The Nail in the Door & the Conference of Baghdad’s Scholars

By Shaykh Mahdi Masaeli1

The ‘nail in the door’ detail in eulogies recited during Fatimiyyah has become popular in the last hundred years. There are two references for this story, neither of which have any historical credibility. One is a line of poetry by Shaykh Muhammad Husayn Gharavi Isfahani, also known as Shaykh Kumpani (1296-1361 AH), which says: ‘And I do not know the story of the nail / Ask her chest, the treasury of secrets.’ This poem cannot be used as an academic reference, since the poem itself contains a doubt in it, and the poet does not want to make a historical judgment about a story he has heard.

However, the second and only source of this story is a book named Mu’tamar Ulama Baghdad (The Conference of Baghdad’s Ulema). It states:

‘…When Fatima came behind the door to ask Umar and his group to go back, Umar severely pressed Fatima between the door and the wall until her child was miscarried, and the nail in the door penetrated into the chest of Zahra. Fatima cried out: Father! O Messenger of Allah…’ (Mu’tamar Ulama Baghdad, p.50)

The book Mu’tamar Ulama Baghdad is written based on a fictional story that reports a debate between a group of Shi’i and Sunni scholars in the presence of Malik Shah Seljuk in the fifth-century hijri. This book was first published in 1977 in Karachi. The storyteller of this book attributes its report to Muqatil ibn ‘Atiyyah (d. 505 AH), the son-in-law of Khwaja Nizam al-Mulk Tusi, and presents his story through him. According to this story, a debate to prove the legitimacy of Shiism or Sunnism takes place over three days in Baghdad, and in the end, it is determined that the Shi’i religion is right. Therefore, Sultan Malik Shah, his minister Nizam al-Mulk Tusi, and several military commanders and government officials become Shi’a.

But why do we call the story of this book fictional and fabricated? The late Sayyid Jafar Murtada Amili, in his book Ma’sat al-Zahra, Shubuhat wa Rudud, written to defend Fatimiyyah, criticizes the book and deems it a fictional story for the following reasons:

  • Literary Style: The literature of this book is modern and in many cases, has expressions that were not common at that time. He lists more than 18 instances of modern literary styles used in this book.
  • Poor Phraseology: This book contains phrases that show its weakness and frailty. He lists examples.
  • Grammatical Errors: This book has numerous grammatical and literary errors. He mentions cases.
  • Ignorant King Fond of Knowledge: The image that this book draws of Malik Shah is such that it seems he lived on an island and had just entered the Islamic world, not even knowing about the existence of a sect called Shi’a – who, according to the book’s report, make up half of the Muslims under his rule – let alone understanding the meaning of the word Shia or other historical issues.
  • Assassination of Malik Shah and His Minister: This book raises the assassination of Khwaja Nizam al-Mulk and Malik Shah due to their conversion to Shiism. A subject that has no historical truth. Ibn Athir narrates a story according to which Malik Shah plotted to kill his minister but himself died of illness.
  • Fictional Scholars: According to this book, twenty Shi’i and Sunni scholars were present in this debate, but it does not mention any of them by name, only naming four scholars whose names are fictional and have no historical information.
  • Incorrect Arguments: Sayyid Jafar Murtada then mentions several instances of historical errors and incorrect arguments in the book, according to which the Sunni scholars were defeated and had no response.

In addition to Sayyid Jafar Murtada Amili, Dr. Hasan Ansari also presents arguments in a note about the fictional nature of the book Mu’tamar Ulama Baghdad and considers it a work of the late Sayyid Murtada Razavi Kashmiri.2

Someone might not consider the fictional nature of this book as a refutation of the ‘nail in the door’ report and may regard it as a historical matter reflected in the fictional story of the book, but it is very unlikely, if not impossible, that Shi’i scholars until the present era have not seen such a report but a contemporary storyteller has accessed it. It should be considered that the concern for narrating such reports in certain periods of Shi’i history, especially the Safavid era, was high, and a large number of works were written during these times, but none of them have narrated such content.

Translator’s Note: I am also reproducing the entire article by Dr. Hasan Ansari3 on the book The Conference of Baghdad’s Ulema below.

Debate Between Two Shi’i and Sunni Scholars in the Presence of Malik Shah Seljuk and Khwaja Nizam al-Mulk at the Nizamiyyah School in Baghdad

The book Mu’tamar Ulama Baghdad has been in print for years and has been translated into Persian several times, and perhaps into other languages as well. The original book is in Arabic, specifically modern Arabic, and it is evident from various parts of it that it has been written by a contemporary non-Arab author who is proficient in Arabic. The historical knowledge of the author, whoever they may be, is somewhat good (although they have made some mistakes and inaccuracies) and it is clear that they are familiar with the debate and polemical literature of the Shia and Sunni. The book is successful in its goal of presenting theological and historical evidence to prove Shi’ism, and it is evident that the author, in fabricating the story of the debate that has no historical root, only intended to present doctrinal arguments in the voice of a Shi’i scholar.

