OMM AL-KETĀB, title of an anonymous Persian book associated with certain early Shiʿite ḡolāt (extremist) groups of southern Iraq.  The origins of this syncretic text, produced initially in Arabic, are shrouded in mystery.  Subsequently, this work found its way into the manuscript collections of the Nezāri Ismaʿilis of Badaḵšān (an area now divided by the Oxus River between Tajikistan and Afghanistan) and adjacent areas, such as Hunza and Chitral, all situated in Central Asia.  The Central Asian Nezāris, thus, regard the Omm al-ketāb not only as an Ismaʿili text but also as one of their most sacred and secret works, although it does not contain any known Ismaʿili doctrines.

The process of recovering manuscript copies of the Omm al-ketāb commenced in the opening decades of the 20th century, when Russian scholars and officials, who had then become aware of the existence of Ismaʿili communities within their own domains in Central Asia, attempted to establish contact with these sectarians, concentrated mainly in the western Pamir districts of Badaḵšān. Several copies of the Omm al-ketāb were procured by such officials and, in due course, deposited in the Asiatic Museum of the Russian Academy of Sciences (Aziatskiĭ Muzeĭ), whose collections are now part of the collections of the Russian Institute of Oriental Manuscripts in St Petersburg.  In subsequent decades, a few more copies of this work were recovered from Central Asia (see Bertels and Bakoev, p. 28); seven copies of the Omm al-ketāb are found in the Persian manuscript holdings of the Institute of Ismaili Studies in London.

Wladimir Ivanow was the first Western orientalist to introduce the Omm al-ketāb to the scholarly world (Ivanow, 1932, pp. 419-81; idem, 1963, pp. 193-95).  In 1936, Ivanow also published a critical edition of the Omm al-ketāb.  This edition, reprinted recently in Turkey after some seven decades (see Kaygusuz, Persian text, pp. 1-92), remains the only edition of the Persian text of the Omm al-ketāb, which was translated in 1966 into Italian by P. Filippani-Ronconi and into Turkish in 2009 by Alim Selmān.  In recent decades, only a few scholars have concerned themselves with this text.  E. F. Tijdens also produced its first partial German translation (Tijdens, pp. 241-526), while H. Halm shed new light on the origins of the Omm al-ketāb, focusing on the so-called Moḵammesa tradition of the early Kufan Shiʿite ḡolāt milieus.  Halm also produced another partial German translation of the text, which, as in the case of Tijdens, was based on Ivanow’s edition (Halm, 1982, pp. 113-98). Filippani-Ronconi produced valuable studies on the cosmological and soteriological doctrines of this work, in addition to postulating a complex hypothesis regarding the origins of the Omm al-ketāb and the circumstances under which it found its way to the Ismaili communities of Central Asia (Filippani-Ronconi, 1977, pp. 101-20; idem, in his tr. of Omm al-ketāb, pp. xxvii-lv).

The Omm al-ketāb contains the supposed discourses of Imam Moḥammad al-Bāqer (d. ca. 114/732), one of the early Shiʿite imams, in response to some thirty-eight questions on the secrets of cosmology, eschatology, and soteriology, posed by an anachronistic circle of disciples, including ʿAbd-Allāh Anṣāri (d. 78/697) and Jāber Joʿfi (d. 128/746).  Recalling the figure of Jesus in certain apocryphal Gospels, Imam al-Bāqer appears here in the guise of a five-year-old child (Ivanow, 1946, pp. 99-101).

Various scholars have argued that the Omm al-ketāb is a syncretic, gnostic work reflecting the influences of certain early Shiʿite ḡolāt as well as diverse non-Islamic traditions, such as Valentinian Gnosticism and Manicheism.  However, until recently there was lack of consensus on the authorship and the date of the composition of the Omm al-ketāb.  For instance, Henry Corbin assigned its origins to the early Ḵaṭṭābi followers of Abu’l-Ḵaṭṭāb Asadi (d. 138/755), who gave rise to proto-Ismaʿilism (Corbin, 1953, pp. 14-16; idem, 1964, pp. 111-12; idem, 1975, pp. 526-28).  The Omm al-ketāb does, in fact, mention the Ḵaṭṭābis, a group that emerged on the fringes of Imami Shiʿism (see Umm al-ketāb, ed. Ivanow, text, p. 11).

