Ali b. al-Husayn al-Mas'udi

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Ali b. al-Husayn al-Mas'udi
Personal Information
Full Name'Ali b. Husayn al-Mas'udi
TeknonymAbu l-Hasan
Well-Known AsAl-Mas'udi
Place of BirthBabylon
DeathJumada II, 346/957
Scholarly Information

ʿAlī b. Ḥusayn al-Masʿūdī (Arabic:علي بن حسین المسعودي) (b. 280/893-4 - d. 346/957), known as al-Mas'udi, was a Muslim historian and geographer in the 4th/10th century. He wrote books such as Muruj al-dhahab and al-Tanbih wa l-ishraf. It is not exactly known whether he was a Shiite or a Sunni Muslim, because he provided neutral accounts of historical events. However, in Shiite sources of biography and 'ilm al-rijal, he has long been considered as a Shiite scholar. Many researchers today maintain that he was a Shi'a, appealing to his written works as their evidence. Other researchers rejected the view that al-Mas'udi was a Shi'a, rejecting the evidence from his work. They take him to be a Sunni Muslim who loved Ahl al-Bayt (a) and believed in the superiority of Amir al-Mu'minin (a) over the other caliphs.


Abu l-Hasan Ali b. Husayn al-Mas'udi was probably born in 280/893-4. According to al-Mas'udi himself in his Muruj al-dhahab, he was born in Babylon. There are disputes about his pedigree. According to some people, he is known as al-Mas'udi because he was from the al-Mas'uda district in Baghdad, but most biographers take him to be a progeny of 'Abd Allah b. Mas'ud, one of the Prophet Muhammad's (s) Sahaba, which is, in their view, the reason why he was known as al-Mas'udi. Al-Mas'udi was from Baghdad and spent part of his life in Egypt. Some people take the year of his death to be 333/944-5, but since in his book, al-Tanbih wa l-ishraf, he wrote the history of Roman kings up to 345/956-7, he must have died after this year. Thus some sources of history take the year of his death to be 345/956-7 or 346/957.


There is not much information about the details of al-Mas'udi's life. Nothing is known about his occupation. There are reports of his several travels to eastern and western parts of the world. It is said that he traveled eastwards to India, Ceylon (the old name of Sri Lanka), China and Malaysia, and westwards to North Africa, Morocco, and Madagaskar. He met many scholars on these trips to different parts of the world. For example, he met Muhammad b. Jarir al-Tabari, the well-known historian, Abu Bakr al-Sawli, Muhammad b. Khalaf al-Waki', Hasan b. Musa al-Nawbakhti, Abu Ali al-Juba'i, and Abu l-Hasan al-Ash'ari.


Al-Mas'udi wrote many books and essays concerning the sciences of his time. However, the only works of his which are available today are the two historical books, Muruj al-dhahab and al-Tanbih wa l-ishraf. There are controversies over the attribution of the book, Ithbat al-wasiyya, to him.

Muruj al-dhahab

Muruj al-dhahab wa ma'adin al-jawhar is al-Mas'udi's most important work, which is available today. According to al-Mas'udi himself in the preface of the book, it is a summary of two long books by him, Akhbar al-zaman and al-Awsat. The book counts as a main source for Islamic history and civilization. In this book, al-Mas'udi provided his wide-ranging geographical observations together with historical facts and significant anthropological information about social circumstances, beliefs, and customs of people in different areas.

Muruj al-dhahab is a general history of the world beginning with the story of creation, historical accounts of different lands and nations, and then the history of Islam and its events through 336/947-8. The book was written in 333/944-5, and was then supplemented in 336/947-8. Since other sources cited historical events of 345/956-7 from Muruj al-dhahab, it seems that al-Mas'udi supplemented the book later, although its supplement is not available today.

Al-Tanbih wa l-ishraf

Al-Tanbih wa l-ishraf is a historical and geographical book in Arabic. It was al-Mas'udi's last book. In the first part of the book, the author is concerned with cosmological and geographical issues, and in the second part, he is concerned with historical issues. There are several innovations in this book. The book was also translated into other languages.

Ithbat al-wasiyya

Ithbat al-wasiyya is a book concerning proofs for the immediate succession of Shiite Imams (a). After mentioning some hadiths regarding the necessity of imamate, the author provides brief biographical accounts of the prophets who succeeded one another. After providing a biography of Prophet Muhammad (s), the author gives accounts of his immediate successors, that is, the Twelve Imams (a), citing hadiths concerning imamate, and the virtues of the Imams (a).

