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Comparative Religion in Medieval Muslim Literature PDF Print E-mail

Hilman Latief

This article investigates medieval Muslim literature on the study of non-Islamic religions through the writings of al-Biruni and al-Shahrastani in their dealing with Hind (India) and the nomenclature of world religions. I focus on their perceptions of monotheism and polytheism. My findings show that they used different approaches, categories, and classification models of world religious traditions in general, and of Hind’s religious traditions in particular. Al-Biruni classifies Indian religions according to the religious outlooks found in Hindu texts or sayings of Hindu philosophers/theologians and in the attitudes of ordinary people in a popular context. Al-Shahrastani categorizes the divisions and subdivisions of Hindu beliefs and practices according to types of “idol worshippers.” This article points out that they dealt with some conceptual issues in their presentations, such as “religious representation,” “intermediaries,” and “anthropomorphism.”


This article examines medieval Muslim literature on the study of religions, with specific reference to the works of Abu Rayhan al-Biruni (d. 1048) and Abd al-Karim al-Shahrastani (d. 1153). These scholars are comparable, since they discuss “major” and “minor” world religious traditions in general, and deal with the nomenclature of the religious traditions of Hind [India] in particular. Long known as important and admirable medieval Muslim scholars of comparative religion,1 they wrote distinctive works that became primary references for modern Muslim religious historians and heresiographers. Yet, medieval Islam was likely the key developing period of religious and crosscultural studies in Islamic intellectual history. As Franz Rosenthal points out, “the comparative study of religions has been rightly acclaimed as one of the great contributions of Muslim civilization to mankind’s [sic] intellectual progress.”2 From the eight to tenth centuries, for example, Muslim historians, geographers, and travelers focused on seven great ancient civilizations: the Persians, Chaldeans, Greeks, Egyptians, Turks, Indians, and Chinese.3

Modern scholars have recognized the two men’s scholarly contributions. For example, Arthur Jeffery states that al-Biruni’s contribution to the study of religion by establishing such scrupulous scientific principles as completeness, accuracy, and unbiased treatment is rare in his era and “unique in the history of his own faith.”4 And Eric J. Sharpe writes: “The honor of writing the first history of religion in world literature seems in fact to belong to the Muslim Shahrastani, whose Religious Parties and Schools of Philosophy describes and systematizes all religions of the then known world, as far as the boundaries of China.”5

Although many scholars have studied al-Biruni’s and al-Shahrastani’s treatises, among them Edward Sachau, Arthur Jeffery, Kamar Oniah Kamaruzzaman, Franz Rosenthal, Bruce Lawrence, and Jaques Waardenburg, a specific comparison of their works remains rare. Therefore, to contribute to the above larger framework of the Muslims’ erudition of Hind, a comparative study should focus on a special theme. I have chosen the models of classifying Hind’s religious divisions and their theological thought in al-Biruni’s and al-Shahrastani’s works. How do these scholars portray the divisions of Hind’s religious communities, what approach do they use, and how do they perceive the doctrines of Hind’s religious traditions?

To derive a more elaborate assessment, this article analyzes the foremost writings of both scholars. For al-Biruni, I use his Tahqiq Ma li al-Hind min Maq´lah Maqb´lah fi al-`Aql al-Mardh´lah6 and Kitab al-Athar al-Baqiyah ‘an al-Qur´n al-Khaliyah.7 The former discusses India’s religious belief systems, metaphysical views, cosmological doctrines, literary traditions, mythical heritages, and artistic inheritances; the latter elucidates the history and tradition of former nations and generations (akhbar al-umam al-salifah wa anba’al-qur´n al-madiyah) in dealing with the eras with which cultural and religious events were associated. For al-Shahrastani, I choose his Kitab alMilal wa al-Nihal,8 which establishes him as an outstanding Muslim historian of religions. This book primarily elaborates the range of religious sects, cults, and philosophical schools in Islam and other religious traditions. To complement his normative insight, philosophical exploration, and, perhaps, theological discourse toward other religious traditions, I also discuss his Kitab Nihayat al-Iqdam fi `Ilm Kalam,9 in which he assesses foundations (qawa’id) of theological science.

Several ideological, political, and intellectual factors might have caused medieval Muslim scholars to analyze religions and religious sects. As to the ideological or doctrinal factor, some Qur’anic verses highlighting other religious communities, especially the Sabians (al-Sabi`un), Zoroastrians (al-Majusiyah), and People of the Book (Ahl al-Kitab), have led Muslim theologians and exegetes to elaborate on the existence, status, and position of religions according to Islamic perspectives.10 Meanwhile, politically speaking, when Muslim power began to expand throughout South and Central Asia, North Africa, and Europe, the need to recognize other religions, either in terms of political conflict or polemical discourse, increased rapidly.

In line with the nature of political motivation and under imperial protection, certain scholars undertook “regional studies” that covered the materials of religious communities in the given regions. Moreover, after the “wave of Hellenism,”11interfaith discourse and the investigation of other religions became a main concern of medieval Muslim scholars. Translating Greek works on philosophy and logic into Arabic and Persian during the `Abbasid period contributed tremendously to the development of theological and philosophical thought. Above all, this activity significantly enhanced the variety of scholarly works in the fields of mysticism, literature, intercultural studies, and religious studies. This period was also characterized by the emergence of prolific writers influenced by Greek thought, Arabic culture, and Persian intellectual environments, respectively.12

Indeed, scholars prior to al-Biruni and al-Shahrastani had penned more than a few works related to religious and inter-cultural studies. However, while the majority of scholars focused on the “biblical religions” or “Muslim heresies,”13 al-Biruni and al-Shahrastani elaborated on Hind’s religious traditions. The first group’s works were mostly polemical and apologetic. In the tenth and eleventh centuries, for instance, some prominent scholars elaborated on tahrif (falsification of scripture)14 to criticize Jewish and Christian scriptures as well as to define Islam’s superiority over other religions.15