The Barāhima’s Dilemma: Ibn al-Rāwandī’s Kitāb al-Zumurrud and the Epistemological Turn in the Debate on Prophecy

Date of Award

Fall 10-1-2021

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Religious Studies

First Advisor

Griffel, Frank


After the turn of the 10th century, Muslim theologians began to cite a puzzling thought experiment in their discussions of prophecy, which took the form of the following two-horned dilemma: either a prophet conveys what is in accordance with reason, so they would be superfluous, or a prophet conveys what is contrary to reason, so they would be rejected. This thought experiment was cited on the authority of a group called the Barāhima. The Barāhima’s own solution to the conundrum was simple – they did not recognise a need for prophets or revealed scriptures, because humans could obtain knowledge of theological and moral matters by the means of reason alone. So, who were these so-called ‘Barāhima’? Did they refer to Brahmans, as the orthography of their name would suggest? Or to an entirely different group? And how to did they become spokespersons for this highly incisive challenge to prophecy? This dissertation will seek to address these questions by charting the evolution of the Barāhima as a topos or a ‘thing to think with’ in early Islamic thought. In particular, this dissertation will aim to uncover the historical and discursive processes that led to the formation of the Barāhima’s dilemma, and will seek to understand the role that the Barāhima played in the evolution of Islamic theological thought. In the process, it will aim to show the pivotal role that Ibn al-Rāwandī’s Kitāb al-Zumurrud played in the dissemination of the Barāhima’s critiques, and in facilitating an ‘epistemological turn’ in how prophecy came to be conceptualised and defended during the 10th and 11th centuries. The first section of this dissertation will dig deep into the pre-history of the Barāhima’s dilemma to see how the Barāhima came to develop a reputation for rationalism and prophecy-denial among early Muslim scholars. Chapter One will explore the motifs surrounding Indian sages and holy men in classical and late antique literature in order to see if there were any precedents for how the Barāhima were conceptualised and presented in early Arabic literature. Chapter Two will focus on depictions of Indian sages and holy men within the early ʿAbbasid period in order to explore how the confluence of old and emerging literary traditions may have generated a stereotyped image of an ‘arch-rationalist prophecy-denying’ group called the Barāhima. The second section will focus on the maturation of the Barāhima’s dilemma, and how Muslim theologians employed and adapted the Barāhima as a ‘thing to think with’ during the early to mid- 9th century. Chapter Three will explore the evolution of the debate around the ‘signs of prophecy’ (dalāʾil al-nubuwwa) and identify the various points of argument, concern, and tension, which may have prompted theologians to call upon the Barāhima to adjudicate over the logical robustness of their proofs. Chapter Four will explore how Ibn al-Rāwandī built upon these earlier precedents to make his own decisive intervention in the debate around prophecy through his Kitāb al-Zumurrud, employing the Barāhima’s dilemma as a foil through which to expose the various inconsistencies in the epistemological, ethical, and prophetological theories endorsed by the Muʿtazila. The third section will explore the repercussions of the Barāhima’s dilemma in order to understand the role that the ‘Zumurrudian’ version of the Barāhima played in shaping the direction of prophetological debate. Chapter Five will trace the dissemination of the Kitāb al-Zumurrud and the evolution of the Barāhima topos across a selection of theological and doxographical texts dating to the 10th and 11th centuries. Chapters Six and Seven will explore how one school of the Muʿtazila, the Bahshamiyya, sought to develop a watertight defence of prophecy and the revealed law that could successfully overcome the two-horns of the Barāhima’s dilemma. These final two chapters will also serve as a case study for the broader ‘epistemological turn’ in prophetological discourse that was ushered in by the challenges posed by the ‘Zumurrudian’ Barāhima. When faced with the arch-rationalism of these prophecy-denying opponents, Muslim theologians were not only pressed to explain precisely why rational agents required the input of revelation, but also to identify the existence of a particular ‘epistemic gap’ that only the intervention of a prophet could fill. Whether a theologian could successfully defend the necessity of prophetic revelation would ultimately depend, therefore, on how successfully they could define and delineate the functions of the human intellect. A debate about whether humans required the guidance of prophets thus evolved into a debate about what humans could and could not know by their own means.

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