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Varieties of “Islamic” Times

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[D]iverse understandings of the Islamic past are not a matter of accretion over time. Rather, they were foundational for religious and historical thought from the earliest periods.

Associated especially with political authority centered in Iraq, the period 850–950 CE was the scene of a great consolidation of discourses pertaining to Islam. We can locate in this period movements to canonize religious sources; to translate earlier authoritative works from languages such as Greek, Syriac, Middle Persian, and Sanskrit into Arabic; and to create extensive understandings of the place of Islam in time and space. This, then, is the context to which we can go for the “classical” understanding of Islamic history.

I concentrate on a single work to exemplify what I see as the overarching paradigm of how the memory of the birth of Islam was consolidated into history in the first instance. Entitled Kitab at-Tanbih wa-l-ishraf (The Book of Admonition and Superintendence), this is the last work by the celebrated author ‘Ali b. al-Husayn al-Mas’udi (896–956). Born in Baghdad, Mas’udi traveled extensively in the region between India and North Africa. The scope of information contained in his surviving works in fact goes much beyond this, from China and islands of the Indian Ocean to Europe.

Composed at the end of his career, the Kitab at-Tanbih is presented in the form of a summary of his earlier works. Its compactness accentuates conceptual elements in the understanding of the past, making it especially useful for what I am investigating in this book. Moreover, Mas’udi’s account came in the wake of other major historical projects, such as that of Muhammad b. Jarir at-Tabari (d. 923), and can be considered a form of historiographical consolidation.

Mas’udi’s personal religious sympathies also make him a good author on whom to concentrate for understanding the relationship between history and the articulation of Muslim religious identities. While there is no direct evocation of sectarian allegiance in his surviving works, the topics he chooses to emphasize suggest he belonged to the Twelver Shi’i sect. However, his presentation of history and other subjects is undertaken from a perspective acknowledging differences rather than ignoring or suppressing them. This is understandable because while belonging to a minority group, he wrote with the mainstream majority in mind as the audience. This positionality required him to be especially sensitive to diversity. For a picture of the social understanding of history in this context, the Kitab at-Tanbih is therefore a particularly rich resource.

My appraisal of Mas’udi reinforces the point that diverse understandings of the Islamic past are not a matter of accretion over time. Rather, they were foundational for religious and historical thought from the earliest periods. The variety of Islamic religious perspectives we can document for the tenth century continued in later periods, although it is subject to further intensive diversification due to change in circumstances such as the Mongols’ arrival in Central Asia and the Middle East and the rise of European colonialism.

Repeating motif carved into stucco wall.

Carved stucco panel from the city of Samarra, Iraq (9th century). On display at the Iraq Museum in Baghdad.


Wikimedia, Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin, 2019 (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

Ta‘rikh as Dating and History

The Arabic word ta’rikh (or tarikh, when absorbed into other languages) is the closest equivalent to “history” in English. Mas’udi’s most useful comment on the word pertains to its function rather than an abstract definition:

Every community—whether it has a path (shari’a) or otherwise, has passed away or is to come—has a taʾrikh. It returns to it and relies on it for most of its affairs. This transposes matters from the ones gone by to those who are to come, to those who remain from those who have passed, ranging between knowledge of great occurrences, the making of major events, and what was there in past times and ages. If this were not implemented and emphasized, news would be cut off, traces would not be deciphered, and genealogies would be forgotten (Mas’udi, Kitab at-Tanbih, 167).

The discussion that follows this statement makes it clear that Mas’udi’s base intended meaning for ta’rikh is dating, or the positing of an abstract scale for time through which groups put events into sequence. He provides details for points of time set up as calendrical inceptions under Alexander, Babylon, various Persian dynasties, Jews, Christians, Copts, Indians, Chinese, and pre-Islamic Arabs.

A model for the great round city of Abbasid Baghdad created for the video game Minecraft.

While ta’rikh equates to dating in principle, Mas’udi’s reasoning for its value pertains to history. As he writes, the absence of dating would matter because it would nullify a proper understanding of events, news, deciphering of traces, and genealogies. These are crucial matters whose communal and diachronic adjudication would lapse if a scale were absent. He writes that since the dating paradigms used by pre-Islamic Arabs were anchored in momentous events, Muslims chose the year of Muhammad’s migration from Mecca to Medina as the beginning of their calendar. This was done retrospectively, several years after Muhammad’s death. Once selected, however, the dating system helped to cast Muhammad’s career into a recognizable mold of time (178, 252).