Perhaps for this reason, despite the cleverness and intelligence used in attributing this work to the son-in-law of Khwaja Nizam al-Mulk, who is not well-known, the author has completely revealed their hand in fabricating this work by using new phrases, terminology, and exaggerated expressions in converting Khwaja and Malik Shah to Shiism. Reading this text and comparing its contents, especially the historical issues, with the history of Malik Shah’s era and Khwaja, leaves little doubt about the fabricated nature of this work and, more importantly, its contemporary authorship. The title Mu’tamar also appears in the text of the book, indicating that this modern jargon was not only used by the publisher but also by the real author of the text. The story of the book revolves around a conversation between a Shi’a and a Sunni scholar in the presence of the king and his minister, sparked by Malik Shah’s curiosity to learn about Shiism, interestingly having no prior knowledge of them and their beliefs.

According to this story, Khwaja Nizam al-Mulk is considered a Shi’i from the beginning, although he only publicly declares this in front of the king at the end of the story. The debate takes place in the month of Sha’ban at the Nizamiyyah School in Baghdad. After several days of debate between the two scholars, who both have pseudonymous names (like some other names in the book that are fabricated), Malik Shah eventually declared his Shiism, followed by many government officials becoming Shi’a, and with the news of the king and minister’s conversion to Shiism, many people also accept Shiism, details that are not found at all in general historical sources or the histories of the Seljuks. We know how staunch and biased Khwaja was towards the Sunni sect and also know how much the king would have been familiar with Shiism during Malik Shah’s era, due to the threat of the Ismaili assassins of Alamut, all of which are completely inconsistent with the relevant contents in the introduction of our text. Interestingly, Khwaja then ordered that teachers in the Nizamiyyah school of Baghdad teach the Shi’i doctrine.

The author of this text, who has presented an interesting report of these sessions, albeit selectively and omitting side points of the gathering, is Shibl al-Dawla Abu al-Hayja’ Muqatil ibn ‘Atiyyah al-Bakri al-Hijazi (d. around 505 AH)4, who is himself the son-in-law of Nizam al-Mulk, and at the end of the text, he considers the reason for the assassination of the king and his minister to be their conversion to Shiism. The author wrote the treatise in Baghdad at the Nizamiyyah School. At the end, he also quotes a poem in mourning for Khwaja Nizam al-Mulk, which he wrote himself, of which we only recognize the first two verses in other sources (and it is explicitly stated in sources that he had only written these two verses in mourning for his father-in-law), but in this text, following those two verses, there are verses related to the content of this treatise and the story of the debate and the killing of Khwaja, in the same meter. Therefore, the additional verses have been added by the actual author of the text.

It is clear that the real author of this text, whoever they were, was well acquainted with the affairs of this son-in-law of Nizam al-Mulk. Naturally, some other points also do not align with the histories of Malik Shah and Khwaja Nizam al-Mulk, which need not be addressed in detail. It is not clear from the text of the book exactly when this debate took place, but it is inferred from the end of the text that it did not take long after that for Khwaja and Malik Shah to be killed by their enemies. Regardless of whether Malik Shah and Khwaja were in Baghdad shortly before their deaths or not, and whether the possibility of this debate occurring in Baghdad exists or not; Muqatil, who is portrayed as the author of this text, says that he was present at the sessions and also wrote the text in Baghdad at the same school. Interestingly, historical sources state that he returned to Baghdad only after a long absence and after the death of Khwaja.

In the book Nazaraat fi al-Kutub al-Khalida by Hamid Hifni Dawud (pp. 83-84), it becomes clear that an old (?) manuscript of this book written by Muqatil was apparently found for the first time in the Library of Amir Raja Mahmudabad in India by one of the contemporary writers and researchers in that library, as explicitly stated by this writer, and later published in Karachi and Beirut under the name Mu’tamar Ulama Baghdad. Of course, as we said, the book has been published several times since then. However, in the continuation of the article, Hamed Hifni Dawud adds that the date of access to this manuscript was 1200 AH, which is clearly in contradiction with the first statement, as the writer he refers to as the one who found this book in that library obviously has no relation to the year 1200 AH. In any case, this text, like a number of polemical and debate texts that we encounter in the history of bookmaking in Islamic civilization, is more about a religious goal they pursue than about a historical reality.


  1. His official website.
  2. Source.
  3. Source
  4. Wafayat al-A’yan, vol. 5, pg. 257; Siyar A’lam al-Nubala’, vol. 19, pg. 271.