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Keys to the Arcana: Shahrastani’s Esoteric Commentary on the Qur’an

Oxford University Press in Association with The Institute of Ismaili Studies, 2009
Also available in the U.S.A

ISBN (Hardback): 0199533652
ISBN (Paperback):

Publication page on Google Books

Author Interview with Dr Toby Mayer


Shahrastani (d.548 AH/1153 CE) is a major figure of the Islamic intellectual tradition, best known for his universal survey of religious and philosophical teachings, The Book of Religions and Sects (Kitab al-Milal wa ‘l-Nihal) and his treatment of Ash‘ari theology, The Furthest Steps in Theology (Nihayat al-Aqdam fi ‘Ilm al-Kalam). He also held a position at the famous Nizamiyya College in Baghdad, 1120 CE, and in due course became a confidant of the Seljuq ruler, Sanjar. Despite this prominence in the Sunni intellectual scene of his day, Shahrastani’s later works reveal the deep impact on him of Isma‘ili ideas and strongly imply that he secretly espoused Isma‘ili Islam at some point in his life. Among the works in question, his commentary on the Holy Qur’an is especially significant. Only surviving in a unique manuscript held in Tehran, this unfinished commentary is presented by Shahrastani himself as enshrining the achievement of his lifelong intellectual quest.

In its exoteric aspect, the Keys to the Arcana preserves and transmits a wealth of information on the Holy Qur’an and its sub-disciplines. Thus, in the twelve introductory chapters, it details the history of how the text was collected, variations in the ordering of the chapters and the teaching lineages through which the text was transmitted. Then, contained within his commentary itself on each successive verse of the scripture, Shahrastani presents ample data on such aspects of the text as its grammar, semantics, and lexicography. However, it is in the esoteric aspect of Keys to the Arcana that we reach the real fruits of the author’s quest. In the introductory chapters he elaborates a grand lattice of binary concepts aimed at unlocking the higher meanings of the scripture. He then applies these interpretive ‘keys’ in a remarkably systematic way to each verse, producing in the reader a liminal sense of the Holy Qur’an’s profound intellectual coherence. The hermeneutical system used is demonstrably rooted in Isma‘ili intellectual traditions.

The volume at hand renders Shahrastani’s work into English for the first time, comprising the twelve introductory chapters in which the author presents his methodology and then the full text of his commentary on chapter one of the Holy Qur’an. An extended introduction and notes on the text by the translator are provided, and also an edition of the Arabic.

List of tables and diagram x
Note on transliteration, diagram and abbreviations xii
Foreword by Professor Hermann Landolt xiii
I. Translator’s introduction 3
Notes to the translator’s introduction 49
II. Keys to the Arcana and Lanterns of the Godly
Shahrastani’s preface 63
Shahrastani’s introduction to his hermeneutical method (Mafatih al-Furqan)
1 On the beginnings and endings of the descent of the Qur’an and the sequence of its descent 67
2 On the manner of the collection of the Qur’an 68
3 On the difference between reporters over the order of the descent of the chapters of the Qur’an 76
4 On readings (qira’at) 90
5 On what is desirable and undesirable for the reciter of the Qur’an in regard to ‘seeking refuge [with God]’ (isti‘adha) 97
6 On the number of chapters, verses, words and letters of the Qur’an 101
7 On the enumeration of the exegetes amongst the companions and others 102
8 On the meaning of tafsir (exegesis) and ta’wil (hermeneutics) 104
9 On generality and specificity, the clear and the ambiguous, the abrogating and the abrogated 109
10 On the two principles of the accomplished (mafrugh) and the inchoative (musta’naf) 113
11 On the miraculous inimitability of the Qur’an 119
12 On the prerequisites for exegesis of the Qur’an 123
The exegesis of the Exordium (Tafsir Surat al-Fatiha) 133
Notes to the translation 189
Bibliography 239
Index of Qur’anic citations 249
Index 255
III. Arabic text of the Mafatih al-asrar wa masabih al-abrar
Mafatih al-Furqan: muqaddimat al-Shahrastani li-tafsirihi
Tafsir Surat al-Fatiha
Tables and diagram
The order of the descent of the Qur’an 79
Mention of the sequence of the chapters in the codices 84
Surat al-Fatiha 130
The Exordium diagram 186

Content Date: July 2009

The Institute of Ismaili Studies - Keys to the Arcana: Shahrastani’s Esoteric Commentary on the Qur’an
Last updated: 23/11/2012 17:26