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.