The book is written in the style of Shiite collections of hadiths. Its contents show that its author was a Shi'a. According to Shiite sources of 'ilm al-rijal and biography, the author of Ithbat al-wasiyya is the same as the author of Muruj al-dhahab, that is, Ali b. Husayn al-Mas'udi. However, the attribution of this book to al-Mas'udi was a matter of dispute with some contemporary researchers casting doubts on it due to differences of style and method between this book and al-Mas'udi's well-known books.

Other Works

In his Muruj al-dhahab and al-Tanbih wa l-ishraf, al-Mas'udi referred to other works by himself which are not available today.

  1. Akhbar al-zaman
  2. al-Kitab al-awsat
  3. Funun al-ma'arif
  4. Dhakha'ir al-'ulum
  5. al-Istidhkar'
  6. al-Maqalat
  7. Nazm al-adilla fi usul al-milla
  8. al-Ibana fi usul al-diyana
  9. Khaza'in al-din
  10. al-Masa'il wa l-'ilal
  11. Nazm al-a'lam
  12. Taqallub al-duwal
  13. al-Wajib fi l-furud wa l-lawazim
  14. al-Intisar
  15. al-Istibsar fi l-imama
  16. Sir al-hayat
  17. al-Qadaya wa l-tajarib
  18. ...

Features of al-Mas'udi's Historiography

Researchers have pointed to many positive features of al-Mas'udi's works, including the following:

  • Citing various sources,
  • A scientific approach to history,
  • A rational approach to the interpretation and explanation of historical phenomena,
  • Considering the laws governing the history,
  • Employing the method of direct observation with respect to geographical issues,
  • Proving a wealth of social, cultural, geographical information as well as a history of beliefs, sciences and religions, and historical information,
  • Impartiality in introducing different political and Islamic sects,
  • Explicit accounts of some misconducts by rulers of his time.

Al-Mas'udi's Shiism

There is no doubt about al-Mas'udi's love for Shiite Imams (a) and his tendencies to Shiite beliefs. The majority of contemporary researchers and authors as well as earlier Shiite authors, take al-Mas'udi to be a Shi'a or even an Imami. However, some researchers have cast doubt on the view, maintaining that he was not a Shi'a. People who believe that al-Mas'udi was a Shi'a presented several pieces of evidence from his own written works. They hold that although al-Mas'udi followed the standard historiography of his time, thus beginning his historical accounts with the Rashidun Caliphs, praising Abu Bakr b. Abi Quhafa and 'Umar b. Khattab at some points, he was also critical of them.

The following is a review of some arguments for al-Mas'udi's tendency to Shiism together with objections to them.

Arguments for al-Mas'udi's Tendency to Shiism

Evidence for al-Mas'udi's Shiism in his Written Works

In Muruj al-dhahab and al-Tanbih wa l-ishraf, books by al-Mas'udi which are available today, there are passages that allegedly show the author's tendency to Shiism. One such passage is one in which he referred to the transmission of the divine light and succession from previous prophets to the Prophet Muhammad (s) and the Imams (a).

Another evidence in Muruj al-dhahab is his belief in the superiority of Ali b. Abi Talib (a) over the rest of the Prophet's (s) Sahaba. Moreover, in Muruj al-dhahab he holds that Ali b. Abi Talib (a) was born inside the Ka'ba (which is a Shiite belief).

In Muruj al-dhahab, a hadith is cited from Ali b. Abi Talib (a) regarding the place of Ahl al-Bayt (a) to the effect that imamate is within the Prophet's (s) household.

Somewhere else in the book, al-Mas'udi cited a hadith to the effect that when the Prophet (s) made Pacts of Brotherhood between pairs of his Sahaba, he announced Ali b. Abi Talib (a) as his brother, stating that Ali's (a) place to him was like that of Aaron to Moses. He also cited a hadith from the Prophet (s) according to which "Whoever I am his Mawla (guardian), Ali will be his Mawla too. O' God, be a friend with his friends and be an enemy to his enemies". He also cited the Hadith al-Tayr al-Mashwiy concerning the virtues of Ali (a).

