 643-644.)

Discours sur l'Ordre et la création. Edited and translated by DIANE STEIGERWALD. Saint-Nicolas, Québec: PRESSES DE L'UNIVERSITÉ LAVAL, 1998. Pp. 168. $35 (paper).

Tâj al-Dîn Abû al-Fath Muhammad b. ‘Abd al-Karîm al-Shahrastânî (d. 548/1153) was one of the most learned theologians of his time. He is generally recognized as a Shafî‘i-Ash‘arî Sunnî scholar, well versed in philosophical traditions, and as the author of a famous book on religions and Islamic sects, the Kitâb al-Milal wa al-nihal. But in recent decades, modern scholarship has brought to light a new aspect of this enigmatic and original Muslim thinker's thought. In particular, by analyzing three of his works, including the Majlis, his only extant Persian treatise reproduced in the volume under review mainly from the critical edition prepared by Muhammad Ridâ Jalâlî Nâ‘înî together with an annotated French translation and introduction, a number of scholars including Diane Steigerwald, have argued convincingly that al-Shahrastânî was in fact a crypto-Ismâ‘îlî.

Al-Shahrastânî was a contemporary of Hasan-i Sabbâh (d. 518/1124), the founder of the Nizârî da‘wa in Persia. The early Nizârî da‘is were particularly active in Khurâsân, al-Shahrastânî's native land where he also became a close associate of the Saljûq sultan Sanjar. In fact, several of al-Shahrastânî's contemporary Sunni scholars such as al-Sam‘ânî (d. 562/1166) do report that he inclined towards the Ismâ‘îlîs and their teachings. We also have the valuable testimony of the well-informed Nasîr al-Dîn al-Tûsî who, in his spiritual autobiography (Sayr wa sulûk), refers to al-Shahrastânî with the Ismâ‘îlî title of the dâ‘î al-du‘ât, a significant appellation even if used purely in an honorific sense. Be that as it may, al-Shahrastânî doubtless had contacts with Nizârî Ismâ‘îlî dâ‘îs and was familiar with the Ismâ‘îlî teachings of both the Fâtimid and Alamût periods, which he categorized respectively as the "old preaching" (al-da‘wa al-qadîma) and "new preaching" (al-da‘wa al-jadîda). That he had direct access to Ismâ‘îlî literature is attested by the fact that Hasan-i Sabbâh's major theological treatise, the Fusûl al-arba‘a, which has not survived, is preserved fragmentarily in al-Shahrastânî's Kitâb al-Milal wa al-nihal (ed. W. Cureton [London, 1842-46], 150-52).

At any rate, al-Shahrastânî's Majlis, as well as his Qur’ân commentary, the Mafâtîh al-asrâr, and his Kitâb al-Musâra‘a in which he refutes Avicenna's metaphysics on the basis of Ismâ‘îlî views and arguments, clearly reflect Ismâ‘îlî perspectives. The Majlis, on the two worlds of order (amr) and creation (khalq), was originally delivered as a sermon around the year 540/1145 to a Twelver Shî‘i audience in Khwârazm. In this theological-philosophical-mystical sermon, al-Shahrastânî expounds a cosmological doctrine that bears close affinities to the Neoplatonized Ismâ‘îlî cosmology propounded by Abû Ya‘qûb al-Sijistânî and other Ismâ‘îlî dâ‘îs operating in Iranian lands, especially in Khurasân, during the Fâtimid period. This brief text of some thirty printed pages is also permeated with Qur’ânic verses and hadîths for which al-Shahrastânî provides esoteric interpretations through the methodology of ta’wîl associated particularly with the Ismâ‘îlîs--a methodology fully used in his Qur’ân commentary written a few years earlier than the Majlis.

A few examples from the Majlis, which deals with creation, prophecy and Shî‘i-related notions of guidance, would serve to show how extensively al-Shahrastânî was influenced by Ismâ‘îlî teachings. Similarly to the Iranian Ismâ‘îlî dâ‘îs, he expounds the absolute transcendence of God beyond being and non-being, and beyond comprehension by human reason. As a result, he levels harsh criticisms at the Mu‘tazila, the Ash‘arîs and other theological schools for compromising the unity of God through anthropomorphism (tashbîh) or by denying God any attributes (ta‘tîl) (pp. 92, 98-99). This concept of God's transcendence is more fully developed in the Kitâb al-Musâra‘a, where al-Shahrastânî refutes the alternative Avicennan concept of the wajib al-wujûd, or God as the "Necessary Being." Again, in line with the position of the Ismâ‘îlîs, for al-Shahrastânî, too, the divine order, or amr, acts as an intermediary between God and His creation, or khalq (pp. 80-81); he also adheres to the Ismâ‘îlî distinctions between the spiritual world, the ‘âlam al-amr, corresponding to the ‘âlam al-ibdâ‘ of Ismâ‘îlî cosmogony, and the physical world, the ‘âlam al-khalq.

In his treatment of prophecy (nubuwwa), and the process of guidance (hidâyat) needed by human beings, al-Shahrastânî draws on the Ismâ‘îlî cyclical conception of time and prophetic eras (pp. 84-86); and, throughout the Majlis, he presents angels as intermediaries in creation and prophets and their successors (the ulu al-amrs and imâms) as intermediaries in guidance. Thus, he argues, in a Shî‘i-Ismâ‘îlî sense, for the necessity of guidance by imâms. Reflecting more specifically Nizârî influences, he introduces the figure of qa’im and depicts ‘Alî b. Abî Tâlib as such an eschatological figure (pp. 87, 93-94, 109). As it is known, the Nizârîs of the Alamût period taught that starting with ‘Alî every imam was potentially an imâm-qa’im. The Majlis sermon concludes with a mystical disputation between Moses and the Qur’ânic figure […] (pp. 101-7), another figure of importance in Nizârî thought. Later, the Nizârîs identified Khidr with Dhû al-Qarnayn, the imâm-qa’im of the prophetic era initiated by Moses. All this explains why the Majlis has been listed as an Ismâ‘îlî work in I. K. Poonawala's Biobibliography of Ismâ‘îlî Literature ([Malibu, Calif., 1977], 256).

A closer study of the Majlis and other Ismâ‘îlî-inspired works of al-Shahrastânî will be invaluable not only for appreciating the complex religious thought of this scholar and his intellectual heritage, but also for a better understanding of the doctrines of the Nizârî Ismâ‘îlîs of the Alamût period whose literature has perished almost completely. Diane Steigerwald has rendered great service in offering this volume, which now makes the Persian text of the Majlis more readily accessible while her excellent annotated French translation, appearing on opposite pages, contextualizes al-Shahrastânî's thought and draws attention to parallels in Ismâ‘îlî sources.

Farhad Daftary, The Institute of Ismâ‘îlî Studies

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