• Degrees of Excellence is a bilingual work of decisive importance to the philosophical curriculum of medieval Muslim thought. It introduces the first book-length study of Ahmad b. Ibrahim al-Naysaburi, a hitherto unknown scholar of the early fifth/eleventh century, who writes the most elaborate and erudite philosophical justification of the Imamate. He writes in a manner that is both logical and structured yet comparatively less complex and intricate than other such texts of the period. A distinguished scholar from the Fatimid period, al-Naysaburi came from Nishapur, noted particularly for its erudition and use of rationalistic philosophy. Although he has several works to his credit, it is the Kitab Ithbat al-Imamainfo-icon that allows us to capture and understand not only the significance of his own thought, but also the beliefs of his age.

    Instead of basing his work exclusively on the Holy Qur’aninfo-icon and the traditions, al-Naysaburi applies intellectual tools to explain and expound his theology by presenting a range of arguments, foremost amongst which is the theory of ‘degrees of excellence’. As such, he argues that God created each genera and species with a unique capacity and distinct advantage not existing in others. While each category has its own differences and disparities, there are at the same time paradigms of perfect examples in each variety. Using examples from the ten Aristotelian categories and other natural metaphors from mineral, plant, tree and animal kingdoms, he reveals in a corresponding manner how the Imaminfo-icon stands at the zenith of humanity.

    The Kitab Ithbat al-Imama provides an unparalleled insight into the intricacies of the imam-caliphinfo-icon al-Hakim’s rule (386-411/996-1021), not only adding considerably to our understanding of that period, but also dispelling the erroneous accusations against this caliph. Besides being annotated and contextualised, the work itself has a fluent and accessible introduction in which Dr Lalani introduces the author and his works, describes the contents of work, and elaborates several themes within the text. There is a specific section on the theme of ‘degrees of excellence’ and, for the specialist, a description of the Arabic manuscripts used alongside notes to the translation.

    Amongst the highlights of the work is an explanation of how and why leadership is to be seen everywhere in the world and how, in order to guide humanity, the imam must always be present in the world, describing what is exclusive about him and why he is a necessity innately as well as intellectually. An example in question is paragraph [45]: “Further, we say that there are disparities (tafawut) and differences in degrees of excellence (tafadul) in the organs of the body; the foremost and the best among them is the head. It is in the head that the face [is situated] by which each human being is recognized and distinguished from others. Among the internal organs, the best one is the brain, which is their chief, being the source of the intellect. So likewise the Imam has a position in the world similar to the head and in relation to the organs, similar to the brain. Around him revolve all affairs of the creation just as all actions pertaining to the body revolve around the brain. Amongst the faculties in man and the spirits, the best is the intellect, and the Imam is the Universal Intellect (aqlinfo-icon al-kulli) in the world from and in whom all people of the world become united.”

    Degrees of Excellence is an invaluable source on classical Fatimid thought and will prove essential reading for students of Islamic history, philosophy and theology besides serving as a useful reference for modern Shi’i communities of all persuasions.
  • Preface and Acknowledgements xiii
    Introduction 1
    The Author and his Works 4
    The Contents of Kitab ithbat al-imamainfo-icon 9
    Themes in the Text 12
    Degrees of Excellence 17
    Description of the Arabic Manuscripts 26
    Notes on the Translation 27
    Translation of Kitab ithbat al-imama:  
    Book on Affirming the Imamateinfo-icon 29
    Select Bibliography 96
    English Index 108
    Arabic Index  
    Arabic Text  


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    Ms. (R) 56 C.1. Library of The Institute of Ismaili Studies.

    The following variants of al-Naysaburi’s above work used in this study are also housed at the Institute’s Library:

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    —— Zahid ‘Ali Collection, Ms. 11 23 (Ar I, ZA)

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  • Dr. Arzina Lalani

    Arzina R Lalani received her doctorate in 1988 from the Department of Arabic and Middle Eastern Studies, University of Edinburgh. Formerly a recipient of the Institute's Visiting Research Fellowship (1999-2000) she is currently a Research Associate at the Institute of Ismaili Studies, London. A specialist in early and medieval Arabic Literature, she focuses on multi-dimensional aspects of Shi'i thought. Her work Early Shi'i Thought: The Teachings of Imam Muhammad al-Baqir (London, 2000) won prestigious literary awards in London and Iran. Following peer reviews and translations in several...Read more