KETĀB AL-ʿĀLEM WA’L-ḠOLĀM (The Book of the sage and the youth), the title of a doctrinal work attributed to the Fatimid Ismaʿili missionary Jaʿfar b. Manṣur-al-Yaman (d. ca. 960).  The work is notable for its unusual literary form, a dramatic dialogue in which an Ismaʿili missionary, the ʿālem (learned one, sage) successfully convinces the ḡolām (the youth) to join the Ismaʿili fold.

There is insufficient evidence to authenticate the Ismaʿili tradition’s attribution of the Ketāb al-ʿālem wa’l-ḡolām to Jaʿfar b. Manṣur-al-Yaman.  It is clear, however, that the work was composed in the period that the later missionaries refer to as “the period of the hidden Imams,” that is, prior to the advent of the Fatimids in North Africa in 297/909.  The work’s long standing importance and popularity among Ismaʿilis is evidenced by the numerous extant manuscripts in the Mostaʿliya Yemeni and Gujarati Ismaʿili communities, and by contemporary Ismaʿili informants who report that the work has long been part of the contemporary Mostaʿliya curriculum in both its Dāwudi and Solaymāni branches.

The text begins with a frame story in which a group of young Ismaʿili missionaries seek guidance from their teacher.  He instructs them that a true believer’s foremost duty is to propagate the true religion, and illustrates this point with the story of al-ālem wa’l-ḡolām (the sage and the youth).  The sage is “a man among the people of Persia,” who, after successfully completing his own Ismaʿili education, sets out to spread the Ismaʿili teaching.  He travels a great distance until he finds what he deems to be a fertile ground for the message, a Muslim community that is already exploring religious matters. A stranger joins an informal gathering and, when asked about his school’s teaching, exclaims, in a discourse laden with Qurʾanic allusions, that the utmost need for human intellect is to seek refuge in the hidden, interior meaning of religion entrusted only to humanity’s guiding light (Qurʾan 27:7).  His speech leaves all those present in tears.  All take their leave except one man who is particularly moved by the stranger’s words and becomes the sage’s student.  He leaves his father’s house and takes the secret oath of allegiance to the Ismaʿili mission.  After the student completes his Ismaʿili education, he converts his father, a scholar, and his father’s scholarly companions to the movement.

The character of the teachings conveyed by the sage and his student (e.g., emphasis on the interior sense (bāṭen) of religion; parallels between Speaker-Prophets (noṭaqā) and legatees (awṣiāʾ) during humanity’s seven historical periods; allegorical interpretations of Qurʾanic creedal statements; parallels between the luminary spheres (aflāk) and the earthly mission (daʿwa) are consistent with those found in other doctrinal works of the early Ismaʿili movement.  What makes this work unusual is that the Ismaʿili esoteric interpretation (taʾwil) found in other sources is here situated in the context of the powerful and emotive narrative.  The Ketāb al-ʿālem wa’l-ḡolām thus provides a major exemplum of the primary task of the Ismaʿili missionary, which is attracting non-Ismaʿilis into the Ismaʿili fold.


Henry Corbin, L’homme et son ange: initiation et chevalerie spirituelle, Paris, 1983, pp. 81-205.

Wladimir Ivanow,  “The Book of the Teacher and the Pupil [a summary tr.],” in idem, Studies in Early Persian Ismaʿilism, Bombay, 1955, pp. 85-113.

Jaʿfar b. Manṣur-al-Yamān, Ketāb al-ʿālem wa’l-ḡolām, ed. Moṣṭafā Ḡāleb, in idem, Arbaʿ kotob Ḥaqqāniya, Beirut, 1983, pp. 13-75; ed. and tr. James Winston Morris, as The Master and the Discipline: An Early Islamic Spiritual Dialogue, London, 2001.

Wilferd Madelung, “Das Imamat in der frühen ismailitischen Lehre,” Der Islam 37, 1961, pp. 50-66.

James Winston Morris, “Revisiting Religious Shiʿism and Early Sufism: The Fourth/Tenth-Century Dialogue of ‘The Sage and the Young Disciple’,” in Todd Lawson, ed., Reason and Inspiration in Islam: Theology, Philosophy and Mysticism in Muslim Thought: Essays in Honour of Hermann Landolt, London, 2005, pp. 102-16.

(David Hollenberg)

Originally Published: April 11, 2017

Last Updated: April 11, 2017

Cite this entry:

David Hollenberg, “KETĀB AL-ʿĀLEM WA’L-ḠOLĀM,” Encyclopædia Iranica, online edition, 2017, available at (accessed on 11 April 2017).