Tāj al-Dīn Abū al-Fath Muhammad ibn `Abd al-Karīm ash-Shahrastānī (1086–1153 CE) was an influential Persian[1] historian of religions and a historiographer. His book, Kitab al–Milal wa al-Nihal (lit. The Book of Sects and Creeds) was one of the pioneers in developing a scientific approach to the study of religions. Besides these, he was also an Islamic scholar, philosopher and theologian.


Very few things are known about al-Shahrastānī's life. He was born in 1086 CE / 479 A.H., in the town of Shahristān (Khorasan province of Persia) where he acquired his early traditional education. Later, he was sent to Nīshāpūr where he studied under different masters who were all disciples of the Ash`ari theologian al-Juwaynī (d. 1085 / 478). At the age of thirty, al-Shahrastānī went to Baghdad to pursue theological studies and taught for three years at the prestigious Ash`ari school, al-Nizāmiyya. Afterwards, he returned to Persia where he worked as Nā’ib (Deputy) of the chancellery for Sanjar, the Saljūq ruler of Khurāsān. At the end of his life, al-Shahrastānī went back to live in his native town, where he died in the year 1153 / 548.


Al-Shahrastani distinguished himself by his desire to describe in the most objective way the universal religious history of humanity. 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. A French translation of the book by Gimaret, Monnot and Jolivet was sponsored by UNESCO (Livre des religions et des sectes. Peeters: 1986, 1993).

Besides this, the richness and originality of al-Shahrastani's philosophical and theological thought is manifested in his other major works, which include:

Religious belief

Al-Shahrastani's own beliefs are difficult to categorise 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 an 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 Ridā Jalālī Nā’īnī, Muhammad Taqī Dānish-Pazhūh, Wilferd Madelung, Jean Jolivet, Guy Monnot, and Diana Steigerwald who characterise 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 Ismā`īlis were persecuted during that time.[2]


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.[3] In the Majlis and the Mafatih al-Asrar, the angels play a dominant role in the physical creation.[4] 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."[5]

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.[6] 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.


  1. Schimmel, Annemarie (1992). Islam: An Introduction (Translation of: Der Islam). SUNY Press. ISBN 0-7914-1327-6. OCLC 25201546. p. 86
  2. (Steigerwald 1997, pp. 298–307)
  3. (al-Shahrastani 1934, pp. 18–9)
  4. (al-Shahrastani 1998, p. 82); (al-Shahrastani 1989, vol. I: 109 verso line 24 to 110 recto line 1)
  5. (al-Shahrastani 1934, p. 316)
  6. (al-Shahrastani 1934, pp. 444–5)


  • Danish-Pazhuh, Muhammad Taqi, "Da'i al-du`at Taj al-din-i Shahrastana." Nama-yi astan-i quds, 1968. vol. 7, pp. 77–80.
  • Danish-Pazhuh, Muhammad Taqi, "Da'i al-du`at Taj al-din-i Shahrastana." Nama-yi astan-i quds, 1969, vol. 8, pp. 61–71.
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  • (French) 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.
  • 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.
  • (French) Monnot, Guy, "Islam: exégèse coranique." Annuaire de l'École Pratique des Hautes Études, 1983–84, vol. 92, pp. 305–15.
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  • (French) Monnot, Guy, "Islam: exégèse coranique." Annuaire de l'École Pratique des Hautes Études, vol. 96, 1987–1988, pp. 237–43.
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  • 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.
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  • al-Nu'man, Abu Hanifa, 1956 Al-Risala al-Mudhhiba. In Khams Rasa'il Isma'iliyya. Ed. `Arif Tamir, Beirut.
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  • Al-Shahrastani, Abu al-Fath Ibn 'Abd al-Karim, 1366-1375/1947-1955 Kitab al-Milal wa al-Nihal. Ed. Muhammad Fath Allah Badran, 2 vols. Cairo.
  • Al-Shahrastani, Abu al-Fath Ibn 'Abd al-Karim, 1396/1976 Musara'at al-Falasifa. Ed. Suhayr M. Mukhtar. Cairo.
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  • Steigerwald, Diana, 1996 "The Divine Word (Kalima) in Shahrastani's Majlis." Studies in Religion/Sciences religieuses, vol. 25.3, pp. 335–52.
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  • Steigerwald, Diana, "The Contribution of al-Shahrastani to Islamic Medieval Thought." In Reason and Inspiration: Islamic Studies in Honor of Hermann A. Landolt. London: I.B. Tauris, 2005.

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