Mas’udi’s dialectical view of the relationship between events (marked time) and dating (unmarked time) is visible in his account of Muhammad’s life after the migration. He gives distinctive names to the first eleven years of the Hijri calendar. In comparison, the account of the Prophet’s life from birth to the point of migration is a single narrative (95–101). The named years proceed as follows:

  1. Migration (hijra)
  2. Command (to go to war) (amr)
  3. Testing (through adversity) (tamhis)
  4. Ease (tarfiya)
  5. Confederates (ahzab)
  6. Intimacy (isti’nas)
  7. Dominance (istighlab)
  8. Victory (fath)
  9. [no name given]
  10. Farewell pilgrimage (hajjat al-wida’)
  11. Death (wafat)

Mas’udi’s names for the years might act as mnemonic devices to memorize the stages of the Prophet’s life. Moreover, all of them have to do with sociopolitical rather than personal aspects of Muhammad’s life. The contents of his descriptions further reinforce this impression since the hyperminiaturized narrative concentrates heavily on military expeditions and negotiations involving the political fortunes of the early Muslim community. In Mas’udi’s sources (such as Waqidi’s account of the Prophet’s expeditions), events are presented in a chronological series. True to his argument for the necessity of ta’rikh as a system of dating, Mas’udi’s telescoped presentation fits the events into a regularized scale of years in the Hijri calendar.

While Mas’udi’s framework makes the prophetic life story into a standard narrative, the details he provides inside the sections do the opposite by tying occurrences to their repercussions many years further down the line. This is a prominent aspect of Mas’udi’s narrative, brought home when we attend to descriptions of differences of opinion on certain matters.

When Mas’udi reports on variation in views, he uses two different verbs. In cases where differences have to do with alternative traditions that matter for knowing about the Prophet’s life, he uses the passive form “it was said” (verb qala). Wherever variant information ended up being consequential for forming ideas and practices long after the Prophet’s own life, he uses “it was disputed” or “they disputed” (verb tanaza’a). The latter case deserves special attention since this is a practice through which Mas’udi loads his account of the prophetic life with events and perspectives that were to develop much later in Muslim communities. In the process, the life story foundational to Islam is made into a harbinger of Islam’s history over the nearly three-and-a-half centuries that separated Mas’udi’s lifetime from that of the Prophet.

Mas’udi’s version of Muhammad’s life would have been impossible to write before the ninth century. His account of the past includes what would be the unknown future at the time being described. This method has the effect of entwining Muhammad’s life into descriptions of Muslim life after his death. The text then works like the shrine over Muhammad’s grave. It makes the Prophet’s presence available transhistorically from the seventh century onward.

Disputes in Prophetic History

Mas’udi writes that God appointed Muhammad a prophet at the age of forty, on the twelfth of Rabi’ al-Awwal, on the corresponding day in the year 1357 of Nebuchadnezzar’s calendar and 921 that of Alexander. This statement is followed immediately by the information that while everyone agreed that his wife Khadija was the first woman to accept him as the prophet, there was a dispute about the first male person to do so.

The people of Muhammad’s house (ahl al-bayt)—meaning his genealogical heirs—and their partisans (shi’a) claimed this for Muhammad’s cousin and future son-in-law ‘Ali b. Abi Talib (d. 661). But there was a further dispute regarding his age at the time this occurred, with parties divided upon fifteen, thirteen, eleven, nine, eight, seven, six, and five years. The age mattered because on it hinged the question of whether he was a child unable to distinguish between gain and loss, a young boy who may have been capable or clearly old enough to have undertaken an act whose consequences he understood.

The issue acquired further magnitude in later centuries, when the Shi’a had themselves become divided into rival factions, such as Zaydis, some Mu’tazilis, the Twelver Shi’a who believed that the Twelfth Imam was in occultation, and others who believed Imams stopped before twelve or that they must continue permanently without restriction on number. The question of ‘Ali’s age at the time he had become Muslim reverberated through this history internal to the Shi’a as an umbrella term. Those who discounted ‘Ali’s claim accorded the distinction of being the first male convert to Abu Bakr, Zayd b. Harithah, Khabbab b. al-Aratt, or Bilal b. Hamama. Mas’udi writes that his other works contain an exhaustive discussion of all the evidence pertaining to these multiple factions, together with his judgment (198–199).

