Taj al–Din Abu‘l–Fath Muhammad ibn ‘Abd al–Karim al–Shahrastani (d. AH 548/1153 CE) is mainly known in Islamic intellectual history for two great contributions. Firstly, he is famous for his monumental study of religious communities, the Kitab al–Milal wa’l–Nihal. This work, widely appreciated in medieval Islam, continues to inspire admiration for the scope of its inquiry and non–polemical style. A fully annotated French translation of the book by Gimaret, Monnot and Jolivet was recently sponsored by UNESCO (Livre des religions et des sects. Peeters: 1986, 1993). Secondly, al–Shahrastani is well–known as one of the main authorities on Sunni theology as formulated within the Ash‘ari school. He taught Ash‘ari theology at the famous al–Nizamiyya Madrasa in Baghdad, and developed it in works like his Kitab Nihayat al–Iqdam fi ‘Ilm al–Kalam. In particular, al–Shahrastani expounded the school of “neo–Ash‘arism” which had been ushered in by al–Ghazali, and which was distinguished from the earlier Ash‘arism by its more pronounced philosophical tendency.
In Struggling with the Philosopher (Kitab al–Musara‘a), al–Shahrastani is concerned to refute a number of key aspects of the metaphysics of the great Persian philosopher Abu ‘Ali Ibn Sina (d. AH 428/1037 CE). Ibn Sina’s extraordinary achievements in Islamic philosophy had a major impact on Islamic thought through the AH 6th/12th CE century, and there is evidence that the influence of his worldview was even felt beyond the intellectual classes. This inevitably called forth a reaction, and a series of critiques of his metaphysics was produced by Muslim thinkers beginning with al–Ghazali’s Incoherence of the Philosophers. Al–Shahrastani’s Struggling with the Philosopher is to be broadly aligned with such refutations. For example, it contains brilliant a priori arguments against Ibn Sina’s teaching that the world is beginningless, akin to those found in al–Ghazali’s earlier attack.
However, careful scrutiny of al–Shahrastani’s work shows that it is not simply driven by a concern to defend Sunni Ash‘ari theology against Ibn Sina, as are most of the other critiques. Instead, the book surprisingly suggests a Shi‘i intellectual context. Notably, it was commissioned by an ‘Alid patron, Abu’l–Qasim ‘Ali ibn Ja‘far al–Musawi of Tirmidh, contains encomia which are clearly Shi‘i in tone and even argues for the imamate. And this is not all. It is arguable that the doctrine al–Shahrastani espouses as the ideal answer to Ibn Sina’s philosophy is specifically Ismaili in inspiration. While the author does not refer to Ismailism explicitly, preferring to use euphemisms such as the “Hanifi revelation” (al–shar‘ al–hanifi), it is demonstrable that the latter amounts to a characteristically Ismaili theology.
A large part of Struggling with the Philosopher is dedicated to bringing out the contradictions in Ibn Sina’s concept of God as the “Necessary Existent0 (wajib al–wujud). As al–Shahrastani points out, Ibn Sina insists that for something to be intrinsically necessary, it must be absolutely simple. Composition, even of a “conceptual” order, implies contingency, since the thing in question will then become dependent on its subsidiary elements and perhaps also on an agent to put them together. In particular, God’s identity becomes a composite of two elements: (1) the pseudo–genus existence, held in common with contingents, and (2) a differentia which is needed to mark God off from contingents within existence. Thus, according to al–Shahrastani, Ibn Sina’s concept of God as the Necessary Existent flagrantly contradicts his insistence on divine simplicity.
For al–Shahrastani, the way out of this absurdity is to elevate God above existence or, as he carefully presents in the text, the answer is to treat existence as a purely equivocal term – so that attributing God with “existence” has nothing in common with attributing contingents with existence. In essence, this amounts to the radical theology familiar from Ismaili philosophers like al–Kirmani, al–Sijistani and Nasir Khusraw, according to whom God is so absolute in His transcendence that He is even beyond the categories of “being” and “non–being”. In all this, Struggling with the Philosopher testifies to the accuracy of the allegations of al–Shahrastani’s contemporaries that, notwithstanding his public Ash‘arism and Shafi‘ism, he was drawn to the “people of the mountain fortresses”, i.e., the Ismailis. It can be added to other works of his such as the Majlis, and his Qur’an commentary, the Mafatih al–Asrar wa Masabih al–Abrar, all of which add up to a crucial body of evidence that this major medieval Muslim intellectual embraced Ismaili teachings.
This volume is the second monograph in the Ismaili Texts and Translations Series of The Institute of Ismaili Studies.