(d. early 5th/11th cent.), scholar, littérateur, and author of works on Islamic ethics, Qurʾanic exegesis, Islamic theology, and Arabic philology, as well as anthologies.


RĀḠEB EṢFAHĀNI, Abul’l-Qāsem Ḥosayn b. Moḥammad b Mofażżal (d. early 5th/11th cent.), scholar, littérateur, and author of works on Islamic ethics, Qurʾanic exegesis, Islamic theology, and Arabic philology, as well as anthologies. Next to nothing is known about his life, since he is hardly mentioned in major biographical dictionaries; and if he is mentioned at all, it is without any essential data, neither do his own works, several of which are extant, offer significant clues about him. The lack of information is illustrated by the remark of Šams-al-Din Moḥammad Ḏahabi (d. ca. 749/1348), who expressed hopes that Rāḡeb might be still alive (Ḏahabi, XVIII, p. 121). It is often stated, without any clear evidence, that he died in 502/1108 (e.g., Ḥāji Ḵalifa, s.v. Mofradāt alfāẓ al-Qorʾān), and one source places his death in 565/1169-70, but Wilferd Madelung’s study has confirmed that Rāḡeb lived “in the first part of the fifth century” (Soyuṭi, II, p. 297) Nevertheless, the later date still persists in many modern publications. Rāḡeb cites in his Arabic anthology Moḥāżarāt al-odabāʾ (1999, I, p. 152) some of his own verses that were addressed to a certain Abu’l-Qāsem b. Abi’l-ʿAlāʾ, who has been identified by Madelung as the poet Abu’l-Qāsem Ḡānem b. Moḥammad b. Abi’l-ʿAlāʾ Eṣfahāni, who belonged to the circle of Ṣāḥeb b. ʿAbbād (d. 385/995). This identification is supported by the fact that Rāḡ2b’s anthology contains many quotations from the same period and the same circle, whereas later poets, even famous ones such as Abu’l-ʿAlāʾ Maʿarri, are wholly absent. One may assume on the evidence of Rāḡeb’s nesba that he was born in Isfahan. It is said, again without any supporting evidence, that he lived in Baghdad (Esmāʿil Pasha, I, col. 311), but it is not known if he was active elsewhere. The scarcity of data about him seems to suggest that he was not attached to any important patrons. That he knew Persian seems likely, but it is not known if Persian was his native tongue, since all his extant works are written in Arabic. A few very short passages in Persian are found in his anthology Moḥāżarāt al-odabāʾ, however (1999, I, p. 242).

Soyuṭi, who calls him (wrongly, it seems) al-Mofażżal b. Moḥammad al-Eṣbahāni al-Rāḡeb and who includes him in his dictionary of grammarians and philologists, lists three of his works, including Mofradāt al-Qorʾān, Afānin al-balāḡa, and al-Moḥāżarāt. He also adds that he used to believe, with many others, that Rāḡeb was a Moʿtazelite until he found that the celebrated theologian Faḵr-al-Din Moḥammad Rāzi (d. 606/1209), had considered him a leading scholar of the Sunna to be linked with Abu Ḥāmed Moḥammad Ḡazāli; in fact Rāḡeb does attack Moʿtazelite and Shiʿite views in some of his works (Rowson, p. 390; Mohamed, p. 62). Linking him with Moʿtazilite ideas is, in a sense, understandable, since he stresses the role of reason, particularly in his works on ethics (see, e.g. Fakhry, pp. 179-81).

The three works mentioned by Soyuṭi belong to the philological and literary side of Rāḡeb’s production. The first, more often entitled Mofradāt alfāẓ al-Qorʾān, is a very useful alphabetical dictionary of Qorʾanic Arabic; it has been printed several times and even exists in a modern shortened version for students. It has been described by Badr-al-Din Moḥammad Zarkaši (d. 794/1392) as one of the best works on Qorʾanic lexicography, in that the author “hunts the meanings from the context,” taking into account fine nuances of meaning and connotations. Thus he notes, for instance, that the word qalb “heart” is always associated with reason (ʿaql) and knowledge (ʿelm), whereas ṣadr “breast” may also refer to emotions such as lust and anger; or that whenever the word “mouth” is used in connection with speaking, it implies lying. Another, much shorter work that combines lexicographic and semantic interests with religion (Qurʾan and dogmatics) is his Resālat fi ḏekr al-wāḥed wa’l-aḥad, in which he deals with the two divine epithets (al-wāḥed “the one” and al-aḥad “the only”) and their difference.

