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Abū Yaʿqūb al-Sijistānī in Modern Scholarship

Although al-Sijistānī was a leading figure in the development of Ismāʿīlī philosophy, particularly its Neoplatonism, serious investigation of his writing has been slow to enter modern scholarship, in part because his works have remained inaccessible until quite recently.

Moreover the first printed versions were often incomplete or corrupt. Lately the situation has changed substantially with availability now of new critical editions.


Abū Yaʿqūb Isḥaq b. Aḥmad al-Sijistānī (or alternately al-Sijzī) was the major philosophical theologian of Ismāʿīlī Shīʿism in the mid-fourth/tenth century. Although he was put to death by the Ṣaffārid governor of Sijistan at an uncertain date, but not long after 361/971, his writings continued to have great influence with Ismāʿīlī writers to end of the Fatimid period. Later treatises, notably some by Nāṣir b. Khusraw,[1] contain passages that simply quote or paraphrase al-Sijistānī’s works. Even later, the Ṭayyibi daʿwa in the Yemen and in India carefully preserved many of his writings and continued to hold them in high regard.

The details of his career are, however, obscure. He is mentioned by several medieval authors, both Ismāʿīlī and non-Ismāʿīlī, although under a puzzling variety of names including a most peculiar nickname “cotton-seed” which appears once in Persian as panba-dāna and several times in Arabic as khayshafūj.[2] Two sure dates for him, both given in his own writings, are, first, 322/934, at which time he passed through Iraq on his return from the pilgrimage, and, second, 361/971, the year he composed Kitāb al-Iftikhār, one of his last books. It is quite likely that he was, on the former occasion, already a fully active senior member of the Ismāʿīlī daʿwa, possibly stationed then in the area of Rayy. Later he moved to Khurasan, where he may have been a disciple of the famous early dāʿī Muḥammad al-Nasafī, and finally, after the latter’s execution in 332/943 at the hands of the Samanids, to Sijistan.

His writings, which have been slow to reach modern scholarship, are best represented by six main treatises: Kitāb al-Maqālīd (or al-Maqālīd al-malakūtiyya, or al-Aqālīd al-malakūtiyya[3]), Ithbāt al-nubuwwāt (or al-nubuwwa), Kitāb al-Yanābīʿ, Kitāb al-Iftikhār, Sullam al-najāt and Kashf al-maḥjūb. The first two are the most substantial and important. Even so the Maqālīd was not published until 2011 and the Ithbāt existed until recently in an unreliable edition only.[4] In these works the author expresses support for the Fatimid caliphs—something many of the earlier eastern dāʿīs had not done. Nonetheless, there is evidence that even al-Sijistānī had changed his mind, accepting the Fatimids only late in his career, probably during the reign of the Fatimid caliph al-Muʿizz. He was therefore once a representative of those eastern Ismāʿīlīs who initially refused to recognize the Fatimid caliphate, a tendency often labeled Qarmaṭian. However, eventually he reversed himself and began thereafter to recognize them as the representatives of the absent imam Muḥammad b. Ismāʿīl b. Jaʿfar al-Ṣādiq. Most likely these six works therefore date from the years of al-Muʿizz’s reign, namely between 341/953 and 365/975. The works he originally composed prior to that time were subsequently revised by the author himself during this very period and thus made to accord with these changed circumstances.[5]

Quite aside from Ismāʿīlī doctrine, which al-Sijistānī shared with other members of the daʿwa, his thought is important for his pronounced use of elements of Neoplatonism. In that regard he stands out even among the philosophers of his time. It is as yet uncertain exactly what his sources were in this regard but many writers of that period, among them his immediate predecessors in the Ismāʿīlī daʿwa, Abū Ḥātim al-Rāzī and Muḥammad al-Nasafī, had begun to mix Neoplatonic philosophy with Islam doctrine. The clearest connections for al-Sijistānī are with the works now known as the Pseudo-Ammonius and the two versions—the shorter and longer—of the Theology (of Aristotle). Al-Sijistānī actually quotes passages from the latter in his al-Maqālīd.[6] One more work by him, once well known but now lost, was his al-Nuṣra, a specific defense of al-Nasafī’s seminal Kitāb al-Maḥṣūl, which is also no longer extant. However, it served as a point of controversy within the daʿwa and the early fifth/eleventh century Ismāʿīlī theologian Ḥamīd al-Dīn al-Kirmānī wrote a refutation of both called the Kitāb al-Riyāḍ. In this treatise al-Kirmānī attempted to challenge a number of doctrines advocated by al-Sijistānī. His goal was in general to replace some Neoplatonic features of his predecessor’s teachings with those he preferred and which incline more toward Aristotelian doctrine.

