Al-Ghazālī as a Key Historical Witness to the Ismaili Doctrine of taʿlīm

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Paul E. Walker



The writings of al-Ghazālī give the distinct impression that he was highly concerned with the threat the Ismailis and their doctrines posed. By his own admission, he wrote six separate treatises to refute and condemn them, most importantly his Faḍāʾiḥ al-bāṭiniyya (The infamies of the esotericists), which he composed in the year 488h (1095) in the months prior to his renunciation of government service and departure from Baghdad. His attack focused on the doctrine known as taʿlīm, with its insistence on the unrivaled absolute authority of a single infallible Imam. He had in mind the Alamut teaching by Ḥasan-i Ṣabbāḥ of a doctrine then widely advocated in the Abbasid–Seljuk East. Significantly, there is no sign of this term used in this manner in the western Fatimid domains either earlier or later. However, our knowledge of events in the career of Ḥasan and of his teachings come from much later sources and are in part legendary at best. Although the doctrine of taʿlīm was certainly implicit in Ismaili works long before, in this particular work al-Ghazālī directed his attentions squarely against a new teaching he encountered personally in his own time and place. But we know it otherwise primarily from accounts recorded much later, in particular al-Shahrastānī’s al-Milal wa-l-niḥal.

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