The second work mentioned by Soyuṭi is unknown and may have been a treatise on rhetorical figures, although it is possible that it is identical with the extant Majmaʿ al-balāḡa, which in turn can probably be identified with Ketāb al-maʿāni al-akbar, listed by Ḥāji Ḵalifa (V, p. 616; Rowson, p. 389). This work is an equally useful thesaurus of Arabic literary idioms, expressions, synonyms, paraphrases, metaphors and tropes, all thematically arranged. It is organized in seventeen chapters, each one divided into many subdivisions, including reason (ʿaql) and its antithesis, speech, war, love, beauty and ugliness, food and drink, marriage and divorce, piety, heaven, stars, etc., animals, etc. The work overlaps to some extent with Moḥāżarāt al-odabāʾ wa-moḥāwarāt al-šoʿarāʾ wa’l-bolaḡāʾ, the third book mentioned by Soyuṭi, which is one of the outstanding anthologies of Arabic poetry and prose in the tradition of ʿOyun al-aḵbār of Ebn Qotayba (d. 276/889) and al-ʿEqd al-farid of Ebn ʿAbd Rabbeh (d. 328/940). Ḥāji Ḵalifa (s.v. Moḥāżarāt al-odabāʾ) calls it a main source in its genre. It has been published several times and also exists in a drastically curtailed and expurgated modern version, apparently for the use of students. According to Ḥāji Ḵalifa (ibid.), there existed also an earlier abridged version that was made in the Ottoman Empire by a certain Maḥmud b. Moḥammad, but it is not known to be extant. A critical and properly indexed edition is still sorely lacking. Like Majmaʿ al-balāḡa, it is thematically subdivided. The twenty-five chapters, called ḥodud, each of which is subdivided into numerous sections dealing with intellectual and moral virtues and their opposites, and also treating human behavior and relationships such as love and marriage (in separate chapters, nos. 13 and 15) as well as more concrete subjects such as eating, drinking, clothing, animals, and human body. One chapter (no. 16) is devoted to bawdiness (mojun), obscene, and scatological themes. As is usual in such anthologies, the author’s presence is mostly limited to the selection and arrangement of the material. Thesis and antithesis provide the major organizing principle; thus a section on speech and silence in the first chapter (on reason, knowledge, ignorance, etc.) quotes statements preferring speech and prolixity to silence, followed by its opposite in praise of listening. The implicit view of the compiler is obvious from the order of the sections and their relative lengths.

Rāḡeb, as the writer on ethics, is no less important than Rāḡeb the philologist. Some of his works on ethics are lost or remain unpublished, such as a treatise on “rules of conduct for intercourse with people” (Resālat fi ādāb moḵālaṭat al-nās), but two important titles are preserved and have been edited. The better known of the two is al-Ḏariʿa elā makārem al-šariʿa. In his introduction the author explains that, besides the legal rulings and judgments (aḥkām) of Islamic law, one ought to know its makārem, that is, the underlying ethical foundations of the law (p. 58). The book discusses in detail what being human implies, with chapters on the several moral and intellectual virtues and vices and their relationship with the human faculties. He stresses the close links between ethics, worship (ʿebāda), and social virtues, which he calls ʿemārat al-arż (e.g., p. 93, cf. the chapter on crafts and trades, pp. 374-415). Ẓahir-al-Din Bayhaqi (d. 565/1169-70) says with some justification that Rāḡeb “combined the Islamic law (šariʿa) and philosophy (ḥekma) in his works” (p. 112). It is obvious that Rāḡeb is influenced both by Greek ethics and by his Muslim predecessors, but it is striking that he virtually never quotes or refers to earlier authors, which gives a strong impression of independence and originality. He does, however, quote the Qurʾan very frequently, as well as Hadith and some poetry. With these characteristics and with its fusion of philosophy and religion the work differs, for instance, from Abu ʿAli Aḥmad Meskawayh’s famous Tahḏib al-aḵlāq, which is strongly “Greek” in its outlook, and regularly quotes Aristotle and other philosophers while ignoring the Qurʾan, Hadith, and Arabic poetry; and also from Abu’l-Ḥasan ʿAli Māwardi’s Adab al-donyā wa’l-din, which is far less philosophical and more literary and anthological, containing much poetry and anecdotal material without the more discursive style of Rāḡeb. Ḡazāli admired the Ḏariʿa and used it extensively, often quoting passages verbatim, though without acknowledging his source, in several of his works, especially his Mizān al-ʿamal and his magnum opus, the influential Eḥyāʾ ʿolum al-din. According to Madelung’s estimation (p. 153), as much as half of Mizān al-ʿamal is derived from Rāḡeb’s Ḏariʿa, and much of it also found its way into Ḡazāli’s later Eḥyāʾ ʿolum al-din, where it is incorporated in mystical ethics.