There are several characteristic features in al-Sijistānī’s thought. One is his insistence that God can be apprehended neither by comparisons and approximations nor by intellectual stratagems such as negations (the via negativa). His own method would deny both, first by stating that God is not a thing, not in time, not in place, not describable, not classifiable and then by negating these negations. For example, God is not a thing and He is not not a thing.[7] Another is the preservation of the distinction between the world of intellect and the world of soul, as in Plotinian Neoplatonism. Human soul is a part of universal soul with many of the ramification such a doctrine entails, including the notion that soul, in the individual human, has “forgotten” what it was previously. He was accused of believing in metempsychosis (tanāsukh), by among others al-Bīrūnī in his work on Indian religions, a charge al-Sijistānī had himself anticipated and rejected, but with some difficulty.[8]

Modern Study of al-Sijistānī

Over the first half of the 20th century several scholars began to be aware of al-Sijistānī’s possible importance, but no actual text by him was then available except in manuscript form. As late as 1960 S. M. Stern’s brief notice about him in the second edition of the Encyclopaedia of Islam could cite of his works only the Persian translation of his Kashf al-maḥjūb, which Henry Corbin had edited and published in 1949.[9] Corbin next added, in 1961, an edition and partial French translation of al-Sijistānī’s al-Yanābīʿ, which he included in his Trilogie ismaélienne. Five years later in 1966, Aref Tamer printed the text of his Ithbāt al-nubuwwāt through the Catholic Press (al-Maṭbaʿa al-Kāthūlīkiyya) in Beirut. The following year the same scholar published, in his Khams rasāʾil Ismāʿīliyya, a short treatise called Tuḥfat al-mustajībīn (or Risālat tuḥfat al-mustajībīn) with an indication that its author was al-Sijistānī.[10] Whether it is actually a work of al-Sijistānī remains uncertain.[11]

With only these few items published, it continued to be essential to have access to manuscript copies of the others. My Ph.D. dissertation, entitled “Abū Yaʿqūb al-Sijistānī and the Development of Ismāʿīlī Neoplatonism,” completed at the University of Chicago under the direction of Wilferd Madelung, in 1974, was based on manuscript copies for al-Maqālīd and al-Iftikhār, in addition to what was by then available in print.

In 1980 Mustafa Ghalib brought out in Beirut an edition of al-Iftikhār and the same year Mohamed Alibhai provided in his Harvard doctoral dissertation an edition of the Sullam al-najāt. Thus the situation was substantially improved, although with a few problems added. Tamer’s edition of the Ithbāt and Ghalib’s of al-Iftikhār were both helpful in giving a general idea of each text and yet were quite unreliable for accuracy. Neither in fact faithfully reflected the text they were supposedly based on. In addition to inaccuracies, Ghalib deliberately omitted passages.[12] Both works sorely needed a new critical edition. And at this point the Maqālīd had not appeared in print, nor were manuscript copies of it readily available.

Nevertheless, important studies of aspects of al-Sijistānī work and career began to materialize.[13] A major step forward was Stern’s “The Early Ismāʿīlī Missionaries in North-West Persia and in Khurāsān and Transoxania,” (1960) which outlines what evidence exists for al-Sijistānī’s career. This was followed by studies on his works and thought; see also the articles by Poonawala,[14] Madelung[15] and the many studies of him by the present author. My monograph of 1993, Early Philosophical Shiism, has the subtitle The Ismāʿīlī Neoplatonism of Abū Yaʿqūb al-Sijistānī and it represented an attempt to bring knowledge of al-Sijistānī, and my earlier studies of him, up to date.