By analyzing the terminology and the cosmology of the Omm al-ketāb, which are expressed in the terms of a gnostic myth, recent scholarship in the field has now definitely attributed the origins of this text to a particular extremist Shiʿite tradition of the second half of the 2nd/8th century, designated by the medieval heresiographers as the Moḵammesa or Pentadists.  The Moḵammesa generally espoused the divinity of the five members of the ahl al-kesāʾ, or the People of the Cloak (Āl-e ʿabā), namely, the Prophet Moḥammad, ʿAli, Fāṭema, Ḥasan, and Ḥosayn, which is also a recurrent theme in the Omm al-ketāb.  Qom(m)i, the only early Imami Shiʿite heresiographer who discusses the Moḵammesa in some details, informs us that, according to this doctrinal tradition, Moḥammad was the godhead who had appeared in the above-mentioned five different bodies.  In this divine pentad, however, only the person of Moḥammad represented the true meaning (maʿnā).  The Moḵammesa also maintained that Moḥammad had been Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, and Jesus, appearing continuously in cycles (adwār; see DAWR [1]) amongst Arabs and non-Arabs, and that Salmān Fārsi/al-Fāresi (d. 36/656) was the bāb, or gate, who always appeared with Moḥammad.  These and other doctrines of the Moḵammesa are strongly represented throughout the Omm al-ketāb (see Qomi, pp. 56-59; Rāzi, I, pp. 559-60; Halm, 1978, pp. 157 ff.; idem, 1982, pp. 218-25; Madelung, pp. 517-18).

In addition to its pentadist doctrines, the attribution of the Omm al-ketāb to the Moḵammesa tradition of the early Shiʿite ḡolāt is supported by other doctrinal features of this text, such as its propagation of metempsychosis (tanāsoḵ), its gnostic-cabbalistic elements, and the important role it assigns to Salmān Fārsi and Abu’l-Ḵaṭṭāb.  In fact, Salmān, whose gnostic name in this text is al-Salsal, and Abu’l-Ḵaṭṭāb are mentioned jointly and repeatedly in a sacred formula throughout the text.  Be that as it may, the doctrines of the Moḵammesa, especially regarding the creation and divinity of the Prophet Moḥammad, and the imams, are quite different from those propounded by the early Ismaʿilis, who also had fundamental doctrinal differences with the Ḵaṭṭābis. 

The cosmological and eschatological doctrines of the Noṣayris, named after Moḥammad b. Noṣayr (d. 270/883), who was originally a supporter of the eleventh imam of the Eṯnāʿašari Shiʿites, Ḥasan al-ʿAskari (d. 260/874), are also present in the Omm al-ketāb (see Qomi, pp. 100-01; Halm, 1982, pp. 284-355; Daftary, 2013, pp. 175-90).  The Noṣayris, now present in Syria, Lebanon, and Turkey, where they are commonly known as ʿAlawis, worship ʿAli as godhead, while Salmān Fārsi assumes a special rank for them.

It is thus reasonable to conclude that the enigmatic Omm al-ketāb originated during the second half of the 2nd/8th century in the Imami Shiʿite ḡolāt milieus of southern Iraq.  More specifically, it represents the earliest extant Shiʿite record of the doctrinal tradition manifested by the Moḵammesa.  By the earlier decades of the 6th/12th century, the original Arabic text of the Omm al-ketāb had been translated into Persian in an expanded version by the Persian Nezāri Ismaʿilis; and, this final redaction of the text, like the post-Nāṣer-e Ḵosrow Ismaʿili texts of the Persian Nezāris, found its way into the literature of the Central Asian Ismaʿilis through the activities of the Nezāri dāʿis (summoners) who were sent from Qohestān, in southeastern Khorasan in Persia, to Badaḵšān.  Under the circumstances, the Central Asian Ismaʿilis claimed the book as their own, even though it did not contain any Ismaʿili doctrines.



