The Succession to Muhammad: A Study of the Early Caliphate

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Date: April-June 2001
Publisher: American Oriental Society
Document Type: Book review
Length: 1,269 words

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The Succession to Muhammad: A Study of the Early Caliphate. By WILFERD MADELUNG. Cambridge: CAMBRIDGE UNIVERSITY PRESS, 1997. Pp. xviii + 413.

In this work, one of our greatest authorities on early Islamic sects turns his attention to the divisive issue of Muhammad's succession. As every student of Islamic history knows, it was around this question that Islam's deepest sectarian divide crystallized: did the Prophet appoint [[blank].sup.[subset]]Ali to succeed him (the [Shi.sup.[subset]]ite view), or did he remain silent, at most implicitly indicating Abu Bakr's superiority while leaving him to attain office by general acclamation (the Sunni view)? For the most part, Western scholars have either followed the Sunni line or exhibited little interest in the issue, judging the truth of the matter to be unrecoverable. Madelung breaks with academic tradition here, arguing what amounts to the [Shi.sup.[subset]]ite case with relentless detail and notable dramatic flair. The villain of the piece is Marwan, who is shown to have manipulated events from [[blank].sup.[subset]]Uthman's assassination on in such a way as to block the legitimate claims of the Prophe t's family. Given how the story is conventionally recounted, this perspective is, to say the least, an arresting one to find in a work of academic history.

The book contains four chapters, each devoted to events during the reign of one of the first four Caliphs. Chapter four, devoted to [[blank].sup.[subset]]Ali and the Civil War which devoured his caliphate, takes up nearly half the book, and offers the most extensive narrative treatment of these events available in English. There are also seven brief excursuses treating specific problems--e.g., the inheritance of Muhammad, domanial land in Iraq, the marriages of [[blank].sup.[subset]]Uthman, etc. The author's mastery of the texts is on display throughout: Madelung gives us a narrative history of the period which brings to life the characters, anecdotes, and speeches found in the classical sources but rarely put before readers anymore. The work will be a key resource for anyone interested in the Muslim traditions concerning the political aftermath of Muhammad's death. Whether the case for [[blank].sup.[subset]]Ali and his family is proven, however, is another matter altogether.

To make such a case, Madelung sets out to reconstruct the personal motives, conspiracies, rivalries, and political machinations that lie behind the events recorded in the sources. There is, of course, no shortage of material on which to base this type of inquiry: the Arabic sources are replete with anecdotes telling how the major figures of early Islam acted and expressed themselves with respect to the important political issues of the day. And Madelung has added to the pool somewhat, bringing to bear [[blank].sup.[subset]]Umar b. Shabba's Ta'rikh al-Madina 'l-munawwara, a work only recently available. But few scholars today would want to credit the Arabic sources as far as Madelung does, particularly in the case of events so central to the later identity of the Muslim community. Can truth, even the "poetical truth" the author is after (pp. 351-55), be extracted from the mass of conflicting reports often inspired by later partisan debate or shaped by literary or theological concerns? Here, the author falls o utside the emerging consensus in the field which maintains a moderately skeptical attitude toward the Arabic materials. For Madelung, the precise words, thoughts, and even emotions of the principal actors can be recovered and used to paint a picture of how the ahl al-bayt were blocked from assuming their rightful place at the head of the Community.

From the outset, Madelung makes no bones about his belief that a "judicious use" of the sources can in fact yield a true and accurate account of these events, and dismisses without serious consideration more skeptical scholarship (p. xi). If this is at some level understandable (a positive case, after all, is to be made, and there is little to be gained by being drawn into arguments with convinced source-critics), the reader is at least entitled to a better explanation of Madelung's own handling of his materials. There is a certain arbitrary quality to the way evidence is admitted or dismissed here: partisan elements are sometimes noted (e.g., p. 70 n. 50, p. 319 n. 19) but often ignored or soft-pedaled when it suits the argument (e.g., p. 41); reports are sometimes conceded to contain "legendary elements" or to reflect a "literary formulation," but nonetheless are said to remain substantially true for reasons not made clear (e.g., p. 66, p. 70 n. 50). At times one suspects that later juristic or exegetical concerns might have colored a report which Madelung sees as "true in substance" (e.g., pp. 62ff., on the Prophet's inheritance; p. 108, on [[blank].sup.[subset]]Uthman's prohibition of the hajj al-qiran, and [[blank].sup.[subset]]Ali's deliberate contravention of it; p. 179, on [[blank].sup.[subset]]Ali's role in establishing rules for warfare against Muslim rebels). Some idea of the author's overall approach can be gleaned from his discussion of reports transmitted from [[blank].sup.[subset]][A.sup.[contains]]ish and Ibn [[blank].sup.[subset]]Abbas (pp. 18-27). Both are commonly taken as spokesmen for classical sectarian positions, and the tendency of most scholars has been to treat reports from them as late ascriptions, reflecting the partisan convictions of a later period. For Madelung, though, "tendentiousness alone is no evidence for late origin," and more likely represents the personal biases of the two figures themselves. That [[blank].sup.[subset]][A.sup.[contains]]isha should have been critical of [[ blank].sup.[subset]]Ali and the rest of the Prophet's kin, and Ibn [[blank].sup.[subset]]Abbas more sympathetic, is simply to be expected, given their own personal commitments. We can take as authentic, then, the many reports quoted from these two figures, as long as they are consistent with what is otherwise known of their lives and political biases. Readers inclined to be critical will of course wonder how such consistency is to be measured in the first place, lacking as we do any independent means of assessing the lives and political attitudes of such people.

If one grants Madelung this optimistic view of the sources, the book can be read as a remarkable effort to piece together a complex, multi-dimensional narrative about the contest for power following Muhammad's death. What is missing from the narrative, though, is any extended consideration of the nature of the office at the center of this contest. This would have required a more serious engagement with the thesis of Crone's and Hinds' God's Caliph (Cambridge, 1986) than Madelung in fact provides. Instead, Crone's and Hinds' ideas about the nature of caliphal authority are dismissed in one sentence (p. 46 n. 50), and we are given a quasi-psychological explanation for [[blank].sup.[subset]]Uthman's supposed changing of the title from khalifat rasul allah to khalifat allah (pp. 80f.). Elsewhere, references to a "religion of [[blank].sup.[subset]]Ali" during the First Civil War are interpreted in a way that does not threaten the traditional understanding of the caliphate as a chiefly political institution (pp. 1 78f.). Madelung's reluctance to be drawn into a discussion about caliphal authority is all the more surprising when one considers that the book was originally conceived as a study of the nature of the early caliphate (p. xi).

Criticisms such as these are of course beside the point. Madelung could not have written such a book had he given in to hand-wringing about the sources, and the political narrative he has put together might not have changed appreciably had he attended more to the issue of caliphal authority. As it stands, the book offers a chance to see the Shi[[blank].sup.[subset]]ite case imaginatively made by a master scholar in complete control of the sources. The reader can be forgiven for wondering how differently things might have turned out had Professor Madelung, rather than Abu Musa al-Ash[[blank].sup.[subset]]ari, represented [[blank].sup.[subset]]Ali at Dumat al-Jandal.

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Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|A78178089