The question of ‘Ali’s status is brought up again as the account of Muhammad’s life progresses. A crucial moment is the pronouncement the Shi’a believed to have taken place at Ghadir Khumm, where Muhammad stated, “He whose lord I am, ‘Ali is his lord (man kuntu mawlauhu fa-hadha ‘Aliyyun mawlauhu).” Curiously, Mas’udi places this event on Dhu l-Hijja 18 in the seventh year after migration, whereas it is usually represented to have occurred in the tenth year. I cannot determine whether this is an error in the edition available to me or a genuine variance between Mas’udi and other reporters (221). Other issues that pertain to disputes on time and place of events that were significant for later succession are the day of Muhammad’s death; who prepared the body for burial; how quickly he was interred after death (241, 244–245); when Fatima, Muhammad’s daughter and ‘Ali’s wife, died and where she was buried (207, 249); and the burial place of ‘Umar, the second successor after Muhammad (250).

By the time Mas’udi wrote, words and actions attributed to Muhammad had been turned into precedents used to argue for differences of opinion on Islamic legal and ethical rules. As in the case of succession, Mas’udi reads this history back into the story of the Prophet’s life. For norms pertaining to ritual, he notes that in the year 5 AH, there was an incident involving the possibility of using sand rather than water to do the ablutions necessary before prayers (tayammum). Without providing details of the incident, he indicates that disputes over the status of such purification was ongoing (216).

In 7 AH, Muhammad married Maymuna b. al-Harith while performing the lesser pilgrimage (‘umra), and jurists debated whether this had been proper. The point of contention here (which Mas’udi does not elucidate) is that marital relations are prohibited while a pilgrim is in the state of ritual consecration (ihram). Some believed that the marriage happened after the Prophet had left ihram, while others regarded this as a lapse (228).

As the community in Medina acquired greater success, Muhammad’s sociopolitical relations expanded to include agreements with other parties. This was especially significant in the case of people in Mecca, his erstwhile enemies, with whom he gradually reconciled because of the ability to wield equal or greater power. Later interpreters of this period—such as Sulayman b. Da’ud and Muhammad b. Idris, founders of the Zahiri and Shafi’i legal schools, respectively, in the ninth century—disputed whether Muhammad’s entry into Mecca in 8 AH was done violently or peacefully (231–233).

Similar differences of opinion existed between founders of various legal schools on whether Muhammad’s request to Safwan b. Umayya for weapons in the same year was a demand or a loan (234–235). And people continued to differ on whether it had been fair of Muhammad to stop non-Muslims from performing the Hajj despite earlier having agreed to this as part of a peace agreement (237–238).

History in the Image of Prophecy

Mas’udi’s account of Muhammad’s life affirms that historical narration requires instituting a scale that allows organizing memory and traditions into a relatable form. The particulars of at-Tanbih wa-l-ishraf that I have discussed show further that texts and social patterns are mutually constitutive in this context. Mas’udi’s narrative is a highly condensed version of the Prophet’s life, differences pertaining to its details, and the ideological consequences of these differences up to the ninth century CE. His presentation amounts to hints that are quite elusive unless one is already aware of the stories or has access to more detailed sources. The work I have presented is then a symptom of the social world, which, however, Mas’udi clearly hoped to affect through his historiographical act.

Pakistani singer Abida Parveen performing “Man Kuntu Mawla” in front of Prince Karim Aga Khan, Imam of the Nizari Isma’ili Shi’i community. She begins by explaining the historical context in the life of the Prophet in which the text was first uttered.

In Mas’udi’s work, one can see that matters such as including or excluding certain details from a canonical life is a way to condition long-term history rather than to merely affect a biography. Because of his positionality, Mas’udi’s version of the prophetic life allows us to see Sunni as well as Shi’i versions of the past and the ninth-century present. Other sources we might explore could be restricted to any number of different Shi’i and Sunni versions, reflecting the intensely diverse and conflicted sociointellectual environment that had characterized Muslim communities from the very moment of foundation. Conflicting claims about the past were not mere regurgitations but creative acts undertaken in circumstances that gave them meaning in localized spacetimes.

I would stress that views on the past are integral to all forms of Islamic identity we can document. As evident from sources from all periods, there is no escape from history in Islamic contexts. But the best way to understand this history is to see it as an arena of interminable contestation. Providing easy maps for Islamic history, as tends to happen in modern academic work, is inevitably a path to partisan reductionism because it forces one to make still pictures out of dynamic processes. Instead, if we see Islamic history as a constantly shifting and modulating web, the stories we construct can privilege the fact that Islam’s illimitable diversity rests on its multiple pasts and futures observable in a plethora of material available to create our understandings.

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