A related work is the shorter Tafṣil al-našʾatayn wa-taḥṣil al-saʿādatayn, in which the two “births” or “growths” (našʿatayn) refer to birth on earth and rebirth in the hereafter (see e.g. Qurʾan 53:47, 56:61-62) and the two kinds of happiness (saʿādatayn) are those associated with both lives. Again, the Qurʾan, Hadith, and poetry are quoted, but other authorities are almost totally absent, and, just as in the Ḏariʿa, Rāḡeb explains in detail what being human implies; the word al-ensān “human being” is so much a key word in the entire text that it prompted a modern editor (Najjār) to use it as a subtitle on the title-page.

Of Rāḡeb’s commentary on the Qur’an, which Majd-al-Din Moḥammad Firuzābādi (p. 91) has called a “large tafsir in ten books, extremely well executed,” only the beginning has been published, comprising the Fāteḥa and the first five verses of the chapter (sura) al-Baqara, together with Rāḡeb’s important introduction (Moqaddemat jāmeʿ al-tafāsir) on the semantics and the methodology of Qorʾanic exegesis. This introduction includes sections on, for instance, ambiguity, apparent contradiction, figurative versus non-figurative speech, the difference between tafsir and taʾwil (allegorical or esoteric exegesis), logical argumentation in the Qurʾan, and its inimitability (eʿjāz). Rāḡeb’s treatise on Islamic dogmatic theology, which seems to have been entitled Taḥqiq al-bayān fi taʾwil al-Qorān, has been edited twice as Resāla fi’l-eʿteqād and al-Eʿteqādāt.

Several other titles are attributed to Rāḡeb (see editors’ introductions to Mofradāt, pp. 2-6, and to Resalat fi ḏekr al-wāḥed wa’l-aḥad, pp. 19-23, who mention 23 and 20 titles, respectively), some of which are extant in manuscript, while others are known only by their titles. These lists may not even be complete, for they do not list, for instance, the Maqāmāt, which is mentioned by Firuzābādi (p. 91). Nothing is known about these maqāmāt, but if the attribution is correct, it would make Rāḡeb an early representative of this important genre in Arabic literature.



Works by Rāḡeb.

Ketāb al-ḏariʾa elā makārem al-šariʿa, ed. Abu’l-Yazid ʿAjami, Cairo, 1985.

Majmaʿ al-balāḡa: moḵtārāt fi’l-loḡa wa’l-adab wa’al-aḵbār wa’l-nawāder, ed. ʿOmar ʿAbd-al-Raḥmān Sārisi, Amman, 1986.

Mofradāt alfāẓ al-Qorʾān, ed. Ṣafwān ʿAdnān Dāwudi, Damascus and Beirut, 1997.

al-Mofradāt fi ḡarib al-Qorʾān, ed. Moḥammad Sayyed Kaylāni, Cairo, 1371/1961, ed. Moḥammad Aḥmad Ḵalaf-Allāh, 2 vols., Cairo, 1970.

Moḥāżarāt al-odabāʾ wa-moḥāwarāt al-šoʿarāʾ wa’l-bolaḡāʾ, ed. Ebrāhim Zaydān, Beirut, ca. 1980 (a much shortened and bowdlerized ed.), ed. ʿOmar Ṭabbāʿ, 2 vols., Beirut, 1999.

Moʿjam mofradāt alfāẓ al-Qorʾān, ed. Nadim Marʿašli, Beirut, 1972, ed. Ebrāhim Šams-al-Din, Beirut, 1997.

Moqaddemat jāmeʿ al-tafāsir, maʿa tafsir al-Fāteḥa wa-maṭāleʿ al-Baqara, ed. Aḥmad Ḥasan Faraḥāt, Kuwait, 1984.

Resāla fī ḏekr al-wāḥed wa’l-aḥad, ed. ʿOmar ʿAbd-al-Raḥmān Sārisi, Amman, 1992.

Resāla fi’l-eʿteqād, ed. Aḵtar Jamāl Moḥammad Loqmān, MA thesis, Mecca, 1401-2/1981-82, ed. Šamrān ʿAjali as al-Eʿteqādāt, Beirut, 1988.

Tafṣil al-našʾatayn wa-taḥṣil al-saʿādatayn, ed. Ṭāher Jazāʾeri, Beirut, 1319/1901, ed. ʿAbd-al-Majid Najjār, Beirut, 1988, ed. ʿOmar ʿAbd-al-Raḥmān Sārisi, Amman, 1992.

Zobdat al-mofradāt le’l-ṭollāb wa’l-ṭālebāt: moḵtaṣar al-mofradāt fi ḡarib al-Qorʾān, ed. ʿAbd-al-Laṭif Yusof, Beirut, 1998.

Studies and other references.

Ẓahir-al-Din Abu’l-Qāsem ʿAli b. Zayd Bayhaqi, Tatemmat Ṣewān al-ḥekma, ed. Moḥammad Kord-ʿAli as Tʾariḵ ḥokamāʾ al-Eslām, Damascus, 1946, pp. 112-13.