Andreĭ E. Bertels and Mamadvafo Bakoev, Alfavitnyǐ katalog rukopiseǐ obnaruzhennykh v Gorno-Badakhshanskoǐ Avtonomnoǐ Oblasti èkspeditsieǐ 1959-1963 gg. (Alphabetic catalogue of manuscripts found by 1959-1963 Expedition in Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region), ed. Bobodzhan G. Gafurov and Abdulgani M. Mirzoev, Moscow, 1967. 

Henry Corbin, Étude préliminaire pour le “Livre réunissant les deux sagesses” (Kitâb-e Jâmiʿ al-Ḥikmatain) de Nasir-e Khosraw, Tehran and Paris, 1953. 

Idem, Histoire de la philosophie Islamique I, Paris, 1964; tr. as History of Islamic Philosophy, London and New York, 1993. 

Idem, “Nāṣir-i Khusrau and Iranian Ismāʿīlism,” in Richard M. Frye, ed., The Cambridge History of Iran IV: The Period from the Arab Invasion to the Saljuqs, Cambridge, 1975, pp. 520-42. 

Farhad Daftary, “Umm al-Kitāb 2: Amongst the Shīʿa,” in EI2 X, 2000, pp. 854-55. 

Idem,The Ismāʿīlīs: Their History and Doctrines, 2nd ed., Cambridge, 2007. 

Idem, A History of Shiʿi Islam, London, 2013. 

Pio Filippani-Ronconi, “The Soteriological Cosmology of Central-Asiatic Ismā‘īlism,” in S. Hossein Nasr, ed., Ismā‘īlī Contributions to Islamic Culture, Tehran, 1977, pp. 99-120. 

Heinz Halm, Kosmologie und Heilslehre der frühen Ismāʿīlīya: Eine Studie zur islamischen Gnosis, Wiesbaden, 1978. 

Idem, Die islamische Gnosis: Die extreme Schia und ʿAlawiten, Zürich and Munich, 1982. 

Wladimir A. Ivanow, “Notes sur l’Ummu’l-kitab des Ismaëliens de l’Asie Centrale,” Revue des Études Islamiques 6, 1932, pp. 419-81. 

Idem, The Alleged Founder of Ismailism, Bombay, 1946. 

Idem, Ismaili Literature: A Bibliographical Survey, Tehran, 1963. 

İsmail Kaygusuz, Bir proto-Alevi kaynaği, Ummü’l-Kitab, Istanbul, 2009. 

Wilferd Madelung, “Mukhammisa.” in EI2 VII, 1993, pp. 517-18. 

Saʿd b. ʿAbd-Allāh  Qom(m)i, Ketāb al-maqālāt wa’l-feraq, ed. Moḥammad-Jawād Maškur, Tehran, 1963.

Abu Ḥātem Rāzi, Ketāb al-zina, ed. S. Ḡānemi, Beirut, 2015. 

E. F. Tijdens, “Der mythologisch-gnostische Hintergrund des Umm al-Kitāb,” in Textes et Mémoires VII, Varia, Acta Iranica 16, 1977, pp. 241-526. 

Ummu’l-kitāb, ed. W. Ivanow, in Der Islam 23, 1936, pp. 1-132; tr. P. Filippani-Ronconi, as Ummü’l-Kitab, Naples, 1966; Alim Selmân, as Ummü’l-Kitâb’in Türkçe Çeverisi, in İsmail Kaygusuz, Bir Proto-Alevi Kaynaği, Istanbul, 2009. pp. 121-258.

(Farhad Daftary)

Originally Published: November 9, 2015

Last Updated: November 9, 2015

Cite this entry:

Farhad Daftary, “OMM AL-KETĀB,” Encyclopædia Iranicaonline edition, 2015, available at (accessed on 09 November 2015).