Al-Mas'udi's recognition as a Shi'a in Shiite sources of 'ilm al-rijal and Sunni sources of biography

In his al-Fihrist which is a main work in Shiite 'ilm al-rijal, al-Najashi mentioned al-Mas'udi and a list of his works. It seems that later scholars of 'ilm al-rijal followed al-Najashi's lead and mentioned al-Mas'udi among Shiite figures. One of the main reasons why al-Mas'udi counts as a Shi'a was al-Najashi's account, since al-Najashi was the closest person to the time of al-Mas'udi and his views about Shiite figures are very reliable.

Sunni sources of biography are divided with respect to what al-Mas'udi's sect was. According to some sources, he was a Mu'tazilite, others take him to be a Shafi'i, and some take him to be a Shi'a. Ibn Hajar al-'Asqalani took al-Mas'udi's books as evidence that he was a mu'tazilite Shi'a. Isma'il Pasha Baghdadi, a 13/19-century bibliographer, maintained that al-Mas'udi was a Shi'a. Some contemporary Sunni authors as well as some Orientalists also held that al-Mas'udi was a Shi'a.

Al-Mas'udi's books with Shiite themes

The titles of some of al-Mas'udi's works that are not available to us today show his Shiite tendencies. These works include: Mazahir al-akhbar wa tara'if al-athar li l-safwat al-nuriyya wa l-dhurriyya al-zakiyya wa abwab al-rahma wa yanabi' al-hikma (concerning some hadiths and works about the the Imams described in the title as "illuminated selectee and the pure progeny and the doors of mercy and the springs of wisdom"), al-Safwa fi l-imama (concerning imamate), al-Hidaya ila tahqiq al-wilaya (concerning wilaya), al-Bayan fi asma' al-A'imma (the names of the Imams), and al-Istibsar fi l-imama (concerning imamate).

As mentioned before, the attribution of the book, Ithbat al-wasiyya, which is available to us today and is concerned with the immediate succession of Shiite Imams (a) to the Prophet (s), to al-Mas'udi is evidence for his Shiite tendencies, but there are disputes over the attribution of the book to him.

Arguments against al-Mas'udi's Tendency to Shiism

In contrast to the theory of the majority of Shiite authors, some of them argue that al-Mas'udi was not a Shi'a by appealing to evidence from his own works. It seems that the first Shiite author who cast doubts over al-Mas'udi's Shiism was Aqa Muhammad Ali Kirmanshahi, the author of the book, Maqami'. He took the book, Muruj al-dhahab, to be evidence for al-Mas'udi not being a Shi'a, since the book contains praises of Abu Bakr and 'Umar. Since Shiite scholars of 'ilm al-rijal and biography introduced al-Mas'udi as a Shi'a, he proposed the theory that al-Mas'udi might have been a Sunni Muslim when he began writing Muruj al-dhahab and then converted to Shiism.

Among the contemporary Shiite authors, Muhammad Jawad Shubayri Zanjani wrote a paper to show that while al-Mas'udi strongly believed in the virtues of Ahl al-Bayt (a), he was not a Shi'a. Shubayri's most important reason for the rejection of al-Mas'udi's Shiism consists of evidence from Muruj al-dhahab. Shubayri argues that some passages in the book are incompatible with Shiite beliefs. Insisting on the contemporary definition of Shiism, Shubayri says that "Shi'a and Imami (in today's terminology) refers to a person who takes the caliphate of the caliphs prior to Amir al-Mu'minin (a) to be illegitimate". However, al-Mas'udi does not take their caliphate to be illegitimate, praising Abu Bakr and 'Umar in some passages of his book. Al-Mas'udi cast doubts over some events that occurred after the demise of the Prophet (s), refraining from explicitly evaluating those events.

Shubayri also appeals to other pieces of evidence for the rejection of al-Mas'udi's Shiism, such as his belief that Azar, the idolater, was the prophet Ibrahim's (a) father (rather than his uncle) which is the standard Sunni belief regarding the matter. He does not mention the Event of Ghadir in his book. Shubayri argues in his paper that the view that al-Mas'udi was a Shafi'i is more plausible than the view that he was a Shi'a or Mu'tazili.

Shubayri takes al-Najashi's view about al-Mas'udi's Shiism to have resulted from his lack of exact knowledge about al-Mas'udi. According to this view, the way al-Najashi provided information about al-Mas'udi in his book shows that he did not completely know who al-Mas'udi was. This is why he mentioned him as "this man", and did not know the year of his death.

Shubayri holds that a list of works by al-Mas'udi with Shiite themes is not sufficient to show that he was a Shi'a, since those works are not available to us today and we have no clue about their contents.