ABŪ YAʿQŪB SEJESTĀNĪ (or SEJZĪ), ESḤĀQ B. AḤMAD, one of the most important of the early Ismaʿili dāʿīs. He achieved during his lifetime (fl. second-third quarters of the 4th/10th century) a special renown as a teacher and leader among the Ismaʿilis and gained even more recognition during subsequent generations for the influence of his doctrinal writings, which have been preserved and studied by members of the sect until modern times. His written works, only recently uncovered and publicized by non-Ismaʿili researchers, reveal that his contribution to the development of the sect’s doctrinal position was seminal. They show that he was strongly influenced by the Neoplatonic tendencies current in the philosophical thinking of his time and that he played a major role in the development of ideas and dogmas which combined this Neoplatonism with a previously existing Ismaʿilism. These works make Seǰestānī an eminent figure in both the development of Ismaʿili theology and the history of Neoplatonism in Islamic philosophy.

Seǰestānī remains a shadowy figure historically—the subject of vague and elusive references in several heresiographies and histories of the Ismaʿili sect. Unfortunately, Ismaʿili sources themselves are mostly silent on the details of his life, his position in the daʿwa, and the place of his activities. Seǰestānī lived in a period of crucial importance for the elaboration of formal Ismaʿilism. He held a high position, perhaps several positions, in the daʿwa(s) of the Iranian provinces. His fame also extended outside the inner circle of the Ismaʿili mission. Several non-Ismaʿili contemporary and near contemporary writers mention him and his curious nickname of “Cottonseed,” which appears, for example, in the text of ʿAbd-al-Qāher Baḡdādī as banba-dāna (= panba-dāna) and in other sources (Abu’l-Qāsem Bostī, Kāšānī, Rašīd-al-dīn) as ḵayšafūǰ. (Both words have the same meaning; see S. M. Stern, “Arabico-Persica,” W. B. Henning Memorial Volume, ed. M. Boyce and I. Gershevitch, London, 1970, pp. 415-16.)

There is an uncertain reference by Neẓām-al-molk (Sīāsat-nāma, ed. J. Šeʿār, Tehran, 1348/1969, p. 329) to an Esḥāq who became head of the daʿwa in Ray about 322/934-35 upon the death of the dāʿī Abū Ḥātem Rāzī. Another, apparently unconnected report comes from Ebn al-Nadīm (Fehrest, pp. 189-90) concerning an Abū Yaʿqūb who was “the lieutenant of the Imam” residing at Ray in the period 320 to 330/932-42. These seem to indicate that Seǰestānī first came to prominence in that city. If so, he had assumed overall control of the regional daʿwa there, as well as in several other areas such as northern Mesopotamia and Baghdad itself, before the end of the third decade of the 4th century. He mentions in his Efteḵār that he was in Iraq in 322/934. It appears that he, like the daʿwa of Ray in general, did not support the Fatimid claim to the imamate at this time and was won over to the Fatimid cause at a later date.

Other sources, like Nāṣer-e Ḵosrow, indicate more definitely that he was later chief of the daʿwa in Khorasan following Moḥammad Nasafī; still others (Esfarāʾenī, Rašīd-al-dīn) place him in Sīstān either during the lifetime of Nasafī or after, or both. Yet another piece of evidence contained in his Efteḵār implies that this work was composed shortly after the year 361/971. Finally it is noted by Rašīd-al-dīn, among others, that he died at the hand of Ḵalaf b. Ahmad, Saffarid ruler of Khorasan between 353/964 and 393/1002. That he was still writing during the caliphate of the Fatimid Ḥākem (386-411/996-1021), as may be deduced from the mention of the latter’s name in the introduction of two of his works, seems difficult to accept. These references are perhaps later additions.