The task of properly editing the Iftikhār was accomplished only in 2000 with Poonawala’s careful publication of it based on several manuscripts and a sound apparatus. The same scholar finally produced in 2011, also in Beirut, an edition of the Maqālīd. With its appearance, all the main works of al-Sijistānī had become easily accessible. Moreover, a new reliable edition of Sijistānī’s Ithbāt al-nubuwwāt has now been published by Paul Walker and Wilferd Madelung (Tehran 2016), based on two manuscripts of the text: an undated manuscript that once belonged to A. A. A. Fyzee and is now in the library of Bombay University,[16] and a second manuscript that comes from the Hamdani collection which was copied by ʿĪsā b. Dāʾūd-bhāʿī b. ʿAbd al-ʿAlī b. Ibrāhīm-jī al-Sayfī and was completed on 29 Rabīʿ i 1307/22 November 1889.[17]

For the future it is important to explore the possible influences of al-Sijistānī both among the later Ismāʿīlī authors and those few Sunni authorities who admit to having read his works. On that score Yaḥya Michot’s discovery of a connection to Ibn Taymiyya is especially significant. The evidence noted by Michot[18] was expanded by Poonawala for his introduction to the Maqālīd and, recently, Rodrigo Adem, who recently completed his Ph.D. dissertation at the University of Chicago on Ibn Taymiyya, has added more still.[19]


