• Keys to the Arcana: Shahrastani’s Esoteric Commentary on the Qur’an

    Oxford University Press in Association with The Institute of Ismaili Studies, 2009 

    ISBN HardBack:
  • 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 ‘Ilminfo-icon al-Kalaminfo-icon). 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’aninfo-icon 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.


    Download Introduction

    Download PDF of the Qur'anic citations

    Download PDF of the Tables

  •   List of tables and diagram x
      Note on transliteration, diagram and abbreviations xii
      Foreword by Professor Hermann Landolt xiii
    I. Translator’s introduction 3
      Notes to the translator’s introduction 49
    II. Keys to the Arcana and Lanterns of the Godly  
      Shahrastani’s preface 63
      Shahrastani’s introduction to his hermeneutical method (Mafatih al-Furqaninfo-icon)  
    1 On the beginnings and endings of the descent of the Qur’aninfo-icon and the sequence of its descent 67
    2 On the manner of the collection of the Qur’an 68
    3 On the difference between reporters over the order of the descent of the chapters of the Qur’an 76
    4 On readings (qira’at) 90
    5 On what is desirable and undesirable for the reciter of the Qur’an in regard to ‘seeking refuge [with God]’ (isti‘adha) 97
    6 On the number of chapters, verses, words and letters of the Qur’an 101
    7 On the enumeration of the exegetes amongst the companions and others 102
    8 On the meaning of tafsir (exegesis) and ta’wilinfo-icon (hermeneutics) 104
    9 On generality and specificity, the clear and the ambiguous, the abrogating and the abrogated 109
    10 On the two principles of the accomplished (mafrugh) and the inchoative (musta’naf) 113
    11 On the miraculous inimitability of the Qur’an 119
    12 On the prerequisites for exegesis of the Qur’an 123
      The exegesis of the Exordium (Tafsir Surat al-Fatiha) 133
      Notes to the translation 189
      Bibliography 239
      Index of Qur’anic citations 249
      Index 255
    III. Arabic text of the Mafatih al-asrar wa masabih al-abrar  
      Mafatih al-Furqan: muqaddimat al-Shahrastani li-tafsirihi  
      Tafsir Surat al-Fatiha  
      Tables and diagram  
      The order of the descent of the Qur’an 79
      Mention of the sequence of the chapters in the codices 84
      Surat al-Fatiha 130
      The Exordium diagram 186


  • Dr Toby Mayer

    Dr Toby Mayer is a Research Associate in the Qur’anic Studies Unit at The Institute of Ismaili Studies, London. After completing his undergraduate degree in Indian Studies at the University of Cambridge, he went on to study Medieval Arabic thought at the University of Oxford, where he wrote his doctoral thesis on the Book of Allusions (Isharat) by the major Persian philosopher Ibn Sina. In 2001, in conjunction with Professor Wilferd Madelung , he published a critical edition and translation of Shahrastani’s Kitab Musara‘at al-Falasifa, entitled Struggling with the Philosopher: A Refutation of...Read more