The extant works of Seǰestānī cover a range of subjects on religious observance, on political and historical theories of prophecy, and on various theological doctrines of mainly cosmological significance. As they exist now, it is in some cases difficult to determine the original form of the texts. Several, such as his Kašf al-maḥǰūb (available only in Persian) and Toḥfat al-mostaǰībīn, appear to be paraphrases or summaries only (concerning the former, see S. M. Stern, “Al-Bustī and his refutation of Ismāʿīlism,” JRAS 1961, p. 22); others, such as the Eṯbāt al-nobūwāt, show signs of later editing. Those which are mentioned by Seǰestānī himself include Eṯbāt al-nobūwāt (“Proofs of prophecy”), Yanābīʿ (“The sources”), and Bešāra (“Glad tidings”), all cited in his Maqālīd (“The keys”). After these he wrote Efteḵār (“The boast”) and Sollam al-naǰāt (“Ladder of salvation”) and probably several others. To these should be added his Noṣra (“The Defense”), an important work, no longer extant except in quotations. In it he defended many of the views expressed by Nasafī in his Maḥṣūl which had been rejected by Abū Ḥātem Rāzī. Of his major works only Eṯbāt al-nobūwāt, Yanābīʿ, and Kašf al-maḥǰūb have been published. The last of these presents an unusual and extremely interesting early attempt to express in Persian translation some of the subtlest concepts in Seǰestānī’s philosophy. Of the two remaining works of greatest importance, Efteḵār is about to be published. Still lacking is an edition of Maqālīd, without which it is difficult or impossible to gain a proper appreciation of the range and scope of Seǰestānī’s thought. (See I. K. Poonawala, “Al-Sijistānī and his Kitāb al-Maqālīd,” in Essays on Islamic Civilization Presented to Niyāzi Berkes, ed. D. P. Little, Leiden, 1976, pp. 274-83.)

A major problem in analyzing Seǰestānī’s theological contributions is posed by the role of his predecessor Nasafī, whose major work Maḥṣūl is no longer extant except in isolated quotations found in later books. It would appear that Nasafī began the philosophical trend which Seǰestānī continued. Together they developed a highly complex theological system which revolutionized Ismaʿilism and made of it a sophisticated, rationally argued and intellectually defensible alternative both to Sunni orthodoxy and to other forms of Shiʿism. In general, the views they expressed eventually found favor in the central daʿwa under the Fatimids and continued to occupy this preeminent place until the end of the dynasty, even though Ḥamīd-al-dīn Kermānī, an outstanding dāʿī and theologian, proposed major modifications and revisions to the doctrines of his predecessors at the outset of the 5th/11th century.

The major theological contributions of Seǰestānī are reasonably intelligible from surviving texts and may be summarized as follows:

God is completely unknowable, ineffable, and absolute in His uniqueness. Consequently, proper worship is achieved only by a rigorous denial of both tašbīh (the use of analogies for understanding) and taʿṭīl (the denying of all substance to God). This must be done by the use of a twofold negation: that God is, for example, not a thing, not limited, not describable, not in a place, not a time, not a being, and equally not not a thing, not not limited, not not describable, and so forth.

There are three distinct levels of the creation process, each of which corresponds to the kind of reality being created. The first is pure innovation (ebdāʿ), the second is procession (enbeʿāṯ), and the third is coming-to-be (takwīn). The first is completely non-temporal and therefore eternal. The second is outside of time but results in the creation of Soul (al-nafs), which contains time. The third takes place in time and brings about the physical universe.

Intelligible reality is arranged in two major hierarchies. One, derived from Neoplatonism, includes God, intellect, soul, nature and the lower orders. Intertwined in this is a second order called the normative or moral hierarchy which is of specifically Ismaʿili provenance. It includes the two roots (aṣlān), ǰadd, fatḥ, ḵayāl, and the terrestrial, ecclesiastical body of legislative prophets and imams. The salvation of mankind is a historical process. Man is saved because of the truth which he receives from the prophets. Because true knowledge is eternal, that part of man which possesses this knowledge also becomes eternal.


Primary sources:

See also Kermānī, Rāḥat al-ʿaql, ed. M. K. Ḥosayn and M. M. Ḥelmī, Cairo, 1952, p. 22.

Idem, al-Rīāż, ed. ʿĀ. Tāmer, Beirut, 1960, pp. 50, 72, 93.

Baḡdādī, Farq, ed. M. Moḥyī-al-dīn, Cairo, n.d., p. 283.