  • Adem Rodrigo The Intellectual Genealogy of Ibn Taymīya 2015 doctoral dissertation, University of Chicago
  • Alibhai Mohamed Abualy Abū Yaʿqūb al-Sijistānī and Kitāb Sullam al-Najāt: A study in Islamic Neoplatonism 1983 doctoral dissertation, Harvard University
  • Andani Khalil “A Survey of Ismaili Studies Part 1: Early Ismailism and Fatimid Ismailism” Religion Compass 2016 10 8 191 206
  • al-Bīrūnī Abū al-Rayḥān Kitab fi tahqiq-i-ma li-l-Hind, or al-Biruni’s India. An account of the religion, philosophy, literature, geography, chronology, astronomy, customs, laws and astrology of India about 1030 A.D. 1958 Hyderabad The Dairatuʾl-Maʾarifiʾl-Osmania [trans. E. C. Sachau, Delhi, 1964]
  • de Blois François Arabic, Persian and Gujarati Manuscripts: The Hamdani Collection in the Library of The Institute of Ismāʿīlī Studes 2011 London I.B. Tauris
  • Corbin Henri Trilogie ismaélienne: Textes edités avec traduction française et commentaire 1961 Tehran Institut franco-iranian
  • Goriawala Muʿizz A Descriptive Catalogue of the Fyzee Collection of Ismāʿīlī Manuscripts 1965 Bombay University of Bombay
  • Hirji Boustan A Study of “al-Risalah al-Bahirah” 1994 doctoral dissertation, McGill University, Montreal
  • Ibn Taymiyya Taqī al-dīn Aḥmad b. ʿAwdah al-Saʿawī Muḥammad Sharḥ al-Iṣbahāniyya 1433/2012 Riyad Maktabat Dār al-minhāj li-l-nashr wa-l-tawzīʿ
  • al-Kirmānī Ḥamīd al-dīn Tamer Arif Kitāb al-Riyāḍ fī l-ḥukm bayna al-sādayn ṣāḥibāy al-iṣlāḥ wa-l-nuṣra 1960 Beirut Dār al-thaqāfa
  • Landolt Hermann Nasr S. H. & Aminrazavi M. “Introduction to the Translation” of Kashf al-maḥjūb An Anthology of Philosophy in Persia, vol. 2: Ismāʿīlī thought in the Classical Age 2008 London 74 82
  • Madelung Wilferd “Abū Yaʿqūb al-Sijistānī and Metempsychosis” Iranica Varia. Papers in Honor of Professor Ehsan Yarshater 1990 Leiden Brill 131 143
  • Madelung Wilferd Daftary Farhard “Abū Yaʿqūb al-Sijistānī and the Seven Faculties of the Intellect” Mediaeval Ismaʿili History and Thought 1996 Cambridge Cambridge University Press 85 89
  • al-Majdūʿ Ismāʿīl b. ʿAbd al-Rasūl Naqī Munzavī ʿAlī Fahrasat al-kutub wa-l-rasāʾil 1966 Tehran Tehran University Printing House
  • Michot Yahya “A Mamlūk Theologian’s Commentary on Avicenna’s Risāla aḍḥawiyya, Part I” Journal of Islamic Studies 2003 14 149 203
  • Khusraw Nāṣir-i al-Khashshāb Yaḥyā Khwān al-ikhwān 1940 Cairo IFAO
  • Nāṣir-i Khusraw Qavīm ʿAlī Khwān al-ikhwān 1959 Tehran
  • Poonawala Ismail K. Biobibliography of Ismāʿīlī Literature 1977 Malibu, Calif.
  • Poonawala Ismail K. Little Donald P. “Al-Sijistānī and his Kitāb al-MaqālīdEssays on Islamic Civilization Presented to Niyazi Berkes 1970 Leiden Brill 274 283
  • al-Sijistānī Abū Yaʿqūb Hirjī Bustān al-Risāla al-Bāhira fī l-maʿād Taḥqīqāt-i Islāmī 1993 7 21 50 Persian trans., ʿAbd Allāh Nūrānī, ibid., pp. 51-62; Eng. trans. in Hirji, A Study of “al-Risāla al-Bāhirah”, pp. 60-75
  • al-Sijistānī Abū Yaʿqūb Tamer Arif Ithbāt al-nubuwwāt 1966 Beirut al-Maṭbaʿa al-Kāthūlīkiyya
  • al-Sijistānī Abū Yaʿqūb Madelung Wilferd & Walker Paul Ithbāt al-nubuwwāt 2016 Tehran
  • al-Sijistānī Abū Yaʿqūb Corbin H. Kashf al-maḥjūb 1949 Tehran and Paris French trans. Henri Corbin Le Dévoilement des choses cachées, Paris: Verdier, 1988; partial Eng. trans. Hermann Landolt in S. H. Nasr and M. Aminrazavi, eds, An Anthology of Philosophy in Persia, vol. 2: Ismāʿīlī thought in the Classical Age, London: I.B. Tauris, 2008, pp. 74-129
  • al-Sijistānī Abū Yaʿqūb Poonawala Ismail K. Kitāb al-Iftikhār 2000 Beirut Dār al-Gharb al-Islāmī
  • al-Sijistānī Abū Yaʿqūb Poonawala Ismail K. Kitāb al-Maqālīd al-malakūtiyya 2011 Beirut Dār al-Gharb al-Islāmī
  • al-Sijistānī Abū Yaʿqūb Kitāb al-Yanābīʿ ed. with partial French trans., H. Corbin in Trilogie ismaélienne; Eng. trans. Paul E. Walker in The Wellsprings of Wisdom.
  • al-Sijistānī Abū Yaʿqūb Sullam al-najāt ed. M. Alibhai as part of a doctoral dissertation entitled Abū Yaʿqūb al-Sijistānī and Kitāb Sullam al-Najāt: A Study in Islamic Neoplatonism (Harvard University, 1983)
  • Stern Samuel Miklos “The Early Ismāʿīlī Missionaries in North-West Persia and in Khurāsān and Transoxania” Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies 1960 23 56 90
  • Stern Samuel Miklos Boyce Mary & Gershevitch Ilya “Arabo-Persica: III. Abū Yaʿqūb al-Sijzī’s nickname” W. B. Henning Memorial Volume 1970 London Lund Humphries 415f
  • Tāmir ʿĀrif Khams rasāʾil ismāʿīliyya 1956 Salmiyya Dār al-Anṣāf
  • Walker Paul E. Abū Yaʿqūb al-Sijistānī and the development of Ismaili Neoplatonism 1974 doctoral dissertation, University of Chicago
  • Walker Paul E. Abu Yaʿqūb al-Sijistānī: Intellectual Missionary 1996 London I.B. Tauris in association with the Institute of Ismaili Studies
  • Walker Paul E. “Cosmic Hierarchies in Early Ismāʿīlī Thought: The View of Abū Yaʿqūb al-Sijistānī” The Muslim World 1976 116 14 28
  • Walker Paul E. Hallaq Wael B. & Little Donald P. “The Doctrine of Metempsychosis in Islam” Islamic Studies Presented to Charles J. Adams 1991 Leiden Brill 219 238
  • Walker Paul E. “An Early Ismāʿīlī Interpretation of Man, History and Salvation” Ohio Journal of Religious Studies 1975 2 29 35
  • Walker Paul E. Early Philosophical Shiism: The Ismāʿīlī Neoplatonism of Abū Yaʿqūb al-Sijistānī 1993 Cambridge Cambridge University Press
  • Walker Paul E. “An Ismāʿīli Answer to the Problem of Worshiping the Unknowable, Neoplatonic God” American Journal of Arabic Studies 1974 2 7 21
  • Walker Paul E. “The Ismāʿīlī Vocabulary of Creation” Studia Islamica 1974 40 75 85
  • Walker Paul E. The Wellsprings of Wisdom: A Study of Abū Yaʿqūb al-Sijistānī’s Kitāb al-Yanābīʿ including a complete English translation with commentary and notes on the Arabic text 1994 Salt Lake City University of Utah Press