Carl Brockelmann, Geschichte der arabische Litteratur, 2nd ed., 2 vols., Leiden, 1943-49, I, p. 289; Supplement, 3 vols., Leiden, 1943-49, I, pp. 505-6.

Šams-al-Din Moḥammad b. Aḥmad Ḏahabi, Siar aʿlām al-nobalāʾ, ed. Šoʿayb Arnawut and Ḥosayn Asad, Beirut, 1981, XVIII, pp. 120-21.

Hans Daiber, “Griechische Ethik in islamischem Gewande: Das Beispiel von Rāġib al-Iṣfahānī,” in Burkhard Mojsisch and Olaf Pluta, eds, Historia Philosophiae Medii Aevi: Studien zur Geschichte der Philosophie des Mittelalters, 2 vols., Amsterdam, 1991-92, I, pp. 181-92.

Esmāʿil Pasha Baḡdādi, Hadiat al-ʿārefin: asmāʾ al-moʾallefin wa āṯār al-moṣannefin, 2 vols., Istanbul, 1951-55, I, col. 311.

Majid Fakhry, “Noble Religious Traits (Makārim al-Sharīʿah): al-Rāghib al-Iṣfahānī,” in idem, Ethical Theories in Islam, Leiden, 1991, pp. 176-85.

Majd-al-Din Moḥammad b. Yaʿqub Firuzābādi, al-Bolḡa fi tarājem aʾemmat al-naḥw wa’l-loḡa, ed. Moḥammad Meṣri, Kuwait, 1987.

Abu Ḥāmed Moḥammad Ḡazāli, Mizān al-ʿamal, ed. ʿAli Bu Molḥem, Beirut, 1995.

Idem, Eḥyāʾ ʿolum al-din, ed. ʿA. Ḵāledi, 5 vols., Beirut, 1998.

Ḥāji Ḵalifa Kāteb Čelebi, Kašf al-ẓonun ʾan asāmi al-kotob wa’l-fonun/Lexicon Bibliographicum et encyclopaedicum, ed. Gustav Flügel, 7 vols., Leipzig, 1835-58, V, p. 616; ed. Şerefettin Yaltkaya and Rifat Bilge, 2 vols., Istanbul, 1941-43, col. 1773.

Wilferd Madelung, “Ar-Rāġib al-Iṣfahānī und die Ethik al-Ġazālīs,” in Richard Gramlich, ed., Islamwissenschaftliche Abhandlungen Fritz Meier zum sechzigsten Geburtstag, Wiesbaden, 1974, pp. 152-63.

Abu’l-Ḥasan ʿAli Māwardi, Adab al-donyā wa’l-din, ed. Moṣṭafā Saqqāʾ, Cairo, 1955.

Abu ʿAli Aḥmad Meskawayh (Meskuya), Tahḏib al-aḵlāq wa taṭhir al-aʿrāq, ed. C.

Zorayq, Beirut, 1967.

Yasien Mohamed, “The Ethical Philosophy of al-Rāghib al-Iṣfahānī,” Journal of Islamic Studies 6, 1995, pp. 51-75.

Yasien Mohamed, “Al-Rāghib al-Iṣfahānī’s Classical Concept of the Intellect (al-ʿaql),” Muslim Education Quarterly 13, 1995, pp. 52-61.

Everett K. Rowson, “al-Rāgẖib al-Iṣfahānī,” in EI² VIII, pp. 389-90.

Ṣalāḥ-al-Din Ḵalil b. Aybak Ṣafadi, al-Wāfi be’l-wafayāt/Das biographische Lexikon des Ṣalāḥaddīn Óalil ibn Aibak aṣ-Ṣafadī, ed. Helmut Ritter et al., 22 vols., Bibliotheca Islamica 6, Wiesbaden, Beirut and Damascus, 1962-, XIII, p. 45.

ʿOmar ʿAbd-al-Raḥmān Sārisi, al-Rāḡeb al-Eṣfahāni wa-johudohu fi’l-loḡa wa’l-adab, Amman, 1987.

Jalāl-al-Din ʿAbd-al-Raḥmān Soyuṭi, Boḡyat al-woʿāh fi ṭabaqāt al-loḡawiyin wa’l-noḥāh, ed. Moḥammad Abu’l-Fażl Ebrāhim, 2 vols., Cairo, 1979, II, p. 297.

Badr-al-Din Moḥammad b. ʿAbd-Allāh Zarkaši, al-Borhān fi ʿolum al-Qorʾān, ed. Moḥammad Abu’l-Fażl Ebrāhim, 4 vols., Cairo, n.d., I, p. 291, II, p. 172, see also index s.v. Rāḡeb.

(Geert Jan van Gelder)

Last Updated: April 15, 2010