Bīrūnī, Ketāb taʾrīḵ al-Hend, ed. E. Sachau, London, 1887, p. 32.

Bostī, Kašf asrār al-bāṭenīya, ms. Milan, Ambros., Griffini coll. 41.

Esfarāʾenī, al-Tabṣīr, ed. M. Zāhed al-Kawṯarī, Cairo, 1940, p. 84.

Nāṣer-e Ḵosrow, Ḵᵛān al-eḵwān, ed. ʿA Qawīm, Tehran, 1338 Š./1959, pp. 131-35, 139.

Idem, Zād al-mosāferīn, ed. M. Baḏl-al-Raḥmān, Berlin, 1341/1923, pp. 42l-22.

Rašīd-al-dīn, Jāmeʿ al-tawārīḵ, qesmat-e Esmāʿīlīān va Nezārīān, ed. M. T. Dānešpažūh and M. Modarresī, Tehran, 1339 Š./1960, p. 12.

Daylamī, Qawāʿed ʿaqāʾed Āl Moḥammad, ed. M. Zāhed al-Kawṯarī, Cairo, 1950, pp. 55, 60-66, 109.

Kāšānī, Zabdat al-tawārīḵ: tārīḵ-e Esmāʿīlīya va Nezārīya, ed. M. T. Dānešpažūh, Tabrīz, 1965, pp. 20-21.

Al-Maǰdūʿ, Fehrest, ed. ʿA. N. Monzawī, Tehran, 1966, index.

Works of Seǰestānī:

Eṯbāt al-nobūwāt, ed. ʿĀ. Tāmer, Beirut, 1966.

Toḥfat al-mostaǰībīn, ed. Tāmer in al-Mašreq 1967, pp. 136-46.

Al-Yanābīʿ, ed. with analysis and partial tr. by H. Corbin in Trilogie Ismaélienne, Tehran, 1961.

Kašf al-maḥǰūb, ed. Corbin, Tehran, 1949.

Al-Noṣra, extensively quoted in Kermānī’s al-Rīāż, ed. Tāmer, Beirut, 1960.

An edition of al-Efteḵār by I. Poonawala is forthcoming. For a complete catalog of works and extant manuscripts see Poonawala, Bibliography of Ismāʿīlī Literature, Malibu, 1978, pp. 82-89; Sezgin, GAS I, pp. 574-75.

Biographical references were collected by S. M. Stern in “The Early Ismāʿīlī Missionaries in North-West Persia, and in Khurāsān and Transoxania,” BSOAS 18, 1960, pp. 59-60. See also Stern’s note on Seǰestānī’s nickname cited in the text.

On Seǰestānī’s thought and doctrines: W. Ivanow, “An Early Controversy in Ismailism,” in Early Persian Ismailism, 2nd ed., Bombay, 1955, pp. 87-122. W. Madelung, “Das Imamat in der frühen ismailitischen Lehre,” Der Islam 37, 1961, pp. 101-14. The following articles by P. Walker concentrate mainly on the work of Seǰestānī himself: “An Ismāʿīlī Answer to the Problem of Worshipping the Unknowable, Neoplatonic God,” American Journal of Arabic Studies 2, 1972, pp. 7-21; “The Ismaili Vocabulary of Creation,” Stud. Isl. 40, 1974, pp. 75-85; “Cosmic Hierarchies in Early Ismāʿīlī Thought: The View of . . . Al-Sijistānī,” Muslim World 66, 1976, pp. 14-28; “Eternal Cosmos and the Womb of History,” IJMES 9, 1978, pp. 355-66.


(P. E. Walker)

Originally Published: December 15, 1983

Last Updated: July 21, 2011

This article is available in print.
Vol. I, Fasc. 4, pp. 396-398

Cite this entry:

P. E. Walker, “ABŪ YAʿQŪB SEJESTĀNĪ,” Encyclopædia Iranica, I/4, pp. 396-398; an updated version is available online at http://www.iranicaonline.org/articles/abo-yqub-sejestani (accessed on 31 January 2014).