One of the most learned and enigmatic scholars of medieval Islam, Muḥammad b. ʿAbd al-Karīm al-Shahrastānī (d. 548/1153) is best known for his comprehensive survey of religions, sects and schools of philosophy, the Kitāb al-Milal wa’l-niḥal, and as one of the leading exponents of Sunni theology in its Ash‘arī tradition. A different and lesser-known aspect of al-Shahrastānī’s religious thought is that some of his works reflect definite Shi‘i and specifically Isma‘ili perspectives. One of these is the Kitāb al-Muṣāraʿā (Struggling with the Philosopher), which is published here in Arabic with an English translation for the first time.

In this work, al-Shahrastānī gives a detailed critique of the metaphysics of the great Persian philosopher Avicenna (Ibn Sīnā). The greater part of his ‘intellectual wrestling match’ (muṣāraʿā) is devoted to refuting Avicenna’s interpretation of the ‘Necessary Being’ (wājib al-wujūd) which, he argues, compromises the absolute transcendence of God. For al-Shahrastānī, God is beyond human comprehension and above all opposites such as existence and non-existence, unity and multiplicity, good and evil, or truth and falsehood. There is compelling evidence that this conception of God, which al-Shahrastānī believed was derived from prophetic precepts, is closely associated with that of Isma‘ilism.

That the Kitāb al-Muṣāraʿā was written by one of the most authoritative voices of Ash‘arism, who was at the same time inclined to Isma‘iili views, suggests the rich diversity and eclecticism that characterised intellectual discourse in medieval Islam. In his Introduction to the text, Wilferd Madelung commends al-Shahrastānī’s treatise for its coherent and distinctive philosophical vision, informed by a broad spiritual perspective.

The Kitāb al-Muṣāraʿā is an important document of Islamic intellectual history, illustrating the reaction against Avicennism among Muslim theologians in the sixth/twelfth century. As such, it is essential reading and a reference text for students of Islamic studies and scholars interested in the medieval Islamic world.