On this problem see Walker, Early Philosophical Shiism, p. 165, n. 79.

For further details see Goriawala, A Descriptive Catalogue, p. 10.



[1] Nāṣir’s Khwān al-ikhwān, for example, draws heavily on al-Sijistānī’s al-Yanābīʿ.

[2] On this, see Stern, “The Early Ismāʿīlī Missionaries”; and idem, “Abū Yaʿqūb al-Sijzī’s nickname”.

[3] The title of this work as it appears in the citations of it by Ibn Taymiyya.

[4] The work is now available in a critical edition by Paul Walker and Wilferd Madelung (Tehran, 2016). For details of editions and translations of al-Sijistānī’s extant writings, see also the bibliography below.

[5] For details, see the studies by Paul Walker cited in the bibliography.

[6] For details and references, see Walker, Early Philosophical Shiism, Chapter Two.

[7] This doctrine drew considerable comment from Ibn Taymiyya. See, for example, his Sharḥ al-Iṣbahāniyya, p. 522, where he quotes from al-Sijistānī’s Maqālīd (the 10th iqlīd). There he also recognizes al-Sijistānī as “ . . . among the best (afḍal) of these Qarmaṭians (al-Qarāmiṭa).” This reference was brought to my attention by Rodrigo Adem.

[8] See Madelung, “Abū Yaʿqūb al-Sijistānī and Metempsychosis”; Walker, “The Doctrine of Metempsychosis in Islam”.

[9] S. M. Stern, “Abū Yaʿqūb al-Sidjzī,” The Encyclopaedia of Islam. New Edition, vol. 1, Leiden: Brill, 1960, p. 160.

[10] He also published it in Mashriq (Beirut), March-April, 1967, pp. 135-46.

[11] On this problem see Walker, Early Philosophical Shiism, p. 165, n. 79.

[12] For an assessment of the faults of Tamer’s edition of the Ithbāt, see Walker’s and Madelung’s introduction to their recently published critical edition of the work.

[13] For details see also the bibliography below.

[14] Poonawala, “Al-Sijistānī and his Kitāb al-Maqālīd”.

[15] Madelung, “Abū Yaʿqūb al-Sijistānī and Metempsychosis”; idem, “Abū Yaʿqūb al-Sijistānī and the Seven Faculties of the Intellect”.

[16] For further details see Goriawala, A Descriptive Catalogue, p. 10.

[17] For more details see François de Blois, Arabic, Persian and Gujarati Manuscripts: The Hamdani Collection in the Library of The Institute of Ismāʿīlī Studes (London, I.B. Tauris, 2011), pp. 45-46.

[18] First announced in Michot’s “A Mamlūk Theologian’s Commentary,” pp. 199-203.

[19] Adem, Intellectual Genealogy. On modern scholarship of al-Sijistānī in the wider context of Ismāʿīlī studies, see also Andani, “Survey,” p. 201 and passim.

Bibliographic Information

Title: Abū Yaʿqūb al-Sijistānī in Modern Scholarship

Author(s):  Paul Walker

Published in: Shii Studies Review

 Language: English

Length: 8 pages

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